Author: storiesofdevotion

Off to the Parliament!

Well, it’s been a while since I last posted here, but lots has been happening! Although my sabbatical came to a close, my interest in and passion for interfaith dialogue is as fervent as ever. I continue to have opportunities to listen and learn from people across all religious and spiritual traditions as well as people with no religious affiliations or identification at all. I’ve had opportunities to present and speak about my work and I’m enthusiastic about what the future may hold.

By this time tomorrow, I will be in Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for over a year and I can’t believe it’s finally here! I will be joining thousands of people from all over the globe, representing all sorts of spiritual and religious traditions. There will be plenary sessions, workshops, and plenty of opportunities to learn, discover, and make new friends. I’m beyond thrilled! I’ll be posting every night here for the next few days, so keep in touch!

I want to thank all of the new readers who have been visiting the blog over the past few months. Regular postings will resume again as the year comes to a close. There are so many stories yet to be told!

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Are you going to the Parliament? Let’s meet up!

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A few closing thoughts…

My sabbatical has come to an end. I have been a bit busy putting the final touches on my gallery exhibit and presentation. In preparation for these culminating efforts my manager throughout this project, asked me a number of questions. I thoroughly enjoyed answering her questions, it was fun being the interview subject this time around. Here are a few I wanted to share on the blog.

At the onset of your sabbatical, you said that you wanted to explore the many faces of faith across generations and cultures in our nation today through personal conversations with people of different faiths and through immersive experiences in various places of worship.

• In general, do you feel you accomplished this?

Over the course of my sabbatical, I did in fact meet with a great variety of people from different faiths and walks of life. Being able to sit down and have one-on-one conversations about the things that matter most to them, listening to their stories, allowed me to understand these different expressions of faith from the intimate perspective of those who practice and adhere to them. At times our conversations were lighthearted, many times they were deeply emotional, but they were always revealing and thought-provoking. In addition, visiting places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other sacred spaces, allowed me to experience services and rituals that were completely new to me. These experiences gave me a clearer understanding of these traditions and faith narratives, they gave me a perspective I could not have gotten from reading about them in a book as I was able to actively engage and participate (in as much as possible and appropriate) with other practitioners. Because I was able to experience this not only within Kansas City, but in three major cities (New York, San Francisco and New Orleans), I feel that I accomplished this goal to a great degree. Each of these major cities offered a different array of experiences and cultures.

• When did you start your journey? And when did you finish up?

The duration of my sabbatical was June through November of 2014. However, although my sabbatical is over, I feel that this has turned into a lifelong passion and journey. My project is complete and I’m back to my full time work, but I will be thinking about interfaith dialogue and world religions for a long time to come.

• How many people did you end up interviewing?

The lifeblood of this project was conversations with individuals. Some of my interviews were formal, sit-down, recorded interviews that I later recounted in the blog. These interviews lasted anywhere from one to three hours. Many of my interviews were spontaneous. These happened with people I met at places of worship or at interfaith gatherings, and they could be anything from ten minutes to an hour long. I also had a handful of people with whom I interacted online. Some of these conversations were recounted in long form on the blog, others were referenced or alluded to and many others are recorded only in my notes. But all of these conversations have equally informed and influenced the culminating effort and the whole experience of this project. I can’t say exactly how many people I interviewed, but I estimate it was approximately 40 to 50 people.

• What are some things that were confirmed/affirmed through your interviews?

One assumption I had affirmed was that everybody has a story and that most people are happy to share their story and be heard. I didn’t really have to look very hard for interview subjects. In most cases, when people learned about my project they approached me and said they’d be happy to share their story with me. There were a few people I actively pursued, but for the most part people were eager to share their stories.

Another assumption I had going into this project was that faith and spirituality give life meaning. I found this to be confirmed as people shared with me how their beliefs, their faith communities and their practices grounded them, gave them context and made them feel like they belonged. People also shared with me how they were able to cope and make it through life because of the strength of their convictions.

• Any personal assumptions you found to be proven incorrect?

Although I felt strongly that everyone had a story and everyone wanted to be heard, I was convinced I would find a lot of resistance along the way. Because as a culture and as a society we deem religion to be a strictly private matter, I thought for sure I would encounter many people who would be offended or put off by questions about their beliefs. I was happy to find this to not be true. People are generally happy to answer questions about their beliefs and practices as long as they feel that the questions are genuine and well-intentioned. Because I made it clear that I was there to listen and learn, without bias or judgment, and because I was not interested in debate, people were perfectly comfortable answering the kinds of questions we usually wouldn’t dare ask at work (for instance, “How do you experience God?”)

Interfaith work was a field that I knew little to nothing about. Today my understanding of interfaith work is very different than it was when I started this project. One assumption I had was that people involved in interfaith believe all roads lead to Rome and sit around a campfire singing Kum Ba Yah, so to speak. I very quickly learned that interfaith work is deeply committed not only to religious issues but also social, political and economic issues. I learned that people committed to interfaith work are deeply devoted to their own personal beliefs, and that they are able to understand, learn about and respect the religions of others without necessarily accepting them as their own.

