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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Hating the poor will not make you rich

In behavior, culture, life, Money, news, parenting, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several strains in the American worldview I find, even after 24 years living here, confusing and wearying.

There is the persistent narrative that government is bad, that self-reliance is good and that no one who needs government help — other than victims of natural disasters — really deserves it. If they were just smarter/harder-working/thriftier/better educated, they’d be fine.

The self-righteousness is pervasive and ugly.

I get it. My first book, which looked at guns in American women’s lives, included interviews with many women who own guns, some of which they use for hunting, for sport and for self-protection. In speaking with 104 men, women and teens of every income level from 29 states, I came away with a much clearer understanding why 45 percent (then “only” 30 percent) of American homes contain a firearm.

This is a nation predicated on the belief that everyone is responsible for themselves.

This is, (and this is the confusing bit), also one of the most overtly religious nations on earth — the percentage of those “churched” is much higher than England or my native Canada. This is a nation where some people proudly, loudly and routinely boast that they are God-fearing Christians, while sneering at the poor and weak, something Christ would have difficulty with.

Here’s an interesting link discussing seven current trends in American church-going.

I’ve seen extreme wealth and extreme poverty here.

Yet, in today’s deeply divided nation, as Romney and his supporters lick their wounds and Obama and his staff prepare for his second term, the rich rarely — if ever — encounter the poor. They remain some weird, distant abstraction, nothing they or their children will ever encounter or experience.

Until its fury erupts within their circle, like the New York City nanny who recently slit the throats of two of the three children she was caring for, commuting from her difficult life in the Bronx. She was, she told police, tired of being told what to do and wanted to earn more money.

The middle class, however you define it, is terrified of falling into poverty. It’s so much easier to hate the poor and struggling than face the reality you are them or soon to be.

The middle class has been told, from birth, that if you just work really hard and go to college and get a degree, and then get another, and maybe another, you too can become wealthy. For some, yes. For many others, who can’t even find any job right now, that ever-receding horizon is starting to look unattainable.

So much easier to look down in terror and disdain than cease gazing up at the private-jet set with awe and envy.

I recently watched a new documentary, “Set For Life” that’s making the rounds of film festivals in the U.S., about workers over the age of 50 out of work, and the struggles they face in this recession. It is sobering, and depressing, made by a recent Columbia University grad named Susan Sipprelle.

I have mixed feelings about this intractable divide, one that is only growing.

I was a Big Sister in the late 90s for 18 months, mentoring a 13-year-old girl living a 10-minute drive east of me in my suburban New York county. I had never, in the U.S., confronted poverty firsthand or known someone personally in its grip.

My time with C was instructive, and ultimately left me less reflexively liberal. I liked her, and admired her grit and humor. She was fun and a loving, affectionate girl. But her family’s behaviors, attitudes and expectations — even with four tax-payer supported workers helping them — horrified me and I struggled to make sense of them. Her mother had simply disappeared for five years, and showed up a week after C and I were matched. I’d feed C fresh vegetables at my apartment, or take her to the library, while her mother — a decade younger than I — watched TV in the basement night and day.

I tried, writing a five-page single-space letter pleading her case, to get C a scholarship to a local private school, where if she boarded, would have offered her a respite from the shouting, filth, junk food and three-generation welfare dependency of her family.

She never showed up for her tryout day at school. I never heard from her, her family or Big Sisters again. I still wonder how she is doing.

In my retail job, I served some of the nation’s wealthiest men and women, in their triple-ply cashmere and five-carat diamond rings. The one word they never hear, the one that makes them recoil in shock and disbelief? “No.” It took me a while to realize that money buys you a lot of agreement: your nanny/au pair/personal trainer/driver/SAT tutor/assistant(s)/maids/staff/employees are unlikely to ever argue with you or deny you your every whim.

Their world is a shiny, pretty, insular one, where material success safely brands you as a winner, a member of the tribe.

They often spoke to us low-wage, part-time, no-benefit hourly workers slowly in words of one syllable. They leaned over the counter as we entered their addresses, certain we couldn’t possibly know how to spell. One man (not in our store) threw a quarter behind him as he left, sneering: “Go to college!”

Everyone in our staff of 15 had. Two were military veterans.

Several different Americas went into the voting booth this week, their mutual incomprehension unmitigated by billions of dollars spent on attack ads, “informed” by Fox News or NPR, but rarely both.

The side that lost is apoplectic, crying foul, red-faced with rage. Romney cut off his workers’ credit cards immediately.

Obama, speaking to his campaign workers, wept openly with pride and gratitude.

Make Me Laugh And I’m Yours, Baby!

In behavior, domestic life, education, life, religion on August 2, 2011 at 11:27 am
you laughed so hard you cried?

