Winners Named for Faith Counts’ ‘Film Your Faith’ Video Contest

Winners Named for Faith Counts’ ‘Film Your Faith’ Video Contest

Kyle Churchwell’s ‘Faith Is Knowing’ Takes $20k Top Award; Hollywood Ending: Winning Film Unites Daughter and Long-Lost Father

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sept. 18, 2018 – Faith Counts—the leading and fastest-growing multi-faith online platform—announced the top award winners in its third Film Your Faith contest, with $20,000 going to the film selected for the Grand Prize.

A total of $32,500 in prizes were awarded the Grand Prize-winning, Fan Favorite and Honorable Mention films of two minutes or less showcasing the power of faith in a positive light. The Grand Prize and Honorable Mention winners were announced Friday at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Columbus, Ohio. The Fan Favorite winner, which is awarded to the Top Ten finalist video that receives the most online votes, was revealed Aug. 10.

“It is breathtaking what these talented filmmakers are able to so positively communicate about faith in just two minutes,” said Faith Counts Communications Director Kerry Troup. “The work of this year’s awardees will truly touch anyone who views it.”

The 2018 winners are:

GRAND PRIZE / $20,000: Kyle Churchwell, Lucedale, Mississippi, Faith Is Knowing

FAN FAVORITE / $10,000: Cooper Anderson, Bend, Oregon, Shameless

HONORABLE MENTION / $2,500: Landon Mauricio, Ewa Beach, Hawaii, The World Needs to Know

In an amazing twist resulting from Churchwell’s Faith Is Knowing, the winning film reunited the subject of the movie, Tori Welford, with her long-lost biological father, half-sisters and half-brother.

“While creating the Faith Is Knowing film with Tori, I knew that her story would resonate with people considering how miraculous it is,” Churchwell said. “It is amazing to be a Top 10 Finalist and Grand Prize Winner, but the purpose of film goes beyond winning awards. It is about telling a truly compelling story in hopes of giving the audience a meaningful experience. It is an amazing feeling to know that Tori found her biological father through a film we created and posted online. To have that kind of impact on people’s lives is my ultimate goal as a filmmaker.”

Faith Is Knowing recounts Tori’s remarkable life journey. She learned she was adopted at age 7, but when she turned 17, her adopted mom told her the rest of her story. Her biological mother, struggling with substance abuse, and with her grandmother’s help, had placed newborn Tori in a garbage bag in a trash can on their front porch.

Tori’s biological brother found her hours later, covered in ants and blue from lack of oxygen, and got her to a hospital where she was not expected to live. But she did.

With the film posted on Facebook and seen widely in Tori’s hometown, a man reached out to her. He had watched Faith Is Knowing multiple times and saw a resemblance between himself and Tori. A DNA test confirmed . . . it was Tori’s biological father. They had lived in the same small town all along. Her biological mother ultimately went to prison. Since the film, Tori has reconnected with her father, half-sisters and half-brother.

“I hope my story is able to help those that have felt like they’re not wanted,” Tori said in the film. “If they just keep their faith and trust in Christ, God does have a plan for their life.”

Relying on that faith, Tori has forgiven her mother.

This year’s Film Your Faith Panel of Judges includes:

  • Rich Peluso, AFFIRM Films
  • Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville and past president, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor of the General Presidency of the Relief Society, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Rabbi Joshua Bolton, University of Pennsylvania Hillel chapter
  • Steve Taylor, film producer (BLUE LIKE JAZZ)
  • Kam Williams, Rotten Tomatoes critic
  • Matt Baer, film producer (UNBROKEN)
  • Simon Rivera, 2017 Film Your Faith grand-prize winner
  • Bob Waliszewski, director of Plugged In
  • Baldev Singh, Executive Director, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

The Faith Counts Story

In 2014, several faith leaders came together to address a trend of declining church attendance and declining religiosity. They saw how an increasingly secular culture left too many people in a spiritual void that excluded them from meaningful, deep connections to the people and world around them.

Online, they saw how young people were willing to share quite literally every personal, intimate detail of their lives—except the detail of their faith. There was and is a growing sense that faith should somehow be kept private. Many are reluctant or even embarrassed to share how their faith makes them who they are.

While each of their respective denominations were doing their own outreach to combat these issues, the faith leaders knew they would be more effective working together. And so, Faith Counts was launched in October 2014 as an attempt to positively influence the culture and to gently remind people that faith is a good thing.

FaithCounts.com encourages people of all faiths to share their personal faith stories and thoughts by posting to the website, sharing on social media with #FaithCounts or creating a video for the site.

Faith Counts has nearly 600,000 followers and has become the leading, fastest-growing multi-faith online platform with an engagement rate three times the industry standard.

Partner organizations supporting FaithCounts.com include 1st Amendment Partnership, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Hillel International, Hindu American Foundation, Orthodox Union, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Salvation Army and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For interviews, contact: Michael Conrad, Michael@Lovell-Fairchild.com, 214-616-0320

About Faith Counts

Faith Counts, LLC is a nonprofit, non-denominational organization comprised of faith communities representing nearly 100 million Americans. We’ve come together to share a simple message that “faith counts.”

Film Your Faith Grand Prize Winner 2018

Film Your Faith Grand Prize Winner 2018

The Grand Prize winner of the Film Your Faith Video Contest is…“Faith is Knowing” by Kyle Churchwell

“I am in shock! I am so grateful not only to receive the Grand Prize but that Tori’s story could be heard by so many people. It tells such an empowering message, and I am honored to be a part of sharing it. I want to thank Tori for her bravery in sharing her story, my brother Jaron for his help with the video, and my family and friends who have been so supportive of my work. Lastly, a huge thanks to Faith Counts for the opportunity to share such an encouraging story with the world. I will use this prize further my work and create more positive, inspiring videos. Thank you!”

Kyle Churchwell is a 20-year-old director, videographer, and visual effects artist from Lucedale, Mississippi. As co-founder of production company Coast Media, Kyle works alongside his brother Jaron Churchwell to direct and produce many videos for businesses, schools, and weddings around his South Mississippi community. His inspiration for storytelling through filmmaking is derived from a variety of creatives such as Casey Neistat, Christopher Nolan, among others. Kyle’s goal is to continue telling positive stories in his videos just as the one told in his entry to the 2018 Faith Counts Video Contest.

Kyle Churchwell will receive $20,000. Find out more information about the Fan Favorite and Honorable Mention.

Film Your Faith Honorable Mention 2018

Film Your Faith Honorable Mention 2018

The Honorable Mention of the Film Your Faith Video Contest is…“The World Needs to Know” by Landon Mauricio

“After not winning last year, Iʻm glad I never gave up hope and entered again. Receiving honorable mention this year, it proved faith never stops believing! All glory goes to God as I complete my mission to Make Jesus famous!”

Landon Mauricio started his faith journey at 13 years old after he felt called to be a pastor. Immediately, he started a Christian club at his intermediate school which grew to the largest Christian club in Hawaii. The club followed him into high school and has since expanded to six different schools. When Landon graduated high school, he created Called Ministry, branching from his Christian club, which operates as a Christian center to reach youth and young adults for Christ. Landon started his video career his sophomore year at Moanalua High School and has traveled around the nation to win countless media accolades. Oh, and did we mention he’s only 20 years old?

“Faith isn’t an unquestioning belief, it’s questioning and still believing.”

Landon Mauricio will receive $2,500. Find out more information about the Grand Prize and Fan Favorite.

Faith and Right versus Right Conundrums: An Interview with U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black

Faith and Right versus Right Conundrums: An Interview with U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black

Ross Ackerman, Taylor Bradley, Anne Whelan


Overlooking the national mall, tucked away from the noise and bustle of daily activity yet still easily accessible to anyone seeking help, the Senate Chaplain’s office provides a place for guidance and restoration amid the chaos of politics.

