Author: storiesofdevotion

New York, Day 6

The Riverside Church in New York, The Rev. Al Sharpton preaching

The view from the balcony at Riverside Church.

The view from the balcony at Riverside Church.

“The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international congregation which strives to be open, affirming and welcoming.” If there’s anything this church wants you to remember about them, it’s that. The message, or a variation of it, appears in worship folders, pamphlets, bulletins, on website, and the staff and volunteers will say it, too. Our tour guide, after the service, told us this is something of which they’re proud. It is evident that the church lives by this ideal, you can see it and you can feel it as you look around.

I’ve been fortunate to visit a great number of sacred spaces throughout Manhattan this week, and they’re all beautiful and awe-inspiring in their own right. But it’s been clear that it’s the people who gather there and form those communities that give these spaces life and meaning. Riverside Church is such a place. Yes, the building is as amazing as you can imagine a Rockefeller funded church to be. But it’s the church’s people and vision, from it’s very beginning until today, that makes it matter. A list of notable speakers at Riverside includes Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name only a few. And today I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. Al Sharpton deliver a powerful message, entitled, “God is Here,” which was also the theme for the whole service.

After a few initial words, Rev. Sharpton addressed the incident a just a few days ago of Eric Garner’s death, resulting from an argument with the police and ending in his death as a result of a police chokehold. This is a devastating incident that has New Yorkers reeling over racial tensions and excessive use force by the police. When Rev. Sharpton received the news, he said, “My mind went back twenty years ago, where I went to the same Staten Island, same precinct, young man named Ernest Sayon had been killed by police men in an altercation very similar. The march that weekend was led by myself and others, the march yesterday, led by myself and others. Twenty years ago, the mayor’s name was Giuliani, the commisioner’s name was Bratton. Twenty years later, the mayor’s name is DiBlasio, the commisioner’s name is Bratton. There’s a lot different twenty years later, yet, we will see if a lot remains the same. One thing that is different is that there’s a video this time.”

A historic pulpit.

A historic pulpit.

Rev. Sharpton went on to talk about the thing that bothers him most in the face of this tragedy, the fact that the nation does not seem to react with a sense of humanity. “Have we gotten so cold and withdrawn?” he says, and he continues, “And does the faith community this morning, churches all over the city of New York gathered, do we deal with this moment with impeccable laryngitis, not even addressing what children in the streets see?” “God is here?” he wondered. And then he added, “Well, maybe the reason people doubt it is those of us who claim to represent God show up missing in action.”

Rev. Sharpton’s faith demands action. It is a faith that is evidenced by advocacy in favor of the opressed, by fighting for justice. President Obama, speaking about Sharpton, is quoted as saying he is “the voice of the voiceless and a champion for the downtrodden.” Sharpton’s faith and social justice work are deeply intertwined. When he talks about gun violence in cities like Chicago, he says, “God is here? Well, where are the representatives of God?” He continues, “We’re comparing notes, like were in some Olympic competition of murder, seeing which city has the worst gun violence. Yet, the people of faith have not challenged gun manufacturers, have not challenged the congress that will not even pass background checks. Can you imagine members of congress that want photo ID to vote but no background checks to buy a gun?”

It was honor to meet Rev. Sharpton and shake his hand.

It was honor to meet Rev. Sharpton and shake his hand.

I find this approach to faith very compelling. Rev. Sharpton talks about a faith that demands involvement in our communities, a faith that is shown by how we fight for equality and justice. This is a faith that doesn’t shy away from getting involved in the political system, where change can actually be made. The way we know God is here, he contends, is by how God works through us to effect change. He remembers a time when, whatever happened in the world, there were people of faith leading the way and setting a moral tone. He laments the fact that while on one side of the Manhattan the economy is booming, on the other side people are starving. “Same island!” he remarks. “Yet we take our Bibles on Sunday morning and we get our favorite hymns ready. And we sing to a God beyond the sky. But I’ve come to tell you, God is not up here, he’s down here.” And if God is down here, he continues, “He knows what we did and what we didn’t do.”

“God is here. But, are you here with God?” asked Sharpton. “And if you are how is that demonstrated in your life? What have you done to enhance social fairness, social justice and equality. God gave you life so you could bless other lives.”
YOU CAN WATCH THE WHOLE SERVICE AT RIVERSIDE CHURCH’S WEBSITE!

If you don’t have a lot of time, start at 00:39 for an excellent introduction by The Rev. James A. Forbes, or skip to 00:54 to where Rev. Sharpton’s message begins.

Advertisements

New York, Day 5

The Who & The What, Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA)

Faith, family, gender and cultural identity are explored in “The Who & The What,” a play at once moving and thought provoking. It is the story of a devout muslim man and his two adult daughters. We learn early on that the mother has passed on, a victim of cancer. Zarina, the oldest, is a writer with a very progressive and human understanding of the Prophet. When her sister, Mahwish asks what the subject of her novel is, Zarina replies, “gender politics,” and then clarifies, “women and Islam.”

