Connecting Lawrence through religion
Kansan Arts columnist Katie Counts explores six different belief systems in the Lawrence community, including Roman Catholicism, atheism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Belief is a powerful thing. It shapes thoughts and values and provides guidance. Many people find themselves in their beliefs, especially in college.
Everyone is searching for themselves in some way. Some people switch beliefs, lose them altogether, and others grow in their beliefs.
To better understand this process, I went to a Catholic Mass, an atheist club meeting, an Islamic Jummah, Jewish Shabbat dinner, Buddhist meditation, and I talked to a Hindu about her beliefs. At each place, I spoke with a University student about basic values, lessons, perceptions, exploring what it means to have faith (or not).
I didn’t do this project to pick a belief or find myself. I did this because I wanted to learn. There is so much in this world past what I understand and it’s important to explore that.
Going to all of these different places and meeting these people was a profoundly beautiful experience. No matter what you believe, I hope you take the chance to try something like this someday.
Despite growing up in a very Roman Catholic area, I had never been to a Mass. But because I grew up with a Christian background, I figured I would start with Catholicism. I hoped that it would be an easy transition into my project.
On Feb. 25, I arrived at the St. Lawrence Center for 5 p.m. Mass. There, I met Kelsi McLaughlin, an alumna from Olathe who studied environmental science during her time at the University. I expected that it would be similar to the church I went to at home, but as we entered the chapel, I realized it was much different.
Light streamed through the stained glass windows near the back, washing the building with a sense of calm. Wooden pews filled the room, facing an image of the crucifixion. I watched as McLaughlin made the sign of the cross before entering the chapel. To the side of the church, an organ rested with towering pipes. It was quiet, aside from the holy water flowing from a fountain as we settled into the pews.
Soon after that, the service began and it was filled with routine. Stand up, sit down, say this in Latin, say that in English, sing this. Before I knew it, I was incredibly lost, but for a while, I just stayed quiet and soaked it in.
Everyone’s voices blended together in unified harmony as they read through the hymns.
The priest gave a brief homily about what we had read and before I knew it, the Mass was over. Afterward, McLaughlin and several others invited me to dinner in the basement of the St. Lawrence Center. We ate biscuits and gravy prepared by other students, and we just talked.
“Uniform and traditional”
The Mass we had experienced felt nothing like the church I grew up in. It was ordered and formal, but I was fascinated by the sense of tradition.
“It just been passed down and it’s never changed,” McLaughlin said. “It’s always the same. In a world that is ever-changing, it’s really cool to see something that has stayed the same throughout history. It’s constant. Not only is [it] the one thing that stays constant in my life, but it stays constant in all of history.”
The Catholic Church is often criticized for being too “uniform,” but within the uniformity, there was still room for individuality.
“The church, while it is really uniform and traditional, like when you go to Mass everyone sits and stands at the same time. You can feel anonymous in it,” McLaughlin said. “But at the same time, your relationship with Jesus is so personalized. What you struggle with is so personalized.”
A sense of belonging
The Roman Catholic Church is often called the “universal church” for a good reason. The faith is a community at every level; from one church to the whole world.
I learned what we had read that day was the same for every church, everywhere in the world. The church sets specific readings for certain days so Mass can be almost the same everywhere. Because of that, every Roman Catholic Church and every Catholic is connected.
“It’s just something that breaks boundaries,” McLaughlin said. “It doesn’t give into any sort language boundary or time zone boundary.”
Having grown up in a church that was so individualized, I was fascinated by this deeper sense of community.
“The sense of belongingness goes outside of this church,” McLaughlin said. “It goes outside of St. Lawrence Center. Because I belong to the Catholic Church, I know that even when I leave college… I will still belong to the church.”
Love and forgiveness
So much of Christianity is about forgiveness, and Catholicism is not an exception. People are so aware of just how human they are.
You can feel how humbling it is. Everyone walks in and makes the sign of the cross to represent humility.
“We are all human and I’m never going to be perfect,” McLaughlin said. “Nobody is going to be perfect, but we just keep trying. That’s all we can do.”
