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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

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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.

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.

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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.

San Francisco, Day 5

 Swedenborgian Church, Darussalam Mosque, Congregation Beth Sholom, Vedanta Society

The very modest outside appearance of the Swedenborgian Church can be deceiving. Once inside,  one is taken aback by the architecture and design of this sacred space.

The very modest outside appearance of the Swedenborgian Church can be deceiving. Once inside, one is taken aback by the architecture and design of this sacred space.

Friday morning came early. By 8:00 am I was arriving at Swedenborgian Church, a historical landmark church just on the outskirts of the Presidio. As I walk in through the garden, I find myself in a modestly sized, yet beautifully appointed garden. Later I will learn that the man who envisioned this church intended us to walk through the garden in order to enter the nave. That is because he considered the garden to be part of the church, he wanted us to walk through the wonder of creation as part of the worship experience.

I’m admiring an apple tree with fruit that seems ready to be plucked and eaten, and that’s when Rev. Junchol Lee walks out the parish house door. “You must be Sergio,” he says as he begins to show me around the garden. I remark on the apple tree and he tells me he’s been eating from it in the past few days. And then we go inside the church. I’ve seen this place in pictures and I’ve been very eager to see it in person, it is unlike any other church I’ve ever seen. And the pictures simply do not do it justice. The Rev. Thomas Worcester founded the first Swedenborgian Church in America in 1795, in Boston. In 1867, his son, Rev. Joseph Worcester, started two Swedenborgian Churches in San Francisco, which no longer exist. Rev. Joseph Worcester was deeply involved in the planning of the present church and it was finished in 1895.

Inside the church. Notice the natural arch beams and the iconic chairs, one of which was given to the Smithsonian Institute for its design and historic significance.

Inside the church. Notice the natural arch beams and the iconic chairs, one of which was given to the Smithsonian Institute for its design and historic significance.

This is a small church, there are approximately 80 chairs in the nave. Everything inside this Arts & Crafts style building has a purpose and a meaning. The chairs, for instance, were chosen instead of pews to make this space more versatile. Rev. Lee tells me that after service in the early days, congregants would move the chairs to gather around the fireplace in the back of the church and eat together. The fireplace is off center in relation to the altar and the axis of the church. I haven’t noticed this apparent anomaly until Rev. Lee points it out. “It would’ve made more sense to center it, but they intentionally made it asymmetrical,” he tells me. “Why on earth would they have done that?” I wonder. “Nature is not symmetrical and yet we feel most comfortable in nature,” he explains. Everything about this space attempts to bring nature inside as a reminder that God is in nature, that we experience God in creation. The arches that hold up the ceiling are raw logs, they look like they were cut yesterday, and the curves are organic, not symmetrical. There are branches and other preserved greens and shrubbery inside. The baptismal shell is an actual conch shell, and it happens to have been used to baptize Robert Frost in 1881, in one of the original Swedenborgian churches before this one was built. This church is an architectural representation of Emanuel Swedenborg’s theology. And it is magnificent, in an understated, humble sort of way.

Rev. Junchol Lee

Rev. Junchol Lee

Rev. Lee is just as fascinating as this church. “I wanted to be a Buddhist monk,” he tells me. Having been born and raised into a devoutly Presbyterian Korean home, he realized that leaving the faith to follow his desire of a monastic life of Buddhism would have been devastating to his family. He abandoned that dream, but as life would have it, a few years later he ended up in New York living with relatives who happened to be fervent Swedenborgians. As we’re standing near the altar, I point to a large bell; it looks quite Buddhist and a little out of place here. He tells me it was a gift to the church and he often uses it to lead Taoist meditation. Wait, what? “A good thing is this congregation doesn’t mind having a half-Taoist, half-Swedenborgian minister,” he says, just like that, like it’s no small thing. I tell him I’ve been looking for a Taoist Center to visit and he tells me it would be very non-Taoist to have a Taoist Center. I should’ve known this. Rev. Lee is a practicing Taoist and he has only started leading meditation groups because people have asked him to. But he is also a fully trained, seminary-graduate, Swedenborgian minister.

San Francisco Swedenborgians have kept handwritten records since before this church was built. Here, Rev. Lee points to the name of Robert Frost, whose mother was a devout Swedenborgian.

San Francisco Swedenborgians have kept handwritten records since before this church was built. Here, Rev. Lee points to the name of Robert Frost, whose mother was a devout Swedenborgian.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what Swedenborgianism is. I didn’t even know I was pronouncing it wrong: it’s Swedenborg (hard G) and Swedenborgian (soft g). Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1688. He was a respected scientist and inventor who later had a spritual awakening that led to him devoting the rest of his life to theological work and inquiry. While he didn’t intend to establish a new church, his followers did so years after his death.

Swedenborg’s views were very much out of line with mainline Christianity and therefore, as Rev. Lee says, “They never liked us.” I ask what are some main differences. “We deny the existence of original sin, therefore we don’t believe in instant salvation and we don’t believe in predestination,” he says, adding that one does not become saved by simply uttering some “magical words.” Another point of difference between Swedenborg and mainline Christianity is the understanding of heaven and hell. “Hell is not a place of punishment but a place of choice. We don’t belive that God created hell in the beginning. Evil was simply a choice made by humans. So, heaven and hell are different and how you get there is different as well,” he tells me. But perhaps one of the most controversial views of Swedenborg’s is that of the second coming of Christ. Rev. Lee tells me that, “In Swedenborg’s mind, Christ came to earth once physically, why does he need to come back physically again? He insisted that the second coming would be spiritual in nature.” This was a big problem for mainline Christianity, if they give up the second coming of Christ, Rev. Lee says, “They have to give up half of the power they have over their congregations. There’s no last judgment anymore? Woohoo, we’re free! Swedenborg nurtured a real freedom of choice for the congregation,” says Rev. Lee. “In a way that’s why we are small, we’ve been small and I don’t think we’ll be really huge in years to come,” he tells me.

The Baptismal Shell, which was used of Robert Frost's baptism.

The Baptismal Shell, which was used of Robert Frost’s baptism.

There is another reason why Swedenborgianism has not taken over the world, and it’s a delicate one. In its heyday, the church counted among its ranks some 10,000 members. But these were people, as Rev. Lee explains, who were literate and intellectually-driven. “To be a Swedenborgian, you need to be able to read and write,” he tells me, remarking on the significance of such a high number of educated members in the 1800’s. “In a way, we have been a very elite-oriented, intellectual practice,” he admits. “The mission statement of the first Swedenborgian gathering, which happened in England, was to translate and publish the writings of Swedenborg,” says Lee. This emphasis on intellectual development set the tone for the church and unintentionally crippled its growth because, there wasn’t much of an emphasis in fellowship. “This was our strength and our limitation, and it still is today,” says Rev. Lee.

Facing the back from the altar area, one can see the intentional asymmetry of the design. The fireplace, the aisle and the altar are all out of alignment, to evoke the asymmetry of nature.

