Bridging the Divide

The Work of the Office of Religious Outreach

Members of the Religious Education faculty have been involved in interfaith activities of various kinds for many years. Truman G. Madsen was the first holder of the Richard L. Evans Chair of Christian Understanding, which chair he occupied for two decades. Other members of the faculty have occupied that chair and worked to bridge the gulf between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other religions, both Christian and non-Christian. Following his retirement from teaching at Brigham Young University in January of 2014, Robert L. Millet was asked by Dean Brent L. Top to coordinate the work of interfaith relations in Religious Education for the next two and a half years. Brother Millet agreed to respond to questions relative to his assignment and the work of outreach.

Q: What exactly is the Office of Religious Outreach?

A: We have been reaching out for a long time, but to some extent such outreach has been rather hit-or-miss, seasonal, a kind of “management by crisis.” Dean Top felt the need to organize and strategize, to prioritize and orchestrate our efforts through establishing the Office of Religious Outreach. I have been asked to work closely with a committee of outstanding faculty members who already have a good bit of experience and background in making friends for the University and the Church and working closely and cordially with men and women of other faiths. This committee consists of Andrew C. Reed (Church history and doctrine), J. Spencer Fluhman (history), Shon D. Hopkin (ancient scripture), Alonzo L. Gaskill (Church history and doctrine), Mauro Properzi (Church history and doctrine), Richard Moore (retired from Seminaries and Institutes), Gregory E. Wilkinson (Church history and doctrine), Keith J. Wilson (ancient scripture), and J. B. Haws (Church history and doctrine).

Q: What does the committee do?

A: We meet monthly to discuss such matters as these: (1) What are the hot topics and newsworthy events in the religious world? (2) Who are the key people addressing those topics? (3) What are the articles and books with which we ought to be familiar across the religious spectrum? (4) Who are the people that we need to know better, those we need to meet on their turf, those who should be invited to visit BYU and Salt Lake City? (5) What are the topics deserving of interfaith academic conferences or workshops at BYU? (6) With which religious traditions should we begin a formal academic dialogue? (7) What conferences or lectures being held throughout the country should we try to have representatives attend and report on?

Q: How is the Office of Religious Outreach associated with University Hosting and Church Public Affairs?

A: We try to work cooperatively with these two entities. An example would be the prominent religious leaders we have hosted in Salt Lake City and in Provo during the last eighteen months—Francis Cardinal George (at the time, archbishop of Chicago), Richard Land (Southern Baptist Convention), Albert Mohler (president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville), George Wood (president of the Assemblies of God), Ravi Zacharias (respected Christian apologist), Ella Simmons (vice-president of the Seventh-day Adventists), and many other scholars and church representatives. Several of these folks had an opportunity to meet with Church leaders in Salt Lake and then to spend time with members of the Religious Education faculty and to deliver addresses to the BYU students. These visits were all coordinated on the campus through the Office of Religious Outreach, working closely with university officials and Church Public Affairs.

Q: This seems like an exciting endeavor but one that could be costly to maintain. How do you do it financially?

A: We have been blessed to have the full support and encouragement of Religious Education. We are also involved at present in a fund-raising effort to establish an endowment of three to four million dollars so that we can have in place an ongoing, self-replenishing, operating fund. We want to be in a position to attend to every appropriate opportunity to share the message of the restored gospel and build bridges of understanding and friendship within the United States and beyond. Those wishing to contribute to this enterprise can donate to BYU Religious Education and earmark the funds for the Office of Religious Outreach. We have already had a great deal of interest and support expressed by several individuals who are in a position to assist financially in this work, but we are in need of many more helpers.

Q: Why is this work so important to you?

A: My thirty years of teaching and writing at BYU were a sweet and treasured privilege; I consider it an honor to have been able to teach some of the finest young people in the world. And yet I hasten to add that the opportunity to be involved in interfaith activity for the last twenty years—to read and explore the faith and beliefs and practices of other religious traditions, and to be involved in thousands of hours of painstaking but elevating and inspiring religious dialogue with some of the finest church colleagues and scholars in the country—has been deeply rewarding, unexpectedly edifying, and soul-expanding. I look upon and feel toward my brothers and sisters of other religious persuasions with a kinship and a love that has changed my life. At the same time, these encounters have deepened my conviction of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ; I am a much more devoted Latter-day Saint because of these stretching associations. And, lest this point go unmade, I am also persuaded that all of this outreach has opened doors of understanding for the university and the Church and led honest-hearted men and women to see us with new eyes. In that sense, it has, in a small way perhaps, helped to bring the Church out of obscurity and out of darkness. Great strides have been taken in the past, but we rejoice in coming to discover what the Lord may yet bring to pass.