Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Transcending Religion

While churches, temples and mosques continue to thrive in Coastal Virginia, many area residents are seeking spiritual enrichment elsewhere

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Tom Robotham, Searching for God in the 7 Cities
Tom Robotham

Faith, Hope and Love

Last year, when I began my series of articles on religious life in Coastal Virginia, I had one overriding question in mind: In these divisive times, was it possible to find common ground and notes of harmony across our landscape of religious diversity?

As I wrap up my series, I am happy to report that I found more of that than I’d even hoped for. In fact, after talking to dozens of people of all faiths, I now have the impression that the divisiveness, which we hear so much about, is overblown. This is due in large part, I think, to mass-media outlets that emphasize sensationalism over substance in a quest for ratings. In this environment, the worst among us get most of the attention, while the people who are simply trying to live in harmony with their neighbors get overlooked.

Social media sites like Facebook, moreover, aggravate the problem because the very nature of the medium itself so often creates an atmosphere of hostility rather than respect and understanding.

But here’s another observation that’s even more important: To the extent that the divisiveness and hostility are real, my sense is that they may be fading rather than intensifying.

I am not alone in believing this. Gabrielle Gerard-Jenks, a yoga teacher with whom I spoke for this last installment (see main article), put it succinctly: “Culturally,” she said, “I think we’re entering a renaissance.”

This, in fact, was the prediction of the late scholar Jacques Barzun in his masterwork From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. “The strongest tendency of the later 20th century was Separatism,” he wrote in his final chapter. But he ended his book on a note of hope—his belief that emerging on the future’s horizon were signs of new cultural energies that would spark new growth and cultural transformation.

Religion, I have come to believe, can play a key role in this revitalization. Yes, I know. Some people will read that sentence and say, “What?! Are you crazy?!”

I understand the objection: When the news of the day is filled with stories of violence in the very name of religion, how can this be so?

If you could talk with the people I encountered in the course of researching this series, I think you would understand what I mean. Overwhelmingly, they expressed deep and abiding respect for people of all faiths—and in many cases, a desire for interfaith dialogue.

This became especially clear to me when I spoke with Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan University, and director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.

“I’m so intrigued by the amount of interfaith activities going on in Hampton Roads right now,” he said.

In talking to people of all faiths, Wansink has come to believe that religion—of whatever kind—is about “reconciliation and redemption.” He noted that the word religion, if we break it down to its roots, points to this: “Re meaning ‘again,’ and ligio, like ligament, meaning ‘connection.’”

It occurred to me as Wansink and I were talking that religion, when practiced with spiritual intention, can help us reconnect on two levels. First is a reconnection with ourselves—something many of us sorely need. We live in an age, after all, of unprecedented distraction that discourages us from looking inward. When we do look inward, and feel discomfort in the face of what we see, well—not to worry. There’s a pill for that.

Many people I talked with are trying to turn away from the distractions and find healing in solitary spiritual practices of one kind or another—a healthy sign, I think, but one with limitations. In another book that I’ve found invaluable over the years, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N. Bellah, et al., the authors argue that we are living in an age of “radical individualism” at the expense of community.

Wansink echoed the thesis of the book: “There has been a trend toward increasingly individualized religion,” he said. “The question is, when do you allow yourself to be part of something larger—something that has expectations of you? We live in a world that needs so much healing, and I wish we would see the sorts of movements that really work toward helping society.”

I share his concern. On the other hand, I see signs of hope. Gerard-Jenks’ sense that we may be on the verge of another renaissance is based in part on the observation that there is movement even among practitioners of yoga—which tends to be a solitary endeavor, even in classes—to move toward a greater sense of community, outreach and service to the less fortunate among us.

Meanwhile, our region is home to an abundance of churches, temples and mosques where congregants share a very deep sense of community, indeed. I found it at an ice cream social at Little Piney Grove, a black Baptist church in southern Virginia Beach; during post-service buffet lunches at both Temple Israel and the Islamic Center of Tidewater in Norfolk; during an all-day retreat at the Dong Hung Buddhist Temple just off Virginia Beach Boulevard—and in so many other places. In every case, I was welcomed with open arms—and deeply humbled as people shared with me their most intimate stories of faith, hope and love.

The greatest of these is love, as St. Paul said. And there’s a lot of it out there.


Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims, Christianity Part 1 and Part 2, Judaism and Buddhism.

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