Facing the back from the altar area, one can see the intentional asymmetry of the design. The fireplace, the aisle and the altar are all out of alignment, to evoke the asymmetry of nature.

With its focus on individual spiritual and intellectual development, it only makes sense that this is the kind of Christian church which would be prefectly at peace with having a half-Taoist minister to lead them. Rev. Lee explains how Swedenborgianism is compatible in this way with Eastern philosophies and religion, “Buddhism and Taoism say you can’t help others achieve enlightenment, you can only do that for yourself.” He explains you must help others in life, but ultimately the individual is responsible for his own achievement. He tells me one of the biggest criticisms of Swedenborgianism today is the question of serving the community. “We ask that of ourselves, too, what are we doing for the community?” says Rev. Lee. They do seem out of trend in this regard. Every single church, temple, mosque, synagogue and religious organization I’ve come in contact with seems to have as its highest priority to be a service to the community. This is a wonderful thing, of course, but I wonder if the balance is a little off. What are religious institutions sacrificing in exchange for this overwhelming emphasis on serving the community?

“A lot of times, we do these things (serving the community) to make ourselves feel better,” says, Rev. Lee, and he adds, “To me, religious, spiritual or even philosophical practice is not to make you feel better. It is an expression of your inner desire or belief, and it is something you do regardless of reward, compliments or acknowledgment.” These are difficult ideas to grasp, and as I mentioned before, it is delicate territory we’re treading on. But he helps me bring it all around and it all begins to make more sense to me. Rev. Lee wonders, “If churches encouraged their members to serve their communities without any recognition, without any reward, would they do it? If they were to say, ‘You know what? Jesus will be indifferent (whether you serve or not).’ I don’t know if they would do it!” So, it comes down to motivation. Do we do these good deeds because we think it’ll give us good karma, merit, favor? “Even Jesus spoke to this; he criticized the hypocrites, he said ‘If you do a good work, do it in such a way that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.'” This reminds me of Jesus’s exhortation to pray in private and not in public like those who do so to draw attention.

A view of the garden, with the apple tree in the foreground.

A view of the garden, with the apple tree in the foreground.

But Swedenborgian thought does not advocate for individualism or isolation. In Swedenborg’s mind, Rev. Lee tells me, “God is pure love and love requres mutual relationship. A relationship with God and a relationship with others. In Swedenborg’s mind, the world was created in a process of pure love.” And in Rev. Lee’s mind, God is very much present in his life. God is not the product of some intellectual endeavor. He recounts for me a couple of separate instances in which he has experienced in very real and amazing ways the voice of God. At crucial times in his life, when Rev. Lee faced uncertainty or adversity, he has felt and heard God’s direction in very real ways. “The way I experience God is to me a very interesting thing,” he tells me, “He’s wiser than any human being could ever be, truly loving, never insulting or overwhelming, always embracing and nurturing and caring. That’s the way I experience it. To me, if that’s the divine, I love to embrace it. There’s nothing to resist about!” he says.

And what about Taoism, I ask. “Taoism is very flexible and free. We don’t have too many dos and don’ts. Human beings cannot talk about absolute truth, and limiting yourself with only one philosophy leads to becoming judgmental,” he says, explaining how compatible Taoism is with Swedenborgian Christianity. “The Swedenborgian Church allows me to be who I am.”

 

After my visit at Swedenborgian Church, I headed over to Darussalam Mosque for Jumu’ah (Friday prayer and sermon). The Imam delivered a sermon expounding the virtues of kindness to others and right living according to the Holy Quran. He exhorted congregants to do good unto others, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, saying, “We are not meant to ask, ‘Hello, are you a muslim so that I may be kind to you?’ but rather be kind to all, regardless.” He insisted rather passionately that the horrors taking place in the name of Islam have nothing to do with the teachings of the Prophet or the Quran, and that the calling was to be righteous and compassionate. The mosque was full, shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall. It was a wonderful experience for me.

The entrance to the Mosque.

The entrance to the Mosque.

 

 

 

 

The Imam preaches.

The Imam preaches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the sacred spaces toward the top of my list was Congregation Beth Sholom. While I was unable to attend services, I was kindly allowed to visit the Synagogue and spend some quiet time there. Here are a few photos of this wonderful place.

Congregation Beth Sholom

Congregation Beth Sholom

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A view from the top. The Yahrzeit Wall can be seen in the back.

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A view of the other side, with the ark in view.

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This lovely chapel is used every day of the week for prayers and services.

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A detail view of the outside of the synagogue. When seen in full, the shape is evocative of a menorah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last stop for the day was the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. Vedantas break for the summer, so there were no services being held during my visit. I was, however, able to explore the temple and sit for meditation in the main shrine room.

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society, built in 1905, was the first Hindu Temple to be built in the west. It is currently undergoing renovations.

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society, built in 1905, was the first Hindu Temple to be built in the west. It is currently undergoing renovations.

The entrance to the new temple.

The entrance to the new temple.

The main shrine room.

The main shrine room.

 

 

 

San Francisco, Day 3

San Francisco Interfaith Council, Bahá’í Center, Golden City Church, Herchurch

The Interfaith Chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco

The Interfaith Chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco

My day began with a lovely drive through the Presidio, a park and former military base located in the northen part of San Francisco. I was looking for the San Francisco Interfaith Council, where I would be meeting with Executive Director, Michael Pappas. What I didn’t know was that the SFIC is housed inside the historic Presidio Chapel. The chapel was built in 1931 by the U.S. Army and although it was originally used as a Protestant chapel it later became a space of interfaith worship. Today, the SFIC has its offices in the lower level of the chapel.

Michael Pappas, a former Greek Orthodox priest, has been the executive director of the council for seven years. The council’s list of accomplishments, initiatives and projects undertaken since Pappas assumed leadership is many pages long. He is a very busy man and I’m most grateful he made time to visit with me.

Michael Pappas, Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council

Michael Pappas, Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council

“People define themselves through crisis,” Pappas explained, “The council was formed as the result of two crises; homelessness and the Loma Prieta earthquake.” As with other interfaith organizations, the SFIC is concerned primarily with building relationships and being of service to the community. He tells me about the important role faith communities play in times of great need. He mentions, for instance, that when Katrina struck New Orleans, the faith communities jumped into action even before FEMA arrived, and after FEMA left it was again the faith communities who remained to serve.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the SFIC served as a primary convener for the city. Some 15,000 lay people and faith leaders from all major religious traditions gathered to observe this most significant commemoration. Pappas recounts how the invocation was offered by a Muslim woman, a very significant moment and no small feat. And he adds that these kinds of events are possible as the result of the relationships the council has been cultivating for over a couple of decades now.

