Report

The Sunday Before the Election

By | November 5, 2012

(Getty)

In the days before the 2012 general election, we dispatched writers from around the country to attend houses of worship from California to Connecticut. They sent back slices of life, scenes from religious services, and political talk from parishioners. In between their interviews with the faithful, they surveyed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, shared in a community meal at a gurdwara, and followed Rick Warren’s Twitter feed. All glanced at the places where religion and politics meet, both in and out of the pulpit.  – The Editors
 

Crossroads Church
Staten Island, New York
By Abby Ohlheiser

Scripture for the day: Matthew 9:35 – “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”

The lights flickered back on at the Crossroads Church in Staten Island about 24 hours before services began Sunday morning, five days after Hurricane Sandy devastated large portions of the island’s coast. In the lobby, tables filled with food, cleaning supplies, and toiletries lined the hallway to the sanctuary of the storefront church building. Matt Parascando paced in front of the bounty on his cell phone, trying to figure out where the supplies needed to go, and how it’d get there, since a gas crisis across New York City has made car travel a precious commodity.

Congregants trickled in for the 11 a.m. service, some carrying, some needing supplies. Chatter before the service was of clearing houses, gas lines, and neighbors who lost everything. For the most part, those at Crossroads this morning were faring a bit better. Many were volunteering, and, as founding pastor Ray Parascando (Matt’s brother) told me, some had been working since the night of the storm. With an election days away, talk of politics was in terms of FEMA and Mayor Bloomberg, of relief needs, police keeping order, and a notion that the current attention being paid to Staten Island’s disaster would be swept away by increasing media attention on the election.

But for now, the church was a central point in the island’s recovery work. Crossroads’s donation bank “went viral,” as Matt told me, after Sandy hit the island hard. Occupy Sandy, among other relief groups working on the island, had directed donations to the church’s lobby and NBC had spent the day there on Saturday. They had filled and cleared the space at least three times over the weekend.

The seats were two-thirds full by the time the praise music ended, performed live by four young women on vocals and guitar. The services opened and closed with the same song, with the line repeated, “Greater things are still to be done in this city.”

Many of the empty seats, I was told, would have been occupied by displaced families. The pastor had a list of 25 church households who’d been directly affected by the storm, 18 of whom had been displaced from their homes. There were no casualties among members, but some among their families and friends. The church’s old meeting space, P.S. 52, was condemned Sunday morning from flooding, the pastor said.

Crossroads is a mission-based church of nearly four hundred members. They’re associated with the North American Mission Board—the missions wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s a mostly working-class congregation, what Matt described to me as “salt of the earth type people.” During the service, Pastor Ray said, “none of us are rollin’ in it here,” that the congregants hit by Sandy were “already in a hurting position.” Nevertheless, his sermon intentionally offered words of action more than of comfort. “Don’t give spiritual reasons for what happened, be God’s hands and feet,” he said, to applause from the room.

There was a sense at Crossroads that the government’s role in the post-crisis recovery should be limited, reflecting the pastor’s comment that he “leans right.” “I’m praying for both candidates. I’m gonna vote for someone who is gonna advance freedom,” he said. “I think they both love the country, even though they want to take it in opposite directions.” Voting is still up in the air for many recovering families since some of the schools and community centers scheduled to hold election centers are still unusable. After the service, Ray told me that he believed faith-based groups like his should take the lead in providing relief to the community, while government groups like FEMA, the police, and the National Guard should focus on keeping order. “God bless FEMA, and the Red Cross, and everything else,” he said, “But you NEED God.”

As I left the church, neighbors came in to truck supplies out to hard-hit areas. Two women came in looking for baby supplies. Matt promised to track some down for them. Despite the needs around them, the congregation’s closing prayer seemed to sum up their gratitude: “Lord, thank you for sparing each of our lives.”

Mormon Ward
North Ogden, Utah
By Emily W. Jensen

“In this part of the scriptures, we get an endorsement of Isaiah from the Savior, Jesus Christ,” said Carl Grunander, a Sunday School teacher, as he listed the reasons Mormons should study the prophet Isaiah as proclaimed by Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon. And that was the only actual “endorsement” the Sunday before the election in one North Ogden, Utah, church building.

