We are thrilled to present our 2017 Annual Report!
Please check out all of our adventures this year, and the ones to come soon!
We are thrilled to present our 2017 Annual Report!
Please check out all of our adventures this year, and the ones to come soon!
by Church Lab Interfaither, Cindy Haag
My children are all at different places with their own faith, but no one felt like learning about how other faiths had destroyed their own.
As I sit here in the quiet, alone in my home in mid-August, it’s nice to look back and reflect. My three youngest children are back in school and my oldest is at work today, but eager to headback to her university in the next month. There are so many natural phenomena that lendtowards reflection, but autumn for parents of school-age children is one full of several different emotions.
I stepped back and decided to take this conversation to who I think are the real experts. MY experts. I asked my kids.
This year the folks at The Church Lab asked me to reflect on motherhood, diverse conversations and raising kids. Initially, I had a handful of ideas and stories, but there was also a voice that said, “You’re no expert. You hardly know what you're doing most days,” so I stepped back and decided to take this conversation to who I think are the real experts. MY experts. I asked my kids.
Like most things in parenting I got some unexpected replies. Some that make me extremely proud as a parent and some that help me remember we are ALL “in process”. My children are 19, 17, 13, and 9. I gathered them around the kitchen table and asked them to share their thoughts on practicing interfaith dialogue at school.
“Being exposed to a variety of cultures, languages, and religions from a young age is really important; it helps you be open minded.” Then this middle child somehow disappears. How do they do that?
Child number four’s quick reply was, “What is interfaith dialogue?” Uh oh. After a quick simple explanation the response was, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen you do that” and Child Number 4 left the table and room. Thirty seconds in and we’re down one expert. Number 3 says, “Being exposed to a variety of cultures, languages and religions from a young age is really important; it helps you be open minded.” Then this middle child somehow disappears. How do they do that?
My second born is one of few words. When it was his turn he simply said, “Proclamation on the Family.” This public statement from the leaders of our church is very familiar to me, yet I was momentarily baffled because I did not see the connection he was making. When asked to elaborate he pointed out one paragraph that says, “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.” This sums it up for him. He then left the table. Number 2 gone.
Our firstborn and I are now alone at the table. The idyllic image of a deep and lovely conversation with all my children has been shattered. I have a collection of one liners. This is not going as planned....
Then, my firstborn starts to talk. Really talk. Sharing how she feels it’s important for kids to feel the freedom to explore and be open-minded. Reflecting on how an interest in another culture lead her to look at a religion common in that culture for a school project and how rewarding it was to find connections between her faith and theirs. How she has noticed that her dad and I have always had friends from different countries and with different religions and how she has too. How having conversations both with people in our faith tradition and out have been valuable—and that she agrees and disagrees with people both inside and outside of our church. Ahhhh.....victory!
Once again, I am reminded that parenting and life are an incredible journey and one that does not happen overnight. Small everyday actions can make an impact and often the planned events are not the ones that make a lasting impression. It’s also interesting to note that my children are all at different places with their own faith, but no one felt like learning about other faiths had destroyed their own.
This discussion ended up like most experiences in our family: Unpredictable yet beautiful in its own way.
Cindy Haag is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), mother of four, and wife to one. She has a masters degree in molecular and cellular biology and enjoys creating cool stuff that make her kids smile, ice cream, and admiring fabulous shoes.
It’s unquestionably time to be the hands and feet of Christ for those who experienced Harvey.
Yet are you wondering, perhaps paralyzed or feeling disconnected or in disbelief, as to how to even begin to help? Are your resources already feeling stretched in helping those affected by Harvey? Have you told yourself you’re going to plan a mission trip? Have you donated online generously? That is wonderful! Praise God.
Now that that’s done, we can all take joy in getting ready for the NEXT VITAL chapter of help.
Have you ever grieved the death of a loved one? Perhaps your community sent flowers and brought casseroles, and it meant so much to be accompanied in your shock. When the noise died down after a couple of weeks, what did it mean to you when all got quiet and there were still the few that showed up to listen, to pray with you, to come alongside you a month, 6 months, a year after your grief began? It is a narrow road of unspeakable impact. It is Jesus’ love that says, “I will not let you become invisible in your time of great need.” Yet it is embarrassingly feasible to accomplish, since all you really need to be able to do is set a simple Google calendar reminder once a month for a couple of years.
My community -and many others - are going to need your help long after Anderson Cooper leaves Harvey’s aftermath.
For those of us not living in devastating conditions, this is the exciting moment where we get to prepare as they’re surviving, so we are ready to come alongside our sisters and brothers and refuse to let them be forgotten.
My hometown between Beaumont and Port Arthur -the area known as The Golden Triangle- was one of an unimaginable number of areas that is bearing the brunt of devastation. But the worst came for them after it had already hit Corpus, Rockport and Houston. The Golden Triangle is at high risk of folks running out of energy for charity by the time they tend to the devastation that came hours before ours.
Many of us preach about Christ-like ministry being relational by nature, and the good news about that this applies to helping people after the unprecedented devastation of Harvey. As one whose family has been displaced by a hurricane, I have learned there are many unsung needs that churches (read: any community) can take joy in meeting over time. Relational ministry means getting to develop friendships to learn those quiet needs and finding creative ways to meet them over time. It is mutually life giving, even as it is vital for those you may get to “adopt.”
