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Want to build interfaith friendships? Here's how music can help

SALT LAKE CITY — The sounds of booming drums, clapping hands, a South Indian flute and an ancient horn filled the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Sunday evening, as performers of all ages shared the music of their faiths.

"Sacred Music Evening 2017" showcased the talents of 10 religious ensembles, including Buddhist dancers, gospel singers and Sufi whirling dervishes. The groups took turns entertaining a joyous crowd before artists and attendees alike joined their voices to sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

"With God, our creator, family all are we. Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony," they sang.

The annual event, which began 15 years ago as a way to celebrate the religions represented at the 2002 Winter Olympics, brings together music lovers from Utah's faith communities, highlighting shared values through lively songs, dances and spoken words. This year's performers included representatives from more than a dozen congregations in the Salt Lake Valley.

Music is a powerful tool in efforts to build interfaith bonds, noted Roberta King, author of "(un)Common Sounds: Songs of Peace and Reconciliation among Muslims and Christians." People may come to a concert feeling awkward or anxious, but soon enough they'll be swaying and singing along.

"Music engages us almost immediately at the emotional level," she said.

Songs of praise

Sacred music has been a prominent part of most faith traditions for centuries, according to music scholars. Most Christian congregations, for example, sing several hymns at each service and see music as a way to share their devotion to God.

"It goes back to the Christian scripture. There are references in the Old Testament — most pointedly in the Psalms — about not only singing to the Lord, but singing a new song to the Lord," said Tony Payne, a composer who leads local and global programs for undergraduate music majors at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in Illinois. "In the New Testament, you have the apostle Paul referencing singing to one another with psalms and hymns and other spiritual songs."

As Payne noted, congregational singing isn't limited to hymns. Catholic priests sometimes sing the prayers they offer during communion, and Jewish scripture readings are generally sung instead of read.

Music is less common at mosques than it is in churches, but it still plays a major role in Muslim communities, said King, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California.

"There are folk songs and cultural songs," she said.

Because members of all religions are familiar with sacred music, songs create an opportunity for collaboration, Payne noted. Interfaith concerts come in many forms, but they generally highlight key themes shared between faith groups, like the importance of serving your neighbor and thanking your God.

"I see them as an opportunity to embrace what you deeply believe, and do it in dialogue with others," he said.

Even if songs are performed that focus on a specific group's theology or don't fit with one religion's teachings, all participants can find something to enjoy, whether its the melody of the song or the performer's voice, Payne added.

Let the music play

Sunday's concert was the capstone of Interfaith Month 2017, sponsored by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. The event was designed to spark new connections and encourage dialogue, just like other interfaith programs over the last few weeks.

The two hours of music, scripture readings and prayers may have fulfilled their mission better than other aspects of Interfaith Month, because singing often loosens people up faster than a luncheon or other religious gathering, King said.

"Music creates a spontaneous community," she noted.

King, who is Christian, recalled being caught up in the magic of a sacred music festival in Morocco, where she had the opportunity to meet representatives of dozens of the world's faiths.

"Before I knew it, I was arm-in-arm dancing with Muslims, Buddhist and others," she said. "I thought, 'Wait a minute. What's happening here?'"

Ryan Tolman, president of the Provo Interfaith Choir, which performs at community events in Utah Valley, shared a similar assessment of the power of music. Singing the songs of other Christian traditions has helped him break out of his religious "bubble," he said.

"You get a glimpse into other people," he said. "Music is one of those things where it helps you see your similarities."

The Provo Interfaith Choir is currently preparing to perform at an Easter sunrise worship service, and Tolman, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said rehearsals have helped him realize how much he shares in common with his fellow singers, many of whom are members of the United Church of Christ.

"We're singing quite a few Easter songs I've never heard of that are absolutely gorgeous," he said. "And they're about something I believe in."

Interfaith concerts are a meaningful way to get conversations going between members of different religious groups, King said. But for them to make the biggest difference, they need to spark long-term partnerships like Tolman's choir.

"Don't let the music stop," she said.