The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Religion and Values Thu, 30 Jun 2016 02:16:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Reflections: During Ramadan, a prayer that we live together peacefully Sat, 25 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Like a thief in search of spiritual fulfillment, I tiptoe through the dark house, careful not to wake up its inhabitants. I pass the doors to silent rooms, filled with drowsiness, where my family is resting. It is almost dawn when while snacking and drinking water, I warm the leftovers and feel anxious as I prepare for a long day of fasting. I eat a meal that would be my last until sunset the next day.

I stand, facing east to pray, reciting the sacred chant, ancient words in Arabic revealed some 14 centuries ago that gave birth to Islam, the youngest Abrahamic religion. I imagine the poetic verses floating in the dark room, finding wings to rise up through the empty attic to the starlit Maine sky, to soar to the heavens above. I pray for those going without food, not by choice, all year round, for Ramadan, the month of blessing, is far from being a time of hardship but one to ask for atonement and find empathy for the poor and the hungry.

I go outside to sit, star-gazing and watching the sky change colors. The subdivision where I live is quiet and dark.

I recall the Ramadan of my childhood in Iran, in a faraway city, lost to a war that few remember now. There was a sense of exhilaration: Most adults were up, for the work hours during the Holy Month of Ramadan would be flexible, the elders would recite verses from the Qur’an, for the tradition called for the Holy Book to be read, sura by sura, chapter by chapter, throughout the month. No leftovers, for dishes special to Ramadan were made for the family.

Though as children we were too young to fast, we woke up to share in the revered occasion, knowing full well that hours later, there’d be a breakfast waiting for us, made by adults who were themselves fasting.

In the distant past, in bigger cities in Iran, the signal to stop eating and start the fast would be announced by the boom of a single cannon. In smaller towns, like ours, before the age of alarm clocks and radios, volunteers moved swiftly through the narrow and winding lanes of neighborhoods, beating the ground and the outside walls with long sticks, to wake up the households. Out of respect, they’d avoid houses belonging to the town’s Jewish, Armenian, Assyrian and Yezidi families, and those too old or ill to fast. Years later in America, I read about such time-tested reverence for one’s neighbors belonging to a different faith tradition in Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s Paradise.” In the book, which tells the story of his Jewish father and ancestors living in Kurdistan, Iraq, Sabar vividly portrays an era, which though lasting until the 1950s and 1960s, is lost in contemporary consciousness, where the local Jewish inhabitants would not eat in the presence of their fasting Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. Similarly, Muslim men, greeting their Jewish neighbors on their way to the synagogue on a Shabbat, would put out their cigarettes. The story could have been the same in many parts of the Middle East, including Iran, where the children of Abraham were known to treat one another with care and respect. I recall the Middle East of my childhood, before being wrecked by the turmoil of invasions, occupations, and civil wars of recent years, as a paradise of sort.

Back inside the dark house, I bring my forehead to touch the floor in worship and humility. I pray for America, the open and inclusive society that it strives to be, to duplicate a time, similar to what existed in Kurdistan, Iraq, or Iran, or in the Muslim-ruled Spain of centuries ago, for the nation’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims, among others, to see each other as children of the same God and live together peacefully.

Reza Jalali advises Muslim students at the University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin College. He’s the author of “Moon Watchers, Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle,” a children’s book about Ramadan.

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Iowa’s governor ready to lead Bible reading marathon Fri, 24 Jun 2016 23:49:11 +0000 DAVENPORT, Iowa — Iowans are set to join Gov. Terry Branstad’s Iowa 99-County Bible Reading Marathon.

The Scott County event is scheduled to begin just after sunrise Thursday and run through July 3, The Quad-City Times reported.

Connie Johnson with the Bettendorf Baptist Church is leading efforts to find up to 300 people to read the Bible in 15-minute increments.

Johnson said sign-ups for the event have been light so far, but she hopes that family groups will get together to read the Bible aloud.

The event has gotten much attention online, and Branstad faces threats of lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa in Des Moines.

Locally, some faith leaders have taken issue with the idea.

Rabbi Henry Karp of Temple Emanuel in Davenport said the governor should keep events like this “religious neutral.” Karp suggested that it would be better to promote reading of other religious texts as well.

But Joe Gauthier, a practicing Buddhist from Davenport, said he has no problem with the event.

“I am glad that people want to bring spirituality to different spheres of life,” Gauthier said. “I don’t feel threatened or left out at all. And if people want to explore Buddhism, they are invited to visit.”

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In Armenia, pope denounces ‘genocide’ Fri, 24 Jun 2016 23:48:41 +0000 YEREVAN, Armenia — Pope Francis denounced what he called the ideologically twisted and planned “genocide” of Armenians by Ottoman-era Turks a century ago as he arrived in Armenia on Friday for a deeply symbolic visit to mark the centenary of the massacre and pay homage to the country’s steadfast Christian faith.

In the most carefully watched speech of his three-day trip, Francis ad-libbed the politically charged word “genocide” to his prepared text that had conspicuously left it out, listing the Armenian genocide alongside the Holocaust and Stalinism.

And rather than merely repeat what had said last year – that the slaughter was “considered the first genocide of the 20th century” – Francis declared it a genocide flat out, setting the stage for another Turkish protest after it withdrew its ambassador last year and accused Francis of spreading lies.

“Sadly that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples,” he said.

“It’s so sad how, in this case and in the other two, the great international powers looked the other way,” he added, referring to the subsequent horrors of Nazism and Stalinism.

In the run-up to the visit, the Vatican had refrained from using the term “genocide,” mindful of Turkish opposition to the political and financial implications of the word given Armenian claims for reparations.

But Francis, never one to shy from speaking his mind, added the word at the last minute in a speech at the presidential palace to President Serzh Sargsyan, Armenian political and religious leaders and the diplomatic corps.

They gave him a standing ovation.

“One cannot but believe in the triumph of justice when in 100 years … the message of justice is being conveyed to mankind from the heart of the Catholic world,” marveled President Sargsyn in his speech to the pope.

Many historians consider the massacres of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians genocide. Turkey rejects the term, says the death figure is inflated and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid World War I.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis always speaks of the need for reconciliation and that his declaration of a genocide must be taken in the context of recognizing a past horror to then move on in friendship and reconciliation. Lombardi denied that the Vatican’s diplomatic speechwriters had intentionally left the word out, saying they had intentionally left it up to the pope to decide what to say.

In a largely Orthodox land where Catholics are a minority, Armenians have been genuinely honored to welcome a pope who has long championed the Armenian cause from his time as an archbishop in Argentina and now as leader of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church. His 2015 declaration that the massacres were considered a “genocide” sealed their affection for him.

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‘Mud people’ Filipino fest honors John the Baptist Fri, 24 Jun 2016 23:31:06 +0000 BIBICLAT, Philippines — Hundreds of Filipino villagers donning capes of banana leaves covered themselves in mud Friday in a ritual to thank their patron saint, John the Baptist, who they believe saved residents from killings by Japanese invaders in World War II.

The “Taong Putik” or “mud people” festival in Bibiclat village in northern Nueva Ecija province dates back to the brutal Japanese occupation of the Philippines, according to villagers.

Japanese troops gathered many of the male villagers in a Bibiclat church courtyard for execution by firing squad. But after women and children prayed to Saint John to spare them, a sudden downpour saved the men, villagers say.

The residents rolled in the mud in jubilation and have carried on the thanksgiving tradition ever since.

“They’re doing it yearly as a vow,” said parish priest, the Rev. Elmer Villamayor.

A mud-splattered participant said he prayed for sick relatives and another thanked God for curing him.

During the festival, men, women and children – some covered with capes from head to foot and with eyes peering from a cake of mud – collect candles from villagers along Bibiclat’s main street on their way to St. John the Baptist’s church to hear Mass. There they light the candles.

The Philippines is Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation. The spectacle reflects the country’s unique brand of Catholicism, merging church traditions with superstitions.

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Largest Presbyterian denomination in U.S. elects first black leader Fri, 24 Jun 2016 23:23:25 +0000 PORTLAND, Ore. — The largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. has elected its first African-American top executive.

The Rev. Herbert Nelson won an overwhelming majority of votes Friday during the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland, Oregon.

Nelson previously directed the church’s public policy office in Washington. He’s a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and holds a doctorate from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Like other denominations, the Louisville, Kentucky-based Presbyterian church has been shrinking. It now has 1.6 million members and is overwhelmingly white.

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Religion Calendar Fri, 24 Jun 2016 23:13:24 +0000 Electronics Collection Day/Recycling Fundraiser. Drop off your used/unwanted electronics; donations requested. Westgate Shopping Center, 1364 Congress St., Portland., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Silver and Gold Anniversary Mass. Couples celebrating milestone anniversaries will receive a special blessing from Bishop Robert P. Deeley. St. Augustine Church, 75 Northern Ave., Augusta, olff/silver-gold-mass, 4 p.m. Saturday.

River Rock Festival. A two-day Christian music celebration, Sunday River, 15 S. Ridge Road, Newry,, July 1.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Religion calendar Sat, 18 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Lisa Gallant Seal and Channels of Blessing. Free. Church of the Holy Spirit, 1047 Congress St., Portland. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday.

Rejoicing Spirits, a worship service for persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities, followed by fellowship and supper. Free. Trinity Lutheran Church, 612 Main St., Westbrook. 207-854 5653. 4 p.m. Sunday.

“Beholding Nature: Spiritual Ecology Through the Eyes of the Heart.” Ongoing discussion including experiential practices in broadening perception and opening the “eyes of the heart.” By donation. Unity of Greater Portland 54 River Road, Windham. 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Come and learn about interfaith from ChIME’s Abbess Patricia Ellen. Free, donations welcome. The Center for Grieving Children, 555 Forest Ave., Portland. 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Robert Moody won’t conduct PSO’s season finale Sat, 18 Jun 2016 00:30:28 +0000 Robert Moody, music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, will not conduct the final concert of the season on Tuesday as planned, because of an illness in the family. Assistant conductor Norman Huynh will take his place.

The PSO concludes its season with a performance of “Peer Gynt” as part of a Norwegian-themed evening. The concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium.

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Southern Baptist synod moderates views Fri, 17 Jun 2016 23:42:00 +0000 NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Southern Baptist Convention has been closely associated with conservative politics for years, but at its annual meeting this week the nation’s largest Protestant denomination showed that its concerns are becoming more diverse along with its membership.

Where 20 years ago the convention voted to boycott Disney for promoting homosexuality, on Tuesday, delegates passed a resolution extending love and compassion to the victims of the recent shooting at an Orlando gay night club. The resolution also asked Southern Baptists to donate blood and offer other forms of support.

Southern Baptists haven’t changed their belief that sexual relations between same-sex couples are sinful, but it is no longer acceptable to denounce gay people. And many Southern Baptist pastors say they have gay couples in their congregations.

Although abortion is still a huge concern, this week racism was condemned with equal fervor. On Tuesday, delegates voted to repudiate the display of the Confederate battle flag. And they actually voted to strengthen the language of the resolution presented to them by a committee, deleting a sentence that said the flag is seen by some as a memorial to their ancestors.

That stance earned them a barrage of angry, racist comments on Twitter.

Later African-American Rev. K. Marshall Williams said during a panel on the church and politics that Christians need to pray not only for issues like abortion and marriage, but for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline that affects many young black men.

More than 7,000 delegates attended the two-day meeting in St. Louis of the Nashville-based denomination.

They included people like Jamal Bishara, pastor of the First Arabic Baptist Church in Arizona. He stood to oppose a resolution in support of Israel that criticized the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. His speech was applauded, although the resolution passed.

During the eight years that George W. Bush was president, he addressed the annual meeting at least four times. Today, Southern Baptist ethics leader Russell Moore regularly denounces presumed presidential nominee Donald Trump as lacking Christian values.

While Trump has advocated a ban on Muslims being admitted to the United States, Southern Baptists on Wednesday passed a resolution encouraging Southern Baptist churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes.

Moore, who recently added the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to a list of groups supporting the construction of a New Jersey mosque, was challenged by a pastor who asked how he could support the rights of Muslims who he said are threatening the existence of Christians and Americans. To applause, Moore said that support for religious liberty is at the heart of what it means to be a Baptist.

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in a split with northern Baptists over slavery and is still mainly white. But with 15.3 million members, it has at least 1.5 million “non-Anglo” members.

Delegates also voted to oppose efforts to require women to register for the draft, to encourage voting as an expression of Christian citizenship and to affirm “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

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Religion Calendar Sat, 11 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The Voice of the Martyrs Advance Conference. Speakers from around the world share personal accounts about persecution and ways they are advancing God’s kingdom on the frontlines of ministry. Free. East Auburn Baptist Church, 560 Park Ave., Auburn. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Beholding Nature: Spiritual Ecology Through the Eyes of the Heart, Ongoing discussion of Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, including experiential practices in broadening perception and opening the “eyes of the heart.” By donation. Unity of Greater Portland 54 River Road, Windham,, 6:30 p.m. Monday

Service of Healing and Prayer. Prayers and readings followed by the anointing with oil and the laying on of hands for all who desire it. St. Augustine Anglican Church. 656 Route 1, Scarborough. 7-8 p.m. Wednesday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Reflections: Our lives arise from a holy intelligence beyond our reach Sat, 11 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 I am walking in a strange city. It is neither night nor day. Why I am here I cannot say. I come to one particular street – a cheap notional place brazenly vaunting the dregs and idiocies of our cultural life.

Here I pace along a shifting array of storefronts pausing occasionally, scrutinizing the featured assemblages of merchandise within unkempt windowed fronts. It is a succession of phantom forms bidding for my attention.

Oddly, I identify that beyond the surroundings of this street loom the hulking skeletal remains of larger buildings – as you might see after a bombing raid during World War II. Everywhere, I am confronted by these ghostly and haphazard kaleidoscopic images, and engaging as they are, I am possessed of a wanting to be elsewhere.

It is my dream. I think my fantasy is a fabrication of an underlying and often present disquietude counterpoint to all else that I am.

THE EVENING BEFORE I had been reading an essay of a favored theologian whose thoughts often forced my own thinking toward regions of introspection not before visited. Relaxed, I with quiet mien followed the text. Then! One phrase stepped forward from the writing, volunteered itself front and center: “anxiety of failure.”

The phrase was a signpost toward memory’s depths summoning to my attention places of defeat, frustration, withdrawal and spiritual turmoil – regions of hurt where often I had been driven.

Earlier on, I was a young man waking up with a wish to go where his then meager gifts could not take him. I was not at home to myself, needing yet to sort out what one must know and believe if I was to nurture in myself a more constructive mindscape.

Considering the upstream region of who I am (my childhood home and the unfocused nature of my early education) might help to explain the seemingly attendant disquietude underlying and dominating so much of my middle years. However, I do not wish to go there.

I have already factored in the historical positives and negatives of who I am, along with this capricious notion that failure is always lounging off stage waiting for its cue. These things are the substratum out of which I have now obtained a different mindset – experienced and more alert to the nuanced and ambiguous nature of our lives.

What I wish to set out is my desire not to have to forfeit the conviction that our lives arise out of a cosmic reality, a holy intelligence that is always out of reach. All my life I have been exploring this phantom land of spiritual likelihoods, yet a place no less real of all the lands our minds walk in – exploring it in words away from rational squabble.

It is important that we understand the intimate nature of this interior landscape of the spirit. Yes, there are genuinely rational insights that help to explain who and what we are; but these are not the whole story.