A lot of people criticize the Catholic Church, saying it focuses too much on punishment for your sins, but McLaughlin said that is not what it is about.
“We are called to love and they are worth love,” McLaughlin said. “Every single person on this planet is worth love. I think that’s the main thing that shapes everything. Mercy is giving people the dignity that they deserve, no matter what they’ve done, no matter who they are.”
Which is honestly the most important aspect of Catholicism and Christianity. Catholicism may seem old and strict, but its history carries the same values: tradition, community and love.
Since atheists do not have a traditional service or meeting space, I attended a meeting of Secular Jayhawks, a group of nontheists at the University.
When I walked into the Union for the meeting on March 14, I was unsure what to expect. With traditional religious beliefs, I had a vague idea of what worship would be like. But what do atheists do when they gather?
Secular Jayhawks typically meets on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. Normally they listen to speeches, talk about trending news and they occasionally host a cheesy Christian movie night. But this meeting was a speech delivered by the former president of American Atheists, David Silverman.
Silverman grew up in a Jewish household but later became an atheist. From there, he became active in the atheist community and eventually became the president of American Atheists.
Silverman advocates for what is called “firebrand atheism” which focuses on actively speaking about atheism. Some of the main points of this included “religion is a scam,” “God is not real” and “do not give into the scam.”
I had no problem with any of these statements, but his presentation deeply unsettled me. A big focus of firebrand atheism is “deconverting” others and I believe it is no one’s job to change someone else’s mind simply because you think they’re wrong. If you are not harming anyone with your beliefs, why should it matter? As it turns out, I had due reason to feel unsettled by Silverman.
In April, Silverman was terminated from his presidency of the American Atheists according to a statement released by the organization. The termination comes with reports of financial misconduct and allegations of sexual assault which were reported by Buzzfeed News.
While Silverman may have been a prominent figure in the atheist community, he does not represent every atheist. After the presentation, I got to talk with one of the members of Secular Jayhawks, Robert Honeychurch.
Honeychurch joined Secular Jayhawks his freshman year. He is an incoming sophomore psychology major from Chapman. He grew up in a semi-religious family, but as he got older, he felt a call to atheism.
“There’s a valuement of truth,” he said.
Honeychurch simply does not believe in God or supernatural beings. He sees religion as more of a social system than a meaningful one.
“Religion is not necessarily adhered to because people believe in it,” Honeychurch said. “A lot of it is because people want a community, a social cohort that provides them a family and that’s missing from a lot of modern society.”
Honeychurch sees a lot of flaws in many of the religious systems — from the strict dogma to extremism to forced conversion.
“Replace those with philosophical values, then people don’t get into huge family splitting arguments,” Honeychurch said. “We don’t fight wars over [religion]. We can create a better more inclusive community.”
“I’d probably be disowned”
Honeychurch and I discussed freely about his beliefs, but the reality of atheism is not that easy. Being an atheist can be hard, especially in the U.S.
Atheists, agnostics or people unaffiliated with religion account for 22.8 percent of the U.S. population according to a 2014 Pew Research study. Yet some have a tendency to associative being an atheist with being a “bad person.”
When surveyed, atheists were viewed the second to least favorable out of major religions. Many people struggle to admit they do not believe in a higher power because there could be backlash from their community.
Having grown up in a small, fairly religious town, Honeychurch experienced this stigma first hand. While he was able to be open about his beliefs with his parents, he kept his atheism quiet to many of his other relatives.
”If I told anyone else in my family, I’d probably be disowned,” Honeychurch said.
“Your own philosophical course”
More than anything, Honeychurch identifies himself as a humanist. He explained it to me in the words of author Kurt Vonnegut, “Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.”
Many religions list a set of basic morals or values, but with atheism, you have to think about how you want to exercise your moral code. It’s all about your personal choice.
“Atheism, to me at least, is breaking beyond that,” Honeychurch said. “Chart your own philosophical course.”
I personally connected with this because I believe it is extremely valuable to question your beliefs, no matter what they are. Questioning shows you what you value, what you don’t and most importantly why.
