Community Bridging Dialogues

    Softening the Great Divide(s) in Utah: A True Story…

“It’s time to start healing the wounds of the state.” – Jon Huntsman, Alliance for Unity co-founder

When Steve Morris and Mark Owens faced a professional conflict in 2003 involving religious differences, they were inclined to do what’s easiest for any of us in a similar situation:  avoid it (and hope it goes away!)

Instead, Steve and Mark did something gutsy.  They turned towards it – giving it tender and heart-felt exploration…Twelve years later, they and their group of colleagues lead Utah’s longest-standing community dialogue initiative focused on what they call “healing the great divide(s)” in our state.

Before telling you more of their super-interesting history, we want to make sure to let you know that you’re personally INVITED to participate in their next community discussion – held monthly on the 4th Wednesday of the month from 8-10:00 a.m. at the Law & Justice Center (headquarters of the Utah State Bar – 645 South 200 East, in downtown Salt Lake City). If you’re certain to be there, please RSVP in advance to Sherry Zemlick (, so they can be prepared for whomever comes.

The idea of talking sensibly and generously across difference, of course, is nothing new. Ever since our human parents walked out of their Cave (or Garden, depending on your worldview), we’re pretty sure there have virtually always been BIG disagreements to explore.

This is true of Utah as well – and its modern settlers.  Ever since Joseph Smith helped initiate a religious community with BIG claims, there have been ongoing tensions with others who couldn’t accept those convictions.  Prior to their migration to Utah, tensions exacerbated to the point of rape, eviction and eventually Joseph Smith’s own murder. Ten years after the Mormon exodus to Utah, U.S. soldiers were even sent to quell what some had convinced President Buchanan was a “rebellion” in what became known as the Utah War.

Over 150 years later, although troops are no longer marching around Temple Square, it’s easy to sometimes wonder if war is still afoot. From gay rights protesters marching around the temple iPolitical-Polarizationn 2010, to our competing newspapers alternatively praising and slamming Mormon culture (daily), to the low-level tensions many neighbors continue to carry, Utah has its own unique ‘brew’ of our nation’s socio-political animosity.

Like the toxic air we sometimes have to breathe, it’s this socio-cultural toxicity that has compelled a handful of people over recent decades to roll up their sleeves and actually DO something about it.  Because we think these folks are pretty darn great, we wanted to tell you a little more of their story…convey in Three Acts (like all great dramas). [Note:  this account below is provided for those intrigued by these developments (a comprehensive history of which is hard to find); if this isn’t your thing, no worries.  If and when it feels interesting, you’re welcome to join us at the REAL THING].

 Secular/Religious Dialogue in Utah:  Three Big Moments in Recent History

alliance for unity1. Alliance for Unity, 2001 –  Even before 9/11 compelled the nation towards a pursuit of unity, two political opposites in Utah came to the same realization. Industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr. (active Mormon and Republican) and former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson (a Democrat and former Mormon), brought together community leaders of many faiths, ethnic backgrounds and community interests to discuss “troubling divisions that are keeping it from obtaining its full potential.”

The original membership of the Alliance included 16 additional members: Community activists Robert “Archie” Archuleta & Pamela Atkinson; Religious leaders Elder M. Russell Ballard (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Reverend France Davis (Calvary Baptist Church), Reverend Carolyn Irish (Episcopal Church) & The Most Reverend George H. Niederauer (8th Catholic Bishop of Salt Lake City -now Archbishop Emeritus); Journalists John Hughes (Former Editor, Deseret News), James “Jay” Shelledy (Editor, Salt Lake Tribune – now Communications Professor, LSU) & Shelley Thomas (Former KSL-TV Anchor, Smith’s Food and Drug Inc); Business leaders Spencer F. Eccles (Chairman emeritus, Wells Fargo Bank), Charles E. Johnson (Managing Director of Tano Capital), Harris H. Simmons (Former CEO, Zion’s Bank – Now Chairman of the Board, Zion’s Bank) and other civic leaders: Esther R. Landa (Former President of the National Council of Jewish Women), Judge Raymond Uno (Retired judge, Japanese American Citizens League, JACL), Dr. J. Bernard Machen (Former President, University of Utah), Norma Matheson (former First Lady of Utah).