A common misconception in our day is that all religions are basically the same. To a certain degree I shared this assumption. While there are certainly similarities and common ground among religions, I now find it more helpful and much more interesting to talk about the things that distinguish each religion from the others. That’s where we really start to move forward.

Another assumption I found to be incorrect was that we are living in a post-religious world, that is, that religion is dying out with older generations. Religion, faith and spirituality are very much alive. They are alive because they are in flux. Christianity, for instance, is vibrant and effervescent among millennials. But it’s not the Christianity of the boomers. The fact that it can adapt and prove to be valid and relevant, continues to keep faith alive today and for generations to come. This is happening across religious traditions. Young Muslims in the U.S. are figuring out what it means to be an American Muslim while the generation before them is still working out what it means to be a Muslim in America. These tensions, this give and take, the exchange between culture and faith are not the death knell of religion but rather the spark that fuels its adaptation and survival.

• Has this experience changed you as a creative professional, a person, a father, a husband, a son?

When I set out on this project, I thought I would be an information gatherer. I thought my approach would have the detachment of academic research. Before too long, however, I found myself faced with questions and situations that challenged my personal beliefs. I knew that this project would change me, because the inevitability of change is one thing in which I’ve always believed. I just didn’t expect it to change me as much. One major change is that having a better appreciation and understanding of different religions has made me much more embracing of religious experience as a whole.

More than ever I believe today in the power of inquiry, that questions are always more interesting than answers. More than ever I believe that the range of religious and spiritual experiences is as vast and uniquely diverse as humankind itself. But most of all, I believe today more than ever, in the power of empathetic and active listening. I believe that having a genuine interest in what gives meaning to other people’s lives creates a more emotionally connected and compassionate world. I believe this experience has changed me at the core and by consequence I do think it has changed how I see myself as a professional, a father, a husband and a son.

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Thank you for following along on this journey. Stay tuned for a few more posts in the next few days. I’ll be sharing highlights from the gallery exhibit and my presentation. 

New Orleans, Day 6

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans Healing Center

My time in the city of New Orleans is coming to an end. As I pack my bag and look over the pamphlets, books and assorted items I’ve collected  and think of all the places I’ve been to and people I’ve met, it’s hard to believe it’s only been five days. You don’t really get to know a city in a week, but I feel like I’ve gotten a little taste of what is going on here and if I had to use one word to describe this place, it would be “enigmatic.” New Orleans has given me more questions than answers, and if you know me, then you’ll appreciate why that grants this city such a special place in my heart.

(The WiFi service in this hotel is rubbish, I’ll have to upload pictures later. In the meantime you can see them on Instagram @storiesofdevotion)

New Orleans, Day 5

Priestess Miriam Chamani, Voodoo Spiritual Temple

We sat in the temple for nearly two hours. It was a rather enlightening visit, and it was not at all what I expected. Although, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what I expected.

As our time drew to a close, I said, “I feel like you have not given me the answers I wanted. And yet, it seems you’ve given me the answers I needed.” She smiled. It was the smile of a sage.

It was time to say goodbye and I found myself at a loss for words. “You have given me a lot to think about,” was all I could say. “Well, don’t think about it too much,” she replied.  And so, that’s what I’m going to do.

Priestess Miriam Chamani

Priestess Miriam Chamani

New Orleans, Day 4

Saint Augustine Church

Saint Augustine Church. Faubourg Treme, New Orleans

Saint Augustine Church. Faubourg Treme, New Orleans

“Today we celebrate the 173rd anniversary of St. Augustine Church,” said the woman from the pulpit, moments before the procession began. While I’ve been traveling for this project, one of the hardest decisions has been which church to visit on a Sunday morning. I only have one Sunday morning in town and there are always so many great options. By the time I woke up this Sunday, I had narrowed it down to two churches. So, I did what any sensible 21st century netizen would do. I crowdsourced my decision. My Facebook friends resoundingly voted for St. Augustine. When I arrived, I was very happy to learn I was there during an anniversary celebration. How auspicious! (Thank you, FB friends.)

Saint Augustine Church stands on a piece of land that was part of the original Claude Treme plantation. Treme eventually subdivided his estate and began selling large tracts to free blacks and other buyers. A pamphlet at the church explains, “When the free people of color got permission from Bishop Antoine Blanc to build a church, the Ursuline Sisters donated the property at the corner of Bayou Road and Saint Claud, on the condition the church was named Saint Augustine, after one of their patron saints. And so it came to pass.”

"We Are Standing On Holy Ground!"

“We Are Standing On Holy Ground!”

“We are a church that is rooted in our history, but present in this moment,” says Pastor Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga, O.M.I. That history is rich and groundbreaking. In 1842, a few months before the dedication of the church, people of color began buying pews for their families. The pamphlet continues, “Upon hearing of this, white people in the area started their campaign to buy pews. Thus the War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free people of color, who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites. In an unprecedented political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the side aisle pews. They then gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship.”