“Realizing who you are in the world, understanding what the world is and wanting to expand knowledge for its own sake should be more important than constraining the universe to your own personal preconceived notions,” Honeychurch said.
This was the most valuable thing I took out of the experience. Regardless of who you are, it is important to be curious about the world. Atheism isn’t about degrading religion. Atheism is about seeking your own beliefs and forging your own path.
As I pulled up to the parking lot of the Islamic Center of Lawrence on April 13, I was not sure what to expect. Growing up, I had few Muslim friends but I had never gotten to experience worship. I was worried I would feel like an outsider.
However, when I met my guide Samia Mansour near the front door, my worries disappeared. Mansour, an architecture student and member of the Muslim Student Association, greeted me warmly. It wasn’t required, but she suggested I bring a scarf. She helped me fashion it into a hijab and we headed upstairs to the prayer room.
The space was simple. There were no chairs or pews: just a red, patterned carpet and a couple of shelves filled with prayer mats and Qurans. Two TVs were mounted in the corners displaying one of the other prayer rooms.
While prayer is performed five times a day, Friday at 1:30 p.m. is when the Islamic Center does a full service, called Jummah. This includes khutbah (a message) and salah (prayer).
Mansour and I settled into a space near the back until the khutbah began. The man delivering it spoke in Arabic, though Mansour told me it’s normally done in English. Needless to say, I was lost in a language I didn’t understand, so I began to look around.
There were a couple of other women and the room and a few little kids. The kids ran around laughing and giggling, but many of the women sat with their eyes closed in concentration. While I had no clue what the message was about, I could feel the power through them.
After the khutbah, we moved to the side of the room to pray. In stages, we would stand, bend down and bow our heads gently touching the ground. The room was quiet as the women whispered their prayers. Listening to them was a humbling experience. Prayer is sacred in all religions, but I could truly feel the power of it in Islam.
Once the prayer wrapped up, Mansour and I settled down to talk for a bit.
“Be attached to helping people”
Mansour walked me through some of the five pillars of Islam and explained to me what the khutbah was about, and its focus on being thankful for what you have and making sure to give to others. This directly matches with charity, another is one of the pillars.
“Even if it’s just a dollar, help out as much as you can,” Mansour said. “Everything on this earth is so materialistic and superficial. That’s not going to matter at the end of the day. You die, your wealth is not a thing.”
This is a lesson Mansour takes from her personal life. Even when Mansour’s family was dealing with financial stress, they still tried to help out where they can. As does the Islamic Center, which actually has a number of families that they support.
But charity is more than just donating money, it also means we should extend kindness. Mansour believes that you should try your hardest to be kind to everyone, no matter who they are, Muslim or non-Muslim.
“Be attached to helping people,” Mansour said.
“There’s a reason behind everything”
An unfortunate reality of our society is that Islam is not always viewed so kindly. Islam is sometimes associated with violence, extremism and oppression.
Around 35 percent of adult Americans directly link Islam with extremism and 25 percent believe that Muslims are anti-American according to the Pew Research Center. To Mansour and the Quran itself, that’s not what Islam is about, especially in relation to the treatment of women.
“I think there’s this idea in Western culture and Western society that they got it all figured out,” Mansour said. “The oppression of women is across the world.”
In fact, a great deal of Islam focuses on questioning your beliefs and making your own decisions.
“Do not blindly follow,” Mansour said. “Know why you’re following. If you have questions, it’s big on questioning. ‘Why is this the way it is?’ Because there’s a reason behind it. There’s a reason behind everything.”
Her father taught her, “Follow it because you read it. Follow it because you know it. Follow it because you love it.”
“It’s a lot to handle wearing your religion on your shoulders”
Mansour has experienced a lot of growth in her faith while in college. In fact, Mansour recently started wearing her hijab. Because it is such “an outward symbol of Islam,” Mansour thought about it for months before she finally committed.
“It’s a lot to handle wearing your religion on your shoulders,” Mansour said.
When she told her father that she wanted to start he feared for her personal safety.
“I wasn’t going to let it restrict me. I want to wear what I want to wear and be who I want to be,” Mansour said.
