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Op-ed: Intermountain West Interfaith Leadership Lab offers tools for students, faculty

FILE"” The silver dome of Our Lady of the Spasm Armenian Catholic Church and the golden Dome of the Rock rise over the Old City of Jerusalem.
FILE"” The silver dome of Our Lady of the Spasm Armenian Catholic Church and the golden Dome of the Rock rise over the Old City of Jerusalem.
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An unprecedented gathering for this region is taking place at Utah State University this weekend called the Intermountain West Interfaith Leadership Lab. Colleges and universities from Utah and Idaho are sending more than 140 students, faculty and staff to build interfaith cooperation on their campuses. So what do we mean by "interfaith"? In her book, "A New Religious America," Diana Eck wrote that diversity is a state of being, but it does not tell us about how we interact with one another. Pluralism is when we interact with one another in a positive way, building relationships and working together. When we interact in a positive way across religious or ethical lines, we have religious pluralism, or interfaith.

In the summer of 2013, Deneece Huftalin, then vice president of student affairs at Salt Lake Community College, published the results of a survey that noted that 70 percent of the staff at SLCC felt like they had been religiously discriminated against. We need interfaith leaders at our institutions of higher education in Utah, and we need to fund positions for interfaith coordinators on our campuses. We need to provide student spaces for religious literacy. We need to teach them to build friendships with people with whom they may fundamentally disagree, but partner with those friends toward social needs such as homelessness, inversion solution, human trafficking, forgiveness and reconciliation, or whatever social justice issue lights a fire in the heart of young Utahns.

This one-time training, Intermountain West Interfaith Leadership Lab aims to equip students, faculty and staff members with tools to return to their campuses and begin service projects based on shared values. We invite students into the model of the Interfaith Youth Core to voice their deeply held beliefs, ethics and convictions, whether religious or secular. Then engage with those who orient around religion differently than themselves and act toward a need in the community with an unlikely partner.

Recently, the new Relief Society general president, Jean B. Bingham, said, "While beliefs may vary, we are united with other faiths in our commitment to a higher cause that transcends our personal interests and motivates us to give of our substance, our time and our energies on behalf of our fellow men and women.” Are we equipping our students to do this kind of work? Where on college and university campuses are students taught to engage across lines of religious difference? From my position at Utah Campus Compact aspiring to “build higher education’s capacity to serve the public good,” it is evident that higher education is missing the mark that Sister Bingham and to what all of our faith and ethical systems are calling us.

To be certain, students require much from education systems. Some argue that LDS institutes near all campuses have significant influence on students. There are a couple of stand-out campuses in interfaith engagement, and we need to benchmark and build upon those models, which promote civility and perseverance in relationships. We have to allow students, faculty and staff to hold opposing fundamental truth claims, and be able to find a way to build community and work toward some social good, based on shared values.

Let us build on the enthusiasm from this weekend at the Intermountain West Interfaith Leadership Lab and begin to talk about the skills students will need in a world of globalism, particularly when anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise. Our institutions claim to send out graduates for “lives of impact as leaders and citizens,” “encourag[ing] a culture of innovation, and cultivat[ing] an atmosphere of engagement,” “encouraging freedom of expression and valuing diversity,” and “serve as stewards of a globally interdependent community.” To accomplish any of these impeccable goals, students will need to be equipped with interfaith leadership skills.

Ellie Thompson is the program specialist for Utah Campus Compact and a board member of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.