This is a Catholic mass unlike any I’ve attended. All of the elements of the mass are there, but the music is joyous, loud and distinctly New Orleans. The choir consists of some eight to twelve singers who are accompanied by piano, saxophone, drums and percussion. Music is conducted by choir director, Carol LeBlanc, who alternates between piano and electric keyboard. The congregation claps, sings aloud and a few have tambourines. It is a soulful celebration, without a doubt.

Photos are only allowed before and after mass, so this is what it looked like after the pews had cleared.

Photos are only allowed before and after mass, so this is what it looked like after the pews had cleared.

It is one thing to visit this church and stand in awe of its history, of the role it played in the development of this city. It is a powerful thing to sit in the very pews that, as a sign indicates, “were reserved for and used exclusively by slaves from the date of the church’s dedication, October 9, 1842, until the slaves were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.” This sacred space is a house in which faith, politics, slavery, freedom, and race are inseparable. And it is yet another powerful thing to experience the mass here and see that this is not a museum or a monument, it is a living and thriving community even to this day.

Father Mulenga, who is originally from Zambia, has been at the church for only about three months. He preaches a fiery and uplifting service that challenges parishioners not to dwell in the past. In alluding to the rich heritage of this church, he says, “We like to say, ‘We used to…’ a lot.” He talks about times when the church has had to hold three masses on Sunday to accommodate the numbers of people. Today, the congregation has dwindled significantly. “We have a history to celebrate. But we must move forward.” I look around and it seems to me the place is quite packed, it doesn’t look like a dwindling congregation to me. And it certainly doesn’t sound like one, either. People agree with resounding “amens,” there’s applause, there’s a sense that this is the pastor the church needs right now.

The entrance to the church.

The entrance to the church.

One of the perhaps unintended results of the “War of the Pews” in 1842 was that Saint Augustine became the most integrated congregation in the country. The pamphlet states that there was “one large row of free people of color, one large row of whites with a smattering of ethnic folk, and two outer aisles of slaves.” Today, this is still a diverse congregation, racially and generationally.

After the mass, as we make our way to the fellowship hall for an anniversary reception, Father Mulenga greets me warmly. I mention how much I’ve enjoyed the mass and he tells me this is an exciting place. I have to agree, as I’m still glowing from the impassioned rendition of “We Are Standing On Holy Ground” with which the service ended. This is indeed holy ground, in every sense of the word. And I’m so grateful to have been here.

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located in the garden plot of Saint Augustine Church. This shrine, consisting of grave crosses, chains and shackles is dedicated to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located in the garden plot of Saint Augustine Church. This shrine, consisting of grave crosses, chains and shackles is dedicated to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.

 

New Orleans, Day 3

Bethany Church, Baton Rouge

The Bethany Crosses stand by Interstate 10 and can be seen from quite a distance.

The Bethany Crosses stand by Interstate 10 and can be seen from quite a distance.

It was a lovely drive to Baton Rouge from New Orleans today. Along the way I stopped to visit a plantation and a couple of historic churches. But my final destination for the day was Bethany Church, which was recommended by a good friend who is familiar with the area. I looked up the church online beforehand, and I knew I had to make the trek just for this. I also knew to look for three massive crosses standing near the highway, visible from a good distance. The Bethany crosses are an icon of the area, and they are truly a sight to behold.

The church is located within an industrial complex, which seems strange until you realize how much land the church has and how many thousands congregate throughout an average weekend. I parked the car, walked toward the entrance and was immediately greeted by two very friendly staff members. One of them, Katie, walked me into the foyer and pointed out several areas of interest…the VIP table (more on that in a bit), the coffee station, the entrance to the auditorium. I was struck by the modern and bright interiors, which contrasted with the drab, warehouse look of the outside. And then we walked right by what appeared to be an ATM mounted on the wall. A churchgoer had just swiped her credit card and was in the middle of a transaction. I asked Katie what that was, and I could tell she had answered that question many times before. “A lot of people find it much more convenient to give their tithe electronically, they use their card and their tithe is withdrawn automatically,” she said. I was truly surprised, I had never seen -or known of- such a thing. “We also have the old school method,” she added, pointing to a wall pocket filled with tithing envelopes.

Worshippers make their way into the auditorium.

Worshippers make their way into the auditorium.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably bristling at the thought of an Automated Tithing Machine. My first thought was, “Well, that is the limit! I have seen it all! This is crazy!” And then, almost immediately, I remembered how many times I’ve been upset at an independent merchant for not having a Square card reader so that I could pay with my credit card. I remembered every time I’ve wanted to give a donation or offering at a place of worship only to realize I don’t have any cash. And that’s when it hit me; this is a church for today, why would they not have an electronic option? And, why should I be surprised that they do? This is the year 2014 after all, when cash is a dirty necessary evil we have to remember to carry around for those ever-decreasing prehistoric pecuniary transactions.

