SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders with the Tibetan Community Center, with its statue of Buddha, and the Calvary Baptist Church, which has art of Jesus Christ, opened their doors this week and shared their unique beliefs and rich culture. They also shared a common journey of finding a spiritual home and place to worship.
Approximately 60 people attended the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable bus tour on Tuesday, an annual event organized as part of interfaith month.
Tibetan Community Center
At the Tibetan Community Center, 135 W. 2950 South, Pema Chagzoetsang, a North American Tibetan member of Parliament, shared a brief history of how this community of Tibetans came to Utah.
“In political terms they don’t like to call us refugees but we are,” Chagzoetsang said. China has occupied Tibet since 1959. According to theCentral Tibetan Administration, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the occupation. Many fled Tibet, with a majority settling in India and some coming to the United States.
“We fled persecution … There’s no religious freedom,” she said.
2019 marks 60 years since Tibet lost its independence on March 10, 1959. Each year the Tibetan community holds a peaceful demonstration at the Utah Capitol which anyone is welcome to join.
“It’s not even saying China is bad. It is for human rights,” Chagzoetsang said about the demonstration. “It is asking everyone to support Tibet.”
Upon first settling in Utah, the Tibetan immigrants didn't have a meetinghouse. The Episcopal Church among others offered them a space to meet, but they had no permanent home.
It was important to have a space to preserve their culture and faith, but building the community center was no easy task. “A center like this is a few million dollars,” Chagzoetsang said, “We don’t have a penny.”
They received donations from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Episcopal Church, Zions Bank, the Miller Foundation and others. The Tibetan community's also contributed — each member donated $200.
“They worked two, three jobs. They are not ones on welfare,” Chagzoetsang said, “I’m so proud of them.”
Building the community center gave them a place to gather, celebrate and pray. They offer classes for the children each Sunday to learn to write Tibetan.
After explaining the history of the people and the center, the tour group went to the prayer room, which includes a 5-foot-tall Buddha statue that is sacred to the community. His holiness the Dalai Lama blessed it on a visit to Utah. Guests and members were asked to remove their shoes before approaching the Buddha.
Chagzoetsang explained that the congregation is Buddhist, but it does not mean they worship Buddha. They follow his teachings and the Buddha gives them focus. Buddhism is non-theistic, meaning there is not a diety at the center of it. Instead it focuses on enlightenment. “We do not believe in God. God is within us,” she said.
Because of the political turmoil, these Tibetans cannot return home. However, Chagzoetsang was given the rare opportunity to visit her home country in 2003. This trip was especially meaningful because she was able to see her late father's monastery.
Growing up hearing stories of Tibet and how her parents had fled in 1959, Chagzoetsang expected to find a primitive country.
Instead, she said, "The air is so clean. Everything is so beautiful." She was also surprised by the scale and beauty of her father's monastery and said the trip was very emotional.
The community center and prayer room are precious because most cannot return to Tibet and many are separated from family.
“(Here,) I have my own Tibetan community family,” Chagzoetsang said.
Calvary Baptist Church
Following the Tibetan Community Center, the bus tour took participants to the Calvary Baptist Church, 1090 State St, where Pastor France A. Davis directed the tour.
“First thing you need to know is a congregation like this is call and response,” Pastor Davis said after a somewhat quiet response to his greeting. He explained their worship style is upbeat, loud and emotionally charged.
“We engage in worship with our whole bodies,” he said later in the evening. “You’ll be hard pressed if you’re new to know who’s the preacher and who’s not.”
Though their worship services are joyous, like the Tibetans, the Calvary Baptists did not have an easy start.
In the late 1800s, the members of the African-American community had a difficult time finding a place to worship together. A group of women known now as the Baptist Prayer Band began meeting in each others' homes for scripture study and prayer in 1890s. The group soon outgrew meeting in homes and began meeting at 37½ S. West Temple where City Creek Center now stands.
The community was more than a church. The group published their own newspaper and formed the Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP in 1919.
The church was also a great resource of learning. “Most of our people could not read or write so they were teaching themselves,” Pastor Davis said, explaining the Bible and hymnbooks became source materials of learning.
They built the large building where they now worship in 2001 at a cost of $8 million. The modern facility is a result of donations from both in and outside the congregation.
Pastor Davis shared the group's core beliefs, the most important of which is that there is one God through whom people are saved.
“We believe there is a place called heaven and a place called hell,” Pastor Davis said, “If you accept Christ as your savior you’ll go to heaven.”
Baptisms are on the first Sunday of every month and there is no preferred age for baptism. The only requirement is “if a person is old enough to walk down the aisle and say 'I want to be baptized,'” Pastor Davis said.
Those wishing to be baptized have to publicly state their desire to the congregation. Following that they are fully immersed in front of the congregation as a symbol of their belief.
“We believe one goes in the tub believing in Christ already and then comes out to live what you’ve learned,” Pastor Davis said.
Members of the congregation are asked to give a gift and an offering. Along with funding the congregation, these offerings go towards many projects, including scholarships, feeding the hungry and a 30-unit housing for the elderly and those with physically disabilities. They also sponsor churches, missionaries, schools and hospitals in Africa and Asia.
After explaining some of the history and beliefs of the church, Pastor Davis showed the group around the building which includes a gym, many classrooms and a kitchen where meals are prepared.Comment on this story
Pastor Davis pointed out the art on the walls, most of which are paintings of Jesus represented in many races. "Nobody knows what Jesus really looked like, but everyone knows Jesus looked like them," he said.
Pastor Davis said diversity and acceptance are very important to their church. "We celebrate whoever comes. We believe everybody is somebody and nobody is nobody. God didn't make any trash."
More events throughout the interfaith month are available at interfaithroundtable.org.