We refer to it in our family as “the clown episode.” Over a dozen years ago our family visited a collection of rare Bibles open to the public as part of a Sunday service sponsored by Salt Lake City’s Evangelical churches, and my kids quit complaining when they saw balloons in the children’s class. Unfortunately, things went south when the hired clown berated my little boy for mentioning the Book of Mormon in a scripture discussion.
I’ll never know definitively what happened because I was with the adults listening to an excellent lecture on biblical translation. However, to my children’s chagrin, I sympathized with the clown’s dilemma: People of other faiths in Utah have long felt dominated by the LDS majority, and here we were bringing our threatening book of scripture into their territory. Still, the event was open to the public. Couldn’t the clown have been sensitive to various faith traditions that had wandered in, including ours?
While this incident is less egregiously hostile than other interactions I’ve observed between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals over the years, it represents the pointlessness of the acrimony plaguing our two camps for as long as I can remember. But fortunately—some might say miraculously—a series of conversations, meetings, and generous gestures from leaders on both sides have eroded much of the ill will that has divided two good groups of people for too long.
A nascent sign of peacemaking arose in the spring of 2000 when Evangelical and Mormon scholars apprehensively met together on the campus of Brigham Young University. Although wary of each others’ motives, this group fostered a series of discussions that grew, over the years, into a sincere attempt not to merge theology but to understand each others’ beliefs, dispel misrepresentations, and ultimately become what LDS leader Jeffrey R. Holland characterized as “a true form of brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Fence-mending books like How Wide the Divide, by Craig Blomberg and LDS religion professor Stephen Robinson, prefaced this respectful dialogue on an academic level in the 1990s, but an unlikely friendship between BYU religion professor Robert Millet and Evangelical pastor Greg Johnson propelled it forward. Their collaboration laid the groundwork for Evangelical-LDS dialogues, brought Evangelical speakers to general audiences in Utah, and resulted in Standing Together Ministries—a component of which included Millet and Johnson traveling to nationwide audiences and modeling respectful dialogue about religious differences.
You know a serious rapprochement is underway when, recently, the official magazine of the LDS Church,the Ensign, published Elder Holland’s address to a group of national Christian ministers entitled “Standing Together for the Cause of Christ.” In it, he calls the peacemaking initiated in the past decade “a labor of love in which the participants have felt motivated by and moved upon with a quiet force deeper and more profound than a typical interfaith exchange.”
Lay members of the LDS Church like me knew nothing of these conferences, but we have witnessed other compelling developments. In a groundbreaking “Evening of Friendship” in 2004, Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints sat together in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to hear Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias. In introducing him, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw offered this dramatic apology to the Mormon community: “Let me state it clearly. We Evangelicals have sinned against you.” He went on to explain that “It’s a terrible thing to bear false witness . . . We’ve told you what you believe without first asking you.” While Mouw remained firm about theological differences “that are of eternal consequence,” he made the crucial point that “now we can discuss them as friends.”
Both he and Zacharias faced criticism in Evangelical circles. Yet Zacharias responded with gratitude: “The courtesy and graciousness extended to me by every Mormon leader or professor that I came into contact with cannot be gainsaid,” he wrote in a public statement. “My earnest prayer is that the Lord was honored in what happened and that opportunities that come from this event will multiply.”
The opportunities have indeed multiplied. LDS Humanitarian Services has long collaborated with Catholic and other Christian ministries in disaster relief and worldwide alleviation of poverty and disease, and Mormon leaders increasingly call on the Church’s general membership to join in community service and moral causes with those of other faiths. They also continue encouraging Utah Mormons—that benighted fraction of total international membership whom I count myself among—to repent from our sins of insularity, exclusion, and obliviousness to the good that people of other faiths do in our community.
Here in Salt Lake City, we’re listening. Along with adapting to the glare the presidential election relentlessly shines on us, Latter-day Saints are, individually and collectively, tentatively reaching out to others—not just in serving food to the homeless together, but also in lowering our defenses and discovering genuine friendship. I attended one of Millet and Johnson’s traveling presentations a few years ago to an overflow audience at a local Methodist church gym, co-sponsored by a neighboring LDS congregation. Millet, the Mormon academic, dispelled various unfair and naive LDS stereotypes of born-again Christians, and Johnson, the pastor, to my amazement, described LDS beliefs in a respectful way I’d rarely experienced. Past encounters with Evangelical literature and acquaintances had contributed to a subconscious sense that they understood my faith in a way completely unrecognizable to me. But that night, as Mormons, Methodists, and others ate refreshments and cleaned up amid palpable goodwill, I realized that, along with having friends who are Catholic, Protestant, secular, and Hindu, I could be friends with devout Evangelicals, and wanted to be.
It’s taken a while, but I’ve recently become friends with a wonderful Evangelical, ironically a children’s minister for Assemblies of God—our “rivals” when I served as an LDS missionary in Brazil. She and I got to know each other through a neighborhood group of women—LDS, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Evangelical—who came together for dialogue, understanding, and to create a better sense of community here in our Salt Lake City neighborhood. We put on a women’s night that included information booths, humanitarian service, and that old peacemaking standby, food.
Since then, the interaction has taken an unexpected trajectory, with my Evangelical friend and me speaking together in an LDS meeting on “loving my neighbor, despite our doctrinal differences.” The Presbyterian minister in our group, Amy Kim Kyremes-Parks, ended up giving a sermon at her own church describing her journey growing up non-Mormon and alienated in Utah, only to feel God compelling her, Jonah-like, to return as a youth minister for Wasatch Presbyterian Church. At some point, she decided that “love thy neighbor” included loving her LDS neighbors, and she began serving, receiving service from, and genuinely engaging with the Mormon community she now jokingly refers to as “my ward.” LDS leaders in Salt Lake and Provo invited Kyremes-Parks to share the sermon in their meetings, and she invited a few Latter-day Saints, including me, to speak at Christian congregations on loving our neighbor even when our theology differs.
It is a powerful thing, we discovered in each other’s churches, to be embraced by people with tears in their eyes who have connected with you as a fellow child of God after years of suspicion and presumption. Through experiences like these and friendships with people of other faiths, I have come to understand better the appellation Jesus gave to peacemakers: “children of God.” In his address to national Christian leaders, Elder Holland powerfully encapsulates the purpose of sincere interfaith efforts:
To be sure, there is a risk associated with learning something new about someone else. New insights always affect old perspectives, and thus some rethinking, rearranging, and restructuring of our worldviews is inevitable. When we look beyond people’s color, ethnic group, social circle, church, synagogue, mosque, creed, and statement of belief, and when we try our best to see them for who and what they are—children of the same God—something good and worthwhile happens within us, and we are thereby drawn into a closer union with that God who is the Father of us all.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer specializing in family and religious issues and lives in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elder Holland’s talk, “Standing Together for the Cause of Christ”
Richard Mouw and Ravi Zacharias at the Salt Lake Tabernacle
Evangelicals, Mormons Search for Common Ground in Utah
Ravi Zacharias Defends Decision to Speak at Mormon Tabernacle
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