These quiet chambers are the domain of Chaplain Barry Black, a native of Baltimore, Maryland who served as a chaplain in the US Navy for 37 years before finding his new office on Capitol Hill. In June of 2003, Black was elected as chaplain of the US Senate. Fifteen years of service later, he is the second longest serving chaplain in the history of the US Senate. We had the chance to sit down with Chaplain Black to learn more about his role serving some of the country’s most influential men and women.

Chaplain Black describes himself as an “ethical fitness coach,” providing spiritual and ethical advice for members and staff who regularly live and work far from home. He helps lawmakers focus on spirituality by regularly leading Bible studies, hosting a weekly prayer breakfast, and offering personal guidance to members and their staff. We asked how the Senate Chaplain meets these needs while serving a community of different faith backgrounds. After all, Senate members identify as Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and atheistic, to name a few.

He credited his ability to minister to people of different faiths to his time spent in the Navy. While he himself is a Seventh-Day Adventist, he described how he’s learned to teach to a diverse audience. He used Protestant and Catholic members as an example, noting that both
denominations can say ‘amen’ to the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed and “are pretty happy with that. And there’s not really any disagreement. So, when it comes to the religious side, unlike the political side, lawmakers and the other folk on Capitol Hill have far more in common,” Black said.

Through the guest Chaplain program, he is able to bring in an imam for Muslims and a rabbi for Jews. He has found this partnership to be an effective way to reach a diverse crowd while remaining true to his Christian doctrine. Through philosophy and general maxims from his Christian faith, he can ethically advise those who do not adhere to a particular faith.

Chaplain Black emphasized the value of the Senate’s pluralistic setting. As he ministers to a community of diverse beliefs and backgrounds, Chaplain Black enjoys “the interaction and the search for truth.” When a Senator or staffer asks his opinion on an issue during a roll call vote, he told us, “it’s an effort to search for truth. And that’s the beauty of it.” These genuine inquiries in the midst of complicated political debates bring to light a different side of our lawmakers, a positive trend often overlooked in the media focus upon the political battles common on Capitol Hill. These visits happen frequently. Just before we came in, a Senator stopped by with questions about the delivery of Paul’s epistles.

As a nonpartisan and nonsectarian, Chaplain Black is able to minister to both sides of the aisle. When President Obama was a senator, Chaplain Black said the future president made frequent visits to his office with questions from his Bible reading. His walls are decorated with pictures of various politicians and religious leaders from Vice President Pence to the Dalai Lama.

According to the Chaplain, most members are interested in knowing “how do I make a choice when there is a right versus right conundrum?” He explained that Senators face many policy issues where it is not a clear choice between right and wrong but rather a choice between two conflicting values. “Are we dealing with truth versus loyalty? Are we dealing with the individual versus the community? Are we dealing with long term versus short term?” Through both theological and philosophical frameworks, Chaplain Black helps senators find ethical solutions to complex issues.

Although his job may seem challenging, Chaplain Black explained that he believes God equips people for the doors He opens. Because of this, he doesn’t find his job difficult. Rather, he sees himself as “able to minister to anyone who wants to live well, regardless of what his or her faith tradition may be.” As guidance for his leadership role in the US Senate, he looks to the advice of poet Edgar Guest, who said “I’d rather see your sermon than to hear your sermon.” Living consistently with one’s faith can be difficult on Capitol Hill, where it can be easy to get caught up in temptations of power and wealth. It is better to be an example to live with “ethical congruence” and to “walk the talk” than to merely preach about good living.

For members and staff of the US Senate today, it seems nearly impossible to find one common element that brings everyone across the aisle. Like the constituents they serve, the people of Capitol Hill can often lose hope in government and wonder what it will take to resolve the seemingly insurmountable divides that splinter DC. While the Senate can be the one of the most chaotic places in our country, the Chaplain’s office serves as a retreat to escape the chaos. After sitting down with Chaplain Black, one thing was very clear: in a place that can seem to be completely broken, faith can lead us in the right direction and bringing our nation’s leaders together.

Ross Ackerman is a junior at Iowa State University studying Finance and Political Science, Taylor Bradley is a senior at the University of South Carolina studying Political Science, and Ann Whelan is a sophomore at the College of William and Mary. They all spent their summer interning for the 1st Amendment Partnership and exploring Washington D.C.

Film Your Faith Fan Favorite 2018

Film Your Faith Fan Favorite 2018

The Fan Favorite winner of the Film Your Faith Video Contest is…”Shameless” by Cooper Anderson

“I am ecstatic to receive the audience choice award for this film! I want to thank all my family, friends, and supporters out there who voted every day to make this a reality! And a special thanks to Jesus! I knew he had something special for this film from the start, and I can’t wait to see where he takes it and the lives he changes next through its message!”

Cooper Anderson is a filmmaker, musician, and producer who resides in beautiful Bend, Oregon. From a young age, Cooper knew that he was called to create films that gave people hope, and presented them with a new way of thinking from a Christian perspective. His faith in Jesus is the foundation of his life, so naturally the faith and hope that he has works its way into every project he creates. Cooper is happily married to his beautiful wife Morgan, and plans to continue his career in media creation and presentation wherever God places him.

Cooper Anderson from Oregon will receive $10,000. The Grand Prize winner (receiving $20,000) and Honorable Mention winner (receiving $2,500) will be announced September 14!

5 Things to Know About Blessed Oscar Romero

5 Things to Know About Blessed Oscar Romero

Anne Whelan


In May, Pope Francis announced that Blessed Oscar Romero would be canonized in October, at the Synod of Bishops. Romero will become El Salvador’s first saint. There is much to learn about this courageous figure. Here are five interesting and inspiring things about the soon-to-be saint.

1. As archbishop of San Salvador, he spoke out against human rights violations. He drew attention to the plight of the poor in El Salvador through his homilies and weekly radio shows. In a time of great social and political conflict, he condemned violence from political groups on both sides. His defense of the vulnerable drew international attention. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 24 the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims, in memory of Romero.

2. When his friend and fellow priest Fr. Rutilio Grande was assassinated for helping the poor in El Salvador, Romero was inspired to devote himself to this work. This moment greatly influenced the rest of his life. He said, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” Despite realizing the danger to his life, Romero dedicated himself to living out the Gospel. He faced many threats to his life while archbishop.

3. He was killed while celebrating Mass. An unidentified gunman entered the hospital chapel and shot him in 1980. Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr in February 2015, saying that he had been killed out of hatred of the faith. In May 2015, at his beatification, the step before the Catholic Church proclaims someone a saint, Pope Francis quoted Romero: “We must be willing to die for our faith, even if the Lord does not give us this honor.”

4. While Romero’s faith clearly drove him to stand up for the oppressed in El Salvador, it also influenced lesser known aspects of his life. Romero’s connection with the personal prelature of the Catholic Church Opus Dei is not widely known. He went to Opus Dei priests for their advice, which is known as spiritual direction. He knew the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva, and, after St. Josemaria died, he wrote to Pope Paul VI, urging him to begin the canonization process.

5. In addition to Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict showed support for Romero. Pope John Paul II visited Romero’s tomb and included him in the list of the great martyrs of the Americas during the 2000 Jubilee Year celebration. Pope Benedict showed enthusiasm for the cause of Romero’s beatification. While Romero’s work directly relates to Pope Francis’ emphasis on marginalized people, the previous popes’ support of Romero should not be forgotten. Romero’s canonization this fall will be an important event for the Catholic Church in El Salvador and beyond, as it will help spread his message of peace and compassion.