Because of my upbringing and my undergraduate studies, I’m much more steeped in Christianity than in any other religious tradition. I’ve learned quite a bit about Buddhism over the past couple of years, but I’m very much still a beginner. When it comes to Islam, I’ve barely scratched the surface. In my reading of the Holy Quran, however, there are matters of gender disparity that I’m still struggling to understand. So I found myself identifying with Zarina and her theories about the Prophet and the revelation. But of course, most of the audience seemed to identify with her too.

Afzal is a loving father who has sacrificed so much for his family and who’s only desire is to see his daughters happy. But his conservative views and Zarina’s liberal views are diametrically opposed, and so conflict arises. Over the course of two acts, we see the small family struggle with tradition, with faith, with gender and generational differences. These are painfully divisive matters for father and daughter and while there is some comedic relief, I found myself tearing up a few times (I’m sure the fact that I’ve missed my two daughters this week contributed a bit).

Not my photo. Taken from the Lincoln Center's website.

Not my photo. Taken from the Lincoln Center’s website.

I’m fascinated with the notion of struggling with one’s faith. For me it was an essential part of growing up and developing my identity. So, it was very interesting to see this struggle transpire, albeit on stage, within the context of a faith tradition other than my own. When Zarina’s father gets a hold of her manuscript and reads it, he is appalled and fearful not only that she may have blasphemed, but that there might be serious and fatal consequences as a result. I didn’t have to worry about that. When I struggled with my faith I was worried I might at worst offend someone and at best earn a spot on their prayer list. But Afzal is genuinely concerned that his daughter may bring physical harm upon herself. So, naturally, the implications of challenging traditional theological views are vastly different within the context of Islam.

Zarina stands by her claims that casting the Prophet under a more human light only makes him more remarkable. She contends that questioning longstanding assumptions is not disrespectful. She stands for inquiry while her father declares, “I have no questions.” Zarina’s faith is never at risk, in fact she ends up marrying an Imam. Rather, she struggles with her faith so that she may more fully own and express it. But the conflict is too great for this father-daughter relationship to bear and Afzal ends up banishing her from the family and he forbids Mahwish from ever mentioning her name. Where the play succeeds, for me, is that we are able to see both Afzal and Zarina objectively. He is not a bad father and she is not a bad daughter, they have just not been able to reconcile their differences. He struggles to uphold the faith of his ancestors while she tries to redefine the faith for a new, American reality. There is a semblance of a resolution in the end, but the struggle remains.

As I left the theater, I happened upon the Museum of Biblical Art. I hadn’t planned on visiting, in fact, I didn’t know about it. But I’m very glad to have happened upon it. The current exhibit, “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden,” is a collection of whimsical, poignant and unexpect takes on the themes of the Garden of Eden, paradise lost, temptation and the loss of innocence.

“Eden as the perfect natural paradise -now lost- is a significant metaphor for the conflicted relationship between humans and the natural world. The works in the exhibition illustrate ways in which we continue to attempt to recreate paradise in our gardens and surroundings, as wel as demonstrate the disastrous effects we have had on the environment.”

Since photography was allowed, I’m able to share with you two of my favorite pieces.

Fred Tomaselli Study for Expulsion 2000 Leaves, pills, acryllic, photocollage, and resin on wood panel

Fred Tomaselli
Study for Expulsion
2000
Leaves, pills, acryllic, photocollage, and resin on wood panel

The figures of Adam and Eve are based on a fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio, which Tomaselli chose for its particularly emotional rendering of the Expulsion. Through this iconic image, the artist considers the eternal human search to find paradise again.

Mark Dion The Serpent Before the Fall 2014 Artificial and natural plants, wood, papier-maché, and magic sculpt

Mark Dion
The Serpent Before the Fall
2014
Artificial and natural plants, wood, papier-maché, and magic sculpt

At the end of the Garden of Eden story, the serpent is cursed by God to crawl on its belly. Some have interpreted this to mean that previously the serpent had four legs. Mark Dion imagined such a creature in a display at a natural history museum, and brought that to fruition in his work.

 

 

 

New York, Day 4

Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Central Synagogue

Today I visited Strawberry Hills in Central Park, based on a friend’s recommendation. At first I wasn’t sure what visiting a site dedicated to the memory of John Lennon had to do with the theme of my work, but upon arriving and seeing the Imagine mosaic on the ground, I realized there might be something to it after all. There were lots of people there. I walked around for a bit and then I noticed two women placing flowers on the mosaic. There was a singer, too, and when he sang Imagine, the idea of imagining a world without religion really struck me. So I decided to ask a few people if they could imagine a world without religion. You can see what they said in the video.

 

You may say I'm a dreamer...

You may say I’m a dreamer…

Now, I realize “Imagine” is not an anti-religion song. I like that song as much as the next person and I’m actually a bit of a Lennon fan myself. I also truly respect the opinions of those who feel that a world without religion would be a better place. So many people have been hurt and discouraged by their religious communities, and we all know that most –if not all religions- have been guilty of countless atrocities throughout history. Surely we could all do without that. But, I wonder what else we would miss in a world without religion. I would miss the community, the beauty, the art, the notion of charity and lovingkindness, the sense of wonderment, tradition, so many good things. I know all of these things can exist without religion. But, it seems to me that religion has done a pretty good job of preserving and fostering these things through the ages.