My “worship experience,” as the church refers to its services, was a deep contrast with all of the historic churches and cathedrals I’ve visited lately. You won’t find sacred art in this church. You won’t see an organ or a choir loft. In fact, there isn’t even a pulpit. Instead of pews, there are comfy chairs. Instead of stained-glass windows, there are two giant projection screens flanking the stage. In place of an altar, there are bright, colorful lights and laser visualizations. As you walk in, you can’t help but notice the TV cameras hoisted upon large cranes. An outsider like myself can be easily distracted, even put off, by all of the cutting edge-technology and the exacting level of audio-visual production. But as the service begins and as I look around, the congregants don’t even seem to notice it. They are absorbed in worship, focused on what they have come here to do. To me, this resembles a sound stage for American Idol much more than it does a church. Only the music is better. A lot better.

Old world and new world tithing! Automated Tithing Machine on the right.

Old world and new world tithing! Automated Tithing Machine on the right.

For about thirty minutes the worship band leads the congregation in song. The band is comprised of highly skilled and talented musicians. There are two electric guitarists; one of them controls the sequenced tracks. Then there is a drummer, a pianist, a bassist and the band leader sings and plays acoustic guitar. Five supporting vocalists complete the ensemble. The music is modern and anthemic, it reminds me a lot of the upbeat drone of bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Coldplay and classic U2. I’m particularly moved by a beautifully arranged interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, which is modern yet tasteful.

I say “modern yet tasteful” because although I love technology, rock music, and flawless audio-visual production, these are not the things I look for in worship. My preference is the for the high church liturgy of the Episcopal church. Give me vestments, give me bells and whistles, give me choirs in robes, give me Bach, give me gothic architecture and incense, and I’m in heaven. Those are the things I associate with the sacred. But as I’m coming to find, one man’s experience of the divine is another man’s stodgy, outdated, organized religion.

Pop worship and light show.

Pop worship and light show.

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill takes the stage as the band winds down. He leads the church in prayer and proceeds to share the results of a challenge he gave the church a couple of weeks ago. A videoclip rolls on the screens and we see church members delivering checks to financially stricken families, we see a couple of people receiving the gift of a car. I learn that in an effort to emulate the early church of Acts, Bethany Church has raised money and resources to meet the needs of their community. In just one week, the church (which counts approximately 6000 members across a number of campuses) has managed to raise nearly $80,000 to help those in need. Families on the verge of foreclosure and eviction have been provided with enough funds to avoid losing their homes. Electricity has been restored for households that have lost power due to their inability to pay the bills. And of the six cars that were donated, two have already been given to people in need of transportation. This is amazing stuff, and nothing about it seems inauthentic. Pastor Stockstill talks about “unlocking the hand of generosity,” and he asserts that “this is how the early church did it.”

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill

The second half of the service consists of Pastor Stockstill’s sermon. He is a gifted and charismatic preacher. He speaks about the power of prayer, emphasizing the need for Christians to pray both in private and corporately. He confesses that even for him, prayer is still a struggle. It is a discipline and a requirement for all Christians, “not just the hyper spiritual ones,” he says. He preaches from the book of Acts and on a couple of occasions he asks us, if we have our Bibles, to turn to a certain chapter and verse. Only this is isn’t really necessary as scripture passages appear on the large TV monitor by his side, from which he reads them aloud. A life without prayer is aimless and empty, as he says; it is merely religion. “Religion is doing a God-thing without God,” he proclaims, adding that we want to have a relationship, not a religion.

The service ends with a call to prayer and a call to accept Jesus Christ, for those who haven’t already done so. A few hands are raised and Pastor Stockstill says a special prayer for them. He asks for those who have made a decision to accept Jesus to please head for the VIP table in the foyer so that church volunteers may meet with them, answer any questions and give them a gift. And then the band takes the stage once again and church is dismissed with a refrain of an earlier song. I did not raise my hand during prayer, but I head for the VIP table all the same because that’s where Katie has invited me to meet after service for a chat.

The VIP table and the coffee station are the place to be after the service.

The VIP table and the coffee station are the place to be after the service.

People are gathered around the coffee station; there are cookies, too. Parents are retrieving their children from child care and kids’ activities. When I see Katie again I tell her how much I enjoyed the service. She asks me to fill out a visitors card and gives me a VIP folder with information about the church. Enclosed is a CD with a welcome message from Pastor Stockstill as well as three tracks by the worship band. I also get a reusable cup and straw emblazoned with the church’s logo. It’s all really quite nice. I remark about the prevalence of technology throughout the church and how user-friendly my worship experience has been. She tells me they make every effort to have visitors and members feel as welcome as possible. She tells me about the history of the church, which has just celebrated its 51st anniversary. It’s been about 14 years since they moved into the current space and a lot has changed since then.

