I have found that there is so much good in people of other faiths and in their beliefs. Building relationships through friendly and open discussions with people of other faiths has worked miracles that I could not foresee.
We as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know that we have some beliefs that are different from others, but when those differences are misunderstood or worse, exaggerated or mischaracterized, it is very concerning to us. We would like to fix those misconceptions, but it is not easy. Once those faulty statements are out there, it is almost impossible to correct them with everyone who has been influenced by them.
Interfaith dialogue can help. The fact is, almost every other faith group has the same problem and concern that we have. They know they have beliefs that others don't agree with, but often those differences are misunderstood or even purposely mischaracterized by others. These situations cause them as much concern as they cause us when people do it to us. As a very sad example, look how the Jews have been maligned over the centuries and how that has resulted in the justification of terrible acts towards them. Joseph Smith said “I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.” (History of the Church, 5:498, from a discourse given on July 9, 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois)
What is interfaith dialogue? It is the practice of charity. One of Steven R. Covey's principles that I love is 'seek first to understand and then seek to be understood.' Or another way to say that is, show charity first before you ask for it. Or “love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39)
When we open our own minds to the problems others experience and sincerely try to fairly and accurately understand their point of view, then they feel loved and appreciated. They may be more willing to understand our issues. We need to show a willingness to listen and understand without the expectation that the favour will be returned because it won’t always be reciprocated. But it is a noble endeavour regardless. Recently a good Catholic friend said, “we need to understand and respect each other’s real differences, instead of the misconceptions of our differences.”
I have learned and seen this cooperation in practice as I have participated in some interfaith groups. I live in Calgary and belong to two groups that aim to foster interfaith cooperation, Abraham's Tent and the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews. There are other interfaith groups that have similar goals in many cities.
Last winter I was asked to come to a mosque and speak to a congregation of Muslims about our Church’s belief in Christ. I told them that they were setting a Christ-like example by seeking to understand me and my beliefs. It was a wonderful experience and I came to feel the love and respect they have for all mankind. They reached out; they set the good example of trying to understand others.
A few months ago, I sat in a meeting with a number of Muslims where they expressed their deep concern about the violence that some people had done in the name of Islam. They felt that the world didn’t understand their faith and that these “radicals”, as they called them, were making it worse. Our group, Abraham’s Tent, is a collection of religious leaders representing faiths that trace their roots back to Abraham and includes Christians, Muslims, Baha’is and Jews. These Muslims told our group how painful it is to them to see their religion and faith thought of so badly. They explained how strongly they decry the use of violence and that they would like to spread the teachings of peace and love taught in the Koran, not the hate that is espoused by some. It helped me feel how frustrated they are and what good people they are at heart. I could see the adversary at work with some who call themselves Muslims. Satan would like the different religions to hate each other, but the real enemy is the hate itself that he spreads. This experience helped me to understand the pain of these good people and to love the Muslim people more and see the good they are trying to do.
Almost two years ago, there was a news report about how a member of our Church in Brazil had done proxy baptisms for the dead for Anne Frank, a famous Jewish Holocaust victim, and other famous Jews. This practice is against current Church policy of only doing the posthumous work for our own relatives. In the past, the Church had told the Jewish community that it would endeavour to stop the practice, but unfortunately it still happened and has caused a big stir in the Jewish community. Many feel that this practice is an insult to their dead. In our meetings of the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews, I offered to explain what happened and answer any questions. I brought up the subject with great trepidation and initially there were some heated comments made, not just by Jewish people, but also by some Christian leaders. The president of the Council intervened and we put the discussion off to a special meeting. To discuss this issue, I was asked to be part of a panel of three people with a prominent Rabbi and the Catholic Diocese representative. The question we addressed was difficult, but we clarified everyone’s position and did it all respectfully. We are all now much better friends and have been able to build on that experience to go on and work well together on many other projects.
Once a year, the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews holds a Holocaust remembrance service that is sponsored by one of the Christian faiths. Last year, the Latter-day Saints were asked and one of the Calgary stakes agreed to sponsor the service. The process of organizing and presenting the event brought the different faith groups closer together and was well supported by all the stakes in Calgary. Over 1000 people attended at the Calgary Stake Centre, including many from the Jewish community. Numerous visitors commented that it was the best one they had attended. This event happened because people of different faiths were willing to work together and appreciate each other. Much goodwill resulted.
Music is another powerful tool that can serve to unite us. I have enjoyed attending an annual Easter music festival in a stake centre in Calgary where many different Christian churches provide choirs. There were more non-members than members filling the stake centre, all united in singing praises to God and feeling good will toward each other.
Another experience I had was when a prominent leader from another Christian church asked if he could speak with me alone. It was a memorable experience for me as we found a quiet place in a Jewish Synagogue where we had been having a meeting. He said that for most of his life, he had fought the idea of cooperating with Latter-day Saints or even calling us Christians. He has come to understand that he was wrong, unchristian and he was planning to change. We have since become good friends and work together well.
I am grateful for the restored gospel and the lessons it teaches about charity and the sweet feelings of love I am learning to feel for and share with God’s children of many faiths.