Image via Wikipedia

Is there anything less amusing than a day — a week — longer? without laughter?

Especially when times are terrifying and horrible and painful, you gotta laugh.

The men who have won my heart are the ones who made me laugh so hard I almost peed, like Bob, who took me to a Manhattan comedy club but made me laugh ten times harder on the drive home.

The sweetie and I met on-line, so our first few conversations were by phone, as we lived about 30 miles away from one another. I have no idea what he said, but something made me laugh so hard I snorted.

Sexy!

That’s the end of that, I figured. What man wants to date a chick who snorts?

But Jose, being Jose, thought this was — as Buddhists like to say — an auspicious sign. If he could make me laugh that hard, clearly I had some appreciation for: 1) the same things; 2) seen the same way; 3) him. All true, and here we are 11 years later.

The eight-day silent Buddhist retreat I recently attended certainly looked Very Serious Indeed. All the students had mala beads wrapped around their wrists, and prayer books wrapped in gorgeous Chinese silk bags and some of them fully prostrated before each teaching. Yikes!

I do take such matters seriously indeed, but a little lightness goes a long, long way with me.

Thank heaven for Lama Surya Das’ love of laughter. We were killing ourselves at his raucous, bawdy humor — which made a deeply thoughtful 90-minute teaching, with 20 points on one slide alone — fly by.

How often do you laugh?

Is it enough?

A Mosque On Permafrost

In cities, culture, design, religion, urban life, world on September 26, 2010 at 5:08 pm
Overlooking Inuvik with the fall colors in the...

Inuvik, in the fall...Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a seriously cool story – a mosque built in Winnipeg and sailed north to its permanent home in Inuvik, making it the world’s most northerly.

I once visited a town in northern Quebec, Salluit, which was built on permafrost. It’s a whole other world north of the tree line!

From The Globe and Mail:

Over 23 days and 4,000 kilometres, the mosque avoided several such calamities as it meandered toward the Arctic, capturing records and the national imagination along the way.

That’s what made its final arrival on Thursday evening all the more sweet for the 40-odd Muslims who greeted it, as crews hauled the 1,500-square-foot structure off a barge to a site where it will start welcoming worshippers by the end of October.

“We didn’t clue into the symbolic meaning of this mosque at first,” said Abdalla Mohamed, a local businessman who helped co-ordinate the move of what’s now considered the world’s most northerly mosque. “When the community realized that it was history in the making, it became a huge point of pride. I mean, this is the world’s only mosque on permafrost!”

Why Don't We Ever Talk About (Our) Faith?

In religion on November 22, 2009 at 1:55 pm
:Image:Religious syms.png bitmap traced (and h...

Image via Wikipedia

We went to church this morning. I don’t go every week, usually once a month or so. And I was fried from watching Alien 3 on AMC until 1:30 a.m.; the last thing I felt like doing was dragging my tired bum to church.

One of the most striking and consistent absences on TrueSlant — one which continues to puzzle me — is our lack of conversation about faith, religion or spirituality beyond its predictable political ramifications. What’s up with that? Are we afraid to talk about it? Is there nothing to say? Will it inevitably get too ugly and embattled? I think people are scared of offending someone, of coming out as preachy and judgmental if their interlocutor is atheist or agnostic. There are as many ways to be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. as there are shades of the color blue, because each of us brings our own fears, doubts and certainties to it, as well as our strengths, hopes and faith.

I think it’s a real shame we don’t talk about it more, certainly in a country that is arguably pluralistic. Call me hopelessly idealistic, but I feel strongly there’s still a lot we can learn from one another’s faiths and traditions, no matter how weird some of them may seem.  If you’re a Christian, have you ever attended a synagogue service? I did, once, but only while reporting on it. I’ve never been inside a Hindu temple or mosque. I have been to several meetings of Buddhist tsangas in their temples because my partner is a devout Tibetan Buddhist — raised as a Hispanic Baptist minister’s son.

Faith and an attempt to behave ethically is an essential part of our shared life. We talk about it, think about it, try our best to live it. I know his Lama, Surya Das, who is a best-selling author and a dear friend. My partner has also known, and deeply loved listening to and becoming friends with, several of our church’s Episcopal ministers. This morning, as the choir processed up the aisle, he wrapped his wooden mala beads around his wrist as he always does. When our minister Nora proceeds up the aisle after the service, he bows deeply to her in namaste, a traditional gesture to a spiritual leader.

Here’s why I think we need to talk about faith, belief and religion publicly. It matters. It matters enormously and deeply. I am, frankly, saddened and embarrassed that a stupid, lame-ass post about Marge Simpson making the cover of Playboy is now my 5th most popular post, of more than 250. Please! It makes me shrivel with shame that a joke-y bit of filler is that appealing. But it is. Maybe because jokey stuff is so banal, so familiar and therefore so unthreateningly safe.

