Salt Lake Tribune

April 28, 2006

An LDS bishop and stake president get together with Evangelical pastor to forge friendship

Jessica Ravitz, The Salt Lake Tribune
Bishop John Zarbock, from left, Stake President Lorin Pugh and the Rev. Travis Mitchell meet for lunch, as they've been doing regularly for about two years. SANDY — Ask LDS Bishop John Zarbock what he used to think when he heard the term "evangelical Christians" and the answer comes easily: the protesters down at Temple Square who yell at passers-by, of course. So when he got a letter in 2004 from the Rev. Travis Mitchell of Sandy Ridge Community Church asking if he would like to "establish an ongoing positive relationship," Zarbock had to wonder.

"I wasn't hesitant," says the 51-year-old leader of the Crescent View Ward. "But I was interested to see how this would go."

At a Village Inn restaurant, Mitchell, Zarbock and Sandy Crescent Stake President Lorin Pugh settle into a booth. They've been meeting for lunch, about once every six weeks, for nearly two years now. And although Zarbock has yet to attend Mitchell's church, there's no missing the friendship the three have forged.

Pugh, 64, says wrestling over the bill after lunch has remained their biggest, and only, source of conflict.

They ask about one another's families and exchange playful barbs. Zarbock and Pugh wonder, jokingly, how Mitchell, 31, landed such a beautiful wife. Mitchell says he only let Zarbock beat him in golf because "he cries, and I didn't want him to cry." This after Zarbock's quip that losing the game forced Mitchell "to admit our church is true."

"One thing I really love about John and Lorin is they try to convert me. If they didn't, I'd be offended," says Mitchell, who acknowledges as a college student he looked at Mormons as "projects."

By their very nature, these men are committed to persuading others to see and embrace their religious points of view. And when it comes to doctrine, they know all about and passionately discuss what divides them. The nature of God, interpretation of Christ, views of grace, revelation and authority. These friends don't hang out simply to shoot the breeze.

"I don't think Travis has given up on us," Pugh says.

"And we're not giving up on him," answers Zarbock.

More important than conversion, however, they say their intention is mutual respect and understanding. They have loved this opportunity to ask questions and learn what the other believes and why. And they've realized and relished all they have in common.

Their takes on family values, moral standards, the sanctity of life, the evils of pornography and commitment to community service, for example, are "dead on" with one another, they say. Nurturing what they share, especially in today's society, is more important to them than their differences.

Pugh acknowledges some LDS Church members may have concerns about their meetings — might worry that he and Zarbock are "selling out" or wonder "why we're doing this." But he says Mitchell's response to this helped him come to terms with the worries. "He said, 'That's the price of leadership. There may be some who are uncomfortable.' "

There are payoffs, too, Zarbock points out. When he meets someone new, who isn't LDS, simply saying, "I have a good friend who's a pastor" can "open doors."

The friends say the relationship they've created has impacted more than them. Their respective communities have partnered up for service projects. Side-by-side, Mormons and Evangelicals have knocked on doors, collecting food and donations for homeless families in transition. For Sandy Pride Day, coming up in two weeks, Mitchell's congregation will join Zarbock's ward for breakfast before they set out to tackle clean-up jobs together.

"We want to model a relational approach," Mitchell says. "I definitely enjoy their friendship" and "would be touched" if others were influenced by what they're doing.

"Five years from now," he says with a smile, "This may be no story."


Contact Jessica Ravitz at or 801-257-8776. Send comments to
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