In the current issue of the quarterly American Buddhist magazine Tricycle, contributing editor and former Zen monk Clark Strand makes a provocative claim: that American Buddhism must “change or die.”

American converts to Buddhism have focused on spiritual practice to the exclusion of concerns like creating rituals and passing along the tradition to the next generation. “With few exceptions, Buddhism is not being passed down in families by members of the convert community,” he writes in his article, “Dharma Family Values.”

Although Strand praises the American Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International for better incorporating children and families into their practice of Buddhism, he writes that even that group “still hasn’t solved the koan of how to get born, married and buried as a Buddhist.”

ReligionWriter called Strand at his home office in Woodstock, NY, to find out why he thinks American Buddhists have failed to develop their own religious culture, and how this gap might be filled.

RW: When you write that American Buddhism faces the possibility of extinction, are you exaggerating?

Strand: It’s not an exaggeration, though by “death” I mean that American Buddhism becomes so completely marginalized as to not exert any significant impact on society. Buddhism in this country has a good start, and it has developed a fair amount of vitality and visibility; words like karma and nirvana are part of the popular lexicon now.

But if American Buddhism doesn’t come to see itself as a religion, or at least as addressing religious needs, sometime over the next generation or two, it’s going to run afoul of the generational bias of Baby Boomers, who tend to think that anything they embrace in numbers is here to stay. In fact their large numbers create an illusion, and as they begin to die off, what seemed like a significant movement may go back to a baseline number. I think that’s what’s going to happen, unless American Buddhist wake up and approach Buddhism as a whole life enterprise.

RW: One often hears American Buddhists say things like, “You can be a Christian or Jew and be a Buddhist. It’s not a religion.” Do you think that idea, appealing to many, that Buddhism is not a religion has also caused these problems you’re outlining?

Strand: When you hear statements like that, keep in mind that Buddhism entered the American scene when the traditional moral and spiritual authority of the Christian and Jewish communities were being called into question. Buddhism came to this country through the Academy, through people like [Buddhist author] D.T. Suzuki and [philosophy professor] Paul Carus, so from the word go, Buddhism was in slightly disembodied state. Ethnic Buddhism had been here for a while, of course; Chinese railroad workers, Japanese sugar cane cutters and others brought the religion with them but they didn’t proselytize. Americans were interested in meditation or philosophy or other aspects of the Buddhist experience, but they didn’t get the whole cloth.

This happened right about the time modern life was going ballistic, becoming very stressful. People were starting to think about the relaxation response and meditation and how to slow down. Buddhism fed into the craze for self actualization and self help. Now American Buddhists have to figure out a way of appropriating it on a more significant level. They can’t call it a religion because it doesn’t feel like a religion to them. As an alternative, American Buddhists tend to say they are “spiritual:” That seems to express the middle ground between religion and self-help.

RW: How many Buddhists are there in the U.S., and what percentage of that number are converts like yourself?

Strand: The numbers are notoriously unreliable. The numbers tossed out there over the last few years range from six million to 600,000. The percentage of converts is hard to judge. Is a convert a person who has a few books by the Dalai Lama on his or her night stand? If you ask them what religion they are, they might say, “I’m more Buddhist than anything.” Buddhism has become a kind of default religion for American seekers.

RW: Do those people with a casual involvement in Buddhism matter in the larger scope of American Buddhism?

Strand: A lot of people will deemphasize that as a trend, but I don’t. [Academic] Thomas Tweed used the term nightstand Buddhists to describe people he felt weren’t Buddhist at all but liked to keep Buddhist books as an inoculation against anxiety, or to have some contact with spiritual tradition in their lives. Tweed didn’t take such people seriously as Buddhists, and his term reflects that. But I think when people say, “If you held a gun to my head, I’d say I’m Buddhist,” they are expressing their dissatisfaction with existing religious models. They know enough about Buddhism to know it doesn’t have the congenital defects of their own religious traditions, but they don’t know enough about it to see that Buddhism has its own congenital defects. Embracing Buddhism becomes a way for people to project their hopes for a sane, global religion for 21st century.

RW: It seems like there’s a conflict here. You want American Buddhism to be more like a religion, with child care on Sunday mornings. But one of the main attractions to Buddhism for many Americans is that it is not a religion. Can you explain?

Strand: That conflict has been there before. The oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S. is the Buddhist Churches of America. It was formed mostly by Japanese field workers who first came to California and Hawaii almost 100 years ago. It is faith-based, rather than meditation-based. When the group started in the U.S., it still had many earmarks of being culturally Japanese or Asian. But after Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II, they tried to assimilate more quickly; they adopted American customs like having pews and wearing suits and calling their priests “ministers.” When a lot of Americans were looking for alternative religious experiences in the 1960s and 70s, the Buddhist Churches of America had the best infrastructure and the most feet on the ground, but nobody was interested in them because “they look too much like us.” And they were — the religion was very Americanized.

