It may be only one word but “faith” embodies a varied and personal set of beliefs.

We explore the wealth of religious diversity that exists in our city.

Raleigh Magazine wanted to write a story about the diversity of religion in the Triangle. It was an ambitious idea, and I jumped at the opportunity. I knew the story would be challenging, but I didn’t realize how deeply it would affect me.

Over the course of researching this article, I grieved with my own congregation at a Catholic funeral, saw the joy of a soccer mom introducing a widely misunderstood faith to her friend, had coffee with a leader of a church whose journey with his transgender daughter informed his ministry, and spoke with a former Sunday School teacher who, after missing the ritual of a religion she no longer believed in, found a different community with whom she could celebrate life.

I began to see that what I thought was an article on religion, was really a piece on relationships: our relationships with one another and with a Creator.

It was while I was in a mosque, where women surrounded me with love and welcome and were so excited about introducing their faith to Raleigh, that I was smacked with the arrogance of my original intent.

There is no way, within the pages of this magazine, within the limitations of words to express the love, beauty and solemnity of the many belief systems within our great city. There is not enough space to explain the complexity and nuances of each, and I don’t claim to possess the grace to convey the idea of faith itself.

So with deep humility, Raleigh Magazine presents these brief vignettes, snapshots of faith (and non-faith) communities in our area.

Finding Common Ground

Good Friday, 2016: the sanctuary was draped in black to commemorate the solemn day in Christianity when Jesus died on the cross. Pastor Mac Schafer knelt amid the blackness and asked for God’s help. His mind and spirit were low after a week of news about a House Bill that targeted his transgender daughter, and he wasn’t sure he had the strength to lead: “God, give me the energy to lead this service because I’m down. I’m so upset about HB2.”

“Pastor Mac?” A deacon quietly interrupted his prayers. “The Easter lilies are here.”

The symbol was all he needed. Throughout his journey with his transgender daughter, Hunter, Pastor Mac knew that God was with him, and it was all going to be OK.

Hunter was only in 4th grade when Schafer moved to Raleigh and joined Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church. Though Schafer suspects Hunter already knew something was different, she didn’t come out to them until much later.

“When Hunter came out to us initially, she was in middle school, being raised as our son, and she told us she was gay,” says Schafer. Already open to that possibility, Schafer and his wife, Katy, reaffirmed their love and acceptance. It was a couple years later that Hunter told them she was transgender.

“There was more adjustment for us at that point,” Schafer admits. “Part of that was our own ignorance in not understanding what somebody being transgender meant, but there is also the inner grief you feel as a parent saying goodbye to what you thought life was going to be like for your child.”

Schafer says there were moments along the way that helped him let go of control and fear for his daughter. One such moment was when she addressed concerns over changing for health class. She scheduled a meeting with the guidance counselor and, though her parents were there, she took charge.

“Hunter sat down and said, ‘I wanted to talk to you about health class. I’m transgender, do you know what that means?’” Schafer laughs recalling the initial look on the counselor’s face, whom he says, composed herself quickly and handled it very well.

It didn’t matter if Hunter was Schafer’s son or daughter; his child was a strong person, and Schafer was a proud dad. “She has the characteristic of knowing who she is and asserting what her needs are,” he says.

Professionally, Pastor Mac didn’t hide his daughter’s journey, but it also wasn’t necessarily public knowledge. One family trip and a social media post changed that.

Schafer was graduating from a doctoral program in Pittsburgh and Hunter asked if she could wear a dress publicly for the first time. Knowing there was family present who didn’t know the full story, Schafer asked her to wait and wear the dress at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where they were going to stop for mass on the way home.

Unbeknownst to the Schafer family, that National Cathedral mass celebrated a group baptism. The priest walked through the congregation with sprigs of holy water, blessing everyone: “For Hunter, I think she was just glad to be wearing her dress, but for my wife and me, it was a very powerful moment of Hunter standing, as a transgender girl, being blessed as a child of God.”

To commemorate the day, the family took a picture in front of the Cathedral. Mac and Katy thought it would be a nice photo for the family; their daughters thought a little bigger.

“We are driving down 95 and I hear Hannah say, ‘I can’t believe you posted it!’ and Hunter says, ‘Isn’t it great? We got 200 likes already!” In very short order, Schafer got a text from an elder at his church that said, “Is everything OK?”

Upon coming home to news and questions, the youth director advised Schafer to tell his story before others told it for him. The Schafer family held two town hall style meetings, first with the youth group and then with the congregation.