Radical Hospitality

Radical Hospitality

Brittany Beacham


Many faith traditions are rooted in the practice of hospitality; that kind and generous welcoming of visitors and strangers. Be it striving to serve the poor, welcoming refugees or embracing a child in foster care, it is often people of faith who seek to show hospitality and service to the hurting world around them.

What is it about hospitality that makes it such a far-reaching and transcendent value? One that often transcends time, culture and nationality? Perhaps it relates to the intrinsic human understanding of our need for one another. We experience seasons of plenty and seasons of want. In the times of plenty we share with those who are in need, and in the times of want we rely on those around us for support. Our families, our friends and our communities of faith all become an essential part of life, the ones we trust to lean on in difficult circumstances, and the ones we help carry when they need us.

As a Christian within the Mennonite tradition, hospitality has been woven into the fibers of my faith and family from a young age. My mother and grandmother taught me that when someone is in need, you bring them a meal. In the celebration of birth or the struggle of illness, we must care for one another.

I was taught in church to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:1-2) and that as a faith community, we are responsible to care for each other in times of need (Romans 12:13). I was also taught to accept hospitality. When difficult times met our family, as they inevitably do, we received the generous hospitality of friends, family and the extended community.

In the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:34), God commands His people, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Those words can resonate with people all around the world. Many of us were once strangers in a strange land, or have descended from those who were. Refugees, immigrants and their descendants have a special understanding of the importance of hospitality, of acceptance.

The words of Jesus in Luke 14 revolutionized the way I view hospitality. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Hospitality is not just inviting a friend over for tea or having your sister stay a few nights. Hospitality is costly. It’s giving a piece of your home and comfort, with no expectation of anything in return. Hospitality is not bringing someone into your Martha Stewart-like masterpiece of a dinner party, it’s opening your doors and allowing others to bring their mess in.

Last year my husband and I received an email from friends asking if we would consider taking in a teen boy in need of a home. We had met him a few times, but still felt like we were only a few short steps removed from strangers. We didn’t know what we should do. As semi-transient twenty-somethings, the idea of settling into a commitment like that was daunting. We don’t have a big house, or all the bells and whistles a teen might want. And so, we prayed together, and we searched the Scriptures. In the end, we decided to take a leap and just say yes. Neither of us were absolutely confident in the decision, but we were confident in the words of James—the words my parents spoke over me at my baptism almost ten years prior: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us.”

Pure faith before God meant opening our home, even when we were uncertain. Pure faith meant saying yes. And in opening our door to a stranger, God taught us new things we may not have learned any other way. In getting to know a smart, analytical young man, our lives were also enriched.

What if our hospitality extended beyond friends and family to those in need around us? The new refugee family down the street, or your new classmate who seems to be having trouble adjusting? Let us in our hospitality seek to make space in our homes and lives for those who are struggling to carve out their spot in the world. Let us lay down our defenses and allow people to not only bring their own brokenness, but to see ours as well. Let us give a kind and generous welcome to strangers, that they may be strangers no longer.

Tisha B’Av — Honoring the Hard Times

Tisha B’Av — Honoring the Hard Times

Robert Milligan


Usually, holidays are synonymous with celebration. We set aside those special times each year to spend time with friends and family and rejoice over the founding of nations, the accomplishments of our past, or simply because we are together. But not all holidays call for laughter. Some ask for tears.

The story of Tisha B’Av begins after the Israelites were liberated from the captivity of Egypt. After passing through the Red Sea and leaving the rule of Pharaoh behind, they made their way to Canaan — their promised land. But when they arrived, God told them they’d have to conquer Canaan to occupy it. The people found themselves on unfamiliar ground. Until recently, the only lives they’d known were the lives of slaves. So, they sent spies to get an idea of what they were up against — and the news wasn’t good. The spies told of a people so large, the Israelites were like grasshoppers in comparison. They told of land that devoured those who lived within it. They reported of a fight so great that victory was impossible. Their doubt was contagious and the people believed their promised land was unattainable. Despite God’s promise, they wept. This marked the birth of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av — the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

The ninth has gone down in Jewish history as a day of calamity, from the destruction of the temples to the start of World War 1. It is a day of remembrance that encourages observers to reconnect with their heritage. And while Tisha B’Av conveys a story of sorrow and regret, it also hints at another lesson: self-doubt can be your greatest enemy.

Religion is ultimately about faith and hope. It’s about believing that God can help you find success against all odds. It’s also about knowing that even if we fail, we can end up better for it. It certainly isn’t about saying “I can’t” before you’ve even tried.

Joshua and Caleb, two of the twelve men sent to spy on Canaan, shared a view different from their companions. They believed that the people could successfully take the land. And while they suffered wandering through the wilderness for 40 years due to the weeping of their people, they were also the only two of those original spies who settled in Canaan. They showed that by saying “we can,” they could.

I think that the lesson of Tisha B’Av is a powerful one, but there is something I admire even more about the annual fast. While most holidays are centered around good times, the 9th of Av is a day of reflection on the hardships of the Jewish people. It is a yearly tradition to remind you of where you came from and where you are going.

So, this 9th of Av, take a moment to remember the hardships, mistakes, and suffering of the people who came before you — not just of your bloodline, but of your nation. Remember your friends and their hardships, your parents and their trials, your children and the difficulties that simply come with growing up. Think about the challenges of those in other nations. The 9th of Av is ultimately a day to remember that life is tough, but you are tougher — and that by applying some faith in not only God but yourself, you can attain whatever good things are in store for you.

Robert Milligan believes that creativity is God’s gift to man. He loves writing about his thoughts and creating new worlds in his fiction that families and friends can visit together — because doing things together makes everything better.

How having one leg can help you walk tall

How having one leg can help you walk tall

Erin Facer


When is the last time you saw a man in a wheelchair wielding a weedwacker in one hand and a push-mower in the other? This remarkable sight is not uncommon in Kenneth Poole’s neighborhood because Kenneth is the one brandishing the blades.

I met Kenneth in the checkout line at Goodwill. As he bagged my thrifty finds he handed me his business card with the logo, “Everything from the Wheel Chair.” When Kenneth says everything, he means EVERYTHING. From lawn-care and car detailing to a YouTube cooking channel, Kenneth can do it all. I became so intrigued by his tenacity, as well as his obvious faith, that I asked if I could meet with him to learn his story.

We met up in a hospital cafeteria and I quickly learned that his life had not been easy. With his dad out of the picture and his mom lacking stability, Kenneth grew up being shipped back and forth between aunts. As a teenager he dropped out of school to work and took a job as a cashier at Paul’s Market (a local convenience store). One night, while on duty at the register, an armed intruder came in and started firing. Kenneth took seven shots.

He awoke in the hospital feeling cheated. Why had this happened when he hadn’t done anything wrong? That’s when he learned that that his leg would need to be amputated.

He became overwhelmed by bitterness and started living by the mantra, “I am not going to care about anybody because nobody cares about me.” He seemed to have no future and no way out. Even his multiple attempts at suicide proved unsuccessful. Then his mom died. He couldn’t sleep at night. He tossed and turned. He began to grow concerned about making her proud of him. Finally, he asked his cousin if he could go with him to church and started attending The Temple Church.

“I kept going to church and I just kept learning new things that I never knew!” said Kenneth. “Finally a year later I joined. They say that when you turn toward God you will still have your ups and downs. Sometimes I think that this God stuff is not working for me – but I still try to read my bible and pray every day — And he still reaches out to me through other people.”

Not only does God reach out to Kenneth through others, but I know that Kenneth acts as God’s hands on a daily basis. He has now made it his life mission to help others who struggle with physical limitations see that they can do whatever they want to. He is living proof that you can do anything and everything from a wheelchair.

I don’t fully understand why God allows bad things to happen to His children who He loves so much. But, talking with Kenneth it seems evident that God was able to use this tragedy to draw Kenneth closer to Him.

