Father Elias Koucos has a suggestion for getting through the wintry days of February: Get out, meet your neighbors, tear down some walls and erase some misconceptions.
Or in other words: Act a little more like Jesus Christ.
“Christ did break down all barriers and walls and interacted with everyone,” said Father Koucos, priest of Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Holladay. “With our lives being so involved and busy, sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t allow us to take the time to get to know each other, to listen and learn from each other.”
Listening and learning is what February’s Interfaith Month is all about, says Father Koucos. The constellation of nearly two dozen events is designed to open the doors to houses of worship from all traditions to increase understanding between faiths, foster respect and build collaborations that strengthen the community.
“It helps us in getting to know our diverse population and find some common ground and respect in our differences,” said Father Koucos, who notes that even as a priest, he had a lot to learn.
“It’s amazing we do have so much common ground,” he said. “We all have some form of the ‘Golden Rule,' and we all work to provide benefit to those in need.”
A legacy of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the event is sponsored by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, and this year marks the 12th year of interfaith work along the Wasatch Front. Born in 1999, the Roundtable brought together Utah’s faith communities to fulfill a requirement to provide religious support for athletes and their families. Faith leaders met for more than two years to plan events and design services for the games.
Along the way, something magical happened, said Elaine Emmi, a member of the Interfaith Roundtable.
“There was such an incredible camaraderie,” said Emmi, a Quaker. “We didn’t want to stop. There was a sense that much had been gained by the interaction, and we didn’t want to lose that, and we wanted to continue the momentum.”
Driven by those close relationships and trust, the Salt Lake City Interfaith Roundtable was born, and its purpose focused on furthering cross-denominational harmony and understanding. It was the first time in memory that interfaith work was being done without being tied to a specific outcome or agenda, Emmi said.
“For the first time we had an interfaith effort for no particular purpose, like stopping the MX missile or peacemaking,” she said. “There had been other ecumenical things, but those involved just Christians. We realized it was important to reach out to the community."
Over time, what began as a few interfaith events and a small speaker’s bureau became an organized Interfaith Week and then, three years ago, Interfaith Month, which officially begins on Saturday and bleeds over into the first few weeks of March. All events are free and open to the public. Membership in a church or a faith tradition is not required.
“There is so much interest. People laugh and tell me it will soon be Interfaith Year,” said Josie Stone, chair of the events committee. “We could easily fill another month with events.”
Among the nearly two dozen events are films; lectures and panel discussions; church tours; and opportunities for spiritual growth through movement, music and cultural dining experiences.
The month kicks off Saturday with the daylong Buddhist Temple Film Festival “Dharma in Cinema” in downtown Salt Lake City and culminates March 22 with the Universal Unitarian Church event, “Man from Magdalena.”
In between, the curious can attend the third-annual Indian Nation Blessing Ceremony in the Utah State Capitol, tour the LDS Church’s Bishops' Storehouse in Magna, learn about the history of the Greek Orthodox Church in Utah or eat pre-Lenten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday at the Episcopal St. Mark’s Cathedral. Open houses are also planned for the Sri Ganesh Hindu Temple and the Sikh Temple, which includes an evening of chanting and prayer.
For many, the highlight of Interfaith Month is always the Musical Tribute in the Salt Lake Tabernacle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Temple Square. The concert includes music, dance and devotionals from across the spectrum of faiths and cultures.
“It’s a tremendous event where we are all together so we all can experience each others' music and traditions,” Father Koucos said.
And while many of the month’s events are tied to rather traditional religious expressions, such as music or prayer, some events also seek to broaden thinking and find an intersection between faith and public discourse.
A Quaker-sponsored forum will examine the impact western expansion had on Native American cultures, while a lecture at the University of Utah’s Catholic Newman Center will consider the relationship between peace, social justice and climate change. The Utah chapter of the Human Rights Campaign will lead an interactive work on community compassion, and on March 1, the Salt Lake City Main Library will host the lecture and panel discussion “We will Sing and Not Be Silent: Women, Faith Traditions and Leadership.”
“It’s a mind-expanding month,” said Stone, an Episcopalian. “It gives you an opportunity to kind of look around and say, 'What does my faith mean to me? What do other things mean to me and how do other people cope when they maybe have questions about where they are going?'”
New in 2014 are four youth-focused events, including a movie night at the Clark Planetarium organized by the new Young Adult Council. Formed last fall, the council reflects the Roundtable’s growing emphasis on engaging young people in religion, both their own traditions and across denominations, Father Koucos said.
“We want the youth to be a vital component of our community mission,” he said. “It also provides us with insight into their needs and desires. It’s a benefit to us. They have the energy and excitement we need to keep us going.”
Throughout Interfaith Month, churches and faith communities are also encouraged to throw open their doors to invite curious newcomers to attend regular weekly services, Stone said. Emmi believes many people want to explore other traditions but shy away from services or events out of fear that they will feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Interfaith Month provides the perfect remedy, she said.
“We encourage people to do it,” Emmi said. “And it's not that you are doing it to lose your own faith. If anything, it often strengthens your own faith.”