One of the big questions for converts to American Buddhism is: What happens when the exoticism wears off? When you’re like I am, and you’ve been at it for a while, and you’re married and you have kids, you are no longer going off for week-long or month-long meditation retreats. How do you work with that? How do you pass along your practice? If there is not some weekly gathering you can go to with your whole family, the chances you’re going to pass along Buddhism to your children is almost nil. If all you have to work with is a monastery and retreat system, and a leadership of celibate or semi-celibate monks and nuns, not much is going to happen with the next generation.

RW: Why are ethnic Buddhist and convert Buddhist communities so separate?

Strand: The communities have different needs and different values. Ethnic religious communities are hugely interested in two things: They want the rights and opportunities and protections of being members of American society — assimilation — and at the same time, they want to conserve their religious tradition and density. American converts are interested in appropriating religious teaching and fashion and ideas, but they’re usually not so interested in conserving traditional ethnicity and ritual. There is a fair amount of incompatibility there.

RW: Given that many Americans came to Buddhism as young people in the 1960s and 70s, why wasn’t there a gradual, organic growth of American Buddhist culture as those people, like yourself, matured and had families?

Strand: My most honest response is that you cannot import a religion the way you import a product. Religion purports to connect us to the deepest level of our beings. You can’t just go to another country, meet a teacher, go on a retreat, buy some cushions, bring it all back and suddenly the religion is here. It takes a long time to transmit teachings and adapt rituals. It takes a long time to develop a culture to support a religion. That’s the big problem: When you import a religious teaching to a country, you get the teaching but not the culture, and a lot of Asian culture doesn’t work in the U.S. without being adapted.

RW: What would you like to see American Buddhists doing more of?

Strand: I think Buddhists need to hold weekly or, at the very least, monthly discussion groups. They need to get together and talk to one another, not just practice together or listen to a teacher, but just talk to one another about their lives. Buddhists need to ask honestly: “What kind of Buddhism addresses the questions and needs of my life?” If I’m a Zen Buddhist, and therefore spend long periods in meditation, I should ask myself: “Is this meditation really helping me? Is it addressing the issues of my whole life? Or only part of my life?” If you have kids or a stressful job or a difficult marriage or financial problems, Buddhism should be able to address those issues. If it can’t, then it’s not functioning.

The second thing Buddhists have to ask themselves is: “Do I compartmentalize Buddhism in my life?” Very few observant, devout Catholics would dream, for example, of being married in a secular service. Yet Buddhists routinely get married by justices of the peace, because the culture is not there to support them in being Buddhist; it has not yet evolved. I wrote my article to point out that Buddhists in this country aren’t as concerned about developing this culture as they should be. I’m afraid they won’t see the need until the numbers go way down.

» » » » » »

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starting at sunset tomorrow night, religion reporters around the country are already scratching their heads, trying to think up a fresh angle on a holiday that, like most, happens pretty much the same way every year. (Photo: Teens at a Ramadan fast-breaking, or iftar)

We are sure to see, especially in smaller-market news outlets, lots of “Ramadan 101″ stories. These pretty much write themselves:

Headline: Area Muslim teens keep the faith during Ramadan

Lede: Rayyan Abdel-Latif, 16, will be running at her Springfield High School track meet this Saturday, but she will have a unique hurdle to overcome. In keeping with her Muslim faith, Abdel-Latif, whose parents emigrated from Jordan before she was born, will be fasting during daylight hours on Saturday and throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “It seems like fasting is hard, but really God said it is not a hardship for us,” said Abdel-Latif.

Nut graf: With the holy month beginning at sunset tomorrow night, Springfield-area Muslims, which number an estimated 5,000 according to the Islamic Society of Springfield, will be swearing off not only food but drink, smoking and other luxuries during daylight hours. Not just a physical test, Ramadan is about food, family and faith, say local Muslims.

Photo: Abdel-Latif smiling in headscarf

These types of articles, of course, serve an important purpose, informing those who don’t have a clue what Ramadan or Islam is all about. Given that so many Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam (39% in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center,) just offering a basic primer on belief and practice is worthwhile. At the same time, however, this type of coverage runs two risks:

1. It can be boring (Imagine: “Area Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth with food, family and faith,”) and

2. It can dramatically oversimplify the lives of Muslims in the U.S., with unintended negative results.

The solution to both of these problems lies in journalists finding more complex story angles and drawing from a wider variety of sources. If one read or heard or saw only “basic primer” stories on Islam/Ramadan, one would get the misleading impression that American Muslims are, by definition,  enthusiastically observant of their religion.

