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Courtesy MPAC
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, listens as Steve Gilliland speaks with his wife Judy as the Gillilands accept the Community Changemaker award at the MPAC annual convention in Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — The 2015 annual "Mormon Night" at a Los Angeles Dodgers game happened to fall during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

So Steve and Judy Gilliland, a Mormon couple who observe Ramadan in solidarity with their numerous southern California Muslim friends, fasted throughout the day. They invited a group of local Islamic leaders to attend the game with them.

After sundown, the Mormons and Muslims ended the day's fast together over Dodger Dogs.

"What's more American Muslim than that?" said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

What could be more like the Gillilands, too, he added, as active participants for a dozen years now in everything Muslim in southern California? The scene is also an example of the real friendship between leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Muslims not only in southern California but throughout the United States and in places around the world.

MPAC leaders honored the Gillilands earlier this month with the Community Changemaker Award for immersing themselves in the American Muslim experience as liaisons between LDS Church and Muslims. Their friends call them "the Muslim Christians among us" and say the Gillilands attend more Muslim events than Muslims do.

That's why the Gillilands' hearts break any time they find fellow Mormons exhibiting prejudice against Muslims and their beliefs.

"Our lives have been truly blessed amongst the Muslim people," Steve Gilliland said at the award ceremony in Los Angeles. "We're better people for associating with all of you. We're better Mormons. We're better Christians. We're better citizens. We're better Americans. We're better parents because of your family set of examples. We're better grandparents. We hope our grandchildren will all find Muslims to be their friends as they grow up in this crazy world."

Natural allies

Though Muslims follow the prophet Muhammed and Mormons are Restoration Christians, the two faiths are natural allies on issues related to family, marriage, modesty, charity, religious freedom, lived faith, fasting and abstinence from alcohol and drugs. In America, they share another heritage — persecution.

Their ties often have deepened in adversity and tragedy. After the L.A. riots in 1992, Muslims responded most enthusiastically when LDS leaders invited religious and ethnic groups to the San Diego Temple open house, according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was the first person to call Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Muslim-based Institute on Religion and Civic Values in California.

"He was concerned and wanted to send us a very clear message that we were in their prayers," Mansuri told the Times in 2008. "It was like having someone who loves and cares for you; not so much a Mormon reaching out to me as a fellow believer reaching out."

"I consider Shabbir Mansuri a brother," Elder Oaks said. "He's a good man who's doing good work. We try to be friendly to all people, and in the days after 9/11, lots of Muslims felt rejected."

American Muslims who feared reprisals in their mosques met instead in Mormon meetinghouses around the country.

Constant presence

Lifelong Mormons, the Gillilands have spoken for Muslim rights in city council meetings, marched in the streets with Muslims in support of democracy and religious freedom and been a constant presence at Muslim rallies, demonstrations, press conferences and community forums. They regularly attend Friday prayers to build relationships to different mosques in the area and visit numerous Islamic Centers each year on Open Mosque Day.

"We have been saddened by first-hand stories of verbal and physical abuse, children being bullied and islamaphobic accusations," Judy Gilliland.

She is the director of interfaith relations and he is the director of Muslim relations for the LDS Church's Southern California Public Affairs Council. Steve Gilliland founded the LDS Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had a career in counseling, taught at the BYU Jerusalem Center and wrote a handful of articles for the Ensign, the official church magazine. He is a member of the board of the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group in Los Angeles.

The Gillilands have become staunch advocates for American Muslims, standing up for them against negative portrayals and stereotypes.

Al-Marayati recalled the Dodger Dogs story when he presented them with MPAC's Community Changemaker Award.

"You have to create change by being present, by engaging and by creating common ground, and Steve and Judy exemplify what being a changemaker is," Al-Marayati said in a phone interview. "The only true path to change is by being grounded to the moral center. No financial, political or military power is going to affect change. Real change can only happen through moral power and moral authority, and that comes with purity of heart and clarity of mind in working for the cause of God.

"No people are closer to us in that regard than Steve and Judy."

Muslim-American patriots

Judy Gilliland said she and her husband frequently are the only non-Muslims present when they visit Muslim homes, worship services, dinners and large meetings. What they've seen has led them to strongly defend their friends as American patriots.

"We have never, ever heard any support for terrorism or any kind of violence," said Judy, who serves on the board of directors of the South Coast Interfaith Council. "Just the opposite — terrorism has been strongly condemned."

They are disheartened by incorrect representations of Muslims and the Koran, a prejudice they have found among some Latter-day Saints. Internet speculations that the Koran calls for war on all non-Muslims are misrepresentations of the religion and take the verses out of context, Steve Gilliland said. Critics just as easily could distort the Bible in a similar way to paint Christianity as a violent faith calling for the eradication of non-Christians, such as when Joshua was told to destroy all the nonbelievers and clean out their cities.

Islamic militants and terrorists use the Koran verses out of context, too, he added, distorting their own religion in a bid for power. The correct context, Gilliland said, is a call for self-defense, echoing a Book of Mormon verse about defending families and homes. In fact, Islam's teaching is that to take one life is as bad as taking the life of all humanity, and saving a life is like saving the life of all humanity.

"The people I know are peace-loving, kind, patriotic people who base their beliefs and behaviors on the Koran," he said. "They are embarrassed by terrorists. It would be as if an apostate Mormon group was out using our faith as a basis for atrocious actions."

Mormons regularly ask the Gillilands what Muslims really believe. They say they are grateful to have been taught by spiritual and intellectual giants in the Muslim community.

"We tell them we've seen them in their quiet, intimate moments, and we've seen nothing to suggest they are anything but patriotic," Steve Gilliland said. "They love America. They came here to worship how they want and to get away from local leaders at home who used their positions as cloaks for power. As Mormons, we know all about this because this has happened to us. I know their hearts. They are faithful to their religion, which is a religion of peace and teaches them to be generous and kind, to be generous to the poor and needy and to support each other."

Productive relationship

American Muslim leaders regularly condemn violence committed by radicalized Islamic groups, which Elder Oaks pointed out in a recent religious freedom address in Argentina.

Muslim outreach at the highest level of LDS leadership are similar to other new alliances with other faiths formed by the church in the past 40 years, an effort accelerated over the past 20 years with apostles meeting publicly and privately with like-minded religious leaders in the United States and around the world.

The Gillilands work on the grassroots level. They have held volunteer positions in LDS public affairs at local, regional and missionary levels. In 2010, they hosted a delegation of Muslims leaders on a visit to Salt Lake City, where they met LDS leaders.

The broader effort is international in scale. The LDS Church was the first interfaith partner of Islamic Relief USA, founded in 1993. The partnership deepened after the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami. Over the next four years, LDS Charities provided 20 percent of Islamic Relief's budget. This year, LDS Charities has donated $600,000 for projects in Yemen and Somalia, according to Minhaj Hassan, a spokesman for Islamic Relief USA.

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"We have had a very warm and productive relationship with the Mormon/Latter-day Saints community," Hassan said. "Their generosity and altruism are much welcomed and appreciated. We look forward to preserving this close bond to help each of our communities and the community at large, helping to alleviate suffering and create sustainability throughout the world."

Al-Marayati presented the MPAC award to the Gillilands on Nov. 3 at a banquet attended by 850 people. The other Community Changemaker Award went to Heather Laird, director of the Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology at USC for her work reducing stigmas around mental health and strengthening vulnerable individuals and underserved minorities.

"We're humbled by the goodness among them and motivated to be better Mormons because of our experience with these folks."