Here are some of the reasons I go to church, and here’s a magazine piece I wrote about it a while ago:

Community: I live in a wealthy suburb, dominated by big mansions filled with Type-A achievers. Not us. It’s easy to forget that there are many other people out there, each with spiritual needs and lives. Sometimes only in this sacred space where we hear the prayer list — Hilde has cancer, Becky is recovering, Bill needs a job — do we peel back, ideally in a safe and accepting way, the polished, gleaming shells we wear much of the time. Here, it’s OK to show the cracks. We’re all cracked. We all need healing.

Diversity: There are few places, if a spiritual community is thriving, you share physical space, let alone conversation, with people ages six to 80. Let alone white, black, Asian, Hispanic, investment bankers to artists. Today my sweetie chatted up a 10-year-old redheaded boy whose voice rang out this morning from the children’s choir. We don’t know this kid or his parents. But he’s a member and members feel free to talk to one another. You don’t have to be married/parents/employed/whatever to find solace and welcome in the right spiritual community. Your soul is the member, not your exterior labels.

Tradition: I admit it. I’m a sucker for liturgy, the Nicene Creed, the Doxology, the Peace. I get weepy belting out my favorite hymns, knowing that generations of others have belted them out, in my church, before me. I like being part of a long line of Christians going back to 1854 in this space. I just love “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Lessons: Not just the sermon. Sitting still for an hour. Caring for your soul in the same thoughtful and deliberate way we pay obsessive, tedious, relentless attention to the size of our hips, bank accounts or achievements.

Humility: Every one of us is eventually humbled, whether by divorce, betrayal, job loss, illness. Knowing others have survived this, are surviving this all around you, reminds us we’re human. We still retain tremendous value, to ourselves and to others, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Do you attend services? Does it matter to you? Do you share this with others, or is it a well-kept secret? Why?

Recession Hits Religious Life

In business, culture, Money, US on September 30, 2009 at 11:11 am
Rose window

Image by battle-axe studio | sharp creative via Flickr

I’ve been attending an Episcopal church for 10 years and chose my church, St. Barnabas, because of the extraordinary woman, Susan Richmond, then the assistant minister when I was in crisis. She offered compassion, wisdom — and a strong, smart woman’s perspective. Had she not been there, would I have returned and stayed? We now have a woman rector, Norah Smith — but for the first time in many years we have no assistant minister and no plans to hire one.

Our wealthy suburban New York church, with about 300 members, can’t afford it. Recession is hitting religious life across the country, reports the Associated Press.

With our depressed or vanishing incomes, churches, synagogues and other religiously-affiliated institutions are suffering. People are putting less money in the collection plate or tithing or pledging less (committing a set amount of money each year.) In the Episcopal church, each parish elects a vestry from among its members, a sort of board of directors who work closely with the minister, focusing on, among many other issues, the budget. I had a long chat recently with a vestry member who told me money is now a  real challenge, that the wealthy stalwarts who wrote very large checks for years are no longer doing so. And no one else is stepping up.

Does it matter to lose an assistant minister? I think so. For years, it gave me, and fellow parishioners, the luxury of a second point of view, personality and set of skills. As anyone who has ever been part of a faith community for a while knows, religious leaders bring varied skills. One can be a terrific preacher but not a great listener. One might offer fantastic pastoral skills but not pay enough attention to the physical needs of the space; our church is 150 years old this month and almost every single piece of it, from glorious stained-glass windows to mosaic floors to crumbling plaster to the bell tower, needs ongoing repair and maintenance — all of which cost real money.

Our last assistant was a lively, funny 30-year-old, Joel, a passionate preacher (now back at graduate school) and I miss him. I still miss Ken, who was our assistant before him (now in Idaho with his own parish) and Susan. I loved Charlie, our minister who retired, but having an assistant offers a helpful balance.

A religious community is as much a community as a place to pray and learn about and practice the tenets of your faith. It’s a place you marry, baptize your children or plan their bas/bat mitzvahs, watch them marry, attend funerals. At its best, it offers a safe, sacred, timeless refuge from the world’s insanity, a place you shed your daily protective skin and open yourself to something much deeper.  It’s a sad fact that, even there, money changes everything.

It's J-Day: Former LA Times' Bill Lobdell and Newsweek's Michael Hastings On The Story That Broke Their Hearts

In Media on August 27, 2009 at 8:21 am
This late 1960s photograph shows a seated, lis...

