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Interfaith Month offers families opportunities to learn about other faiths

Ellie Thompson had an interfaith awakening nearly five years ago. She was visiting a former mosque in Cordoba, Spain, and found herself worrying about Muslims who were no longer able to worship at the site, which had become a Catholic cathedral.

"I genuinely felt a calling on my life. I asked, 'What are you going to do about it?'" Thompson said.

She committed herself to increasing cooperation between religious groups, forming a student club on the subject while she was in graduate school at West Texas A&M University. In 2013, she brought her passion for interfaith engagement to Salt Lake City, where she found dozens of other leaders who shared her mission.

"I love spreading the word about the diversity of Salt Lake while continuing to build the interfaith movement," said Thompson, the young adult representative to the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.

Members of the Divya School of Dance perform a classical Indian dance inside the tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Oct. 18, 2015. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The roundtable serves people who, like Thompson, feel called to learn about other faiths, whether they've been inspired by visits to sacred spaces or headlines about hate crimes affecting Muslims and Jews. It hosts monthly luncheons, community discussions and, most notably, a multi-week series of events aimed at getting Utahns out of their religious comfort zones.

Interfaith Month, which kicks off on Jan. 30 this year, provides budding interfaith activists of all ages the opportunity to tour a Hindu temple, meet with the Baha'i community, share Shrove Tuesday pancakes with local Catholics and participate in more than a dozen other unique events.

"It opens up (houses of worship) to the community in a way that makes people feel they want to participate," said Judy Wight, a member of the Interfaith Month committee who's been involved with the roundtable for nearly a decade. "It's not a lecture. It's fun and interactive."

Interfaith Month also prepares future leaders for educational, business and social settings where they'll interact with people who don't share their religious background, said Thompson, a program specialist at Utah Campus Compact.

"Interfaith leadership is a quality we are going to need to a great degree as the United States continues to be so religiously devout and diverse," she said.

Value of interfaith

The Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable originated in 1999 during the lead-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Utah faith leaders came together to ensure visitors from around the world would have spiritual support during the games.

Although that event is long over, the organization continues to think globally. Interfaith relationships at the local level are a way to combat religiously motivated conflict everywhere, members said.

"It's really important that people realize we're so much more alike than we are different. There's no reason to be afraid of each other or of different religions," said Wight, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Indra Neelamegham, a Hindu who has been involved with Interfaith Roundtable since its earliest days, agreed that visiting other congregations is a meaningful way for believers to overcome fear and break through stereotypes.

"If people come to the Hindu Temple and see our practices, they'll see that we hold the same family values and share a sense of the importance of rearing children with good habits," she said.

A guided interfaith bus tour makes its third and final stop at St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church Feb. 24, 2016 in Salt Lake City. | Luke Franke, Deseret News

In addition to boosting religious literacy, Interfaith Month amplifies the good deeds of Utah's many religious communities, said Janet Healy, chairwoman of the Interfaith Month committee. For example, several of this year's events center around faith-based outreach to refugees.

"A lot of our interfaith groups already offer services for a refugee clientele," she said. Interfaith Month is a chance to showcase their efforts.

Healy, a Roman Catholic, hopes attendees walk away from individual events and Interfaith Month as a whole with a better sense of the value of the different faiths.

"I love the beauty of all faiths working together. We have common views that are expressed differently," she said.

Planning your month

There's something for everyone on this year's Interfaith Month schedule, according to roundtable members.

Young children may enjoy "The Magic of the Golden Rule," a Feb. 6 event that will blend moral lessons with a magic show. Music lovers may be drawn to the gospel heritage musical on Feb. 26 or sacred music evening in March on Temple Square.

Members of the Interfaith Month committee also highlighted events like a Feb. 4 discussion of the relationship between religious belief and patriotism, which were designed with young adults in mind.

Calvary Baptist Church hosts "an evening of divinely inspired music and praise" as part of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable's Interfaith Month on Feb. 24, 2013. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

High school and college students hold the future of the community and country in their hands, and they'll certainly benefit from knowledge of the world's religions, Wight said.

"They're the ones that will be sitting in these spaces in the future. They'll be promoting world peace and understanding," she added.

The important thing for parents, religion lovers and other potential attendees to keep in mind is that they should pace themselves, Thompson said. Even committed interfaith leaders like herself can get burned out.

"Think of it like a marathon. My first year here, I tried to go to everything," she said.

Now, Thompson studies the schedule and prioritizes the events that seem to be designed with her in mind. This year, she'll return to Spain, at least in her mind, at a Feb. 5 discussion of the interfaith lessons learned from the country's golden age.

She advises others to adopt a similar approach.

"When I talk to young people, I tell them to look at fliers and pick out what's most meaningful for them and what piques their curiosity," Thompson said.

Interfaith Month 2017 begins on Jan. 30. For a full calendar of events, visit interfaithroundtable.org/2017-interfaith-month.