The problem here is sources: When a journalist needs to find Muslims to interview, where do they go? To mosque, Islamic school or local Muslim organization. And who do they find through such channels? Observant mosque-going Muslims. While such observant über-Muslims make perfect interview subjects if you want to explain the traditional rules governing Ramadan — because those Muslim follow those all rules — they are  not representative. The May, 2007, study of American Muslims by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had this finding:

Nearly one -quarter (23%) of Muslim Americans have a high level of religious commitment, which is defined as attending mosque at least once a week, praying all five salah every day, and reporting that religion is “very important” in their lives. About as many (26%) have a relatively low level of religious commitment, rarely engaging in these practices and generally regarding religion as less important in their lives. A majority of American Muslims (51%) fall somewhere in between.

Journalists need to be aware that mosques and Islamic schools tend to have vetted, designated spokespeople (ReligionWriter knows — she used to be one of them) who will give an orthodox interpretation of Muslim life. This is not to suggest Muslim organizations are doing something wrong — they are doing their best to receive the press coverage they want, and most other religious organizations do the same.

The point is that journalists who call up a mosque asking for sources on Ramadan are likely to interviewing the top one-percent most religious Muslims. This gives people the false impression that Muslims are extremely religious. And it’s a short jump, of course, from”extremely religious” to “fanatical.”

So how do you find more representative sources? ReligionWriter offers these tips:

Fall back on the journalist’s oldest trick: interviewing your taxi driver. In many cities, as often as not, this person will be a Muslim immigrant. Ask in a casual way about what he (okay, or she) likes about Ramadan, how it’s celebrated here in the U.S. versus his home country.

Use social networking: It’s not journalistic-ly haraam, in ReligionWriter’s view, to find sources through friends and acquaintances. Do you have a neighbor with a Muslim-sounding name? Have you ever noticed how many Muslims people and Muslim interest groups are on Facebook?

Interview people, not their religion: Make your sources feel you are interesting in finding out how they personally practice Islam or celebrate Ramadan. If you give the impression you want them to represent their religion to the entire (and often hostile) American people, then you’re more likely to get defensive, apologetic, orthodox answers.

Read the Muslim press: You’ve got lots to choose from now, including,, Naseeb Vibes, Islamica Magazine, Illume Magazine, Muslim Girl Magazine, Azizah Magazine, Sisters Magazine, or your local Muslim newspaper (if you live near a relatively large Muslim community, there probably is one. In the D.C.-area, it’s the Muslim Link.) And this is not even to mention Muslim blog aggregation sites, like Hadithuna, or popular Muslim social networking sites like

The great thing about reading the Muslim press is that journalists will get a feel for the internal debates in the Muslim community, which are often quite different from debates non-Muslim have about Muslims. For example, “Are all Muslims terrorists?” is not a big conversation-starter among Muslims. However, ask an American Muslim about whether “halal” meat is really halal, whether ethnicity should factor into choosing your spouse, and whether the Nation of Islam made any positive contributions to Islam in America, and you’ll get a conversation going pretty quick. ReligionWriter applauds how American journalists have covered the intense intra-Muslim debate about marking the beginning and end of Ramadan.

As founder and editor, Shahed Amanullah, said in a Beliefnet interview with Omar Sacirbey last year:

It’s good that America sees [Muslim internal debate] because one of the fears Americans have about American Muslims is that we’re automatons that do what people tell us to do. When Americans see our internal debates, I think that reassures them that we’re human, and we’re trying to resolve our issues.

So, to close this out, here are ReligionWriter’s story suggestions for this year’s Ramadan:

Ramadan when you aren’t fasting: Many Muslims are do not fast during Ramadan because of chronic illnesses such as diabetes. What’s it like to be around observant Muslims all month when you can’t fast yourself? Do you feel left out?

Fasting while pregnant or breastfeeding: Talk about a hot topic; Muslim women debate this one heatedly every year. Some say Islamic law allows all pregnant or nursing women to forgo fasting, others say that dispensation is only allowed in certain situations. Some women face peer pressure to fast while pregnant (”Back in Egypt, all the pregnant women fast!” “My Muslim doctor told me it was fine to fast!”) Is there any data on the safety of fasting while pregnant?

Fasting when it’s the only way you observe Islam: Many Muslims do not offer five daily prayers, dress modestly, or attend their local mosques. For some non-observant Muslims, however, Ramadan is a special time to get back to God — they may throw away the alcohol in their homes during Ramadan, try not to smoke, and observe some if not all of the fasting. Headline possibility: Ramadan for slackers.

Fasting while menstruating: A topic not for the faint of heart, and you’d do better if you were a woman reporter. But still, it’s a good story because it gets to the heart of modern views of classical Islamic tradition, which holds that women should not pray or fast while menstruating. Why not call up Irshad Manji or Asra Nomani and see what they have to say about this? The Prophet Muhammed reportedly said that women are “deficient” in their religious worship because of this exception for their menstrual periods.

And for photos: How about something besides a girl in a headscarf or men bending over in prayer!