“Hunter told her story as a transgender teenager, Hannah told her story as a sibling, and Katy and I told our stories as parents,” says Schafer. “The whole experience was uplifting and powerful for our family and, I think, for the congregation.”

“I had folks in the church who I know struggle with the idea of gay marriage or other LGBT issues, but a lot of them came up to me and said, ‘Look, regardless of my struggles with what I believe, we love you,’ and I think that’s the balance that we’ve been able to strike,” Schafer says.

In each of these conversations, whether supportive or questioning, Schafer puts the relationship first, always looking to find common ground. The bottom line, he says, is “It’s not the end of the discussion, but it’s a great marker to be able to have that discussion, tell that story and everyone respects each other; maybe even loves each other in a new and different way.”

It has transformed the way Schafer approaches both ministry and conversation in a cultural sense. “I don’t think people change by my arguing my views on Scripture or by amping up confrontation,” he says. “I think people are changed when they know people and their stories; it humanizes us.”

Schafer says though he doesn’t use his pulpit to advocate for specific social issues, the journey has also informed his faith. “In the Gospels, whenever religious leaders had a rule they were trying to enforce that inhibited people from experiencing the Kingdom of God, Jesus would bat up against it in the spirit of liberating the oppressed,” Schafer says.

At the core of Schafer’s belief about God is love. He ends almost every service with the following benediction: “Be strong and courageous, stand firm in your faith, let all you do be done in love, may you know God’s smile and that you are loved beyond your wildest imagination.”

And though his family’s fight with HB2 is ongoing, the support of his church community and signs of God’s grace like lilies through darkness, keep Pastor Mac optimistic that love and compassion will win in the end.

Beneath the Dome

A new Catholic cathedral gives a local, growing population a Mother Church

The construction of a new Cathedral is incredibly rare. While many dioceses around the country are consolidating schools and parishes, the Diocese of Raleigh is in the very unique position of having a booming Catholic population where the former Cathedral is not feasible for renovation.

The current Cathedral, Sacred Heart in downtown Raleigh began serving as the Diocese’s central church in 1924 when the Catholic population for all of North Carolina was only 6,000. With limited parking and a seating capacity of 320, the Cathedral held several services on Sundays and even had to rent hotel space nearby to handle overflow masses on holy days.

Currently the Raleigh diocese is home to 500,000 Catholics with projections of reaching 1 million in less than 20 years. The growing population of transplants, along with the Hispanic migrant population, which is primarily Catholic, has made our area one of the top four fastest growing Catholic populations in the country.

It was clear, a new Mother Church was needed. The Cathedral Campaign was announced with a commitment by Bishop Burbidge (the former Bishop of Raleigh, now Bishop of Arlington, VA) to only spend what the people of God would provide. And the great majority of the budget came during the initial campaign from faithful Catholics excited to fulfill the dream of a Cathedral with the ability to host diocesan liturgical events.

On January 3, 2015, the dream became reality as the Diocese of Raleigh celebrated the Rite of Blessing and Groundbreaking for the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. The Cathedral will sit on the Nazareth property off Western Boulevard which used to be home to a Catholic Orphanage (which housed the Holy Name of Jesus chapel) and the old Cardinal Gibbons High School.

Over the last two years, Raleighites have watched the campus transform, most notably when the 162-ton copper-topped dome was lifted atop the structure, an incredible architectural feat that took 31 minutes of active crane movement to lift into place. The dome took 16,000 hours of man hours to build, and 25 tractor-trailers were needed to transport the crane that was required to lift it.

Billy Atwell, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Raleigh, says: “We have received feedback from people all around Raleigh saying that they have seen the dome from the most unlikely of places. It’s becoming a reference point for the downtown area.”

Stained-glass windows that measure up to 17 feet high and Stations of the Cross were rescued from the Ascension Parish in Philadelphia, which closed down. The windows are being restored by Beyer Studio in Philadelphia before being installed. A 50-bell carillon commissioned for the Cathedral will mark hours of worship as well as play songs for special events.

The building is in the shape of a cruciform that “connects our diocesan Cathedral with the many Cathedrals found in Rome and throughout the world that express a similar shape. The cruciform gives our beautiful new Cathedral a timeless appearance that will hold up throughout the ages,” says Atwell.

The Cathedral will open and be dedicated on July 26. Though the Cathedral will, of course, hold special significance for the Catholic population, Atwell invites everyone to come and see this architectural wonder. “We want the community to feel welcome to join us and celebrate this wonderful, sacred site in Raleigh,” he says.