Please don’t think you’re unqualified or unable: the great practical part of relational post-disaster help is that it is what you make of it, so you get to manage your own wallet, energy and time so your help fits in with your schedule’s boundaries and your church’s/communities’ resources. The possibilities are more connected to your creativity, dedicated consistency and the Holy Spirit’s leaning. Don't let it stop you from dreaming big.
I invite you - ok, maybe I am begging - you to mindfully invest in some friendships with folks recovering from this bigger-than-disaster devastation. Come alongside them, lift their spirits, focus on relationships that will uniquely reveal the unsung vital needs that are not on the news. Anticipate experiencing miracles as God guides you to learn from them, and as you send them anything from bottled water to children’s artwork of encouragement to a simple text with a prayer and a sincere+listening “How are you?”. Below are simple ways to involve yourself in this journey.
But first, in case you’re numb or too far away to register this, I’ll briefly paint a picture.
Imagine waking up to a sunny work day just hours from your hometown, stopping to check facebook only to find the majority of your newsfeed is no longer full of annoying political posts and cute babies. Instead friends at home are begging for rescue for their families by anyone with a boat near enough to reach them. They are posting names in all caps, freely posting addresses and phone numbers. “My 98 year-old grandma is knee deep in her home! Please help!” “911 is overwhelmed and my cousins can’t get out!” Time becomes a blur. Your brain is spinning around how to help, even as roads are impassable and planes are down.
Imagine hearing your family members evacuated their home on a moment’s notice, only to have to be rescued by boat by the second “safer” home they fled to. (This was my aunt and uncle two days ago.) That scratches the surface.
As I type, my community is still trapped in their post-Harvey disaster area, many without potable water and most with diminishing food and supplies. I have lost count of which loved ones have lost their homes; right now they are all in shock and concentrating on survival.
These are people who were told NOT to evacuate. These are people that understand not only how to evacuate, but how to recover from hurricanes like Rita, Ike and Gustav, which have all hit the area in the last 12 years.
This storm doesn’t care how well you prepared, which official or meteorologist you listened to, where you went to school, how much money you make, which bathroom you want to use or who you voted for. These are doctors, professors, teachers, counselors, pregnant moms, grandparents with Alzheimer’s.
Yet God has miraculously provided survival via the astounding love-of-neighbor these communities have shown to survive amongst themselves. There are Golden Triangle jokes about the controversial statue conversation as they hope for survival-in-place or a helicopter out of there: All they know for now is that they’d like to erect a bronze monument of an average Joe in a flatbottom boat.
If you can get to a restaurant at all, the likelihood is that they’re giving away all their food until it’s gone. Every school and public hall I ever entered there is now a makeshift shelter, if not flooded. Churches that no longer have a building are fully mobilized, fully expressing that they were never a building anyway. Neighbors upon neighbors are reported miracles of rescue and provision: “Suddenly there was formula for this woman’s newborn, I don’t know from where! Thanks be to God!” My other non-religious aunt keeps saying, “Carrie, I am seeing God everywhere!” even as she and her children have no money to buy the limited food sources around them; they maintain lawns for a living.
Picture your dearest family members in this situation, which nobody could have prepared adequately for because it has never happened in recorded history. What would you do if you were unable to get to them? What would you say to them, what would you send them, what would you pray for them?
Join me in helping my family because they’re yours, too. Our God is a God of abundance. You have more resources than you might think. I am hearing loaves-and-fishes miracle stories from loved ones trapped in The Golden Triangle right now, and now we have the opportunity to continue that story long after the first wave of assistance.
I have done almost nothing but communicate with people in The Golden Triangle in the last 48 hours, frantically gathering information on what they need and anticipate needing. I am grateful for those that were able to take any moment to spend energy to communicate this, as many are rationing food and energy alike. After hours upon hours of consideration, here is my best layout for how we can meaningfully come alongside survivors of the truly evil wake of Harvey:
Pray - First, pray your heart out. Set reminders to pray. Pray as you’re led. Let God guide you and connect your heart to your neighbors in need. Pray for safety, provision, peace that surpasses understanding. Pray with joy for the overwhelming reports of God’s protection in the disaster.
Put specific communities’ and families’ names on your long-term prayer list at your church.
Donate - If you wish to donate, there are TONS of choices. If you’d like to donate to local churches that are scrambling to assist survival of people at this very moment, God is performing miracles through these (and many others) in my hometown area. See if your employer can match your gift! This community is unparalleled in any experience I’ve ever had of neighbors coming together to love each other. Help them help each other while we cannot get to them:
Contact Info On The Way! They’re hard to track down because they’re so well mobilized, despite their building being inaccessible.
This is an amazon wishlist that will allow you to donate specific supplies to be driven there from an accessible town: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/2ZA3NITVFIPA3
Can your community adopt a church in The Golden Triangle? The Church Lab is matching churches with each other to form ongoing partnerships. This way you can learn of on-the-ground needs from communities that know best, and you set yourself up to prevent the invisibility of our neighbors after the cameras turn off. This helps identify when and where to send in groups for labor and clean up, which will be a HUGE need in coming weeks and months. Also needs change quickly from initial recovery, to clean up, to construction, needs for counseling. Churches can keep you updated so you know when it's your cue to come in with your corresponding resources.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with no more or less than your point of contact’s name, contact info, church or organization name, city, state, and 2-3 sentences describing the nature and scope of resources your community may be able to offer in partnering with another church. Every bit counts, no matter how small or large your community is!