The church was founded by Roy Stockstill and later taken over by his son, Larry Stockstill. Three years ago, Larry’s son, Jonathan assumed the pastorship and things really started changing. Katie tells me Bethany was already a vibrant church, with great worship music and preaching, but it looked nothing like what it does today. With Pastor Jonathan in place, the church started moving quickly into a more technology-driven experience. In came the screens, the concert lighting, the electronic tithing station and the smartphone app. The church moved firmly into the online age. But the improvements did not stop with technology. In fact, technology simply enabled the congregation to be more actively engaged in the life of the church. Katie joined a wave of volunteers three years ago and today she is on staff as Volunteer Coordinator. Programs were developed, small groups instituted, ministry opportunities created, and with all of this the church has experienced significant growth. Today, the church holds three weekend services on this campus as well as various other services throught their other campuses. They have also begun a Spanish service which is already averaging one hundred in attendance. This church is alive and engaged. It is a spiritually-rich and community-driven body that reflects in its membership a diversity across generations, race, and socio-economic levels.

Services are recorded and broadcasted on the web and on TV.

Services are recorded and broadcasted on the web and on TV.

I’ve already taken quite a bit of Katie’s time by this point and she has work to do, so I say my thank-yous and I go sit on a comfy couch in the lobby. As I reach for my phone, I wonder if they have a wireless internet connection. Of course they do. This makes me smile. I may be an old soul when it comes to church, but I’ve changed my mind about modern Christianity. I no longer see all of these technological advances as trappings or gimmicks. Why should Christianity today conform to my Luddite preferences? I was brought up in the Nazarene church, a conservative evangelical tradition. And as I logged on to Bethany’s guest wifi I remembered the time I learned how so many of the hymns in the Nazarene hymnal were original drinking songs (or so I was told). I thought about how many times the church has reinvented itself through the ages, changing with the times. I think about all the technological, architectural and engineering advances made in the construction of cathedrals of old. And it makes perfect sense that today’s church should be at the forefront, that it should make use of modern technology and music in worship. It seems such a simple yet significant realization, the church remains relevant in great part because it adapts to our modern proclivities.

As I leave, a t-shirt worn by a volunteer catches my eye. It reads, “Church doesn’t start until the service is over.” It takes me back to what I heard earlier, about how this church raised so much money and so many resources for the neediest in their community. And, it also makes me realize a very important truth. The church is not the flying buttresses, the jumbotrons, the pipe organ, the electric guitars. The church is not the alms boxes, the automated tithing machines, the prayer books, the smartphone apps. The church is the people.

New Orleans, Day 2

Congo Square, Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, Touro Synagogue

Tonight’s entry is more of a photo essay. I’ve been walking all day and I’ve just returned from a Kol Nidrei service at Touro Synagogue. It has been an exhausting, but most rewarding, day.

I joined a walking tour of Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, which took us through several places of interest. Here you see our tour guide, NU’Awlons Natescott. It’s a funny name, but he was very serious about his history and storytelling.

NU'Awlons Natescott stands in front of where Marie Laveau's house once stood. The plaque reads, "1020-22 Rue St. Ann - Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.

NU’Awlons Natescott stands in front of where Marie Laveau’s house once stood. The plaque reads, “1020-22 Rue St. Ann – Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.

Congo Square, another highlight of our tour, is in the heart of what is now known as Louis Armstrong Park.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves would gather here on Sundays to sing, dance and drum in West African tradition. The sculpture seen here commemorates this history.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves would gather here on Sundays to sing, dance and drum in West African tradition. The sculpture seen here commemorates this history.

The area surrounding Congo Square was considered sacred ground by the Houmas Indians even before the arrival of the French. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Square was well-known for the Sunday gatherings of enslaved Africans, with attendance ranging from 500 to 600. Some of the dances practiced here were the Bamboula, the Calinda and the Congo. And, according to our guide, these are significant dances in Voodoo religion. It is important to note that these dances are the genesis of Mardi Gras, jazz and rhythm and blues.

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Opened in 1789, this is the oldest of the Saint Louis Cemeteries and among the notables buried here is Marie Laveau. However, there is controversy and confusion surrounding this fact. The tomb believed to house her remains bears a plaque stating that this is her reputed burial place. The tomb is a main attraction for tourists and devotees, and as such has suffered a great deal of vandalism. It is currently being restored.

This is the tomb of Marie Laveau's daughter and it is believed to also be the final resting place of Marie Laveau herself.

This is the tomb of Marie Laveau’s daughter and it is believed to also be the final resting place of Marie Laveau herself.

Our tour guide is an excellent storyteller, he builds up intrigue and tells us he is going to show us where Marie Laveau is actually buried. We walk down the narrow street of this City of the Dead, as these cemeteries are known, and come upon this tomb.

Aside from the XXX markings, this tomb is unmarked. Our tour guide assures us this is where Laveau is actually buried. The XXX markings are left by practitioners and devotees, they are petitions to Laveau. At the foot of the tomb we see various offerings and artifacts.

Aside from the XXX markings, this tomb is unmarked. Our tour guide assures us this is where Laveau is actually buried. The XXX markings are left by practitioners and devotees, they are petitions to Laveau. At the foot of the tomb we see various offerings and artifacts.