» » » »

In his entertaining new book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, economist Tyler Cowen considers the following scenario: You are about to walk into an art museum. You aspire to appreciate the many works of art you will see, in part because valuing high art is part of your self-image: You consider yourself a person who would enjoy spending an afternoon at an art museum.

But here’s the problem: In spite of your plans and aspirations, you get tired after an hour or so of walking around, and all the paintings, no matter how wonderful, begin to blur together.

To resolve the tension between the fact that you want to enjoy the art museum and yet it eventually bores you, Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and co-founder of the popular blog, poses an economic question: “What is the relevant scarcity hindering a better outcome?”

The answer: Your attention span is the scarcity. And the solution? Make it fun for yourself. In his words, give yourself incentives to reach your goal of enjoying the museum.

Cowen offers several ways to trick yourself into paying more attention. Instead of advising that you read up on the exhibit in advance or study the informational placards beside the paintings, Cowen writes:

In every room ask yourself which picture you would take home — if you could take just one — and why. This forces us to keep thinking critically about the displays. If the alarm system was shut down and the guards went away, should I carry home the Cezanne, the Manet or the Renoir?

Another tip:

Pretend we are shopping for pictures on a budget. We are probably better at shopping than looking at pictures. … How might $20 million be spent at the Met? … This exercise will again focus our attention, force us to clarify our intentions, and improve the quality of our viewing.

The first step toward enjoying art more, Cowen writes, is admitting “that we don’t care as much about culture as we like to think we do.”

So how can Cowen’s approach be applied to questions of faith? ReligionWriter contends that for many people, religious observances present problems similar to those of Cowen’s art museum. We want to enjoy the experience, and it’s part our self-image to believe we find going to the church or synagogue or mosque meaningful and fulfilling. Yet who has not yawned their way through a sermon or prayer at one time or another? How do you keep your mind from wandering from the divine service to thoughts about grocery shopping later in the day or your next work assignment?

Applying Cowen’s logic, the first and probably most difficult step is admitting that we don’t always enjoy religious services and observances as much as we would like to think we do. There should be no shame in this admission. Cowen himself, a voracious consumer of culture and appreciator of art, reports that after a few hours in an art museum he gets “museum legs” and begins to whine.

So church/mosque/synagogue/temple/fill-in-the-religious-blank is sometimes boring — accept that as a given. How can we apply Cowen’s concept of incentives to make the experience more enjoyable?

The Prophet Muhammad used to advise his followers to pray each prayer as if it were their last. This advice, repeated constantly, can become a bit glib. But if we actually take a moment to imagine, before a prayer or religious service, that we might die in a car accident or tsunami later in the day, we might find it easier to concentrate on facing the divine in the moment, rather thinking idly about our everyday worries.

What if you listened to a sermon with the idea that you would have to stand up and summarize the best points when it was over? What if, in fact, you did call up someone when church was over and tell them what you liked and didn’t like about the sermon? If you want to genuinely enjoy the experience, you have to make it fun for yourself. (ReligionWriter and her brother used to accomplish this goal by seeing how long they could hold the Communion wine and wafer in their mouths before swallowing them, though this practice is only recommended for church-goers 12 and under.)

ReligionWriter learned about Cowen’s economics work because his George Mason University colleague, Larry Iannacconne is helping to pioneer the study of the economics of religion. The final lesson? Next time you look for a book on religious inspiration, don’t walk too quickly past the economics section.

Related Content on ReligionWriter:

Economics of Religion: Suicide Bombing a Response to “Market Demand,” Says Scholar

Also read Tyler Cowen’s posting:

The Theology of Popular Economics

» » »



Question: What does the current field of presidential contenders have in common with the Supreme Court bench? Answer: It is disproportionately Catholic.

Using the handily compiled religious biographies of the presidential candidates (which number 16, if undeclared Fred Thompson is included) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ReligionWriter discovered these interesting tidbits.

Six out of 16 presidential candidates, or 38%, are Catholic (and five out of nine, or 56%, Supreme Court justices are Catholic.) Nationwide, Catholics make up an estimated 24.5% of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. (That percentage may be lower now, since it declined by 2.3% between 1990 and 2001, and because an increasing number of American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism for other — or no- religions, according to a recent Pew Forum study.)

