San Francisco, Day 6

San Francisco Zen Center, Nuova Porziuncola, Saints Peter and Paul

San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center

Another early day began at 8:30 in the morning, arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center. Saturdays are community days at this Sangha, one of the largest ouside of Asia. This center, in the Soto Zen tradition, was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his American students. Some eighty residents live, work and practice in this place. Zazen training for beginners happens every Saturday at 8:40 and it’s taught by one of the priests. I was surprised to see such a large group gathered so early on a Saturday morning to learn the basics of sitting meditation. For over an hour we were taught several sitting postures as well as the principles of meditation. In the end, we got to sit zazen for a short period of ten minutes.

It is also on Saturdays that dharma talks are given. These talks are also available to the community as well as broadcasted via the web. Following zazen instruction, the room was rearranged for the talk. Before long, people started to arrive and the room was soon at capacity. Today’s talk was given by Kiku Christina Lehnherr, a senior dharma teacher and former abbess of the Center. I’m so grateful to have heard this teaching in person and you can watch it here (there were some technical difficulties, skip to minute 4:00 for the beginning of the talk).

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

My day at the SFZC was only halfway through and it had already been a wonderful time. There was a break of about fifteen minutes following the talk during which people mingled throughout the center with cookies and tea. This is a very vibrant community with everything from first time visitors to seasoned masters. It was lovely being in their midst. It was time for forms training and I was very eager for this particular class. My experience with zen is very limited and this class walked us through the particular forms for entering and sitting in the zendo. The zendo is the meditation hall where zen practitioners sit for extended periods of group meditation. There are specific ways of entering the room, finding your place and sitting. There are clear reasons for these prescribed behaviors in the zendo, as our teacher explained, and they all have to do with an intentional and mindful approach to the practice. There is no penalty for entering the zendo with your right foot instead of your left, as is the form. Rather, one should act accordingly as part of the practice. Every aspect of zen practice is carefully undertaken in an effort to be as present and mindful as one can possibly be.

After forms training, we were all invited to stay for lunch, and I’m so glad I did. It was during communal lunch that I got to visit with new and experience buddhists from all over the country and the world. People come to the SFZC from all over. They live and work here, and they practice together, every day from before sunrise until dark. There is plenty of work to be done, in the kitchen, around the facilities, and at Green Gulch farm which is about an hour away from the center. Some students stay for a week and others have been living there for years. Enguetsu, a practitioner from Brazil, is here for her second stay. I learn about her journey to Zen and her work at the center; and I learn the meaning of her dharma name: En (empty) Guetsu (moon). We visit for a while and then it’s time to move on. This is one of those (many) times when I wish I’d found Buddhism at an earlier age. I would have loved to have been a resident at a place like this.

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La Nuova Porziuncola

I headed for North Beach in the afternoon, where I visited the Nuova Porziuncola in the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Nuova Porziuncola is a scale replica of the Porziuncola in Assisi. This is the church Saint Francis rebuilt after hearing God’s voice before the crucifix of San Damiano. The Nuova Porziuncola is a work of art and a sacred space. Every day people visit and stay to pray and reflect. I wouldn’t have known to visit had it not been for the kind lady at the St. Mary’s Cathedral bookshop. She insisted I should visit the Porziuncola, and I’m so happy I did. The Nuova Porziuncola was built with exacting standards. The stones are from the same area in Assisi as those of the original, the marble floors are reclaimed from a church in Assisi, and the frescoes are exact replicas, too. I knelt inside the Porziuncola, admiring the simplicity and beauty of its design. I wondered, if it is possible to feel such a sense of peace and wonder in this replica, what must it be like to visit the original in Assisi?

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

 

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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 4

Grace Cathedral

The past few days I’ve been going at a very heavy pace, visiting as many places and meeting as many people as I possibly can. I’m only here for a week, so I feel compelled to make the most out of every minute. Today, however, I decided to slow down a bit. I’ve also decided to give myself and you, dear reader, a break. This won’t be an endless blog post, instead I’ll leave you with a few photographs of my visit to Grace Cathedral.