If you do a Google search for “imagine no religion,” you will find a great deal of hits for atheistic slogans, conferences and memes. John Lennon’s famous song actually says, “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too.” While “imagine no religion,” is not a direct quote from the song, one would be hard-pressed not to make the connection. A black and white reading of these words might suggest that a solution to the world’s problems would be to eliminate religion altogether. I can sympathize with those who feel that way. A few years back I too read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” and Christopher Hitchens’ “Religion Poisons Everything.” I didn’t just read them, I devoured them.

But back to the song… I’m beginning to wonder whether “imagine no religion” might be taken out of context by activist atheists, the same way Leviticus 20:13 is taken out of context by fundamentalist Christians. Yes, over the ages people have killed and died in the name of religion. But they’ve also killed and died in the name of freedom, in the name of nationalism, in the name of any manner of ideologies. I also wonder whether it’s fair to use John Lennon, or even his words, as an anti-religious or atheistic messenger. After all, he’s also meant to have said, “I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”

I spent a good part of my day thinking about this, but my mind is nowhere near made. I’m very happy to have visited the site and it was good to see so many people congregated to pay their respects and celebrate John Lennon and his music. And for the record, my favorite verse is, “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”

Inside Central Synagogue.

Inside Central Synagogue.

The highlight of my day was attending my very first Shabbat service. Central Synagogue is one of the most beautiful sacred spaces I’ve visited. I arrived a few minutes before 6:00. I was greeted by an usher who immediately made me feel welcome and at ease. “Where are you visiting from?” He asked. I told him I was from Kansas City and without missing a beat he said, “Which one?” I was surprised, so I didn’t have the wherewithall to give my sassy reply, “Kansas City, Missouri. More city, less Kansas.” But I did say it was good of him to ask. He explained that the congregation meets in a smaller room over the summer due to so many people being out of town. He could tell I had really hoped to see the main sanctuary and asked me to stand by while he inquired about the possibility. He came back and told me there would more than likely be a guided visit after service. He offered me a kippah (the head covering, which until now I only knew as a yarmulke) and said I could sit anywhere.

The service was filled with lovely music and singing. Most of the readings, the hymns and the prayers were read in Hebrew, but English transliterations were available. This made it very easy for me to follow along and I rather enjoyed it. My (very minimal) biblical Hebrew came in handy, I don’t think my pronunciation was that bad (although I didn’t ask my neighbors). It was a joyous service and a very warm and welcoming one, too. I have visited a few synagogues in the past, but never during service. The reverence paid to the Torah scrolls was particularly striking to me, and I loved the way the Rabbi and cantor walked among the congregation holding the scrolls for people to touch. Most people tapped the scrolls lightly with their prayer books, and that’s what I did, too.

The sense of community was heightened by the way the seating was arranged in a circle around the table and the ark. The Rabbi and cantors stood in the middle but moved around throughout the service. So much of this service felt so familiar to me, having grown up in the Evangelical church. I was also struck by the sense of history and continuity as reflected by the acknowledgment of those commemorating the passing of a relative by way of a Yahrzeit prayer. Light refreshments were offered after service, which made for a great opportunity to meet with people and chat. What a joy it is to feel so warmly welcomed in a place and a faith that are not my own. I can’t imagine not having these opportunities and I’m grateful that I do.

New York, Day 3

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, Interfaith Center of New York, Islamic Cultural Center of New York, Ramadan Iftar Interfaith Dinner

 

"Like walking through a grove of sequoias."

“Like walking through a grove of sequoias.”

When I think of Gothic cathedrals, I tend to think of those imposing, majestic feats of architecture dating back from the 12th to the 16th century. As I arrived at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, I was immediately captivated by its magnitude and splendor. To my (very) untrained eye, it seemed like a structure that had stood in its place for a few centuries, if not as long as the city itself. But as the tour began, I quickly learned -much to my surprise- that not only is it a fairly recent building, but it is also still under construction. In his guide of Manhattan’s worship, “From Abyssinian to Zion,” David W. Dunlap says, “Wandering among the giant columns of one of the world’s largest cathedrals is an experience akin to an awe-struck journey through a grove of sequoias. But after 112 years -and counting- it is far from finished.” (My edition is 10 years old, so it’s actually 122 years and counting.) I don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to describe the sense of vastness I experienced walking through this Cathedral. For a little over an hour, as I admired the stained glass, the seven chapels, the craftsmanship and the sheer size of this place; I didn’t need to believe in something greater than myself, I could see it with my own eyes and walk it with my own feet. The very physical experience of feeling so small in a sacred space instills in me a sense of awe and wonderment. And I imagine that is part of the idea behind these massive structures, to remind us that God is greater than we can ever comprehend. The tour guide referred to it as “an unfinished cathedral” a number of times, and I found that an interesting point. Is anything ever finished?

