Barriers crumble: Interfaith activities build bridges of friendship

Old barriers between the Church and other religions are crumbling as more and more stakes around the country take part in local interfaith councils and give service to others.

In the past few years, many stake representatives have joined community ministerial councils where, for the most part, they have been readily accepted. Typically, these representatives roll up their sleeves and quickly go to work in service projects operated by the councils.And, as they do so, according to many interviewed, new friendships develop, respect is generated for all concerned, and misinformation is corrected.

The service projects operated by community interfaith groups are often directed toward feeding the homeless, and providing clothing, shelter, medical care and literacy training for various families in the community. Councils also take part in such generally accepted activities as Prayer Week or Bible Week and choir exchanges, and strive to combat prejudice while building bridges of friendship.

The councils do not worship together, and avoid discussing divisive issues, such as doctrine, according to those who serve with the groups. As such, most councils are compatible with most religious congregations, including those of the Latter-day Saints.

One of those who has been involved for several years is Lee Pratt, former Relief Society president of the Richmond Virginia Stake, now vice president of the National Council of Christians and Jews and past president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond. The interfaith council includes representatives of 300 congregations.

During her tenure as president of the interfaith council, several non-Christian faiths, such as the Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs joined the council.

"Our Church is fully involved in Christian service in the community," said Sister Pratt. "We have representatives on the council from every unit. Our involvement has been a positive experience all the way."

When she first joined the council in 1985, some members were skeptical, fearing "we would have to bend our practices," she said. "But it hasn't been like that at all."

Rather, "at every interfaith meeting, we collect clothing and distribute it to social agencies." Council members then discuss their on-going service projects and conduct similar council business.

As an example of barriers that have eroded is the visit this past summer of the Tabernacle Choir to Richmond, contrasted with a visit by the choir in 1911. In 1911, an association banded together and asked that the choir not come.

This year, members of the interfaith council and the National Council of Christians and Jews were hosted by the Church at a luncheon for the choir. "Our association really has been positive," she said. "The people are so wonderful."

Another member with longtime experience in interfaith work is Clareetta Smiley, retired assistant director of home economics for the Washington D.C. School District.

Sister Smiley served in missionary and public affairs work in her ward before being appointed to the Interfaith Conference of metropolitan Washington, D.C., about five years ago.

"I'm welcomed by them," she said. "I'm overly welcomed - every time I turn around I have one more meeting to go to. I am just overloaded with responsibility."

She said serving on the conference has strengthened her testimony and helped her appreciate the priesthood more. "I am so grateful to be in a Church where we have revelation," she said. "I have to work so closely with the priesthood leaders, and they are so supportive, so helpful and so kind it has given me a broader appreciation of the priesthood leaders."

She said that she feels she's contributed to the conference in several ways, including helping to work toward specific goals.

She said the interfaith conference has broadened her outlook to realize that the Lord loves and works with all His children. "I'm grateful the Brethren are putting a lot of emphasis on working with the interfaith councils. I can see where we are laying the foundation for a good work.

"The image of the Church has just grown by leaps and bounds. All the organizations here know we exist and they want us to be involved."

On the other side of the United States, David C. Pollei is the multi-region public affairs director for central California. He explained his perspective about interfaith involvement.

"I like to look at is as creating alliances," he said. "If you look at the business world, you see a lot of alliances being created. It is not that the businesses can't succeed by themselves, but alliances make them stronger.

"The creating of alliances is an important concept. In the past we closed wagons to protect ourselves. But now we are big enough it is time to open the wagons. We are big enough to reach out to others without it threatening our survival.

"The real, clear, challenge in dealing with any interfaith group is first seek to understand, and then seek to be understood. We need to recognize our differences, by respecting others' beliefs and being confident in ours."

Representing the Church at the Sacramento Interfaith Service Bureau in Brother Pollei's area is Fenton L. Williams.

"I meet on a regular basis with about 30 representatives of other congregations," he said. "Each month we go around the circle and announce the things we are doing that we'd like others to know about. They are very much involved in Christian outreach service projects."

He said that local Church leaders and interfaith leaders have agreed to use the Church's cannery in Sacramento to help preserve food for service organizations. "Some eyes open and some mouths drop because of the scale of our [welfareT operations," he said.

"This is a very rewarding calling, something I have enjoyed."

In the neighboring Hollister, Calif., area, the Rev. Bill Habling of the Southern Baptist Church on San Juan Road operates a homeless shelter supported by the community. He said LDS volunteers "get the job done without a whole lot of bell-ringing. Their influence is good and effective without them being in the headlines."

Volunteers at the shelter, Jack and Patricia Marshall of the Hollister 2nd Ward, said their long-term goal is "just to be a friend."

In the Indianapolis Indiana Stake, Max S. Woodbury of the Franklin Ward serves on the Johnson County Ministerial Association, which recently held one of six prayer open houses at the Franklin Ward meetinghouse. "It wasn't a big turnout," he said, "but we had 41 non-members and nine members, including seven or eight ministers and their families."

When Brother Woodbury joined the ministerial association two years ago, some protested and a controversy developed that led to some resignations. However, since that time good feelings have prevailed and additional opportunities developed to break down barriers of misinformation. Invitations to speak at religion classes and convocations have followed.

In addition, "we take turns at being the chaplain at the county hospital each week, and we have one member of the ward on the interfaith food pantry.

"In the beginning, we were watched very carefully to see what our views are," he said. "There is so much misinformation about who we are and what we represent. Once they see that we are only trying to serve others, the walls seem to break down. This is a frontier for them, too."

Pres. Randall Turner of the Palos Verdes Stake, near Los Angeles, took involvement in interfaith matters one step beyond councils and worked directly with people.

During the riots in Los Angeles last year, he and stake members took 44 vans of food and clothing to the city to help feed those who who had lost their homes. Afterward, one of his dental patients told him about a minister in Los Angeles who was feeding "latch-key" children after school to help them avoid joining gangs. Pres. Turner volunteered to donate food for the effort. In doing so, he became friends with the minister, the Rev. Ron Hill of the Love and Unity Church of God and Christ of Compton, Calif.

The two men became friends and they both were deeply concerned about the high level of fear and anger in the communities. To help reduce these feelings, Pres. Turner and stake members visited Rev. Hill's congregation, and he and members of his congregation, including a choir, attended a stake fireside in Palos Verdes.

"His people sang their hearts out," said Pres. Turner. "Then we had a Primary choir sing. He spoke and I spoke, and we both wept when it was over."

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