As Kenneth himself said, “I used to be on the streets but sometimes you have to put that stuff away and turn toward God. It has not all been good since I turned toward God – but I feel like the people at church really love me and my good times outweigh my bad.”

This is what unites those of faith. Although our challenges differ, the source of healing is the same. I often feel limited by mistakes, insecurities or doubt. But, as I turn toward God those limitations don’t need to hold me back. I hope to face my figurative wheelchairs like Kenneth: with a weedwacker in one hand and a push mower in the other.

Erin Facer is a graduate of Brigham Young University and proud southerner. Arranging flowers, perusing through old documents and spreading peanut butter on celery stalks are a few things that make her glad to be alive. Contact: facererin@gmail.com

Ramadan 2018 and Eid al-Fitr: 6 Things You Should Know

Ramadan 2018 and Eid al-Fitr: 6 Things You Should Know

Ross Ackerman

EidAlFitr2018
As Ramadan draws to a close, Muslims begin to look back in reflection on the month of fasting. Each day, from sunrise until sunset, Muslims refrain from food and drink to commemorate Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran.

Once the sun sets, the daily fast comes to an end and the nightly meal, Iftar, begins. Do you know what to expect at an Iftar?

1. Arrive on time

Iftar is a regular breaking of the fast, and occurs exactly at the time of the sunset. If you happen to arrive late, you may miss the most important part of this Islamic tradition. So don’t do that!

2. Expect a crowd

Community is an important part of Ramadan. Breaking the fast and sharing food strengthens bonds between family and friends. Iftar is often a chance for people to host each other in their homes or gather together for a potluck in a local mosque.

3. Enjoy great food

Since Iftar translates from Arabic as “break fast,” you would be right to guess that the main event at a gathering is eating food. Following the tradition set by the prophet Mohammed, the fast is typically broken with dates and water. Be ready for lots of snacks, drinks, and sometimes even full course meals, but don’t start eating until the crowd breaks fast together.

4. Charity

Caring for others is a central theme of Ramadan. Some Muslims choose to give Iftar to others as a demonstration of this theme. The Islamic religious texts teach that blessings and rewards await those who show kindness to others, especially during Ramadan.

5. Prayer is prevalent

Shortly after breaking the fast with dates and water, Muslims pray the Maghrib. This is one of the five daily prayers recited throughout the year. Immediately following Iftar, Muslims recite additional night prayers called Tarawih. These prayers take place either in a mosque or the home, and sometimes last up to two hours.

6. The last breaking of the fast

After Ramadan comes to an end, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Fast Breaking. In the spirit of each nightly Iftar, this festival marks an end to the month of fasting. Though the festival takes different forms across the Muslim world, the day of Eid marks the end of one of the important five pillars of Islam, Ramadan, alongside faith, prayer, charity, and the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha—”The Awakened One”

Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha—”The Awakened One”

Linda Clyde

Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha - "The Awakened One"
On an unknown date between the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. a son was born to a king and queen just below the Himalayan foothills somewhere between the Indian-Nepalese border. The infant was named Siddhartha Gautama, “Siddhartha” meaning “he who achieves his aim.” The infant’s mother, the queen, died within a week of her baby’s birth.

After the queen’s passing, the king desired predictions about his infant son’s future and was told by sages that the child would grow up to either be a king or a spiritual leader. The king wanted his Siddhartha to become a king. In order to ensure that would happen, he took great measures to protect him from the realities of the world by secluding him in a palace and showering him with worldly pleasures. Though Siddhartha lived a very naïve and sheltered life, he was trained in archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, swimming, running, and anything that would prepare him to become a strong, brave and noble king.

It is believed that Siddhartha married around the age of sixteen and continued to live a protected, secluded life for an additional thirteen years. He and his wife, whom he affectionately called Gopa, had one child, a son.

In his late 20’s everything changed for Siddhartha when he finally convinced his father to allow him to venture beyond the palace walls. It was then that he first encountered a very old man. The princes’ charioteer explained to him that all men grow old. This new information enticed the prince to learn more about the outside world and he continued to arrange trips beyond the palace. Before long he had encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic, one who practices extreme forms of self-discipline. Siddhartha’s charioteer explained to him each condition of life. The prince was overcome by his new awareness of suffering and death. That very night he left the palace, his wife, and his child and rode far away, cut his long hair with his sword and replaced his fine clothing with that of an ascetic.

For six years he practiced the ascetic discipline, denying himself the most basic of indulgences such as food and water nearly to the point of death. This he did in an effort to better understand human suffering and to discover the meaning of life. During this time, he also investigated beliefs of all kinds and immersed himself in meditation and study. He was so dedicated to the ascetic lifestyle that five other ascetics with whom he practiced became his devout followers. Despite his passionate commitment to seek for answers, Siddhartha was disappointed when he couldn’t find what he was looking for.

One day, a young girl offered him a bowl of rice and Siddhartha accepted. He ate the rice, drank water and bathed in the Nairanjana river. His actions disenchanted his five followers who promptly left him. From his experience as an ascetic, he learned that a balance should be sought instead of a life of extremism. This lifestyle he called the “middle way,” or the “middle path.”

Siddhartha, still determined to find life’s meaning and having exhausted all outside methods for the answers he sought, sat beneath the Bodhi tree and finally looked within himself. After many days of intense meditation, he discovered enlightenment and became Buddha, or “the one who is awake.” He had finally found that everything he had been looking for had always been present and was accessible to anyone. For many weeks he basked in the liberating tranquility of his sacred experience and did not attempt to tell anyone. He felt that what had happened could not be fully described through words. Legend has it that Brahma, the king of the gods, encouraged him to try to share what he had learned, and so he did.

He began to teach others what are known as the 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. He also shared three important realizations about reality 1) Everything is impermanent with the exception of Nirvana, which is a transcendent state free of suffering, desire and a sense of self. 2) The self doesn’t really exist. 3) Suffering results when people do not understand the first two realizations.

The 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path:

  1. Suffering exists.
  2. Suffering exists because of craving.
  3. Suffering can be ended.
  4. The eight-fold path is the way to end suffering:
    1. Right understanding
    2. Right intention
    3. Right action
    4. Right speech
    5. Right livelihood
    6. Right concentration
    7. Right mindfulness
    8. Right effort

Siddhartha Gautama spent the remaining forty-five years of his life teaching the Dharma, the name given to his teachings, and spreading it throughout northern India. His powerful example and influence live on today and is still leading people to experience enlightenment throughout the world. Buddhism is a beneficial practice that can easily coincide with most religious beliefs.

Linda Clyde is a devoted wife, proud mama, and a lover of uplifting things. A few of her favorite things: lasagna, farm animals, t-shirts and jeans, babies, and notebooks—lots and lots of notebooks.

Passover in the Jewish Christian Border Zone

Passover in the Jewish Christian Border Zone

Maeera Shreiber

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I am on my way to a Passover Seder at Brigham Young University. Sponsored by the program in Religious Education, the occasion garners enormous interest. A friend tells me that I had better sign up early because it always sells out.

I have heard about the event for years — mostly from my students at the University of Utah, where I teach literature and Jewish Studies. It always sounded quirky and interesting, but now that I am writing a book entitled “Holy Envy and the Jewish-Christian Borderzone,” I feel obliged to check it out.

These seders are held on a Friday night — Sabbath Eve. Already I discover that traveling into the border zone can entail discomforting choices; typically I don’t go anywhere on Friday nights, except to celebrate the Sabbath. But research calls. As the hour draws near, I find I am dragging my feet; I don’t want to go. Friday afternoon traffic is terrible; and once I get to BYU, I can’t figure out where the event is being held. I wander through enormous ballrooms until at last a student approaches, asking me what I am looking for. When I explain, he looks at me curiously and says, “Oh I’ll take you, but why are you going? You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” How does he know? I am not wearing a yarmulke, or anything else that betrays my identity. But somehow my “otherness” blares.

