WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – The Mormon church, long known for its inward-looking self-reliant nature, is making overtures to other faiths.
“We’re trying hard to reach out,” said Pleasant Hill, Calif., Bishop John Muir.
By joining in multidenominational service projects and sitting on interfaith councils, Mormons are bridging a gap that has kept them and the surrounding society at an uneasy distance for 177 years.
“They’ve set themselves apart and they have been set apart,” over their short, complex history, said Brian Stein-Webber, director of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa.
“The history is pretty heavy on both sides,” he said. “I think we are extending a hand. Is it becoming a movement? No. But they’re much more open than they used to be.”
The religion has come into sharp focus since former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, announced he would seek the presidency. A recent Gallup poll shows nearly half of Americans say they would not consider voting for a Mormon.
But the new openness is not the result of a directive from church officials in response to polls, say representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is formally called.
“We’ve tried to be good neighbors,” said Michael Otterman, the church’s media representative. “If that’s become more pronounced, it’s probably due to the church’s growing maturity.”
A Mormon woman who sits on the executive committee of the Interfaith Council agrees.
“We do stick together,” said Susan Randall. “We had to, to survive. We do take care of our own. We’re not a very old faith. We’re pretty young and we’ve evolved.”
Mormons have taken on numerous public benefit projects, such as baking birthday cakes for youths in Juvenile Hall and knitting caps for newborns. They rebuilt and landscaped four group homes for abused girls. Mormons made up a quarter of the participants in Pleasant Hill’s Community Service Day.
Perhaps more significantly, Mormons are partnering with other faiths’ groups in service.
The Pleasant Hill ward swings hammers alongside other congregations in Habitat for Humanity house building projects.
One stake – a cluster of wards, or congregations – joined a Lafayette, Calif.-based organization’s mission to build schools in Afghanistan.
The church, which claims 12 million members worldwide, evangelizes fervently.
It is the second-largest religious group in California, with more than 750,000 adherents. Some 30,000 to 40,000 adherents live in the greater East Bay, said Dean Criddle, a San Francisco lawyer and president of the Oakland stake. The stake encompasses parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
“We’re very much an inviting church, but through interfaith efforts, we are involved in building bridges,” Criddle said. “These are opportunities to find common ground.”
The stake hosted the Interfaith Council’s February meeting in Concord. Council executive committee members toured the Bishop’s Storehouse, where the church’s food and social service programs are based.
Criddle is an interfaith veteran. He lent his legal and business know-how to the newly developing Presidio Interfaith Center in San Francisco during the 10 years he served on that council.
Mormons consider themselves Christians, and believe their church is a restoration of the one established by Christ on Earth.
They also believe God has a physical body, and hold that their leaders are prophets to whom God communicates revelations. Mormons say all faiths contain some degree of truth and generate good. In addition to the Old and New Testaments, they adhere to the Book of Mormon. These beliefs and practices alienate many evangelicals, who overwhelmingly reject a Mormon president in polls.
A New Yorker named Joseph Smith Jr. founded the church after experiencing what Mormons believe were a series of heavenly visions and visitations. The fledgling church moved to Ohio, then Missouri, where the governor signed an extermination order forcing adherents out. In the Mormons’ new home in Illinois, a mob killed Smith, and Brigham Young led the flock to Utah.
“Being isolated has developed a siege mentality in Mormondom,” said writer Carol Lynn Pearson, who sat on a Latter-day Saints public affairs council for four years. “We know very well we’re strange but we want to be popular.”
Mormons may be a distinct minority in many areas, but their numbers in California ensure that many will participate in the community, Otterman said.
That, in itself, erodes misconceptions, he said.
“It’s different if you actually know an LDS person, and I think that’s probably true of any faith,” he said.
For Randall’s part, sitting on the Interfaith Council has spurred her respect for and interest in other faiths.
“To sit down at the table with a Bahai, a Muslim and a Hindu, a Seventh Day Adventist, a Catholic,” she said, “is an incredible experience.”
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