IT WAS NOT EASY to lay aside that image of myself constructed when I was young and by which I had lived so much of my life. Firmly, through those years my disquietude remained a continuing dynamic, strangely nurturing in me a deeper knowledge of myself and the will to wrestle down my anxiety of failure.

Now, it is what I have done as of this ninth decade of my life relative to where I have been that is most upliftingly of interest to me. As for my dream and its attendant disquietude, let it be a kind of “dropped handkerchief” inviting my waking self toward new landscapes of being – and I am not forgetting, the dream was mother to this essay.

It is for me a major thought that perhaps our lives prosper and progress, not so much by maturation, but because they are often friended by a timely disquietude – a restiveness possibly fostered by a dawning awareness of our lives being nothing less than an ongoing dialogue with our God!

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation emeritus at First Parish Church in Saco. He may be contacted at

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Pope scraps tribunal to prosecute abusive priests’ bishops Sat, 04 Jun 2016 21:30:59 +0000 VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Saturday scrapped his proposed tribunal to prosecute bishops who covered up for pedophile priests after it ran into opposition. Instead, he clarified legal procedures to remove them if the Vatican finds they were negligent.

The new procedures sought to answer long-standing demands by survivors of abuse that the Vatican hold bishops accountable for botching abuse cases. Victims have long accused bishops of covering up for pedophiles, moving rapists from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police – and suffering no consequences.

But the new law was immediately criticized by survivors of abuse as essentially window dressing since there were already ways to investigate and dismiss bishops for wrongdoing – they were just rarely used against bishops who failed to protect their flocks from pedophiles.

Analysts suggested the new law was much ado about very little.

“There is nothing breaking here: The congregations could already do that,” said Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America.

He said what is significant about the new law is that it makes no mention of the original proposal for the tribunal, which would have treated negligence as a crime and prosecuted it as such.

“Does that mean the tribunal isn’t going to come because there was too much opposition?” he asked.

The main U.S. victims’ group, SNAP, said it was “extraordinarily skeptical” that the new procedures would amount to any wave of dismissals since popes have always had the power to oust bishops but haven’t wielded it.

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Reflections: This is a season to celebrate what our religions have in common Sat, 04 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 For Christians around the world, this is the season of Pentecost, observed in the west on May 15, and in Eastern and Orthodox churches, because of their different calendar, on June 19. It recalls the Biblical story of the gathering of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost, when their experience of the Spirit was so powerful that they heard and saw it like a roaring wind and flames of fire. Even more remarkable, with people among them from across the region whose cultures and languages differed widely, each was speaking a native language, and yet all understood each other.

This is a story of hope for the day when all people everywhere will relate to one another with understanding. It grounds the conviction that our various religions are like different languages with which we try to speak about the same unspeakable divine Spirit.

One of those languages still quite new to our community here in Maine is Islam, whose most significant annual observance, Ramadan, comes at this same season this year, June 6 – July 7. It recalls another experience of the divine Spirit, the revelation to Muhammad of the sacred text of Islam, the Quran. It is the holiest time of the Muslim year, observed with complete abstinence from any food or drink, including chewing gum and tobacco, from sunrise to sunset (a very long time in Maine in June).

Muslims, too, come from around the world, and have many diverse cultures and languages. Traditions vary as well, with different customs and emphases, just as there are diverse Christian traditions. But all Muslims are united in the Ramadan fast, considered incumbent upon all who are mentally and physically able. Many consider the fast to be less about deprivation than about spiritual nourishment, insight into the challenges of others and reminder of the blessings sometimes taken for granted. It is experienced as a time to serve humanity and practice compassion, and a reminder of the presence to Muhammad of the Spirit, as to each and all of the faithful.

Diverse religious and spiritual traditions have different customs to promote spiritual learning, and different languages with which to speak of it. Translation is not difficult; with open minds and hearts, and the presence of the Spirit that knows no boundaries, we are able to realize that we have much more in common than separates us.

In this season of summer, when Pentecost and Ramadan coincide, are we who are Christian able to find understanding across differences of religious language and tradition? And are we who are Muslim able to know that the same Spirit that blesses our fast also enlivens the hearts of members of other faiths? If so, then surely, like those gathered so long ago, we, speaking in many languages, will understand and be understood.

Pentecost blessings, and Ramadan Mubarak!

Andrea Thompson McCall is a retired United Church of Christ minister who served as Interfaith Chaplain at the University of Southern Maine.

Pious Ali serves on the Portland School Board and is a member of the staff at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

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Religion Calendar Sat, 04 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Ordination of seven new interfaith chaplains. Free. First Parish UCC Church, 12 Beach St., Saco,, 3:30-5p.m. Sunday.

Beholding Nature: Spiritual Ecology Through the Eyes of the Heart. Ongoing discussion, including experiential practices in broadening perception and opening the “eyes of the heart.” By donation. Unity of Greater Portland, 54 River Road, Windham. 6:30 p.m. Monday.

What do interfaith chaplains do? An exploration with ChIME Dean Angie Arndt. Learn how interfaith chaplains help people of any or no faith tradition celebrate and mourn life events, and support them in crises. Free, but donations gratefully accepted. The Center for Grieving Children, 555 Forest Ave., Portland. 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Roman Catholic church consecrates virgin in Diocese of Fresno Fri, 03 Jun 2016 23:28:22 +0000 FRESNO, Calif. — Victoria Selkirk on Sunday became the first person within the Diocese of Fresno to join a special order within the Roman Catholic Church for people who promise to live a life of chastity.

Those within the Order of Virgins continue to live “in the world” and do not reside in convents, like nuns. It’s estimated there are fewer than 300 in the United States, and between 5,000 and 6,000 worldwide.

Selkirk, 36, of Lemoore, Calif., will continue to work as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, serving as a registered dietitian.

Bishop Armando Ochoa administered a special ceremony during the Sunday morning Mass at St. John’s Cathedral in Fresno, praying over Selkirk, who wore a long white wedding gown. Ochoa said she “awaits Christ, the bridegroom.”

Selkirk has had lots of friends try to play matchmaker over the years, but her heart was totally settled on Jesus Christ.

“One of my friends’ first questions was, ‘But what happens if you meet someone?'” Selkirk recalled earlier. “I said, ‘I’ve already met him, and he’s mine.'”

During Sunday’s ceremony, those in the pews prayed with Selkirk and the bishop, who also addressed each of the Catholic saints.

Catholics believe a consecration calls down God’s grace upon a person.

“Lord, look with favor on this, your handmaiden, Victoria,” Ochoa prayed. “She places in your hands her resolve to live in chastity. You have offered her this, her intention; now she gives it to you in her heart. … You give to some the grace of virginity, yet the honor of marriage is in no way lessened.”

As a younger woman, Selkirk went on some dates, but never fell in love or felt a desire to be married – although she’s not against the institution of marriage.

“I will say that I’m attracted to men, there’s no doubt … but what’s set before me is so incredibly alluring; it’s Jesus Christ,” Selkirk said. “He draws me into his heart.”

She didn’t know the Catholic Church had a special designation for like-minded women until she stumbled on a Wikipedia page online 11 years ago, explaining the Order of Virgins.

After much prayer and preparation, she formally petitioned the church last year to join the order. After numerous meetings with the bishop and a spiritual director, her request was approved in September, and her consecration set for May 29.

Unlike a priest, Selkirk’s consecration doesn’t require that she serve the church in an institutional role. She plans to continue devoting most of her time serving patients in the Navy.

Selkirk said she felt an “almost supernatural peace” wash over her during Sunday’s ceremony.

“I am tremendously joyful and grateful – probably the most joyous moments in my entire existence so far,” she said.

Nancy Dominguez, who attended the full Mass, was moved to tears.

“Here she is declaring her virginity, giving her life, her heart, wholeheartedly, without hesitation, to live righteously and to live spiritually,” Dominguez said. “Just giving all of herself to God; it’s just beautiful.”

Outside the cathedral after the ceremony, Selkirk was congratulated by a long line of churchgoers, including a group of nuns the Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa from Lemoore. Her parents, Alexander and Joanne Selkirk, and Kamala Singh, a friend and candidate for the Order of Virgins from London, stood nearby.

Victoria Selkirk called the ceremony “humbling.”

“What this is all about is God’s grace toward me,” she said. “It’s not that I’m righteous and holy in some way; it’s grace.”

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Vatican summit pushes human trafficking crackdown Fri, 03 Jun 2016 21:57:15 +0000 VATICAN CITY — Judges and prosecutors from around the world pledged Friday to crack down on human trafficking and help victims of modern-day slavery in the latest Vatican initiative to draw attention to the problem and rally resources to fight it.

At a Vatican summit of judges, prosecutors and other public officials, Pope Francis signed a declaration stating human trafficking, forced labor, prostitution and the trafficking of organs as a “crime against humanity” that should be prosecuted and punished as such.

The 10-point declaration, which was also signed by the conference participants, pledged increased funding for international cooperation to boost prosecutions of traffickers and consumers of the sex trade. It also pledged better support for victims, including issuing temporary residence permits, and said repatriation should never be the default judgment against victims.

History’s first Latin American pontiff has made the fight against human trafficking a priority of his pontificate as part of his emphasis on looking out for society’s most marginalized, including refugees and the poor.

In 2014, he and 25 religious leaders signed a declaration pledging to eradicate modern-day slavery by 2020. A year later, he invited mayors from around the world to a summit where they pledged to work to end trafficking and the involuntary repatriation of victims. The 2016 edition focused on judges and prosecutors, with guests including the supreme court judges of Mexico and Argentina, Britain’s commissioner against modern slavery, and the U.S. ambassador responsible for trafficking.

In his address to the summit, Francis urged the judges and prosecutors to pay particular attention to the crime of trafficking – but to make sure the punishments are not an end in and of themselves.

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Religion Calendar Sat, 28 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Memorial Day service for those who have served or are serving in the military and as local first responders. St. Augustine Anglican Church, 656 Route 1, Scarborough (sharing space with the West Scarborough United Methodist Church), 615-7989, 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Beholding Nature: Spiritual ecology through the eyes of the heart. Ongoing discussion, including experiential practices in broadening perception and opening the “eyes of the heart.” By donation. Unity of Greater Portland, 54 River Road, Windham,, 6:30 p.m. Monday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Reflections: Chanting helps us to find bliss and healing from life’s challenges Sat, 28 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Last week Shashika Mooruth, a beautiful singer, and I sang Kirtan with a wonderful group of musicians in Boston. Kirtan is a Sanskrit word meaning “praising God.” It entails chanting sacred names and words called mantras. “Mantra” is a word or sound that clears the mind with repetition.

After the Kirtan, a man named Rick Stoller, who had great difficulty in walking, came to me and said that our chanting was very healing to him. He said only a couple of days prior, he was released from the hospital after lung surgery for cancer. Stoller said, “I have been only able to take short breaths after the surgery. Kirtan helped me to breathe with a longer span.” He said Kirtan lessened his intense pain as he moved his mind away from the suffering. Stoller told me that Kirtan was a moving experience and a loving gift. He found our Kirtan relaxing, peaceful and meditative.

I have often seen how the power of chanting makes people feel better, both physically and spiritually. I used to chant at a juvenile detention center with young inmates. When they saw me, they excitedly ran toward me, saying, “I want to chant.” Many people who have dealt with difficult addictions and decided to change their direction found chanting to be a very remedial practice.

In Kirtan, the leader of a group is called the Kirtan Walah. When that person sings, the audience repeats those words along with the chorus leader in a call-and-response fashion. In other chants, everyone sings together.

The repetition of sacred words takes place in all different faiths. To chant we do not have to belong to any specific faith, nor do we need to convert to a different religion. However, chanting can help us be more spiritual. My teacher Jai Uttal, who was nominated for a Grammy award, says, “Kirtan brings inspiration, feeling and devotion. This inspiration comes directly through the Divine.”

When we sing together, it creates sound vibrations. These vibrations have an energy that opens channels in our body, thus helping our life force flow easier. This energy has wonderful healing power. When our mind focuses on a specific word during chanting, we do not think about other things and as a result, we feel the blissful innate state. One can chant anywhere and at any time. Singing together as a group in a particular place creates a sanctified sacred space. The current period of time we are in is called Kali Yuga (Dark Period). It has been said that one of the easiest ways to realize God is by chanting sacred names in this period.

For example, Aum, also known as Om, is an eternally vibrating sound. When we chant this word, we reach the fourth state beyond sleeping, waking and dreaming. That state helps us realize our innate good nature. Chanting allows us to be in a meditative state. Thus, through regular chanting we could find bliss and healing from life’s challenges. If you are looking to experience local chanting events, you can find them on the “Maine Kirtan” Facebook page.

Ashok Nalamalapu is president of iCST, an IT staffing and software testing company, and a member of Swan Kirtan. He can be reached at or (207) 772-6898.;

]]> 0 Fri, 27 May 2016 20:52:08 +0000
Interactive map: States of religion Sun, 22 May 2016 08:00:43 +0000

Percentage of people who are “highly religious.”

  • 30 – 39%
  • 40 – 49%
  • 50 – 59%
  • 60 – 69%
  • 70 – 79%
NOTE: State details include national ranking
SOURCE: Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. February 26, 2016
]]> 5, 23 May 2016 16:35:04 +0000
A changing religious landscape: Where the spirit moves Maine Sun, 22 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The first time Christy Thyng went to a service at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland, she knew she was in the right place.

It was a little louder and flashier than traditional Baptist services she had attended near her home in Kittery. Located in a former warehouse on the road to the Portland International Jetport, Eastpoint’s 360-seat auditorium was filled and lit for a performance. A contemporary rock band opened and closed the nondenominational service. Bible verses and song lyrics flashed on large screens above a modern stage. All of that would take some getting used to.

But Pastor Scott Taube’s preaching had an immediate and profound impact on Thyng. He delivered a welcoming sermon rooted in the pages of the Bible and spoke with love and compassion about the challenges of modern living.

She’s been traveling 45 minutes to Portland for Sunday services ever since.

“It was very clear that God was moving and speaking through him,” said Thyng, 40, a wife and mother of four. “He’s constantly sharing experiences from his own life. He’s just like everybody else. Even though it’s a bit of a drive, there’s something really happening at that church.”

Thyng and her family are among a growing number of Mainers, especially young people, who are swelling the ranks of nondenominational Christian churches across a state known for being among the least religious in America. Some are new to churchgoing. Many are trading traditional religious practices and mindsets for worship services and community outreach programs that strive to make the Gospel relevant to 21st century believers.

Eastpoint’s growth is so dramatic – a fourth Sunday service was added in April and weekly attendance has topped 1,300 in a little more than a decade – that church leaders recently announced an ambitious $7 million plan to move into a former big-box store near the Maine Mall in South Portland. From LifeChurch in Gorham to The Rock Church of Greater Bangor, similar congregations across Maine are attracting new members, adding worship services, building larger auditoriums and expanding to other locations.

“People still want the Lord, they just don’t necessarily want it in the same way,” said Kirk Winters, lead pastor of The Rock Church of Greater Bangor, which is on the verge of a $2 million expansion.


Growth among nondenominational congregations comes as many mainline Protestant churches – Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, etc. – and Roman Catholic churches in Maine struggle to fill their pews. Only 34 percent of Mainers say religion is very important in their lives and 22 percent say they attend worship services at least weekly, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study. In Alabama, the most religious state, 77 percent say religion is very important and 51 percent worship weekly.

The number of nondenominational evangelical Christians in Maine is still relatively small – they make up about 1 percent of all adult Mainers, or about 10,000 people over age 17, the Pew study found. About 21 percent of the state’s population is Catholic and 37 percent belong to various Protestant denominations.