The Church Lab is asking teachers around the country to adopt individual classrooms in The Golden Triangle. Our kids can connect with kids, lift one another’s spirits and help teachers in desperate need of school supplies that were just purchased to be wiped out entirely.
To adopt a classroom (or to be adopted, Triangle people!), visit our Southeast Texas Adopt-A-Class! page here.
Volunteer to be on call for a pastor/community organizer/first responders to have a listening ear. They are supporting every person around them. Be their support in this crucial season! Want to offer a listening ear to folks in shelters or trapped in their homes? You can name when you want that to be on whatever level of commitment you like. This opportunity is intended to happen solely in these first weeks of recovery.
E-mail email@example.com with your name and credentials. We are still pulling together the structure for this commitment and will contact you as soon as we are ready to put you to work.
In the next couple of weeks I will personally bring in supplies to bring to my community through my 501(c)3 community, The Church Lab. We are not priority, as bigger organization like The Red Cross can get to them before our vehicles can. But feel more than free to donate here, knowing in a week or two we will be able to bring supplies to specific groups we know are in need, and likely know personally. https://www.crowdrise.com/goldentrianglestormfriends/fundraiser/church-lab
We’ll bring vital supplies, including some folks often forget to send. This will likely include supplies like water, food, cleaning supplies, socks, underwear, adult diapers, medicine, baby supplies of various sorts, basic medical supplies, tools for cleanup, tampons/pads and other toiletries.
Contact the churches listed above and ask to designate your donations to a discretionary disaster relief fund that can help families that fall through the cracks in coming weeks. There will be MANY families without employment because their workplaces don’t exist anymore or they cannot reach their workplace. They will be losing a way to provide for their families when they need more resources than ever. Some will fall through the FEMA cracks. Churches on the ground can often identify who these quiet sufferers are and come alongside them.
It’s a great time to roll out the red carpet after all they’ve suffered! It’d be great to buy them all trips to DisneyWorld if we could! But perhaps we could send gift cards to Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s, furniture stores, Amazon, etc. Let folks replace their precious memories with the very materials their new homes will be made of instead of choosing for them or sending the things we don’t want anymore. Contact the churches listed above to send help most directly.
Sending Clothes: Folks donate clothes more than anything else in situations like this, and oftentimes shelters themselves have to donate clothes elsewhere.
Going in Without An Organization Expecting You OR Not Knowing What Specific Need You’ll Meet: You’ll become one more mouth to feed, using precious resources.
Rev. Carrie Graham
TCL condemns acts of homegrown terrorism, as is the case with the violent white supremacist acts of this weekend (August 12-14, 2017).
We recognize that oftentimes folks don't commit to ideologies first, but rather find connection, purpose and belonging in a community that may or may not ultimately have love of neighbor at heart. America has a vacuum of isolation and loneliness that threatens to grow. But there are communities like TCL that invite folks to find a positive purpose, a sense of belonging as you are, an encouragement to learn to love in discomfort -not fear- and a celebration of thoughtful spiritual depth that may or may not be shared by friends in the community. May God help us and other groups to build up powerful communities that do the hard work of practicing love that drives out fear, to invite connection where our culture may seem to be driving wedges between us in so many ways. Join us to make friends in a small interfaith dialogue group. Or just to talk to someone safe about how to navigate this divisive era. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clergy collar on, I walked into the annual gathering of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Our very own Qamar Zafar had graciously invited me. My friends Jana and Rob would join me that evening for the interfaith dinner, but this was my time to check out what this community was up to beforehand. I was unsure what to expect; below is a window into the highlights of my day at the Jalsa Salana.
Almost before I could get myself into the door, I was greeted with expectant smiles by new friends I’d never met. They gave me a gift as a guest and then some wished to guide me to the ladies’ section of the gathering so I could observe what they were up to. Others warmly insisted that I go to the exhibition hall to be guided through a general tour of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s history. One tour guide passed me to the next, each one eager to identify the peace seeking goodness of their tradition, if not outright overlaps in the endeavors of Christianity and Islam.
I was so relieved to see Qamar. He dropped whatever he was doing to come greet me when I let him know I was at the gathering. I asked polite general questions of the tour guides, but the trust built among the TCL community allowed me to ask any questions that came to mind if Qamar was present. I didn’t worry about accidentally being rude or offending someone. Though at one point I did ask a theological question that stumped someone; in a quick moment, a seminary student was summoned to address my curiosities. I was called from such interactions to do a live interview for the Jalsa Salana livestream channel, finishing just in time for my friends to arrive.
Qamar gave Jana and me hijabs (head coverings) only if we wished to “fit in” a bit more. I wore mine when Jana and I decided to pay a visit to the ladies’ sessions. Qamar already had a new friend, Touba, assigned to host us in the ladies’ area of the gathering. Jana and I got along with Touba instantly, and we found ourselves inspired by the talk we heard about female empowerment via education and purdah (modesty, including in clothing).
The interfaith dinner that evening showcased social and political leaders pursuing interfaith peace. One of the most moving moments was when a Jewish professor tearfully thanked the Muslim communities for being such wonderful advocates in instances like the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.
The message of ongoing efforts of peacemaking was clearly communicated as an always-central theme of the Ahmadiyya community, and one that seems to inspire the behaviors and decisions of its members. However it was the excellent level of hospitality that was striking for myself and my friends. We marveled at how considered and cared for we were as honored guests, sometimes not even knowing how to respond to such thoughtful consideration for our orientation, learning and enjoyment of the events around us. This is perhaps especially meaningful for the multiple parts of the gathering we attended that were not necessarily built for interfaith guests; our observance was greeted with enthusiastic smiles, if not endearing curiosity.
