Month: July 2014

PEOPLE: A Present Firmly Grounded in the Past

“Both of my grandfathers were bastards. I think this is important to my story,” says Velia Calcara. She’s definitely got my attention, so I keep listening. “One was born at the end of the 19th century, the other at the beginning of the 20th. At that time there was a great stigma attached to being an illegitimate child. So, right off the bat, even though their mothers tried to raise them with a certain set of beliefs, they could feel the rejection and the judgment, certainly in the Catholic Church, which was the predominant religion in Mexico, and they ended up pulling away from the Church. Not the faith, but the Church.”

Velia was born and raised in Jalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. Growing up, she experienced first hand the blooming of her hometown, a small city that was quickly becoming a cosmopolitan center for education, culture and the arts. She tells me about her mother and father, about the baggage they carried from their respective fathers and about how they raised her with Catholic teachings, but with a weary relationship toward the Church. “The faith was passed on to us but not the submissive attitude toward the priest, not the inflexible rules of the church, and not the rituals of the church and the rigid set of behaviors and practices,” she explains. When I ask what that meant in practice she says, “For instance, in my house we ate whatever we wanted during Lent and we were grateful for it. Forget about the fact that the Church said ‘no meat during Lent,’ we ate it. I did go to catechism and received the sacraments, but I don’t remember my parents insisting on going to mass and confession, or any of the common practices of a Catholic family.”

"Church is a suit that doesn't fit me well," says Velia Calcara.

“Church is a suit that doesn’t fit me well,” says Velia Calcara.

She spends the better part of our meeting telling me about her past, and she makes it a point to outline the main events, people and circumstances that shaped her views of the world as well as her understanding of God and spirituality. Her father had a significant part in shaping Velia’s independent and strong-willed character. “Some of my good friends were in the Girl Scouts, so of course I wanted to join. But my dad said no. I didn’t understand why. But, you know, Girl Scouts was so religiously based back then and my father didn’t want me to all of a sudden, I don’t know how best to say it but, he didn’t want me to lose the freedom of belief and mind that I had. I probably was 10 or 11, but I was not ruled or governed by any strict religious rules.”

As a young adult, It was another family member who would have a deep impact on the way Velia would see the world and her place in it. “When I was 19 or 20, I had an aunt whom I loved very, very much. She introduced me to metaphysics. And I found that very interesting, very logical, and in a way simple to understand.” As she tells me this I realize I’m not quite certain I know what metaphysics is, so I ask. “Understanding logically your reality, what surrounds you, understanding how things manifest in this world. Although I never went deep into that, it helped me make sense of a lot of things I was going through at the time.” She explains how being a teenager in the 80s, in a burgeoning cosmopolitan city and witnessing so many major world events was so foundational to who she is today.

So, I want to know more about who she is today. I’ve known Velia for about a year, but we haven’t had much of a chance to really talk until now. She tells me she’s been thinking about a question I asked her the last time, something about whether there was ever a time or a place in which she felt she fit in. “I don’t fit in,” she states, takes a breath and continues, “I’m too much of a rebel to be a good Catholic, I question too much to be a good protestant Christian and I like my freedom too much to comply with other religions. Religiously, I don’t fit anywhere, and…I’m brown…and, I’m a woman. So, no.”

Like most of us in the minority, Velia is keenly aware of the fact that she is perceived as other, as different, as not-from-here. Perhaps this is why she is so intent on speaking up for equality, “We live in a multicultural society and I have a problem when people refuse to interact with other human beings just because they don’t practice the same set of beliefs, or because of their sexuality, or because they don’t have a religion, per se, they are atheists. I think that respect is crucial for the success of a community.” Our conversation lapses into Spanish whenever she wants to drive a point home, such as when she quotes Mexican founding father, Benito Juarez, “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” (“Among individuals as among nations, the respect to other people’s rights is peace.”) This is one of her maxims, I learn.