But nationally, nondenominational church members are the only Christians whose numbers appear to be growing, from 3.4 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to 4.5 percent in 2014, the Pew survey found. And while dependable comparative data on state-level memberships are unavailable before 2010, nondenominational churches appear to be growing and multiplying in Maine, from a relative handful of congregations with a few thousand members in the 1990s, to 178 congregations with nearly 26,000 members of all ages in 2010, according to the U.S. Religion Census.

In contrast, the number of Mainers who are Catholic, the state’s largest denomination, fell from 283,000 in 2000 to 190,100 in 2010, a decline that has led to the closing of 18 churches since 2006 and the consolidation from 135 parishes to 55, according to church officials.

“Nondenominational churches are dramatically on the rise,” said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. Thumma is a leading expert and author on evangelicalism and nondenominational churches.

Outreach Pastor Kurt Holmgren leads a sermon at a recent Eastpoint Christian Church service. "We believe you should love everybody," Holmgren said, "no matter what they believe."

Outreach Pastor Kurt Holmgren leads a sermon at a recent Eastpoint Christian Church service. “We believe you should love everybody,” Holmgren said, “no matter what they believe.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Being nondenominational has become so desirable, Thumma said, some established churches are minimizing denominational ties and traditions, or dropping them altogether. Church names often include words such as “life,” “grace,” “point” and other uplifting concepts. Any connection to a denomination, if there is one, is often diminished or absent from church literature or websites.

Tracking this shift has been difficult because nondenominational churches aren’t organized under one administrative authority, though many are connected through organized affiliations, and most denominations aren’t eager to relinquish oversight of churches or report declining memberships.

“Sometimes the denominational identity carries a lot more negative baggage,” Thumma said. “Nondenominational churches are offering an alternative product in the religious marketplace. It’s a highly successful model at this point and it really is changing the landscape of religion in America.”


Without the labels, limitations and sometimes negative preconceptions associated with denominations, these independent congregations defy easy description or categorization.

Some are being “planted” by organizations with ties to churches in more religious areas of the southern and midwestern United States. Their members send pastors, support staff and money to establish new congregations in New England, as they would for a foreign mission. Others are developing as outgrowths of churches here in Maine.

Often, nondenominational churches aim to provide greater opportunities for community involvement and increased clerical accountability in the wake of recent high-profile church scandals. Many have strong youth ministries and small groups that provide opportunities for Bible instruction, socializing and support for men, women, singles and people struggling with grief, addiction and other issues.

Church leaders are undeterred by disapproval or criticism in a state where firm belief in God fell from 59 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2014, according to the Pew study. In contrast, 82 percent of adults in Alabama have an unwavering belief in the Almighty.

They’re acting on the premise that while many people today might be “anti-institution,” they aren’t necessarily “anti-religion,” said Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway, a Nashville-based nonprofit that is the largest seller of Christian books and other resources in the world. It’s also part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America.

Rainer is a widely known church consultant and author of books such as “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” who puts out a regular Web podcast on current issues in Christianity, and he has worked with a variety of congregations facing both positive and negative growth challenges.

“Denominational names are driving some people away,” Rainer said. “Many of the denominational churches have a negative brand. Nondenominational churches offer a fresh chance for people to try a church without a brand. I think the move toward nondenominationalism is in its early stages and it will increase.”


The Sunday afternoon service at Eastpoint had already started when Patty Peterson and her husband, Larry, slipped into their seats and immediately began singing along with the rest of the congregation. The couple exuded joy throughout the gathering, smiling at each other occasionally, his arm draped across her shoulders during the sermon.

The Petersons, who live in Gorham and have two adult children, started attending Eastpoint about five years ago. They came from a mainline Protestant church that was struggling and they were looking for something more, said Patty Peterson, 61, who works as a nanny.

At Eastpoint, the couple found a vibrant congregation with members of all ages that has enriched their lives far beyond Sunday services. They especially enjoy small group meetings and Bible classes that help them delve more deeply into their faith, cope with everyday challenges and do good works in the wider community.

Locally, church members help recent immigrants, hold recovery support groups and volunteer as street pastors who patrol downtown Portland on weekend nights looking for people who need assistance of any kind. They also have missions in Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti. But it’s the atmosphere at the church that grabs most people.

“It’s comfortable,” Peterson said of Eastpoint. “You can walk in and feel welcome. The Holy Spirit is so obviously alive and at work at Eastpoint. That’s where the joy comes from.”

Paul Hancock of Naples sways to the music at Eastpoint Christian Church at a recent service in Portland. Weekly attendance has grown to 1,300 in a little more than a decade, prompting leaders to plan an ambitious $7 million move to a former big-box store in South Portland.

Paul Hancock of Naples sways to the music at Eastpoint Christian Church at a recent service in Portland. Weekly attendance has grown to 1,300 in a little more than a decade, prompting leaders to plan an ambitious $7 million move to a former big-box store in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Church leaders balk when critics question their motives and describe their outreach efforts as a form of trickery or a scam to win converts and support a tax-free enterprise.

“We don’t love people to convert them,” said Kurt Holmgren, Eastpoint’s outreach pastor. “We love people because we are converted. No bones about it, we believe Jesus is the way to go. But we believe you should love everybody, no matter what they believe.”


Eastpoint’s growth became obvious in March, when church leaders announced plans to create a “community center with a church inside” in a 92,000-square-foot commercial building that previously housed Bob’s Discount Furniture and HomeGoods chain stores.

South Portland’s Planning Board approved the project this month and Pastor Taube hopes to complete the purchase by mid-June, start renovations in July and celebrate a first service in the new church next Easter.

Financed through a Colorado-based nonprofit that supports church construction, the new church would have a 1,500-seat auditorium, a 40-seat cafe, 20 classrooms and meeting rooms, an indoor basketball court and an indoor soccer field.

If all goes well, it would be Eastpoint’s fourth move since Taube started the church in a rented movie theater in South Portland in 2004. He had been a pastor at much larger churches in Ohio – so-called “megachurches” with 2,000 members or more. He sent out three rounds of direct-mail invitations to 65,000 homes in Greater Portland. About 220 people showed up for the first service.

“I thought there was a definite need in this area, compared to the Midwest, where there’s a church on every corner,” Taube said. “And this is where the church in America began.”

LifeChurch in Gorham is another nondenominational church that’s growing. Started in the Howard Johnson’s ballroom in South Portland in 1996, it now has an average weekly attendance of 800 members at three weekend services.

Senior Pastor Brian Undlin said the congregation’s “slow and steady” growth led to the start of a second site with its own pastor in Bath in 2007. It now has 120 regular attendants who meet at the town’s senior center. The church plans to start a third site in Windham soon.

“It’s kind of a natural progression,” Undlin said. “A lot of people were driving from Bath. Now we have a lot of people from Windham. We’re kind of looking at the people God is sending us and trying to serve them better.”

The Rock Church of Greater Bangor, which grew out of The Rock Church of Greater Portland, plans to build a $2 million addition this summer to expand maximum seating capacity from 320 to 735 people, said Lead Pastor Kirk Winters. The church is already holding four services each Sunday to accommodate 1,035 regular attendants. It also holds worship services at sites in Orono and Sullivan, and it’s helping to jump-start established churches in Southwest Harbor and Washburn that had flagging memberships.

“This was our biggest year ever,” Winters said. “With the vast majority of Mainers, we have an opportunity to help them develop a relationship with Christ. We partner with people. We don’t care who gets the glory. We just want to reach people.”


Eastpoint Christian Church was planted here. Taube was recruited to be its founding pastor and partially funded by Restoration House Ministries in Manchester, New Hampshire, a church-planting organization that has started 16 churches across New England since 2000.

Dan Clymer, executive director of Restoration House, said more than 30 churches in the South and Midwest support his organization financially. They recall New England’s Puritan roots, when Harvard College was founded to train ministers, long before it became a secular intellectual bastion. They recognize the historical precedence for a religious reawakening in the region, following similar movements in the 1700s and 1800s, and they see a need to bring the Gospel to the many “unchurched” people who live here.

“They understand that New England is one of the most influential regions of the world,” Clymer said of his supporters. “They want the church to make a difference in New England because it also will make a difference in the world.”

It cost $650,000 to launch Eastpoint for the first four years, half of which was funded by Restoration House, Clymer said. Taube and his wife, Beth, along with two other couples from Ohio, raised the other half. They came to Maine a year before the first service to begin building a congregation.

It doesn’t surprise Clymer that Taube has been so successful. Restoration House seeks pastors who are dedicated to exploring and targeting the needs of the communities they serve. It encourages pastors to join secular organizations, such as the local chamber of commerce or Rotary Club, to make connections and meet people where they live. And it expects pastors to develop congregations that reflect and actively engage in the local culture.

“It’s difficult to find church leaders who are humble enough to know what they don’t know,” Clymer said. “If I believed in cloning, which I don’t, I would clone Scott Taube because he’s humble enough to know what he doesn’t know.”

That humility must be sustained for a church to remain relevant, said Jeff Tarbox, pastor of New Life Church in Biddeford.

Tarbox founded New Life in 1983 as an Advent Christian church. It became nondenominational in 1998 and now has about 1,100 members from 58 ZIP codes throughout southern Maine and New Hampshire.

At 59, Tarbox said he’s striving to stay flexible and maintain the right balance of faith and pragmatism. He believes his church exists for nonmembers who have yet to walk through its doors and he knows people “don’t choose churches based on labels anymore.”

“We’re going to work to stay relevant to the current generation rather than stay focused on mine,” Tarbox said. “If I’m not working toward that, we’re going to wake up one day and everybody in the room will have gray hair.”


Walk into Eastpoint on a Sunday evening and you’ll see dozens of middle- and high-school age kids playing interactive games, discussing Scripture or just hanging out. The church has about 120 active members in that age group.

Its strong youth ministry is one reason Melodie Gage and her husband, Chris, decided to join Eastpoint when his job with the U.S. State Department allowed the family to settle in Scarborough after living abroad for more than 20 years.

Through the youth group, Fusion, and other adults at Eastpoint, the couple’s two children, Evan, 17, and Olivia, 14, have been surrounded by “intelligent and loving role models who look out for them,” said Melodie Gage, 55. Having that support system has been especially important in recent months as Gage battled a serious illness, she said.

For Olivia Gage, who is an eighth-grader at Scarborough Middle School, Eastpoint provides both social and spiritual grounding, in part because some of her friends at school also attend the church.

“They really connect with each age group, no matter how old you are,” Olivia Gage said. “It’s really great to know that some of my friends share the same beliefs as me. My faith gives me a foundation for how I interact with people and how I present myself in the world.”

To appeal to younger believers, many churches are embracing technology, such as cellphone apps that make it easy to download worship service programs, listen to videotaped sermons or make financial contributions. Technology is especially attractive to members of the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, said Rainer, the Lifeway CEO.

Millennials also tend to be “very spiritual” and less interested in all things “churchy,” Rainer said. They’re seeking more connected, intentional relationships at home, at work and in their communities. They’re attracted to new faith experiences that include relaxed, conversational worship services and meaningful community action.

They also want pastors who are accessible and transparent about church operations and show integrity in their personal and professional lives, Rainer said. That’s something millennials share with many older church members.

“The desire for accountability has increased with each generation,” Rainer said, especially when it comes to financial matters.

While many nondenominational congregations openly seek donations on their websites and ask members to “tithe” – or give as much as 10 percent of their income to the church – some also appear to be very open about how much they collect and what they do with the money.

Eastpoint, for instance, publishes financial information in its weekly program for worship services. At its April 10 service, it reported receiving $30,286 in gifts the week before – $3,576 more than its weekly goal and just $16,424 shy of its year-to-date goal of $347,230.

That kind of transparency is important to members like Christy Thyng of Kittery. She and her husband, Matthew, who works at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, make a point of giving 10 percent of their income to Eastpoint.

They support Eastpoint’s missions, including the $7 million plan to move to a larger location, though it has come at some sacrifice to their family of six.

“We haven’t been away on a vacation since the 12-year-old was 4, and that’s OK,” Christy Thyng said. “The possibility of (Eastpoint) getting into a bigger place that can further the goals of the church the way (Taube) envisions – it’s a win for everyone.”

Christy Thyng, 40, of Kittery shares communion with her 4-year-old daughter, Makayla, at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland. "The move to a different church was a big decision," Christy Thyng said. "Lots of the churches (she and her husband, Matthew) visited were really good, but we found our spiritual home at Eastpoint."

Christy Thyng, 40, of Kittery shares communion with her 4-year-old daughter, Makayla, at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland. “The move to a different church was a big decision,” Christy Thyng said. “Lots of the churches (she and her husband, Matthew) visited were really good, but we found our spiritual home at Eastpoint.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


The contemporary music fades, the band steps out of the spotlights and Scott Taube takes the stage at Eastpoint’s Sunday afternoon service.

Unassuming in jeans and a dark purple polo shirt, Taube stands near a round, bar-height table and begins speaking about the universal battle for self-control in the face of sin. His words are measured and his tone is calm, with an occasional lilt that tugs the listener’s attention. Without the Lord, he explains, we are powerless against any challenge, whether to avoid lashing out at loved ones or to fight whatever addiction troubles us.

“It is very possible to stumble less,” Taube assures his flock. “It’s not time to take control. It’s time to surrender. Because he will take control and he will do a much better job than you or me.”

Taube describes the devil as a deceiver waiting to trip us up and the Father as a savior offering a warm embrace. You won’t hear fire and brimstone at Eastpoint and most other nondenominational church services. You probably won’t see a lectern or pulpit, either, or a clerical collar, or even a necktie.

You likely won’t hear Taube or pastors like him urging church members to vote against gay rights, or protest at an abortion clinic, or vote for a particular party or candidate.

“I spend zero time talking about the issues in the media,” Taube said. “We’re not a church with a hate agenda. We’re not an issues-based church.”

That being said, Eastpoint and similar nondenominational churches hold to the belief that the Bible is clear on the subjects of homosexuality, abortion and other contemporary controversies. Marriage is between a man and a woman, they say, and abortion is taking a life.

When church members are conflicted in any area that Taube considers sin, he will pray with them and advise them if they seek it, but ultimately he believes each individual must sort out his or her sins and find redemption in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

It’s an approach that makes many nondenominational churches seem less outwardly judgmental and more welcoming. It’s also part of a conscious effort to be part of and bring change to the communities around them.

“Haters do a disservice to all others,” said Winters, pastor of The Rock Church of Greater Bangor. “That doesn’t mean we don’t speak the truth, but we speak the truth with love and try to help people work through their issues.”


Christy and Matthew Thyng attended services at several other churches near their home in Kittery before they brought their family to Eastpoint.

The moment of spiritual clarity came a little over a year ago. Their oldest child, Andrew, was one of several high school students who had taken a bus from Eastpoint for a weekend visit to Liberty University, a large Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, which he now attends. When the Thyngs traveled back to Eastpoint that Sunday to pick him up, they decided to attend a service there, too.

“The move to a different church was a big decision,” Christy Thyng recalled. “Lots of the churches we visited were really good, but we found our spiritual home at Eastpoint.”

Now, the whole family is eager to attend Eastpoint each Sunday, Thyng said. Sixteen-year-old Madison makes sure everyone is up and ready to go on time. The hour-and-a-half round trip between Kittery and Portland has made it difficult for the family to take part in other activities during the week, such as young adult cookouts or weekend women’s retreats, but Thyng said she hopes to change that.