Once again interfaith work has led to adventures in learning about another faith community by being welcomed into the midst of this community. It is only with Qamar’s encouragement, anticipatory consideration of our needs and with literally the entire Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s warmth, curiosity and care that even in the midst of theological and lifestyle differences, we were able to celebrate our friends’ convictions unencumbered.
Years ago, before he passed away, the famous segregationist and Alabama Governor George Wallace had a change of heart. Governor Wallace made international news when he stood in the doorway of a school blocking black students from entering. After his assassination attempt and the paralysis that followed, Wallace actually went to black churches to apologize. He apologized on national television. Many credit his change of heart to that brush with death, but that wasn't the only thing that changed him....
Wallace had an attendant who helped him when he was in the wheelchair for many years. Proving that God does indeed have a sense of humor, this man was African-American. Through their close work together they had may conversations. Few news reports gave much interest to this, but in their conversations about family, about life, about children and about faith, the heart of a devoted racist was changed forever. Wallace became a Christian and his daughter who survived him works for justice. Wallace proved the truth that we cannot hate a person or people who are so much like us. Knowledge of the depth of our friends creates love.
This little truth is the most powerful thing for me about Interfaith Dialogue. We are living in times when we are just so darned busy we can hardly breathe, much less sit down and actually listen, understand and share with another person. Yet we find it hard to fear and hate once we get to see the humanity, courage and faith in those we make the time to know. We have everything to gain by doing this simple, yet powerful thing.
In my time attending dialogue I have sat in the room with atheists, neo-pagans, conservative and liberal Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, Muslims, wiccans, people unsure of their faith and people who felt that their faith was the best part of who they are. The impressive thing is that in this group, the people treat each other the way I wish the whole world would treat each other: With the attention, respect, dignity and honor we all deserve.
We have discussed so many ideas and beliefs in so many ways. It's hard to not leave the room and ask myself, “Could this be a way to create the peace we all dream of and hope for?”
There are no "others" here at Church Lab. Only friends. People with good hearts and the courage to take a chance on being open and vulnerable in talking about their faith as it relates to daily life and current events. In doing so, we have learned how to love people who in some ways are quite different and yet share some deep and connecting traits. I have watched Republicans, Democrats and Independents sit in a room and have a not just civil, but loving dialogue about faith and politics! We even talk about essential or strong differences, but do it with honor and respect. We have discussed so many ideas and beliefs in so many ways. It's hard to not leave the room and ask myself, “Could this be a way to create the peace we all dream of and hope for?”
If participating in Dialogue changes me, makes me more able to carry forth the principles learned in the room as I walk through my world, then I am blessed. And maybe I can be a blessing too. That's my own agenda— To create peace in my own heart toward others and then take another's hand and pass it on. Listen and understand, even if my own feelings are different, but always, always, show the honor toward my brothers and sisters that my own faith tells me is right and just.
Going to the Dialogue has convinced me we can do this. And we must. The world is too fragile and difficult a place for us not to be peacemakers.
Qamar, who is a community member of both the Ahmadiyya Muslim and our Church Lab communities, shares about the meaning of Ramadhan.
All religions prescribe their respective paths for salvation. Islam also lays out rules of conduct to live peacefully in this world and attain salvation in the next. I like to call Islam’s road to salvation: The High Five…more on that later.
One of the main tenets of Islam is Fasting in the month of Ramadhan. This year Ramadhan will begin in the last week of May. It will last 29 or 30 days being based on the lunar cycles. Compared to the solar/Gregorian calendar, it arrives approx. 10 days earlier every year, encompassing all months and seasons in about 33 solar years. Islamic fast consists of refraining from eating, drinking (no exceptions!) and intercourse during the daylight hours. In this blog, I will cover the basics of this practice plus its spiritual, social and physical benefits per my understanding.
The injunction for fasting is laid out in the Quran, Islam’s Holy scripture thus:
[Chap 2: Verse 184] O ye who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.
[Chap 2: Verse 185] The prescribed fasting is for a fixed number of days, but whoso among you is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days; and for those who are able to fast only with great difficulty is an expiation — the feeding of a poor man. And whoso performs a good work with willing obedience, it is better for him. And fasting is good for you, if you only knew.
In a following verse, the duration of daily fast is laid out:
[Chap 2: Verse 188] …and eat and drink until the white thread becomes distinct to you from the black thread of the dawn. Then complete the fast till nightfall…
Fasting is a way of improvement of one’s self. One gives up worldly pleasures for the sake of God, learns to avoid sins, evil and establishes him/herself on the path of goodness. During this month, we are given an opportunity to make and follow through on our resolutions and then continue to practice the newly acquired habits the rest of the year. An empty stomach affords a state of self-awareness and a capacity for growth which is unmatched. Devotion to worship goes hand in hand with fasting. Increased spiritual focus to complement the reduced physical focus is the goal here. Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is known to have said
“Fasting is not just giving up food and drink, but it also means giving up bad and evil talk. If you are fasting and someone abuses you or provokes you, say I am fasting. One who involves in fighting and brawling while fasting, he is only starving and would not gain anything.”
