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720 New Ways to See U.S. Religious Identity

The Faces of RavelUnravel “Often…when I say I am Muslim, I stun people because I don’t fit the stereotype. I just actually had somebody walk into my [dorm] room, ask me what I was doing and then they responded with ‘Wait, you’re Muslim? But you’re not even brown!’” 19-year-old Emina confessed in a video blog. As I watched her speak, I nodded my head sympathetically. How many times did people tell me I didn’t look Jewish when I was growing up? Too many to count, I thought. But what I didn’t expect was how gracefully Emina handled this encounter. Rather than bitterly lashing out, she used this experience as an opportunity to debunk stereotypes that she frequently encounters about being Muslim. It was incredibly powerful to witness this young woman openly sharing in her own words what it meant to her to be Muslim rather than allowing others to define this for her. Her video blog was one of several created for a youth service program through Project Interfaith, an organization in Omaha, Nebraska dedicated to building understanding and relationships across beliefs and cultural lines. We were so inspired by Emina’s video that it led us to ask, “What if we could give more people the chance to define and share their religious or spiritual identity in their own words and confront the misconceptions they face because of it?" This is how RavelUnravel was born: an interactive, multimedia exploration of the religious and spiritual identities that make up our communities and worlds. What makes RavelUnravel.com unique is that it is a space where individuals from a wide variety of religious and spiritual identities discuss their identities in a personal way, as well as the stereotypes that impact them and whether or not their communities have welcomed their chosen religious or spiritual paths. The site currently contains over 720 videos of personal interviews. These are categorized by religious and spiritual identity so that users can browse within a category and gain an appreciation of not just the diversity of the religions and belief systems people identify with, but also the tremendous diversity of belief, practice, and cultural backgrounds within the same religious or spiritual identity. For example, when visitors go to the Muslim category on the website, they can listen to Muslims from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, including Muslim women who wear headscarves and those who do not. Whether hearing from Khalid about how a visit to a mosque when he first arrived in Omaha from Oman shaped his impressions of the United States, or from Lyneea on what it means to her to wear a headscarf, or from Yasmine about why she doesn’t wear one, the power of these stories is in their ability to make people appreciate the reality that true religious identity goes beyond the simple labels we often use. The site also allows any user to upload their own video so that the number of diverse stories among and within religious and spiritual identities continues to grow. Our hope at Project Interfaith is that through RavelUnravel.com we can reshape the way people think, learn and talk about identity, religion, spirituality, and culture — topics which are typically taboo, but often define our interactions with others. In times of great economic, social, and political instability like today, religious, spiritual and cultural identity are all too often used by leaders and groups who breed fear and division in society in order to advance their own political and social agendas. Even in more stable times, openly and respectfully learning and talking about these topics has not been the norm in most communities, schools, and households in the United States. This is a terrible loss for us as individuals, and collectively as a society. Yet when we are able to freely share and inquire about each other’s religious and spiritual identities, it provides opportunities for collaboration, hospitality, and empowerment.
Beth KatzBeth Katz is founder and executive director of Project Interfaith. A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on June 26, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Trent Gilliss's picture