The absence of political endorsements highlights the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ declaration of “Political Neutrality,”  which has been disseminated widely to the individual church units. The church’s mission, as they state, “is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians,” even when, or perhaps especially when, one presidential candidate happens to be within the faith.

In the LDS Church, where it is estimated that only 8 percent consider themselves liberal, and in a state that is already colored red on electoral maps (a recent local poll suggested that 69 percent will vote for Mitt Romney), it was surprising to find only one car sporting a Romney bumper sticker in the church parking lot. The only other political bumper sticker found read: “Politicians are like diapers, they can be changed each election season, for the same reason.”

And yet, as the Mormons worshipped, there were glimpses of asking for divine assistance in the upcoming election. One pleaded for the ability to “choose leaders who will lead righteously.” Another asked for “the wisdom to make the decisions we need to make this Tuesday.” And one fervently requested, “Please bless that we will elect leaders who will uphold the Constitution.” Church member Brad Ouderkick told the congregation, “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten, but remember to vote.” Finally, an elderly churchgoer gave an earnest testimony describing the election as a reminder of her “privilege to be counted.”

Some ward members seemed fatigued by this election season, with one stating that, “I am grateful for the ability to vote, but wish I could ban all political ads.” And even Grunander, the Sunday School instructor, joked, “I just remember that the Lord’s in charge, so we can just look forward to getting Tuesday over with.

Gurdwara Sachkind Darbar
Hamden, Connecticut
By Valarie Kaur

Nestled in the suburbs of Hamden, Connecticut, a little brick building has been transformed into a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship. Inside Gurdwara Sachkhand Darbar, dozens of families from the greater New Haven area gather for Sunday service.

Most of those who attend services have lived in New England for more than twenty years; only a handful of them are recent immigrants. All listen intently to the kirtan, lips moving softly to the words of a prayer: “Tu Thakar Tum Pe Ardas Jiyo Pind Sabh Teri Ras.” On a projector on the wall, an English translation appears for the younger ones to follow: “You are the Divine Master, we pray before you. Life and body–all is your property.”

It’s a somber prayer—a prayer soaked in memory of the past and hope for the future.

 On this Sunday before Election Day, the gurdwara is a quiet place of remembrance. Sikhs across the nation take November 4 to commemorate the anniversary of the anti-Sikh pogroms in India during November 1984. Twenty-eight years ago, at least three thousand Sikhs were massacred in the streets of New Delhi in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Indian government officials were complicit in the riots: some led the pogroms, many failed to stop the violence as it spun out of control. In the months and years since, thousands of Sikhs fled India to find a new life and home in America.

There are now half a million Sikhs in the United States. Many wear articles of faith, the most visible of which is long and uncut hair wrapped in a turban—a marker that tragically has made many Sikhs targets for violence, especially since 9/11.

 “Today we pray for Sikhs who died in the 1984 riots,” said Manmohan Singh Bharara, president of the new gurdwara. “But we also honor all who we have lost to hate and violence in this country.”

In August, a white supremacist walked into a gurdwara just like this one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire. He killed six men and one woman, and injured three more. Three months later, the news of Oak Creek has faded from the nation’s consciousness. During the second presidential debate, in response to a question about the rise of gun violence, candidates referenced the horrific mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in vivid detail—but did not mention the tragedy in Oak Creek. Perhaps it’s because Oak Creek confronts us with a challenge more complex than gun control: the persistence of religious bigotry and the alarming rise of hate groups in America.

Hundreds of miles away from Wisconsin, Sikhs at the Hamden gurdwara have placed a tribute to the Oak Creek tragedy at the entrance to the prayer hall. It includes a portrait of Lt. Brian Murphy, the police officer who was shot multiple times when defending the gurdwara, now a hero to the Sikh community. The tribute sits next to the blueprints for the gurdwara complex, inaugurated just this summer. The juxtaposition captures the Sikh spirit of “Chardi Kala:” everlasting optimism and high spirits, even in the shadow of darkness and death.

After the service ends, families sit together on the ground to share langar, the free and open community meal. As they eat, they begin to talk about the upcoming election. They avoid particular ballot initiatives or policy choices; rather in light of the morning’s prayer and remembrance, they reflect on the future of the Sikh community in America.