In addition to spirituality, fasting also brings social benefits. It is noteworthy that fasting empowers us to have control over 3 of seven deadly sins, i.e. gluttony, lust and sloth. Avoidance of food and sex resulting in control over hunger and carnal desires makes sense. Similarly, a person is dishonest and may steal etc., due to an inclination towards life of ease. However, one who fasts spends time in worship, gets up early to eat in order to start the fast, refrains from eating, exercises patience all day and reduces his sleep time. By continuing this practice for a month, his/her habit of carelessness and laziness is transformed into increased discipline over mind and body.
Similarly, by staying hungry, one comes to understand the condition of the poor and less fortunate and is more likely to help them. Indeed, Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) made a habit of spending in the cause of the poor during the year, which has been likened to a breeze, never ceasing to comfort and help the needy. However, during Ramadhan, it is related that the breeze seemed to pick up speed and blow like strong winds.
Physically speaking, the body becomes used to enduring hardship of fasting during the month of Ramadhan. This creates forbearance and tolerance. These lead to good behavior, chastity, honesty, self-awareness and mindfulness.
Even though fasting may seem challenging during the long days of summer in Texas heat, the gains are many. Islamic fasting as it is meant to be practiced bears the promise of bringing about spiritual, personal and social change.
As for The High Five, these are the five tenets that Muslims practice, namely:
1. Kalima - Affirmation of Uniqueness/Oneness of God AND Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him)
2. Salaat - Five Daily Prayers
3. Saum - Fasting
4. Zakaat - Obligatory Alms
5. Hajj - Performing pilgrimage to Mecca
A guest blog-post by Church Lab participant, Stephen Cinti
I grew up in a very typical American Christian church. I was raised to believe that having faith in Jesus was the the only “right” thing to do or the only “one way.” I was also raised to believe that Christians are the only happy people and that if anyone is doing something that was bad, a common remark I’d hear was, “They really need Jesus in their lives.”
Like a lot of fellow millennials, I got pretty disenchanted with the Church and contemporary church culture by the time I was in my early 20s. Though, I feel like that went a little differently for me than what I hear from other millennials. While most of my peers left the Church because they felt let down, mad at God, bitter, hurt, or any number of things like this, I mostly got to a point where I felt like I was forcing myself to go along with it. Most of the hurt and bitterness for me was more directed at specific people and not at the Church or at God. Initially, I started to feel this hurt directed at the Church, but then quickly noticed that I felt the same anger and bitterness towards an equal amount of people that weren’t churched at all. This led me to be bitter at closed-mindedness in general, rather than solely at religion.
This put me in a very awkward position (and I still feel this awkwardness quite a bit). It kind of brought me to a position where I didn’t resonate with what was going on in the Christian Church anymore, but at the same time I wasn’t angry or bitter at it. I’ve been involved in church long enough to understand and not be hung up on the common attacks that angry atheists usually usually throw at Christians, so that wasn’t an issue for me. It was more like I just connected with a different type of spirituality than what was being presented to me at the time.
I began to find way more internal peace and continuity through personal meditation and the willingness to embrace uncertainty. I found these things to have way more noticeable benefits to my life and my interactions with those around me than I ever found through trying to force things to work for me. I still feel very awkward when people ask me to explain this to them or challenge its validity. Maybe someday I can find words to help explain this, but that’ll have to be a later time. Right now, all I can say is that I’m in the most genuine and true-to-myself place than I’ve ever been. I’m also in a place that is way more freeing and true to my own personal convictions.
The other day I found the statements below written on a piece of paper. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote them; I think it was a year ago or so, but I do know that they were written when I was in a place of sincerity and probably written when I was feeling helpless about someone challenging the validity of myself.
I’m very comfortable in not having any certainty about anything religiously. I’m very comfortable, and kind of feel a drive to embrace the idea of anything, or accept the absence of anything. Frankly, the only reason I ever feel like I need to have a definitive stance on things is the fear of judgement from other people and that they’ll not understand how much the above statement means to me, or judge it as just a “cop out” or as “being spiritually immature” or something along those lines.
I’m very serious about my spirituality, and how it’s very much an internal thing. I’m really starved for people to just encourage me to have the journey that I feel I’m led to have, even though it’s a very internal one, and appears to be very simple.
Here’s the scene: You’re at a party. There are more people present who you don’t know than you do. Perhaps it’s your partner’s work party and there is the obligation to get to know some of the strangers present. As you look around the room, what assumptions are you making by the people you see? What assumptions are they making about you?
At The Church Lab dialogue on Monday, December 12, nine interfaithers met to share our perspectives on “Misconceptions.” What are the misconceptions you face the most by those of another tradition? What are the misconceptions you’ve made about your own tradition?
Before we dive in further, the entire conversation is available to listen online here:
We invite you to listen to this dialogue session and think of it as a launch pad to get you thinking and engaging in the topic of misconception, too.
There’s something to the fact, that regardless of faith tradition, everyone at the dialogue had a personal experience of being misconceived based on their faith identity. And often less realized, everyone shared in the ways that we’ve made misconceptions about our own faith traditions. It is a complicated and messy exploration of identity and how we desire to be known as individuals, while also aligning ourselves with larger collectives of people.
Some questions I’m left with…
How do we perpetuate or reinforce the misconceptions made about our faith traditions? Have you ever assured someone you didn’t fit the mold of your faith tradition, that you weren’t “that kind of fill-in-the-blank?” Who fits a mold?
Are we actively seeking to teach ourselves about other traditions in order to end misconceptions we have about others?