“The desire to be more involved is very real,” she said. “Sunday morning isn’t a drag to go to church. I look forward to it every week to be with people who believe the same things that I believe. I want more of that in my life.”


]]> 48, 23 May 2016 13:10:41 +0000
Religion Calendar Sat, 21 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 “Friends of the Groom,” a series of humorous skits focusing on the human encounter with the divine. $10 for show; workshop free with reservation, Raymond Village Community Church, 27 Main St., 650-7845, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 7:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, 10 to 11 a.m. Sunday.

Holy Grounds Coffee House open mic. Free. Church of the Holy Spirit, 1047 Congress St., Portland,, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

Tibetan Buddhist Prayers for the Dead and Vairocana Empowerment. Khenpo Kunga Dhundop, abbot of Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute to speak. Suggested donation: $30 to $50, Curtis Memorial Library, 23 Pleasant St., Brunswick, 201-805-8683, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Beholding Nature: Spiritual Ecology Through the Eyes of the Heart. Ongoing discussion of Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, including experiential practices in broadening perception and opening the “eyes of the heart.” By donation. Unity of Greater Portland, 54 River Road, Windham,, 6:30 p.m. Monday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

]]> 0 Fri, 20 May 2016 19:16:52 +0000
Reflections: A pen pal seething with religious intolerance is no pal Sat, 21 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 I have a pen pal, except he’s not a pal. My pen pal is not the kind you’d wish to meet in person or whose letters you’d cherish, the way I did when, as a teenager in a small town in Kurdistan, Iran, corresponding with an Austrian girl of my age, dreaming of spending an exciting life, dancing and singing with her and our many children in the rolling green hills below the Alps, mimicking the happy scenes of the popular movie “The Sound of Music.” This pen pal is anonymous, probably a man, an angry dude, hiding behind a pseudonym, expressing anger and hatred toward everything foreign, including my religion, and my being a Muslim. His words hurt like sharp needles.

He writes religiously every time a terrorist attack, committed by criminals claiming to be Muslims, happens in the Western world, and not elsewhere, as if to suggest it is geography that decides whose lives matter or not. His violent language, darkened by the lack of lucidity, makes me see him as a fearful man terrified by the demographic changes taking place around him and the world passing him by. Reading between the lines, I could feel his desperation, missing the time when Maine was as white as the snow on Mount Washington’s summit.

His emails; long texts, words I picture were stabbed angrily on a keyboard, show up on my inbox, every time my writings in support of immigrant causes, or to showcase the interfaith efforts, multiculturism, or to counter stereotypes that target minorities, including Muslims, appear in the local newspapers. His words are as toxic as the newspapers’ reader comment sections.

Every time I sit to write, as I do now, I shudder to think how he’d respond, and what would he label me next. I know outing him in this column, though no reader could possibly know who he is, would not please him.

I write back when I can, pleading, with no success, to have him see the oneness and the sameness of the core values that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share. In my responses, I gently invite him to feel the beauty that each faith tradition, despite its historical or contemporary shortcomings, has to offer. I suggest why and how distinctions have to be made between a faith and the criminal thoughts and actions of its followers. He dismisses my pleas, mocks me, and lectures me, repeating the lies, myths and ugly accusations he finds on dubious, and biased, websites. I imagine him not to read much history, for he’d have known of African Muslims’ presence in the New World, starting in the 14th and 15th century, before the birth of the Republic, or, the story of the Founding Fathers exchanging letters with Muslim rulers of that era. He might be a coffee drinker, use alphabet to write to me, add zero here and there, enjoy alcohol, all Arabic words borrowed by English, and not realizing these were given to the West by the early Arabs and Muslims.

I know his America has no room for me, and people like me. To him, my humanity is eclipsed by my ethnicity, faith, and race. He sees me representing some 1.5 billion Muslims, and billions more non-white persons, living across the world.

In his words, I hear the echo of a past where immigrants coming to Maine were met with distrust, hostility, and violence. I hear the ghosts of a troubled history here, when members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in cities across Maine, mostly targeting Catholics and Jews, for there were few African Americans here back then. He might have been there, in spirit, when in 1854 an angry Know Nothing mob burned down a Catholic church in Bath, or centuries and decades later when synagogues were desecrated, and a severed pig head was rolled inside a mosque in Lewiston.

A cyber-stalker, or a pen pal, he’s no pal.

Reza Jalali, a writer and an educator, is the author of “Homesick Mosque and Other Stories” and “Poets and the Assassin,” a play about women in Iran and Islam.

]]> 2 Fri, 20 May 2016 19:13:43 +0000
Mormons loosen policy on what missionaries can wear Fri, 20 May 2016 23:51:09 +0000 SALT LAKE CITY (AP)— Mormon leaders are giving their young missionaries some help for those long walks beneath the blazing sun by granting them permission to wear sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.

Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints updated their dress and grooming guidelines this week to give proselytizing men and women who serve around the world more options to protect themselves from the sun.

But missionaries are being warned not to get too crazy with the new rules, ensuring the youngsters won’t be sporting fedoras and hot pink sunglasses as they try to convert people to a religion that counts 15 million members worldwide.

They are instructed to use “simple and conservative” sunglasses, and forbidden from bright-colored shades or mirrored lenses. A church website shows pictures of appropriate options.

They are also supposed to take the sunglasses off when speaking with people or when they are inside, unless they serve a medical purpose.

Missionaries in sunny spots around the world used sunglasses in the 1980s, sometimes leading people to confuse them for CIA operatives or FBI agents, but they never had official permission, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

The Utah-based faith also announced Friday that women serving in parts of the world where mosquito-borne diseases are prevalent can wear dress pants. Women, who account for about 29 percent of young missionaries, are still we required to wear skirts and dresses during church services and at temples.

All missionaries are being encouraged to wear clothing that covers their arms and legs to avoid mosquito bites.

The rules announced earlier in the week allow for hats allow with at least three-inch brims. Missionaries are prohibited from wearing baseball, cowboy, bucket and newsboy hats. Fedoras are also banned.

Both men and women are supposed to avoid bright-colored hats but the options shown on the website reveal that women can have some color on their hats while men are limited to beige, gray or straw.

The Utah-based faith periodically updates its rules of dress for missionaries. Last year, the religion began allowing missionaries serving in hot climates to ditch the suit jackets and just wear a white shirt and tie.

]]> 0 Fri, 20 May 2016 20:13:32 +0000
Methodists try to avoid split over sexuality Fri, 20 May 2016 22:42:42 +0000 Struggling to avoid a split over gay rights, the top policy-making body of the United Methodist Church on Wednesday narrowly approved a full review of all church law on sexuality, amid an emotional meeting roiled by talk of schism.

Delegates at the Methodist General Conference, meeting in Portland, Oregon, voted 428-405 to delay all consideration of LGBT-related proposals. Instead, the delegates created a commission that will spend at least two years reviewing policy on the subject, contained in the Methodist Book of Discipline, with the goal of developing a plan to address their differences.

The denomination has 12.7 million members worldwide and is the third-largest faith group in the U.S.

“We are at a precipice,” said Lonnie Chafin, a delegate from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, or church district, speaking in favor of forming the commission. “There is urgency before us. The church might divide.”

While other mainline Protestant groups, including the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have approved same-sex marriage, the Methodists have upheld a policy they adopted in 1972, calling same-gender relationships “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

As gay rights gained acceptance in broader society and in other churches, Methodist LGBT advocates stepped up pressure for the denomination to lift prohibitions on ordination for people with same-sex partners, along with a ban on gay weddings. However, the denomination is on a more conservative path, with its greatest growth in the U.S. South and overseas, regions where conservative views predominate. Of the 864 delegates at the Oregon meeting, 30 percent are from Africa.

A recent survey by the church found about 54 percent of U.S. pastors and laypeople in leadership roles agreed with the church restrictions on gays and lesbians, although only 41 percent of congregants held the same view. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, who leads Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, estimates two-thirds of Methodists are centrists who could live with those differences. But Methodist conservatives and liberals have become even more polarized over the years, raising questions about how they can stay unified.

Matt Berryman, head of Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist LGBT advocacy group, said the commission plan “signals hope.” The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, a caucus of evangelical Methodists, said the plan has “some potential to resolve our differences” but is “fraught with peril,” depending partly on whether conservative views will be heard.

Clergy who support gay rights have been increasingly defiant, conducting same-sex marriages or coming out as gay and lesbian from the pulpit. Doing so risked penalties, including permanent loss of clergy credentials. Conservatives have stepped up demands for punishment of such actions. Separately Wednesday, the top church court ruled that mandatory penalties, which conservatives had sought, were unconstitutional.

At the meeting, which began last week, buzz about a potential breakup grew as some bishops and leaders of different streams within Methodism, including conservatives and LGBT advocates, met privately on whether the church could stay unified.

The group discussed a proposed division of the church into conservative, centrist and liberal wings – a split that would have been the most dramatic realignment over homosexuality in American Protestantism. The church began in 1784 and has property and investments worth billions of dollars.

The rumors intensified to the point that the president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough, was compelled to stand before the full conference Tuesday to address them. He said no plan would be advanced to break up the denomination, but he acknowledged bishops were divided and struggling to find a way to move forward.

“I have a broken heart in that collectively we have a broken heart,” Ough told the delegates. “Our heart breaks over the pain, distrust, anger, anxiety and disunity” evident at the conference.

As committees rejected appeals to lift LGBT prohibitions, gay rights advocates staged multiple protests, standing on the perimeter of one session with rainbow-colored duct tape over their mouths and lying on the floor with their hands and feet bound.

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Pope warns bishops that Vatican can invalidate religious orders Fri, 20 May 2016 22:34:38 +0000 VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is warning bishops that they must consult with the Vatican before approving new would-be religious orders or risk having their decisions overturned.

The revised law published Friday aims to ensure that new religious institutes meet all the criteria for religious orders, especially that they have a unique “charism” or founding spirit and that their members practice poverty, chastity and obedience.

Previously, bishops were required to consult with the Vatican about new orders but there were no consequences if they didn’t. Now, their decisions can be invalidated.

Usually, orders begin as small “institutes of consecrated life” that are approved by a local bishop to operate in his diocese. Over time, if they attract more members, they can apply to the Vatican to get pontifical recognition, like the Jesuits or Missionaries of Charity.

Kurt Martens, canon law professor at The Catholic University of America, said the new law aims to prevent “disasters from happening” when a bishop approves a new religious institute without doing the proper checks.

While Francis has been keen to decentralize church decision-making to bishops, Martens noted that the Holy See has a lot of experience to offer them. He said the new law seems to seek a “healthy balance.”

While the new law concerns the early phases of church approval for new orders, it comes as the Vatican is grappling with a new scandal at the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae community, which received diocesan approval in 1994 and pontifical recognition in 1997.

The Vatican recently named its former No. 2 official in charge of religious orders, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, to oversee reforms at Sodalitium after an internal ethics commission found that young recruits were victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse, according to the Catholic News Agency. The commission found an internal culture of extreme “discipline and obedience to the founder” – a parallel to the Mexico-based Legion of Christ.

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Religion Calendar Sat, 14 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Rejoicing Spirits, a special worship service for persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities, followed by fellowship and supper. Free. Trinity Lutheran Church, 612 Main St., Westbrook. 4 p.m. Sunday. Call 854-5653 for more information.

Green Faith: A Call to Act from a Christian Perspective. Susan McKenzie, Ph.D., will lead an experiential workshop on how nature, as God’s sacred revelation, teaches and heals us as we explore its significance in our lives. $20 suggested donation, Unity of Greater Portland, 54 River Road, Windham, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.

Knowing and Caring for Your Heart: Three Aspects of the Human Heart in music, poetry, meditation and prayer, led by ChIME students Jon Gale and Thomas Kircher. Free, but donations appreciated. Portland New Church, 302 Stevens Ave., Portland,, 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Beholding Nature: Spiritual Ecology Through the Eyes of the Heart. Ongoing discussion of spiritual ecology. By donation. Unity of Greater Portland, 54 River Road, Windham,, 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Labyrinth Walk. Indoor Chartres-style labyrinth for meditative walks. Free. Trinity Episcopal Church, 580 Forest Ave., Portland 4-7:30 p.m. Thursday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Reflections: Have faith ahead of time, so you can call on it when you’re hurting Sat, 14 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Mary drove down Route 1 in Scarborough with her young daughter in her car seat. She smiled with pleasure hearing her daughter recite the alphabet for the first time. Mary’s smile became a frown as she turned her gaze toward my office off to the left. That is when it hit her like it never did before: “It was really awful what I went through. I could have died. I could have never had my daughter or hear her recite the alphabet.” She took a deep breath as she turned into the parking lot.

During her appointment that morning, Mary sighed as she remembered: “Imagine my surprise returning to my Ob doc after having a small node in my neck biopsied and finding out the node was not ‘inflammation’ as everybody assumed, but Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I then ricocheted from one office to another, one lab to another, one X-ray to another until I plopped into your office. But that was not the end. Then came THE CHEMO!”

Fortunately, Mary was far enough along in her pregnancy that she could receive the chemotherapy she needed and deliver a healthy baby. With a job, a husband, a son, a house AND chemotherapy, there was little time to think about the future. “Future?” Mary was taken aback when she first learned of what she had to endure. “The future was today, getting through today. There was no time to think.”

Going to my office for a follow-up three-month appointment brought it all back. Mary was now living a normal life with a normal schedule, so she had time to appreciate the horror of what she went through and the uncertainties that she had pushed to the back of her mind. Mary exclaimed, “It was overwhelming. I only made it by having something readily available to fall back on.”

That something, Mary told me, was trusting God. Mary felt her greatest strength was knowing she was in God’s hands. She did not have to think about it. Her faith was there when she needed it. Mary’s faith was deep inside her and readily available, nurtured by her parents early in life and practiced regularly over the years with prayer and religious services.

One of Mary’s favorite stories about faith in the Bible was that of the widow of Zarephath. The story took place during the days of Elijah the prophet in the ninth century B.C. Israel. During a time of great famine, a widow was approached by the itinerant prophet who asked her for a cake of bread. The widow told Elijah, “I don’t have bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die” (1 Kings 17:12). The widow acted on faith. Trusting she was in God’s hands with the prophet telling her that “the flour will not be used up and the oil will not run dry” (1 Kings 17: 14), the widow provided the prophet with the cake of bread. Later, when her son abruptly became ill and died, she called upon Elijah again and her son’s life was returned to him by Elijah’s actions (1 Kings 17: 17-24).

The widow’s faith in God was well known in her day and remembered through the ages. Jesus remarked about her faith 1,000 years later (Luke 4:26-27). In the Book of Hebrews written after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the widow is also included in the list of the great women and men of faith (Hebrews 11: 35).

The widow of Zarephath inspired Mary because the widow’s faith was readily available for her to turn to God for help when she needed Him: “Trust in the Lord with all thy heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and He shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). “That’s what I needed. Who has time to search for faith when you’re going through a crisis?” Mary advised. “It’s best to have faith even before you get sick, so you can call on it when you’re hurting. Otherwise, you’ll shop around looking for something to believe in, and may not find anything.”

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, playwright and director, columnist, and consultant to the Department of Spritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

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Trailblazing woman on path to train priests Sat, 14 May 2016 00:24:19 +0000 MUNDELEIN, Ill. — On the bucolic Mundelein campus that houses a theological university and the largest Roman Catholic seminary in the U.S., there are 220 men studying to be priests – plus one woman about to join a small cadre of female faithful blazing new paths.