Adiaphora and the Dark Extremes of an Eccentric Faith

Mack Wolford + KatePastor Randall "Mack" Wolford at his church in West Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Fran Wolford) At about 11 p.m on May 27, a preacher in West Virginia named Randall "Mack" Wolford passed away from a rattlesnake bite he had sustained that afternoon. Mr. Wolford was a widely known advocate of serpent handling, practiced by a handful of Appalachian Pentecostals who believe that the phrase "they shall take up serpents" in Mark 16 means that handling poisonous snakes is a required sign of Christian faith, just like casting out devils, speaking in tongues, and laying hands on the sick (the signs that ordinary Pentecostals observe). During services people like Mr. Wolford pass around poisonous snakes, sometimes wave them about, and occasionally, per Luke 10:19, walk on them. Early in the proceedings on Sunday the 27th, Mack Wolford sat down next to a yellow timber rattler that he had placed on the floor and it bit him on the thigh. As a sign of faith in God's protection and, ultimately, obedience to His will, he refused medical care. Serpent handlers pride themselves on the claim that they are the rare Christians who live and practice according to the entirety of Christ's message, the entirety of the Bible. "We feed over ALL of the Lord's Will, His Word and His Way," Wolford's church's site says. "We are not side choosers that pick apart the Scriptures and cross out verses we don't like." Serpent handlers, like other Christians, have chosen something to emphasize. Over the course of two thousand years, others have chosen the precise nature and identity of Christ, the proper understanding and practice of the Eucharist, the correct way to baptize, the proper way to organize a church, which day of the week to call the Sabbath, and any number of other things as the sine qua non of being a true Christian, and in each case some other Christians have regarded that defining center of faith as "adiaphora" — something indifferent. The dark extremes of eccentric faith unsettle a public discourse on religion predicated on tolerance and understanding: How do we react to a faith like Mr. Wolford's? Often the law provides us with a guide — many destructive forms of religious expression are also illegal — but this was not one of those times. There are no laws against snake handling in West Virginia, and as a grownup Mr. Wolford was free to choose how he died. A photographer who had been working with Mr. Wolford was present as he lay dying, and has written about "com[ing] to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith." Such extreme devotion carries an air of nobility. A deliberately provocative op-ed in the Washington Post by a psychologist who has studied snake handlers suggests that they be "lauded for their faith." An adult rattlesnake's venom is hemotoxic, which means that a severe bite in the wrong place, untreated, eliminates the blood's ability to clot and begins to dissolve the tissue of the muscles and organs. The snake begins to digest the person, from the inside. With some biblical resonance of her own, a young mother in San Diego bitten by a rattlesnake last year described the pain as "more horrific than giving birth." In an important sense, respecting the depth of Mr. Wolford's faith is an essential part of avoiding easy caricature; but in another sense, avoiding caricature of a man like Mr. Wolford should make his death sadder and harder to understand, not more approachable or ennobled. Mr. Wolford's life, like his faith, had aspects other than snake handling that he might have chosen to emphasize. He was friendly and voluble, according to those who knew him; Facebook has pictures of him posing playfully with a filmmaker who is finishing a documentary about serpent handlers. Mack WolfordA few days after his death, Wolford's widow changed the cover photo of her Facebook page to one of her late husband cuddling not a snake but a small, shaggy dog she described as his "little shadow." At 44, Mr. Wolford had a wife, a daughter, three stepchildren, and nine grandchildren, as well as at least one devoted pet, but at least compared to his faith, it seems, the other parts of his life were so much adiaphora. We are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it. "Change in Christian thought," writes Edmund Morgan, "has usually been a matter of emphasis, of giving certain ideas a greater weight than was previously accorded them or of carrying one idea to its logical conclusion at the expense of another." "It all boils down to Mark 16:17 & 18 to be taken literally that differentiates pure believers from pale imitations," a snake-handling site says. "One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike," Paul observed to the church at Rome. "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."
Seth PerrySeth Perry is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Mellon Fellow in Early American Literature and Material Texts at the University of Pennsylvania's McNeil Center for Early American Studies. This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

