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Women talking to bridge religious divide

Last January nine women got together in Elise Lazar's living room to try an experiment: They began a conversation to help build a bridge between Utahns who are LDS and Utahns who aren't. Not a big bridge, of course, because there were only nine women. A footbridge, maybe.

Lazar has lived in Utah for 18 years, so she has felt the undercurrent of tension that sometimes exists here — a tension that generally stays just below the surface but occasionally erupts. One of those eruptions was over whether Salt Lake City had a right to sell part of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the lawsuits and public debate that followed, the Alliance for Unity — formed in 2001 to heal divisions in Utah's religious, cultural and ethnic communities — came up with an idea they hoped would make everyone happy: a donation of $4 million to build the city a cultural center on the west side.

"I was quite disappointed at their response," says Lazar. "They thought like men do. 'What do we do?' And they thought, 'Money.' I just thought, 'Oh my heavens, have they gone in a wrong direction.' "

What was needed, Lazar reasoned, was not dollars but dialogue. Not just dialogue between Alliance for Unity members but dialogue on the neighborhood level. So Lazar talked to an LDS neighbor, who called some friends, and eventually nine women agreed to start a group they named Woman to Woman. Four of the women are Mormon, five are not. They decided to meet for one year to see what would happen.

They started out slowly. At the first of the monthly meetings they simply got to know each other, talking mostly about the role of religion in their lives. At the second meeting they talked about raising children and aging and all the other ways they were more alike than different. It was only then, in March, after they had developed a feeling of trust, that they began to get down to business.

These were the rules: Speak honestly, keep what is said here confidential, speak without any intention to change someone else.

"Or even to convince," Linda Dunn explained when six of the women met with the Deseret Morning News earlier this week to talk about how the past year has affected them.

The women are all white and middle class and range in age from 30s to 60s. Ann Perez, Linda Dunn, Carolee Scowcroft and Kathy English are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elise Lazar is Jewish; Rosemary Holt, Beth Whitsett and Mary Draper are Protestant; Cynthia Wand grew up LDS but for the past 25 years has been following her own spiritual path.

They talked about how sometimes non-Mormons (a phrase just about nobody likes but in this case speaks to the issue and certainly is less unwieldy than "people of other faiths") feel powerless and voiceless in Utah and how sometimes Mormons feel like the butt of rude remarks. They talked about non-Mormon children who aren't invited to LDS birthday parties and LDS adults who aren't invited to their non-Mormon neighbors' for dinner. They talked about the LDS practice of "baptism for the dead," a ritual that can include deceased Jews and Catholics and atheists.

"There's something very valuable that comes from understanding what people really mean," says Whitsett. "Why did my mother's neighbor tell my mother they were going to baptize my father after he passed away? And why was my mother so offended, so angry?" What would have helped, Whitsett says, is if both the neighbors and her mother had been able to talk about why each felt the way they did — how the neighbors wanted to do the baptism out of love for her father and how her mother felt that this was a violation of her own beliefs.

"The doctrine doesn't change," says Whitsett, "but the reaction to it does."

A lot of times, she says, Mormons and non-Mormons "walk on eggshells," afraid to bring up a topic or explain their reactions when they feel hurt or ignored. Sometimes people feel attacked, get defensive, clam up, lash out.

Rosemary Holt talks about a woman who called her. The woman, a non-Mormon, had recently become friends with a young LDS woman who moved in across the street. The women shared recipes and friendship. And then one day the non-Mormon woman found that her neighbor had left an LDS proselytizing video on her doorstep.

What should she do? the woman asked Holt. She felt hurt, she said, that her neighbor seemed to want to be her friend only if she converted.

Again, the women decide, the best thing is to talk. The non-Mormon woman needs to walk across the street and thank her neighbor for the video, ask her why she wanted to give the video, listen respectfully to the neighbor's answer, understand that the neighbor gave the video out of love, and explain that she wants to be the woman's friend but that she already has a religion of her own.

The non-Mormons in the group say they have learned how hurtful "Mormon bashing" can be and that not all Mormons think alike. The Mormons in the group say they have learned that phrases like "the one true church" can be hurtful, too. Both have learned to recognize triggers that can put people on their guard.

Linda Dunn tells a story about group member Kathy English, who at Sunday School one week after coming to Woman to Woman listened while a man said he was glad that the LDS Church's missionary program could share "the one true church."

"Cathy raised her hand," Dunn says. " 'Let me tell you how "the one true church" comes across,' Cathy said. 'It doesn't fly that well.' " Later in the week, the man called Cathy to say he had taken what she had said to heart.

"The ripple effect," says Lazar.

The women applaud efforts like those of Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, who has begun a series of public Bridging the Religious Divide forums (the next forum is Wednesday at the University of Utah's School of Social Work auditorium, 7-8:30 p.m.), and other neighborhood groups that work hard to unite Mormons and others. And they hope more groups will form.

"Nine people is not a lot of people. It doesn't change the world beyond our neighborhood," says Perez. "But it would be wonderful if nine more people and then nine other people and then another nine or 10 or 12 sat down and went through this process."

It requires coming together with goodwill, says Lazar, and with the willingness to carve out the time it takes to make it a priority. It requires the strength to speak honestly, to accept some measure of confrontation, to not react with defensiveness. "The ultimate goal of this group," she says, "is to learn to respect, understand, . . . maybe even to honor each other."

"I can see why people stay with their own kind," says Perez. "But it's so debilitating. . . . I get so tired of meaningless chatter."

The process doesn't mean giving up your own beliefs, says Dunn. "This dialogue has strengthened my own resolve (about her religion). I've had to articulate what I think. I'm not on autopilot. . . . I've had to think: 'What do I believe?' . . . When we hang out with people who think like we do, we don't talk about it."

And the bridge, says Holt, "needs to extend way beyond just us" to the wider community. "If we, in our own Judeo-Christian background, can't listen to one another and care enough to let go of the tribal mechanism, how on earth are we even going to deal with the influx of other religious groups, way beyond Jewish-Christian?"

Wand, who travels more than three hours round trip from Fairview to attend the monthly meetings, works with an international group called The Virtues Project, which she describes as an effort to "bring unity into diversity." Wand believes that Woman to Woman might be a model for other places where religion divides people. "We're just a small microcosm of the challenges that are out there."

The women of Woman to Woman have spent a year coming together and will decide at their 13th meeting, Sunday night, what will happen next.

Holt thinks the questions need to be asked of everyone in Utah. "We're at the point we need to ask ourselves and others, 'How much does this community mean to us?' . . . If we reach out and think about how much do we care — and caring is the key word — how much do you really care beyond yourself, beyond your own family, your own congregation or ward; do you care enough about your community that you're willing to put forth the effort to bridge this difference?"

Not to just make some flimsy bridge, not just a swinging bridge, says Holt. "But pave it over with real caring."