For months prior to the upcoming public open house for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Washington D.C. Temple, “open houses” of a different sort have been happening across the District of Columbia. To prepare for their own temple open house, small groups of Latter-day Saints and their friends have visited the sacred sites of other faiths, hoping to learn and foster interreligious relationships.
The visits are part of the Reverse Open House Series — although “reciprocal” might be a better label. The series is headed by Diana Brown, a Latter-day Saint and Georgetown University’s assistant director for interreligious engagement, who came up with the idea as an end-of-fellowship project to enhance interfaith experiences and exchanges.
Since November 2021, the Reverse Open House Series has taken small groups to sacred places throughout the D.C. area for dialogues and various events while learning about different faiths — from touring a Catholic basilica to studying the Torah at an orthodox Jewish synagogue, and from sharing a meal with a Sikh congregation to ending a fast with the Bahá’í community.
The series has been received well — both by the group participants at the stops and tours, as well as the faith leaders and religious community members they’ve met. “What I’ve noticed is that the people we visit and the leaders that help organize these events seem flattered that others want to learn and care,” Brown said.
“It shows the latent potential that Latter-day Saints are really primed to strengthen and nourish other communities of faith … that we’re not an insular group and that we view our faith as something that can help more than just our own.”
What friends of other faiths are saying
Jack Gordon, a member of the Bahá’í community of Washington, D.C., who hosts a podcast called “Interfaith-ish,” says Latter-day Saints have been “a welcoming and generous partner” in local interfaith activities for the past decade.
Gordon says he has enjoyed the two faiths’ collaboration because of the shared common vision for community building.
“This Reverse Open House is a great idea because it takes the once-in-a-generation event that is a temple rededication and creates a space to deepen the bonds of friendship between our communities,” he said, adding “I’m certain this event will yield even more chances to be of service and influence the spiritual growth of our city.”
Sunny Neelam is an unpaid part-time volunteer who serves and lives at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C. It’s one of 200 such Catholic lay residential communities that prioritizes living a simple life in solidarity with the poor, committing to nonviolence and underscoring social teachings and Pope Francis’ holistic approach.
Growing up as a Catholic in Hyderabad, India, Neelam first learned of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from a documentary. But after moving to the United States for a graduate degree at Georgetown, he finally had a chance to meet Latter-day Saints and learn more about the faith.
That happened as residents of his Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House community hosted a Reverse Open House Series group for dialogue to better understand each other, along with informal conversations during lunch.
“Most of us in the community had a stereotype thinking that Mormons are not Christian and are not open to other faith traditions,” Neelam said. “This meeting made us all rethink and was a great learning experience for us in the community on engaging with other faith traditions.”
Briefly about Brown
After growing up in Ogden, Utah, and serving a full-time mission in Taiwan, Brown received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University, the latter with an emphasis on the sociology of religion. Then came employment with Georgetown’s Office of Campus Ministry, with the university’s encouragement of students to participate in some sort of religious community, Brown said.
“We have probably the most robustly staffed and diversely staffed campus ministry in the country,” said Brown, who also is an adjunct faculty member teaching religion at George Mason University and a member of the Friendship Heights YSA Ward in the Washington D.C. YSA North Stake.
Georgetown, she said with a laugh, “is probably the only place where I’ve felt like being from a Latter-day Saint background gave me diversity points — I think they were excited and intrigued that somebody with my background would be interested in interfaith things and in that environment.”
How the series got started
Brown said her interfaith friendships — “with people of other faiths, where faith and spirituality has been something we’ve talked about, something we bond over” — have always been fortifying and “can connect me to others in ways I don’t expect and give me insight into other people’s experiences.”
Last year, Brown participated the international fellows program sponsored by the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for International Interreligious Dialogue, one of the largest interreligious dialogue organizations. She was one of nearly two dozen from around the world who were working in religious education settings, from high schools to higher education to seminaries.
As part of the fellowship, participants had to complete an end-of-year project. Rather than settle for a one-off event, Brown came up with the idea of a series.
“I was thinking about the temple open house and what a really powerful interfaith opportunity that is — people from all sorts of backgrounds coming, visiting and showing curiosity and interest in our sacred space,” she said.
“I was interested in showing reciprocity and in modeling and giving opportunities for other Latter-day Saints to demonstrate a similar kind of curiosity, respect and care for others in our community and to offer both the people and the communities we visit and the Latter-day Saints the opportunity to think about the value of our sacred spaces through a broader interfaith perspective.”
Planned with support of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington and King Abdullah center, the Reverse Open House Series is not sponsored by or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nor directly associated with the Washington D.C. Temple’s open house.
Interacting with other faiths
The Reverse Open House Series started with its first visit to the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, a Sikh gurdwara in Rockville, Maryland, on Nov. 19, 2021 — the day celebrating the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhism.
Guru Nanak was interested in cultivating a community that would welcome people of any caste, creed or race, she said. So, the inaugural visit began with “this faith community that does interfaith things so beautifully, that has it so automatically built into their practice.”
About 50 in number, the visiting group attended a Kirtan service, with prayer and devotional singing of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, the central holy scripture for Sikhs. Visitors covered their heads, removed their shoes and washed their hands, followed by dialogue and questions with Dr. Rajwanr Singh, one of the gurdwara’s founders.
And there was food. “They’re known for offering food to anyone who comes in,” Brown said.