The six Catholic candidates are: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Christopher Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

The candidate roster also reflects what scholars call the vibrancy of the American “religious marketplace,” in which individuals often choose new religious identities. (ReligionWriter covered this trend in her Feb. 2007 Religion News Service article, “For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given.”) Five Six candidates now practice faiths different from the ones they grew up with:

  • Democrat Mike Gravel grew up as a Roman Catholic, attending Catholic schools, and now belongs to the Unitarian Church. (Gravel’s profile is not yet posted on the Pew Forum’s website.)
  • Republican Ron Paul grew up it the Lutheran faith, married and baptized his five children in the Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as a Baptist. (Paul’s profile is not yet posted at the Pew Forum.)
  • Republican Sam Brownback grew up attending United Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches. He later attended a nondenominational evangelical church and, in 2002, converted to Catholicism.
  • Democrat John Edwards was raised a Southern Baptist, “drifted away” from his faith as a young man. After the tragic death of his son in 1996, he became more religious, and he is now a United Methodist.
  • Democrat Barack Obama grew up in a largely non-religious environment, the son of an absentee Muslim-turned-atheist father and a non-practicing Protestant mother. He now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
  • Winning honorable mention in this category is Democrat Christopher Dodd, who, while adhering the Catholicism of his childhood, is married to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church.) The couple’s children are being raised in both faiths.
  • UPDATE 8/21: Tom Tancredo is also a convert. Born a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage, Tancredo converted to evangelical Presbyterianism.

For those interested crunching their own numbers, here are the religious affiliations of the remaining candidates:

Hillary Clinton: United Methodist

Mike Huckabee: Southern Baptist

Duncan Hunter: Southern Baptist

John McCain: Episcopal

Mitt Romney: Mormon

Fred Thompson: Church of Christ

Re: Fred Thompson, here’s a question best answered by the citizen journalists of McLean, Va., where Fred Thompson now lives: Is the former Senator from Tennessee currently a member of a local Church of Christ? Although Thompson grew up in this largely conservative denomination, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in a United Church of Christ, a more liberal denomination. If Thompson belongs to a church, of any denomination, in Northern Virginia, that has not yet been reported.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, ReligionWriter notes that she regularly contributes to the Pew Forum and compiled several of the candidate profiles mentioned here.)

» » » » » » » » » » » » » » » » » » » » »

Joe Mackall has lived a mile away from the Shetler family for more than 16 years, driving Mary, Samuel and their growing family of nine children to the doctor when needed, sharing the family’s grief over a child’s death, and gradually bridging the divide between his own “English” (non-Amish) culture and their insular world of farming and family. Such friendships are rare, particularly because the Shetlers are members of the most conservative Amish sect, the Swartzentrubers, who eschew even reflective “caution” signs for their buggies and the practice of rumspringa, popularized by the 2002 documentary, Devil’s Playground.

In his new book, a mixture of memoir and reportage, Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, (Beacon Press: June 15, 2007,) Mackall invites readers into the Shetler family to consider what Mackall describes as the “holiness” and “horrors” of Swartzentruber life.

After the Shetler’s daughter, Sarah, dies of brain cancer, for example, Mackall writes of going to view the body, laid out on a simple board in her church clothes, with an elderly man holding a kerosene lamp over the girl’s face:

Whether it was the glow of the light or the play of the shadows, or the old Amish man’s wizened face, or the tears of strangers, or just that there were so many people huddled in a home to comfort two young parents, to commemorate a life and to commiserate over a life lost, I felt at that moment that there was something beautiful and holy at the center of Swartzentruber Amish life.

But when he’s driving in his car on a nearby road, coming upon a Swartzentruber buggy with two children playing the back, he is sickened to watch one child fall out the back of the buggy onto the asphalt. Mackall writes frankly about his sense of outrage:

Does God really care that you drive a buggy and I drive a car? Is sticking with your sacred buggies more important than the sanctity of human life? Can’t you take care of your children?

ReligionWriter spoke with Mackall this week about his decision to risk his friendship with the Shetlers to write this book; what he would do if a Shetler child left the Amish and sought his help; and how it feels to take a buggy ride to Home Depot.

ReligionWriter: You have such a deep and complex relationship with the Shetler family. Why did you decide to put the story into words and publish it?

Joe Mackall: I knew it was going to be complicated, all the way. I did not want to endanger my relationship with the Shetler family, or do them any harm. But it was one of those things where, 30 years from now, I would be scratching my head, saying, “Why didn’t you write that book?” Ultimately, it was impossible not to write, mainly because of how fascinating they are, and I knew I was getting a look inside that not many people have gotten. I could never live that way, and there are some horrors about living that way, but I also admire it tremendously. The Shetlers are also an exceptional family, whether they were Amish or English or whatever—just the kind of family you like to hang out with.

RW: At one point you ask Samuel to trust you as you write the book. Yet even you doubt whether you should be trusted, knowing that a book, once it’s published, can have a life of its own. Were there moments when you thought, “My relationship is him is too important; I can’t write this?”

Mackall: I didn’t talk to them about a writing book until knowing them for more than 10 years. Samuel knew I am a writer, and that I was very curious the community; I was always asking him a million annoying questions. After the manuscript was finished, before it went to the publisher, Samuel and Mary read it, and then the three of us sat down and talked about it. I ended up taking out two things, which I thought were pretty innocuous. The things I thought would be more incendiary, they didn’t have a problem with. But when Samuel [was elected by his community to become] a minister, that’s when I thought we were going to be in trouble. As a minister, everyone is watching him, including the bishop [who leads the community.] Samuel worked with me behind his bishop’s back. That’s not uncommon among the Amish I know: there’s a side shown to the bishop, and a side shown to everybody else. I don’t think it’s hypocritical; it’s the way you might behave with your boss, as opposed to when the boss is not there.

