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Bridging the divide

Utahns share stories in hopes of greater religious understanding

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Utah's own "elephant in the room" has found a group of regular folks who are willing to do more than either (a) pretend it's not there or (b) use it as the proverbial whipping boy.

The state's widely public religious divide — and its accompanying hurts — is getting detailed scrutiny from ordinary Utahns willing to risk their own long-held assumptions to hear about those of "others" they usually don't befriend or share much common ground. Discussions have been painful and even heated, yet often healing, say participants, noting that little of real value in human relationships comes easy or cheap.

Participants in Salt Lake City's "Bridging the Religious Divide" project have come together during the past year, first in open public forums hosted by Mayor Rocky Anderson, and then in 13 smaller discussion groups of 10 people representing multiple faith traditions. Each group had more than one Latter-day Saint, though none of the groups were majority LDS.

They shared their stories, explored their pain and now hope for continued dialogue, according to John Kesler and Terri Martin, two of the professionals who helped facilitate the discussions.

The result of their effort is not only greater understanding and empathy among participants, but a desire to share what they've learned through an open letter the community, released to the media today (See accompanying story.)

Utah's power brokers formed the Alliance for Unity after public sparring both pre- and post-Olympics over issues including liquor laws, the Main Street Plaza and hate crimes legislation. But grass-roots Utahns were left without a voice or any organized forum for discussion other than within their own workplaces, neighborhoods or churches.

"The consensus was we needed to explore how to talk to each other," said Martin, who helped draft the community letter. "When the groups came together, people wanted to go deeper than just make nice tea party conversation. They wanted to explore what the divide is about and how it affects them," she said.

Consciously or not, religious identity is pervasive in Utah, whether or not residents claim any belief in God, according to religion scholar and LDS observer Jan Shipps, who has studied demographics and religious fervor in the Beehive State. Because The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints is so dominant here, everyone has a religious identity, said Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University. "Even people who don't claim to be anything when they come to Utah find out they are something — they're either Mormon or not." So pervasive has the identity issue become that often the first question asked of both new residents and Utahns visiting outside the state is, "Are you a Mormon?"

Assumptions — both positive and negative — usually follow, according to participants. Kesler said the object of the small discussion groups has been to go beyond those assumptions.

Five participants shared their experience with the Deseret Morning News.

Nila Horton, an insurance company consultant and native Utahn, has lived in her east-side Salt Lake neighborhood for 32 years. The fact that she and her family are not LDS -— and steered clear of the church despite attempts at proselytizing — has had a lasting impact on her life. "We've had some wonderful experiences, but also some very negative ones that I don't want anyone else to go through," she said.

The negative came largely as the result of her children's experiences when they were young, being routinely excluded from birthday parties, baby-sitting opportunities and chances to date Latter-day Saints in their heavily LDS area. "It makes kids wonder why they're not good enough to participate.

"I have to tell you, nothing huge happened. We've never been shot at or been fired from our jobs."

While the nuances and slights have been minor, she said, they accumulated regularly over a lifetime to fill a reservoir of hurt. By the time Salt Lake's religious divide project was announced, Horton was ready to talk to someone — anyone — about her experience. The pain had finally turned from annoyance and tolerance to anger — and a determination that "I can't do this anymore without speaking out."

When she attended the city forums, "I didn't know what to expect — whether I was going to be angry or excluded. But I was comforted by what I heard other people say over and over again. They were things I had felt for years but never had an audience for it. For me, it was truly a beginning," including the understanding she gained from Latter-day Saints in her group about their feelings of being unfairly stereotyped or judged.

She said she would do "almost anything" to ensure that the dialogue continues.

Chuck Spence, deputy director for government contracting in the governor's office, said his group found the experience so helpful that group member decided to continue meeting beyond the formal religious divide project and now gather every six weeks.

He learned years ago how the divide impacts the state economically, by working with companies that considered locating in the Beehive State and were concerned about "stereotypes about Mormons and alcohol." An active Latter-day Saint, he began observing LDS attitudes and behaviors, including those in his own South Jordan neighborhood. He came to the table knowing there was a problem.

For many, it was "a chance to take out some frustration. They found this dialogue to be so cathartic — just a chance to be heard, to look across the table and tell me as a Latter-day Saint how they've experienced the divide was very healing for them . . . I was apologetic but wanted them to know it's not indicative of all LDS members, that many of us are trying to heal the divide, to reach out, to be more inclusive and better neighbors."