Light upon light at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

Light upon light at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

On a much smaller scale, but equally captivating, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York is a sight to behold. This is a decidedly modern house of prayer, and it is one that I found particularly compelling. I arrived fifteen or twenty minutes before Thuhur, midday prayer. People were already beginning to congregate in the lower part of the building where a smaller prayer hall is located. I asked if I could visit the main space in the upper level and a staff member kindly escorted me to it and let me in. As he opened the door, I was suddenly bathed in sunlight and struck by the openness of this place. I had seen photographs of this hall and I had read Dunlap’s description, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was seeing with my own eyes. The mihrab (the niche tht points toward Mecca) is framed by inscriptions from the Quran, which I later learned include “Light upon Light; God guides to his light whom he will.” Here was another sacred space building on the theme of vastness and openness, only this one in contrast with the Cathedral I visited earlier was filled with natural light. In his description, Dunlap talks about the simplicity of this design as a necessity for avoiding national attributes due to its dependence on support from many Islamic countries. But he also notes that, “Simplicity also encourages meditation.” I would’ve loved to stay longer, but my host reminded me it was time to go to prayer.

The office for the Interfaith Center of New York is located within the 19-story Interchurch Center building. It was a busy time when I arrived, but Dr. Sarah Sayeed was very gracious to sit down and chat with me for a little while. Dr. Sayeed, Director of Community Partnerships, is one of six staff members at the Center. It is a small but very mighty group with year-round programs and initiatives. One of their primary focuses is religious diversity training for teachers, social workers and other professionals. Dr. Sayeed tells me they strive to teach “Religion as it is lived, not as it is found in a textbook.” The other main focus of the Center is to create opportunities for religious leaders to come together, as she says, “Not to talk theology, but to address problems.” The Center is concerned with finding ways for religious groups to work together toward solving problems. I want to understand why the Center avoids theological discussions and she explains that every faith has within its ranks interpretive strands that don’t wish to participate in interfaith work. This is something I’ve been wondering about, what it’s like to be committed to interfaith work and to one’s own faith. I’m stumbling trying to put my question into words, and she helps me out, “We do interfaith, not interproselytizing.”

Elly Mason-Murray and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Interfaith Center of New York.

Elly Mason-Murray and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Interfaith Center of New York.

My impression is that people who are passionate about interfaith dialogue and work, are also deeply committed to their own faith. How then, I wonder, is a devout practitioner able to entertain theological views that are potentially diametrically opposed to her own? We are talking about dialogue, not mere tolerance, and to me that involves being able to hold opposing views in one’s mind. “Because of their own commitment to faith,” she tells me, “people understand that worship has meaning.” That is, because devoted people understand the value and meaning of their own faith, they are able to relate to the the value and meaning of the faith of others. Not only that, they are capable of appreciating the other’s faith. I ask Dr. Sayeed what she thinks is one of the most common misperceptions about interfaith work. “People think interfaith is about syncretizing or washing over differences,” she tells me. I’ve experienced this in diversity initiatives in the past, the notion that we should focus on our similarities and ignore our differences. And I’ve seen the concept of inclusion, to varying degrees of success, address this “washing over” in diversity work. Interfaith work acknowledges and upholds the values and ideas that are unique to each faith, but interfaith advocates see that there is real progress to be made in working together from a commonly shared foundation. “All faiths share a commitment to social justice,” says Dr. Sayeed. In my brief time learning about other faiths, I have found this to be true.

Oud and frame drum ensemble with interspersed readings of Rumi's poetry.

Oud and frame drum ensemble with interspersed readings of Rumi’s poetry.

My day ended with the Ramadan Iftar Dinner jointly organized by the Interfaith Center of New York, Peace Islands Institute and Union Theological Seminary. Hosted by the Seminary in a beautiful room, the evening was a time of learning, celebration and joyous fellowship. Iftar is a communal breaking of the fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. This event, however, was an interfaith Iftar dinner and so Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, to mention a few, were in attendance. I’ve already lost track of how many “firsts” I’ve experience along this journey, but I can tell you I sat at a dinner table last night next to a Rabbi and an Imam. Overhearing them talking and sharing an occasional joke, was very significant to me for some reason I can’t explain. Dr. Sayeed offered opening remarks. Mary Boys, Dean Professor of Practical Theology at UTS, delivered a few words as well. She talked about the study of interreligious engagement and she also remarked that, “religious people eat well together.” Imam Ibrahim Sayar, of Peace Islands Institute shared some remarks as well. He would later come back to deliver a call to prayer. There was lovely music performed by an oud and frame drum ensemble, which was followed by a video presentation titled, “Journey of Fasting.” Professor Jerusha Lamptey, from UTS, was the keynote speaker. She talked about what it means to fast and about how Ramadan is “A time out to realign our priorities, to find equilibrium and balance in life.” The time for Maghrib, when the fast is broken with dates and water, arrived as Professor Lamptey concluded her presentation. Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, brothers and sisters began taking small bites of dates from a common bowl at each table.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

Following Imam Sayar’s call to prayer, the food line was opened. Non-Muslims proceeded toward the food while Muslims left to a designated space for prayer to return a few minutes later. The rest of the evening was filled with conversation, laughter, smiles and of course, food! As I looked around the room I couldn’t help but feel incredibly fortunate for this precious human existence, how lucky to be in this room and share a meal with these brothers and sisters. As the evening came to a close, I was also filled with gratitude and emotion. More than ever before, I felt a great sense of belonging, I felt at home within this great, global family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York, Day 2