On Saturday, Dawn Eden Goldstein was expected to graduate from the campus’ University of St. Mary of the Lake with a doctorate in sacred theology, which will allow her to help train aspiring priests. The feat marks the first time a woman at the north suburban school has earned such a degree.

Priests and administrators at the university emphasize that Goldstein, 47, is not earning her degree from Mundelein Seminary, but from St. Mary’s, a co-ed theological school where most students are men. Still, Goldstein’s accomplishment signals a new direction in American Catholicism.

“I’ve found a kind of equilibrium here,” she said, referring to the cautious pride professors have expressed about her pursuit. “I’ll be glad to move forward, but I’m thankful for the experience of being here.”

She is earning the degree, issued by the authority of Pope Francis, at the same time Francis is pushing to raise the profile of women in the Catholic Church, most recently in his 260-page apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” in which he praised some aspects of women’s liberation, though he did not go so far as to say women should be priests.

Goldstein is not calling for women’s ordination. She’s not condemning celibacy, and she voluntarily took a vow herself. She’s simply pursuing an education to shape the church’s ministers of tomorrow and mentor women who feel called to serve the church.

“There is a lot more room for women in leadership positions in the church than has been allowed in times past,” she said.

But overcoming suspicion that she is out to alter church teachings from within has been one of many challenges facing Goldstein and other women who want to accept the pope’s invitation to lead. Only a small number of lay women have earned the church’s highest theology degree from one of the seven American institutions that offer it.

Some people bristle at the term “woman theologian,” said Goldstein, sipping tea in the seminary’s dining hall recently, surrounded by a sea of men. “People think ‘feminist theologian with an ax to grind.'”

As a convert from Judaism, Goldstein has found a sense of spiritual fulfillment in the Catholic Church that she lacked for most of her first four decades.

Raised in a Reform Jewish household in New Jersey, Goldstein became an agnostic in 1981 after a rabbi preparing her for her bat mitzvah told her questions about her Torah portion belonged to scholars, not 13-year-old girls.

But by then, her connection to God already had begun to fray. At age 5, during her parents’ divorce, she accused a staff member at the synagogue of sexually abusing her – an allegation the rabbi did not believe at the time, and one Goldstein did not pursue. Goldstein said she was abused a second time years later by someone close to her mother, leaving emotional wounds that one day would direct her calling.

In high school, she began writing for rock music publications and dropped Goldstein from her nom de plume. Though she never legally changed her name, she remained Dawn Eden for decades to come. After graduating from New York University in 1989 with a degree in communications, she continued writing about rock.

Battling bouts of suicidal depression, she found herself drawn to Jesus 10 years later and sought baptism at a Seventh-day Adventist church where she lived in Hoboken, N.J. But the Protestant denomination didn’t hold much appeal for Goldstein. Initially, Catholicism’s complex liturgy and lack of fellowship also turned her off. But the church’s position against abortion rights and fertility treatments reflected Goldstein’s political views.

In 2002, she launched a blog called The Dawn Patrol to rail against abortion rights, in-vitro fertilization and groups such as Planned Parenthood. During that time, she also worked as an editor and headline writer for Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Post and New York Daily News. The blog occasionally prompted words of caution from editors – and eventually cost her her job at the Post.

She jokes that joining the Catholic Church in 2006 appealed to her rebellious streak.

By 2007, she left secular media to work for the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative watchdog that monitors Catholic education. The organization eliminated her job within six months, leaving her without health insurance shortly before doctors discovered thyroid cancer.

Knowing she needed a full-time job with health insurance, she enrolled in a master’s theology program at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., with the goal of working in Catholic college ministry. But instead, she started down the road to a doctorate in May 2010.

In 2012, she wrote “My Peace I Give You,” a book about how the lives of the saints could offer hope for abuse victims.

“It’s not enough for the church to simply be in damage control mode,” she said. “We’re not serving our mission as a church if we’re not providing spiritual accompaniment to people who are hurting.”

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Religion Calendar Sat, 07 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Why Jesus 2016, a one-time, all-day conference on evidence for Christian faith, $15, Cross Insurance Center, 515 Main St., Bangor,, 8 a.m.-9:20 p.m. Sunday.

Mother’s Day Celebration and Interfaith Service, join ChIME students, faculty and friends, with musician and teacher Russill Paul, donation, Ludcke Auditorium, UNE, Portland campus, 716 Stevens Ave.,, 10 a.m. Sunday.

Beholding Nature: Spiritual Ecology Through the Eyes of the Heart, ongoing discussion of “Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth,” including experiential practices in broadening perception, donation, Unity of Greater Portland, 54 River Road, Windham,, 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Author Talk with Glenn Kurtz, free, Congregation Etz Chaim, 36 Bacon St., Biddeford,, 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Christian science lecture, free talk, Larissa Snorek-Yates will speak on “The Healing Power of Stillness,” free, Allen Avenue Unitarian Church, 524 Allen Ave., Portland,, Friday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Reflections: Conference follows words of Jesus: ‘Put down the sword’ Sat, 07 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Jesus and his followers were peaceful, practiced love of neighbor, and for three centuries rejected violence, choosing martyrdom over engaging in violence.

The link with Constantine’s empire resulted in contradictory loyalties. Many Christians retreated to the desert; most shelved the Sermon on the Mount and served Caesar. Augustine employed Cicero and contemporary philosophy to fashion norms for just war and war conduct, expanded and refined by Aquinas and Spanish scholastics: Force may be necessary for “the tranquility of order.”

Save for large medieval peace marches, the post-Reformation peace churches, and Catholic Worker movement pacifism, Gospel nonviolence disappeared. Just war norms were ignored more often than respected, i.e., the Crusades and World War I. Yet, in 1957 Pope Pius XII said that Catholics could not be conscientious objectors. But many Christians remained uncomfortable killing those they supposedly loved.

Europe’s post-World War II recognition of the futility of war, John XXIII’s challenge of modern warfare, Vatican II’s embrace of primacy of conscience, and wide disapproval of the Vietnam carnage all challenged war as a means of conflict resolution. John Paul II embraced just war but never found one he could approve. Nowadays, wars have deceitful justifications and predominantly civilian casualties.

Dan Berrigan, who burned draft records to protest the Vietnam intervention and engaged in numerous acts of resistance to war leading to jail time and who died Saturday, argued that the Gospel calls us to be faithful, however remote the prospect of results. The U.S. Bishops’ 1985 pastoral, “The Challenge of Peace,” rejected nuclear weapons and legitimized Gospel nonviolence as an alternative theology to just war theory.

John Paul II’s U.S. bishops largely ignored the call to peace. Assuming impunity from accountability, the U.S. has become the most violent, aggressive nation on earth, from Vietnam to East Timor, Central America, and the Mediterranean to the Middle East – at the sacrifice of addressing serious domestic needs. Both likely 2016 presidential nominees are adverse to dialogue, promising war at first blush. For the most part, Church criticism has been muted.

But in April, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Pax Christi International, and the Catholic Peacebuilding Movement sponsored a conference in the Vatican on nonviolence and just peace that may well herald a radical reversal of Roman Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis’s message to the conference proposed as goals the abolition of war, recognition of our common humanity as a basis for resolving conflicts, and substitution of mercy for indifference and dialogue for violence.

The conference produced “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” It sees Christians “called to recognize the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus” and “to our long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.”

The Church should invest its resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence, employing “the power of love in action.” There is no “just” war, a theory too often “used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war.” Nonviolent social methodology works. It can resolve conflicts peaceably. And a “Just Peace” provides a “vision and ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict.”

The statement calls for integration of Gospel nonviolence into the life and work of the Church; promotion of nonviolent practices and strategies such as nonviolent resistance and restorative justice, initiation of a global conversation on nonviolence; an end to teaching “just war theory,” and raising the prophetic voice of the Church “to challenge unjust world powers” and defend nonviolent activists working for peace and justice.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council and major author of Laudato Si, the climate encyclical, approved the statement.

The Rev. John Dear, a conference participant and longtime friend of Berrigan, observed that the encyclical the conference asks Pope Francis to write “could open up a whole new history for Christianity, and return us to the spirit of the early Church, where no one was allowed to participate in war, prepare for war, or kill another human being.”

After the wide disregard of “The Challenge of Peace,” this is revolutionary – like Jesus’s words: “Put down the sword.” Comfortable U.S. Catholics will be stirred and more Protestant churches will likely join those already committed to active nonviolence.

Fortuitously, the Vatican conference call for Just Peace theology gave Dan Berrigan a hopeful departure. May he rest in peace.

USM professor William Slavick was Pax Christi Maine coordinator for 23 years; he is author of the “War and Peace” chapter in “Rome Has Spoken.”

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Pope asks Europe to welcome migrants Fri, 06 May 2016 23:38:49 +0000 VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis, accepting a prize for promoting European unity, on Friday warned Europeans against the selfish temptation to put up fences to ward off newcomers, saying he still dreams of a Europe where migrants are welcomed.

“I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime, but a summons to a greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being,” he told an audience including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and Spain’s King Felipe VI.

“I dream of a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties toward all. I dream of a Europe of which it will not be said that its commitment to human rights was its last utopia.”

The pontiff, the son of European immigrants to Argentina, accepted the prestigious International Charlemagne Prize, for his “message of hope and encouragement.”

Echoing the famous “I have a dream” speech by U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Francis offered his vision of a Europe that cares for children, the elderly, the poor and the infirm, as well as “those newcomers seeking acceptance because they have lost everything and need shelter.”

Merkel praised Francis for sending “very clear messages.” She said his comments were a call “for us to act and keep Europe together – be it regarding the currency, or the protection of our external border, and above all not to forget the humanity and humanitarian duty of Europe.”

Notwithstanding the prize’s underlying positive message, the pope tacitly acknowledged a backdrop of a Europe engulfed in a crisis of confidence, prompted by the threat of terrorism and surge of migrants, and giving strength to nationalistic sentiments that seek to undermine the notion of a united continent.

He bemoaned that the continent’s people “are tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences.”

And he said youth unemployment was sapping the continent of its dynamism, and he called for new economic models that are “more inclusive and equitable.”

“There is an impression that Europe is declining, that it has lost its ability to be innovative and creative, that it is more concerned with preserving and dominating spaces than with generating processes of inclusions and change,” Francis said.

He urged Europeans to undergo a “memory transfusion,” citing a phrase by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, to remember Europe’s fractured past when confronting issues that threaten again to divide it.

“A memory transfusion can free us from today’s temptation to build hastily on the shifting stands of immediate results, which may produce quick and easy short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fulfillment,” he said.

The pope said the Roman Catholic Church can play a role in “the rebirth of a Europe, weary, yet still rich in energies and possibilities.”

Before the ceremony in the frescoed Sala Regia, Francis met privately with Merkel, as well as with European parliament president Martin Schulz, a previous Charlemagne Prize recipient, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Council President Donald Tusk, who also attended the ceremony.

Juncker, in his remarks, praised the pope for taking three Syrian refugee families to Rome with him at the end of his recent visit to Greece.

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Fired worker sues company over Scientology exposure Fri, 06 May 2016 23:08:10 +0000 LAS VEGAS — A Catholic woman fired from her job at a bottled water company led by a Nevada lawmaker has filed a federal lawsuit against the business, saying she was pressured to watch videos on Scientology and was denied pay raises because of her religious beliefs.

Grecia Echevarria-Hernandez filed a discrimination lawsuit April 26 against Las Vegas-based, also known as Real Alkalized Water. Republican Assemblyman Brent Jones is president of the company. His son, Blain Jones, is executive vice president of the company and is running for a Nevada Assembly seat.

“I have not seen the legal documents at this time, so I cannot comment on the alleged claims,” Jones said in a statement Tuesday.

The plaintiff said she was hired in March 2015 as a “brand ambassador” for Real Water, which markets water infused with electrons that “can help your body to restore balance, and reach your full potential!” according to the company website.

On her first day, Echevarria-Hernandez said she was forced to watch several videos with religious undertones, including “The Secret” and others based on Scientology.

Her supervisor later told her that she could get a 25-cent raise if she participated in self-betterment courses, and the plaintiff said she tried to sit through one of the classes. But it also had to do with Scientology and made her feel uncomfortable, so she left early.

The plaintiff let her supervisor know she didn’t want to participate because she held different religious beliefs. As a result, she was not eligible for raises, according to the lawsuit.

Echevarria-Hernandez said that she wasn’t previously written up for poor performance, but her supervisor wrote three reports on Oct. 8, 2015, alleging she wasn’t fulfilling her job duties. Another person fired her the next day.

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Reflections: No matter what happens, only love is guaranteed to last Sat, 30 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 “She won’t know the difference.” The neurologist shook his head.

In my lap I held Ruth, a 2-year-old abandoned baby with cerebral palsy that my family and I hoped to adopt from an orphanage in Uganda. Ruth had arrived in Maine one year before on a medical visa to receive therapy for cerebral palsy, a brain injury that left her unable to walk or talk.

Months before, while serving as her host family, we’d discovered that Ruth was also profoundly deaf – a devastating diagnosis since she was unable to use her hands to communicate. Now, one week before taking Ruth back to East Africa on a month-long trip to collect paperwork for her adoption, I was being told not to bother.

Ruth’s disabilities meant that she would never advance beyond the physical abilities of a 6-month-old, the neurologist said. In his words, she was also likely profoundly mentally retarded. “In my opinion, it won’t matter whether you adopt Ruth or leave her in Uganda,” he said. “She won’t know the difference.”

My husband, Dana, and I – along with our three young children – adopted Ruth anyway. In our early 30s, we were young and naive enough not to realize how hard the road with Ruth would be. All we knew was that we loved her – despite what loving her would cost us. But, with all of his education and experience, the neurologist failed to realize what a lasting transformation such love can make in the life of a child and family.

No, Ruth didn’t pull her crooked legs out of her stroller and walk the triumphant August day we returned from Uganda with papers declaring her a permanent American resident. She didn’t open her mouth and speak at the little courthouse, just up the road from our home, the following February when we celebrated her adoption. But slowly, beautifully – as Ruth became rooted in the love of our family and church, and our schools and community – she blossomed into a radiantly happy little girl who defied the doctor’s dire predictions.

Despite being told that she’d never understand spoken language, Ruth learned to hear with the help of a cochlear implant. She loved books and school and by first grade could spell the names of all the kids in her class by sticking out her tongue when someone pointed to the correct letter on an alphabet board. And she loved to play, squealing with delight when her same-age sister dressed her as a queen and pulled her around the house in her wheelchair while pretending to be a horse.

But what neither the neurologist – nor we – expected was how little time Ruth had. Two months before her eighth birthday, the rare condition responsible for her cerebral palsy and deafness caused Ruth to die in her sleep. The shock and grief of losing our daughter was excruciating. Equally unendurable was the devastating suspicion that, in the end, our decision to adopt Ruth hadn’t mattered, after all.

“It didn’t make a difference,” I sobbed to Dana one night during that long, dark winter.

“How can you say that?” he challenged me. “We gave Ruth everything we had. That’s all God was asking. And you know what? She knew the difference. That girl knew we loved her.”

This April, Ruth would have turned 13. In the five years she’s been gone, we still ache from the loss of her. But in that time, we’ve also come to know that every sorrow and sacrifice was worth it. Instead of dying forsaken and unclaimed – as many people with disabilities do in the developing world – Ruth knew that she was beloved upon this earth.

“All the special gifts and powers from God will someday come to an end,” the apostle Paul wrote in I Cor. 13:8, “but love goes on forever.”