Can we navigate the sources of the misconceptions we have learned?
Sharing about our experience with misconceptions really encompasses the mission of The Church Lab, which is to replace the misconceptions we have of people and replace them with real relationships. The Church Lab initiates these relationships by hosting folks in a room together, but that is just the beginning of the process. Developing relationships is a long game, made-up of creative encounters. So, here’s to that next party, when you’re surrounded by strangers. May at least one stranger become a misconception-smashing partner on your journey to better know and care for the world.
by Diana Small
Who: David Dashifen Kees (I took my wife’s last name!)
Hometown: Catasauqua, PA (currently in Alexandria, VA)
Family: A lovely wife, 1 dog, 3 cats and 4 snakes
OK, We're all human beings with hobbies and day jobs and stuff we like. Before we get to the Church Lab goods, care to share how you spend your days?
No fooling, I spend a great deal of my time programming. Either for work or pleasure. Yeah, I’m a big giant nerd. I also continue to play World of Warcraft and other video games as well. My wife also plays WoW so that’s a thing we share. I’ve been reading comics for years, so this modern era of Marvel movies and TV shows is pretty much nirvana for me in that respect, too. I’m an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, religious studies, theology, and political history. I ride bikes and take my dog for a 1.5 mile walk every day at 5:30 AM so I guess that makes me a morning person.
Here’s four random facts, in no particular order and likely without any value or importance to your question:
1. My father is in local government and that instilled within me a great desire to be a public servant. Rather than get into the cesspool of our federal government, a job in public higher education has fit the bill for the moment.
2. We have a dog (Boston Terrier), named Jilly. Three cats, Noel, Aiden, and Toshi, kicking around our house in Alexandria, VA. And we have two ball pythons (Kendi and Uzuriz, female and male respectively), an Andean Milk Snake (Keira), and a Kenyan Sand Boa (Mahiri).
3. I hate money and ownership. It’s a philosophical thing. I do everything I can to get rid of things that I own and only replace that which I absolutely need. And, there’s very little that I absolutely need.
4. If I had it all over to do again, I’d learn to play the drums.
Would you share with us your religious and/or spiritual identity?
I’m a Pagan!
That’s a little vague. To be more specific, I’m an eclectic Hellenic, which has the added benefit of rhyming. There is a more formal modern Hellenic religion, sometimes referred to as Hellenismos, but I don’t actually think of myself as trying to revive or recreate tenants of the ancient world. Instead, what I do is pretty much entirely a modern faith practice inspired by the mythology and values of the ancient world, but all jammed together to remain appropriate in a modern setting. The “eclectic” part simply indicates that I’m willing to pull from other sources not necessary linked to the Hellenic world (i.e. Greece and Greek mythology and pantheons).
Additionally, I’m a witch. My witchcraft is less about potions and cauldrons and more to do with drawing symbols and empowering them toward a given result. To foster my witchiness, I’ve joined the Firefly House, a tradition of witchcraft here in the Washington, D.C. area. Unfortunately, my schedule is such that I don’t get to do as much with them as I’d like.
How has Church Lab enriched your spiritual journey?
Church Lab gives me a space to explore topics that aren’t always things that Pagans worry about. We’re a religion that’s really based a lot more on what you do and less on what you believe. The Church Lab helps me to explore the theological concepts that might influence – perhaps unconsciously so – the behaviors and practice that I find spiritually fulfilling. Plus, it’s just plain fun to learn more about the practices of others.
I also find great joy in sharing a bit about Paganism with others. We’re a religious community that uses terms like pagan, witch, and heathen—words that have a negative and sometimes blasphemous connotation in other communities. By being a part of the Church Lab, I hope that I’m able to share a bit about myself, a bit about my religion, and help to allay fears that we’re all mustache-twirling evildoers.
What's one thing you wish more people knew when it came to your particular religious/spiritual identity?
That Paganism is truly a creation of the modern world. We may have our reconstructionist traditions that are working to try and take what we know of the ancient world and make it live again in the modern one, but even they know that not everything believed or practiced by some dude in Europe in 400 BCE is going to be appropriate in these times. We’re not all luddites that eschew modern technology to live in nature dancing under full moons. In fact, most of us love computers and drive our cars to the forest to do our full moon dancing!
What's something you've recently learned about a religious/spiritual practice other than your own that you'd like more folks to know?
To be honest, I feel like we don’t learn as much about our spiritual practices through the Church Lab. Maybe it’s because I only join remotely, and therefore, never cross paths with any of the other, but I feel I learn much more about the people that attend our meetings and not as much about their faith practices. For example, learning from a number of Muslim women about how their faith inspires them to act politically in the world was a joy. To hear one of our conservative Protestant members talk about how she’s moved to work both at a crisis pregnancy center and an abortion clinic blew me away. It’s these moments that make Church Lab valuable and different from other similar groups, like the three Pub Theology meet-ups that I attend monthly in the DC area.
What are you reading right now? What's one book you'd recommend we all go out and get from the library today?
Right now I’m reading Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored by Sarah Kate Istra Winter and A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly. As for book recommendations, my favorite book of all time is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
Whether you are brand new to dialogue, or a veteran, we all have moments where we might feel a bit, well, stuck. We might find ourselves triggered, suddenly feeling filled with emotion or scurrying to be defensive. Or we might simply not understand a person’s response to something we have shared. We might notice the tone of the room suddenly tanks and you simply don’t know what caused it or how to get back to solid ground.
