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Interfaith practices reshaping religious life

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Ask Jeanette Stokes to describe how religion has changed over the last 20 years and she immediately starts drawing on the paper tablecloth at the restaurant where we're having lunch. Her pen scratches out grids, squares, interlocking circles and one delicately spiraling labyrinth. The labyrinth is an especially potent symbol for Stokes, a Presbyterian minister who, 25 years ago, founded a Durham-based resource center for clergywomen in the South. In her office is a canvas model of a mosaic labyrinth from the floor of a 13th Century French cathedral that she often uses in resource center workshops. Walking it is a form of meditation that "does something to people's brain chemistry," she says. "I love it as a metaphor for what's going on. It's a circle that comes back on itself and ends up in an open space in the middle."

That's a path Stokes has followed in her own life and along which, she has led the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. In the beginning, the group's focus was on supporting women ministers and making the church more responsive to social justice issues. These days, the work has spiraled out to include supporting women's spiritual practice by tapping artistic expression and forms of reflection that cross religious dividing lines.

I met Stokes seven years ago when my sweetheart and I were crossing boundaries of our own. Looking for someone to perform our wedding ceremony, we came up against a spiritual wall. We not only needed to find someone willing to lead an interfaith ceremony (he's Catholic, I'm Jewish), but someone willing to bless the way we've chosen to be interfaith. My husband and I respect each other's religious traditions. But neither of us is willing to completely let go of our own. This is true, even though he's a more active member of his congregation than I am of mine. (In fact, I have no congregation, or if I do, it's out there in the world of social change organizing where I first "got religion.")

So, against the advice of experts on both sides, we decided to create a household in which two religions would thrive. It was, we felt, the only honest thing to do. Still, it wasn't easy finding a clergyperson willing or able to sanctify our union. Luckily, a friend recommended Stokes. She invited us to tea at her home in Trinity Park, asked us a few questions about how we met, then proceeded to help us plan and perform a ceremony that was as true to who we are as anything we've ever done. She didn't warn us that our children would grow up dazed and confused unless we chose one or the other persuasion. She didn't lecture us about preserving traditions. And she didn't insist we attend any classes. Her message was simple and reassuring: "You are not alone."

Social science backs her up. Surveys show Americans are becoming more pluralistic in their worship and less tied to particular denominations. In a talk two years ago to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, cited "increasing diversity across religious groups and within religious groups" as signs of a "profound change" underway in the nation's religious life. Why is this occurring? One reason is higher rates of intermarriage. But there's another dimension that has to do with how we make spiritual choices in a global supermarketplace of ideas.

"There's this thing that's happening now with people who are Methodist and Buddhist or Catholic and Jewish or Jewish and Buddhist," Stokes says. "They are becoming interfaith people."

Unlike the churches of her Oklahoma childhood, which served as social and spiritual fenceposts, marking off a community, churches these days are more often made up of people from many communities and even many faiths. This is true of Stokes' own congregation, the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill. "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Presbyterians are in the minority there," she says.

The loosening of traditional church/community ties has weakened the pull of organized religion--at least for mainline denominations. Because, despite the recent rise of sprawling "megachurches," studies show half of all U.S. congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating members. The good news is, that same loosening has created space for a coming together of people of different faiths who share the same spiritual ideals.

"Right now," Stokes says, "the progressive members of every one of these faiths have more in common with each other than with conservatives" in their own congregations.

The open center of the labyrinth is where she pinpoints the future of progressive religious culture. That's why she spends so much of her time these days performing interfaith weddings, organizing interfaith anti-war demonstrations and holding workshops on spirituality and creativity that draw from many religious wellsprings.

That's not to say the gatherings are always graceful. Take the local interfaith vigils held right after Sept. 11 and right before the start of the war in Iraq. The processions of leaders of different faiths speaking from the podium was "appropriate," but stiff, as rituals go, Stokes says. "These things that are merely additive--like adding women to society, then stirring and thinking you're done--they just don't work."

What's needed, she says, are rituals that aren't afraid to keep the influences distinct, yet can still inspire diverse groups. People still need to join congregations, she adds--collectives than can keep faith communities "accountable" to themselves. But for those collectives to do meaningful work in the modern world, they'll have to widen their circles.

"Churches have long functioned best as ways to pass the faith on to the next generation," Stokes says. "But a lot of the people I know and work with are interested in a lot more than protecting and continuing one particular faith."

Barbara Solow is a staff writer for The Independent.

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