“How do you identify,” I ask. She replies, “I would say I was brought up Catholic but I am not a very good practicing Catholic.” I almost want to say, “You could’ve fooled me!” But then she clarifies, “I’m a believer with a Catholic background.” I wonder what she believes, how she believes, does she pray? “Believe it or not, I pray,” she tells me. I ask her to elaborate. “My praying tends to follow the two main Catholic prayers, Padre Nuestro and Ave María. Every now and then, out of interest since I didn’t learn it as a young person, I pray the Rosary with a couple of friends. And some times I do a free prayer, more like a meditation, when I need to quiet myself down. I consider myself very intense and I can build up anxiety very easily.”

Our time is running out, but I want to make sure I understand what prayer means to her. “I don’t believe in praying like asking Santa for a gift. To me when you pray, you’re trying to be in touch with your Creator. Often times I pray for guidance because I’m spiritually blind and deaf and my ego gets in the way. And I pray for acceptance.”

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PEOPLE: Seekers

“I wasn’t raised Buddhist, and I don’t think any of our members at the Rime Center were either,” says Lama Chuck Stanford. The fact that so many Buddhists in the United States are converts is something that has fascinated me for the past few years. When I ask him what he thinks Americans find so appealing about Buddhism, why it is that every Sunday there are so many first time visitors at the Rime Center, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. “My theory is that they’re spiritual seekers. If you’re Christian and you’re looking for a church, it’s not a matter of Christianity or not. You’re Christian, so it’s just a matter of which church you’re going to go to. But if you don’t know what you are and you’re looking for something, you come to a Buddhist center to try it out and see if it’s the right fit or not. Most people visiting the Rime Center are probably not Buddhists, they’re what I call spiritual seekers, trying something out to see if it resonates with them.”

Like so many of the people at the Rime Center, Lama Chuck came to Buddhism as a seeker. He tells me a story so many others have shared with me, about growing up with parents who weren’t particularly religious but were consistent about Church attendance. He tells me about how when he was a teenager, the faith he’d been brought up in no longer spoke to him, about how he lost interest and stopped going. And then he tells me about this spiritual void he felt after a few years and how he began seeking ways to satisfy that yearning. “I tried different faiths. I remember going to a Quaker meeting and I kind of liked that, because they just sit in silence and if someone feels like speaking they stand up and speak.” I begin to wonder if stillness and quietude are part of the draw of Buddhism. We’re all well-aware of the ever-growing demands for our attention and the overstimulation that engulf our day-to-day lives. And, while most religious traditions have a strong contemplative element, the trend for Christian churches in America has been to emphasize the use of technology, multimedia and high energy music in services. This is not a bad thing at all, unless what you’re desperate for is a bit of peace and quiet.

Lama Chuck Stanford

Lama Chuck Stanford

Some time after that Quaker meeting, Lama Chuck and his wife Mary started practicing yoga. He tells me that one day after yoga, he went up to a different room in the building to have a look, “and they had what we would call a shrine room, all these meditation cushions and a shrine set up. I asked what was going on there, and I was told that was where these Buddhists met. We had been meditating since the 70s, that was something I was really familiar with, I knew meditation. And, because I felt a spiritual void, I thought I’d start attending and finding out more about this. And so the more I studied, and the more I learned, the more I found the Buddhist worldview really fit with my worldview and I just continued down that path.”

Lama Chuck and Mary started practicing with this Buddhist group, but soon enough it became evident that the group’s views were a bit more sectarian than he would’ve liked. “So I thought, you know, there’s probably room for a non-sectarian group,” he tells me. And that’s how in 1985, he and his wife leased a class room from the Roeland Park Community Center and the Rime Center was born. Week after week, he would load up his car with some extra cushions they owned, they would set up a portable shrine and the group had a small but steady attendance for a couple of years. As the group grew, they went through a few facilities. They started inviting visiting teachers and offering educational programs. And then, in 1997, Kusum Lingpa, one of Lama Chuck’s Tibetan teachers told him he wanted to ordain him a Lama. “It was totally out of the blue. I hadn’t ever considered that as a possibility and I told him I would need to think about it. He said, ‘I’ll be back in one year and I’ll want your answer.'” At the end of that year, having thought about it and feeling prepared, he was ordained a Lama.