Inside the Interfaith Chapel

Inside the Interfaith Chapel

Pappas is deeply commited to this work. He tells me that for him it is not just a job. When he was in pastoral ministry, he was very active in ecumenical work, and soon enough that work evolved into interfaith dialogue. He talks about a real conviction to bring about what seems to be an impossibility. I ask him what that means and he talks about the importance of putting a human face to the faiths, needs, and suffering of those in the community so that others may better relate. When we talk about what makes San Francisco uniquely amenable to interfaith work, he tells me, “we live in a vulnerable place, this is the last place you can go before you hit the water.” But San Francisco is also, as he puts it, “a place of dreams and goals, a place where people feel that the can be.”

Did you know there are no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith? I certainly didn’t but I learned that and so much more during a wonderful visit at the Bahá’í Center of San Francisco. My time at the center was facilitated by Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly and a most gracious host. He gave me a primer on the faith. I learned about the Bab, who was the founder of Bábism and forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh. I learned about Bahá’u’lláh, who was the prophetic fulfillment of Bábism and the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. And I learned about `Abdu’l-Bahá, son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh. But most importantly I learned about Yen’s experience in the faith, how he came to find it and what it means to him. He told me about the individual search for truth that is central to the faith, and he emphasized that this is a social and civil faith. I ask him about this truth he was speaking of and with a big smile, he said, “Whatever you think it is, it isn’t.”

The Bahá'í Center

The Bahá’í Center

During my time with him I learned that Bahá’í Faith unites all religions and holds them all to be equally true. As the pamphlet explains, there is one Light (God) and many Lamps (religions). The accompanying illustration presents a succession of prophets, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh; all emanating from the same source. “I am all of those religions in order to call myself a Bahá’í,” says Yen. But I learn that Bahá’í is not simply an amalgamation of all the faiths that came before it. It’s not a religious potpourri as one might mistakenly think. Bahá’u’lláh received revelation from God and he was a very prolific writer. Yen explains with much excitement that Bahá’ís can access the words of Bahá’u’lláh directly as he himself wrote them. During a pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Yen was able to see for himself the manuscripts. He describes the beautiful calligraphy and the sense of awe that overwhelmed him. There are many volumes of scripture written by Bahá’u’lláh, some are prayers, others are directions for worship and life, others are revelation.

Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly, stands next to a portrait of `Abdu'l-Bahá (son and successor of Bahá'u'lláh.

Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly, stands next to a portrait of `Abdu’l-Bahá (son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh.

Our conversation continued as we walked through the many rooms of this beautiful center, a gift of a wealthy patron and Bahá’í. Yen showed me a meditation room, a couple of class rooms, a fellowship hall and a large auditorium. The auditorium is only used a couple of times a year for special holidays. Bahá’í gatherings are held every 19 days for prayer, reading, discussion and music. When he talks about the martyrdom of the Bab and the imprisonment of Bahá’u’lláh, he can’t help but become emotional. He holds back tears and apologizes. It is a very compelling and moving story of suffering and devotion. I ask what it means for him to be a Bahá’í. He tells me it is a personal faith more than a religion. He tells me, “The material world gives you plenty of evidence to support atheism,” and he shares that his wife (with whom he is very happily married) herself is an atheist. But his faith helps him draw closer to God, and he tells me it is “something in my life that answers my questions.”

Sometime around 3:00 pm I arrived at The Mill, a remarkable specimen of the new wave of coffeeshops (mason jars, pour overs, hipster aesthetic, you know). I was there to meet Josh Sisco, who is the pastor at Golden City Church. I had just enough time while I waited to make up my mind: I was most definitely getting a slice of toast with homemade Nutella to go with my single origin coffee. Oh yeah.

Josh arrived, ordered an iced coffee and by the time we sat down I already knew he was not your typical pastor. He is young, 26 to be exact, and he has the looks and charisma of a super hip rock star. He began to tell me his story about growing up in a suburban California and deeply involved in the Calvary Church movement. Young as he may be, Josh has seen his share of conflict and disillusionment, but he never lost hope or faith. He shares a quote someone shared with him, “Experience is the best teacher, but it doesn’t have to be your experience.” What this means for him is that throughout his life and preparation for ministry, he has been able to learn from the experiences of others as well as his own. And he has learned a lot.

Josh Sisco, Pastor of Golden City Church

Josh Sisco, Pastor of Golden City Church

“Calvary is a good model for the suburbs,” he tells me. But he believes that in order to meet the needs of urban citizens, the church has to find new models. When his parents came to Christ and made Calvary Chapel their home church, they also decided to move to the suburbs as a safe and wholesome place to raise a family. But that was then, and today, Josh disagrees with the notion that one should avoid the perceived wickedness of the cities. “My parents escaped the city and I ran to the city,” he says. His calling is clearly one for the city. He’s concerned about the fact that his generation and future generations will have no legacy. “Everybody is a transplant,” he says and then he jokingly challenges me to find a true San Franciscan.

Josh himself is not a San Franciscan. He and his wife came to the city to assume the leadership of Calvary Chapel’s San Francisco church plant. And, while he remains loyal and committed to Calvary, one of the first things he did was change the name of the church. He tells me he didn’t want to send a message that this church was a sort of franchise (Calvary Chapel is a network of churches based out of Costa Mesa, California). Golden City Church is decidedly a San Francisco church. As such, Josh dreams of a city in which people stay and create legacies. It is a difficult thing to imagine when San Francisco is overrun by the tech industry and the transiency of its employees. But Josh remains hopeful.

“Community” has become a bit of a buzzword when it comes to the new wave of Christianity. But it is important to understand why community is central to this new approach to theology and ministry. Josh describes it in generational terms, “The Boomers were high on commitment and low on community. Millenials are low on commitment and high on community.” I ask what he means by that and he explains that the suburban church model of the previous generation worked well with people who were willing to support the church financially even if they were not as involved. Today’s generation, by contrast, is more interested in belonging to a network of people in whom they can find a support system, not just on Sunday mornings in church, but throughout the week, at work, in the neighborhood and at the coffee shop. I find this very interesting, it harkens back to the notion of the early church.

“I don’t want to be a cool church, I don’t want to be famous. I’ve seen what that does,” Josh tells me. He is well aware of the hipster image and the assumptions people make based on it. With his bushy mustache, flappy hair and mason jar in hand, he fits the bill. “Just look at hipsters,” he exclaims, “most hipsters are Christian.” As I look around this hipster haven of a coffee shop, I realized I’ve never felt so square in my life. We can have fun at the expense of that hipster aesthetic, but the truth is that behind that image lies a driving desire for authenticity. This new wave of Christians are weary of labels, they’re not impressed by jumbotrons and Starbucks in the pews. They are hungry for real connections with those in their communities and their faith is very much centered around that yearning.