Tonight I attended a Kol Nidrei service at Touro Synagogue. This beautiful liturgy of repentance, confession and atonement marks the beginning of fasting for Yom Kippur. Rabbi Alexis Berk delivered a wonderful sermon, of which I’ve requested a copy. I hope to have permission to post it here, either in its entirety or in fragments.

Congregants arrive for Kol Nidrei service.

Congregants arrive for Kol Nidrei service.

Touro Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in the country. It was founded in 1828 and it was the first synagogue outside of the original thirteen colonies. The present sanctuary was built in 1909, in the Byzantine style. It is an impressively beautiful space and it was full to capacity for tonight’s service.

A few minutes before the service began.

A few minutes before the service began.

New Orleans, Day 1

Voodoo

This is my first visit to New Orleans. Technically speaking, it’s my second, but I was barely three years old the first time so I don’t remember it at all. My mother tells me I got lost in the middle of a crowd and that she’s forever grateful to the police officer who found me and carried me on his shoulders so my parents could spot me. If ever there was a city preceded by its reputation, it is this. Even months away from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter is bursting with revelers. Walking through these streets after dark is an assault to the senses, all five of them. This is not a place to go in search of the sacred. Or, is it?

Voodoo Spiritual Temple

Voodoo Spiritual Temple

New Orleans was on my list from the beginning of this project. I came here searching for a unique spiritual landscape, and half a day into my visit, I’m convinced I’ve found just that. My first priority was to explore the culture, tradition and practices of Voodoo. To that end, I headed straight for the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. I would have missed the nondescript, little building had I not known exactly what it looked like from the photos I found in my research.

As I walked into the place, I found myself in the middle of a shop filled with voodoo dolls, incense, and all sorts of paraphernalia and artifacts for sale. The attendant at the desk was very kind and informed me that the priestess was in the middle of a reading and wouldn’t be available for another hour. I explained I’d called a few times and left messages, I didn’t mean to simply barge in. After I explained the reason for my visit, she asked if I’d been to the Voodoo Museum and said it was just a few blocks down. We agreed I’d go visit the museum and come back to talk with Priestess Miriam Chamani, founder and Queen Mother of the temple.

In the Voodoo Museum

In the Voodoo Museum

All I knew about Voodoo before today was the Hollywood narrative and the scary stories I heard in church youth group about evil forces and dark spirits. It is a very marketable story and it makes for excellent entertainment. But beyond the kitsch and the lore, there is a very rich history and tradition that thrives to this day among private societies where true Voodoo is practiced. But it’s not easily found. Walking into the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, I find myself again in a store with all sorts of paraphernalia and gifts. At the back of the shop, behind a desk, sits Dr. John T. Martin, Voodoo Priest and museum keeper. I ask a few questions, pay my admission fee and walk into the museum area. It is a small space, but it is chock full of altars, artifacts, portraits, statuettes and other various items.

The room at the back houses a main altar and a legend that reads:

“This is typical of the type of altar that may be found throughout Louisiana. This is a working altar and is frequently used in rituals and changed around to invoke and propitiate different spirits. The Catholic Saints represent the Voodoo Spirits. Candles, incense, oils, cigars and other such items are used as offerings. A glass of water is present to absorb negative energies and a few drops are sprinkled on the altar daily to refresh the spirits. The center pole is believed to serve as a channel for the Spirits to come down. During a ceremony, offerings of food and drink are made, then may be consumed by the participants after they have been blessed. The drums are used to summon the spirits and various dances are performed as offerings and to facilitate possession of the dancer by the spirits.”

Voodoo Altar

Voodoo Altar

Although my knowledge of Voodoo is minimal, there is a lot about this room and these artifacts that feels familiar. I’m reminded of spiritual healers and practices I grew up around in Mexico. The way that West African practices mixed with European Catholic beliefs in Louisiana, is reminiscent of the way Prehispanic spiritual traditions mixed with Catholic beliefs in Mexico. I’ve always been interested in this syncretism that breeds a new kind of spirituality. In Mexico, for instance, Day of the Dead is the product of Prehispanic spiritual practices and Catholic tradition. Dia de Muertos as we know it did not exist before the clash of these two worlds.

Voodoo originated as a collection of socio-political-religious practices native to West Africa. In this religious practice, devotees experience a direct contact with the spirits. And the word “voodoo,” well, it simply means “spirits.” The Museum’s guide dispels the notion that Voodoo is evil and black magic. Instead, it claims that Voodoo is benign, “A selfish desire is considered an evil intent. Usually a Voodoo Priestess (Queen) or Priest (Doctor) will reject any request to make an evil petition to the spirits. A portrait of Marie Laveau is one of the centerpieces of the museum. Laveau was a famous healer and is considered the matriarch of New Orleans Voodoo. Born a “free woman of color” in 1801, she came to be known as a devout Catholic and humanitarian.