Nine months after our daughter’s death, that love changed the life of another little girl with cerebral palsy when Dana brought Ruth’s wheelchair to Uganda through a Christian outreach, Wheels for the World. So even if you love and lose, keep sharing God’s love anyway. Love in the face of suffering and grief and heartache and loss. Love beyond racial and religious and physical borders and barriers.

Love like a fool, without considering what such love will cost. Because, no matter how and when life ends, only love is guaranteed to last.

Meadow Rue Merrill writes and reflects on God’s presence in her ordinary life from her little cottage in the woods in the midcoast. Find her at

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Reflections: Grow in spirit and celebrate the life of the Royal River Sat, 23 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 What are your plans for World Fish Migration Day? You know, May 21, when people who care about rivers and fish around the world create celebrations along their river to honor the life of the river and the fish that move up and down it. There will be hundreds of celebrations on every continent in the world including the celebration of the Royal River in Yarmouth at Royal River Park.

People participating in Fish Migration Day in Yarmouth on the Royal River will be invited to consider the river as it has been, how it is now and what we can do for its health and well-being in the future. Opportunities to learn about the river will abound. Stories, speakers and guides will discuss life in and along it, people, plants and animals, from the days when the Wabanaki (meaning People of the Dawn, a people composed of many tribes), still here today, were caring for these lands, to the days of European settlements and industrialization to the postindustrial period of today.

I am particularly glad that John Bear Mitchell and Karyn Marden, members of the Wabanaki community, will be with us sharing their stories and knowledge. Native American spirituality and my own nature mystic Christianity teach me that the land, the waters and all forms of life are sacred.

I was introduced to this wisdom by John Waters, in his book “The Man Who Killed a Deer.” He tells a story of the Pueblo people of the American Southwest and their hunting ritual. When a hunter comes upon a deer, he acknowledges its sacredness and asks permission to take its life for the life of his people. He pledges to honor the deer with gratitude and the continuation of its sacred life in the life of the hunter and his tribe.

Europeans came to the shores of Maine, then a part of Massachusetts, to harvest the resources, cod, timber, whatever. Their rituals were spoken to an almighty God thought of as above them on a hierarchical ranking. What was harvested was below them. The worth of life below them was objectified as things, not sacred, and was calculated by what it provided them and theirs. This is the mindset that ultimately led to global warming. Of course, that was far beyond their horizon then.

In addition to Wabanaki spokespersons sharing stories and knowledge, Katie Worthing of the Yarmouth Historical Society will conduct a tour of the bones of industrialization to be found on the river today. She will tell how the town as we know it grew around industrialization and where industrialization went when it left. Landis Hudson of Maine Rivers will conduct a tour of the river today, its dams, their fish ladders that don’t work and consider, with you, what the river would be if fish could migrate on it today.

Yarmouth’s Merrill Memorial Library will have books about rivers for children. Classes from Yarmouth schools and North Yarmouth Academy will have tables to show you what they have been studying about the river. Environmental groups will be there to tell of their work.

Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will release 600 brown trout, half below the Elm Street dam and half below the Bridge Street dam. There will be 50 fishing poles for kids and people to help bait the hooks and conduct a catch and release learning project. Trout Unlimited will conduct a class in fly fishing for the first eight Yarmouth area women who sign up by calling Maura Halkiotis at 841-3327. There will be canoe rides and food, face painting and music.

What time and why? From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 21, answers the first question. The reason for the event is summarized in our working sheet: 1) To connect people to the Royal River, past present and future. 2) To raise awareness and caring for the river’s life – fish, plants, recreation and state of health. 3) To provide entertainment, education and fun for all ages.

Finally, why is this a column on the Religion and Values page of today’s paper? Because I am convinced that, as we come to understand the Earth and all life upon it as sacred, we will not only ask how the river can serve our lives but how can we serve the life of the river. When we grow in spirit to ask that question instinctively, we will be on the road away from environmental degradation and global warming.

Bill Gregory is an author and retired UCC minister. He can be contacted at:

]]> 0 Fri, 22 Apr 2016 18:59:14 +0000
Transgender people in India seek religious parity Fri, 22 Apr 2016 23:58:59 +0000 UJJAIN, India — In the waning heat of the evening, a group from India’s transgender community clambered down steep steps to a holy river in India, their multicolored saris catching the breeze before they plunged joyfully into the glittering waters of the Shipra.

India’s transgender people have long lived on the margins of society and are a familiar sight at traffic stops or weddings, where they sing and dance and ask for money. But the group – known as “hijras” – have made huge strides toward greater inclusion in recent years, culminating with a landmark decision in 2014 by India’s Supreme Court that recognized a third gender that is neither male or female.

Friday, the hijras took their fight for equality to the riverbanks of one of India’s biggest holy festivals – a gathering called the Kumbh Mela. Millions of Hindu saints, holy men, seers and pilgrims will come for a month of worship, including a ritual river bath to purify body and soul.

The hijra leaders, fresh from their historic court recognition, began thinking about starting their own group to participate in the Kumbh Mela last year, according to Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, one of India’s best-known transgender activists.

“After the Supreme Court decision, we decided that we should reclaim our lost position in the religion,” she said. “Of course there is no place better to do that than the Kumbh Mela.”

The city has spent years preparing for the festival, which turns the normally quiet temple town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh into a megalopolis complete with campsites, temporary places of worship, WiFi hotspots, green-friendly electric rickshaws and even tented “resorts” for well-heeled pilgrims. The river this year is dotted with floating filtration devices that clean India’s polluted river water for bathers.

The government has allotted the transgender group a space for its own camp this year as a nod toward its inclusion.

Yet the religious gurus who oversee the official 13 Hindu monastic orders – called “akharas” – that traditionally participate in the mela have said they will not recognize the hijras as a 14th akhara. Nor will they recognize a women’s group.

Those leaders say to do so would go against Hindu tradition that dates back centuries.

“We respect transgenders in society but we will not allow them for the holy dip. It’s against Hindu law,” said Narendra Giri Maharaj, the head of the All India Akhara Parishad, the umbrella group of the akharas. “We will never recognize them, under any condition.”

Tripathi and others argue that transgender people have been a part of Indian society since ancient times and that references to them appear in classical Indian texts. They were also prized courtiers during the times of the Mughal kings. It was only after the British colonized India and imprinted the land with its own system of justice that transgender people began to be ostracized, activists say.

In recent years, they have made some inroads into traditional society, becoming state legislators and mayors. Last year, the first transgender police officer was hired in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu.

In recent weeks, India’s social-justice and empowerment ministry has drafted a bill that would give transgender people greater protection from harassment and wrongful eviction. They are also likely to be included in India’s quota system, which reserves government jobs and education for disadvantaged groups.

But they say they still have had to fight for jobs and education despite the Supreme Court ruling supporting a third gender.

“The judgment of the Supreme Court is just in a file, not on the ground,” said Pushpa Gidwani, a social worker with the transgender community in the city of Jaipur. She estimates that of the 5,000 or so members of her community in that city, 1,000 keep their sexuality “hidden” and many in the group still beg or work menial jobs.

This week, transgender people from throughout India gathered at the group’s camp site in Ujjain, which included a large hall where devotees lined up Thursday evening to touch the feet of the hijras and receive their blessing. Throughout the monthlong festival, they have planned fire rituals, devotional singing and social outreach programs about the transgender community.

Rajit Ojha, a graduate student, said he has seen a “drastic change” in the treatment of hijras since the court ruling.


]]> 1, 22 Apr 2016 20:24:46 +0000
Oklahoma voters to decide fate of Ten Commandments monument Fri, 22 Apr 2016 23:21:43 +0000 OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma voters will decide in November whether to abolish an article of the state Constitution so that a Ten Commandments monument can be returned to the Capitol grounds.

The House voted 65-7 late Thursday for a resolution calling for a statewide vote on whether to remove a constitutional prohibition on the use of state funds to support a religion. The state Supreme Court relied on that section of the constitution in June when it ordered a 6-foot-tall granite Ten Commandments monument moved from the Capitol grounds.

The monument’s removal angered many Oklahomans, particularly Republican lawmakers who vowed to return the monument to state property.

“Since the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision in June regarding the Ten Commandments monument, my constituents wanted to know what could be done,” said Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, an attorney who sponsored the bill in the House. “I knew it would be a difficult proposition to undo the ruling, so we looked at giving voters the opportunity to remove the basis for the ruling.”

Originally authorized by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2009, the privately funded monument has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was erected in 2012, prompting a lawsuit from Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister from Norman who complained it violated the state constitution.

Its placement at the Capitol prompted requests from several groups to have their own monuments installed, including a satanic church in New York that wanted to erect a 7-foot-tall statue that depicts Satan as Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with horns, wings and a long beard. A Hindu leader in Nevada, an animal rights group and the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster also made requests.

]]> 6, 22 Apr 2016 20:01:22 +0000
Board to review policy on 
prayer space at University of Iowa Fri, 22 Apr 2016 23:07:43 +0000 IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Board of Regents is examining the University of Iowa’s decision to have designated prayer and meditation spaces on campus.

The university created the spaces in the Iowa Memorial Union earlier this year after Muslim students, faculty and staff said they have trouble finding a place to fulfill their prayer obligations, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reports. School officials have said the spaces are available to people of all faiths.

“It’s the right thing to do,” President Bruce Harreld said during a board meeting in Council Bluffs Thursday. “We don’t want to be a community of exclusion. We want to be a community of inclusion.”

Regent Subhash Sahai asked Harreld how many non-Muslims have been using the rooms, but he didn’t have any statistics available.

“But I can assure you that at least one Christian has prayed there: me,” Harreld said.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation asked the university last month to close the rooms because of concerns over separation of church and state issues.

The foundation’s letter specifically raised questions about temporary signs the Muslim Student Association places in the rooms to separate spaces for different genders and to ask people to remove their shoes.

Aimee Claeys, associate counsel for the regents, said the rooms are bare and are not segregated by gender.

“Providing these spaces that may be used for religious purposes is not in itself a violation of the constitution,” she said.

Members of an organization for agnostic and atheist students, Secular Students at Iowa, have been supportive of the decision to open the space.

President of the board, Regent Bruce Rastetter, said the regents will review the use of such spaces as part of the board’s overall policy. Discussion about the issue will continue in its June meeting.

]]> 0 Fri, 22 Apr 2016 20:27:41 +0000
Religion Calendar Fri, 22 Apr 2016 22:34:53 +0000 People of the Earth: Indigenous Spirituality of Old Europe. Andras Arthen, vice chair of the Parliament of World Religions, presents his experiences with indigenous earth-based cultures of Europe. $20 suggested, Unity of Greater Portland Church, 54 River Road, Windham,, 10 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Sunday.

Christians and Islam, a talk outlining these religious traditions, free, Christ Church, 6 Dane St., Kennebunk ,, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Interfaith Dialogue Dinner. Soup, bread and dessert will be served, with a discussion of many traditions. $10 suggested donation, St. Pius X Hall, 492 Ocean Ave., Portland,, 5:45 to 8:15 p.m. Tuesday.

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

]]> 0 Fri, 22 Apr 2016 19:00:30 +0000
Reflections: Remember the Buddha: ‘Suffering is caused by desire’ Sat, 16 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 As I was writing in my journal one morning, facing my backyard, I watched a squirrel running around frantically looking for nuts. He was digging everywhere. Sometimes he was lucky. I saw myself in that squirrel’s behavior because for the last three or four weeks I had been perseverating over everything: my finances, my spiritual direction practice that was slow to get off the ground, the repairs that needed to be done to my condo and the lack of funds to do it, etc. I was filled with desire for many things. The more I allowed myself to be in that space, the less I turned to prayer, meditation and trust. I also fell back to self-blame and shame and old thinking about what I had done wrong to get myself in this state.

I was in a whirlwind and like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” I ended up in a place far from my inner home. I realized fully that sometimes it’s hard to dig ourselves out from the debris when we spend time focusing on it. But as we often see on television after a catastrophe, folks who are interviewed talk about how they’ll get started right away on the cleanup, working with neighbors and volunteers to try to get back to normal. Sometimes, though, they have to settle for a new normal and find the courage to begin anew.

I was thinking that the latter would be true for me. But I kept focusing on lack and all the things I wanted. I was in a tizzy as I spoke to my spiritual director, who helped me look at all my present options. Then she told me to not make any decisions for a few days. I tried to follow her advice and rested, read a book, took walks, as I did the inner work of trying to get myself back to the serenity of “home.” I was still edgy and somewhat angry that my answers weren’t coming more easily. I was stuck in my mind and not in my heart.

I went to yoga practice one morning and my yoga teacher began the class with this saying from the Buddha: “Suffering is caused by desire.” My heart skipped a beat. I knew that message was for me. I had been causing my own suffering by staying in the whirlwind. She played my favorite meditative CD. I hadn’t played it myself in months because I had misplaced my copy. I had just found it a few days previous, so when I got home, I decided to sit in meditation with this CD and slowly I began to feel at peace, to remember who I really was and that I was not alone. I had forgotten that it was only in deep surrender and letting go that I had ever moved forward freely. I believe we all have spirit guides, or angels who surround us on this earth journey and are supporting us whether or not we are aware of it. I allowed myself to be surrounded by the love of these beings of light and I returned to my deep belief that the Universe does provide for all my needs. So what was there to do at the end but surrender?

“Suffering is caused by desire,” the Buddha said, and I was reminded again of my vows to be mindful and present, staying in the “fertile void” until the answers come. Surrendering to what is, is not giving up. It’s a relief and a release. It frees us to move forward and it brings us back to our true home.

Rev. Helen Rousseau is an ordained Interfaith Minister and trained Spiritual Director. She can be reached at or visit for more information.

]]> 0 Fri, 15 Apr 2016 21:30:18 +0000
Religion Calendar Sat, 16 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Singer-songwriter Dean Richardson and Eric Bro. Free. Church of the Holy Spirit, 1047 Congress St., Portland,, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday.

Rejoicing Spirits, a special worship service for persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities, followed by fellowship and supper. Free. Trinity Lutheran Church, 612 Main St., Westbrook. 4 p.m. Sunday.

The Wisdom in Brokeness: An Interfaith Worship Service. ChIME student Joyce Fraganeno explores the wisdom in vulnerability. Free. Portland New Church, 302 Stevens Ave., Portland,, 10:30-11:30 a.m. Sunday.

Christians and Muslims discuss life for Muslims in Portland. Seeley Hall, Woodfords Church, 202 Woodfords St., Portland, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday.

Community Seder-Passover Across America. Celebrate Passover with new and old friends at a community Seder, $15 per person or $40 per family, Temple Beth El, 400 Deering Ave., Portland,, 6-8:30 p.m. Friday, April 22.

To submit an item for the religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

]]> 0 Sat, 16 Apr 2016 18:17:04 +0000
Family battles Scientology to see their kids Fri, 15 Apr 2016 23:04:23 +0000 There’s a billboard in Los Angeles dotted with dozens of faces representing Scientologists who have separated from their families. It reads: “To my loved one in Scientology . . . call me.”

The massive message was placed in Echo Park this month by Phil and Willie Jones, former Scientologists who say they have lost their two adult children, Mike and Emily Jones, to a practice known as “disconnection,” which believers describe as a last resort – ending communication with people who are “antagonistic to Scientology” to protect themselves from being torn from the religion.

Phil Jones told NBC’s “Today” that his son has told him he never wants to speak to him again.

“That’s what they do,” Jones said, sobbing. “It’s a cruel and vindictive organization to do something like that.”

The Joneses, from Las Vegas, were in the church for 40 years and have now begun a campaign called Stop Scientology Disconnection to raise awareness about the religious practice that they say separated them from their children.