Answering the Call

A visit to the Islamic Center of Raleigh during Friday Prayers

I’m not someone who normally picks out outfits ahead of time; but there I was, in my closet, ensuring I had an appropriate outfit for my assignment the next day when my phone chirped: “I just found out a friend of mine goes to the Islamic Center of Raleigh. She said she’d love to come with us.”

The text was from my friend Jeana who, when she heard that I was going to be visiting different places of worship, volunteered to join me.

We were both excited to go to the Islamic Center of Raleigh that Friday, but admittedly, I was a little nervous. I wanted to make sure I was respectful of the dress, the customs and the service. I didn’t want to do or say something to make anyone feel uncomfortable in their place of worship, especially with the amount of negativity and uncertainty in the current political and media climate. When I learned Jeana’s friend Tahani would join us, it was a welcome addition.

Jeana and I picked Tahani up, and immediately I knew this would be an unforgettable afternoon. Dressed traditionally, Tahani greeted us in her driveway with a smile that stretched from hem to hem of her hijab. She was excited to share her faith with us and thanked us for taking the time to learn.

Hugging Jeana and hopping in the car, the two caught up on kids and families. They were friends from CASL soccer and joked that it was an educational team; the parents taught each other how to shout from the sidelines in Arabic, English and Spanish.

For the rest of the ride I peppered Tahani with questions about common phrases like, “Inshallah,” (If Allah wills it, or God willing) and “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (Peace be unto you). I had read that it was polite to greet others at the mosque with the latter phrase, and we spent time attempting to perfect our pronunciation.

After a while, Tahani politely and in good humor insisted it’s ‘totally fine’ to also just say, ‘salaam,’ or even, ‘hi.’

Upon walking in the building, two gentlemen greeted us. “Salaam Sister,” to Tahani and, “Welcome, are you visiting to learn about Islam?” to us. We veered to the right to take the elevator to the 2nd floor where the women’s masjid (mosque) is located. We removed our shoes in the hallway and stepped through the doors. Most women sat on the floor, but there were also folding chairs along the back of the room.

A closed-circuit television hung in the front where women watched the Imam give a lesson from the men’s masjid downstairs. After the lesson (khutba), which usually lasts 20 to 30 minutes, the Imam leads the Salah, the mid-day prayer. Within the Salah, there are usually two to four rakats, or repetitions of prayer. Each rakat incorporates words, sung in Arabic, giving praise to God, and movement, which includes standing and bowing prostrate to God, touching forehead to ground. The prayers lasted five to 10 minutes, after which the women either returned to sitting in thoughtful prayer, or stood to visit with friends.

It was at this time when Jeana and I were welcomed warmly by many women. One approached us and invited us to tea on Sunday, a weekly opportunity to meet Muslim women and learn more about Islam. I thanked her for her invitation, but knowing I was unable to make it, asked her what was one thing she wished people knew about her faith.

“That we are not terrorists,” she said.

The answer came without hesitation and it stunned me, just how openly, how beseechingly she said it. She explained that when she walks through the city with her head covered, people ask her why she is so extreme. She sees their looks of fear.

My heart broke for her. My mind went instantly to the cruciform necklace that was underneath my layers of clothing. I don’t think twice about wearing a symbol of my faith. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to get looks of fear or anger anytime I wore my cross. Would I still have the courage to wear it?

“We cover ourselves so that we are not concerned with our outside. Our concern is with our inside. We want to direct all our thoughts and energy to becoming good on the inside, not only for God but for others,” she explained.

I nodded at a notion I can surely appreciate, especially as my daughter nears the teenage years which can be hard on a girl’s self esteem: equating hair, clothes, complexion and popularity with boys with self-worth. The hijab may seem foreign to me, but her explanation behind it resonated.

Before we walked away from the woman that greeted us, I realized how we might be seen as intruders in this place, the one place they may feel truly at ease dressing in accordance with their faith. So I asked, “Knowing that there is so much misunderstanding, does it make it uncomfortable for outsiders, like me, to be in your place of worship?”

She shook her head: “We like it very much. We want people to know who we really are.”

Unbound Abundance

Sunday Assembly celebrates community without religion

Mandi Kaye Ottaway spent the first 25 years of her life going to church every Sunday. A member of an independent Baptist church, Mandi taught Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and sang in the choir. Over time, however, she felt a shift in how she viewed her faith community.