Dr. John T. sits under the portrait of Marie Laveau

Dr. John T. sits under the portrait of Marie Laveau

After visiting the corridors and rooms of the museum, I had a brief conversation with Dr. John T. He was holding a small python in his arms, which I don’t remember noticing when I first arrived. We exchange a few pleasantries and then I tell him why I am in New Orleans. “I’m here looking for sacred spaces,” I say. His face changes, I feel like I’ve just said something wrong, then after a second or two, almost whispering he says, “They are few and far between.” He is speaking so softly I’m actually struggling to hear him, so I lean in a little closer. He bemoans the fact that the practice of Voodoo has lost its true meaning, and I think of all the “Voodoo” t-shirts and tchotchkes I’ve seen walking down the streets just this afternoon. And then he tells me, again in the softest whisper, that most practitioners keep private altars. He himself doesn’t much open his home altar to outsiders. He tells me of a few other places I should visit and people I should talk to. This is great, it’s what I was hoping for, and I’m still surprised that the mention of “sacred spaces” brought this on, as though I spoke a code word I didn’t even know I had.

Back at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, I finally meet Queen Mother Miriam. She is a joyous presence, dressed in bright colors and looking quite regal. It has been a long and draining day for her, filled with private consultations. But she kindly entertains a few of my questions and regales me, the attendant, and a couple other visitors with parables about seeking. This, because when asked what tradition I practiced I answered that I was a seeker. She asks me to come back for a proper visit and we make arrangements for Monday. I can’t express how thrilled I am, this is my first contact with Voodoo and I get to visit with a Queen Mother.

It’s getting late and I haven’t had lunch or dinner, so I look for a place to eat. Night has fallen by the time I leave the restaurant. My walk back to the hotel takes me through Bourbon Street, and what an experience that is. People, people, and more people, walking, laughing, drinking, having a good time. It’s exciting, it’s what the French Quarter is all about. And it’s also a little strange for me, I feel a little lost. These are profane spaces, what am I doing here? My answer comes moments later when I notice a man and a woman praying over a bar tender on the sidewalk. They each have Bibles in their hands and they are wearing t-shirts with Christian slogans, “Ask me how Jesus can change your life,” “Not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I wait around for them to finish praying and I approach them. “Are you with a church?” I ask. “Yes,” the man replies. He goes on to explain that they are here just about every night, expecially on the weekends, and they go around praying for the workers on Bourbon Street. He is very warm and genuine, there isn’t an ounce of judgment in his words. I look around and see nothing but the kind of environment an Evangelical Christian would typically stay as far away from as possible. “It must be very difficult to do the work you do here,” I say. “Not really,” the woman affirms. The man (I didn’t get their names) tells me ther rarely experience rejection or confrontation. In fact, he tells me, it is quite often the case that people accept Jesus Christ as their Savior right here on these sidewalks. “That’s pretty amazing,” I say. “You see,” he tells me, “When you are in a very dark place, all you need is a match to light the way. And we don’t have a match, we have the most powerful light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Preaching and praying along Bourbon Street

Preaching and praying along Bourbon Street

They’re busy doing their rounds and I’ve detained them long enough, so we agree to meet again tomorrow night. But they leave me with the assurance that I am in the right place. I’m learning that the sacred and the profane are oftentimes found right next to each other. In fact, they are often so intertwined you can’t have one without the other. I think this is going to be a great week.

Odds and Ends

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, so I want to give a brief update on what I’ve been up to. The two week-long trips I’ve taken during this project (first New York, then San Francisco) have left me exhausted physically and mentally upon my return. Exhausted in the best possible sense of the word, of course. As it turns out, seven jam-packed days of visits, interviews, walking (or climbing, in the case of San Francisco) and writing from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I crash at night are something of a marathon. It’s a rush to be so focused from sun up to sun down on this project. And, as incredibly happy as I always am to come back home to my family, I also go through a bit of a grieving period after coming down from the proverbial mountain top.

But, hey, there’s always the next trip! And planning that trip is one of the things I’ve occuppied myself with in these past few weeks. It’s always so exciting to read about the sacred spaces, the diversity of cultures and religions, and the people I will meet at my next week-long immersion. I have the next location programmed and I’ve charted most of the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and spiritual centers I’ll be visiting. I don’t want to give it away just yet, because I like suspense. But I’ll give you a hint: voodoo!

I’ve also conducted a good number of interviews that I need to commit to writing and post on the blog. There are great stories coming up in the next few days and weeks from people with fascinating backgrounds and experiences with Paganism, agnosticism, esoteric spirituality, Christianity and Islam. And I’ve also been lining up a few weeks worth of interviews here in our local community as well as visits to sacred spaces. In a way, this has been a time of regrouping and administrative work.