The purpose, according to their website, is to “make people more aware of Scientology Disconnection, as well as hopefully entice those in Scientology to take that step of calling their loved ones, family, friends, or whoever they have disconnected from due to pressure from the Church of Scientology.”

The couple launched a GoFundMe page to help raise the more than $8,000 needed to pay for printing and installation costs. They had raised about $16,500 and secured the billboard for a second month.

The Church of Scientology was founded by former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952 and the religion has become popular in recent years, in part because of celebrity members such as Tom Cruise.

But the church has generated considerable controversy.

Since the 1970s, Scientology has taken heat from academics, journalists and ex-members who describe near- slavery conditions they say they lived through.

The church denies more recent allegations of physical abuse by some top ex-officials.and says the former members are liars.

Lawrence Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” and an HBO documentary, also called “Going Clear,” exposed such alleged abuses.

The Joneses told the Hollywood Reporter that they began to have questions about the religion about five years ago and that Phil Jones’s sister, who is also a Scientologist, went straight to church leaders to tell them that her brother and sister-in-law were having doubts.

The couple said they were excommunicated and have not heard from their children the past few years.

“Once you’re in it, there is a process that has a creep factor, there’s a degree of hypnotism, of mental conditioning,” he said. “Once you get in too deep, it’s tough to break out. My wife and I met in Scientology when she was 17 and I was 18. We’ve been together ever since.

“We raised our children in it.”

The problem, Jones told the Hollywood Reporter, is trying to get someone out of the church.

“Every single person will say, ‘No, I want to be here. I’m here of my own choice.’ Because there is a brainwashing to it, a hypnosis,” he said. “If I’d try to take my kids out, they will not want to go.”

Jones said their children joined the Church of Scientology’s Sea Organization, which is described as “a religious order for the Scientology religion and is composed of the singularly most dedicated Scientologists.”

“That’s where you sign a billion-year contract,” Jones said. “You work there, eat the food there, you work 100 hours a week for 10 cents an hour. It’s just brutal.”

“In 20 years, our kids were never allowed to leave for Christmas or visit us,” he added. “We could visit them and maybe get an hour with them. What usually happens is, something triggers them to want to leave. Sometimes something changes in their life, or they get beat up badly. The other thing is, the majority who get out say, ‘I read something on the Internet’ or ‘I saw something on the news.’

“That’s why we’re doing the billboard.”

The Church of Scientology dismissed the billboard in a statement to The Washington Post.

“The billboard in Echo Park is simply the latest in a series of publicity stunts by Phil and Willie Jones to stalk and harass their adult offspring…,” the statement said. “For the past several weeks Phil and Willie Jones have been working with a reality TV producer staging stunts intended to harass their adult children, despite their children telling them directly to back off and stop.

“It is shameful that two people … would hook up with a reality TV producer to shamelessly exploit and harass their two adult children for money. It is equally despicable that these individuals would use a private family matter to promote anti-religious hate and bigotry and harm their kids.”

Jones confirmed to the Hollywood Reporter that the couple is “documenting our journey.”

Willie Jones told the “Today” show that the church has torn their family apart.

Then, she addressed her children.

“We love you guys so much and miss you so much,” she said.

]]> 5, 16 Apr 2016 20:17:25 +0000
Reflections: God must have a sense of humor Sat, 09 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Does God have a sense of humor? Growing up in the Bible belt of Indiana, religion was a serious affair. I remember swinging my patent-leather-clad feet from the edge of the pew and making little hammocks out of my mom’s handkerchief while the minister seemed to drone on and on for hours. Apparently, there was the obligatory joke because every once in a great while the adults would politely chuckle.

I moved away from traditional religion in my 20s while still searching for answers about God. When I first started to attend classes with my spiritual teacher, there was plenty of talking and meditation and prayer, but there was also a great deal of laughter. In fact, I remember my teacher saying once that God has a sense of humor. I nearly fell over, I was so stunned by that idea.

This was not the God I grew up with. You know, the white man with the flowing beard sitting in the clouds, the one who could turn people into salt, or rain pestilence down on entire populations because of something their leader did or didn’t do, or ask a father to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion.

Who was this God with a sense of humor? It was the beginning of my journey of the stripping away of what I consider now to be false notions of God.

I suppose many people would think that if there is a God and she or he has a sense of humor, it would be some kind of cruel joke because just look at the state the world is in. On the other hand, to find a reason to laugh and be joyful even in the midst of great suffering is a gift that humans have been given. If one believes in a higher power, it is logical that we are simply tapping into something we share with that mysterious presence.

Of course, there are people who use a perhaps more sarcastic sense of humor to belittle others, to exclude others (as in the inside joke), to avoid responsibility, to interrupt sacred moments, etc. This is not the kind of humor I envision as “godly.” Like any great gift, it depends on how it is used.

To me a sense of humor can be one of the greatest tools for cultivating humility. Like my perception of the religion I grew up with, the ego tends to take itself very seriously. To be able to see our own foibles and transgressions and laugh at them is to loosen up that very serious hold the ego wants to have on our own perceptions of ourselves. Laughter lightens the load of being who we are, of being disappointed in ourselves and others, of living in a world that sometimes makes no sense at all to us.

I can’t claim that my conversations with God or prayers or meditations bring me to laughing out loud, though I often feel a deep sense of quiet joy. I did once have a moment of solitude in which I did laugh out loud and which somehow seemed divinely inspired. I was standing looking out at my deck and the gushing brook that is the boundary of my backyard when simultaneously the song “The Typewriter” came on NPR and a squirrel leaped up on the snowy railing of my deck and proceeded to do what I can only describe as a dance to the exact rhythm of the song on the radio. The squirrel seemed to be looking at me the entire time and the moment the song was over he leaped into the trees and was gone. I did laugh out loud and thanked the squirrel and divine nature for showing me once again that surprises and connections are everywhere when we take the time to see them.

Though I don’t often laugh out loud when I feel the most deeply spiritually connected, I do associate a great sense of humor with people I’ve met who exude a spiritual presence. The hours and years of spiritual practice and meditation seem to unlock a special kind of sense of humor. I am thinking of the Dali Lama, who seems to laugh a lot whenever I hear him speak. I once took a class from his brother, who laughed more than any adult I have ever known, and mostly he was laughing at himself. I am also thinking of my interfaith friends, and some of the Catholic monks and nuns I have met who seem to share a wild kind of sense of humor grounded in the spirit. It is as if the commitment to silence, solitude, prayer and a deep inner connection to the divine can unlock a way of being with people that is ripe with humor and the sheer joy of being alive.

One of my favorite spiritual giants, who I am quite certain was intimately familiar with the divine sense of humor was Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet. This is one of my favorite poems of his:

Ten Thousand Idiots

It is always a danger

to aspirants

On the


When they begin

To believe and


As if the ten thousand idiots

Who so long ruled

And lived


Have all packed their bags

And skipped town



The story is told about my great grandfather, who left the strict Apostolic church of his family. When told he was going to hell, he replied that it was fine with him because he would rather be in hell with all his friends than in heaven with the members of the church.

I feel the same way about God. Though there are certainly many things in this world that must be taken very seriously, to imagine a creator of this world who has no sense of humor is, to me, a God I cannot live with.

The Rev. Cathy Grigsby is an Interfaith minister who teaches at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine and is the co-founder and coordinator of the Interfaith Ministers of New England. She can be contacted at:

]]> 0 Fri, 08 Apr 2016 21:33:00 +0000
Indiana state trooper fired for preaching while on duty Fri, 08 Apr 2016 23:57:37 +0000 INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana State Police fired a trooper who is facing a second lawsuit accusing him of preaching to citizens while on duty, saying Thursday he disobeyed a written order to stop the practice.

Superintendent Doug Carter fired Senior Trooper Brian Hamilton of Connersville for insubordination, the agency announced. Hamilton admitted the violations, it said.

Wendy Pyle of Connersville had filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis claiming Hamilton violated her civil rights by asking her what church she attended and whether she was saved during a January traffic stop. She is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

“While all of us – citizen and police officer – enjoy the right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech, there are appropriate and proper restrictions placed on agents of the state related to their actions while engaged in their official duties,” Carter said in a news release.

Pyle, whom Hamilton gave a warning for speeding, filed a formal complaint with state police on Jan. 14, and on the following day an internal investigation began and Hamilton was assigned administrative duties, the ISP said. The drafting of formal internal charges against the 14-year veteran began on March 9, and his hearing was scheduled for Thursday.

Pyle’s lawsuit did not name the state police as a defendant.

In 2014, Hamilton was sued following a similar traffic stop in which driver Ellen Bogan of Huntington accused him of violating her constitutional rights. He was given a written order on Aug. 29, 2014, saying that “in the course of his official duties, S/Trp Hamilton will not question others regarding their religious beliefs nor provide religious pamphlets or similar advertisements.”

Hamilton also was suspended without pay for 15 days in 2012 when he refused an order to investigate a rape complaint, saying he was off-duty when he was not.

A telephone message seeking comment was left at Hamilton’s home.

In her lawsuit, Pyle said Hamilton’s preaching was upsetting and unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop. She is seeking punitive damages and attorney fees. She also wants a jury trial.

Pyle does not have a published telephone number and she could not be reached for comment. A message seeking comment was left for an ACLU attorney.

]]> 0 Sat, 09 Apr 2016 18:43:04 +0000
Bernie Sanders to speak at conference hosted by Vatican Fri, 08 Apr 2016 22:47:56 +0000 NEW YORK — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, an enthusiastic fan of Pope Francis’ work, plans to speak next week at a conference hosted by the Vatican on social, economic and environmental issues.

The Vermont senator plans to head to Rome immediately after a high-profile debate scheduled here with Hillary Clinton on Thursday.

Sanders will speak at the gathering hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, he said.

“I am grateful to the Vatican for inviting me to talk about an issue that is very dear to my heart, which is how we create a moral economy that works for all of the people rather than just the top 1 percent,” Sanders said in an interview.

“I will also in my remarks be addressing the planetary crisis of climate change and the moral imperative to make sure we leave this planet in a way that is healthy and habitable for future generations,” he said.

Sanders, who would be the nation’s first Jewish president, often refers to Francis on the campaign trail, praising his leadership on economic and environmental issues.

Sanders said he believes he will be the only U.S. public official speaking at the gathering.

“I think the Vatican has been aware of the fact that, in many respects, the pope’s views and my views are very much related,” Sanders said.

“He has talked in an almost unprecedented way about the need to address income and wealth inequality, poverty and to combat the greed that we’re seeing all over this world, which is doing so much harm to so many people. . . . For me, it is an extraordinary honor to receive this invitation.”

The planned visit has also prompted a dispute among Vatican officials, Bloomberg Politics reported Friday.

Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which is hosting the event, said that Sanders didn’t follow proper protocol by failing to contact her office – which she termed a “monumental discourtesy” – and that his presence threatens to make the event political.

However, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the academy’s chancellor, said he had arranged the invitation and that Sanders’s presence is welcome.

]]> 6, 09 Apr 2016 18:44:25 +0000
Mormon conference urges common ground, tolerance at all levels Sat, 02 Apr 2016 23:20:49 +0000 SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon leaders called on members to practice tolerance despite political differences, providing the faith’s U.S. members guidance at a church conference Saturday amid a presidential campaign marked by harsh rhetoric.

The faith’s leaders also reiterated the belief that the religion is the only true church, and that its leaders are prophets speaking for the Lord. They implored members to be more thoughtful and sensitive toward children from all backgrounds, many of whom don’t come from “picture-perfect” families.

In a nod to the faith’s global footprint, five of 11 men announced as new members of a second-tier leadership council are from Guatemala, Argentina, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.

Church President Thomas S. Monson, 88, was in attendance, but he did not give any speeches.

The comments on politics came from Kevin R. Duncan, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy. He said people should be wary of resenting others because they belong to another religion, hold opposing political views or even root for a different sports team.

“Let us all remember that God looketh not upon the color of the jersey or the political party,” Duncan said. “In the competitions of life, if we win, let us win with grace. If we lose, let us lose with grace.”

Mormon leaders don’t endorse candidates or parties, but they may weigh in on what they consider crucial moral issues.

This presidential cycle, the church has defended religious liberty after Donald Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the U.S. It also renewed calls for an end to culture wars.

Neil L. Anderson of the Quorum of the Twelve urged members to embrace all the children of the faith – no matter their family situation.

“While a child’s earthly situation may not be ideal, a child’s spiritual DNA is prefect because one’s true identity is as a son or daughter of God,” Anderson said.

Anderson didn’t mention children of gay parents. The church came under fire last year when it announced new rules banning baptisms for children living with a gay or lesbian parent.

Those children are still welcome at church services. Church leaders have said the rules were intended to prevent children from being caught in a tug-of-war between teachings at home and church.

]]> 0, 02 Apr 2016 19:38:47 +0000
Religiosity of women remains a mystery Sat, 02 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 What do Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Siddhartha Gautama and Moses all have in common? Besides being religious figures, they are all men. Yet looking around the world, the majority of their followers are women.

Globally, more women than men identify with a religion, pray daily and say that religion is “very important” to them, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Around the world, 83.4 percent of women say they identify with a religion, compared with 79.9 percent of men, Pew says, meaning there are about 100 million more religiously affiliated women on the planet than men. But why?

This is an old question, one that experts have dubbed a “scientific puzzle.” Some researchers have argued that the difference is because of biology, some say that it’s a product of social and cultural factors, and some maintain that it’s both. But Pew’s data suggests that, at the very least, biology isn’t the only factor. Men and women’s religious behaviors and beliefs vary significantly by religious group and country, suggesting that the way men and women are raised and socialized does play a role.

The Pew study surveys six religious groups – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated – across 192 countries. It finds that, globally, women are more religious than men, while men make up 55 percent of the world’s religiously unaffiliated people.

This religious gender gap is even more pronounced in the United States, which is much more religious in general than other advanced economies. According to Pew, 64 percent of American women but only 47 percent of American men say they pray daily – compared with 30 percent of women and 28 percent of men in Canada and 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men in France. In the United States, 68 percent of atheists are men.

In the past, some researchers have argued that biology plays the most important role in this religious gender gap. One theory has been that higher levels of testosterone in men, which leads to more risk-taking behavior, also lead to a greater willingness to gamble on missing out on the afterlife. Other researchers have argued for biological explanations after observing that women with more “feminine” traits – like being affectionate, sympathetic, compassionate, tender and loving to children – are more likely to be religious.

But others insist that nurture – the way women and men are taught to behave and the values that they are taught to hold – is a more important influence on the religious differences between men and women than nature is.

Pew’s data may support this theory in two ways. First, it observes some big differences in the religious gender gap across different cultures – trends that suggest that men and women’s religious differences stem not just from biology but from culture.

Among Christians, women are more likely than men to attend services, pray daily, say religion is important, and believe in heaven, hell and angels. But among Muslims, the gender gaps are less consistent. Muslim men are a lot more likely to attend weekly religious services because of religious guidelines that encourage men to pray at mosques but allow women to pray at home. And while Muslim women are more likely than men to pray and believe in angels, other behaviors and beliefs are relatively the same between Muslim men and women.

Secondly, Pew finds that women’s religiosity varies somewhat depending on whether they work or stay home – a sign that religious beliefs might be affected by the environment men and women are exposed to. Women who work outside the home hold beliefs that are more similar to those of men, reporting lower levels of religious commitment than women who are not in the labor force, according to the survey. Or the causality could be the other way around – religious women could be more likely to stay home because of a belief in more traditional gender roles.

