It’s a building many people in Chicago recognize. Across the Chicago River from famed landmarks Marina City and the Tribune Towers, on East Wacker Drive, the 17th Church of Christ, Scientist resembles the shell of a giant tortoise, an upside-down cereal bowl or perhaps a concrete UFO.
The Christian Science faith is an institution much like the building itself-many people have walked by, but few have entered, so to speak. On March 18th, however, visitors were treated to an intimate introduction to this relatively new, American-born religion, the latest to be featured in the Council for the Parliament of World’s Religions “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project.
“Sharing Sacred Spaces” is an interreligious project focused on fostering cultural and spiritual understanding among Chicago’s faith communities. Each month, one of eight local congregations opens its doors for an afternoon to showcase its “sacred space” and unique spiritual traditions.
Upon arrival guests were ushered upstairs to the Church’s main auditorium, a large, tiered meeting space more akin to a university lecture hall than a traditional church sanctuary, save for an enormous organ whose pipes soar up to the high ceiling above the pulpit. While not overtly religious, the setting started to make sense after an introduction to the faith by congregation member Carol Hohle. Hohle began the program by sharing what her congregation had learned from the other participating “Sacred Spaces” communities.
“We’ve learned so much from previous Open Houses and found much that resonated,” she said. “To our Buddhist friends–we loved your spiritual grace and poise. And to the Presbyterians–we cherish that your faith is ‘reformed and always reforming.’ At Chicago Sinai, we were humbled by your practice of praying in a room with windows to remind you of the need to engage with humanity. At St. James, we learned about your All Saints Service and felt the power and comfort of remembering loved ones who have passed. And to our friends from Chicago Temple–we want you to know we have six hymns in our hymnal by Charles Wesley!”
A commitment to lifelong learning is one of Christian Science’s central beliefs. In fact, proponents of the faith are referred to as “Students of Christian Science.” For the faithful, God is not “distant and unknowable”. Christian Scientists believe it is possible for each individual to become intimately related to a God that is “always present and all-good.” Founded in Boston by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, the religion has an American flair, celebrating ideals like democracy, equality, and autodidacticism, or self-teaching.
The Christian Scientists’ most distinctive belief, though, concerns the healing power of God’s love. In the words of Baker Eddy herself, “health is not a condition of matter, but of mind.” This tenet revived the lost Christian element of healing-both physical wounds as well as spiritual and emotional ones.
The practice of the religion requires only two texts: the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with the Key to the Scriptures”. Christian Scientists are encouraged to study the texts both individually and as a congregation. A Sunday service for the Church of Christ, Scientist consists of readings from both texts by elected readers (the church has no designated minister or preacher but instead elects two lay people from the congregation to lead the service.)
The two scriptures are represented in large engravings at the front of the auditorium: on the left, from the Book of John, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” On the right, a quote from Mary Baker Eddy: “Divine love always has met and will always meet every human need.”
The auditorium (as well as the building itself) is intended to provide a “quiet oasis for prayer and study”, said Chicago architect Laura Fischer, explaining the 44-year-old building’s architecture and history to the audience. As a nod to the Church’s democratic policies, architect Harry Weiss modeled the auditorium after a Greek amphitheater, with no seat being farther than 50 feet from the readers’ podium. The four-story worship space was topped with a large cupula, or “lantern” that let the light of the bright spring day into the building. From the outside, the lantern looks a bit like a crown perched atop the seven-story building.
After Fischer’s remarks about the building and its architecture, guests broke into small groups led by members of the congregation, who talked about their personal experiences as students of Christian Science and answered questions from the “Sacred Spaces” participants.
Not surprisingly, most guests were curious about the members’ experiences with healing.
Lois Rae Carlson, a member of the congregation and a Christian Science Practitioner, is devoted full time to healing others through spirituality. She described many of her own health problems, including a broken bone in her arm and a growth in her stomach, that were healed through what she described as “a byproduct of an interaction with God.”
Experiences with healing are not only physical, however. Through proper study, emotional and spiritual wounds can be healed as well. Carlson spoke about healing a troubled relationship with her mother as well as learning to love and care for herself emotionally.
The Christian Science perspective is not unlike that of the “Sacred Spaces” project; the belief that by breaking down barriers, letting go of preconceived notions about identity and spirituality we are not only able to heal what ails us, but to thrive.
At the fifth gathering of the monthly “Sharing Sacred Spaces” program, the Rev. Phil Blackwell, Senior Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in the Chicago Loop, mentioned it was not uncommon for passers-by to mistake the church for a bank or hotel.
The passers-by could be forgiven. At street level, the skyscraper, which sports a minimalist facade, gilded revolving doors, and a sparkling, and tiled lobby, (complete with a concierge) blends in neatly with its urban surroundings.
However, visitors to 77 W. Washington Street need only tilt their heads toward the sky to realize this is no ordinary skyscraper. Perched atop the 23 floors sits a resplendent carved steeple, topped with a polished gold cross.