Mahayana Buddhist Temple, The Village Zendo, The Wall Street Synagogue, Prayer Space NYC, 9/11 Memorial, St. Joseph House Catholic Worker, Maryhouse Catholic Worker, Bhakti Center.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

There was a woman standing in front of the massive statue of the Buddha at the Mahayana Temple. She made a short bow and started to walk out. We made eye contact and I quietly asked if she was a Buddhist. “No, I’m a Catholic, but I can certainly see the similarities,” she said. I asked if she could explain. She pointed at the panels along the sidewalls depicting the life of the Buddha and continued, “I see the Buddha’s birth and it reminds me of Christ’s birth. Buddha’s temptation, Christ’s temptation, fasting and teaching, and so on.” She asked if I was a Buddhist, I said yes but not in the Mahayana tradition. With a puzzled look she said, “There are different kinds?” “Yes,” I replied, “another similarity! Just as there are different denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of Buddhism.” She smiled, started to leave and said, “You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.” I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t care to be filmed, but I immediately wrote everything down.

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Yu Jin Steele is a long time practitioner in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I ran into her outside the elevator, on our way to The Village Zendo, which is housed in a suite on the 11th floor of a Soho building. I learned all about her teachers and their lineage, and I learned that her husband and her children practice as well. At some point she mentioned that many of the day time practitioners at Village Zendo are not as interested in the religious aspects of Zen and prefer to focus on meditation only. Whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion depends on whom you ask. So I asked her.

The Village Zendo

The Zendo

“It is a religion because it involves faith. You may not believe in God, but you have to believe that sitting on your ass is going to do something. And well, sitting doesn’t really do anything, but the point is you have to believe,” she said. I asked if her practice ever took her into a different plane, perhaps something mystical or otherworldly, as many religions do. “I’m always on a different plane,” she replied, as if to imply that that’s the problem. “What I need to do is be here, awake,” she continued. And that’s what the practice does, it grounds you. It is not an escape or a withdrawal to another state of mind, it is working toward being fully present here and now. “It’s an inside job,” she said smiling.

This is the only photo I took.

This is the only photo I took.

My experience at the Wall Street Synagogue was a bit of a wake-up call. But the truth is I needed one. I needed to be reminded that I can’t just walk into any house of worship I fancy and expect to be welcomed with fanfare. Nothing bad happened, really. It’s just that I felt terribly out of place. The moment I walked in, I could tell that the twenty or so men gathered for Mincha knew I didn’t belong there. I was the only one there without a yarmulke, which made me feel like I stood out, like I was being disrespectful and like I was naked. A very kind man discretely offered me a yarmulke from a basket, “Would you like this?” he said. “Yes, thank you,” I replied and put it on. Mincha is meant to be “an oasis of spiritual time in a tough workday, a moment of calming nerves and focusing on priorities.” I was mortified I might be ruining it for the others. But as we walked out, I briefly spoke with the cantor and that made me feel much better. He pointed me to the office where all my questions would be asked, and all was well in the end. The good news is that I’ve actually been invited to the next synagogue I will visit.

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree

Visiting the September 11 Memorial is a very powerful and moving experience. The truth is I can’t find the words to express what I felt, and I don’t really want to try. Some things are better left unspoken. What I can say is that I was struck by the imposing size of the voids in the ground, the photographs don’t do it justice. One thing that caught my attention and that I could have easily missed was the Survivor Tree. This is a tree that, although severely injured, survived and recovered from the attacks at the World Trade Center. It has become a sort of relic; people leave flowers at its foot and others touch its limbs in a reverential manner. I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to visit this important and most definitely sacred site.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until today my knowledge of the Catholic Worker movement was little to none. A few weeks ago I asked my friend Lance if he knew of any churches or religious organizations in New York that were in line with his philosophy of ministry. Without hesitating, he told me to go to St. Joseph House Catholic Worker. So I did. A man named Matt opened the door and let me in. The dining hall was empty and clean, ready for the next meal. He was busy chopping lettuce and preparing other dishes. He told me all about the Catholic Worker philosophy, about the notion of instilling in individuals a sense of working and thinking. He talked to me about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, about their view that one should follow works of mercy. The people that live and work in this house, as in many other Catholic Worker houses, feed the hungry and clothe the needy in their communities. They also offer showers and other help. Matt gave me a quick crash course as he wiped down the counters and tidied the kitchen. He suggested I visit the Maryhouse, which is located a couple blocks away. He called to let them know I was coming.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker. Photo of Dorothy Day in the background.

Dorothy Day was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. On May 1st, 1933, she and Peter Maurin published the very first Catholic Worker newspaper. The Maryhouse has been a house of hospitality for many years. As you walk through the main door there are stairs that lead down to the dining hall and stairs that lead up to an auditorium, an office and a small chapel. The floors above are living quarters. Dorothy Day lived and worked in this very house until her passing in 1980. I sat in the small chapel, no bigger than the average dining room, and made a mental picture since I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. There were about fifteen chairs, a crucifix, a few icons (one depicting Dorothy Day), and a couple of armoires along the back wall. At the front of the chapel there was an altar table, the very table upon which Dorothy Day was placed for her wake. I sat there quietly for a while, taking it in. And then a woman popped her head in and introduced herself. She pronounced my name in very good Spanish and mentioned she had spent some time in Mexico. Her name is Jane Sammon; she lives and works in the Maryhouse and is one of the associate editors of The Catholic Worker. She showed me into the office and into the archives for the paper, which just celebrated its 81st anniversary.