I walk into a small ballroom filled with long tables and not an empty seat in sight. Over a hundred people are looking towards the front of the room outfitted with a screen. The “seder’ is in progress. I am about to take a seat along the wall, planning simply to be a spectator or silent witness, when a woman hurries up to me, pointing towards a seat at the table. Now I’m in for it. I sit next to Clayton, one the best-behaved 10-year-olds I’ve ever met. The rest of the table nods and turns back to the PowerPoint presentation on “Passover at the time of Gamliel and Jesus” (Second Temple Judaism holds special appeal for Mormons, who see themselves as inheriting and extending the Temple tradition). I find myself thinking, “Okay, the Seder as a museum — a bit off-putting, but nothing terribly objectionable.”

Then the leader announces that the “lecture’ is over, the seder itself will begin, and dons a yarmulke. I begin to get nervous and find myself desperately scrawling a list of all the things I have to do before Pesach really begins: kasher the silverware, clean out all the chametz (leavened foods), muttering to myself “I don’t just visit Pesach, I live there.”

The leader tells the group to pour “two fingers” of “wine” (grape juice, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol) and proceeds to say the bracha (the blessing) in Hebrew: a non-Jew prays to the Jewish God as part of a performance. Looking back over my notes I see that I have scrawled, “This isn’t yours, it’s mine!” This is probably the moment when I feel most deeply estranged, longing to be at my own Shabbat table; the border zone can be a cold, lonely place, saturated with loss.

And then I hear the leader explaining that the salt water in which we are to “swirl” our parsley symbolizes the tears of the Egyptian mothers mourning their sons lost in waves of the Red Sea. It is a moving interpretation, a wonderful drash, and new to me. Compassion for others, intuited by others. The border zone, it seems, can also be the site of new meaning.

It is time to eat. Clayton, who has waited patiently, tucks in. The rest of the table starts to pepper me with questions: “Do you know this all by heart?” “Have you been to a seder before — you seem to know what you are doing” (and here I thought I was being so discreet). “Is this what real seders are like?” I don’t dissemble, but after explaining that at my house seders are quite a bit noisier and messier, I begin to ask them about their own interest in attending. The answers are varied, but share a common theme: we identify with your story; we too struggled to be free; we too were oppressed; we too have food rituals. Listening to these responses, I start thinking about the limits of analogy. Is abstaining from alcohol or hot beverages in the Mormon tradition equivalent to not mixing meat and milk in the Jewish? And what about comparing a recent historical event — a grueling trek undertaken by nearly three thousand Mormons over a period of four years, pushing handcarts from the Midwest to Utah in search of religious freedom — to a mythic account chronicling more than two-hundred years of slavery brought to an end only by divine intervention?

Before I can reflect any further on such questions that arise when religions come in contact, I overhear my neighbor musing, “It is funny that the Jews don’t understand that Passover is really all about Jesus. After all, they were saved because of the Blood of the Lamb on the doorpost.” All night I have been vigilant, on guard for even a whisper of religious appropriation, and just when I start to relax … bam! There it is. The border zone threatens to become a combat zone. But before I am able to react, the leader announces that the “seder” meal will conclude with a blessing . . . and BYU’s signature mint brownies. Although efforts have been made not to serve leavened food, exceptions must be made — and, to Clayton’s delight, I give him mine.

Once the afikomen has been found (and redeemed for another brownie), the leader dramatically takes off his yarmulke, saying, “Now I want to tell you why YOU should care about the Passover seder.” I sit up straight, listening hard. He continues: “as you know, Jesus was a Jew. Many Christians don’t know this, but he was, and he celebrated Passover.” Gesturing towards an image of Jesus at a table with the apostles, the leader cites a verse from Luke: “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them saying: ‘This is my body, which is given to you.’ Seders, like this, help us build a bridge to our Jewish friends.” (Well, maybe…) The leader continues: “But more importantly, Jesus instituted the sacrament, and on this occasion, we gather to celebrate not just His resurrection but this time of redemption. For we know that Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith to sanctify the building of the first temple. He — Elijah — is with us.”

I look quickly at my neighbor (the same one who insisted that Passover is really all about Jesus) and, without my asking, he says: “In 1836, upstate New York, Elijah appeared in a vision.” Then the leader asks us all to stand to welcome Elijah: “for Christ has risen and redemption is at hand.” A student opens the door to the ballroom and we all turn in her direction. The leader raises the fourth cup — Elijah’s cup — the cup of redemption, which also signifies resurrection; and we are all silent. Utterly silent for a full minute, I twitch a bit, singing under my breath “Eliyahu hanavi…” (the hymn to Elijah). Then I give in to the silence. The seder is over. As we file out, I ask my neighbor (yes, the same guy) how he felt during that moment of ripe emptiness and fullness. He looks back, meeting my gaze, and says, “Holiness. I felt holiness.”

We say our goodnights. Walking out into the dark, I think of my own seders (and those of my friends), and how the moment when we open the door for Elijah is usually filled with awkward giggles; someone might move the table (as if at a séance), saying “oooh, do you think he is here?”; or someone’s uncle wearing a Santa Claus beard knocks at the door and enters to gales of laughter and song. If anyone believes — really believes — that the messiah might arrive, or even that it is the faintest of possibilities, they keep it to themselves. But now, thinking about that ballroom filled with such calm, sturdy faith, I get a taste of “holy envy,” knowing now what it means to experience spiritual lack.

On the way back to my own, “authentically” Jewish home, where my own Pesach preparations await, I find that I am emotionally spent. The Jewish Christian border zone is so very messy: disquieting, humbling, and well worth the trip.

Maeera Shreiber is Associate Professor of English and Religious Studies at the University of Utah. She is the author of Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics and the forthcoming Holy Envy: Writing in the Jewish Christian Borderzone.

What Ramadan Means To Muslims

What Ramadan Means To Muslims

Regina Singleton

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Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and it is a month in which Muslims abstain from food, water, and sexual relations with their spouses during the day in order to develop taqwa (closeness) with Allah. It also serves to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. It is a pillar of Islam and obligatory on all adult Muslims who are healthy enough to observe it.

“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during then] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.”

-Surah Baqarah 184-185

To understand why this month is an essential part of any Muslim’s life, it is important to first understand the significance of the word taqwa. Taqwa is an Arabic word that translates into English as piety, consciousness of Allah, fear of Allah, or closeness to him. A better way of understanding it would be to combine all these concepts: being conscious that Allah sees all and that reverence towards our religion influences our everyday choices, which in turn brings us closer to Him.

During this time we are also encouraged to give zakat (charity), read the entire Quran, study at the masjid (Muslim place of worship), break our fasts with family and friends, and participate in nightly prayers known as tarawih prayer.

When we break our fasts together and give zakat we form a closer bond with our family and community. When we seek knowledge and perform tarawih it strengthens our relationship with Allah and gives us a better understanding of him. All of this is meant to remind us that our purpose on this Earth is to worship Allah.

We experience a renewed sense of spirituality that doesn’t just end when Ramadan is over. It carries on into the rest of the year as well. We are still tasked with seeking deeper knowledge of our religion, remaining charitable, and maintaining bonds with our family and community. Taqwa isn’t just in the heart, it is also supposed to reflect in our actions towards others.