Be assured; it is common -if not inevitable- to find a moment where building bridges gets bumpy! Part I of this blog is about what may be at play when a dialogue gets stuck.
Part II will further outline possible actions to get out of stuck-ness.
“I am pro-life because my faith teaches me that all forms of life are sacred.” “No you aren’t. You believe it because you think the government should force everyone to conform to your beliefs.”
When someone asserts something about their own convictions, feelings or reasons for actions, and another dialoguer contradicts it, the dialogue is dismantled. Why? Because building bridges necessitates trust in each person telling the truth about their own experiences better than you can do for them. If one person is permitted to undercut someone’s feelings or convictions, than we lose the vital dialogical commitment of seeking to understand before being understood. Here a dialogue will do well to pause, back up, and work toward collectively re-committing to the legitimacy of each dialoguer’s experiences.
“My political party represents those that have been swept aside, that live unheard and unseen. The other side is reprehensible and they overlook the wrongdoings of their candidate.”
It is striking that I have heard voters from multiple political parties across multiple elections describe themselves and others just like this. Strongly held within us are narratives that we subconsciously affirm and perpetuate. When we have new experiences, what stands out to us are the pieces that endorse already-held beliefs. We are often entrenched in like-minded communities, not to mention the reinforcing efforts of niche marketing and media outlets, we easily get lost in our own biases. Over time, this narrative can solidify into our very core.
Our most distancing disagreements are often about underlying narratives in our lives that we don’t think about much, but that steer the ship of our decisions and actions. We follow a script that is hard to change, and it is bewildering when we encounter someone that doesn’t follow a script very similar to our own. In fact, it is so challenging that we are often left to either a) deconstruct, then reconstruct our whole life narrative, which is no piece of cake or b) save energy by deciding that people with other narratives are either miseducated or just plain loco.
As such, needed in dialogue is humility. Specifically needed is a willingness to change, question our own biases, and to take a step back and wonder what else might be at play when we are tempted to make the world simpler by pointing a finger at someone else.
We are often so buried in like-mindedness that we don’t even know “those people” that think like that, vote like that, or believe that crazy stuff. Rest assured, someone out there is thinking the same about you.
Sometimes we mistake being “open-minded” for being around like-minded people. For example, you may be good friends with people from 7 different faith traditions, but it is entirely possible that if you all self-identify as liberal, you may agree on more than more conservative intra-faith counterparts. I have seen conservative Christians get along more easily with conservative Jewish folks than liberal Christian folks. Take note that embracing diversity and trying to understand people you don’t already understand are at times different things. We have good work to do, and to do it, it takes intentionally placing ourselves in less comfortable, less like-minded environments. It may not be comfortable, but it is fruitful over time!
There is such a thing as someone who has been talked into a dialogue, attends, and is not ready. For instance, I often say if someone “needs to win,” they are not ready for the dialogue and would do better to wait to attend until a different season of life.
There is also such a thing as a dialoguer being well-meaning and not ready for certain topics, rather than an entire dialogue. I have seen a dialoguer respond to a question I’ve asked by expressing that they are overwhelmed by the question and cannot answer it. This is a very legitimate - even considerate - response! A dialogue’s success in part depends on the honesty and vulnerability of its participants. In this situation, I validated the good reasons why someone might not be ready to hear the question, much less answer it. I invited those that felt comfortable enough to try to do so before we moved on to a question more palatable for the entire group.
Sometimes we can confuse ourselves more than we can confuse others! That is ok. We may encounter a feeling or response to something someone shares that we simply didn’t expect, or that we do not understand. This is an opportunity to grow, to reflect beyond the dialogue, and perhaps to seek pastoral care or the care of your worshipping community. Have grace and compassion for yourself if you find yourself feeling or responding in a way that takes you off guard. In the same way, please extend grace and compassion toward others for the same reason. In the most effective dialogue, the members are not nearly worried about the specific words shared so much as the heart of what they are trying to get across.
Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to respond when a moment of stuckness strikes!
[mockingbird argument image from Creative Commons]
By: Diana Small
These are the expectations of every interfaither when attending a dialogue at Church Lab:
1. Seek first to understand before being understood.
2. If your faith tradition is evangelistic, please be transparent about that conviction, yet suspend proselytizing during the dialogue.
3. We refrain from speaking on behalf of traditions not present in the room.
4. Speak from your personal experience. We do not represent our entire tradition.
5. Carrie is an advocate for all perspectives in the room, curating a safe space for the group as a whole.
6. Carrie has no agenda or moral lesson for the dialogue. We will jointly see where this conversation takes us and find a stopping point, then continue the work at the subsequent session.
These expectations seem simple and fair, but at last night’s dialogue, before the dialogue even started, these expectations needed to be written down for everyone to see. It would be a kind of dialogue that has never happened before at The Church Lab because just last week, the United States experienced an unprecedented and nationally dividing presidential election; its outcome revealing itself every hour as rallies, living rooms, protests, schools and social media pages roaring with diverse personal experience. So, before the Post-Election Dialogue begins, Carrie writes these expectations on a white board--which most Church Lab regulars know by heart--to remind everyone of why they’re here.
Let me tell you now, there was no great secret to solving the world’s problem revealed last night. Dialogue participants did not leave the two and a half hour conversation with perfect solutions for how to negotiate the fear, anger, mistrust and isolation many U.S. residents are experiencing. But that’s not really the goal of The Church Lab.