Image via Wikipedia

Any journalist working on emotionally harrowing stories — war, corruption, violence, death, poverty — faces a specific and deeply personal challenge. In order to witness this material, which can be terrifying, confusing and anxiety-provoking to us as well as those we cover, we have to be present, both physically and emotionally. As a result, many of us later suffer PTSD or secondary trauma, the price of admission to these searing stories, as James Rainey wrote recently in The Los Angeles Times. That can bring anxiety, depression, nightmares or insomnia.

A new feature film, The Bang-Bang Club, recently finished shooting in South Africa. The name was given to a group of  young news photographers that included one who still shoots for The New York Times, Joao Silva, and South African photographer Kevin Carter. Carter is best-known, to some of us, as the photographer who captured an image of a tiny, emaciated Sudanese child lying on the ground, a vulture waiting mere feet away. The image won the 1994 Pultizer Prize. Two months later, at 33, Carter committed suicide.

I experienced secondary trauma while writing my own book, during which I spent two years interviewing, and writing about, women and girls. some of whom had experienced gun-related violence, including a woman shot point-blank in her California driveway while her husband was shot and killed beside her during a robbery, women who’d shot and killed, women who’d been shot themselves, women whose husbands and sons had committed suicide. Sometimes this was just exhausting and overwhelming.

The Dart Center is a terrific resource for helping journalists deal with this issue; last week’s J-Day featured medical author Maryn McKenna, whose new book about MRSA required much wearying, important reporting. She’ll be one of their fellows this fall at Columbia University, a sort of post-traumatic de-briefing.

I asked two brave, respected journalists whose work I admire to talk about this difficult issue. I met Bill Lobdell when we both participated in a religion writing fellowship at The Poynter Institute. I was stunned by the story he told us then, which later became his book, and never forgot it. I did not know Michael Hastings before coming to T/S but his raw, passionate candor here is also generous and extraordinary.

William Lobdell, former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, author of “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.”

Michael Hastings, fellow T/S contributor, former Newsweek Baghdad correspondent, whose 2008 book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story,” is about his fiancee’s murder.

Tell us a little about how and why you chose journalism.

Michael: I’ll start with a cliché—from about the age of 12 I knew I wanted to write. (Or join the Marines, win a congressional medal of honor, and run for president.) As a teenager, I discovered guys like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and had a serious Beat literature phase. I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances. That didn’t work out so well. I wrote a column at my school paper, called “Fear and Loathing at LCC.” (Lower Canada College, the name of the high school I attended in Montreal.) Then I moved to Burlington, Vermont, where I went to a Catholic school. I was promptly banned from writing for the school newspaper there. The principal was a rather large man named Brother Roger. He didn’t take kindly to an essay where I compared him, perhaps unfavorably, to Jabba the Hutt.

Anyway, after bouncing around at a few colleges, I ended up at New York University. During my last semester, I got an unpaid internship at Newsweek International. I probably was the only one who applied, as the work at first was primarily on Friday and Saturday nights. But I’d been chastened enough by life at that point to realize that I’d managed to get my foot in the door, so to speak, and I wasn’t going take it out. So I more or less lived at the Newsweek offices, and the internship turned to a full time position. I guess I was 22 at the time. I loved it, and I learned how to write an edit there…. I never refused an assignment or anything an editor asked me to do, which helped my cause.. But after about three years, I started asking to be sent to Iraq. By that time, America was already suffering from its first bout of Iraq fatigue—circa 2005. It wasn’t a hot story. Not many people were banging down the door to go. So my bosses finally sent me in August 2005. Six months or so later, the civil war broke out, and all of sudden, Iraq was a really big story again.. I was named the magazine’s Baghdad correspondent a few months after that. That meant I was now going to move to Baghdad permanently

William: I went to Stanford and the University of California, Irvine and majored in political science. As my senior year approached, I still didn’t have a clue what I’d do for a living upon graduation. A mentor gave me some obvious advice that had eluded me: find what you love and get a job in that field. Well, I loved reading newspapers and magazines. I was a news junkie. I thought, maybe I could be a reporter. I went to the college newspaper and the minute I walked into that newsroom, I was hooked.

My career path began traditionally—an internship at the Los Angeles Times and then a job at a small daily in Fullerton. But then it took a turn. I became editor and later president of a local magazine chain. After that seven-year detour, I returned to daily journalism as editor of the Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. I eventually oversaw the LA Times’ community news division before becoming a Times reporter. I spent eight years on the religion beat and two more years as a city editor. I left the paper last year and am running two Internet-based businesses: http://www.newportmesadailyvoice.com and http://www.greersoc.com. I also wrote a critically acclaimed memoir of my experiences on the religion beat called “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.”

A little background on this story and how you came to cover it: Read the rest of this entry »

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