As always, I’ve been reading. One of my favorite writers of the moment is religious historian Karen Armstrong. I’m nearly finished with one of her bestsellers, “A History of God.” This is a challenging work that surveys the understanding of God in the three Abrahamic faiths over a period of 4,000 years. One of the questions I often ask of believers is, “How do you experience God?” What I really want to know is how individuals from different theistic traditions define God, but I have come to find that this is an impossible and perhaps even useless question. In an interview, Armstrong was asked to define God, and without skipping a beat she said, “It can’t be done.” She went on to explain that to define means “to put limits on.” You can define a territory, you can define a concept, but God is beyond all that. God is beyond limits, and therefore beyond definition. However, asking people how they experience God has yielded some very insightful answers. In this book, Armstrong does a brilliant job of laying out the theological, practical and philosophical evolution of humankind’s yearning to understand and explain God.

One of the many pearls of wisdom Armstrong gathers in this book is a quote of St. Thomas Aquinas’ that seems as relevant today as groundbreaking as it must’ve been some 900 years ago:

“Hence in the last resort all that man knows of God is to know that he does not know him, since he knows that what God is surpasses all that we can understand of him.”

I will leave you with that for the moment, as I’m sure it should give you quite a bit to think about. But stay tuned, there is more to come. Thank you for following along, and as always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.

San Francisco, Day 7

Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church

This morning’s worship experience was truly something else. I’ve observed and participated in my fair share of religious services, but none quite like the “A Love Supreme Meditation” and “Coltrane Liturgy” at Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Both are held every Sunday morning and early afternoon at the Church, which is located in a store front in the Fillmore area of San Francisco. I decided to attend both the meditation and the service.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

The meditation began at 10:30 with the recitation of John Coltrane’s testimony, as it appears in the liner notes of his 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme. We were then guided in a group meditation by Deacon Marlee-I Mystic. For me, this was unlike any meditation I’d ever practiced. When I meditate, it is almost always in silence. This meditation, however, consisted of focusing our attention on the music of A Love Supreme. The Coltrane classic is a suite in four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. In between parts, the meditation leader delivered recitation that focused our attention on certain spiritual themes. The meditation concluded with us singing the words of the poem, Psalm, set to the tune played on saxophone by Coltrane. Following the meditation, we were invited to share any thoughts, feelings or reactions to the meditation. It seemed everyone had something to share, including myself.

I’ve been listening to music much more intentionally for the past few years, but today was a completely different experience. When I think of jazz music, I think of smoke-filled, dimly-lit night clubs. A Love Supreme, however, is a different kind of work. Coltrane wrote it as a spiritual offering and today, along with a number of the Coltrane-devotees, I listened to it as such. It was transformational, not in that I experienced some sort of supernatural thing, but in the way that for thirty some minutes I was so present in the moment and with the music. I shared how greateful I was to have had such a new and special experience.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

The Coltrane Liturgy begins at 11:45. By this time, the congregation has doubled, perhaps tripled. By my count there are nine instrumentalists, the Ministers of Sound; four vocalists, the Voices of Compassion; and a tap dancer. The service consists of a series of free-form jazz compositions with occasional sung parts. For approximately an hour and a half, the Church is stirred into a worshipful trance as one piece of music leads into another. Archbishop Franzo King, D.D. on tenor saxophone walks around, functioning as band director, trading solos with a baritone saxophonist. Rev. Wanika King Stephens plays bass and Deacon Max Haqq goes back from alto sax to drums. There is a conga player, a drummer, a djembe player, a keyboardist, and a harmonica player. But this is only today, I learn later that there are times when there are even more musicians. The procession, opening prayer, confession, introit, and Lord’s prayer are all interpreted musically. And then before Psalm 23, there is a tap dance solo, accompanied by bass. This is something I’ve never seen in church, and it is both impressive and moving.

Then comes the collect and the scripture readings, which don’t have musical accompaniment. For the first time all morning, this begins to resemble the kind of mass to which I’m accustomed. After the offering, Pastor Stephens takes the pulpit and preaches an inspirational sermon on the nature of God-given creativity. She quotes Saint John Coltrane throughout, reminding us how he said, “All great artistic expression is truth.” And she also quotes from “Psalm” in a Love Supreme, “God breathes through us so completely…so gently, we hardly feel it. Yet, it is our everything.” It’s approximately 2:30 when the service comes to an end. I have an opportunity to speak with several of the church members. Their warm welcome and genuine interest make me feel at home, as though I’m visiting with old friends. I was nervous and a little uneasy at the beginning of the service, and as I left, I felt so happy. I don’t know how else to explain it. Just happy.

– – –

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary's Cathedral said I should go for "last chance mass."

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary’s Cathedral said I should go for “last chance mass.”

It is my last night in San Francisco and I find it fitting to conclude my visit with the 9:00 pm Candlelight Mass at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church. This Church, a beautiful example of neo-gothic architecture, is a sight to behold when lit by candles on a dark Sunday night. I was surprised to see so many people in attendance, there must’ve been a couple hundred. And then, when the service began, I realized this was a very special and beautiful mass. It’s no wonder attendance is so high! I can’t think of a better way to have brought my visit in this wonderful city to a close. I have so enjoyed getting to know this city, its people and its sacred spaces. I go home with a full heart, with unforgettable experiences and with a few new friendships formed. And I hope to come back soon.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.