In This Issue
- Partnerships strengthen between suburban and urban Catholic parishes
- Turkey strengthens Islamic ties
- Growth of Judaism in former Soviet Union slow, growing
- Chinese Christian churches face increased persecution
- Buddhist Churches of America see division, declining membership
- Evangelical ‘Christian guilds’ gain popularity
- Catholic female ‘associate membership’ numbers rise
- Religious landscape sees youth rites of passage growth
New partnerships are forming between suburban and urban Catholic parishes based around common social ministry and dialogue about racial prejudice and misunderstanding, according to the Catholic magazine Salt of the Earth (March/April).
These parishes often view “working together for a common good is one way to begin a process of tearing down prejudices like these while creating a foundation for constructive interaction across long-standing racial and economic barriers,” writes Bob Zyskowski. The formula for these partnerships often involve meeting together for prayer, discussing and seeking to apply Catholic social teachings to local issues; and direct contact between people of different cultures and social classes.
In Ohio, a parish in suburban Kirtland has formed a parternship with an inner-city Cleveland parish, and together they created a job-placement office. The parishes also hold retreats and missions together and exchange leaders.
The experience and success that inner city poorer parishes have in community-based organizing is often attractive to suburban parishes that are also beginning to experience such similar problems as crime and poverty. In St. Paul and Minneapolis, such partnerships have developed into a larger, more powerful interfaith Action Organization that is being formed by the merger of the inner-city and suburban coalitions. Most of the inner-city and suburban parishioners interviewed see the dialogue and communication between the two regions as the most important byproduct of the partnerships.
In New Orleans, the parish partnership program organized a series of dialogues on race. During the O.J. Simpson acquittal, such a forum served as “one of the few places where blacks and whites could discuss the matter freely,” according to Zyskowski.
(Salt of the Earth, 205 W. Monroe St., Chicago, IL 60606)
Turkey is drawing closer to its Islamic neighbors as a Muslim-based political party is gaining power in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 26).
In Turkey’s November elections, Refah, a pro-Islamic party, won almost 22 percent of the vote — “more than any other party, though not enough to form a government on its own. With a vast neighborhood-level political network and a potent message of moral renewal and more equal distribution of wealth, Refah did especially well among culturally conservative, rural migrants living in the teeming slums of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities.”
Refah’s brand of Islam is described as “fundamentalism lite.” The party champions individual rights and claims that it will not make laws requiring head scarves or wearing beads. Instead of imposing Sharia (Islamic law) on all Turks, “Refah envisions a future in which different legal systems — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, even atheist — would coexist in one state.”
Even if such ideals are not realized, observers say that including Refah in the once strongly secular government is secular than repressing such popular movements, especially since “religious revival is a nationwide phenomenon.”
The prognosis for the recovery of Judaism in the former Soviet Union continues to be negative, although there are signs that the faith is surviving and growing, according to recent reports.
For the past several years the common wisdom about the future of Judaism in the former Soviet Union (FSU) is that the religion is on the decline, mainly because of the continual emigration of Russian Jews to Israel and the upsurge of anti-Semitism. In a 20-page report in Moment magazine (February), Hershel Shanks finds more reasons for concern about Jewish life in the region.
The intermarriage rate is rising (making the American intermarriage rate of 50 percent “look paltry”). The one yeshiva for training Jewish leaders has closed. The few synagogues in such cities as Moscow and St. Petersburg are attended mainly by the elderly and almost no Jewish boys are being circumcised. A recent poll of St. Petersburg’s Jews found only nine percent of respondents claimed Judaism as their religion, with half of them claiming no faith (a quarter claimed Christianity).
There has been little effort among Western Jewry to revive Judaism in the region, according to Shanks. The hasidic Jews have invested the most time and money in Jewish renewal efforts, while the other branches (such as Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox) have been largely ineffective, except in encouraging more Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel.
Observers say that the strongly anti-modern Judaism of the hasidic groups will not be accepted by most Jews of the former FSU. Yet there is a brighter side to the situation. Anti-Semitism is waning in Russian and Ukrainian society. Jews can receive Jewish education in state schools and recent Russian government has shown a more friendly attitude toward Israel than other Western European countries.