3 Surprising Facts About Muslims

3 Surprising Facts About Muslims

Asma Uddin

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There are almost 2 billion Muslims in the world and anywhere from 3 to 7 million in the United States, yet most Americans know almost nothing about their Muslim neighbors or the religion of Islam. I’m sure there are a lot of things you could learn about Islam or Muslims that would surprise—even delight—you. Here are a few to get the list started:

1. The Qur’an and the Bible share many of the same stories. Many non-Muslims are intrigued when they learn my six-year-old son, Eesa, is named after Jesus—“Eesa” is the Arabic translation for “Jesus.” His middle name is Jibreel – Arabic for ‘Gabriel’. And my younger son is named Mikael Suleman – yes, you guessed it: Michael Solomon. (On that note, did you know that “Allah” is simply Arabic for “The God”? We add “the” (which in Arabic is “Al” – Al-Lah) because our theology is fiercely monotheist. There is only One God—The God. Christian Arabs called God “Allah,” too!).

The names are important because they point to the same revered figures. Jesus and Solomon are prophets in Islam, and Gabriel and Michael are archangels. Of all the archangels, only Jibreel and Mikael are mentioned in the Qur’an, which makes clear their centrality to Islam: “Whoever is an enemy to God, and His angels and His messengers, and Jibreel and Mikael! Then, God (Himself) is an enemy to the disbelievers.” (2:98). There are, of course, some differences—the most obvious being the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ, whereas for Muslims Jesus is a prophet. But the similarities far outweigh the differences.

What is most important about sharing these stories is that they inform our religious principles and behavior. To share the stories means to share some very fundamental aspects of faith and faithful action.

2. Every year, Muslims are required to give away 2.5% of their assets in charity. This charity requirement is called zakat and it’s one of the five pillars of Islam, that is, one of the five most fundamental obligations a Muslim has to fulfill. Islamic scholars have determined eight categories of recipients eligible to receive zakat funds, including those who cannot meet their basic needs; those who do not have a means of livelihood (for instance, if someone lost their job); and those encumbered with overwhelming debt.

Besides the obligatory charity, there is also a major emphasis in Islam on voluntary charity—we’re advised to give as much as we can, and to not be showy or pompous in our giving (the Prophet Muhammad said something you may find in the Bible, too: charity should be given in secret, such that not even “your left hand should know what your right hand” gives). The Qur’an describes charitable giving as lending God a loan, which God promises in the Qur’an to multiply for us in the many blessings we know only come from Him. “Who is he that will lend to God a goodly loan so that He may multiply it to him many times? And it is God that decreases or increases (your provisions), and unto Him you shall return.” (2:245)

3. Muslims fast—and feeding others is a huge part of our faith. Another fundamental pillar of Islam is the required Ramadan fast. During the month of Ramadan, which is a month on the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims around the world fast from dawn till dusk. During the summer, that means a Muslim may end up fasting 16 or more hours! This is particularly arduous since the fast requires that we abstain from food and drink. Yes, that includes water, too. The fast helps us detach ourselves from our bodily needs and turn inwards to contemplate the state of our soul.

But what’s really special about Ramadan is not the food we don’t eat—it’s all the food we are encouraged to give others. The month is enlivened by a level of socializing you don’t otherwise see. Muslims are eager to host dinner parties or sponsor the fast-breaking meal at the local mosque because God awards us abundantly for feeding a fasting person. So you may likely break bread with a whole group of other Muslims every single night of the month! And beyond the dinner parties are the ample opportunities to feed the poor, both at your local soup kitchens and by sending money abroad to third-world countries where hunger is unfortunately an epidemic.

There are so many aspects of my faith that help me rejoice in humanity. The generosity that flows so freely from my co-religionists all year, then is amped-up during Ramadan, shows me the goodness God cultivates in His followers. I hope you’ll take a moment to talk to your Muslim neighbors about some of the fundamental pillars of Islam, and share some of your practices, too.

Asma Uddin is the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also a lawyer and scholar specializing in American and international religious liberty.

How You’re Already Contributing to the National Day of Prayer

How You’re Already Contributing to the National Day of Prayer

Sarah Eyring

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Did you know the United States has an annual National Day of Prayer? Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can participate this year on Thursday, May 3. In fact, you may have been participating in small, daily ways already.

What is The National Day of Prayer?

The National Day of Prayer comes each spring, and has ever since 1952, when President Harry S. Truman declared it law. In 1988, the law was amended to appoint the first Thursday in May the official date of celebration. The amended law was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who said:

“From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.”

People of many religions honor the day, including Christians, Protestants, Catholics, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Some gather to pray in houses of worship, and others celebrate with food, music, and time together.

This year, the theme is “Praying for America: Unity,” based on the scripture Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

How Can Each of Us Participate?

Our nation is divided, but goodness can still be found. In 2017, stories of light shone through the darkness which shrouded nearly every bit of news. In addition to praying for the unity we desperately need now, we can follow the examples of the people who inspired us.

Find Common Ground

Do you remember when a 22-year-old rapper from Harlem and an 81-year-old grandmother from Florida became friends after competing in 324 rounds of an online crossword puzzle? Spencer Sleyon agreed to play a Words With Friends game with a random opponent. Over a year later, he and Rosalind “Roz” Guttman were still playing and had become real-life pals. They met in person in December of 2017, when Spencer traveled to Roz’s hometown.

Speak Well of Others

When Senator John McCain announced his brain tumor diagnosis last summer, fellow politicians—including some who opposed him in the past—rallied to offer support and encouragement.

Former president Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election said, “John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”

Help Someone in Need

Around the same time last summer, nine swimmers, including an entire family of six, were trapped in the current at Panama City Beach in Florida. Beach-goers spotted them and rushed to the rescue. No one could do it alone, however. So a reported 70 to 80 strangers held hands and formed a human chain that stretched from the sand to the swimmers, who all survived.

On this year’s National Day of Prayer, we can each do something to build unity in the United States. Whether it is through prayer, friendship, kind words, or service, your part will make a difference. How will you celebrate?

Holy Envy: Seeing Spiritual Symmetry in a Navajo Rug

Holy Envy: Seeing Spiritual Symmetry in a Navajo Rug

Val Edwards

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Over the years I’ve traveled to portions of the Navajo Nation a number of times. This piece of the American southwest is both beautiful and evocative. Long mesas, red rock pinnacles, and a unique mixture of old and new: trading posts and modern convenience stores; elders in velveteen and turquoise and their grandchildren focused on their I-phones; radio advertisements in both Navajo and English. The geography, the customs, the people all make the place sacred.

I am an Anglo Christian of Latter-day Saint persuasion and recognize the limitations of my observations. Navajo spirituality tricks me. I think I’ve grasped an insight only to see it change shape and point elsewhere. It is in the works of art that impressions hold together. Spirit and matter are joined.

I’m fortunate to own two Navajo rugs. One is of the Two Grey Hills style, named for the region in New Mexico where it originated close to a hundred years ago. These rugs are known for their natural colors — gray and brown hues, cream, white and black — their very tight weave, and their intricate patterns. At the center of this rug is a serrated diamond; seven borders in alternating colors and different edge designs radiate outward. In each corner are triangles, squares and terraced steps of different colors. A white zigzag line runs down the edge of the rug, just inside a surrounding black border. The entire rug is a perfect symmetry of numerous combinations of geometric designs and colors. When folded together, the corners or edges will match perfectly. Amazingly, weavers use no predetermined patterns or outlines. The design and detail of the rug is in each individual weaver’s mind.

The other rug (a different style) was made by a Navajo woman now in her nineties who completed the weaving in very traditional fashion. She raised and cared for the sheep from which the wool came. After shearing the sheep, she washed and carded the wool, spun it into yarn, dyed it with natural ingredients, and prepared the loom. Then the weaving began. While most rugs now are made of commercial yarns, the same levels of skill and patience are required in the weaving. The design is revealed through long hours (days, weeks, even months) spent running horizontal wefts of colored wool through precisely-spaced vertical warp cords. One expert has said that “weaving requires a unique combination and coordination of conceptual and manual skills.”[1]

The Navajo woman who made the second rug knows her sheep like her own family. When she married as a young girl in 1936, she was given twelve sheep. Decades later, she can still trace her current sheep back to those original twelve. Incredibly, some of those came from sheep her grandparents obtained when they returned to their native lands after the Navajo Long Walk from Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in the late 1860’s.