The first time Mansour wore her hijab was this past winter break as she was flying home to San Diego.
“When I got on the plane, I never was aware of my being until that moment,” Mansour said. “There were just so many people staring at me.”
Since then, she says that she has received many more stares and snide comments. But Mansour does not let that get her down.
“Every morning when I put it, on it’s a reminder to me that I’m Muslim,” Mansour said. “It really keeps me grounded in my faith.”
As Samia and I sat and talked about the discrimination Muslims face, it really hit me. After this experience, I could take this hijab off. But Samia, and other Muslims have to face potential discrimination every single day because people do not understand the true meaning of the religion. Islam is about kindness and love, not hate.
For Judaism, I was unable to attend a formal worship, but I did go to a Shabbat dinner at the Chabad House on April 13. The house is a mere block off campus on West 19th Street. If you get lost, it’s the one with the human-sized menorah in front.
Sabbath is a day of rest for Jews. It starts on Friday and ends the next day. So every Friday, Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel and his wife Nechama host a dinner for local Jews in Lawrence.
I was a little early, but when I walked in, there were a couple of students mingling with each other. Rabbi Zalman greeted me warmly and introduced me to a couple of people including Abby Chargo, a Jewish studies major at the University, who later spoke to me about her experience as a Jewish woman.
The space was filled with tables and chairs. Near the back of the room was a beautiful tapestry hanging from the chest where the Torah is kept. One wall was covered in pictures of the Rabbi and his family and the many college students involved in Chabad.
A couple of children dressed in Sabbath attire with yarmulkes ran around. The sound of their laughter and happiness reminded me of my own cousins.
We sang a couple of songs and celebrated being able to come together. Before we sat down to eat, we had to go wash our hands: pouring water over each hand three times. From there, you’re not supposed to speak until you eat.
But the wait was worth it. One of the best parts of Shabbat dinner is the food. There was hummus, fried chicken, potato bread, couscous
and so much more. Needless to say, I went back for several seconds.
From there, everyone just talked. They updated each other on their lives: the good and the bad. Nechama let a couple of kids hold her newborn. It felt like being at a family dinner. Many people hugged each other before they left the house.
Community is a major focus of Judaism. Shabbat dinner is one example of that; it’s a time to disconnect from the world and come together.
Like many students, Chargo is busy. She has her journalism classes, and on top of that, she is involved in a number of clubs, including KU Hillel and Chabad. For her, Shabbat is about taking time to take a break from all of that.
“We’re not supposed to be going going going 24/7,” Chargo said. “We’re supposed to be going 24/6, she said. “That seventh day, that’s what’s left for us. Us and God.”
The seventh day is meant for time to decompress, use less technology, gather with family and focus on your spirituality. Since many college-aged Jews are miles away from their homes, they come to the Chabad House. Chargo is from Minnesota and to find a Jewish community at the University meant a lot to her.
“Judaism is all about connecting with one another. Everybody’s family,” Chargo said. “If I see a Jewish person walking down the street, man or woman, that’s my brother, that’s my sister. You have that innate connection to one another. You have that automatic love for one another.”
Although, not everyone has that sense of automatic love. When Chargo was younger, she was harassed for her faith. Kids would stereotype and criticize her, without truly knowing what Judaism is about.
“Growing up with that, it was really hard because I could not understand why people could not accept me for who I was,” Chargo said. “They just couldn’t let it go. Now I’m starting to understand it a little bit more... It’s still hurtful and it’s still frustrating.”
Anti-semitism is a lifelong concern for many in the Jewish community. Because of this, Chargo takes a special pride in being a Jew. She tries to take her Judaic values into every aspect of her life.
“My pride in Judaism is to be the most open-minded and accepting and understanding person that I can possibly be,” Chargo said. “To make people feel comfortable and heard and understood.”
A big part of pride is being able to celebrate Jewish culture. From singing songs at Chabad dinner to bar/bat mitzvahs, to everyday life.
“Judaism is all about celebrating,” Chargo said. “It’s all about being thankful [for] being alive and not ever taking anything for granted. We each have a mission. We were put on this world to fulfill that mission. Your whole life is to figure out what the mission is.”