RW: In becoming close friends with you, let alone authorizing you to write a book about the Swartzentrubers, Samuel risked being officially “shunned” or otherwise reprimanded. Why did Samuel go along with you, when apparently so much was at stake for him?

Mackall: I still ask myself that question. When I pushed him, he gave me two reasons. One, it’s just because I was the one asking. Not because I’m such a great guy, but because they know me and trust me, and we’ve been through a lot together. Two, the Amish know the way they are portrayed in the “English” world, like the 20/20 story on abuse in the community. A lot of people in rural Ohio don’t like them, asking, you know, “Why are their horses sh-ing in the road?” Samuel said he was hoping my book would show the Amish in a good light. I told him I was going to have to show them in the light that I saw them.

RW: It seems surprising Samuel would have that media awareness. Why should the Amish care how people view them?

Mackall: They do have to be separate from the world. But it’s in their best interests not to have an antagonistic relationship with the world. A county could say: “No horse droppings on the road.” If English people wanted to make life miserable for the Amish, they could do it. They want to get along with the English world, even though they’re separate of it. Some of it, though, might be just a non-Amish, human need to see the group you belong to portrayed in a good light.

RW: You write about Jonas, Samuel’s 18-year-old nephew who leaves the Amish and faces a lot of hardship in the English world. If you’re ex-Amish, having a trusted English friend makes that transition so much easier. But that’s exactly what the Swartzentrubers doesn’t want: an easy transition.

Mackall: That’s why [Swartzentruber parents] are so afraid to have English friends. After a while, their kids might say, “If my parents like them, and they’re not Amish, then maybe you don’t have to be Amish to be good.” It’s such a tightly woven fabric, any time they let someone like me in, it’s not as strong as it was before I came.

RW: In the book you ask yourself, what would you do if one of the family’s daughters left the Amish and sought your help? What’s the answer to that question?

Mackall: I hope to God I’m not faced with that. It would be a horrible choice. But [if a Shelter child did leave the Amish, they] probably would come to us, because they’ve known us — most of them — for their entire lives. It would be hard for us to turn our backs on a Shetler.

RW: Given your 16-year relationship with the Shetlers, how did you narrow down which experiences to write about: for example, your description of you and Samuel riding the buggy to Home Depot?

Mackall: When I starting working on the book, I was at the Shetler’s farm morning noon and night. Samuel is constantly working, so you have to be at his side to interview him -  he’s not just going to sit down and talk to you. When I had an opportunity for a buggy ride, I jumped at it because I knew I’d have a captive audience.

RW: But going along with him in the buggy put you at risk.

Mackall: A buggy is a scary thing to ride in. When you’re on small road, at dusk, or in the fall, it can be just beautiful. But on bigger roads, with cars flying by; I imagined jumping out [in case I needed to save myself.] Buggies are no match for cars in an accident. I have full confidence in Samuel as driver, but there are just too many variables: the horse, the car, the noise, the buggy itself. It’s not an ideal way to travel. Maybe it was when everyone drove a buggy but not now, especially because the Swarteztruber won’t even put a reflective “Slow Moving Vehicle” sign on the back of their buggies.

RW: You critique the way Americans look at Amish, either reviling them as backwards or idealizing them. What was your impression of the coverage of the Amish school shooting?

Mackall: Most Americans — non-Amish people — were amazed at the ability of the Amish to accept what happened and forgive the killer. But that forgiveness is not exactly how we think of forgiveness. It’s more like they looked right through the tragedy to the fact that it was God’s will. Since it was God’s will, then of course they had to get close to the woman whose husband did it. Amish people don’t like to be on camera, and most news people didn’t seem to give that much thought. I thought growing up Catholic was tough;  the Amish have so many more rules, so an outsider is bound to step in the middle of that.

RW: Given that the Amish sometimes represent a lost rural past for Americans, it seems like some English would want to become Amish. Do they accept converts?

Mackall: They do. I could walk in there and say I wanted to be Amish, but I would have to go through probationary period for a couple of years before being baptized. Converts really have to prove that’s the life they want to live. It’s not like being a Hare Krishna — walking around an airport with flowers is a hell of a lot easier than becoming Amish. Forget the religious stuff: the day-to-day life is rough.

RW: Is Samuel going to appear with you at any publicity events?

Mackall: No, but that would be funny. He wants some deniability. I’ve given him a book already; I’m sure he’s hidden it in his house so no other Amish can see it. He’s probably gone as far as he’s going to go. And that’s farther than any other Swartzentruber has gone, unless they’ve left.