“Ora et labora” is a Benedictine motto by which the Catholic Worker lives. Pray and work. People in these house communities work together and live together; there are shifts and duties to be shared and plenty of work to be done. And it is an ideological movement as well, “We are a pacifist movement,” she tells me, “the left leaning side of Catholicism.” She is on her way out and she has already given me so much of her time, so I ask one last question, “How is the work you do informed or influenced by your faith?” She tells me that many of the workers, although not all, are Catholic. “In this house we have prayer every single night. We say the hourse, which are part of the Benedictine tradition,” she tells me. “Do we force people to go to mass? No! We’re a freedom-loving community. But the work cannot continue without a life of prayer and I think there are still many of us who believe that.”

Adigopi Priya Dasi

Adigopi Priya Dasi

I had not intended to visit the Bhakti Center. Upon leaving the Maryhouse, I decided to stop for a bit of nourishment at a juice bar on my way back to the hotel. It was late and I hadn’t eaten all day. While I waited for my juice, I spotted a business card for the Bhakti Center. I picked it up and read the Hare Krishna chant on the back. The server at the juice bar told me the Center was only a couple blocks away, so I decided to check it out. Over the past couple of months I have experienced some rather serendipitous things and this was certainly one of them. The Bhakti Center’s ground level is a store front stocked with books, instructional materials, clothing and other artifacts. At the back is a vegetarian restaurant and tables. There are many programs offered at the Center; yoga, meditation, teaching, festivals and Kirtan. A woman managing the storefront asked if I needed any help. I told her I knew nothing about Bhakti and was eager to learn. She was most gracious and eventually introduced me to her friend and fellow devotee, Adigopi Priya Dasi. We chatted for a good long while.

I learned that Bhakti is the natural condition of the soul, which is pure, continuous love of God. Bhakti arises from India, from the study of the Gitas and the practices of chanting mantras and devotional yoga. Adigopi’s first experience with Bhakti came at the age 18 in Hollywood, California where she witnessed a group of Bhakti devotees (you know them as Hare Krishnas) chanting and dancing along Hollywood Boulevard. She bought a magazine from them and was deeply inspired by what she read in it. Eventually she became a devotee herself and was initiated. She was so generous with her time and her explanation of Bhakti, but she hoped her teacher, Radhanath Swami would come down so she could introduce me. “You really should meet him,” she said.

bhakti1

Radhanath Swami

Soon enough Radhanath Swami entered the room and Adigopi took me up to meet him. With a very warm and peaceful smile he reached out and hugged me. He then held my hands and said it was very good to meet me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man and I felt humbled. We sat down and had a brief, but very rich, visit. I learned that he was only in New York for a brief visit as he lives and works in Mumbai, India where he has established a number of Ashrams (centers for spiritual teaching) where around 10,000 people study and practice. He also oversees environmentally-conscious water harvesting operations as well as other initiatives as part of an eco-village. He tells me that the leading cause of illiteracy in India is hunger, so his organization feeds over 300,000 children a day. I find this beyond amazing.

I tell him I want to know more about Bhakti, could he tell me what the essence of this faith is? “Everyone is looking for happiness. Happiness is within ourselves,” he says measuredly. “Religion is a word that means ‘to bind back,'” he continues. “And, yoga means ‘to reconnect’ with our true essence, to love God.” I ask him how one expresses a love of God, what does that look like in practice? “One way is chanting the names of God. That helps us reconnect with God and we live our life in that connection.” When I have an opportunity to meet with clergy, I like to inquire about their views on interfaith work. “There are different aspects of God, but there is only one God,” he says. “Sun, Sol, Surya; they are different languages but they all mean Sun. Different religions are the manifestation of one truth, of harmony with God.” As our time together draws to a close, he pauses for a moment and says, “What Jesus taught was Bhakti. The prayers of St. Francis, that’s Bhakti. Bhakti is to serve with devotion.”

You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.

New York, Day 1

St. Malachy’s – The Actors’ Chapel

It’s been a long day, but a very rewarding one, too. My flight was delayed and so I ended up having a shorter evening than I had planned. As I reviewed my maps and locations, I decided to see what might be within walking distance of my hotel. St. Malachy’s (The Actors Chapel) is only about a 17 minute walk from the hotel and as I looked at the website I realized that if I left immediately I could make it in time for Adoration. So, I got my things and started walking.

Lighting the altar candles  at the beginning of Adoration.

Lighting the altar candles at the beginning of Adoration.

Right in the middle of the Theater District (directly across from The Book of Mormon) sits St. Malachy’s. Built in 1902, this relatively small church is a center of solace in the midst of a bustling community. The church is known as The Actor’s Chapel due to its strong connection to Broadway’s artistic community, dating back to the 1920s. Inside the entry of the church, you’ll find a chapel built to St. Genesius, patron saint of actors. Many famous actors and artists have attended mass here, from Douglas Fairbanks to Antonio Banderas.