Even in the recent elections, anti-Semitism played almost no part in the campaigns (including that of nationalist Vladimir Zhirnovsky). The growth of Jewish organizations and schools in the FSU alone is reason for hope; in the Ukraine, there are over 200 Jewish organizations. Starting from scratch five years ago, such rebuilding has reached about 10 percent of Jews. “This is both bad news and good news–bad because it suggests how difficult it will be to reach the other 90 percent, good because it indicates the unrealized potential,” Shanks concludes.
The recent appearance of a new Russian volume of the Talmud is another sign of rebirth and reconnection with world Jewry, according to the Washington Post (February 14). No editions of the Talmud were ever published in the Soviet Union, nor were they ever imported until 1987. The latest edition, published under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the translation of Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
(Moment, 4710 41st St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016)
There is increased pressure being exerted against Christian churches in China as officials fear that Christianity is finding new appeal among the Chinese, even among Communist Party members, according to the evangelical newsweekly World (Feb. 17).
In recent months there has been a new crackdown on religion in China. Protestant and Catholic leaders have been detained by government officials, “churches have been harassed and new laws have been handed down that promise that the Year of the Rat  will be one of growing church-state conflict,” writes Mindy Belz.
What is different about the recent crackdown is that it is ordered by Beijing’s top officials rather than, as in the past, coming from local police and religious affairs bureaucrats. “More and more, the Chinese leaders recognize Christianity as a powerful rival for the allegiance of young people and a threat to the Communist Party itself,” according to Belz.
Such signs of defection from the Communist Party could be seen in a small area of Guizhou Province that has seen 2,000 conversions of Party members in the past five years. Last year, Beijing Party Secretary Wei Jinxing said the Party faced a crisis because members had lost faith in its ideology and some members had turned to religion as a remedy. Such growth mirrors the wider increase in Chinese society. In the last year, approximately 40-60 new house churches [which flout new laws requiring strict registration of churches] have been formed in Beijing.
In the face of such restrictions, house churches are finding new ways to go about ministry. “The churches are breaking up into smaller and smaller cells, learning to be more sophisticated in training church leaders, and expanding community service work as a means to evangelism,” Belz concludes.
(World, P.O. Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802)
The Buddhist Churches of America, one of the oldest American Buddhist denominations, is facing declining membership ranks, divisions over demands for doctrinal renewal, and a “simmering war” between the sexes, according to the Christian Century (Feb. 28).
The BCA has served as the cultural home for Japanese-Americans for 97 years and is distinct from other forms of Buddhism for its non-monastic and non-meditative faith based on ancestor veneration and the doctrine of salvation by grace. Membership has declined in the denomination as members have intermarried, died, or drifted from the faith. The church has declined from 50,000 in 1960 to 21,600 in 1977 to 17,755 families as of last year.
“Younger ministers blame the membership problems on the reluctance of the church’s aging leaders to update doctrines and policies to make them relevant to third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans,” according to the article.
Female members have criticized the church for failure to change the male-dominated hierarchy and address women’s concerns. BCA ministers, such as William Masuda of Mill Valley, Calif., see openness to non-Japanese members as the key to denominational renewal. Aside from adding to BCA ranks, new, non-Japanese members would revitalize such church doctrines as salvation by grace and downplay the ritual commemoration of dead ancestors.
Today, as many as 70 percent of Japanese Americans are intermarrying, creating the opportunity for more pluralism in the BCA.
But the older generation of members still retain memories of internment during World War II and are reluctant to lose their place in church affairs to non-Japanese. Such reluctance was instrumental in squelching a 1984 plan to recruit 200,000 members.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60605)
Evangelicals are increasingly organizing “Christian guilds” and other organizations to use their secular careers to spread Christian influence in American society, writes Andres Tapia in Pacific News Service (Feb. 19-23).
Calling themselves “marketplace Christians,” such evangelicals have formed guilds that are geared to specific professions, such as Christians in the Arts, and have formed a dozen related organizations. “For example, the Strategic Careers Coalition of Colorado Springs seeks to help professional Christians enter the marketplace to infuse it with Christian ideals,” Tapia reports.
