For months prior to the open house of the Washington D.C. Temple, Diana Brown led a unique group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and friends on a different kind of open house tour. The group visited sacred sites of other faiths in an effort to learn and foster interreligious relationships.
Diana is the assistant director of interreligious engagement at Georgetown University and a Latter-day Saint. She joins the Church News podcast to talk about this “Reverse Open House” and how Latter-day Saints can strengthen relationships with friends, neighbors and community members through interfaith interactions.
Diana Brown: I think that the “Reverse Open House” series was an opportunity to make the temple open house a reciprocal exchange, to demonstrate to others that as they’re coming into our space, showing curiosity and interest and openness, that we have that towards them as well. So, also, we want to come and learn about you and we want to let you broaden our understanding of what the sacred is, and who God is, and the role of faith in our lives. And I really have a testimony of that expansive understanding of God’s family, that the gospel invites us to see, to believe in and to enhance that sense of shared humanity.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For months prior to the open house of the Washington D.C. Temple, Diana Brown led a unique group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a different kind of open house tour. The group visited sacred sites of other faiths in an effort to learn and foster interreligious relationships. Diana is the assistant director of interreligious engagement at Georgetown University and a Latter-day Saint. She joins the Church News podcast today to talk about this “Reverse Open House”. Diana, welcome to the podcast.
Diana Brown: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, why don’t we just jump right in and have you tell us: What was this reverse temple open house and how did this idea come about, especially in connection with the open house for the Washington D.C. Temple?
Diana Brown: I have been working on interreligious initiatives and programs at Georgetown University for several years, so I have a background in that. And then the past year, I’ve been doing an interreligious dialogue fellowship with an organization based in Lisbon, Portugal, and as part of that, I needed to complete a project. And about the time I was sort of flummoxed on what I wanted to do, they announced that the open house was finally happening after being delayed due to the pandemic. It just fell into place instantly there. I was like, “I need to do something around this. How do we make the temple open house a reciprocal interreligious engagement opportunity?”
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and that has to actually play into more of a theological philosophy for you. Is there some background or some thoughts or some experiences you had that led you in that direction?
Diana Brown: Definitely. I think that from just my earliest years in studying the gospel, I’ve always been really struck by the idea that God is a God of all people, and we have so many scriptures and teachings attesting to that: 2 Nephi 29, talking about a day when all of God’s people will share the books that He commanded them to write in different parts of the world, and they’ll all bring their books together and have them together; or Joseph Smith’s truly expansive vision for what the gospel was to be. It just always felt so grand to me, and I always just had this conviction from a young age that the gospel should not be about people within the walls of the Church. It should be somehow about the whole world and somehow speaking to that. And not just by way of conversion — that’s often the model I think we think of when we think about our relationships with non-members — but somehow this should be something that is speaking to the entire world in a deeper sense of that; and Joseph Smith, he has a quote where he says one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may. And I’ve always just been really struck by that.
I’ve had friendships over the years, particularly a Muslim family when I was living in South Bend, Indiana, for a year, that just kind of took me under their wing. I didn’t know a soul when I lived there, and they invited me to their house frequently. I was often there when they were praying; during Ramadan, their fasting month, they would invite me to their break the fast meals; and it was such a profound experience to be that close to people with a deep commitment to their faith. It made me wake up, I think, to thinking differently about what religion was and what a committed, devoted life was about and what it could look like. So, kind of on a theological level, I just have always felt whatever the gospel is getting at, it has to be really big and expansive, and I just have a hard time seeing how people of other faiths aren’t relevant, and not simply as potential converts, but as people who can teach me things and teach me to see my own religion better and more clearly, and I think that’s definitely been my personal experience.
On a more practical note, I’ve had really great experiences in my job at Georgetown, and really surprising experiences, too. Georgetown is a Catholic Jesuit university, and their approach to being a religious university is very much in line with the Jesuit values: we want to nurture the whole person, which includes the spiritual identity of every student who comes, and one of the things I really focused on in my job is actually working with most of the non-Catholic students and helping them be connected to resources, community learning opportunities so that they can grow in their understanding of themselves spiritually in whatever path they are currently on. And I run an interreligious program highlighting contemplative practices from different traditions. For example, that I’ve really been struck by the interest in that. I think a lot of people think that when you go to college, the typical model is, then you’re all of a sudden out of your mom and dad’s house, you could do whatever you want, you’re exposed to all of these new ideas, and the family religion goes out the window. And my experience at Georgetown has taught me that if you can create spaces for people to engage in religion and spirituality on terms that resonate with them, there’s actually immense spiritual curiosity and interest in spiritual questions. I’ve just been kind of surprised with the way I’ve been able to play with creating different types of spaces at Georgetown. You can get people into the room that you wouldn’t think would be there, and we have students all the time that come through and say, “I initially thought I had wanted nothing to do with Judaism as soon as I left home, and now I realize I actually do want Judaism to be an enduring part of my life,” or whatever their faith tradition is, and that’s just really stuck with me.