Other irregularities to last night’s gathering: the group of dialoguers was larger than usual, not wanting to turn anyone away, but also, the divisions between even Christian faith groups called for a larger spread of Protestant representation. There were also participants who have never participated in a dialogue before (including me), but when invited, sensed the value and urgency to participate in a safe interfaith post-election gathering.
Those represented were Protestants across the political spectrum,a Latter-Day Saints member, Shia Muslims, an Ahmadi Muslim, a pagan, agnostic, Native American and unassociated spiritual members with the affectionate nickname of “the ish contingency.” Folks of varying convictions and embodiments of sexual orientation and gender identity were present, and thanks to Google hangout, a variety of geographic perspectives was present between Austin, Houston, DC and New York. There was also significant representation missing—representation too long to list and worth lamenting.
And what can I report back to you to bring clarity to your new day, as your Facebook feed piles up? A few simple gifts: I sat on the floor in a living room with twenty other people
(and three on a Google hangout ) and for three hours, my smart phone stayed silent in my backpack across the room. When was the last time I was apart from that device? I met a woman who’s only lived in the United States for five months and she reminded me that there are nations and communities across the world, experiencing their own political upset; there is always unrest about which to be concerned and prayerful, or in other words, this won’t be the last dialogue of this nature. And there were moments when everyone in that room laughed together—over our shared unnerving and over pictures of puppies and babies.
The world can contain the emotions of every creature as they experience them. It takes practice to care for them and to transition those emotions into fruitful action that will create safer and richer communities. The Church Lab dialogues are the reminder that there is room for me and room for you in this country; we don’t have to fight to determine a winner and loser.
By: Diana Small
Mac is a healer and fighter for justice with a beautiful laugh. Mac hosted me in her apartment on the campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary to share with me a little about herself and her participation in Church Lab. As a newcomer to Church Lab myself, I asked Mac to tell it to me straight, giving me and readers the opportunity to learn about the Who and What behind this unusual interfaith group.
“What I see in Church Lab is a lot of people who have a closer understanding of the beauty in the others around them who may see the world in different ways. They’re not only taking away something that they’re learning from that person, but they’re also somebody who’s going to be standing alongside them when they need a friend.”
When Mac moved to Texas from New Mexico, she was shocked and distressed over the lack of attention contemporary Native American culture and history received in the state. Now a graduate student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Mac works to raise awareness about Native American culture, history and current events. (Right now that means supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests happening in North Dakota, and getting other folks on board to help.)
Mac is a pastoral counselor, social activist, storyteller, theologian, filmmaker, and the list goes on and on.
“I try to speak the language of the people I’m working with. I can speak fundamentalist Christian, I can speak Islam, I can speak Judaism…Not as well as a native speaker, but I do have an appreciation for a lot of different kinds of traditions.”
Mac was raised in two emphatically pagan traditions herself. Her father is Northern Cheyenne and Lakota and Mac’s mother is a Scottish immigrant who practiced ancient pagan religion. When Mac decided to attend the College of Santa Fe, a Jesuit school, to study religion and pastoral counseling, her parents’ could not wrap their minds around their daughter’s decision.
“They told their friends I was studying to be a teacher, they were so embarrassed!”
With her degrees in religion and counseling, Mac’s worked as a counselor for intergenerational trauma before it had a clinical name. Her father grew-up in an abusive Presbyterian-run Native American boarding school and this influenced Mac’s desire to help others heal from their abusive histories. The intersection Mac has found in Church Lab has been meeting members from other faith groups that are also navigating intergenerational trauma including refugees, multi-generational homeless families, and multi-generational marginalized families of color.
“The members of Church Lab are very gracious and open-hearted. People are able to talk about what they believe and, my impression is, it goes-off something that native people believe very strongly in: You cannot hate someone you know. The more you develop friendships with people, the harder it is to see them as ‘the other.’”
Investing in intergenerational trauma has even nurtured within Mac a greater sense of empathy and compassion for her father, having a better understanding of how his trauma shaped him.
Now back in school, Mac’s a part of creating the first ever Native American Student Group at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary to educate her classmates and future pastors in Native American culture, with the hopes of creating more allies for Native Americans.
“In order to be an ally, you really have to love someone enough that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. That means you have to get to know them. Make a friend!”
To get to know some of Mac’s better, here’s some films and books she recommends:
The Wind is My Mother by Bear Heart with Molly Larkin
Thirty Days on an Indian Reservation by Morgan Spurlock
Dakota 38 by Smooth Feather Productions
Please pray for Bosco as he meets our BuildOn rep for the village site visit TODAY in Burkina Faso!!!
This will potentially greenlight our partnership with this org, and the beginning of our work toward building a school for the village of Bassiama II. May everyone's travels be safe, conversations uplifting and informative, and all requirements met with ease.
May Bosco, BuildOn and this village community be greatly encouraged and able to celebrate the beginning of these partnerships, and possibly the beginning of girls and boys having access to education!!!
The Church Lab recently held a very special dialogue in which 3 Muslim special guests shared their voices about living in the US in our current climate. This is our first ever recorded dialogue, and all participants agreed that even as dialogue is a vulnerable practice, this special conversation is worth sharing.
We hope you'll give it a generous listen here
Please keep the spirit of dialogue when listening; we seek to understand before being understood and honor one another's perspectives as legitimate experience.