As a group, they deliberated over a “statement of purpose” that called Utahns to “nurture a deeper respect for our differences” – and adding, “We seek to help build a community where differing viewpoints are acknowledged and valued. Differences need to be aired, and problems resolved, in an atmosphere of courtesy, respect and civility. What separates a healthy, diverse community from a divided one is the level of respect and understanding of our differences.” They concluded: hp_brand

Our Alliance for Unity will seek ways to bring people together for the benefit of all. We will encourage specific projects of common purpose. Our overriding goal is to help people cross boundaries of culture, religion and ethnicity to better understand and befriend one another. This will be an ongoing and long-term endeavor.We invite all Utahns to join us, person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood, in bringing together all people for the common good. 

These leaders subsequently took this statement as a kind of proclamation across Utah to their different communities.  For instance, Catholic Bishop George Niederauer, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, wrote a letter to every parish – asking all Catholics to discuss the new Alliance for Unity and to focus on “how God may be calling us to change our words, our ways and our minds.”

Over the last decade, this group has sponsored Alliance for Utah Food Drives and issued various statements on public issues. 2011 Alliance members include seven original members (Archuleta, Atkinson, Ballard, Davis, Eccles, Huntsman & Matheson), as well as newer members: Ralph Becker (Salt Lake City mayor), Cynthia Buckingham (Executive director, Utah Humanities Council), Alexander B. Morrison (executive director of the Alliance), Dinesh Patel (managing director, Spring Capital), Harris H. Simmons (Zions Bank Corporation President); Dean Singleton (Publisher, The Salt Lake Tribune), The Most Reverend John C. Wester (Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City), Michael K. Young (President, University of Utah).

Founders of the Alliance imagined it would be the beginning of something bigger – something far more than a conversation among leaders. For those inspired by the vision of the Alliance for Unity, there is still hope to see its message take-hold in the grass-roots across Utah.

[Sources – DN Editorial Staff,  September, 2001, A hopeful Alliance for Unity, Deseret News; Susan Whitney, February, 2002, Games bringing many religions closer together Deseret News]

2. Healing the Great Divide Project, 2003 – present. In 1995, a group of students at East High School attempted to form a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) after-school club. After East High revoked all club charters, a legal battle ensued – and the Utah Psychological Association was asked to make a statement. As reported in the Deseret News, “Trouble was, they couldn’t agree on what it should say.” Disagreements emerged over religious lines: “People resigned over the issue and feelings were very hurt,” recollected one participant.

Years later, these tensions still simmered under the surface.  During a UPA Board conversation about becoming more diverse as an organization, Mark Owens pointed out the most significant aspect of diversity already in the room:  religion. “A very strong silence fell over the room,” Mark remembers. This became a watershed moment, where the group realized that even among “talk-therapists” who considered each other friends, this was a topic everyone seemed to be avoiding. As one person summarized, “There is no dialogue…There is no exchange of ideas. That is just not healthy. Stuff builds up.”

The absence of open conversation on these tensions (at least with anyone outside one’s own group) led to “mistrust, ill will and the occasional conflagration over divisive political issues” Steve Morris emphasized.  Like they would do with any client, Mark Owens (unaffiliated with organized religion) and Steve Morris (active Mormon) began to “meet to discuss their feelings in a safe, supportive environment.”

Original Chamade two (1)Others expressed interest in the conversation – leading to the formation of the Great Divide Task Force in June 2003 by the Utah Psychological Association board – with founding members including David Derezotes, Merrill Kingston, Steve Morris, Mark Owens, Marybeth Raynes, Cheri Reynolds, Paula Swaner and Janet Warburton.

Four months later, they convened a meeting involving philanthropists, environmentalists, activists, religious leaders, local business leaders, college professors, a cartoonist, members of the LGBT community and social workers/therapists who were Muslim, Jewish, Catholics, Latter-day Saints, former Latter-day Saints and non-believers. This first larger meeting included the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, an LDS general authority emeritus and members of Salt Lake’s Islamic and Greek Orthodox religious communities – as described in a Deseret News report that same year:

Each participant talked of his or her unique place in Utah’s melting pot. Joined in a common desire to examine the divide, there was no detectable posturing. Amid the clanking of silverware on fine china, tucked inside a private home as the snow came down outside, stories of family background, religious angst, inclusion, exclusion and workplace challenge came to the fore and were shared with the group. It was the kind of gathering organizers said they had hoped for but could never have scripted. There was optimism, pessimism and hope… 

Since that first meeting, in October of 2003, a dialogue group has continued monthly ever since. Alongside additional dinner groups, several retreats were planned to get at the roots of some of the chronic tensions over religion among its members – including explorations of “some of the touchier and tougher issues that divided them, such as how some members were bothered when others would always share their personal views on faith or overtly express their religious affiliation or hostility to religion.” Participants openly shared frustrations with others, while simultaneously acknowledging their own roles in contributing to the divide.