» » » » »

(This Q&A first appeared in May’s Wharton Leadership Digest and is reprinted here with permission.)

Growing up in Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward, Kirbyjon Caldwell learned everything he needed to know about business at his father’s clothing store - earning a degree at the

Wharton School also helped. But shortly after launching his own business career,

said he was “called” to religious leadership. Today he is the pastor of the 15,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in

Houston, Texas, where he has pioneered innovative economic development projects. In March this year,, a leading religion website, named Caldwell - who offered the prayer at the 2001 presidential inauguration - one of the country’s ten most influential Black Spiritual Leaders.
This month, the ReligionWriter caught up with Caldwell, a featured speaker at the June 7 Wharton Leadership Conference, to talk about his passion for combining faith and finance.Question: Tell us about your own story. You graduated from Wharton, and today you are a religious leader. We would have expected you to go into investment banking instead. Kirbyjon Caldwell: I expected to do that myself (laughs.) I have always had a keen if not passionate interest in transforming the economic infrastructure of communities. My dad owned a men’s clothing store, so I had entrepreneurial blood running in my veins since birth. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to make a difference, to help people in

, to do good while doing well. So I focused on economics as an undergraduate at

Carleton College and later was accepted at Wharton.
After I graduated, I went to work for First Boston on Wall Street, then moved to

to work for a regional investment banking house as a fixed income institutional salesmen. I’d been there three months when the “calling” occurred.
Q: Can you tell us about that moment of “calling?”

: The most intelligent statement I could make is to say it was an experience that does not readily lend itself to a verbal description. To put it in religious terms, it was a moment when I became eclipsed by God’s will. All I knew was I was supposed to stop selling bonds and start pastoring a church. It’s been suggested there are at least two great moments in one’s life: one when you’re born, and the second when you discover why you’re born. I believe everyone is called to do something, and most of us, obviously, are not called into full-time ministry - for that I say thank the Lord, because that would be pretty boring. But we’re called to be more than a mom or a dad or a spouse. I think we’re called to leave an indelible imprint in this phenom called life. I encourage everyone to ask him or herself: “Why am I here?” There’s a reason why you were born and there’s a reason why you’re still here. I don’t think you should go crazy trying to figure it out, but you should be alert and alive to and, hopefully, aligned with that purpose. Q: After being ordained as a minister, you became the pastor of a church with only 25 members. Did that feel like a come-down for you, a person with two graduate degrees, suddenly in charge of only 25 people?

: Only 12 of whom came to church on Sundays (laughs.) I was assigned there by the [United Methodist] Church, and I believed God wanted met to be there, so I focused on that and went to work. Now we have over 15,000 members, and we take up more money in one worship service than we did that whole first year, and we have six or seven worship services a week. Q: How do you explain that success?

: In spiritual terms, we had five keys: a winsome worship service, multiple magnetic ministries, a powerful prayer ministry, enthused and involved lay people and an entrepreneurial methodology. The sixth thing, which may not be meaningful for a business audience, but which is very relevant in today’s culture, is having a clear Christology [understanding and declaration of the person of Jesus Christ.]

In business terms, we really understood our target population. Two, we delivered our product as excitingly as possible. We did all our work with volunteers and only a small paid staff;  as you know, that can be challenging. So the third thing we did right was have an informed and enthused HR team.

But here’s something else interesting. We did not care about the competition. We didn’t care what the other churches were doing; we just focused on what we were doing. Having said that, the real competition is not the church around the corner, it’s culture, it’s whatever keeps folks from going to church. We had a real kick-butt attitude, and in this case the butt was apathy, arrogance, ignorance and the status quo. And of course the financial pieces - managing cash flow, maximizing assets — we were doing that as well. Q: How did your M.B.A. help you lead your church?

Caldwell: My Wharton experience clearly contributed to my willingness to pursue “success” on a large scale. And of course when it came time for us to secure debt and raise capital, it helped to be comfortable with the nomenclature. Really, though, it was my experience working in my dad’s clothing store as a kid in

that has proved invaluable, in terms of interpersonal skills and the just down-right work ethic. I think it was the Houston Fifth Ward experience, combined with the Wharton experience, that helped me have the right attitude.
Q: Your latest book has the title Entrepreneurial Faith.What do you mean by that phrase?

: Interestingly, when the word entrepreneur was originally coined, it had nothing to do with money. It was about identifying and galvanizing resources, particularly people, to pursue a common goal. Who better fit that description than Jesus Christ himself? Of course the more commonplace definition of entrepreneurship has to do with attracting economic and financial resources to make a vision happen. Beneath that is the notion of having a mission and deploying every resource you can get your hands on to make that a reality; at the end of the day, that’s what a real entrepreneur does. Q: Some people might resist the idea of mixing business and religion. Is it a contradiction to mix faith and finance?

