7th Meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders

Brigham Young University, Aspen Grove
Salt Lake City
13th – 17th November, 2016

Religious Genius – 7th Meeting of Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, November 2016


Religious leaders are used to providing guidance and inspiration for their communities but from where do they draw the strength? One of the answers is from lives and teachings of the religious luminaries who have formed and transformed their traditions.

At the 7th meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, a number of important discussions took place on the subject of those personalities who have inspired and transformed religions, whose lives were exemplary and whose teachings transcend their historical contexts. Elijah has chosen to discuss their importance under the heading “Religious Genius,” attempting to find a language to give space for each religion to articulate itself without projecting its specificity onto another tradition. Previously used terminology, including “saints” or “gurus,” suffer from their associations with particular traditions and are culturally loaded.

Some leaders did question if it was necessary for someone to live up to the standards that have been identified by scholars from the Elijah Academy as defining “Religious Genius”.

Three categories of potential religious inspirational figures were identified who might not live up to the category of “genius”. There are living people, whose lives might not be able to be properly evaluated at this time. This category might include one of the subjects of our current studies, Amma [click through to her essay]. There are religious people whose genius was in the political or social sphere, such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. There are “flawed” geniuses, who had lapses in their personal lives might preclude them from being “religious geniuses” but who nevertheless had an important impact on the followers of the tradition.

One of the observations was that religion is only manifest by the people who live it. Examining the lives and teachings of those individuals who live the religion well and have helped define it, provides the model and standards to which today’s leaders can strive. While not expecting to become Religious Geniuses through studying those who were, today’s religious leaders look to those who have preceded them for the best way of being religious, the best way of modeling religion.

Religious Geniuses connect with the spiritual realm but also provide guidance on earthly matters. Religion today needs to restore its ability to straddle the two realms of the spiritual life and the secular, consumerist world. Today’s religious leaders can learn from the religious geniuses of their own and other religions.

When leaders considered who were the “Geniuses” who had inspired them, they realized that particular qualities, reflecting those identified by scholars (see above), seemed to cut across traditions. One was an excess of humility, compassion and love. Another was their ability to stand up to a hostile environment or antagonism directed towards them or their ideas. Every religious genius that our leaders identified as having inspired them had to deal with a struggle. It was often through the struggle itself that their genius came to the fore or can be identified.

Something that distinguishes the Religious Genius from other brilliant theologians is that they interact with society. Their interaction has been defined by Elijah’s scholars as the “religious genius event,” whereby the individual with special insights into the spiritual realm applies their wisdom to their communities. The communities are transformed through the exposure to the wisdom, energy and special qualities of the genius.

Elijah’s scholars have postulated that we can re-create “Religious Genius Events” when we bring the teaching and life-stories of these outstanding individuals to the current generation. Exposure to Religious Genius still has the power to transform our lives.

More about the meeting

Music is a universal language which transcends religious difference and has always been important to Elijah. Our prayer gatherings, in which people pray according to their own traditions, finish with participants from all faiths sharing a melody. Summer schools include opportunities to hear religious music in performance and as part of prayer.

Members of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders were honoured to be invited to be in the audience for the November 13th 2016 broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, prior to the opening of their 7th meeting.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a renowned 360-member chorus of men and women, all volunteers. Its weekly program, Music and the Spoken has been a phenomenon since it began broadcasting in 1929, making it the longest continuous broadcast on the air. The Elijah leaders and scholars received a warm welcome before enjoying a program which included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Glory” and the Gaelic melody “Morning Has Broken.” John Rutter’s “Home Is a Special Kind of Feeling,” was selected to support the Spoken Word segment of the program, which focused on the theme of Parenting, described as “the Best Job in the World.”

Another moving part of our visit in Salt Lake City was the visit to Welfare Square, run by the LDS Church, which is the standard bearer of the idea of a “bishop’s storehouse” and more. A bishop’s storehouse refers to a commodity resource center that is used by bishops (lay leaders of local congregations analogous to pastors or parish priests in other Christian denominations) of the church to provide goods to needy individuals. The concept of the bishop’s storehouse is based on a revelation received by Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, on February 9, 1831, whereby he was instructed to keep goods “in my [the Lord’s] storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy”.

The LDS describes the site as follows: “Since its humble beginnings in the midst of the Great Depression, Welfare Square has emerged as a powerful example of what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does throughout the world to care for the poor, foster self-reliance, and provide meaningful opportunities for work and service. Welfare Square is a modern facility composed of a towering, 178-foot-tall grain elevator, a large storehouse, a bakery, a cannery, a milk-processing operation, a thrift store, and an employment center—all designed to help people help themselves.”

The final visit to LDS institutions was the Humanitarian Center, which was created on the basis of the passage in the Christian Bible:  “For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; Naked, and ye clothed me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Matthew 25:35-36

The Humanitarian Center was established in 1991 to prepare humanitarian supplies for use worldwide and train those desiring to develop employable skills to become self-reliant. It is the centre of global operations. We learnt from a moving video about the work of the Centre that wherever possible, humanitarian supplies are acquired in or near the area where they are needed to avoid shipping expenses. In some cases, supplies are shipped from Salt Lake City and we were impressed by the huge quantities of donated goods being sorted for distribution. In a typical year, the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center will ship about 8 million pounds of shoes and clothing, 300,000 hygiene and school kits, and 12,000 quilts to relieve suffering in more than 50 countries.

Much of the work at the centre is undertaken by women as part of the “I Was a Stranger” initiative, responding to the First Presidency’s October 2015 letter that invited church members to participate in local refugee relief projects, where practical.

At any given time, approximately 200 individuals – mostly refugees and immigrants – are being trained at the center to join the workforce and become self-reliant. These associates represent as many as 30 countries and 20 different languages and many attend English classes during their training. Associates are assigned a job coach who teaches work skills and emphasizes the importance of attendance, punctuality, personal hygiene, and other basic life skills.