In addition, Pew finds that Christian countries in which more women work tend to have smaller religious gender gaps between men and women, though the trend doesn’t hold for other religious groups.

Researchers have floated numerous theories for how culture and social norms might create a religious gender gap. Some argue that, for women who didn’t traditionally work outside the home, the church offered the kind of social and psychological benefits that jobs offered to men, such as a personal identity and a social community.

Not having a job could also mean that women had more time for religious activities, or that women had less exposure than men did to the secularizing forces that have gradually come to predominate in public life.

Other theories include that women have been particularly pressured to be religious as a way to control their sexuality or that the Christian church has been less supportive of the identities of working women than of homemakers.

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Reflections: Practice leads us to self-realization, not perfection Sat, 02 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 A number of years ago, I practiced tae kwon do, a Korean martial art with an emphasis on kicks.

Tae means foot or to strike with the foot. Kwon means hand or to strike with the hand. Do means discipline, art, or way.

This art of the foot-hand-way taught me about practice. My instructor, Master Choi, often voiced: “Teresa, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes practice. It’s not about perfection, it’s about being in the practice.”

These words resonated as I listened to my grandson Jack express frustration while trying to dunk a basketball. I heard myself say: “It takes practice. All great athletes practice.”

My daughter chimed in: “You’ll get better with practice.”

Jack continued to aim for the hoop. While his frustration lessened, it didn’t immediately go away. He was not buying into our collective wisdom.

Many of us want to achieve instant results; we want to dunk the ball the first time. We want perfection and we want it without practice.

And yet, what does it really mean to practice? What is the art of practice all about?

In general terms, practice is defined as habitual or customary performance; repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring a skill or proficiency or a condition arrived at by experience or exercise.

We all know that practicing anything can be a humbling experience. Even though we enter into practice with enthusiasm and expectation, we learn that practice can be more challenging and frustrating than we anticipated. It doesn’t always come naturally or easily.

We often enter into practice intending to improve or to change something. We believe, if we meditate daily, we will calm down and become a better person. If we practice making the shot, we will dunk the ball and become a better athlete.

While some of our beliefs may be true, do we really practice to get better or to change something?

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, provides insight into the art of practice. She shares that people often enter into a spiritual practice with the intent to improve or transform themselves.

Yet a spiritual practice such as meditation is really about befriending who we already are. Right here, right now. This practice of self-realization allows us to get to know ourselves with interest and curiosity.

Practice doesn’t necessarily mean we need to change anything or become better at something. In fact, if we become so intent on changing or improving something, we may miss what is right in front of us.

One of the Buddhist teachings on self-realization is revealed in a story about four types of horses: the excellent horse, the good horse,the poor horse and the really bad horse.

The excellent horse is highly aware of the driver and the slightest sounds; this horse moves before the whip touches its back. The good horse moves at the lightest touch of the whip. The poor horse waits to feel the pain before moving, and the very bad horse doesn’t move until the pain intensifies and reaches its core.

Most of us want to be the excellent horse or at least second best. Yet the intent of our practice is not to become the best horse.

In fact, Buddhist teachings reveal that the very bad horse is most likely the best practitioner and the most valuable. It is often in our imperfections that we find our true selves. Those who have difficulty practicing will ultimately find more meaning.

This is a wonderful reminder that practice isn’t about being the best or the worst, it’s about finding our own true nature and voice so we can speak and act from this place. The practice of finding our own true nature is a continuous journey.

The art of practice is about trusting the basic goodness of who we already are, what we already have, and the wisdom that exists in all of it.

Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes practice, and it’s still wonderful when we dunk the ball the first time.

Teresa Schulz is a spiritual director, author, retreat facilitator and health care chaplain. She can be reached at

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Religion Calendar Sat, 02 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Dances of Universal Peace: chants from a variety of world spiritual traditions paired with simple circle dance movements. Suggested donation $5-$15. 2-4 p.m. Sunday. Creating Space Yoga Studio, 1717 Congress St., Portland. www.dancesof

To submit an item for the Religion Calendar, go to and click on the calendar tab.

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Street pastors practice caring, not conversion, on streets of Portland Thu, 31 Mar 2016 08:00:19 +0000 The six street pastors joined hands and prayed before heading out from the Salvation Army on Cumberland Avenue just after 9 p.m. Friday, armed with Tootsie pops to hand out to whomever they encountered in downtown Portland over the next five hours.

What’s a street pastor? That’s what most of the people wondered when they were greeted by a group of strangers dressed in matching coats and ball caps bearing the title.

Some whispered to their friends after passing by the troupe: Were they police? Preachers?

Others who were curious enough to ask them to their faces were surprised by their answer.

“We’re just here to spread love,” said Scott Loeffel of South Portland, leader of the team that was out Friday night.

In total, 38 members of five churches have volunteered to spend one Friday night a month patrolling the streets of Portland for people who could use their help, whether that’s lending an ear or calling a cab.

In their walking tour of the heart of Portland – from Oxford Street, over to Congress Square Plaza, through the Old Port and down Commercial Street – they said hello to everyone they passed, while looking out for anyone in need, from the homeless to bar hoppers.

Police officers have a nightly presence outside the bars in the Old Port, but their purpose is to prevent revelers from getting out of control, not to offer them a hand. Although street pastors in other communities have reported that their work has resulted in a reduction in crime, Portland police are unsure whether the addition to the downtown will be an asset or a nuisance to officers.

After attending an eight-hour training course at the beginning of March, the first team hit the streets two weeks ago.

Portland is the third U.S. city to have street pastors. The first group formed in 2013 in Chico, California, a college town with an active bar scene. The next year, another one came together in Bangor.


The organization got its start in London in 2003 as an initiative of Ascension Trust, an interdenominational Christian nonprofit. Street pastors are now at work in about 270 communities in the United Kingdom and 11 cities and towns in seven other countries, from Jamaica to Gibraltar.

Kurt Holmgren, the outreach pastor at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland, first heard about the program while listening to a podcast a couple of years ago, then read a book written by the founder of the street pastor program.

When he found out that a group existed in Bangor, he and a half-dozen people from his church went up to tag along for a night.

Since then, Holmgren has been working with the parent organization to get a group started in Portland, culminating with a launch event in January to recruit volunteers.

Every street pastor has to get a referral from his or her church and shell out $95 for a uniform and a background check.

A stipulation of the program is that the volunteers come from several churches, but, for now, most in Portland are members of Eastpoint, a congregation that’s rapidly growing and looking to relocate from a former warehouse by the Portland International Jetport into large, vacant store buildings near the Maine Mall.

Eastpoint paid to fly two trainers over from England and, so far, has covered the costs of supplies to hand out to people on the street, including water bottles, hand warmers, fleece jackets and flip-flops for women who want out of their heels.

Holmgren hopes donations will cover future expenses.

Members of the team walking its first shift Friday described their decision to volunteer as a calling.

Angela Story, Loeffel’s wife, said she felt a tug at her heart when she first heard about the mission, even though it was out of her comfort zone.

Not long after, she was talking to a childhood friend who is now a minister in London and the street pastors program came up without her mentioning it.

“I was like, OK, I get it, I’m supposed to be a part of it,” she said.

Jeff Verrill, a general contractor from North Yarmouth, said he sits in the back of the church during services and generally likes to stay behind the scenes. But when he heard about street pastors, something inside him told him to step up.

“I couldn’t explain it,” he said about the feeling he got.

Verrill believes it could be an unintrusive way to bring Christianity into the community.

“Knowing the spiritual deadness of New England, I felt that this was a good start,” he said. “We’re not judge. We’re not jury. We’re just out here showing people we care.”


Eustace Constance, operations director for Ascension Trust and one of the trainers who visited Portland from England, said churches often are accused of not being involved in their communities.

Having church members, many of them senior citizens, outside at night catering to the bar crowd is a way to help change that.

“They kind of think we should be in bed,” Constance said about the reaction from the public.

And they’re doing more than making sure people get home safely, he said.

“Wherever our street pastors operate, there’s a reduction in crime and social disorder,” Constance said.

Police in Bangor and Chico, however, couldn’t vouch for that in their cities. They said they’re aware the street pastors are out there, but don’t have much contact with them.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck applauds the group’s intent, but is skeptical about what impact it can have.

“I think that all remains to be seen,” he said. “They seem like nice folks trying to do the right thing.”

However, he worries that they could elicit a reaction they aren’t expecting or find themselves caught in the middle of a fight.

“I always have concerns for people’s safety when they’re out in certain settings at certain times,” Sauschuck said.

Sure enough, not long after bar closing time on Friday night, the street pastors were talking to a bar patron on Wharf Street when shoving within a group nearby turned to fisticuffs, just out of sight of the line of police officers squared off along Fore Street.

The street pastors’ training taught them not to get involved and they retreated from the scene.

For most of the night, their work consisted of conversations.

They talked to people outside the Oxford Street Shelter, a young man in a wheelchair and a woman who told the volunteers how she had lost custody of her son. In the Old Port, there were people happy to have someone to chat with while standing outside to smoke a cigarette, and bar doormen who were curious about their cause.

Conversation topics ranged from March Madness basketball to poverty in Mexico. For some who told of the difficulties they were facing in life, the street pastors asked if they could say a prayer and found that their words were welcome.

Although some people they encountered mocked their religious beliefs and questioned their motives, most changed their tune when they found out they weren’t trying to convert anyone.

Alyssa Russell, 27, of Portland assumed they were Jehovah’s Witnesses when they approached her and her friends outside Binga’s Stadium on Free Street, and was pleasantly surprised to learn their purpose – and to get a Tootsie pop.

“If they’re just out here talking and looking around to see if people need help, that’s great,” she said. “We need more people like that in our community.”


Near the end of the night, the street pastors were taking one last stroll down Fore Street when they saw a young woman by herself, without a coat, leaning against a fence, her head bent over her cellphone.

The two women on the team asked if she was all right, and soon found out she was having trouble standing, as she lost her balance while they spoke. She thought her friends had gone into the nearby Five Guys restaurant, but she couldn’t find them there or connect with them on the phone.

The street pastors gave her a bottle of water and helped her call her friends back, then waited with her, holding her steady, until someone came to pick her up.

Constance, the trainer from England, said it’s often not until after the fact that street pastors find out how much their help meant.

“People, their lives have been saved,” he said, noting instances where people have told street pastors they had been contemplating suicide on the nights they spoke with them. “You never know what you’ve averted until a person later comes up to you.”

And through those stories, their reputation has spread.

Much like the street pastors themselves, the organization doesn’t force itself on anyone, but provides support where it’s needed as new communities form their own teams.

“We don’t go knocking on doors and say do you want it,” Constance said about how cities end up with street pastors. “They get in contact with us and we take it from there.”


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Fast-growing Portland church finds a big-box answer to its space crunch Wed, 30 Mar 2016 08:00:00 +0000 SOUTH PORTLAND — The fast-growing Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland plans to move into two vacant big-box stores in a shopping plaza near the Maine Mall.

The unexpected location – in the former Bob’s Discount Furniture and HomeGoods building on Clark’s Pond Parkway – is one of many surprising aspects of the planned church.

The 92,000-square-foot building near a Home Depot and a Cinemagic movie theater would be six times larger than its current location, a 15,000-square-foot former DHL warehouse at 58 City Line Drive in Portland, near the Portland International Jetport.

The church plans to spend $7 million to buy the building and nearly six acres of land, and even more to convert the former big-box stores into a “community center with a church inside,” including a 1,500-seat auditorium, an indoor soccer field, an indoor basketball court and a 40-seat cafe.

Eastpoint’s pastors say they’re designing a newer style of church that’s meant to be totally engaged with the wider community and active seven days a week, not just on weekends. They were inspired when they recently visited the 242 Community Church in Brighton, Michigan. They walked in and saw sports news on big-screen TVs, a soccer field, a cross-fit center, a children’s play space and activity everywhere.

“They were offering the building as a gift to the community and that’s what we want to do,” said Kurt Holmgren, Eastpoint’s outreach pastor. “We could probably satisfy the needs of our church with 50,000 square feet, but we want to be more for the community.”

Eastpoint, a non-denominational, Bible-based church, has a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy the property. The project is allowed under city zoning and is on track for minor subdivision and site plan review by the Planning Board on May 10. Renovations would start in June and the church would move into the new space as early as February 2017, Holmgren said.

Eastpoint’s growth is unusual in Maine, which consistently ranks among the least religious states in America, along with the rest of New England. According to the Pew Research Center, only 34 percent of Mainers say religion is important in their lives and 22 percent say they attend worship services at least weekly.

The proposed Eastpoint Christian Church on Clark’s Pond Parkway in South Portland will create “a community center with a church inside” that is active seven days a week. Courtesy Dwight M. Herdrich Architecture + Design

The proposed Eastpoint Christian Church on Clark’s Pond Parkway in South Portland will create “a community center with a church inside” that is active seven days a week. Courtesy Dwight M. Herdrich Architecture + Design


Founded in 2004, Eastpoint’s following has tripled over the last five years, growing from 300 to 1,200 weekly attendants at its current address, including 120 middle and high school students, Holmgren said. It gradually outgrew three previous leased locations in South Portland and Scarborough. About 2,200 people attended Easter services last weekend and the church is adding a fourth service to its regular schedule this Sunday.

“We’re sort of bulging out of this space,” Holmgren said.

Lead Pastor Scott Taube credits the church’s growth to building relationships.

“It’s providing a place for people to come and be part of the community,” Taube said. “It’s based on our faith. Jesus is at the center of our community. The key for us is to help people know Jesus.”

Eastpoint considered moving to other locations in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook before settling on the former Bob’s and HomeGoods building, which is empty because the stores recently moved to new buildings at 700 Gallery Boulevard in Scarborough.

As communities across the United States increasingly deal with vacant big-box stores, it’s not uncommon to see them converted into churches, said Sarah Schindler, a land use and real estate law professor at the University of Maine School of Law. She wrote an article, “The Future of Abandoned Big Box Stores: Legal Solutions to the Legacies of Poor Planning,” which was published in the University of Colorado Law Review in 2012.

“Churches are definitely some of the uses we see going in, along with bowling alleys, libraries, municipal offices and schools,” Schindler said. “There aren’t many uses that can fill a space that big. It can be very expensive to redevelop these spaces and they really weren’t built to last.”


The land and building at 333 Clark’s Pond Parkway are owned by CPSP LLC, a company held by Joseph Soley of Portland, according to the church’s proposal. Part of a larger shopping plaza, the property has an assessed value of about $5.4 million and a yearly tax bill of about $93,960, according to the city assessor’s records. As a church, the property would no longer be subject to taxes.

Currently, 10 of the 13 storefronts in the shopping plaza appear to be empty.

The church project is being financed through The Solomon Foundation, a nonprofit investment group in Parker, Colorado, that helps to establish Christian churches and ministries.

Exactly how much the church would borrow depends on the extent of renovations necessary and how much can be raised in donations, including corporate contributions, Holmgren said. Creating indoor soccer and basketball spaces would require costly removal of interior pillars.

Plans for the new church also show a large student ministry room, 11 classrooms, five event rooms, two conference rooms, a 40-seat café, a scene-building shop and offices. The 1,500-seat auditorium, where church services would be held, would accommodate nearly four times as many people as the current worship space. It would feature a stage equipped with the latest performance-level lighting and sound equipment.

The church set up an email address – – to seek input from the wider community.

“This is a step of faith for us,” Holmgren said. “But we really believe this is the direction God wants us to go.”


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