Most are hopeful. They are pleased with the Obama administration’s response to the Oak Creek tragedy. The president ordered the flags to half-mast, the first lady visited to grieve with the victims, and Attorney General Eric Holder declared the shooting an act of domestic terrorism. The Indian government would never have done so much for us, some say.

Younger Sikh Americans interject: they want more than short-term response to the tragedy. They want a president who will combat racial profiling, employment discrimination, bullying, and domestic terrorism. They want a president who will restore our economy, relieve student debt, and move the country as a whole forward.

“The younger generation is realizing that their voice must be heard,” Bharara told me. “I’m seeing an energy I haven’t seen before. I think it happened after Oak Creek … they want a say in our democracy. They are registering to vote and are excited about voting.”

“No matter what happens on Tuesday, we will be here,” he said, taking a deep breath. “We will be a place where people can gather to remember, pray, and hope for a better future.” 

A Shabbat for World Hunger
Evanston, Illinois
By Rachel Gordan

On the Friday night before Election Day, in Evanston, Illinois, a chavura-style group met at the home of a neurosurgeon and her family. A few children were among us, but mostly we were adults in our thirties, forties, and beyond. Academics, physicians, writers, a couple of rabbis and teachers, we sat in a circle in a living room crowded with books and art and plants. We call ourselves Lomdim, the Hebrew verb that means learning, and on Friday, November 2nd, 2012, as part of World Hunger Shabbat, we read a Hebrew prayer for those living in hunger, written by Rabbi Shai Held.

Aleinu lishabeach. We recited one of the concluding prayers for Friday night services. Aleinu, Sam Feinsmith, one of our rabbis, reminded us, means that it is upon us; it is our responsibility. What is our responsibility, he asked us: today? This week? Later, crowded into the kitchen, holding tiny, plastic cups of juice, we said the blessing over the fruit of the vine, and tipped our heads back to savor sweet, red grape juice.

Eating—mindfully, given our theme—vegetarian take-out from a Kosher restaurant in Skokie, conversation see-sawed from hunger and poverty to the election and politics. On the table, beneath our paper plates of falafel and salad, lay a scattering of pamphlets from organizations fighting world hunger. The faces of starving children stared up at us as we ate. The poorest are not easy to keep in mind while consuming a meal—even a self-consciously light Shabbat dinner—in the richest nation in the world. Of weary minds (what can one do about hunger?), we leaned back gratefully into the easy chitchat of politics and the approaching election. The Farm Bill! Someone reminded us. Now, there was something the election might accomplish for the poor.

It may be our last sane Shabbat, Laurie Zoloth, one of two ethicists present remarked. And the poorest will feel it most, she said. People nodded. We were a somber Shabbat crowd. As with the topic of hunger, there was no debate among us when it came to the election.

St. Stanislaus Church
New Haven, Connecticut
By John Stoehr

As you approach St. Stanislaus Church in New Haven, you see a banner affixed to its wrought-iron fence that says what you are about to experience is an “extraordinary form” of worship—the Tridentine Mass, the traditional liturgy given in Latin. By “extraordinary,” the banner doesn’t mean “awesome,” though listening to the Schola Cantorum, the church’s choir, raise its unaccompanied voices to the gilt-and-gold arches of the ceiling does inspire feelings of awe. “Extraordinary” refers to the distinction Pope Benedict made in 2007 between the post-Vatican II mass, which is in the vernacular, as “ordinary,” and the pre-Vatican II mass, which held sway for nearly 400 years, as “extraordinary.”

On a cloudless Sabbath, the last prior to Election Day, the mass of “extraordinary form” is one of a series. St. Stanislaus is trilingual. Every Sunday features one mass in Latin, two in English, and two in Polish. This, too, may seem extraordinary, but it is not. The church was passed to Polish Vincentian priests in 1904 after waves of immigration from Poland to Connecticut in the late nineteenth century. New Britain, a city just to the north of New Haven, has four Polish-language newspapers competing for readers in a population that is about a quarter Polish. St. Stanislaus, meanwhile, serves 900 households around the state.

Whether congregants came for the homily on choosing between good and evil on Election Day or for the sight and sound of a liturgy centuries old, it’s hard to say. What’s certain is their dedication to the old ways. Some women covered their hair with scarves and veils. Some in the pews responded to calls in Latin. The face of John Paul II, the first Polish pope, looks out from the cover of a book of prayer in every pew. His portrait, framed in gold, hangs opposite one of Christ and the Madonna.