Watching everyone come together for Sabbath is one of her favorite things.
“It’s a beautiful thing when you see how happy it makes other people too,” Chargo said.
It was one of my favorite things too. Judaism has such a sense of community and purpose. Seeing that reflected in kind actions was an amazing experience. Even though I am not Jewish, I felt incredibly welcomed at Chabad.
On April 22, a Sunday morning, I went to the Kansas Zen Center to attend a formal meditation. I walked through a meticulous garden, past wooden bridges, fountains and flowers into the meditation building.
The building itself was simple. The floor was empty except for a few mats and cushions. Several pieces of artwork hung from the walls, but the most expressive thing in the room was a gold Buddha statue.
Blake Wilson, a University librarian and Buddhist greeted me at the door and gave me a beginner’s orientation. He showed me on how to tie my robe and taught me basic meditation form.
More people began to filter into the room and soon we began. We read the Four Great Vows, which are core tenants of Buddhism, and the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, performing bows as we spoke. Then we began to meditate. The Zen Center does a 25-minute meditation, followed by a walking meditation and then another 25-minute mediation.
As we settled into the first meditation, I crossed my legs and positioned my hands beneath my core. I am a naturally restless person so needless to say, my mind wandered. But then I started to focus on the process: breath in, breathe out, count to 10 and repeat. My heart rate began to slow, and I felt my thoughts start to dissipate. I honestly felt at peace.
In between meditations, we attended a kong-an interview, which is where we got to ask Zen Master Bon Hae questions about the practice or about life. We returned to the dharma room and finished up the meditation.
Then there was a dharma talk, which is “public discourse” with a Buddhist teacher. Wilson explained the meaning behind the text we had read. Unlike many services where someone preaches at you, we were directly involved in the conversation.
Afterward, I was introduced to Austin Bailey, a recent computer science graduate at the University and practicing Buddhist. We went inside to the main house for food and conversation.
“Perceiving world sound”
Bailey has been Christian, Muslim, Atheist and most recently, Buddhist. Out of all of these, Buddhism has connected with him the most. A couple of years ago, Bailey was longing to let go of something in his personal life and he found his answers in Buddhism. He’s been practicing on and off ever since.
“The direction of the practice really does help me in life,” Bailey said.
Bailey meditates several times a week, at the Zen Center and at home. Meditation helps him let go of his weekly struggles and focus on “perceiving world sound.” This idea is about focusing on the world, instead of yourself.
“When you perceive world sound, you listen,” Bailey said. “It’s the entire world that you’re listening to with your eyes, with your body. You can kind of feel it when you’re meditating. You’re pulling in everything around you.”
One of the main goals of Buddhism is to end all suffering. Getting rid of personal biases and perceptions is the best way to do this. Often, our own thought can be tainted. Buddhism seeks to make those biases transparent.
“Everything that you’re actually interacting with before you even see it, is tainted because you’re perceiving it through your mind,” Bailey said. “You have biases in your mind that prevent you from seeing it clearly.”
This is the reason that you hold your hands below your belly button during meditation. Sometimes, we hold energy in our head with our thoughts, and sometimes we hold energy in our heart with our emotions. Focusing energy on your core is more peaceful and unbiased.
“Just being aware, it’ll open you to doing the right thing,” Bailey said.
“Understanding yourself and helping one another”
Buddhism is not just about ending your personal suffering; Buddhism is also about lessening the suffering of those around you.
“[It’s about] understanding yourself and helping one another,” Bailey said. “You can’t do one without the other. They’re the same thing.”
Learning about the world is something that can never be fully attained. As people go through life, they are constantly encountering new issues.
“A Buddha is someone who can see all the options before them and always knows, and always chooses, the one that decreases the most suffering and causes the most joy,” Bailey said.
To me, that was one of the most impactful things about Buddhism. Don’t think too much about your own suffering, because it will only cause you pain. You need to learn to release your suffering so you can help others. The world is so much bigger than just yourself, and understanding that is the key to peace.