“I began to feel as if people were less important than doctrine, which I felt went against the teachings of the Bible,” Ottaway says.

She explored other Christian denominations and asked deeper questions, challenging the faith that she had held for most her life: “I realized that I’d spent my life parroting what I’d been told without ever questioning it, and when I started picking at it, everything just fell away.”

When Ottaway decided that religion was no longer part of who she was, she missed the community of a multi-generational weekly gathering. It was a hole in her life that she wasn’t sure how to fill until she discovered Sunday Assembly.

Sunday Assembly is a global movement started in 2013 by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two comedians from London. They were en route to a job when they discovered they both had the desire to do, ‘something that felt like church but totally secular and inclusive of all—no matter what they believed.’

By their second Assembly, 300 people had joined, and requests poured in from all over the world for permission and guidance to start additional chapters. Today there are over 70 Sunday Assembly chapters in eight different countries. The motto, ‘Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More,’ underscores the mission to be a supportive and accepting community.

It has been called, ‘The Atheist Church,’ but Heather Greer Klein, board vice chair of the Chapel Hill Sunday Assembly, says that moniker is not entirely accurate. “Sunday Assembly aims to create a space for community regardless of belief,” says Greer Klein.

“When Sunday Assembly started, we actually got a lot of pushback from hardcore atheists who thought even our ‘non-religious’ message was too close to church, and they had just been so burned that they didn’t want any part of it,” says Kevin Klein, Heather’s husband and board chair.

Held on the second Sunday of every month at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, the Assembly structures the hour-long event around a theme with music, speakers and an opportunity for members to share life events.

The Sunday Assembly band is a rotating cast of attendees who range in age from seven to 70 and who lead attendees in uplifting pop songs such as, “Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles or “Roar,” by Katy Perry. The speakers are carefully chosen to present 20-minute talks about a wide swath of themes, including goal setting, supporting others through grief and space exploration. Speakers must follow guidelines and policies that highlight the idea that Sunday Assembly is a place of acceptance.

To underscore the importance of this idea, Greer Klein refers to the words of founder Sanderson Jones: “Your religious grandma should be able to come to Sunday Assembly and see nothing that happens that is offensive to her.”

And for Ottaway, she has found a way to celebrate “the one life she knows she has.

Everything I Needed to Know about Visiting a New Place of Faith, I learned from the Kadampa Center

Visiting places of worship outside your tradition can be an incredibly enriching experience. Yet many of us are nervous to ‘do the wrong thing.’ To help, here are some tips, and I learned them all while visiting the Kadampa Center for the Practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Raleigh.

Be honest. Let people know it’s your first time and you are visiting and curious. Greeters at the Kadampa Center gave me a brief tour and incredible welcome.

Follow the Leader. Upon entering the Kadampa Center, I followed a gentleman who seemed to know his way around. He walked past the entrance to a line of turning wheels. “Turn for world peace,” they instructed. I followed his lead and spun the wheels. It is hard to describe, but that outward physical act, to express the intention for peace in my heart was powerful.

Respect your own comfort level. Upon sitting down in the gompa (teaching hall), the woman sitting beside me, Hettie, explained how some will prostrate, not as worship but to combat pride. I wasn’t sure I fully understood the concept, so I remained respectfully seated.

Smile! This I learned directly from the teacher, Gesha Galek during the teaching. When you smile at people, you bring more kindness into your life and you let people know that you are there with peace and love in your heart.

Just be. You are not going to become an expert in a day, so don’t try. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every ritual or if everyone laughs and you missed the joke. At the teaching I went to, Gesha Galek had just returned from India and was sharing stories from the monastery. Many people had also been to India, so there were many references I didn’t necessarily catch, but I was able to soak in the feeling of family this Center shared.

Websites are your friend. The Kadampa Center, like many places of worship, has a page on their website with frequently asked questions and tips on when to come and what to wear.

Say thank you. The community is sharing something that is sacred to them. Thank them for their welcome and kindness. At the end of the teaching, there is a generosity ritual. We lined up to present a token gift to the teacher. If you did not bring one, but wanted to participate, a basket of scarves to borrow is provided. I waited a long time and watched the others before I decided this was something I wanted to do. I pulled a scarf and waited in turn as each person approached Gesha Galek. At my turn, I offered him the scarf and said, “Thank you.” He presented it back to me, draped the scarf across my neck, looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you.”

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1 Comment

  1. This is a well-written, inclusive article for believers and nonbelievers. Appreciate the scope of information.

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