You wouldn’t have guessed any of that if your only experience of this church was tonight’s Adoration service however. The atmosphere was one of utmost reverence and peace. The liturgy started promptly at 6:30 and the sweet smell of incense filled the air. There were hymns, prayers, a reading from Scripture and then about thirty minutes of silent meditation. I was struck by the serenity and the solace felt within those walls, even as only feet away from us the city was alive and loud. The sight of a group of people from all walks of life, of all ages, and diverse ethnicities, men and women, gathered to slow life down and be still never ceases to amaze me.

A stealthy photo of the organ. I don't want to be disruptive or disrespectful and I'll be sure to ask permission next time.

A stealthy photo of the organ. I don’t want to be disruptive or disrespectful and I’ll be sure to ask permission next time.

As the service drew to a close, I turned to my pew neighbor and asked if she might have a few minutes to talk to me. She was a little shy at first, but who wouldn’t be when approached by a perfect stranger?! I briefly explained that I was interested in learning more about her faith and her experience at this church. Before long we were speaking in Spanish (although she’s called New York her home for the past forty years, she’s originally from Colombia) and we ended up visiting for a little over an hour. She asked where I was from. When I said Mexico, she seemed genuinely surprised. “What? How can you be from Mexico and not be Catholic?” I explained I was actually raised Protestant, and she seemed okay with that.

Cleotilde Romero is a devout Catholic. She attends mass every day and Saint Malachy’s is her church of choice, given that she lives only a couple blocks away. She agreed to speak for the camera and I asked her one question, “How do you experience the presence of God?” [What follows is the translation of her answer, which you can see in the videoblog] “The presence of God, in every moment and because of one’s faith, and in what one sees from other people’s actions, the love, the kindness of others, fellowship, friendship…the presence of God is everywhere. There is a Heavenly Father, one only, eternal God in which the whole world believes. And He is because of love, not because we deserve it.”

She told me all about her ministry in the church, years and years of preparing children for catechism and young couples for marriage. Her faith had been affirmed by years, decades, of witnessing God’s mercy and grace at work in the lives of those who sought Him. She encouraged me to do the same and she quoted Scripture like a Bible scholar. After a while I asked if I could take her picture. “You want a picture of me?” she said. And then she suggested we take it in front of the Lady of Guadalupe. “That’s your virgin,” she said, and she was right, La Virgen de Guadalupe is the Mother of all Mexicans.

Cleotilde wanted Our Lady of Guadalupe in the photo, since I'm from Mexico.

Cleotilde wanted Our Lady of Guadalupe in the photo, since I’m from Mexico.

The church was closing so we stepped outside and huddled under her umbrella for the next thirty minutes or so. She seemed so eager to speak and I was so eager to listen. Everything she said was so familiar to me and in a homesick sort of sense it was heartwarming, too. “So, you (Protestants) only believe in the Father, right?” she asked. I said, “No, Protestants believe in the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” With a face of great relief she replied, “Oh, praise be to God, that’s good!” I smiled and assured her that Protestants and Catholics actually have quite a lot more in common than not, and somehow it felt like I was talking to someone I’d known for ages.

I’m finding that if I can get over my own nervousness and fear, and if I can ask one or two questions, people are generally very happy to talk to me. Why don’t we all do this more often? It is such a good feeling to be able to connect on a deeper level with someone you’ve never even met. Here we were, standing in the rain, not wanting to say goodbye and all I did was ask one question. But I was worried I was taking too much of her time, and the bottoms of my pants were quite wet. So I asked if she might share a few last words for the camera. She said yes, gladly, and proceeded to give me a blessing [What follows is the translation of her parting words, which you can see in the videoblog], “May God bless you always, may His light be with you always, may you always be well. And in parting, may the Heavenly Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit bless you and give you the wisdom to know what He has in store for you.”

Sharing an umbrella.

Sharing an umbrella.

The hypothesis I set forth with for this project is that faith is narrative, that narrative gives life meaning and that understanding what gives meaning to other people’s lives creates a more emotionally connected world. Tonight I believe this more than ever. I don’t share Cleotilde’s faith, but in the process of listening to her story and genuinely trying to understand, we developed -if only for an hour- an emotional connection. I may never see her again, but I will not forget her.

 

 

 

Going to New York

Did you know that there are at least 1,079 houses of worship in Manhattan? That is, of course, as of the latest edition of “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship,” by David W. Dunlap. This book and I will become best friends over the next week or so as I visit and explore sacred spaces in New York. Of course I won’t be able to visit even a fraction of the places listed, it would take a solid year if I could visit three sites a day! My intention is to visit as many as possible, however, particularly those for traditions and religions of which there is very little representation in my part of the country.

I'm packing a few other things, too. Don't worry.

I’m packing a few other things, too. Don’t worry.

Visiting churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship is a wonderful way to get a sense of what the faith means to the people who practice it. And it is precisely the people I’m most interested in. One of the highlights of my trip is sure to be a Ramadan Iftar Dinner organized by the Interfaith Center of New York, the Peace Islands Institue and the Union Theological Seminary of New York. I’ve been in touch with the ICNY and I’m excited to visit and learn more about the work they do.