Unfortunately, I was unable to experience a traditional Hindu worship, but on April 30, I was able to talk to practicing Hindu Anita Patel, an incoming junior at the University studying communications from Topeka. As it turns out, many college-aged Hindus are fairly relaxed about their practices. The closest Hindu temples are in Shawnee and Kansas City, so many students don’t attend organized practices.
“It’s something that you do at home,” Patel said. “Most of my interactions with my faith happen through festivals or daily prayers.”
Patel’s parents immigrated from India before she was born, but she was raised Hindu. Trying to balance the identities of her faith and her nationality has been a struggle for Patel, especially in college.
“You just need to figure out your own path and follow it and sometimes I felt very lost about that,” Patel said. “Also, I know a lot of other Hindus feel about it this way too. How do you fit two parts of your personality together?”
Though her faith has been able to guide her. If she lived closer to a temple, Patel said that she would go there to pray. Instead, she prays at home every morning and every evening.
Most homes have their own shrine to the deities. Prayer involves a series of acts meant to engage each of your senses. Fire for sight, ringing a bell for sound, lighting incense for smell, food for taste, etc. Patel sings worship songs as she prays. Many people also wrap mala beads around their fingers to pray.
Aside from prayer, festivals are the times when Patel feels the most connected to her faith, but it’s something she carries with her everywhere.
“It can be anything”
Patel feels most connected to God when she is in nature enjoying creation. God isn’t pinned down to one place or ideal. For Patel, Hinduism is all about choice.
“What you want out of your life or what you value,” Patel said. “It can be anything.”
This is also the reason why there are many deities in Hinduism. Hindus can choose which deities relate most to them. Hinduism recognizes one god — Braham — but there are millions of deities that represent him. Just like different sides of the same diamond, according to Patel.
“You can see God in any way that you want to, so you can’t run away from him, because you can pick what kind of deity that you want,” Patel said.
At the end of the day, what matters most is that you are genuine about the faith. The rituals and traditions are just tools, according to Patel.
Blending faith with fun
These traditions are still incredibly important. Festivals are a big deal in Hindu culture. They are a way to connect with your faith and your community. Many Hindu holidays incorporate a great deal of food, dancing and bright colors.
Holi is one of the most prominent examples of this. Hindus celebrate by throwing brightly colored powder on each other.
“If you can’t enjoy yourself while you’re living on this Earth, then why are you living in the first life,” Patel said.
Which, according to Patel, is one of the main points of Hinduism. You’re supposed to be able to have fun with your faith.
“Who says you have to leave the world behind when you’re being thankful for something otherworldly,” Patel said.
“What goes around, comes around”
From karma to reincarnation, Hinduism believes that everything is a cycle.
Every action you take has an impact. If you do something bad in this life, it could come back to haunt you in the next life. For many Hindus, this influences their treatment of others.
“What goes around, comes around,” Patel said.
This idea also relates to the deities. Within Hinduism there is a trinity that is especially important: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Each of these represents an aspect of life. There can be no creation without destruction, and vice versa.
“It’s a cycle and you always connect back,” Patel said.
To me, I thought this was one of the most beautiful parts of Hinduism. Everything and everyone is connected.
Each belief introduced me to a new experience. I bowed my head in prayer and held my hands in devotion. I crossed my legs in meditation. I looked up in thought. I listened to sermons, khutbahs, sutras, speeches and conversations.
Firsthand, I saw the power of love, kindness, sacrifice, celebration, curiosity and so much more. Just hearing these lessons and talking to these students, I realized that we are all more connected than you think.
I learned what their beliefs mean to them. I learned about their struggles; how they face discrimination with pride. How their belief helps them hold on to what matters and let go of what doesn’t. How it carries them through the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Belief is a deeply personal thing and what connects with you won’t connect with everyone. You may believe in a higher power, you may not, and that’s okay. You may even find ideas you value in several belief systems.
Regardless, it is important to explore why you believe what you do. Be curious about the world. Question yourself. Seek out other beliefs, and you might actually find something you like about them.
There is no wrong way to find meaning in this world.