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God loves equally, WSU crowd is told

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True Christians, whatever their faith tradition, understand that prejudice of any kind retards spirituality and that humility in one's own beliefs doesn't mean capitulation to differing ideas.

Speaking Thursday at Weber State University, Chieko Okazaki and Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish told those gathered at the school's sixth annual Diversity Conference that God is "no respecter of persons" and loves all equally. While religion is a major source of division in Utah, pretending the challenges don't exist only allows them to foster, they said.

To those who think self-righteously that all must believe as they do or they don't measure up, "just remember that there is a God, and you're not Him," said Okazaki, a former member of the Relief Society General Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She recounted her family's personal experience with prejudice as Japanese Americans during and following World War II. With her voice often tinged with emotion, she recalled how she and her mother gathered and burned everything in their home that was Japanese the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

They lived in Hawaii and feared the retribution and suspicion that would follow. As a college student, her husband-to-be, Ed Okazaki, was immediately kicked out of the Army ROTC, along with his Japanese colleagues, but rather than becoming indignant, they banded together and volunteered to pick up garbage and crush rocks.

The offer was grudgingly accepted by the U.S. government, and over time their unit ended up being one of the most decorated in the history of the war. When the couple married and came to the Salt Lake Valley, they had difficulty buying insurance and a home because of prejudice. Determined to show their character and resolve, the couple introduced themselves to everyone in the neighborhood.

"No one was rude, but no one invited us in," she recalled.

When she took a job teaching elementary school in 1951, three of the children in her class were removed by their parents at the beginning of the year because they didn't want them exposed to a Japanese woman.

As she gave her best effort to her students and the year progressed, she said, all three sets of parents asked the principal to allow their children back in her class of 32.

"The principal enjoyed telling them, 'Sorry, opportunity only knocks once.' "

Reared a Buddhist, she said the teachings of her youth — that everyone is of equal value — helped her get through her own trying times and inform her present beliefs. She decried those who marginalize others based on race, education, religion, economic status or sexual orientation.

Faith is so personal and so integral to humans that it's almost impossible to disentangle it with questions of right or wrong, she said. Yet those who are sure they are "right and that God agrees with (them) so why investigate anything else" fall into the same mental rationale that helped initiate the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Haun's Mill Massacre (of early Latter-day Saints) and the murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay college student, she said.

She asked the audience to think again when they find themselves embracing actions or speech that contradict the foundational Christian belief that all are equal unto God. Humility, respect and a desire to serve others will open the doors of dialogue.

Religious beliefs are tender to those who hold them, but they can become "dogmatic and hard-edged" when self-righteousness is present.

When those who believe they have a corner on truth speak with others about their faith, the dialogue should be just that, she said — a discussion. "You are not on Sinai, and you are not Moses."

Bishop Irish said though she grew up in an active Latter-day Saint home, she left the faith for Anglicanism because she had questions she wanted answered. When she returned to Utah several years ago as one of only 12 female bishops worldwide, she wondered at the reception she would receive, but was pleasantly surprised when Okazaki and the other members of the LDS Relief Society General Presidency paid her a visit.

"When I was young, some people whispered the word — Catholic or Protestant,"she said, adding it was socially acceptable to speak of women or minorities in pejorative terms. While the civil rights movement and other social changes have cooled outward racism, she said, religion "has been and will remain the most volatile of all the differences in this century."

Humans share so much in their biological, social and spiritual foundations, she said, yet it's often difficult for people to move from accepting others who believe differently to truly respecting them.

She said it's "less than helpful to think that only one faith tradition has the whole truth or must be superior to others. That's not good for the dialogue we need to have. Many of you remember the arrogance of the Pharisees," who thanked God they were "not like other men."

People duck the challenge of living with their deepest differences, she said, "when we think we must make others just like us . . . If others are not OK unless they are like us, we have ducked a very important challenge in this world."