St. Mary's Episcopal Church fresco
Fresco by artist Benjamin Long in St. Mary's Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, N.C.
How one defines his or her faith is a personal matter, yet it is not uncommon to engage in a search for meaning. That search may take one to an Ashram in India or a rural Southern Baptist congregation, from a loosely defined sense of faith to formal worship with liturgical significances.
Talking about religion and faith explores identities at the individual and community level. Believers who have found comfort in one tradition may be at odds with believers of another—sometimes due only to fear or uncertainty. Yet coexistence makes it important to examine how to embrace one’s own sense of truth while allowing others the right to have that same experience. Certain threads tie seemingly different spiritual paths together on a search for a life filled with integrity, connection and authenticity, as well as a sense of belonging.
For well over a century people from all over the country and even the world have been drawn to the serenity of these mountains. Today people in search of health and spiritual enlightenment still flood into them. This surge of newcomers may seem problematic to those who so strongly value and respect the region’s traditionally conservative heritage. Yet changing generations have made it so that following a religion because one’s parents and grandparents did is less and less accepted as people search for meaning in a way that makes sense to them and their individual values. Change may come while still respecting roots and culture though, and in the process those who have found faith may find new friends. Recently the congregation at The New Vision Presbyterian Church in Conover, N.C., blended with a Spanish-speaking church, resulting in big changes to the way the group worships. Dr. Gary VanBrocklin has worked with the church closely through the transition. “Because they are sure in their identity they have the grace to say ‘we can change, and we’re even interested in learning some Spanish’,” VanBrocklin said.
VanBrocklin serves as the Department Chair and Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural and Biblical Studies at Montreat Conference Center, nestled in the mountains outside of Black Mountain, N.C. He grew up in a mountain revivalist religious tradition before joining the Presbyterian Church alongside his wife. One of his favorite parts of the Presbyterian service is when members of the congregation confess their sins and the pastor responds, “Your sins are forgiven,” to which comes the response, “Thanks be to God.” For VanBrocklin, having someone objectively say something about a very interior part of his being—his sense of unworthiness—brings together his need as a struggling human and the revelation of the Gospel. As a pastor he finds joy in his role of voicing God’s action of forgiveness through Jesus Christ to his congregants. Objectifying a subjective experience that everyone is going through not only serves to feed the individual but creates a connected community based on a shared sense of seeking forgiveness from God.
Rather than seeking objectivity for the subjective experience, Shambhala teaches that a good society begins with two people at home. People of different religions follow the secular tradition of Shambhala meditation practices. Meditation begins to “train your mind to be with your body,” says Charlotte Bernard from the Asheville Shambhala Meditation Center.
“In Shambhala our whole life is where we practice,” Bernard said. “We first connect with our heart, our success, our failures, and then our goodness. And then we look at how we relate with others in our daily lives.”
By learning not to connect with one’s human experience with the things one owns or the relationships in one’s life, one is able to just be and find a new clarity. Daily practice of Shambhala is not about trying to fix everything. It’s about connecting with humanity and allowing what is to simply be. Meditating is about learning about oneself so that one may then connect with one’s environment. Bernard believes that each country and culture has its own history and that the United States has a deep sense of unworthiness embedded in its societal narrative. Therefore reconnecting with humanity is important. American society is so focused on performance that it becomes hard to realize one’s goodness and the goodness in everything.
“You do not experience anything through someone else,” Bernard said. “You need to experience the world through yourself. The first act of bravery is to sit on the cushion and connect with yourself.”
When one does this one realizes how judgmental one is toward himself or herself and can start the process of shifting one’s focus so that one can connect with his or her goodness.
Accepting life for what it is and acknowledging the mystery of it is what drives Erin Marie and Powell Wheeler of Clyde, N.C., to a liturgical worship at the Christ Anglican Church in Asheville, N.C.
“Many churches fall into this trap where they feel they have to explain everything about what’s happening in people’s lives,” Powell said. “Liturgy takes you above life’s experiences. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. It simply says I have no idea why this is happening, but I’m going to fall back and trust in God to just get me through it.”
That is precisely the faith that Elizabeth Swanger, of Canton, N.C., finds helping her through her days. Confined to a nursing home at the young age of 58, her body is deteriorating from progressive multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, an illness so devastating it could certainly shake one’s faith, make one bitter or at least give way to pity parties. When asked why her faith means so much to her Swanger simply responds, “Why would it not?” Swanger’s journey began at the age of seven when she started getting herself up each Sunday morning to walk alone to church. She can’t remember who introduced her to the Baptist Church, but she has remained a faithful believer her entire life. She felt drawn to the Gospel as a young child and it continues to give her encouragement. Her hope lies beyond what she experiences in this world and her belief in an eternity where she will be united with her Saviour. She gracefully accepts the mystery behind why her body is breaking down and has decided to trust God to take care of her.
