interfaith

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

Advertisements

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 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.

New York, Day 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

New York, Day 4

Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Central Synagogue

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

 

You may say I'm a dreamer...

You may say I’m a dreamer…

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

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

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

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

Inside Central Synagogue.

Inside Central Synagogue.

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

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

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

New York, Day 3

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

 

"Like walking through a grove of sequoias."

“Like walking through a grove of sequoias.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York, Day 2

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

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

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

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

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

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

The Village Zendo

The Zendo

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

This is the only photo I took.

This is the only photo I took.

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

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adigopi Priya Dasi

Adigopi Priya Dasi

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

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

bhakti1

Radhanath Swami

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

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

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

New York, Day 1

St. Malachy’s – The Actors’ Chapel

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

Lighting the altar candles  at the beginning of Adoration.

Lighting the altar candles at the beginning of Adoration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing an umbrella.

Sharing an umbrella.

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

 

 

 

Going to New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PEOPLE: A Present Firmly Grounded in the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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