To motivate more Christians to join the movement, evangelical institutions are funding education at elite secular universities viewed as “culturally strategic and where evangelical Christians are under-represented,” says Sue Crider of Houghton College. While critics of the Christian right view such a movement as attempting to infiltrate secular institutions, marketplace Christians don’t see their work as political as much as an attempt to integrate their faith and values with their vocations.
The media is a “prime area on which Christians are setting their sights,” Tapia adds.
(Pacific News Service, 450 Mission St., Rm. 204, San Francisco, CA 94105)
Catholic laywomen have increasingly joined U.S. religious communities as “associate members” in recent years, according to two reports.
Associate membership in religious orders does not require vows of lifetime commitment, but such members are growing while vowed members are declining in many Catholic orders. A recent study cited in CARA Report (Winter), the newsletter of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostalate, found that four in five women’s religious orders with 50 or more professed members also have lay associate members.
The study, conducted by members of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, Wis. on 279 orders, found that most associates are women and that the communities see associate members as a way to extend their community’s mission and to give the laity a more formal way to participate. The study found that 22 percent of associates provide financial assistance to the community and 11 percent are involved in community decisions.
The National Catholic Reporter (Feb. 16) adds that the majority of associates are in their 40s through 60s. The article says that researchers have “found that associates link themselves to religious communities primarily for spiritual enrichment but additionally to share in the [community’s] charism” or mission. The nature of such associations varies from one-to-one sharing with a sister sponsor to formal relationships that entail structured preparation periods and public ceremonies of commitment.
While members of religious orders do not see associates as the solution to the membership declines in many communities, some think temporary commitment or commitment to a particular ministry of a community may be part of the evolution of such organizations.
(CARA Report, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 20057-1033; National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)
Churches, synagogues and other organizations are recovering and reconstructing practices that incorporate rites of passage into their work in order to help ease young people’s journey into adulthood, according to Common Boundary (January/February), a magazine reporting on the interaction of psychology and spirituality.
“Rites of passage currently being conducted include wilderness survival programs; reconstructed African rituals in black churches; revitalized confirmations in Protestant churches and bar and bat mitzvahs in synagogues, and newly created rituals using mythology, guided imagery, art, music, games, and other tools in various settings,” writes Lynda McCullough.
One popular rite-of-passage program called the Journey is finding a following among secular groups and mainline Protestants for its use of mythology. Based on Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” the Journey uses guided imagery where boys and girls “travel through time or descend into an underworld where they meet beasts and monsters,” indirectly teaching them coping skills for dealing with guilt, failure, anger and low self-esteem.
In some mainline churches, the Journey is adapted to involve biblical characters and scripture in a reconstructed confirmation program. Each youth being confirmed is assigned a mentor (a feature common in many of the rites-of-passage programs) and attends several retreats. Robb Creekmoe, a Methodist deacon who works with four United Church of Christ churches in the Washington, D.C. area says, “My own orientation has to do with developing a powerful initiation process that [involves] forming a sense of identity.”
In the Jewish community, some families are seeking new forms of bar and bat mitzvahs, while others are reinforcing these traditional ceremonies with preparation seminars to help parents come to terms with this initiation of their children. But it appears to be in black churches where the rites-of-passage programs have caught on the strongest. Churches and other youth organizations employ African rituals to bring meaning, identity and a sense of community to young people’s lives.
The rituals in African-American institutions vary from institution to institution, says Walter Flucker of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y. But typically, young people taking part in these rites-of-passages study African culture, dress in African clothes, and endure physical or mental challenge before participating in a final ceremony acknowledging their adult status. An example of such a program is “Simba,” a ministry based in the Park Avenue Methodist Church in inner-city Minneapolis. Participants pledge to “learn what it means to be an African-American man: spiritually, physically and socially,” reports the evangelical Minnesota Christian Chronicle (Feb. 8).
The Simba program has a strong emphasis on moral values and evangelical faith and eschews black separatism, according to founder and Park Avenue’s pastor Chris McNair.
(Common Boundary, 5272 River Rd., Suite 650, Bathesda, MD 20816; Minnesota Christian Chronicle, 2025 Nicollet Ave., Suite 200, Minneapolis, MN 55404)