There’s so much talk about the world growing more secular and people leaving religion, and I just don’t think that that does justice to where people are at. I find, even in the younger generation, which, on paper, looks like the generation that’s least likely to affiliate with religion — again, with them, I find working with college students, just that there’s an immense sensitivity to their interiority. They’re asking really brave, deep questions about who they are, and what their role in the world is. They want strong answers to that, and they’re curious, and they’re willing to learn. And there are things that turn them off about religious spaces, they don’t want to feel like they’re drowning in, somebody preaching to them without listening. They want to feel like they’re interiority has a space here, and that they can show up as their whole self and things like that.
Anyway, I guess all of this is just leading to this realization that if you can creatively create spaces that meet people at the terms that they want to engage in, there is so much more interest in spirituality and religion than you would think. And I guess how that relates to the reverse Open House series: This was kind of a creative endeavor. I haven’t seen anything exactly like this occurring, but I kind of took, as a model, some things that I’ve done at Georgetown with students there, in terms of thinking about, “OK, what are the obstacles to people showing up and feeling safe and having conversations about spiritual topics, and how do we creatively make space for those obstacles to dissipate here so that people can engage?” And yeah, this was basically just an experiment in that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, well, I totally appreciate that coming from you. As I was looking at all of your professional background: you have undergraduate and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University, I was also intrigued that you’d served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan. Tell us what you learned from visiting and talking to people of other faiths and actually stepping onto their sacred spaces?
Diana Brown: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think, engaging with particularly more conservative religious groups, it often reminds me of one of the things that I truly think Latter-day Saints have to offer the world that I think goes often underappreciated, which is just understanding of what it’s like to be feared, and to feel different from people around you, because my sense going into these spaces is that people just feel really relieved and grateful that somebody wants to learn about them, and that somebody isn’t turned off by the fact that they have different restrictions on what they wear or eat or drink or say or who they can marry. And when modern-day Saints walk into a space, I’ve sensed that people feel relieved that there’s somebody who wants to learn about them, somebody who’s open to them, and that there’s people who don’t judge them for the ways that they diverge from mainstream society. And so, I think that Latter-day Saints have a lot to offer different communities that way, and that, yes, there’s so much to learn about the history of their traditions and the meaning of what they do when they gather; and yet, there’s also just so many friendships to be forged, unlikely friendships that don’t necessarily have a lot of space to take shape, unless we create them like this.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So why don’t you tell us just practically, what did the Reverse Open House look like? How did you organize it, what did you do, and how did you choose places to visit?
Diana Brown: So it hasn’t been a one-person show. I immediately knew when I started thinking about this that I needed a team to support, and so I thought of a couple of friends who have been really impactful on me in encouraging different projects like this, friends that have worked on similar things within the past. And so, anyway, we kind of assembled a team, we talked about our vision, and then we started reaching out to different places.
There was a lot of work and care that went into selecting the types of spaces we wanted to visit, and then actually crafting the visit. So it’s hard to understate the amount of work that goes into each visit beforehand. Just to think, again, “How do we really shape this space so that the people have the right type of experience? They don’t show up and feel talked to, or they don’t show up and feel like I don’t understand what they’re talking about. This community uses a totally different type of lingo. How do we prepare people to feel comfortable engaging this way?” So there’s just a lot of conversations that we had with the leaders and the representatives of other faiths before we even got in the same room.
And then thinking about how we would advertise this to members on different platforms, and help them feel comfortable coming excited about coming, sharing enough about this group that we’re visiting so that they could feel prepared when they show up and even have questions formed already. That’s just to say there was a lot of work that went on even before we ever parked in the parking lot.
We wanted there to be a strong experiential component. So I think a lot of interfaith spaces tend to focus on belief and truth claims: “Oh, well, what do you think of the divinity of Jesus?” Or, “What is the sacrament to you? Is this literally the blood of Jesus Christ, or is this just a symbol?” Just sort of quibbles over truth claims; and based on my experience, the interfaith exchanges that have been most impactful to me — and again, based on what I’ve seen work with the students at Georgetown — if people just want to come in, and they want to feel something.