The LDS belief that theirs is "the one, true church" was among the most troubling issues the group discussed. Spence said he didn't realize the claim "was that offensive. I asked . . . why there is so much acrimony behind that." The reply: " 'Well, if you're right, then by linear thinking, we're all wrong. If you're superior, then we're somehow inferior.' That was a real eye opener for me about how offensive that is. I'm not sure how to bridge that one . . . I can't back down from that. It's one of our core beliefs."

Still, the dialogue was "very respectful," Spence said. The meetings have been "one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime, bar none."

Michael Rhys, a 52-year-old native Utahn and a junior high school English teacher, was first attracted by the public forums on the divide. "I went expecting to hear a lot of nastiness and name calling but was impressed with how people conducted themselves." He joined a small group discussion, knowing even though he was well-versed in LDS theology as a former Latter-day Saint, he might be considered suspicious as a pagan minister.

Even so, he said he hasn't found his chosen faith to be a disadvantage in Utah. "I think that's because I'm a white male and fit into the mainstream power structure. I do know a lot of pagan people in Utah that have had quite a difficult time."

He said local tension "comes from stereotypes. People get an idea that Mormons are a certain way and Mormons get the idea that others are a certain way. The discussions reminded me of something I've learned before — that stereotypes, by definition, are false beliefs. When you're dealing with people one on one, the person becomes important rather than their faith or race or economic standing."

Rhys said he's disturbed to see Latter-day Saints harassed on the street near the Conference Center during their semiannual general conferences by street preachers and others "protesting and screaming at them. If that were to happen to the Jews at one of the synagogues or another faith group, everyone here would be up in arms about it. But we seem to be complacent about it as free speech, rather than looking at people going about their business of worshipping."

Because of circles he travels in, "Mormon bashing is a common and accepted thing among people who would never tolerate a racial joke or one about another religion, but in Utah it seems like Mormons are fair game."

As a teacher, he sees the divide play out in school, where students quickly determine who is LDS and who is not.

When students ask about his faith flat out, he tells them it's personal.

Alison Anderson is an active Latter-day Saint businesswoman who sells concert clothing for female musicians on her Web site. She and her family returned to Utah in the mid-1980s after living for eight years in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As an "affluent mainstream active Mormon lady, I'm a Democrat and have more liberal political leanings, and I'm not afraid to discuss them.

"A lot of people in my family are not Mormons . . . Living outside Utah broadens your experience, because you find that people don't really pay too much attention to divisions along religious lines. There's a much broader norm . . . "

Anderson found the group discussions about the religious divide "disturbing and sad. Some non-Latter-day Saints felt they had been really brutalized and made to feel they were never as good, never players. It was hard, and there were times that I sat there and thought, 'What I need to do here as a human being and probably as a Mormon is to listen and to hear and to understand. That's what I should do with this.' And it was hard sometimes."

Anderson said she and her husband now actively "cultivate relationships with those who aren't LDS. We take our Mormons neighbors for granted because we see them every week at church . . . We're comfortable with having a good friendship for the sake of having a good friendship."

Block parties in their current neighborhood are put on by an organizing committee that cuts across faith lines. She urged fellow Latter-day Saints to "build relationships one at a time," and to move outside their LDS circle.

Polly Stewart grew up within the boundaries of the 27th LDS Ward in Salt Lake City during the 1940s and 1950s. Her parents had become disaffected from their LDS faith and took her and her siblings to the Unitarian Church, yet all of her kin on her mother's side were active Latter-day Saints. Her father's side became disaffected as well, though she grew up learning a great deal about LDS history.

After graduating from the U., she left Utah for 38 years, only to return in 2004 to her childhood home, where she cares for her aging mother.

The fact that she is both a non-Mormon and a lesbian didn't play a part in discussions with her religious divide group. "I knew I had to announce (her sexual orientation) right away. If you don't, people find out on their own. So I did, and no one ran screaming from the table.. . . They never to my face treated me with anything but the utmost respect and courtesy."

As a member of the board of the local Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Utah, she knows many others in the gay and lesbian community who are estranged from their LDS families. Many LDS gays marry and have families to avoid the religious and social stigma, she said.

"You look at it from an outside perspective and see a great deal of pain. It puts parents in an impossible position. They're enjoined to keep their families together at all costs, yet there's a family member who won't be able to join them in the celestial kingdom," the highest degree of heaven, according to LDS theology.

Stewart said she thinks the divide is perpetuated by prominent people who "make statements that are hurtful" to local minority groups, including her own. "I believe they are doing it from a sincere belief that they're doing what is right. But the effect is to demonize whole groups of people, even as the LDS Church has many members who are open to others with a capital 'O' who are tolerant, loving and accepting."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com