: Not at all, in my view. Faith and finance were never intended to get a divorce. Rather, God intended them to be in a healthy relationship. The Bible has more verses on money and commerce than it does on faith, prayer, heaven and hell combined. Go figure. What has happened is, theologians and lay persons have misinterpreted and misapplied that teaching on faith and finance. God has blessed us to be a blessing to others, and that has an economic meaning too. Q: Why was economic development important to you and your church? Why not just focus on getting more church members? Caldwell: The area of

I grew up in - the Fifth Ward — was underserved, to say the least. Since very early on in life, I’ve had a desire to make a difference in the community. So when I went into the ministry, making a difference economically was part of my agenda. It’s just a passion I have.
Point Two Three Four, 234-acre is a multi-use community we are developing in

. It consists of Corinthian Point, a YMCA, a public school, an independent living facility, a community park, and an 8.5 acre commercial development, currently anchored by Walgreen’s and CVS. Understand that in this neighborhood, there were no drug stores. Corinthian Point is the largest residential subdivision ever developed by a non-profit entity. There are 464 homes, and 80 percent of the homes are low- to moderate-income housing, though you wouldn’t know that by looking at them;“ they’re very nice. We are also developing a 451,000 square foot community center, which would include a charter school, a NASA program and the sanctuary, the family life center; it will literally be a smorgasbord of spiritual and social services.
This community is literally being transformed. The houses are already up, people are already living in them. From a spiritual standpoint, it’s unscriptural not to own land. God wants us to own land. From a social standpoint, statistics are clear: when people own land, education levels go up, crime comes down and life is made by better. There are positive spill-over effects.

» » » » »

Bob Abernethy, founder and host of PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and co-editor William Bole have compiled 66 of the show’s most interesting interviews in “The Life of Meaning: Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World,” published this month by Seven Stories Press. Compressed from lengthy Q+As into “spoken essay” form, the brief chapters offer short bursts of insight. Read today, a week after the Virginia Tech shootings, two of these chapters in particular pose provocative questions about how we relate to public tragedy.

In the chapter titled “Staring Down the Gods of War,” Chris Hedges, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, tells Religion and Ethics Newsweekly that the intensity of combat can “very swiftly become an addiction….You are thrust into the present in a way that is like a drug. I mean, even the colors are brighter.” The Virginia Tech violence was, in a sense, a three-hour war, Seung-Hui Cho versus the world. And just as war movies, war reenactments and other war mythologizing are perennially popular, so the public has returned again and again to dip into the seemingly endless stream of media content, which now includes portraits of the individual victims, narratives of Cho’s troubling past, and even interactive graphics that retrace the killer’s steps last Monday.

The rush of violence attracts, says Hedges, author of the 2003 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Although he is still traumatized by his memories of the former Yugoslavia and other war zones – unable to sit through the Lord of the Rings movie with his son, for example – he identifies himself with friends from Sarajevo who “sat around at the end of the war, and they didn’t miss the suffering and the death, but they also realized that this was probably the fullest moment in their life. There was a kind of nostalgia for that, a sense of that comradeship, a sense of that excitement. Yet that kind of lifestyle or that kind of rush can probably never be re-created.” The intensity of feeling surrounding memorials for the Virginia Tech victims seems to reflect this same phenomenon: while we are horrified by the violence, we cherish the satisfying, if bittersweet, feeling of solidarity it engenders.

In the chapter “Evil Acts, Sacred Places,” Edward Linenthal, whose insight into the process of memorializing violent mass death is increasingly in demand, tells Religion and Ethics Newsweekly’s managing editor, Kim Lawton, that “an unsettling collective effervescence” follows public tragedies as people focus on and celebrate individual acts of heroism. “Often we fixate on how these catastrophes bring us together when, in fact, they bring us together and tear us apart at the same time,” says Linenthal, a professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington; a member of the Flight 93 National Memorial Federal Advisory Commission; and an author of books about U.S. battlefields, the Oklahoma City bombing and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Communities often fight over how memorials should be constructed, and Linenthal hints at questions that Virginia Tech community members will soon face: Should Norris Hall, main site of last Monday’s violence, be closed or even destroyed? Who “owns” those classrooms now – the victims’ families, the college, the nation? That type of conflict, Linenthal notes, continues over the

World Trade Center site.

The Virginia Tech community has already held several official mourning and memorial events; Linenthal says memorializing is a way of containing and eventually moving beyond a tragedy. But he finds a tempting deception in the rush to memorialize: “It may provide us with a much-too-illusory comfort that it is, in fact, over.” Those are chilling words, especially for those who memorialized the Columbine tragedy with the hope that such massive school violence would never happen again. “If we can put it away and say it’s over, it’s very consoling. But we don’t know whether it’s over or not. In a sense, we’re memorializing in the midst.”

» » » » » » »


FireStats icon Powered by FireStats
E-mail It