Other visits include:
- The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House. Joining those living a simple, minimalist living and advocacy activity, the series group — numbering just fewer than two dozen because of the small, tighter setting — participated in a discussion and meal. “In a world that’s tarnished by division and hate, the only way to go forward is dialogue, dialogue and dialogue,” said Neelam, who cites Pope Francis’ emphasis on dialogue with open hearts across perspectives and on shared goals that transcend differences while engaging in a common endeavor.
- The Bait-ur-Rehman Mosque. The series event was to visit an Ahmadiyya mosque for a meeting with members of a small modern-day Muslim sect that emerged in Pakistan in the late 19th century. Series visitors — this time only women and girls — were hosted by the community’s women’s organization, which shared about the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
- The Freemason Naval Lodge No. 4. A regional flare-up of the omicron variant of COVID-19 turned a planned visit to the oldest continuously operating Masonic lodge in the District of Columbia into a videoconference dialogue. The lodge has invited the Reverse Open House Series to return for an on-site visit in June.
- The Kesher Israel Congregation. Meeting with the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, the series group participated in evening prayers and a Torah study together at the congregation’s synagogue.
March’s Bahá’í and basilica events
Brown and Gordon planned a March 17 dinner-dialogue event at a local Latter-day Saint meetinghouse to conclude the annual Bahá’í fast. With 30 Bahá’í visitors and 50 hosting Latter-day Saints, questions at each table helped participants engage in faith conversations.
“This space was an excellent opportunity to discuss fasting in both the Bahá’í and LDS traditions as well as with friends from other backgrounds,” said Gordon, adding that participants remarked “how they appreciated the hospitality and time to have spiritual conversations together.”
Some participants have met again to continue conversations about the faiths, with another smaller event planned for the future.
Perhaps the most recognizable name of the series stops is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with the March 19 tour of the national basilica arranged in cooperation with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. The visit coincided with the season of Lent, when Catholics fast and make intentional sacrifices to maintain spiritual focus leading up the Easter holiday.
To Brown, the name recognition of the basilica visit is great and valuable to the series, but it was more of a tour than an interaction and dialogue. “To me, the most valuable ones are the small groups that few knew about, cared about or even noticed they existed.”
On April 23, the Reverse Open House Series will use another Latter-day Saint chapel to host an iftar — the evening meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan — with the Rumi Forum, an Islamic-based community that does interfaith work.
A possible future
Series participation is not limited to Latter-day Saints; individuals of other faiths, including a handful of Georgetown students, have been included.
With a small team of friends meeting weekly to cover the planning and communication efforts, the series is promoted through a website — Reverseopenhouse.org — and Instagram page as well as by a small newsletter and word of mouth to some of the local Latter-day Saint wards.
The original plan was to have the Reverse Open House Series run from November 2021 through May 2022, but with the D.C. temple open house being extended, the series may be extended as well and run parallel to it — and perhaps beyond.
“The longer this goes on, the more I’m thinking maybe we could just reduce the frequency but still continue the series because it’s really valuable,” Brown said. “It’s pretty clear this would be valuable as a sustained program.”
What participants are saying
Owen Bates, a member of the Friendship Heights YSA Ward, grew up in a Latter-day Saint home in Utah where he said understanding other religious traditions — and occasionally attending local Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal and evangelical churches — was a way to develop his own faith.
When the George Washington grad student heard about the Reverse Open House Series, he thought it would be a way to visit a variety of the area’s sacred spaces and broaden his understanding of other religions. In preparation for the Washington D.C. Temple open house, he has reflected about what the temple means to him and has wanted to learn about places where other people worship God.
“I think there is a strength that comes when religious people of all backgrounds come together in unity and show respect for each other’s beliefs,” Bates said. “This whole experience has helped me to see others as children of God and connect in meaningful ways.
“Because of the wonderful people I have met, my own faith has been strengthened, and I have had new insights into the way I live my faith, including through prayer, scripture study and fasting.”
Paige Plucker, a Georgetown undergraduate and recent convert to Judaism, admits to having done quite a bit of interfaith work and says the Reverse Open House Series “has its own kind of magic.” Series conversations with individuals who have never met begin easily, and the hospitality and welcoming are palpable, she added.
“Even when we aren’t at a synagogue, people are interested in my religious beliefs and practices. As a religious minority, I wish that all spaces, especially interfaith ones, had the same warmth that Reverse Open House does,” Plucker said.
“Participating in this series has taught me so much more about the Church, other religions like Sikhism, and even my own faith. I truly hope this series continues, and that Latter-day Saints across the country implement this model of interfaith community building.”
Ixchelle Waite, of the Kensington Ward in the Washington D.C. Stake, joined in series events because she wanted to make more friends with people of different faiths and be better educated about their beliefs.
“From participating in the Reverse Open House Series, I have made lifelong friendships,” Waite said, adding that just that day she had enjoyed a walk with a Bahá’í friend she had met at a series event. “I have found the beauty in diversity from the Reverse Open House Series, and I hope to continue experiencing different religions, peoples and cultures.”
‘Embrace the holy and the sacred’
The Reverse Open House Series is helping to complete a circle of sorts. The visits serve as a reminder to those of other faiths of the upcoming Washington D.C. Temple open house and the rare chance to take a free, public tour.
“It seems to make them more interested in going because now they have this other connection,” Brown said, “and it feels more like a dialogue and a back-and-forth rather than just them coming to see.”
And what does Brown hope her friends and leaders of other faiths can take away from an open-house visit to the D.C. temple?
“I hope it will help people feel more empowered to embrace the holy and the sacred in their lives.”