As relationships began to deepen and sweeten, this team created a non-profit organization called Chamade – and turned outward in hopes of helping others find the same experience and “takingchamade the discussion to the grass-roots community level.”  For the last decade, this group has offered monthly forums in Salt Lake City where people can explore different experiences and perceptions about what they have called the “Great Divide” in Utah – helping residents “learn more about individual differences rather than seeing each other in monolithic groups.”  Although originally focusing on the religious divide, these monthly conversations have broadened to take up associated, overlapping conflicts that include ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, geography, socio-economic status and immigration. The group’s goal, Morris emphasized, is “not to change minds about areas of disagreement but to open minds and hearts to one another in the spirit of community dialogue.”

As Mark Owens summarized, “Perhaps the biggest gift we have received is that we have gotten to know ourselves better through knowing others. Another organizer Paula Swaner said the progress made by this effort, ” surpassed my expectations,” she says. “But it’s just a drop in the bucket. We’re all in this together, and we’re all prejudiced in some respects. I hope this can at least build a foundation people can work from.”

Members of this group are available for consultation for those needing guidance on an organizational or community conflict (Contact information:

[Sources: Carrie A. Moore November, 2003, Utahns work to bridge religious gulf Deseret Morning News; Mark Greer, June 2005, Bridging the great divide APA Monitor, 36(6), 46; Mark Owens, November, 2007, Great divide task force annual reportChamade website]

3. Bridging the Religious Divide, 2004. In the wake of UPA’s success and on the heels of the Main Street Plaza fight, Mayor Rocky Anderson announced a “bridging the religious divide” project (subtitle:  “Pain and Hope in Open Dialogue”). Drawing on assistance from the Great Divide Task Force, this collaborative effort involved dozens of community and educational institutions, with a focus on getting residents “talking about and trying to understand their religious differences.”

In a state predominantly Latter-day Saint, Mayor Anderson pointed out how “tensions between the majority religion and other faiths tend to boil slowly under the surface until they erupt in a barrage of criticism” – calling on effort to begin “funneling those tensions into open conversations” where residents of every faith could “express their viewpoint constructively.”

After some large group meetings where people shared their frustrations, a 15-member citizen committee created plans to help “ordinary people start talking” about these things in their own communities. This included basic guidelines:  “Speak from the heart, talk about personal experiences, listen” and a process of dividing interested people into groups of 10 – equally balanced with Mormons and others and led by a hand-picked facilitator trained in conflict resolution. By bringing “individual families of different faiths together to talk on a one-on-one basis,” organizers hoped to start chipping away at the “invisible wall that exists between the Mormons and non-Mormons.”

Over the coming months, about 120 people, including Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists, humanists, atheists and others met monthly in homes, libraries and restaurants. As reported in the newspaper, “Sitting across the table from one other, the stories and hard questions came pouring out. They worked hard to get past the ‘patina of politeness,’ said one participant”:

Some panelists were hesitant to open up for fear of being trampled. Others worried that some might take offense at their beliefs – or their candor. Conversations could be raw and wrenching, personal and real. Abstractions and disdain for groups or other people’s assumptions had to be abandoned when one was confronted with another’s individuality. Eventually, most felt catharsis and trust.

One participant said, “For me, religion is the division. So it seemed like almost an impossible task…But now although we aren’t embracing each other’s beliefs, we are embracing each other.” Another person added, “The preconceptions people have — the biases, the prejudices — tend to dissolve when you get to know people of different backgrounds.”  Still another commented, “I was so tired of the pretend listening, even pretending to agree, while you can have a knife in the back…As much fun as it is to spew polarized opinions, it’s much more fulfilling to be talking across that table. It’s fresh air, oxygen.”