I marvel at Navajo rugs — the beauty and art, the craft and history. For me, they also reflect two elements of a Navajo worldview I particularly admire: symmetry and sacred homeland.

Symmetry. To appreciate their meaning, one must look often at Navajo rugs like these two. There is a complexity and a completeness not noticed at first glance. Repeated views reveal not only new designs and combinations of colors and patterns; there is also a wholeness to be grasped, a harmony to experience. The balance, order, and symmetry — touchstones in a Navajo worldview — are extraordinary. “The Gods designed this world to be a beautiful, harmonious, happy and healthy place. To be maintained, beauty needs to be expressed and renewed in ritual, song, art, speech, dress and daily living.”[2] Such is a Navajo rug — individual creativity and cultural patterns that produce something beautiful, good, harmonious, and symmetrical.

Even older weavers, whose trembling hands or failing eyesight won’t allow for perfect lines or straight edges, still envision in their minds beautifully balanced and proportioned weavings. An aspiration and reflection of the lives they have lived. Such equilibrium in life reminds me of how Jesus would have me live.

Sacred Homeland. I think of those generations of sheep that link my rug to the joyous, distressing and necessary Navajo migration back to their homeland, a homeland surrounded by the four sacred mountains. The land was given to them by deities after they emerged from various underworlds. (Several other indigenous tribes have emergence and migration narratives, being led to sacred lands.) The wool for the rug is connected to earth, as are the plants from which the dye is made to color the wool. The connectedness and symmetry achieved in making a rug also exists in all things. The earth is “a living, breathing entity in an animate universe. The land with its water, plants, and animals is a spiritual creation.”[3]

In my own religious tradition, we do not separate matter from spirit. The Navajo worldview takes this thought further and helps me appreciate even more a statement from early church leader Brigham Young. “There is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, air, the gases, and, in short, in every description and organization of matter.”

Much can be learned from a rug.

Val Edwards is a retired public relations professional and outdoor enthusiast living in southern Utah.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] I am indebted to Gary Witherspoon and his clear thinking and understanding, especially as found in “Self-Esteem and Self-Expression in Navajo Weaving,” Plateau, Vol. 52, No. 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert S. McPherson, Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region (Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University, 1992), 11.

Holy Envy: The Holiness of Kneeling

Holy Envy: The Holiness of Kneeling

Daniel Mark

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In Judaism, or certainly in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, we’re not supposed to imitate, much less envy, the ways of the gentiles, a name we give to those outside our faith. So when Krister Stendhal, the late Bishop of Stockholm, urged believers to look for the admirable in other religions, I did not entirely know what to make of it. Does my own faith, the one true faith if I’m right, lack something? Did God give other peoples better ways to serve Him?

These questions do not preoccupy me unduly. But there is one thing I particularly admire. It is, perhaps, the simplest religious act of all.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” In America, a country whose religious culture is shaped by Christian ways of worship, it is the child kneeling by the bedside that often comes to mind when I think of prayer. This is so despite the fact that I recite the prescribed Jewish prayers three times a day. For Ultra-orthodox Jews, who are more insular, the dominant culture’s images play far less a role in shaping their religious imagination. But, for me, a Modern Orthodox Jew, who, in my youth, consumed the same books, movies, television shows as my fellow citizens, the image of the child knelt in prayer is strong.

What does this act of kneeling mean? To kneel is to humble oneself. It is to show reverence. Submission. Sometimes it is to beg. Other times it is to surrender to overwhelming pain. One story I will never forget is of a great rabbi who, upon hearing that his wife of many years had passed away, fell to his knees in grief, sobbing and wrapping his arms around God’s ankles, as it were. Perhaps being on one’s knees is so compelling because it is not always a voluntary act, but an involuntary expression of being physically, emotionally, or spiritually destitute.

In Judaism, we take kneeling very seriously. In ancient times, this act took place at the Temple in Jerusalem when, on the holiest of days, the high priest pronounced the ineffable name of God. Nowadays, we reserve kneeling (and bowing down from our knees) for a few moments during the High Holidays, especially in the part of the liturgy that recounts the Temple scene. But never besides then. In refraining from kneeling at all other times, in prayer and not, we demonstrate that nothing equates to the Temple experience. Indeed, depending on the flooring of the synagogue, we often put down a cloth or paper towel to avoid incidentally touching down on a marble or even wood surface.

Moreover, during the holiest prayers in our liturgy, including our daily recitals, we stand fully erect, feet together, in imitation of the angels who are said to appear to have only one leg (like our two legs together) and no knees. So, kneeling in prayer is not only rare for Jews but also not necessarily our most sanctified stance.

And yet—and yet—when I am feeling most humble (not often, to be sure) or desperate (not often, either, thank God) or praiseful (working on that one), I feel the urge to kneel. I don’t do it, but I almost wish I could. At those times, I am slightly jealous of my Catholic friends who kneel each week (or day) at Mass. We Jews are ever mindful of the fact that worship is not just a function of the mind and the lips, but of one’s entire being. We regularly enact the Psalmist’s image “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee” (Psalms 35:10) by swaying back and forth as we pray. It is a characteristically Jewish image — somewhat like the Evangelical Protestant with outstretched arms, hands high in the air — a trademark of our faith that is alien to all others.

So, it is not that my tradition is insensitive to praying with one’s whole self — with heart, soul, and might devoted in concert to God. Rather, it is being schooled in a faith that values embodied worship and at the same time in a culture that has powerful depictions of knelt prayer that may explain why I am tempted to take a knee from time to time. Spontaneously. Or perhaps the urge to kneel before God is built into our nature as humans, and the God of Israel disciplines us to genuflect only before Him in His house.

As an Orthodox Jew, I will continue to kneel only in the holiest of moments and places. As God would have me do. But whenever I behold seekers of divine comfort drop to their knees in prayer, I will still be moved to a spiritual solidarity that makes this world a humbler place.

Daniel Mark is a professor of political science at Villanova University and currently a visiting fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He also serves as the Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Looking For Lent

Looking For Lent

Hannah Marazzi

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“So what exactly is Shrove Tuesday?” my sister texted me on February 13th this year. While many people were preparing to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many people the world over were stuffing their faces with pancakes. Shrove Tuesday, also known as “the feast before the fast” signifies the gathering of Christian communities in homes and church basements across the globe to break bread before the forty days of Lenten fast that proceed Easter.

Having been raised largely in the Mennonite tradition, Shrove Tuesdays, Ash Wednesday services and the practices of a prolonged Lenten fast preceding Easter were unfamiliar to me before my university days. While I would often reflect on the story of Easter celebrated by Christians every spring, there was really very little sustained meditation on preparing one’s heart for Easter.

This year was different. I attended a Shrove Tuesday dinner in the basement of my new church. Hemmed in on each side by congregants from every stage of life, I devoured homemade pancakes prepared cheerfully by our clergy. At my table sat a young mother, an older man with a story of ongoing homelessness, young professionals and for a brief time the Pastor’s wife. The next morning I rolled out of bed for the 7:00am prayer service marking Ash Wednesday, a penitential service that signals the beginning of the season of fasting that precedes Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

Before we celebrate the sacrifice of our Saviour we must first remember the agony, we must first repent; we must first understand what it is to do without in our own small way. Lining up behind congregants, I bowed my head as the curate made the sign of the cross, repeating softly “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I’ll be honest -this Lent, this doing without, that dust the curate talked about, all seem very apt in the anticipatory season that precedes Easter. In this Lenten season, the world does indeed seem dark and close to crumbling with great specificity to dust. It’s nothing and everything all at once. The dust seems visible to me through the shadow of the grave of which I am reminded as an acquaintance mourns the brutally slow loss of his mother to brain cancer and news of yet another bloody school shooting is splashed across the newspaper one morning. The dust rises in the seeming ashes of a dream as my friend cries across from me into her half eaten lunch. All she wants is a baby and new life seems impossible. Dust comes to me in the form of dust motes that slip through the air as I muffle sobs of my own as those dear to me describe a seemingly irreparable relationship. What to do with all of this space and sadness? Dust seems almost merciful in light of these losses.

