Bahai News - Panel Wants to Show the World Utah's Religious Diversity

Panel Wants to Show the World Utah's Religious Diversity

In March, a frustrated Mitt Romney trotted out 15 non-Mormon boosters of the 2002 Winter Olympics, thrusting flutes of champagne into their hands.

"These are not the Mormon Games," declared the Mormon president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Then, toasting Utah's religious and cultural diversity, he hoisted his own glass of . . . orange juice.

That, obviously, remains to be seen. The final judgment will not ride on a hastily called televised sip of the fruit of the vine -- or juice of the fruit, in Romney's case -- aimed at deflating the media's use of the hated moniker.

Enter SLOC's own Interfaith Roundtable, which has been laboring quietly, behind the scenes, for nearly four years, to unify majority and minority religious figures in serving the needs of Olympic athletes and visitors of all faiths.

"Will these be the Mormon Olympics or the Interfaith Olympics? We're hoping it will the Interfaith Olympics, that the community has come together to host these Games," said round-table Chairwoman Jan Saeed.

"My own appointment is a good example of trying to show the unity of people of different faiths in this community coming together," said Saeed, whose own Baha'i sect has only a handful of followers in Utah. "We want to show that we all are good, civic-minded people."

She is charged with overseeing the efforts of a panel including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and, yes, representatives of the 7 out of 10 Utahns who are at least nominally Mormons.

It will be through round-table programs -- an Olympic chaplains corps, interfaith services and counseling, housing for families of some Olympic athletes through volunteer hosts from many area churches -- that the 2002 Winter Games will reveal its spiritual welcome.

"We want to show that we have people here of many faiths and that people of many faiths visiting here will be cherished," Saeed said.

Elaine Emmi, representing Salt Lake City area Quakers on the panel, said she, too, is confident that once the tens of thousands of Olympic visitors arrive, they "will find that our community welcomes them in many ways.

"I'm from a small religious group, so I have been particularly impressed with how everyone on the round table has a voice of their own," she said. "In fact, the LDS members -- though they represent the majority [in Utah] -- have tended to be quiet and let others speak out."

The Rev. Jerry Hirano of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple said he has "been very impressed that as strong as the LDS Church is in Utah, they have been very careful in how they are involved so as to not overwhelm the other groups."

Ray Beckham, an LDS Church representative on the round table, says the panel's unity was forged during the past four years.

"At first, we were a little wary of each other and our meetings were rather formal," he said. "As we got better acquainted, got some subcommittees going, we just got closer, and as you get to know people, you become friends with them."

As a Mormon, Beckham said he has tried to approach other round- table members with a smile, open ears and, sometimes, a closed mouth.

"I remember when we began meeting, others would refer to the LDS Church as the elephant in the room," he said. "We're just big, so we had to be careful where that elephant stepped . . . . We are there to cooperate, listen and help."

And working together has become a habit Beckham hopes round table members will find hard to break. "We want to establish that legacy beyond the Games," he said.

Saeed says Beckham is not the only one who wants to see the panel survive long after the Olympics.

"When you are working together, you aren't focusing as much on who or what God is, what form the afterlife takes, or what is the essence of the human soul," she said. "We are learning from each other and bringing ourselves together."

bmims@sltrib.com


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