“We probably have sixty people on a good Sunday, if the wind is blowing just right,” Josh tells me. But that is perfectly fine for that. Josh represents a Christian demographic that feels lost in the megachurch. They’re much more interested in quality than quantity. It doesn’t matter that there are only six or eight people at his Thursday night group; what matters is that the difficult discussions and questions they have in this group will directly impact the sermon he delivers on Sunday morning. And when he delivers that sermon, his congregation won’t have to wonder whether it speaks to them; they know it does. They were there to help shape it.

As he talks of what the church must be about today, Josh reflects on the fact that the previous generation was so moralistic. The church has been too concerned with telling people what’s right and what’s wrong. His church ideal, however, is one that practices loving the world, not judging it. Yes, everybody is nice and tolerant, but, he says, “Christians can’t be tolerant,” he says. There’s a pregnant pause, he knows he’s startled me, he says, “This is going to sound really conservative at first, but then I’m going to flip it on you.” He goes on to explain that the church and Christians should be about serving others, not merely tolerating them, and he asks, “How can I be tolerant of those I’m here to serve?”

These are great questions, and millenials love asking questions. It is in this that I (a Gen X/Millenial inbetweener) identify with millenials the most, this insatiable curiosity. Christians like Josh and the many community churches that are popping up all over major cities and urban centers are much more comfortable with paradox than those who preceded them. “Good and bad is relative,” says Josh, and furthermore, “moralism is an idol.” Whereas the previous Church model spoke in terms of either/or, Josh says “both, or neither, or something else entirely.” He does not disdain the church he grew up in, the church that prepared him for ministry. He is firmly rooted in the faith of his upbringing, it’s just that he has seen a need for a new church model and he’s been called to fill it. And, it seems that the establishment is catching on. In a hopeful tone, he tells me, “The church has stopped answering questions that nobody was asking.”

Herchurch

Herchurch

Questions keep conversations going; they are an engine of progress and change. And in San Francisco there is another faith of Christianity that has asked a very difficult yet simple question: what about the feminine aspect of the divine? Earth-based religions have venerated the feminine divine for millenia, but as far as Abrahamic religions are concerned, God has been understood and spoken of almost exclusively in masculine terms. Herchurch (a Lutheran church also known by its original name, Ebenezer) has taken on as its mission “to embody and voice the prophetic wisdom and word of the Divine Feminine, to uplift the values of compassion, creativity and care for the earth and one another.” I happened upon Herchurch as I was driving to Redwood Tuesday night. The purple church is hard to miss and on its side hangs a large banner announcing Goddess Rosary, Wednesdays at 7:00. I figured this was something I had to experience for myself, I haven’t heard of any Goddess Rosaries taking place in Kansas City!

Goddess Rosary

Goddess Rosary

I arrived a few minutes early and was immediately greeted by a couple of parishioners. A few minutes later, Pastor Stacy Boorn welcomed me to the church and invited me to have some organic, gluten-free, tomato soup. We talked for a minute about my project and she invited me to look around the church and take as many pictures as I wanted. It’s good to feel welcome, comfortable and accepted when you’re about to experience an unfamiliar tradition. As I made my way through the nave, I noticed icons and statuettes depicting manifestations of the Divine Feminine from all manner of traditions and cultures. There was an altar for the Virgen de Guadalupe, there was an icon of Christ Sophia, images of Mary Magdalene, there were prehistoric images of fertility goddesses, drums, candles, incense, bells and water. The church was dimly lit and as night fell, I found myself completely at peace in this quiet and sacred space.

The rosary prayer begins promptly at 7:15. During and at other times participants are welcome to use the prayer stations throughout the nave. The spoken prayers are as follows:

On the large beads:

Our Mother who is within us,
we celebrate your many names.
Your wisdom come
Your will be done,
unfolding from the depths within us.
Each day you give us all that we need.
You remind us of our limits and we let go.
You support us in our power
and we act with courage.
For you are the dwelling place within us,
the empowerment around us,
and the celebration among us.
Now and for ever. Blessed Be.

On the medium beads:

Hail Goddess, full of grace,
Blessed are You
and blessed are all the fruits of your womb.
For you are the Mother of us all.
Hear/Heal us now
and in all our dreams/needs.
O blessed be, O blessed be. Amen/Ah-She

On the three small beads:

Mother, Maiden, Crone
(The Our Mother is attributed to Miriam Therese Winter, the Hail Goddess is adapted from Carol Christ)

Prayer stations inside the nave.

Prayer stations inside the nave

After the first round of the rosary, there was a period of quiet contemplation. Participants visited the different stations to light candles, ring bells and offer incense. Then the rosary was spoken once again. When the service was over, promptly at eight, we gathered in the foyer to eat soup, drink tea and chat. It was a lovely time and I felt warmly welcomed. If I were a local, I would certainly visit again, and again.

Pastor Stacy Boorn

Pastor Stacy Boorn

San Francisco, Day 2

Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), Buddha’s Universal Church, Insight Meditation Center

Misión San Francisco de Asís

Misión San Francisco de Asís

Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1776, five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1782, a new location for the mission was selected and the a new building was dedicated in 1791. This building still stands today and is most commonly known as Mission Dolores. It is the oldest intact building in San Francisco and it is in a sense the city’s namesake.

There is something that immediately stands out to me when I visit a sacred space and it is an almost palpable sense of quiet and peace. Even in the midst of a bustling neighborhood, these places of prayer, worship, congregation and meditation are havens of peace and solace. Misión San Francisco de Asís is a popular destination for tourists. It is still used for worship on special occasions, but for the most part, those who visit do so for its historical significance.

Inside the Misión Chapel

Inside the Misión Chapel

As I entered the chapel, I was taken away by the simple beauty of its design and construction. I took a few photographs, made my way through the chapel and sat down to take it all in. Before too long, the handful of visitors left and I found myself completely alone in the chapel. It was so still, so quiet and so peaceful. It was just a priceless ten or fifteen minutes in which to contemplate the importance of this place. How many people have worshipped here? How many prayers have been raised? How much history is contained within these four-foot-deep adobe walls?

Acolytes in training, in the Basilica.

Acolytes in training, in the Basilica.

The Mission Dolores Basilica stands right next to the Misión San Francisco de Asís chapel. It is a magnificent building that a vibrant congregation calls home. As I made my way through the Basilica, a group of children rehearsed for their acolyte duties. Mass is celebrated every day of the week. On Sundays, a Spanish language Mass is celebrated, too.

With only a few minutes to spare, I traveled from the Mission district to the heart of Chinatown for a meeting at Buddha’s Universal Church. A few days ago, when I got a call back confirming an appointment to visit this Church, I could barely contain my excitement. Buddha’s Universal Church is not open during the week and services are only held on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. So, I was rather thrilled to learn that Alan Chan, one of the lay teachers, would give me a private tour of the church.