The Church was the latest in a series of interfaith events put on by the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions’ “Sharing Sacred Spaces” program, which brings together people from different spiritual and religious traditions. Each month, one of eight participating congregations from the Chicago area opens its doors to others for an afternoon to showcase their own space and share their beliefs and traditions. Other participating congregations include a Buddhist temple, a Jewish Reform congregation, an Episcopal cathedral, an Islamic center, and Christian Science, Presbyterian and Catholic churches.
photos by John White
“I’ve been to a lot of interfaith exchanges before,” said Jennifer Butler, a “Sacred Spaces” guest, “but most of them have been in a neutral location. They haven’t been in a place of worship. I think it’s a neat way to be welcomed in and get a sense of hospitality.” The events spread “a universal message of brotherhood,” said Ahmed Nayamuth, another guest. “Its good to build bridges and share the same thing-the common milk of human kindness.”
On February 19th, 2012, guests of the program were greeted with a tour that showcased the Temple’s neo-gothic sanctuary, which featured ornate vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows, including one showcasing the Methodist Church’s history in Chicago, depicting jewel-like versions of the buildings in the city’s skyline. A carving under the window quoted the book of Revelation: “And John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of Heaven.” Carved angels sat atop the ceiling, gazing down at the visitors.
After a visit to the sanctuary, guests filed into the elevators, which opened directly into the Church’s art gallery on the second floor. The current exhibit, a chilling installation entitled “Urban Dolorosa”, memorializes the more than 300 children who have been killed in Chicago since 2008. Child-sized chairs, lined up to simulate a classroom, stand empty in front of long lists of the names of Chicago children lost to violence. The exhibit is an example of Methodists’ commitment to social justice and Chicago Temple’s commitment to its urban community.
Their urban location translates into a diverse mix of people, backgrounds, and heritages. The church boasts 700 members and 300 constituents from every zip code in the city. This location also gives the church an opportunity to interact with the urban community in new, immediate ways.
For example, the downtown location is open from 7 AM to 9 PM seven days a week, which gives the homeless what associate pastor Claude King describes as “a place of prayer and solace…a place to pour out their troubles to the world.” The sanctuary provides a place for the needy to seek shelter, especially during the frigid Chicago winters. Rev. King says the fact the church provides a place to stay for “people who are not seen as human beings in the city of Chicago…makes it even more sacred.”
The urban environment also grants the “skyscraper church” a financial advantage. Since it was completed in 1923, floors five through 21 have been rented out as office space (famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow once held an office on the 6th floor.) The pragmatic decision to open the building to non-religious business ushered in a new marriage of religion and commerce, giving the church a built-in source of income. The dual use of the building kept the Methodist Church afloat during bleak economic periods like the Great Depression.
“The fact that they’ve succeeded for almost 100 years in that building means they’re good at adapting to that commercial process,” said Robert Rogers, a retired architect and Sacred Spaces participant, who called the building’s mixed-use “innovative.”
The afternoon concluded with a recital of traditional hymns like “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” and not-so-traditional meditative Taizé chanting. (Taizé is a type of ecumenical worship that emphasizes prayer, meditation, and introspection. The church holds a Taizé prayer service once a week.) Music has played a huge role in Methodist liturgy since the faith’s very inception. Charles Wesley, who along with his brother, John, is credited with founding the Methodist Church, wrote the words to many of Christianity’s favorite hymns, including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”.
After the event’s conclusion, guests were invited to view the church’s “Sky Chapel”, a small sanctuary built into the skyscraper’s steeple 400 feet above the city. After visitors completed the trek to the top, which included two elevator rides and a climb up a staircase, they were greeted to a view only a “skyscraper church” could offer. Inside, a quiet place for prayer and meditation high above the busy streets of downtown Chicago is a sacred space which simultaneously rests within the city but also transcends it.
Kazan is the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of 21 semi-autonomous ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. It is a beautiful city located at the convergence of the Volga and Kazan Rivers about 700 kilometers east of Moscow. I first traveled to Kazan during a post-college backpacking trip in which I spent three months traveling and photographing in Russia from the European side through Siberia. As part of a riverboat cruise down the Volga, I briefly stopped in the port city of Kazan and was immediately struck by the city’s palpable sense of history. I photographed mosques and churches and crescent flags flying over government buildings. It felt to me to be unlike any other place in Russia, a feeling that stayed with me over the years.
As a documentary photographer, a lot of the work I’ve done in the States has been with the Muslim community. I was profoundly affected by seeing such negative representations of Islam in the media, particularly after 9/11. When I started developing this project in Kazan, I was interested to look at Islam in the context of Russia, a country that was just starting to rediscover religion after 70 years of Communism, but once I started working on the project, I realized that there was so much more to the story.
The dismantling of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s kindled a slow but steady religious movement in the Republic of Tatarstan and across Russia. In Kazan, churches and mosques were rebuilt, the Tatar language became an official language of Tatarstan alongside Russian, and ancient traditions kept alive in small villages began seeping back into the city. The 2000s brought a safer and more stable environment for the city’s inhabitants and with that came a stronger resurgence of religious and cultural expression, particularly among the youth. In a city divided almost equally between Tatars and Russians, Muslims and Christians, this process has unfolded not only with a marked lack of tension, but also with a spirit of mutual respect and exchange.