One reporter summarized, “Person after person recounted a sense of relief at being able to face a would-be adversary and say how much they had been hurt. To be acknowledged and heard at last.”  This included both minority religious and non-religious voices, as well as Mormons.

One woman said people who don’t belong to a religion need respect, too. “I think I have a very fine value system and I don’t have faith. Please don’t leave us out.” More than simply a Mormon/non-Mormon issue,” one participant pointed to a need to build bridges with “people who straddle both those worlds, particularly LDS members who are not actively participating.”

And a Mormon participant who said that he has used his “Sunday-school pulpit” to preach tolerance, added that during the Main Street Plaza debate he had been called part of the “American Taliban because of my faith.” He added, “Toleration runs both ways. I’ve had friends leave this state, they just got tired of all of the complaining and griping about members of the LDS Church.”

How exactly to frame and approach the divisions was a point of disagreement itself. One participant suggested the community “stop focusing on differences” – and also appreciate powerful commonalities and agreements as well.  Another person felt that the whole divide was “entirely, but by and large is the creation of our own psychosis and not a reaction to real events out there.”

[Sources: Heather May  October, 2004 Anderson holds forums aimed at bridging Utah’s religious divide The Salt Lake Tribune;  Erin Stewart, October, 2004 Rocky targets religious divide Deseret Morning News Peggy Fletcher Stack, January, 2006 Mormons, non-Mormons clear the air The Salt Lake Tribune; Derek P. Jensen, September, 2007, Religious gulf: Next mayor has hands full The Salt Lake Tribune]


So what happens next?  Has anything been learned from all the above?  To big upshots stand out:

 Avoiding No More.  What participants in all these efforts agree upon is that these “conversations were more than just lip service” as Steve Morris summarized: “The things people discussed on all sides were emotionally intense, moving and meaningful…It got us to a point…where we could start talking to each other again.”

Comparing their experience with the awareness and growth that happens in therapy, Morris added, “It’s the same with our group. We initially handled our pain by not dealing with it, just like a client might. Now we deal with it–we may get angry, but we work it through.” Mark Owens added: “When we must deal with contentious issues, we are much better at comfortably holding that tension while we work through the issue. We aren’t superficial, and we don’t avoid the difficulties.” In other words, while people still have their disagreements, participants note that the “the biggest change is their refusal to bottle up the tensions and walk away.”

“Some people are much more comfortable knowing who the good guys and bad guys are rather than living in messy reality,” Mark Owens added. “But I think the great majority of people want to learn about their neighbors. A lot of it is sitting face-to-face with another human being. It’s pretty simple, and I think more people are now willing to do that.” One participant reflected, “It didn’t change my beliefs…but it did put the brakes on my making broad one-sided assumptions. You can’t put people in boxes like that. I feel so much more textured in ways I look at things.” And a facilitator spoke of noticing how attendees began to acknowledge each other’s complexity and that “slowly, members emerged as real persons and not as impenetrable blocks of granite.”

Getting Past the Mormon/”Non-Mormon” Thing.  Originators of all these projects share a sense of there being consequences of the lingering tension across these divides in Utah – including “a loss of organizational effectiveness and vitality…as well as increased stress and less harmony – across any place – schools and businesses and anywhere else Utahns gather.”

Catholic Bishop George Niederauer originally raised hopes of changing the way “Mormons talk about Catholics when only Mormons are in the room, and the way Catholics talk about Mormons when only Catholics are in the room.”As one person pointed out:

Every time a faithful member refers to a person outside the church as a “non-member,” he or she risks adding another brick in the wall that divides the state. It is a passive but profound form of discrimination. What woman, for example, would not bristle at being classified a “non-man”?”

Elder Ballard from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints concurred:

It would be good if we eliminated a couple of phrases from our vocabulary: ‘nonmember’ and ‘non-Mormon.’ Such phrases can be demeaning and even belittling. Personally, I don’t consider myself to be a ‘non-Catholic’ or a ‘non-Jew.’ I am a Christian. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is how I prefer to be identified—for who and what I am, as opposed to being identified for what I am not. Let us extend that same courtesy to those who live among us. If a collective description is needed, then ‘neighbors’ seems to work well in most cases (October 2001, The Doctrine of Inclusion).

So what is next? How much more is possible? Who knows, but we can’t wait to find out!