Sometimes the mystery behind life’s tragedies is too great and a person can find their faith diminished to non-belief. Gary Kleiner settled in Asheville with his wife and young daughter in 2011. Born in Poland, Kleiner emigrated to the United States at the age of nine and settled into Chicago with his family. His father, Moishe Kleiner, was one of approximately eight survivors of the Holocaust out of a Jewish population of 30,000 in what was then a town in Poland—Volodymyr Volynskyy (it now belongs to the Ukraine). For Moishe it was important to carry on the Jewish tradition with his family even though he was an atheist by then, as Moishe wondered how could God allow the things to happen that he had witnessed. He married Eugenia Bukadorova, a girl from Stalingrad who had lived through the war as a young person simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As an adult, Kleiner was watching “The World at War,” a British documentary on World War II, and his mother came in the room as the TV depicted German planes carpet-bombing a city not yet named on the show. His mother quietly remarked, “That’s Stalingrad.” Gary looked at his mother and asked, “How do you know?” She simply said, “I was there.”
In his early twenties Gary took off for India, where he spent the next 33 years of his life “finding God finding him.” This phrasing is important to him because searching is about “finding what was never lost, and losing what we never had,” he says. Open to understanding himself as a spiritual person, he says “liberation is never for the person, it is from the person.” He thirsts to have a deep understanding of who God is and what he must do in this lifetime that is consistent with his beliefs. Theology and philosophy drive him, and he drinks openly from the words of Meher Baba, a twentieth-century Indian mystic and spiritual master who believed himself to be the incarnation of God.
This deep connection to God is what three years ago motivated Erin and Powell Wheeler to begin attending the Christ Anglican Church in Asheville, which is related to the Anglican Mission in the Americas based on the African continent. They became worn out from what they claimed was the Sunday morning circus where churches try to make each service more cool and exciting than the last. The family’s search took them into a deep love for liturgy because it provides a structure that keeps the service very focused on God and connects them to something larger. Even though it is distinctly Protestant, the Anglican liturgy is related to the Roman Catholic liturgy, which can trace its roots back to the time of the early Christian church. By participating in the liturgical service each week Powell feels he is part of something bigger. Celebrating communion at church is connected to what his spiritual forefathers did. It provides a way for him to come into the presence of God, connect with him, and walk away knowing that he has done something significant that Christians around the world and throughout time have done.
Physically going through the service with its symbols and mystery behind them makes it more of a holistic experience for Erin—it is more than just sitting there and listening. The structure is not based on how one feels at that particular moment in time. It guides one into worship and into the presence of God through the words and the creeds that one says and everything leads to communion. It’s a well-worn path, and Erin takes comfort in this. Saying the creed expresses and reaffirms what she believes, even if she is feeling doubt. At the end of each service they recite, “We’ve sat at your feet, learned from your Word, eaten from your Table.” Staying present in the actions leading to this moment is what keeps the ritual alive and full of meaning.
“It’s not manipulation or imposition but a way for us to say every week that we are lost and here is a way for us to be found,” VanBrocklin says. “It’s about knowing who Jesus is and his connectedness in the world, with nature, with people, with society and we take our brokenness and weave it together with the hope of the Gospel.”
On the other end of the spectrum that is Christianity, Russ and Rachel Leaptrot, residents of Asheville, find that it is the absence of ritual that brings them deeper into their relationship with God. Raised Southern Baptist in a church where four generations of his family helped to build the church, Russ grew up sitting in the same pew as his grandparents and found his roots firmly planted. As he grew up, however, he rebelled against the teachings from his youth. In 2005 he headed off to Alaska’s Denali National Park, where he met his wife, Rachel, who was also of a Christian background. She remained a believer in her heart even though church became less important to her as she went on to college. Meeting each other allowed them to reconnect with what they believed over the course of several years, and together they have reaffirmed their commitment to the Gospel. Their spiritual understanding has shifted from their childhoods into something much more personal and in touch with how they define their needs for faith as adults. None of their friends were Christians—the appeal of Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies was much more acceptable—yet Rachel and Russ each decided that they needed to be true to their beliefs.
Russ and Rachel eventually found themselves attending The Body Church after they relocated to Asheville. “It was kind of a hippie church,” Rachel said. It was “on-purpose unstructured,” which allowed Russ and Rachel to dive into the Word and see God’s true nature toward them. From there they have started attending a new church that has encouraged them to dive even deeper into their relationship with God and the Bible. They appreciate that they have found a religion where it’s no longer about putting on their Sunday best, but about truly connecting from the heart. And ironically, now that he has found a new faith tradition, Russ has developed a deep appreciation and affection for his childhood church.
The connections between body and mind, belief and action, or choices and consequences is what brings religion alive in one’s daily life—whether one practices something formalized or simply believes in the goodness one should reach for with or without a higher power. Acknowledging one’s vulnerability compels a search for meaning and a willingness to ask oneself questions to find who one really is.
Jesus is recorded as saying “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17 KJV). Many lament that they know what they need to do in their lives to live their best life, yet they don’t do it. Connecting one’s daily choices with one’s beliefs is a task regardless of religious belief or thought.
“We all are fractured and fragile people and we need to acknowledge our need for a higher sense of healing than what we can provide ourselves,” VanBrocklin said. “I don’t want to be lost in my emotions—I want to be anchored in something that is real and goes beyond emotions. It can’t be imposed on people, and we need to feel free to seek that which is authentic.”