In 2011, I traveled to Kazan to begin photographing. What I witnessed was a picture of tolerance that is governmentally mandated, religiously guided and personally experienced. In 2005, the Tatarstan government rebuilt their Kremlin to incorporate both the Orthodox Church and a new mosque. Last year Tatarstan’s president created a governmental department dedicated to supporting inter-religious dialogue and to suppress any form of religious extremism. Religious leaders periodically gather to discuss ways in which the groups can work together and to hold events geared toward interreligious communication. The Kazan Seminary and the Russian Islamic University both have a long history of promoting tolerance and personal freedom and students from the two institutions occasionally meet for an inter-scholastic soccer match.
Most striking, however, were the personal relationships the people of Kazan have to religion, culture and each other. At its heart, this is a story of rediscovery. Tatarstan has a long history of tolerance and Russian society in general is imbued with a very deep sense of humanity. In the religious and cultural reawaking both Tatars and Russians have been experiencing over the past 20 years, they are also honoring the open-minded attitudes of their ancestors. Time and again, people would share with me how proud they are that they live in a society where they don’t fear expressing their religious identities. I truly believe that Kazan has some very important lessons for the world.
I am excited by what I’ve accomplished in the time that I had, but there is much more work to be done to see this project through to the end. Photography projects such as this take time and resources that are unfortunately increasingly scarce in today’s world. Last year I self-funded my work in Russia but this year I am using the platform of Kickstarter to raise money to return to Kazan and finish the project. Kickstarter has created an invaluable resource for photographers to engage in these long-term projects that have an incredible impact in the world. The platform of Kickstarter is such that you’re not just donating money to a project, but you also receive a great reward for your generosity. You can see the project here: http://kck.st/x6TE1T
The caveat is that Kickstarter has a firm deadline policy. After the March 8th, 9AM deadline, anyone wishing to donate can just go to my blog and donate there. I will keep in place the exact same reward levels for donations, just email me with your name and address so I can send the rewards! For my blog, please go here: www.alisonshuman.com/dissolvingborders
My deepest desire is for this story to serve as an example from which we, Tatars and Russians included, can all learn. Regardless of a region’s history or government, it is the people who ultimately choose cooperation over conflict. This is a perspective that is largely missing from but desperately needed by our global community.
People and groups of faith inspired by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City are organizing events in NYC’s “Liberty Plaza” and around the country. We’ve compiled a list of some of these upcoming protests. We would love to add other cities! Please leave all faith-related happenings in the comments, or tweet us @HuffPostRelig so we can add to the list.
On Saturday, June 18, 2011, individuals and groups all over the world gathered at the kinds of places most people tend to avoid: clear-cut forests, polluted inner-city rivers, Superfund sites, an autobahn in Switzerland, and the site of rare and endangered trees in Bolivia. The people who participated in the Global Earth Exchange didn’t go to these sites to protest. They weren’t even there to clean up the mess.
Instead they gathered to tell their personal stories about what these places meant to them, to spend reflective time there, and to make an “act of beauty” out of found materials, usually a bird, symbol of Radical Joy for Hard Times, the non-profit organization that sponsored the event.
According to Trebbe Johnson, founder and executive director of Radical Joy for Hard Times, “People love the natural places in their communities. When those places are destroyed, they feel sorrow, anger, guilt. The relationship doesn’t end just because the place has changed, even if it’s changed drastically. By reconnecting to these wounded places they affirm their love of the wild places in their communities and empower themselves to act in positive ways to take care of these places.” The organization, which was founded in 2009, is headquartered in Thompson, PA with a network that is worldwide.
The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who coined the term “solastalgia,” meaning “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault,” joined the Global Earth Exchange at a dying forest in Jarrahdale, Perth, Australia. Students and faculty of Naropa University gathered at Valmont Coal Plant in Boulder, Colorado, and a native of Tucson tried to make peace with the housing developments that are spreading over the desert wilderness she used to hike in. Stories and photos can be found on the Radical Joy for Hard Times website.
In this short article, Smialowski presents photos and interviews exploring a new trend amongst Hindu immigrants to the United States. His article reveals that many Hindu immigrants are sending their American children to summer camp to maintain their religious identities.
Karen Armstrong spoke this past month at a special gathering hosted by the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions in Palo Alto, California. The celebrated author and founder of the Charter for Compassion addressed the ethos of compassion and the work of the Charter.
“Compassion is not just an attitude of sloppy benevolence, it requires practical action. It requires a sense of responsibility,” said Armstrong. “It’s not an impratical dream. It’s a necessity for our survival. We have to treat people, whoever they are, with respect.”
Armstrong also lifted up the collaborative nature of the work of the Charter for Compassion, and highlighted the partnership between the Charter and CPWR, particularly the integration of the Charter with the work of the Council’s Partner Cities Network
“This is the task of our time…to make the compassionate voice of religion, spirituality, morality a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our troubled world.”
Delegates of the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia:
This is you!
To all sponsors, speakers, performers, organizers and delegates, we offer the heartfelt thanks of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and all of our encouragement as you go forward to make a world of difference.
In the meantime, we hope to see you on PeaceNext, our official social network.