I chose Grace Cathedral for my day of rest because of its labyrinths. Those of you who have followed my journey might remember my first experience walking a labyrinth. I knew that walking a labyrinth, particularly one in such a magnificent sacred space as Grace Cathedral, would be just the thing to do for my teeming spirit and my tired body.

Thank you for reading along, and thank you for your kind comments, which I find both encouraging and thought-provoking.

NOTE: If you are on Instagram, be sure to follow me @storiesofdevotion for real-time updates and more pictures.

My view of the back of the cathedral as I approached from Jones Street. I walked some four of five of the steepest blocks I've ever known, only to be greeted by the Cathedral's backside!

My view of the back of the cathedral as I approached from Jones Street. I walked some four of five of the steepest blocks I’ve ever known, only to be greeted by the Cathedral’s backside!

The sanctuary.

A view of the sanctuary.

The rose window through the Ribbons of Light, a temporary art installation.

The rose window through the Ribbons of Light, a temporary art installation.

The labyrinth toward the entrance to the nave.  The photo doesn't do a good job of showing the size of this beautiful labyrinth.

The labyrinth toward the entrance to the nave. The photo doesn’t do a good job of showing the size of this beautiful labyrinth.

At the entrance to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel.

At the entrance to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel.

The labyrinth outside, with beautiful views of the city.

The labyrinth outside, with beautiful views of the city.

A magnificent cathedral and a respite for the spirit.

A magnificent cathedral and a respite for the spirit.

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.”

San Francisco, Day 1

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

A few weeks ago I was talking to someone about this work that I’m doing, visiting sacred spaces, interviewing clergy and lay people across the faith spectrum, and gathering stories. I gave her my elevator speech, which I’ve got down, having been at it for three months. But then she asked me a question that caught me a bit off guard. “So, how long have you been on this spiritual journey?” I mumbled a bit and replied, “Well, I guess I haven’t really thought of myself as being on a spiritual journey. But, now that you mention it…”

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

It’s the truth. This whole time I’ve been operating as an observer, an attentive student, a respectful admirer, and an intentional listener. But it’s not the whole truth. At some level, whether I’ve been aware of it or not, I myself have ventured into a journey of personal reflection and discovery. Is it any surprise? Julia Alvarez said something along the lines of “we’re all writing each other’s stories,” and I’m finding this to be a reality. The more stories I hear, the more my own story makes sense. The more I learn about the faith and practices of others, the more I learn about my own. And, well, that was the whole point of this project. I set out with the idea that faith is narrative, that narrative gives life meaning, and that understanding what gives meaning to other peoples’ lives creates a more emotionally connected world. I’m happy to report all of that still holds. And I say that as both an observer and a test subject.

People love using the metaphor of “journey” when talking about faith and spirituality. It’s rather overused, if we’re being honest, and it’s become a bit cliché. But we use it because it works. We talk about faith as a journey and not a destination. We talk about growing spiritually with every step, about meeting spiritual friends and teachers along the way. We talk about our paths crossing. We talk about seeking truth, about being in it for the long run. It just works. And in the case of this project, I knew from the start that I would have to take that metaphor and make it a reality, that I would have to actually travel outside of Kansas City if I was to get a bigger picture of our spiritual and religious landscape today.

"In the joy of others lies our own." - HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj

“In the joy of others lies our own.” – HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj

So, this week, my journey has brought me to San Francisco. I arrived late afternoon and I headed right over to my first destination, trying to make the most of my first day. The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Swaminarayan Hindu Temple, is located at the very top of one of San Francisco’s countless hills. From the outside the building doesn’t look like much. I called last week and was told to just show up any time between 4:00 and 8:00, when the temple is open for Darshan services. I walked in, left my shoes in the rack by the door, and was warmly greeted by a devotee. After a few pleasantries and the necessary explanations, he gave me a ten minute BAPS crash course. BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha and it is a modern sect (think denomination) of Hinduism. It was founded some 250 years ago by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who was known for his many contributions toward the improvement of societal standards. But for devotees, Swaminarayan is so much more than a mere social worker, he is in fact God incarnate and is worshipped as such.