12 Steps Toward a Better Neighborhood

by David Sloan Wilson 1) Create a Neighborhood Identity. Name your neighborhood. Create and display a symbol for it. Design t-shirts, baseball caps, buttons, and decals, so that residents of the neighborhood feel like members of a team. 2) Develop an agenda. Groups exist to get things done. The more you work together to achieve common goals, the more bonded you will become. Choose positive goals, such as creating a neighborhood park, in addition to solving problems such as reducing crime. 3) Meet face-to-face under pleasant circumstances. The internet is great for many things, but there is no substitute for getting together in person. Mix work with play whenever possible. Meet in each other’s homes, quite cafes, or that park you are designing. Meeting under relaxed circumstances with people you trust to accomplish important objectives can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. 4) Be inclusive. Ideally, a neighborhood group should include everyone in the neighborhood. If someone doesn’t want to participate, it should be their decision and not because they weren’t asked. Small steering committees might be necessary, but everyone should feel that they have an opportunity for input, as in a democracy. 5) Share the work and make it proportional to benefits. Too often, groups consist of a few people who do most of the work while the others enjoy the benefits. This is unsustainable over the long run. It’s only fair to share the work and to make sure that those who go above and beyond the call of duty are appropriately recognized and rewarded. Unfair inequality poisons cooperative efforts. 6) Make decisions by consensus or by another process regarded as fair by group members. Most people hate being bossed around but will work hard to implement their own decision. If consensus decision-making proves to be unwieldy, make sure that the decision-making process is transparent and faithfully represents the interest of the group. Even the potential of factionalism poisons cooperative efforts. 7) Monitor good behavior. Research shows that in the best neighborhoods, neighbors not only like each other but can also enforce each other’s good conduct, which in turn requires monitoring. Monitoring need not be invasive; it’s just a matter of knowing whether we are keeping up our end of the bargain. 8) Graduated sanctions. All of us fall out of step now and then, and a friendly good-natured reminder is sufficient to keep us in solid citizen mode. But stronger sanctions must be available for those who refuse to cooperate or actively exploit others. Not everyone is nice, much as we might wish otherwise, and nice people must be able to protect themselves. Develop the art of niceness with attitude. 9) Fast, fair, conflict resolution. Most groups experience conflict now and then, which needs to be involved quickly and in a manner regarded as fair by all parties. A common best practice is for everyone to take turns serving on a judicial committee, like the jury system. There’s nothing like acting in the role of judge for making one behave responsibly the rest of the time! 10) Gain the authority to make your own decisions. Your neighborhood won’t be able to pursue its agenda if it must ask permission every step along the way. Cities vary greatly in how much authority they grant local groups such as neighborhood associations. Try to get as much elbowroom as possible to accomplish your objectives. Nobody knows what’s good for your neighborhood better than the neighborhood itself. 11) Work with other groups, large and small. Congratulations! After your neighborhood has become a well-organized group, you’ll find that you can interact with other groups more powerfully than before. Your city will take you more seriously. You’ll be able to work collectively with other neighborhoods. You’ll become a more important lobbying force at the state and federal levels. In short, your group will become a more effective member of society at a larger scale--like the cell of a multicellular organism. 12) Plan for the longevity of your group. Your neighborhood group needs to last longer than any individual’s participation. Of course you want to make use of members with the most talent, skills, and initiative, but you must also plan for the day when they must leave or reduce their participation. Create offices with terms of service. The most dedicated people can serve multiple terms, but the mechanism will be in place for someone else to fill their shoes when the time comes.
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Sylvia Earle Takes Us on a Journey Along the Ocean Floor

Sylvia Earle"The first experience is going through the sunlit area and into the twilight zone where sunlight fades and darkness begins to take over. It's like the deepest twilight, or earliest dawn." —Oceanographer Sylvia Earle Sylvia Earle made history in 1979 as the first and only person to walk solo on the bottom of the ocean floor. As a result, her fellow scientists gave her the nickname “Her Deepness,” and she returned to the surface with rich descriptions of the wonder she experienced on the bottom of our world. In this audio excerpt from our latest show with the oceanographer, Ms. Earle describes life on the ocean floor as if it were science fiction fantasy. Such bioluminescent, architectural creatures, she says, seem to come from somewhere in deep space rather than in the deepest recesses of our Earth. About the photo: Sylvia Earle descends into the darkness, trekking with this "Jim" suit as her only protection from hundreds of pounds of pressure per square inch created by being a quarter-mile under from the ocean's surface.

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