Story by ABRAM BERRY
Utah is unique in a lot of ways. Compared to most communities, where talking about religion is regarded as a taboo, it is often the primary subject of conversation. Salt Lake City famously is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — widely known as the Mormon church — and is a cultural hotspot for members of the faith.
However, despite a majority of Utahns belonging to that church, it is not the only faith that exists here along the Wasatch Front. In fact, a number of thriving religious communities are hiding in plain sight.
Rev. Martin Diaz is a pastor at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
There are many reasons as to why someone might join the clergy. But for Diaz, the source of his calling was simple. “The short answer is God,” Diaz said.
The beautiful Cathedral of the Madeleine is the most famous of Salt Lake City’s Catholic churches, but there are a number of other parishes throughout the valley.
“Each parish is involved in its local community,” Diaz said. The parish in West Jordan has a food pantry, the Cathedral has a sandwich program, and some other parishes do clothing drives.
“The people in the parish obviously live in the neighborhood, so for the most part, they’re engaged in the things that are going on in the area,” Diaz said. “Formally, Catholic Community Services is the outreach for the whole church that we do in the state of Utah.” This organization provides a variety of services, including refugee resettlement. According to Diaz, approximately half of the refugees settled in Utah go through Catholic Community Services.
Muslim refugees play a unique role in Utah’s Islamic community. According to Shuaib Din, the imam of the Utah Islamic Center, approximately 80% of the 30,000-60,000 Muslims living between Ogden and Provo are refugees. The Utah Islamic Center, being the largest mosque in the state, is critical in terms of supporting these individuals and their families.
One issue with having the majority of a congregation being made up of displaced people, is that there is not a significant influx of cash coming in from them.
“You can’t expect them to donate,” Din said in a recent phone interview.
But what’s more important than paying their dues, Din said, is getting congregants to become involved in the local Muslim community. However, he is hopeful that the recently completed mosque in West Jordan will serve as a draw. The beautiful new building, which was finished in 2020, is a classy gray and blue and features an impressive spire called a minaret.
The mosque holds four Friday services each week in order to respect social distancing practices, while also allowing as many people as possible to come worship.
“I think that’s pretty unique,” Din said. “I don’t know of too many mosques in America that hold four Friday services.”
Utah’s Jewish population is even smaller than the local Catholic or Islamic communities, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t just as passionate. A number of synagogues exist across the Wasatch Front, including Congregation Kol Ami and Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, both located in Salt Lake City, as well as Temple Har Shalom in Park City.
Elana Fauth is an employee of Hillel for Utah, an organization for Jewish students on Utah’s college campuses. Fauth said that being Jewish in Utah provides some unique challenges.
“The feeling of otherness in a place where there is such an established and cohesive culture can be difficult to navigate. I will say that this immediate ‘othering’ makes for a tight-knit Jewish community that is loving and accepting of everyone around them,” Fauth said.
There are a number of denominations in Judaism, with varying levels of observance, that are all part of the larger Jewish community.
“Depending on your levels of observance, the road blocks are even more difficult to navigate: finding kosher food, keeping Shabbat, or plucking up the courage to ask for the day off for Yom Kippur. The list goes on,” Fauth said.
Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is the weekly rest day that Jews observe every Saturday. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in Judaism, and is traditionally observed through fasting, intensive prayer, and a day spent in the synagogue.
Fauth said that there are definitely things that all Utahns can do to make the Beehive State a more inclusive place for Jews.
“Make yourself aware of Jewish holidays, specifically our High Holy Days. As a recent college graduate, I myself am now currently working with college students, and my heart aches for students who feel that they have to choose between their academics and their religious observance,” she said. “The one thing I always tell people is that, to a Jew, expecting us to come to class, take tests, etc., on Yom Kippur is as outlandish as asking us to come in on Christmas.”
Awareness of holidays and other celebrations was something that Father Diaz stressed as well. “I think [Utahns] need to have an awareness of feast days,” he said, adding that he expects people to have some knowledge about the celebrations of the various communities. “For us,” he added, “Easter is the big one coming up. On Easter Sunday, we go to church. A lot of people come. The singing is beautiful, and the prayer is great.”
Throughout all the conversations, the overwhelming theme was that Utahns ought to be more educated about these communities, since they are, in fact, part of our community. Go out and learn about them. Visit a mosque, go to Mass, or attend a Shabbat service. Donate to organizations supporting Muslim refugees or volunteer at a local synagogue.
Most importantly, open up a dialogue. Imam Shuaib Din from the Utah Islamic Center thinks that Utahns are going to be up to the task. He said, “People don’t mind talking about religion in Utah.”