The homily made no mention of the candidates, President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but the choice on Tuesday, said the Rev. Stanley Miekina, is clearly between good and evil. Economic issues are important, he said, but more important was the crisis of morality tearing the country apart. Catholics would do well to remember Judas, who betrayed Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, and bear in mind the following: abortion, marriage and religious freedom.

Abortion, Miekina said, was the No. 1 civil rights issue of the day. It harms women, hobbles the poor, and has killed 50 million babies since 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. The government, meanwhile, is redefining marriage between a man and a woman, and could, logically speaking, redefine any kind of relationship, including those depending on confidentiality between parishioner and priest. As for religious freedom, Miekina said the new health care law—he didn’t use the word “Obamacare,” but that’s what he meant—violates the God-given right of conscience by forcing American Catholics to offer or administer care that’s anathema to their core religious beliefs. “We are living in a time of martyrs,” he said. 

Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center
Boston, Massachusetts
By Sarah Moawad

Situated in the heart of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, the 70,000 square-foot Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC)—constructed out of red brick and glass, and complete with a towering minaret and expansive dome—is impossible to ignore. It houses a mosque, an elementary school, an interfaith space, a library, and a café. As the largest Islamic center in New England, the ISBCC is the spiritual and social home to recent immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Europe, second and third generation Muslim Americans, as well as African American Muslims, many of whose families folded into Sunni Islam after the heyday of the Nation of Islam. 

On any given Friday, or Jumuah, the Muslim holy day, at least 500 Muslims show up to hear the khutbah, or sermon, and then stay on to participate in the communal prayer. Last Friday, less than a week before the presidential election, the prayer hall was packed to the brim, forcing many into the “overflow” prayer space above the main hall.

The center’s imam, Suhaib Webb, a charismatic, blonde-haired, Oklahoma-born Muslim convert, has achieved celebrity status in the local and national Muslim community for his unique blend of humor and faith. But last Friday, Webb did not deliver the sermon. Instead, he shared his pulpit with Abdullah Hakim Quick, a historian, social activist, and religious scholar of African and Native American descent, who delivered a sermon focused on climate change. Quick cited droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, and Hurricane Sandy, as proof that the earth, is “reacting to us and throwing us off like a virus.” But all is not lost. Muslims in America—the country that has contributed the most climate change—can positively affect the environment. Quick explained, “We are in a strategic position” to create “self-sustaining communities” that can survive in times of crisis.

The khutbah was followed by the communal prayer and a few last-minute announcements. “Get out and vote on Tuesday,” exclaimed one young congregant, who urged people to vote for the candidate that best represents their values and those of Islam. “It is one of our tools in a wide array of tools to affect change in this country,” he said.

Because of its size and prominence, the ISBCC is also the political hub of the greater New England Muslim community. In 2009, the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, along with local and state political dignitaries, all attended the center’s well-publicized opening. During this election cycle, the congregation was the largest religious group of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to meet with Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. But, as a religious institution, the ISBCC cannot legally endorse any specific candidate or political party. Imam Webb, however, can and does, and does so quite vocally. After prayers, I sat down with him in his office (noticing immediately an Obama-Biden sticker on his computer) to speak about how the ISBCC’s own work intersects with politics. He told me that his community has been invested in the political process since its inception. And it had to be, due to the opposition the center faced from community groups. After the five-year-long legal battle, which was played out in the local and regional press, the center was ultimately completed because it gained the support of the state’s most important politicians, including Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

The next generation of American Muslims must be engaged in culture and politics, Webb explained. The “Islamophobia industry,” as he calls it, currently enjoys an outsized influence in the discourse between American Muslims and their fellow American citizens. Webb believes that it will ultimately be up to young Muslims to change this conversation. “It’s time for you to take the mic.” 

Saddleback Church
Orange County, California
By Edward J. Blum

I couldn’t believe it. LSU’s offense was wearing the Alabama defense down, and the Tigers were poised to take the lead. “This is some amazing football,” I said to myself. Then, when I clicked on the website for Saddleback Church to print directions for Sunday’s service, mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren popped up on the screen. His homey plaid shirt was unmistakable. The Saturday evening service had begun, and I could join from my laptop. “This must be what heaven is like,” I thought: college football on one screen; church on the other. Both even had commercials (one for food drives; the other for alcoholic beverages). Heck, if some people can “bowl alone,” why can’t I church alone?

