Interreligious education is not about the God you worship, it is about discovering common goals
It almost goes without saying that to be a university president, it’s not enough just to be respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, but to have expanding religious diversity—as well as ethnic, cultural, gender, and class diversity—at the core of your administrative principles. I certainly do; especially being president of a university like CGU, which resides in one of the most diverse regions on the planet. There is no question that diversity makes a university stronger, but as scholars we are morally and intellectually obligated to open our doors to everyone.
And the more we learn about our neighbors of all stripes, the more effective we will be at greeting them with open arms in a way that ensures they will want to greet us back. This is the spirit that traveled with me to Utah in November— along with CGU School of Religion (SOR) Dean Tammi Schneider; Claremont Lincoln University President Jerry Campbell; and University of Southern California Dean and Associate Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni and Jim Burklo, respectively—to better understand Mormonism, a religion I wanted to learn more about.
I’m not alone in being curious about Mormonism. Many Americans know little-to-nothing about it, which sometimes makes it easy for suspicion to set in. Some think of it as a cult, a fact that can make life very difficult for Mormons. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the person who wrestles with this most visibly, has to downplay his religious beliefs on the campaign trail. This is a shame because if people could see what I saw—how Mormons care for people all over the world, how they get people back to work—their feelings toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) would be very different. In fact, I bet they would realize, like I did, that we share many common goals.
We were invited to Utah by the Southern California LDS Church, in part as a response to the enterprising work being done by CGU’s Council of Mormon Studies. The council is an amazing asset, and I am so grateful for their commitment to CGU. According to their website, “The Council seeks to foster interest in the academic study of the traditions descended from Joseph Smith among both insiders and outsiders in a context where many religious traditions are studied alongside of and in relation to one another.” They sponsor lectures and conferences, and consult with SOR to develop courses and programs. Most notably, they set up the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies, which helped us add Professor Patrick Mason to the SOR faculty, a top scholar who has significantly raised the profile of our program nationwide.
On our trip to Utah, it was apparent that because just about everyone knows of Professor Mason and his work, they now know about CGU—and they were grateful for our commitment to study all religious traditions. It would be no overstatement to say we were treated like royalty every minute of our trip.
We began our visit in Provo, where we were warmly greeted by Steve and Judy Gilliland, who are representatives from the Southern California LDS Church, as well as our guides for our time in Utah. They accompanied us everywhere we went, made all of our arrangements, and answered our many questions. We came to really love the Gillilands, and thank them so much for their hospitality.
In Provo we visited the campus of Brigham Young University (BYU), where we met with numerous faculty, administrators, and President Cecil O. Samuelson. BYU has a beautiful campus and is a tremendous university full of extraordinary scholars and people. The same goes for Utah Valley University, where we spent a lovely afternoon with the Vice-President for Academic Affairs in the Office of Engaged Learning and Professor of Philosophy Brian Birch, a CGU SOR alum and great guy doing great work.
To end the first day we visited the largest of the LDS Missionary Training Centers, which can accommodate up to 3,800 young men and women to ready them before they embark on their up to two-year missions. Later, we arrived at Temple Square in Salt Lake City and toured the Museum of Church History and the Museum of Families, and attended a rehearsal of the LDS Tabernacle Choir, which just blew me away. It was such a treat, and took me back to my youth in New York, where I grew up listening to the choir on the radio. The second day we visited two absolutely incredible centers through which the LDS Church does its most impressive humanitarian work.
The LDS Humanitarian Services Center is remarkable. It is a massive operation that assembles relief supplies such as food and medicine to be shipped around the world to places in need. Moreover, they had classrooms where they were teaching job skills to immigrants living in Utah, despite them not being members of the church.
Similarly, the Bishops Storehouse helps Mormons (and sometimes even non-Mormons) who are in need get back on their feet and get a job. First off, they have their own massive grocery store—almost like their own Target—except they make their own cheese, pasta, and soups, and have their own dairy operation. Anyone who is a member of the Church and in need—because they can’t feed their family, or they lost their job, etc.—they go to their local bishop who has coupons for the store to buy clothes and food. The Church takes self-reliance very seriously, so the bishop would ask that all individuals volunteer in order to earn the coupons. Additionally, these individuals would be enrolled in a job-training program where they are placed in positions in the Church to learn new skills and be coached on employment strategies.
I found the LDS’s care of community remarkable. Welfare and food stamps are public programs in the US, but the LDS Church administers them privately. If only Mitt Romney could talk more openly about his faith, and how it regards community and the common man, the conversation might lead to some really interesting bi-partisan solutions with Democrats. After all, their goals are the same.
This was a main topic of conversation on our last night as we ate a fabulous dinner at the old Hotel Utah, which is in Temple Square and has amazing views of all the magnificent buildings that line the Square on one side and the mountains of the Wasatch Range on the other. The dinner was hosted by several members of the Seventy, a governing body within the Church made up of men with no special divinity training, but who had all enjoyed prominent careers in various professions. When appointed, they give up their careers to serve until they turn 70. We had an incredible conversation and it was a truly lovely evening I won’t forget.
Throughout the weekend I was struck by the generosity of the people I met, all of whom were inspired by their God to volunteer for the Church they love in service to others. Yet, this is precisely the kind of generosity I have witnessed over and over by Muslims, Jews, Christians, other persons of faith, and atheists and agnostics. The common purpose of helping, and making the world a better place is a bond we all share regardless of the god we believe in. The sooner we realize our common goals, the sooner we will reach them together.
Deborah A. Freund
Special thanks to Steve and Judy Gilliland for providing the photos for this piece.