And I think back to why a sacred space is really offered. It’s not just a place to get new content for your mind, it’s a space to just reorient your relationship to life, to other people; and so I really wanted every visit to have a strong experiential component. And by that, I mean: I wanted us to be in services together, meditating together, praying together, singing together, actually doing things. So we tried to have a component like that in every visit, certainly an educational and dialogue component, it is nevertheless extremely helpful to have somebody from that community being able to say, “Here’s what we do in this room. And in this room we do this, and here’s what this means, and here’s the book that we’re reading from and where it comes from.” And so an educational component was necessary as well.
And then food, which is not just a nice draw. I think food and shared meals are sacred and holy. It’s just kind of this, “We’re all embodied beings, and here we are, breaking bread together.” So it wasn’t possible — for every event that were possible, we did like to share a meal.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow. So what did you learn about sacred spaces in the process?
Diana Brown: I think if you pulled a lot of people and had them name sacred spaces, I think that most people would name, “Oh, a mosque or a church or I saw this really cool building downtown,” or whatever. With this series, I kind of wanted to move away from thinking about sacred spaces as prominent buildings, and thinking about them more as, again, what happens inside. And when people walk into a space, how are they transformed? And thinking about it more in terms of that.
So we prioritized spaces that had strong communities going there. For example, one of our site visits was to the National Basilica, which is a gorgeous building in D.C. I think it’s the largest Catholic space in the United States. That’s a sacred space, right? And it’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. The art is incredible. But that visit I think was actually kind of the odd one out. Most of the time what we wanted to prioritize was spaces that are sacred because normal ordinary people go there weekly or daily or monthly, or however often it is, seeking to be transformed. They go there with their questions, they go there with their insecurities, they go there with their families, or by themselves, or whatever it is, but showing up authentically, ready to be shaped and reshaped by whatever those spaces offer. So, I really grew in an appreciation for that transformative aspect of spaces as what makes them sacred, rather than the majesty of their art or architecture alone. And, in fact, some of the spaces that we visited were quite plain and not as notable architecturally or artistically, but I think that that’s kind of what I learned about sacred spaces, is their capacity to do that, and thinking about how to plan this series was an opportunity to kind of actually redefine to myself what the sacred means, in that sense.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So how was the series received, not only by the people who joined you, by Latter-Day Saints who said, “Let’s go visit these spaces,” but by the people you visited?
Diana Brown: It’s gone really well. I think that I’ve sensed lots of different things. Again, people feel really grateful. I think people feel really relieved that somebody wants to learn about them, and some people felt very surprised. In particular: I remember after our visit with a modern orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, which is a neighborhood in Washington D.C. The rabbi and a couple of the facilitators who had helped us arrange this visit, they just kept remarking how surprised they were at how well it went. I think they were — I don’t know what they were anticipating, honestly — but I think they were just very surprised that all of these Latter-day Saints showed up and knew a lot more about, actually, about the Torah than they were anticipating, and were actually quite good at scripture study. I think Latter-day Saints, we sometimes don’t give ourselves enough credit for how much, truly, literacy is really encouraged, and daily study, and that’s something that the Jewish community really, really excels at. Anyway, so I think they were a little bit surprised that we could meet them more on their level than they thought that we would, and just the people were just excited to be there. But, anyway, they just kept remarking that they were really surprised at how well it went, and how excited and enthusiastic people were for the Torah study that we did together.
Some of these communities — so, for instance, the visit to the Sikh gurdwara, a lot of these people are first, second, third-generation immigrants. But have always had this sense that, “We’re a people, our religion comes from this part of the world, we’re in diaspora,” have always had a sense of, there’s kind of a division between them and white Christian America, right? And so I think having people who maybe represent part of that history come and show up and want to sit at their feet and learn. I wouldn’t want to put words in their mouth or speak for them, but I could tell that they’re just grateful that people are showing up and wanting to honor where they come from, and what they have to teach us and letting whatever kind of subtle power dynamics are often operative. If we’re a diaspora community in an American context, just flipping that. And so I think that’s been meaningful.
Often people have wanted, “Oh, can you record this little message that we’re going to put on our YouTube channel to go out to the Sikh community?” That’s something they want me to do afterwards, for example; or this Muslim group that we did an Iftar meal with afterwards, they wanted several people in our group to do testimonials. And I think just this idea of saying, “Look, look at these interesting people who want to learn about us,” I have sensed that there’s been excitement about that. So overall, I feel like with the communities that we’ve worked with, it’s just been very well received and people have been very appreciative of the earnestness with which Latter-day Saints have shown up to learn.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I’m so intrigued by this idea that, when possible, you actually had a meal with them, that you took the time to break bread with them. It’s such an important part of our culture. Tell me, what did that look like in actual practice?