All of Saddleback’s services are simulcast on the web, and they showcase one of the reasons Rick Warren has gained such popularity. He is, in the words of sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phil Sinitiere, a “holy maverick,” an “evangelical innovator” able to present simple, folksy gospel messages with new media of the twenty-first century. If I can borrow some insights from Matthew Avery Sutton’s work on an earlier and just-as-famous southern California pastor, Aimee Semple McPherson, it is clear that combining old stories with new technologies is one of the hallmarks of modern politicized evangelicalism.

Like many, I’ve followed Pastor Rick for a long time. With tens of millions, I tried his 40-days-to-change-your-life-book Purpose Driven Life, a work first published in 2002 and that Pastor Rick humbly mentioned in Saturday’s sermon was now the “most published book in history.” Based on my marginal notes and daily check-ins from 2008, I got to day eleven. I remember, though, Barack Obama quoting the beginning of Purpose Driven Life repeatedly during that election season: “it’s not about you.” Maybe that was how far Obama got into the book. I was then excited when Obama invited Warren to offer an inaugural prayer in 2009, naively believing that there may be a détente in the partisan culture wars. More recently, I puzzled over Pastor Rick’s canceling of the presidential debate that Saddleback had hoped to host. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama seemed inclined to join Pastor Rick so it seemed a little like a scorned boyfriend claiming after the fact that “he broke up with her.”

Pastor Rick’s pre-election sermon had nothing to do with politics per se. It was vintage Saddleback. Contemporary problems answered with a biblical story and framed in the literary style of an acrostic. Today, the Bible story was from Genesis. Joseph was sold into slavery; he labored under Potiphar; and he refused the lustful come-ons of Potiphar’s wife. The main point was that Joseph was a model employee. He was the kind of man you would want working for you, the kind of man you would want to promote.

Although nothing explicit, there were some subtle political points made, and they tied Saddleback firmly to one main feature of the political-culture wars: the defense of heterosexual marriage. The conservatism of the church was evident in Saddleback Staff’s “10 Commandments.” Number 1 linked lunch with lust: “Thou shalt not go to lunch alone with the opposite sex.” Number 4 honed in on the homefront: “Thou shalt not visit the opposite sex alone at home.” Each commandment assumes heterosexuality not only on the part of the staff member, but also on the part of the church member. What is unspoken, of course, is the opinion that homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything beyond monogamous heterosexuality is unthinkable for their congregation.

But there were some elements of the sermon and the church’s webpage that gestured beyond the stereotypes of conservative evangelicalism. There was no mention of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama during the sermon—or even that an election was taking place. Unlike Billy Graham’s ministry, Saddleback’s website had not removed its pages that presented Mormonism as an “other religion” or “cult” like “Wicca” or “Scientology.” Even more, the first point in the sermon was defined by “audacity.” For politically informed listeners, this word is clearly charged with Obama-esque meaning. The title of his political manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, were words taken from his Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright.

The apolitical feel of the sermon was matched by my trip to the church. I ventured on Sunday morning to Saddleback’s physical space in Orange County. There seemed almost no indication that profound political moments were at hand. I witnessed hardly any political bumper stickers in the massive parking lot. I overheard no chatter about Romney or Obama, this proposition or that proposition. At one point, I mentioned how glad I was to be away from my television and the non-stop political ads; the group around me laughed as if they completely understood. If anything, Saddleback seemed the only apolitical space I’ve encountered recently—other than watching sports.

But Saddleback’s appearance masks some overt political positions. Just minutes before the 9 a.m. service began, Pastor Rick tweeted, “Why would anyone jobless today vote to maintain the status quo instead of change? Unemployment is STILL HIGHER than 4 yrs ago.” Knowing that the sermon was about employment issues and that Pastor Rick did not mention the election, I was struck by the magic of modern media. Just as Internet video technology allowed me to “watch alone,” new social media allowed Pastor Rick to make his political point without stating it from the pulpit. He was able to leverage his pastoral power for political influence—but without church stationary or from the pulpit lectionary. In this case, new technology allowed him to have both his apolitical pulpit and his partisan presentation. It was the ultimate example of having his cake and eating it too.

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