Faith, religion and spirituality are probably not the first things that come to mind when you think of New York City. But I knew from the beginning that to get a good sense of what faith narratives across a pluralistic landscape look like, visiting some of the largest and most diverse cities in the country would be necessary. So, NYC was an obvious choice and the blurb on the back of my new guide and friend confirms this:

“Throughout much of its history, New York has been regarded as a kind of modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, a place where sin and wickedness and danger are everywhere in abundance. But there is another side to the story as well, a tale of faith and devotion, of great preachers and respected theologians, and of grand and impressive religious edifices…” -Kenneth T. Jackson, president of the New York Historical Society and editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.

Needless to say, I will be taking copious notes and lots of pictures. And, if you want to follow along, you can do so right here on the blog and by following me on Instagram: @storiesofdevotion. I will be posting several photos and updates throughout my visit. Here’s to new stories, new faces and new sacred places!

PLACES: Church of the Resurrection Downtown

 

Church of the Resurrection Downtown

Church of the Resurrection Downtown

The last time I was in this building it was for a California Guitar Trio concert, a few years back. That was when this place was called Crosstown Station and although it has since become the home of the Church of the Resurrection Downtown, it maintains a lot of its concert hall atmosphere. As I made my way into the building, I recognized the repurposed drum light fixtures from before. The lights were dim, there was background music playing and people were mingling and shuffling in. I went up to the front, where I was to meet my friend Julie, who had so kindly invited me after I posted about how much I enjoyed reading Pastor Adam Hamilton’s latest book. This church, it turns out, is the downtown campus of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, which is lead by Pastor Hamilton.

“Service begins in 11:32,” read the notice at the top of the screen as I walked down the aisle. I’ve been to a lot of churches in my time, but never one where there was a countdown to service. It was kind of exciting, I must admit. There were announcements projected on rotation, mission trips, social events, church programs and a reminder to mute phones. My friend arrived a few minutes later, somewhere around “Service begins in 5:27.” We sat down and within a couple of minutes a group of musicians started taking their place on stage. As soon as the countdown reached 0:00, the band kicked off the service.

Look at this awesome drum light fixture. The church left a lot of the decor and features from the previous tenant.

Look at this awesome drum light fixture. The church left a lot of the decor and features from the previous tenant.

This is a church with a decidedly urban bent. The music, the lighting, the ambiance and the screen’s background images of Kansas City skylines all emphasize the Downtownness of this church. The music was good, and even though I was unfamiliar with the songs, it was easy to sing along with the words projected on the screen. Soon enough the music came to a stop and Pastor Scott Chrostek took the stage to welcome churchgoers and give a few announcements. As he spoke, the screen behind him projected his name and his Twitter handle, @scottchrostek. I’d never seen this before, but of course my most recent experience of Church has been the technology-free liturgy of High Church Episcopalian mass. This integration of online and offline Church community was not as off-putting as I may have imagined; it actually seemed quite seamless.

There was more music, songs with very relatable and affirming words, “I’ve been set free from the chains and rules I have made…” And then came the time for the sermon, which on this particular Sunday was delivered by Pastor Todd Maberry (@toddmaberry, as per the projection behind him). As he addressed the congregation, Pastor Maberry remarked on how it never ceases to amaze him that people come back to church, week after week. I looked around and I couldn’t find an empty chair in the room. “Why do people go to church?” He asked. “Could it be because we are looking for answers?” He pondered. We’re trying to answer questions about God – who is God, what is the purpose of my life? And so, he concluded, “Church is a place where we engage questions.”

"Service begins in..."

“Service begins in…”

The sermon was based on the Bible story found in Genesis 12:1-3, where God speaks to Abram and commands him to leave his country and his people for the land he will be shown. The sermon included the story in which Abram had his wife Sarai pass as his sister, so he could be spared death and find favor with Pharaoh. I remembered this story, having just read the Bible a week before, and I wondered how the preacher would handle the fact that Sarai then became part of Pharaoh’s harem. It was a difficult passage and Pastor Maberry made no bones about it, “There are lots of crazy stories in the Bible…sometimes these stories appear to mimic the Jerry Springer Show!” There was laughter and then he went on to talk about how following after God means leaving behind the familiar and how it is that we tend to treat the worst those whom we should love the most. I was moved by the sermon and I appreciated the pastor’s honest take on a difficult passage of Scripture.

I really got the sense that this Church embraced all who walked through their doors. Communion at Resurrection Downtown is available to all. And while all were invited to partake (they even have gluten-free wafers for those who need them), there was no obligation to do so. I always appreciate being invited to a place of worship; it’s a good feeling to know you know someone there. And yet, I’m fairly certain I would’ve been quite comfortable to just walk in uninvited. Everyone I saw seemed to be happy to be there and happy to welcome newcomers. As high-energy music brought the service to a close, I was reminded of the previous life of this building and I thought to myself that if the Crosstown Station had to go, Resurrection Downtown actually seems like a pretty good way to resurrect that space.

The Band

The Band

Check it out for yourself!

Resurrection Downtown‘s weekly worship services are Saturdays at 5:10 pm and Sundays at 9:00 am, 10:45 am and 5:00 pm at 1522 McGee. Services are family friendly and dress is casual. All are welcome.

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.”

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.”