The way one officially becomes a Buddhist is by taking Refuge Vows. One of the things that happens as a result of taking vows is that practitioners are given a Dharma name. I remember the first time I met Lama Chuck, and I remember finding the juxtaposition of an eastern title and a (very) western name a little jarring. And then I learned that his actual Dharma name is Lama Changchup Kunchok Dorje and it all made sense. Most of us would probably rather say Lama Chuck than attemp (and fail) to say his Tibetan name. So he encourages people to simply call him Lama Chuck, and this is so characteristic of his vision for the Rime Center, which he strives to make as welcoming and accessible a place as possible. Sunday Services are unlike any other Buddhist experience you will find. He tells me that the order of service is very carefully designed to feel familiar and comfortable to newcomers. While most Buddhist groups simply sit and meditate in silence for extended periods of time, at the Rime Center there is a liturgy of sorts. Mantras are set to music so congregants can sing along, meditation is broken up into three ten minute sessions, and toward the end of the service there is always a Dharma talk. He tells me that the service is arbitrarily put together and that it includes Western elements, but that it remains faithful to Tibetan Buddhist practice.

I press Lama Chuck a bit further; I want to know why there are always new visitors at the Rime Center. I want to know how a non-dualistic, Eastern religion can be so appealing to our Western, materialistic and dualistic sensibilities. He pauses for a moment and says, “A lot of people are wounded, perhaps as the result of a divorce or any other painful experience. They’re suffering because of a break up, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, there is pain. They come seeking solace, and Buddhism is relatively free of dogma.”

The Buddha’s first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, begins with an acknowledgment of suffering. It is a truth as old as time. I’m finally beginning to get it. Yes, people are seeking quiet and solace, but what we are seeking the most is to be happy and free from suffering. And so, Lama Chuck tells me, “We believe that it’s through meditation that we cut the clinging and grasping that are the source of our suffering.”

Just asking questions

The other day I was riding the bus back home and I saw this striking, charismatic man wearing a baseball hat with a message so big it almost didn’t fit on the hat. “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.” He was smiling a lot and talking to people on the bus, the kind of person anyone would want to be friends with. I decided to do something terribly out of character for little old introvert me. I followed him off the bus, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could tell me about his hat. He seemed genuinely happy to be asked about his hat, as you can see for yourself. I love how this project gives me license to ask the questions I’ve always been too embarrassed or too afraid to ask.

PEOPLE: He Moves In Mysterious Ways

“Someone who has the time and the space to think about the mystery,” is how Rev. Lance Schmitz responds when I ask him to define his role as a pastor. I’m captivated by this idea of “the mystery,” because the experience of God that I’m seeking to grasp differs from one person to the next, and it’s beginning to feel like a mystery we’re all trying to solve. Lance tells me his role is about helping others figure out how God interacts in the world and in their lives. He tells me he sees himself as one who is ahead of the way, leading others, but not because he thinks he is any better, “it’s just that I’ve got the time and the space afforded to me to be a person that shares hope, that shares the Good News.” I’m beginning to think he is a few clues ahead of me.

I think I know what he means when he talks about “the Good News,” after all we were religion majors and ministry interns together nearly fifteen years ago. But the way he explains the Good News today is a bit different than how I would’ve explained it as a junior in college. “Yes, in the Christian sense of Good News, but also in the sense of good news like, it’s gonna work out somehow,” he says, “and I’m fairly certain that it will work out.” For Lance, living out the Good News means being deeply engaged with his community, “helping see where hope is breaking in around us, so that others can also be engaged and involved.” The mystery and the lofty thinking, they are deeply intertwined with a very earthy humanity in his brand of ministry. Being present, being ready and available, and officiating over milestone moments such as births, weddings and funerals, seem to him as significant as contemplating “the ineffable mystery of God.”