Buddha’s Universal Church is a unique congregation. As Mr. Chan explained, this is a deliberately westernized Buddhist congregation. The main worship area is arranged much like a contemporary Christian church. Instead of meditation cushions on the floor, there are rows of theater-style seats. Instead of a shrine, there is a platform and even a pulpit. There is a choir that sings during Sunday services and well, most obviously, this is a church and not a temple. But there is no question about the fact that this is a Buddhist center in the Mahayana tradition. There are exquisitely designed images of the Buddha as well as other symbols of Buddhism such as lotus flowers and bamboo shoots. I ask Mr. Chan about all of this and he explains that the Church caters to second and third generation Buddhists who have been born in the U.S. and are more Western than the generations before them.

Alan Chan, my generous host and tour guide.

Alan Chan, my generous host and tour guide.

Alan Chan is an optometrist by profession, he is a very kind and enthusiastic representative for the church. Many of the founders of this church, which started as a small gathering at home, are members of his family. As we walk through the facilities, he talks about the fundraisers and all the work that went into building this magnificent church. Entire families would make and sell cookies to raise money, “We called it cookies to concrete to church,” he tells me with a smile. The church was completed and dedicated in 1964.

“Our religion is very logical,” says Mr. Chan, “Meditation is about reflecting upon our actions.” He explains how a focus of Mahayana Buddhism is to work on the inside, to endeavor to make the heart and the mouth agree. It is no good, he says, to scorn another with our thoughts while offering a kind word. Instead, the object is to make our intentions and our actions agree. This is a message and a practice that is available and relevant to most people, and that is one of the reasons the church strives to be accessible to the Western mindset. Although most of the members and congregants are American-born Asians, he tells me the church also counts a good number of non-Asian congregants in attendance. “We cater more to the English-speaking community, so our services are always bilingual,” he tells me.

I’m amazed at the beauty of this place. There is so much light, both natural and artificial, and rooms appear to materialize out of thin air. Here’s a library, there’s a class room, but how? I didn’t notice them when I came in! And then we make our way to the rooftop, where a beautiful garden provides a place of respite and a wonderful vantage point of Washington Park and the San Francisco skyline. Here Mr. Chan draws my attention to a tree, the main feature of the terrace garden. This is a sapling from the original Bodhi tree in India, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Think about that for a minute or two. I’m still thinking about it, many hours later.

Photography was not allowed in Buddha's Universal Church. Instead here is a photo of my lovely set of The Pristine Orthodox Dharma.

Photography was not allowed in Buddha’s Universal Church. Instead here is a photo of my lovely set of The Pristine Orthodox Dharma.

An hour or so later, our visit comes to an end. Mr. Chan, my gracious host, sends me on my way with a full heart and a heavy back pack. His generosity has extended to a precious gift of an eight volume set of Buddhist texts, The Pristine Orthodox Dharma, written by leaders of the Church.

photo 4My day ended at the Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City, where I attended meditation and Dharma talk, ¡EN ESPAÑOL! Although I’ve been studying and practicing Buddhism, this is the first time I’ve heard teachings in Spanish, and what a precious gift it was. Andrea Castillo, a Stanford PhD and long-time practitioner under the teaching of Gil Fronsdal, has been leading a Spanish-language group at IMC for about three years now. After a thirty minute period of silent meditation, Castillo gave a Dharma talk on the subject of “ecuanimidad.” I listened with excitement as the Dharma came alive in the language of my childhood. I’m excited to finally learn the Spanish word for mindfulness, which is actually two words: “atención plena.” Our session ends and Dr. Castillo takes time to visit with me. I have so many questions and she is so kind with her time. We exchange contact information and she sends me home with the Spanish translation of Gil Fronsdal’s “The Issue at Hand,” which in Spanish is titled, “Viviendo en el Presente.”

PEOPLE: It just works

“I started having anxiety problems as a teenager. I tried medication and it made me a crazy person, so I got off the medication. I was looking for ways to deal with my anxiety. It was crippling, I couldn’t be around people at all. And then I learned about meditation,” replied Daniel Scharpenburg when I asked how he found Buddhism.

Daniel speaks deliberately. As I listen back to the recording of our interview, I’m surprised to find it’s only a little over thirty minutes and about a third of it is silence. There are long pauses between my questions and his answers, they are intentional and verging on awkward. And yet, they speak volumes.

He grew up with Christian parents, but he admits they weren’t particularly devout. He left the faith purely out of boredom and he wasn’t religious at all when he found meditation at the age of 22. “I started trying it, and I didn’t really know anything about it, but I found that it was working. So, I started reading numerous books about meditation and trying to learn more about it. Ultimately I learned about Buddhism and I’ve never looked back, I guess.”

"Meditation is not easy, everybody has trouble and trying counts as meditating," says Daniel Scharpenburg

“Meditation is not easy, everybody has trouble and trying counts as meditating,” says Daniel Scharpenburg

I’m curious, was it not enough to meditate? Why bring Buddhism into it? He pauses for what seems like an eternity. “I guess I wanted context. I wanted history and stories about meditation,” he says. He tells me his practice is not based on ritual and it’s not particularly devotional. He explains that while he can learn a lot by sitting on the cushion, there is so much to learn off it, too.

The image of a person sitting alone on a mountain top or sandy beach, cross-legged, hands resting on knees and eyes closed; that’s what we tend to associate with meditation. But for Daniel, having a meditation community was essential. “I was the only Buddhist I knew and I was alone and I wanted to meet great people,” he tells me. He wasn’t sure at first that the Rime Center would be the place for him, being that it is a Vajrayana center which to him meant chanting, bowing and praying, and he wasn’t interested in that.

Once he started attending, he realized it was not as ritualistic as he had thought and he stuck around. “We have lots of good visiting teachers that come through and I really value that because they come from all sorts of Buddhist traditions. I’ve met all sorts of people that I could never have met on my own,” he says.

But he didn’t just stick around, he soon became an essential part of the Rime Center’s community. For a few years now, Daniel has been in charge of the center’s Dharma School. Children ages four and up gather in the upper room of the Center every Sunday morning while their parents congregate in the shrine room below. This is where our conversation is taking place, a large, sun-bathed room with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. In just under an hour, children (including his daughter and son) will start filing in.

Daniel never set out to work with children. “It kind of happened to me,” he explains. He became interested in the program only after his kids had been participating in it. Soon enough, the person in charge moved on and a friend of Daniel’s assumed responsibility of the program. That’s when he started helping out and eventually that friend moved on as well. “Why do I still do it? I guess I could just quit,” he says. And then, after a pause, he continues, “As I said, I suffer from anxiety and I see some of those tendencies in my daughter so I want her to have a meditation practice if she wants to use it…I want her to have better tools than I had.”

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more anxiety-inducing than being responsible for a group of children. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to do this and he does it as a volunteer, week after week. He laughs when I ask how he does it.

“I have to be really patient. I tell them not to run and they run. I have to exercise patience and it’s good for me. It is at times overwhelming,” he says, as calmly as a sleeping child. His children enjoy it, and that’s his main reward. He admits that sometimes he enjoys it, too. “It’s a good feeling to know I’m doing something that benefits the community. Lots of volunteers at the Rime Center do harder things than this.”