“You are very lucky to be here today,” said my gracious host as he introduced me to the visiting Swami and Sadhu. As it turned out, I was there at the same time as these two holy men, who had just arrived from India. I didn’t have an opportunity to speak with the Swami, but his traveling companion, Sadhu Vedanta Priya, took the time to answer some of my questions. Swamis (teachers) and sadhus (monks) lead austere and disciplined lives. They take vows of poverty and celibacy, which means they can’t own anything or even handle money and they are not allowed to interact with women. At the temple, men and women sit separately. “Of course women are allowed to worship and hear the teachings,” Sadhu Priya tells me. He explains it is simply a matter of respect and propriety.

A row of flowers divides the temple down the middle. Women sit on the left, men on the right.

A row of flowers divides the temple down the middle. Women sit on the left, men on the right.

I’m allowed to take a few pictures, given that Mondays are slow and no devotees have shown up for prayer. Because Buddhism was born out of the context of Hinduism, there is so much about this place that feels like home. Along the walls I see words and images I recognize, “vajra,” “padma.” The men I’ve just spoken with all have malas (prayer beads) around their necks, and they look exactly like mine. “Yes, we also call it a mala,” says Sadhu Priya. A devotee has approached me and explained that the mantra one repeats in temple is “Swaminarayan,” the name of God. Swami and Sadhu take their leave and I find myself all alone in this sacred space. It feels very familiar and I am completely at peace in this quiet, impressively quiet, space. I sit down to meditate, I take my mala and do a round, “Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan…”

Teachers and monastics in this order are itinerant. They are constantly traveling, visiting temples and communities. Traditionally they never stay more than two days in one location. So, it really does seem auspicious that our journeys, mine of learning and theirs of teaching, should coincide. And it makes me wonder…what is it about traveling, about being constantly on the move, physically and spiritually?

BAPS1

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.

Bibliotheca

The Biblical Literature designed and crafted for reading, separated into four elegant volumes, and free of all numbers and annotations.

Designed and crafted for reading, separated into four elegant volumes, and free of all numbers and annotations.

Speaking of the Bible, last night my cousin sent me a text message, “Check it out…coming to the Bible Collection soon?” He included a link to BIBLIOTHECA, a Kickstarter campaign developed by a book designer named Adam Lewis Greene. I started watching the video and barely two minutes into it I knew I would be contributing to this campaign. Greene has this crazy idea that people might actually read, and enjoy, the Bible if it were stripped from all the things that make it a seemingly insurmountable chore. I agree with him, and guess what, so do 9,626 backers (as of the time of this post).

A few weeks ago I finished reading the Holy Bible in its entirety. I have this goal of reading one book a week this year and I was doing just fine until I decided I was going to take on the Bible. Well, it took nearly three weeks, but I did it. And I’m so grateful to have done it. And the truth is I think more and more people will find that reading the Bible not just doable but really interesting as well, once Bibliotheca is produced. And it will be produced, for certain. Greene’s original goal was $37,000 and it is now nearing $1 million, with a day and a half left. You should really check it out for yourself, I don’t want to spoil the fun for you.

Regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), there is no question that the Bible is a book like no other in the history of humankind. Its influence and effect on civilization, culture, art, literature and policy (for better or for worse, mostly worse) is undeniable. What an exciting proposition to think that so many people will be reading the Bible in its entirety, and so many for the very first time. And having just visited the Rare Bible Collection at MOBIA, I am certain Dr. Lupas will be thrilled to add it to her collection. There is indeed a Bible for everybody, as she would say. And Bibliotheca may just be the Bible for a whole new generation.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/99418117″>Bibliotheca Kickstarter</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/goodhonest”>Good. Honest.</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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.