I’m hanging on to every word Lance speaks; this is most certainly Good News! But the ministry is not all hope and happiness. “Being a minister is a very lonely profession. This is the side that people don’t talk about,” he tells me. I’m more than a bit shocked as I hear him explain that clergy have some of the highest rates of depression, substance abuse and even suicide. When I think of a pastor, I see someone constantly surrounded by people, how on earth could a pastor ever feel lonely? “You’re surrounded by people, but you have few friends,” he says. This is why, he tells me, it’s very important for a minister to seek friendships outside of their own congregations, because the risk of creating the appearance of allegiances or favoritism within the church is too great and too costly.

When asked what he is grateful for, Lance looked at his son who was sitting in his lap and said, "This."

When asked what he is grateful for, Lance looked at his son who was sitting in his lap and said, “This.”

Lance left his circle of friends, or as he says, his “community of reference,” back in Oklahoma City, where he used to live and pastor. Late last year he, his wife and their son moved to Kansas City where Lance is pastor at Rosedale Congregational Church, UCC. This is his first time working outside of the Nazarene Church, the denomination in which he first found his faith and the denomination in which he prepared and served until now. He explains the way the United Church of Christ (UCC) operates and how it allows for a diverse range of beliefs and approaches to ministry. I ask him what is the common ground or unifying thread in a Church that allows for so much plurality. “It’s not just one thing…a lot of it is tradition, the way of organizing life through liturgy, but also this idea that Jesus is Lord. What that means for people can vary, but there’s this idea that Jesus is whom we organize our life around.”

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of people saying things like, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” and, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship.” As I hear Lance talk about his faith and his views, I wonder what he makes of all this. “I consider myself a very religious person. I need religion, I need structures and routines to help me be the person I think God is calling me to be.” This is not exactly the answer I was expecting, so he explains, “Religion is what binds me to other people, it is a system and a structure that helps me transmit my values through time.” As one who loves religion(s), this is music to my ears. I understand why so many people speak of religion disdainfully, but I still believe there is something of awe and wonderment in religion that we can at least appreciate, and it worries me to see religion so easily dismissed. “Christianity is a religion – there are agreed-upon systems of belief. And I understand the sentiment behind ‘I have a relationship, not a religion,’ it just doesn’t speak to me. I’m profoundly religious. Religion is a word that means ‘to bind together,’ and that’s what I need – a system and a structure to help me bind myself to God and to others.”

As I’ve been talking to people of faith in the past few weeks, one of my favorite things to ask is how they experience God. Because Lance has talked about “the mystery,” I’m surprised yet again by his answer. He talks about social work, about church members sacking groceries for inner city families. I tell Lance that his examples of “God experiences” sound very human and very natural. “Sacking groceries is as supernatural to me as some sort of feeling that happens during a church service. I feel those moments just as much in a wonderful service as I do in the humdrum, day-to-day. God can be experienced anywhere if we just have the patience to slow down.”

An hour later I feel like maybe I’ve unlocked a few more clues, I’m getting closer to figuring out this mystery. But every question seems to give birth to three more questions, and Lance is perfectly comfortable with questions; he actually seems to thrive in them. “I don’t know what it is, and I’m okay with that. God is not some scientific formula to be figured out. God is to me something bigger. I have no problem with questions, doubt is not the enemy of faith.” “Whoa! Can you tell me more about that,” I ask. He replies, “you can’t have any answers unless you have questions, and part of the fun is trying to figure it out. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson has made me love God more because he has good questions. And I realize that faith is not science. Science is true whether I believe it or not, faith is not the same way. Faith is bigger than that.” And so, the mystery remains.