When Daniel mentions that bringing his children to Dharma School gives his spouse a morning off, I ask whether she herself attends. I learn she’s not a Buddhist. “She knows Buddhism helps me, and she is supportive,” he says. I press a bit further, I want to hear something about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-faith family; surely there are many, I think. Another long pause, and then he says, “The thing about Buddhist values is that there’s not a lot to complain about. It’s compassion, concentration, being kind to others and loving each other. So, she’s pretty comfortable. Ultimately if the children want to be Buddhists when they grow up, that’ll be up to them.”

When it comes to Buddhism, there are those who assert that it is a religion and those who contend it is not. Daniel isn’t sure either way, “I’m not sure what a religion is. I’m not concerned with God and I’m not concerned with my life after death. So, for those reasons a lot of people don’t think it’s a religion. Sometimes I think it is, though because it does inform a lot of my life. I write about it a lot, I meditate every day, I talk about it a lot. So, I don’t know if that’s a religion or not, but it’s something I’m really devoted to.”

Daniel teaches meditation outside of the Rime Center as well. He has led a weekly group at the Evolving Center for some time now. I ask why he does this and he tells me, “because you get something from meditating in a group, different than meditating alone. And you definitely get something out of meditating with adults rather than children because children can only do about six minutes. So when you meditate in a group it inspires you to be better at focusing. If I’m meditating at home, by myself, I can stop and watch Netflix and nobody will know. But if I’m meditating in a group and I stop, everyone will know.”

I realize I heard nothing after the part when he said children can only meditate about six minutes. WHAT?! It took me forever to get to five minutes, is he serious?

I ask to clarify: did he mean to imply he can get children to sit still for six minutes? In true zen fashion, he replies, “I can.”

Okay, I’m going to need a bit more than that. He obliges, “Part of it is when kids see other kids do it, they’re more inclined to do it themselves. My four year old son doesn’t do it. He meditates for three minutes with me before bed, but he can’t do six minutes. Most kids can, though, if they see other kids doing it.”

When I ask how Buddhism brings meaning into his life, he takes a little longer to answer. He tells me about compassion, and he tells me how because of his practice he’s better equipped to not say hurtful things when an argument arises, and he concludes that Buddhism has helped him make better decisions. He pauses and then says, “Meaning, though…well, we’re all suffering and we’re all dying, right? Buddhism doesn’t promise me heaven or an afterlife, but it does remind me that we’re all in it together. So, that’s the meaning it brings to me.”

One of the reasons some consider Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion is that there is no deity. I ask what this means to him. “The importance of Buddha is that he was a person, and so we can do this, because we’re people, too. And in fact we have a lot of resources he didn’t have. Well, he didn’t have as many distractions as we have, but we can look up any sutra in history because of the Internet and we have meditation timers. We can do many things he couldn’t do, so the path is available to us. I think of Buddhism as very positive because a human being did it, so we can do it.” When I ask about the notion of God, he says, “Some people see the interconnectedness of all things and they call that God. I think that’s fine and it’s very profound. But, I don’t know. If I’m supposed to know, I think I’ll find out. But I’m not looking for God.”

The interview will end soon; children will start walking in any minute now, so I ask my last question, “What are you grateful for?” He jokes that he’s grateful for hot showers and soap. And then he says, “I feel like the world is only getting better. Sometimes we think it’s not because we see the news or we hear things from people. But I think the world is only getting better, even if it may not be getting better as fast as we want. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I think that’s true.”

At the time of our interview, that was exactly what I needed to hear. Now, a few weeks later, I find I needed to hear that even more.

 One more thing… Be sure to check out Daniel’s blog here and learn more about his meditation group here.

Women in Abrahamic Traditions

“Please explain to me, because I don’t understand,” asked a woman in the audience, “Why it is that people can convert to Islam or in the case of the school girls, be forced to convert to Islam, but the reverse is not true? For example, the woman in recent weeks that was put to death because she converted to Christianity.”

This question was directed to Mahnaz Shabbir, who was a guest panelist at the Dinner of Abrahamic Traditions held last week at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. This event is part of a series organized by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and that night’s topic was “Significant Women Role Models in Abrahamic Traditions.” Shabbir was the third and final speaker, representing an Islamic perspective. Rabbi Linda Steigman and Chancellor Jude Huntz had preceded her, speaking respectively from the perspectives of Judaism and Christianity.

As one who loves religions and who also identifies as a fervent feminist, there are many difficult questions I have to ask of myself. Why is it that the same holy scriptures that at once inspire in me a sense of wonder and give me a glimpse into the divine oftentimes also have the ability to frighten and repel me? How is it that the same scriptures that reveal the meaning of compassion, faith and justice, also display some of the worst instances of hatred, violence and inequality? These, I imagine, are difficult questions for anyone who has struggled with the faith. I still remember the first time I read with great dismay in the first letter to the Corinthians an admonition for women to remain silent in church, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” (1 Corinthians 14:34, KJV) Even today, while I openly declare my undying love for the Bible and the New Testament, I have to admit this is a passage I wish we could just delete. And there are others like this, in the Hebrew Testament and in the Quran. Too many to list, really.

“There’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad,” answered Shabbir. And there lies the rub, I think. Religion is most alive when we struggle with it, and it goes stagnant when we accept it as a given, when we take it for granted. Struggling with one’s faith means for me that we ask questions, and it means that when can’t find answers, we find new ways to ask questions. Shabbir faced the question head on, “There are people who use our faith in ways they shouldn’t. There is no forcing of someone to be a Muslim, that is not the teaching of Islam.” She elaborated on this and continued to explain the root of these reprehensible acts and misrepresentations of the religion, “You have to remember there are areas of the world where not everyone is as educated and that sometimes people become religious leaders without any education at all.”

This is true across all faiths, in my opinion. I’ve certainly experienced this in my own evangelical upbringing. In no uncertain terms, Shabbir condemned the incident in question and others like it, “It was wrong, and in America many Muslim organizations did everything we could to try to stop that incident, but unfortunately it wasn’t successful.” It is at this point that she emphasizes that there is good and there is bad, and she drives this point, “There’s a whole lot of good going on.”

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

In true “people of the book” fashion, all three presenters at the event recounted stories of remarkable women in the scriptures. We heard the stories of women such as Sara, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, the foremothers of Abrahamic religions. Stories about women who believed God’s promises, women who acted virtuously and courageously, women whose example inspires many even today. Women who, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “made a real difference by taking brave, gutsy actions.” She told the stories of Esther, Ruth and Naomi. But she also told the lesser-known story of Yael, a brave woman who delivered Israel from the troops of King Jabin when, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “took a tent-pick and put it through the head of Sisera after she wooed him with warm milk, and we don’t know what else was in the warm milk!” (I don’t remember hearing that story in Sunday School!)