Diana Brown: It’s a good question, because COVID made this a different kinds of story for each event. I mean, one of the best meals we had was certainly langar, the Sikh gurdwara, and langar is a tradition that’s been really important to the Sikh faith since its founding 500, 600 years ago; and it’s one of their fundamental principles, is that they should welcome everyone into the gurdwara regardless of their religion, their race, their caste — and this is in an Indian context — and that a gurdwara, which is their sacred space, should be everybody’s sacred space in a way it should be open to everyone. And so they offer a free meal to anybody who walks in and then you can go to any gurdwara in the world. And, I’m sure just logistically, they all have slightly different operating procedures, but that is part of what a gurdwara offers is a free meal to anyone who walks in. So anyway, it’s a beautiful practice. They’ll usually lay out a tarp on the floor, and people can sort of sit in rows on either side of the tarp, and they’ll have volunteers in the kitchen cooking large, large amounts of food. And then they’ll have volunteers who serve the food and pails, they’ll just come by with a giant pail of lentils or paneer, or whatever it is, and rice and put it onto your plate. As you’re sitting on either side of the tarp, they’ll walk up and down the tarp — I don’t know if that visual is working — but it’s really such a beautiful practice. Sitting there, we had langar with the Sikh community, as part of our visit.
One of the first mosque visits we did, this was at the height of Omicron, so we just had to-go boxes. One of our events, we had to move on to Zoom so we obviously didn’t have food there. But then at the more recent ones — it’s been the fasting month for the Baháʼí community, and in March, it was the Baháʼí fasting month, and then right now we’re still in middle of Ramadan. So both for the Baháʼí community and for our Muslim community that we partnered with, we actually held these events at LDS chapels, and we provided the food for them and just kind of said, “Come here, you can break your fast.” So for both of these communities, they fast from sunrise to sunset. For Baháʼís, it’s 19 days; for Muslims, for the duration of the month of Ramadan, so it ends up being longer. And so that’s partly why we decided to do it in our spaces, was just as a show of hospitality and not wanting them to need to put work into it and then invite us, and many, many groups are willing to do that, actually, but we wanted to just offer that as a show of hospitality. So that was a really meaningful thing too, and then it gave us an opportunity to talk about fasting, and the kind of sacrifice and commitment that that takes. And this definitely, the dinner took on a special meaning for those days.
Sarah Jane Weaver: It sounds like, as you met with people, as you were able to talk about things that are important to them, that you found, in the process, that there’s a lot of things that we have in common. You know, President Russell M. Nelson has said many times that when we’re dealing with other people, more connects us than divides us. Is that something that you discovered in this process?
Diana Brown: Yes, and I believe that not just as something that is true in a, “Oh, who knew we have this in common?” Like kind of a day-to-day sense, but I also believe in that deeply as a practice, that I think whenever we’re approaching someone, regardless of religion or not or whatever, that we should always just be believing that we can deeply relate to each other if we try, and if we try to figure that out.
I didn’t actually plan to bring this up, but one of the quotes that I often think about from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is actually in Preach My Gospel, that I’ve thought about so many times since my mission, is that basically this idea that if you really try to thoughtfully, prayerfully approach someone, there will always be something in their experience, as you’re listening to them, that will relate to something in the gospel. And I just really strongly believe that, and I think that it’s not just that we have things in common. I think that engaging with other faith communities can help us understand what faith is really about. I just think that there’s so much we can see more clearly in our own practices, and in terms of the question of why we do this, that I think interfaith engagement can really give us a powerful lens on that. So yeah, it’s not just that we have things in common, and it’s not just that it just shared humanity, it’s also just that we need each other to understand ourselves.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to talk about this in context with the Washington D.C. Temple. The temple first opened in 1974. It closed in 2018 for some significant mechanical, electrical plumbing upgrades, and then when it was ready to open, the COVID-19 pandemic sort of delayed that opening. And now, the open house is finally here, and we have the opportunity to invite friends and neighbors and anyone who has seen that iconic temple from the Capital Beltway for so many years to come inside. How did visiting other people’s sacred spaces help you invite people to your own sacred space?