Yet, I find myself thinking, perhaps herein lies the message of Lent and Easter: That redemption, hope fulfilled and comfort all begin within the presence of darkness. Isn’t this what first drew me to the faith? Isn’t it what breathes life into me on my darkest days now? The promise that in the ashes of brokenness and impossible darkness, a light dawns over the resurrected world. For what is the hope of resurrection and restoration if not seen alongside what comes before?

This Easter, it was the long shadow of the cross to which I looked to, baptizing my view of all that has gone before and all that is to come. As we in the Christian tradition broke the fast and celebrated the miracle of our Saviour restored and returned once again to live among us, I prayed for new eyes to see all that God is creating from the dust. As my eyes continue to catch on the crumble, on the dust motes and the shadow of the grave, as I know they will, I’ll remind myself to remember that dust is not the end and that resurrection has the last word.

Sharing Deep Joy and Deep Pain in an African-American Church

Sharing Deep Joy and Deep Pain in an African-American Church

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

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I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked in the door of Christ the King United Church of Christ (UCC) in the fall of 2014. I just knew that I had to be in church, but I didn’t know where to go. My family and I had moved to St. Louis a year earlier, and it still felt like an unfamiliar place. When African-American teenager Mike Brown died on a street in Ferguson the previous month, just a few miles away from our house, I knew I needed a church community to help me mourn, to take this moment of fracture—both mine and that of the larger community—and nourish it into something new.

On the face of it, Christ the King was a lot like the church I had been a member of for 25 years in North Carolina. It was part of the same denomination, a liberal Protestant tradition that prided itself on advocating for progressive social causes, including women’s ordination. The minister at Christ the King, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, embodied what the UCC calls its “radical inclusiveness.” But my church back home, for all of its expansive outreach, consisted of a large, fairly traditional, white, affluent congregation in a college town. Christ the King, on the other hand, perched right next door to Ferguson, was small and strapped for money. And the congregation, at least the gathering I could see on Sunday mornings, was all African-American.

I’d like to say that this was an entirely comfortable transition. I’m a scholar of religious history and have taught and written about African-American Protestantism for over three decades. I have attended plenty of services in the black church tradition as a guest and observer. I knew about altar calls, shouting, and prayers that lasted twenty minutes. I even knew the words to some of the gospel songs.

It was harder to know what my whiteness might mean amid such raw racial fracture. But I was raw too, in my own way: I entered there in need of something I couldn’t even identify, an acknowledgment of feeling and experience, that I hadn’t found in the predominantly white UCC churches in town that I’d visited. I came not as an expert ready to interpret this experience, but as someone hurt and angry and in need, both for myself and for this new place I wanted to call home.

What did I find? I found a willingness to talk openly about the gaping wounds in our city that divided us by race. I heard a call for love enmeshed with a vivid and persistent thirst for justice. I saw a community that opened its doors to all-comers, including a homeless man who occasionally showed up and even interrupted the service a few times—and I saw his cries met with attention and acceptance. I met a congregation that didn’t find it weird to see a lone white woman showing up week after week; they just kept right on hugging me.

Most of all, I discovered at Christ the King an astounding mix of joy and pain, both of which were embraced and welcomed in. It is a church that can hold it all because it has to. One sunny Sunday morning we gathered outside the sanctuary after the service with over 100 red and black balloons. As Rev. Blackmon spoke the names of all the victims of gun violence in St. Louis over the past year, we let them sail away into the air. She then asked others to name loved ones who had been shot and killed. At least two dozen people in the gathering identified family and friends lost. So much grief to bear.

Yet it’s the joy and love that nourish people. There’s a lot of great music, and plenty of potlucks after church. And there is a great deal to celebrate: weddings, births, graduations. We take time during the service to praise the young people who are achieving remarkable things and getting good jobs. Sometimes I get antsy when the service goes past the two-hour mark or when the choir launches yet another verse. I’m never convinced I like the keyboard playing in the background during the prayers. None of this is the “white” Protestant tradition in which I was raised, where you felt self-conscious coughing out loud during the service.

Is this holy envy? Close, but not exactly. It’s more of a fellowship of the heart. Christ the King isn’t a typical “black church” any more than there is one typical “white church.” But I do think there is a lot that many white Protestants could learn about loving and living together in community from their brothers and sisters in African-American Protestant traditions. How to hold and share deep pain and profound joy, and most often both at the same time. How to sing and pray as if your life depended on it. How to welcome whoever God brings through the door.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

The Faith on My Sleeve

The Faith on My Sleeve

Samantha Schroeder

The Faith on My Sleeve
As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, faith counts every second of my day. Many people these days are prepared to (over)share nearly every aspect of their lives, from what they eat for breakfast to who they go home with after dinner. Yet for most millennials, being open to talking about the faith is not a part of this culture of oversharing.

Oversharing my faith led me to both a beautiful transatlantic friendship and a professional failure. As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, my conversion was met with both blessings and challenges. The zeal of a convert can be an inspiring thing– from sparking new relationships to deepening current ones. On a snowy February day three years ago, I ran into a woman I vaguely recalled meeting briefly the day before. She was a Hungarian research fellow spending the semester in Washington. We spent six hours on a snowy day talking about Christianity. I opened up to this Hungarian woman about my faith journey- from my love of the church’s teachings on contraception and chastity to those on the Eucharist and confession, some which I embraced intellectually and spiritually and others which I was still struggling to accept. She wrote to me that night, about how our conversation had inspired her to consider her Christian faith. Three years later, that friend is now a Catholic woman, and I will be celebrating another sacrament with her at a wedding in Budapest this May. Somehow, the exuberance of this American Catholic did not scare away this Eastern European woman.

While the fervor of my faith led me making a friend over 4,500 miles away, there are also downsides of wearing my faith on my sleeve. In one particular case, my exuberance was met with hostility. Just after I was received into the Catholic Church, I started a new job in Washington. I was twenty-five, a newly minted Catholic, and excited about my next professional adventure. After a few months into my new position, apparently something Catholic I said at an event was reported to my boss. I was profoundly embarrassed by this anonymous feedback relayed to me at my brand new job. What did I say? Who did I say it to? What can I do? A few months and two complaints later, I felt utterly defeated. For the first time in my professional life, I was made to feel insecure about my faith. While my pre-conversion encounter earlier that year made a great impression on a total stranger, apparently this post-conversion work encounter made a terrible one. I began a period of soul-searching- do I have to change my personality? Put my passions on the backburner? Hide my faith?

Today, I no longer feel divided between my aspirations for professional success and spiritual sanctity. If you take the call to evangelization seriously– “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), we are all called to wear our faith on our sleeves. Christ calls us to carry our lantern alight with Truth wherever we go. And if we happen to be exuberant lantern-carriers, it will be difficult to hide the light we are carrying. While our profession of the faith will vary at different moments and in different stages of our lives–perhaps I don’t have the zeal of a convert that I had in the spring of 2015–we are indeed called to stand up for Truth and profess our Christian values in the public square. Through these trials that saints are made. We grow in humility, and although our lessons in humility might be painful, Christ first said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”