This is all great. We need to hear the stories of these historically significant women, but I really want to know about the place women hold in Judaism today. In spite of the fact that women were held in high esteem in post-biblical times, the fact is that they were expected to run the home and even a business in order that their husbands could study. That rubbed me the wrong way. Did it mean that women were held in high regard as long as they fit a prescribed domestic gender role?

It turns out I’m wrong, and happily so. Yes, women were not commanded to attend to time-bound commitments or go to Synagogue. However, Rabbi Steigman declares, “There’s a difference between being not-commanded and being forbidden, and this is the road that women today have taken in becoming much more active in the Jewish clergy.” She tells us the story of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi to be ordained. Her ordination took place in Germany eighty years ago, which seems late in the grand scheme of things, but is certainly longer ago than I expected. Rabbi Jonas was killed in the Holocaust in 1940. The next woman rabbi was ordained in 1973 in the reformed movement of the United States, “And now, about half of the each class of ordinees are women. Eventually, the rabbinate will be half women and half men, maybe more women, we don’t know,” said Rabbi Steigman. I had no idea the numbers of women in the rabbinate were this high. There is a lot of good going on, indeed.

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

“Abraham is often called our father in the faith, and in the Christian tradition we often refer to Mary as our mother in the faith,” said Chancellor Huntz. He drew parallels between the promises God gave to Abraham and to Mary, about the child they would each have, about how they each responded to God’s promise and about how they each faced the prospect of the sacrifice of their sons. The difference being, of course, that Abraham’s son was spared and Mary’s wasn’t. And then he compared Mary to another father from the New Testament, Zechariah. “If we look at Mary in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew we see a remarkable woman,” Huntz said, adding that the Gospel of Luke highlights the role of women as role models and leaders of the faith. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, did not believe the promise of the Lord and his incredulity was punished with the inability to speak for three days. Mary, on the other hand, believed and accepted the promise, in spite of the repercussions she would face as a young woman pregnant out of wedlock. In his reading of the Gospel, Huntz sees women and men in contrast, he quips that “The women are always getting it and the men are not.” This to him, serves to remind us of the stories of all the remarkable women in the the Old Testament Rabbi Steigman has just shared with us. I want him to talk about 1 Corinthians 14:34, but then I remember there is a lot of good going on, and I shouldn’t just emphasize the bad. There is, after all, a lot of good.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

“There are five pillars of Islam. It isn’t five pillars for men and five pillars for women. It isn’t that men do one thing and women do another. We all do the same things,” said Shabbir. I could sense this is a question she has had to answer countless times. It reminds me of the only question people think to ask of vegans, “But, how do you get your protein?” She proceeds gracefully, but sternly as she quotes from the Quran, “O mankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female…the most honorable of you, in the sight of Allah is the one who is most righteous of you.” (49:13) This is an aya she often refers to as she makes a point about gender equality in Islam. “Here, in the words of God through the angel Gabriel, we view that God has made us equal, men and women. The only thing that makes us any different is how pious we are,” she says. Okay, that’s great, I’ve read the Quran and I know that there is even an entire chapter dedicated to Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus. But what about the way women are treated throughout the Islamic world? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot these days and I need help. Shabbir tells us “That has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with culture. It’s important that we understand what the religion is before we go into the distinctions of culture.” And it’s true, she talks about women in Islamic countries who are not allowed to drive and reminds us that, “The Quran doesn’t say anything about automobiles!” This is helping me out. I can relate this to the different schools of Buddhism I’ve studied. Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, looks so different from Zen Buddhism in great part because it has assimilated into its practices so much from Tibetan culture and folklore.

The Prophet’s equal treatment of women is documented in great detail in the Haddiths. There is an instance where he is asked to whom one should pay respect after paying respect to God and the Prophet answers, “To your mother.” Twice more he is asked and twice more he gives the same answer. Only the fourth time does the Prophet say, “To your father.” Shabbir jokes that perhaps this means women are more important than men, but she quickly adds, “no, we’re equal.” There are other accounts, like the fact that the Prophet stood up every time his daughter Fatima walked into a room as a sign of respect toward her and other women. Shabbir tells us about other significant women in Islamic tradition, and then she moves on to talk about remarkable Muslim women today. Dr. Shirin Ebadi, for instance, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Iran. She is well-known for her personal accomplishments, but mostly for her leadership in human rights activism. She’s a Muslim. Ingrid Mattson is a professor of Islamic Studies, an interfaith activist and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America. She’s a Muslim convert. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia was the prime minister of Bangladesh, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the prime minister of Indonesia; all three, Muslim women. “We haven’t had a woman president in the United States yet, but we’ve had Muslim women prime ministers in other countries,” remarks Shabbir. This is true, and for me it’s painfully true. She makes a few more points about the equality of women in Islam and she closes by saying, “In America I can practice my religion exactly the way the Prophet wanted us to practice.”

Whenever we can have an open and honest dialogue between people of different faiths, whenever we can ask difficult questions and have the courage to struggle with incomprehensible truths; there is no doubt in my mind that there’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad. And, what’s more, there’s a lot of good going on.

New York, Day 7

Rare Bible Collection at the Museum of Biblical Art

One of the many shelves in the collection.

One of the many shelves in the collection.

“We collect one book,” said Dr. Liana Lupas as she opened the door to the library. The Rare Bible Collection at MOBIA (Museum of Biblical Art) belongs to the American Bible Society. It is not open to the general public, but it can be visited by appointment. I happened upon it last Saturday when the curator, Dr. Lupas, was gone for the weekend. The museum attendant gave me a card and said I could contact Dr. Lupas directly for an appointment. It was a long shot, knowing a visit would have to happen today, I was afraid I may not get to see it. Dr. Lupas called this morning and told me I could come visit today. And now, here I was only a couple hours later, standing before one of the largest and finest collections of rare bibles.

Dr. Lupas is as rare and extraordinary as the collection she curates. She is soft spoken and chooses her words carefully. But she also has no qualms about correcting my Latin pronunciation. “I would say ‘poliGLOta,’ not ‘poLIglota,'” she points out later on as I read the spine on one of the bibles. Eventually she informs me it’s pronounced “prinKeps,” not “prinSeps” (at least I got “editio” right). But somehow I don’t feel belittled or embarrassed, I’m just incredibly grateful she’s giving me so much of her time. She doesn’t offer much information about herself, but when I ask, I learn that her PhD is in Classics (Greek and Latin), that she taught for 21 years at the University of Bucharest, that her mothertongue is Romanian and that she has been the curator of this collection for some 23 years. From my time with her, I deduce that she speaks at least six languages (Romanian, English, French, Spanish, Greek and Latin), but I wouldn’t be surprised if she actually speaks six more.

The 1440 Wycliffe manuscript is the collection's most valuable book.

The 1440 Wycliffe manuscript is the collection’s most valuable book.