Diana Brown: Again, I’ve never felt comfortable with a way of thinking about my faith as just about me and other Latter-day Saints. I’ve always just felt so strongly like this should be something that makes us better citizens of the world and makes us better to other people regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation. And I think that the Reverse Open House series was an opportunity to make the temple open house a reciprocal exchange, and to demonstrate to others that as they’re coming into our space showing curiosity and interest and openness, that we have that towards them as well. I think a lot of people associate the temple with exclusivity and secrecy, and they see the spires from the beltway, and they think, “That’s gorgeous, but I can’t go inside.” And, obviously, the open house disrupts that and allows them to come, but I think the Reverse Open House series is attempting to take it even a step further and say, “Not only can you come inside for this, but also we want to come and learn about you, and we want to let you broaden our understanding of what the sacred is, and who God is, and the role of faith in our lives.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: And this open house for the Washington D.C. Temple, plus your Reverse Open House, also come in a very unique time in the history of the Church. I know many of the leaders of the Church are very concerned about religious freedom, about religious liberty, they want to be able to have an opportunity to make sure that people can worship the way that they want to worship, and they’re talking a lot. You know, during the temple open house, we did an interview with Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and he said, “This is a time in history when anyone who feels accountable to God should work together.” Did this experience of visiting other people’s faiths give you an appreciation for religion in general?
Diana Brown: Yeah, definitely. I think you said that better than I could have. Absolutely. And again, going back to, as we were kind of whittling down what makes spaces sacred — I think that, looking across religions, we just see things that you can’t see if you’re only looking at your own. And my appreciation for religion, I think, comes from my awareness that these are spaces that that lift us out of our default ways of thinking and are sort of more based, looking for hedonistic ways of thinking and continually try to reshape and reorient us towards the good and towards better ways of thinking and helps us refine our impulses, and refine ourselves as individuals. And yeah, that’s what I appreciate about religious spaces, and there’s many spaces that aren’t necessarily religious that attempt to do similar things, and I think that’s one of the outcomes of this series for me, as well as thinking about spaces we might not think of as religious but are doing that work as well, and that those too can be sacred.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I hope that everyone will actually take this as an invitation to look around them, and see what sacred spaces are in their own communities, that they might be able to learn and grow and develop some own interreligious activities that could build and strengthen communities of faith. Anyone who’s interested in the D.C. Temple open house can find information about tickets at DCTemple.org. And then, Diana, did any of the places you visited accept an invitation to come and visit your sacred space?
Diana Brown: Oh, definitely, both on an organizational level, and then I know that there have been individuals that have met through our events that they’ve gone as a small group. We have a woman come to several of our events, she just really hit it off with a few people at our Baháʼí break the fast dinner, and a couple days after the event, I ran into them downtown. And they were like, “Oh, hey, the person who brought us it helped bring us together,” and they were just hanging out. And I know they went to the temple open house together as well. So there’s examples like that. There’s also just a couple of the organizations that asked us to help plan a time for them to go and things like that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, as we conclude the podcast today, we always have a tradition at the Church News podcast, and we ask all of our guests the same question, and we like to give them the last word. So as we conclude today, I want to ask you the question we ask everyone, which is, “What do you know now?” So Diana, what do you know now after organizing the reverse temple open house, and visiting so many meaningful, sacred spaces in the Washington D.C. area?
Diana Brown: So I guess what I know is that if we trust that people really do have this spiritual core where they’re asking really similar questions about who we are and how we ought to live and how to relate to life and to God, if we trust that there’s some common core questions, and that the problem is not that people are disinterested in them, the problem is that we need spaces that really resonate and honor those questions on the terms and in the language that people are thinking about them. Then we see that the crisis is not that people are secular and uninterested in spirituality or religion, and the crisis is not that the world is just evil and there’s no way to come together. It’s just, how do we gather, and how do we create spaces that allow people’s spiritual journeys and experiences to truly be honored and recognized, and do justice to people’s spiritual realities?
And that I’m very grateful for my understanding of the gospel and the way that it encourages me to think expansively about myself and my role in the world and what I can do with my one life. I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had in different callings, and that have helped me to feel both empowered to bring my gifts and talents to the challenges that I see people in my life dealing with everyday, and then also coupling that with guidance from God and knowing that both of those things together, both are practical know-how about how to get things done. And then also just ultimately, the mission and a sense of being guided and led and listening.
I feel like my testimony often takes — the verb I feel most comfortable using and that just feels most natural to me is one of gratitude, that I feel so thankful for these things. I’m thankful for my mission experience that just continually put me in positions with people sitting next to strangers on the bus that I had no business, as a 21-year-old white American girl, knowing or talking to, but having that experience over and over again of finding people so different from me relevant to me and me relevant to them and finding just unexpected, surprising connections with people so different for me. And I really have a testimony of that expansive understanding of God’s family, that the gospel invites us to see, to believe in, and to create and to enhance that sense of shared humanity.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.