There are at least 7,000 languages spoken in the world today and the Bible is available in at least 2,600 of those. I’m surprised, I expected the second number to be higher, especially since she’s just told me it’s the most translated and reprinted book of all time. And then she explains that even though 2,600 is only a little over a third of the world’s languages, at least 96% of the world’s population have access to a Bible in a language they can understand. You see, there are languages with fewer than one hundred surviving speakers. These are languagues that will soon disappear. And many of these disappearing languages have portions of the Bible available to them, just not the Bible in its entirety (Hebrew and New Testaments). She tells me there is a consortium of Bible translators, the purpose of which is to produce a translation in any language that has at least 100,000 speakers. It seems like a big number at first, but that’s barely one tenth the population of New York City! Speaking of numbers, Dr. Lupas’ collection contains 46,000 specimens. That’s also the number of taxi drivers in New York City, by the way (and can you believe that only 170 of them are women?). That’s a lot of bibles.

If I look nervous, it's because I am holding the most valuable books in the collection.

If I look nervous, it’s because I am holding the most valuable books in the collection.

Right around this time, Dr. Lupas asks me to leave my back pack behind and directs me to a staircase, “Wait, there’s more?!” I wonder. This whole time, we’ve only been looking at one third of the collection, there’s a whole other floor. When we get to the second floor, she explains she is now going to show me the rare bibles. I feel like I’m in a movie as she scans her badge, there’s a beep and a click and she opens the door to a temperature-controlled room. My heart starts beating faster, I’m about to be in the presence of old bibles. Really. Old. Expensive. Bibles. We begin at the very back of the room, where she pulls a small box and a small bible off the shelf. “These two are insured for one million dollars,” she tells me. I ask if I can take a picture of her holding them. She says, “No, you hold them and I’ll take a picture of you as a millionaire. And then you give me my million back” I hand her my phone, she gives me the precious books, and in her best teacher voice admonishes me, “With both hands!” I return the books as soon as I can, they’re making me nervous.

Dr. Lupas shows me her favorite Bible, the Complutensian. I asked why it's her favorite and she simply replied, "I love it."

Dr. Lupas shows me her favorite Bible, the Complutensian. I asked why it’s her favorite and she simply replied, “I love it.”

We walk over to a table with a pillow. Dr. Lupas opens the box and out comes a 1440 Wycliffe manuscript, which she carefully places on the pillow and begins to open. This is the most valuable Bible in the collection, but she doesn’t handle it the way you handle a delicate and expensive artifact. No, she handles it like its a faithful, long time friend…with love. My bible knowledge is very rusty, but I know enough to remember John Wycliffe as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation who among other things proposed translating the Bible into the language of the people. I mention remembering he got himself into a lot of trouble for his translation work. She corrects me again, “Well, no he didn’t. You’re thinking of Tyndale, that’s this other book. Although they did dig Wycliffe up after and burned his bones.” “Of course, Tyndale, that’s what I was thinking!” I add, in an effort to save face. She turns a few of the pages and allows me to take a photo here and there. It is a glorius book, and it is in perfect condition. I almost can’t believe I’m inches away from a Bible that’s over 500 years old. We move on to the smaller book, the 1530 copy of Tyndale’s Pentateuch, printed in Amsterdam. It was William Tyndale who was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.

The Tyndale Pentateuch, 1530.

The Tyndale Pentateuch, 1530.

The collection owns very few manuscripts and they have mostly been acquired as gifts. I ask why that is and Dr. Lupas explains that the mission of the collection is to document the history of Bible printing, publication and translation. In the time that she has curated this collection, Dr. Lupas has added around 600 languages to it. I ask whether the fact that there are so many new translations being produced over the years presents any problems or challenges for her. Without skipping a beat she replies, “No. I’m a collector.” I tell her I’m familiar with a few of the translations, and I rattle them off, thinking I can impress her. “The New Revised Standard Version, the King James (obviously), the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, you know, most of them, right?” “Well,” she tells me, “if you count everything, there are at least 900 translations in English alone.” Not. Even. Close. I wonder if that’s a problem, or maybe even just strange – so many translations in just one language? Why? And she tells me these translations reflect the evolution of the language. That makes so much sense, the language is alive, word meanings change, words fall out of use, and so on. But, shouldn’t there be at least one authoritative translation? “There’s a Bible for everybody,” she responds.

La Biblia del Oso.

La Biblia del Oso.

I tell her I grew up with the Reina-Valera, does she have any editions of that. “Of course,” she says. Of course. We walk over to another case and she pulls out a magnificent tome about the size a paver stone. “La Biblia del Oso,” she smiles. The Bible of the Bear? I’ve never heard it referred to that way. Well, that’s because I’ve never seen a first edition. She opens the Bible to the first page and there it is, a bear reaching up into a honeycomb on a tree. I ask why Valera’s name isn’t there. “Valera did next to nothing, Reina did all the work.” That would be Casiodoro de Reina and Cipriano de Valera. It turns out that Valera did a minor revision afterward, nothing really worthy of full partnership. The edition we’re looking at is from 1569, and it is absolutely beautiful.

“Let me show you my favorite Bible,” she says. Of course I want to see her favorite Bible! Biblia Poliglota Complutense (emphasis on the “glo”) or Complutensian Polyglot Bible, is a six volume edition, financed and produced by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros in Alcalá de Henares. This is the first polyglot version of the entire Bible, published and printed by the Universidad Complutense around 1514 and 1517. On the page she has turned to, she points out the Hebrew on the right, the Greek on the left, the Latin vulgate in the middle, the Aramaic paraphrase in the bottom left and the Latin commentary in the bottom right. She explains the significance of this work; this is not just a translation of a holy text, “He wanted it to also be a manual for learning Hebrew and Greek.” The significance of this book is palpable, I feel like I’m looking at the Rosetta Stone of printed Bibles, and I’m at a loss for words. “Look at the typeface,” she says in the same tone a loving grandmother would show you a picture of her grandchild and proudly exclaim, “Look at those eyes.” These books, these bibles, they are her companions, her friends.

bibles07

Biblia Poliglota Complutense

“What does it mean for you to be surrounded by all of these bibles, for this to be your work?” She looks around, then back at me and says, “Well, it means so much. It’s everything.” There’s a pause and I hope it wasn’t a wrong question to ask. Then she adds, “I’m 73, almost 74, and I don’t want to retire.” We’re back on the first level where she shows me a few oddities. A Spanish language Manga new testament, with Jesus illustrated as a Japanese superhero along with his disciples, stands out. “What? What is this? How strange!” I ask, hardly believing this is in the same collection as those centuries-old Bibles. She shrugs and says, “I’m a collector.” I can tell our visit is about to come to an end, she’s already been more than generous with her time. She says she has a couple more things she can show me. I tell her I’m happy to stay as long as she’ll let me, until she kicks me out. “Well, I have a lot of work. We all have a lot of work.” And I think by “we” she means her and the bibles.

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.