The Rise of the “Nones” Part 1: Creating Community in New Ways

This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, December 29th, 2016.

PART 1 of 2. READ pt. 2 HERE: The Rise of the “Nones” Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities

The phrase “Rise of the Nones” is a common parlance these days as we discuss national trends in religious identity, or lack thereof. One in three people under the age of thirty are likely to identify as a “None,” an umbrella term meant to include atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious,” and those who believe in a God but are not affiliated with a particular tradition or denomination.

As a None myself, and a millennial None at that, this ambiguous spiritual space is very familiar to me. While a phrase like “Rise of the Nones” has a somewhat ominous and even negative connotation to it, I have been able to see first-hand the incredible and creative ways community is being built by the Nones amongst us, both locally and nationally.

Two of the people leading the research on this emerging trend are Casper ter-Kuile and Angie Thurston, graduates of Harvard Divinity School and now Ministry Innovation Fellows through The Fetzer Institute. Their research on Millennial Nones culminated in a study called, “How We Gather.”

In it, they write: 

“Millennials are less religiously affiliated than ever before. Churches are just one of many institutional casualties of the internet age in which young people are both more globally connected and more locally isolated than ever before. Against this bleak backdrop, a hopeful landscape is emerging. Millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.”

They go on to cite how millennials are not the “spiritual consumers of their parents’ generation,” and while they may not be interested in “belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold,” they are often still interested in spirituality and community.

And when Millennials cannot find those things, they create spaces for them to happen.

For example, in Washington DC, a diverse arts community called The Sanctuaries brings together multi-faith and multi-racial artists and creatives, promoting spiritual growth and social change through arts and music.

Another instance is CrossFit, a tribe-like fitness organization centered on personal improvement, and a community where members have so much of an evangelical enthusiasm that it keeps them accountable and connected in ways that continue outside of the gym.

These communities, popping up across the country, have in common six aspects, according to Casper and Angie’s research: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.

But after Casper and Angie gathered 50 leaders from these organizations together to learn more, they heard another element that was essential to these organizations. They called it, “Something More.”

This “Something More” was what these secular organizations learned from their religious counter-parts – that collective well-being is only possible when we as individuals are able to connect deeply to something outside of and larger than yourself. This “Something More” is not possible without intentional community being built to bring Millennial Nones out of spiritual isolation from one another.

What these trends show us is that the lives of Nones are not spiritually empty, but are actually rich in community, meaning, and relationships across difference and around shared values. 

Krista Tippett, in her newest book Becoming Wise, even suggested: “The Nones of this age are ecumenical, humanist, transreligious. But in their midst are analogs to the original monastics: spiritual rebels and seekers on the margins of established religion, pointing tradition back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.”

These new ways to gather, largely led by Nones and Millennials in particular, are allowing us to engage more authentically, search more deeply, and collaborate more meaningfully. We all – religious and non-religious alike – have something to learn from these emerging trends in spiritual life.

READ pt. 2 HERE: The Rise of the “Nones” Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities

Stories of hope: Getting to know our neighbors in 2016

This article originally appeared in The Rapidian on December 20, 2016.

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At the beginning of 2016, I wrote an article suggesting that as a city, Grand Rapids’ New Year’s Resolution should be to get to know our neighbors of various faith traditions. At the time, I was motivated by the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric, exclusionary policy proposals, and resulting hate crimes against minority groups. By building relationships with our neighbors, a value that is found in all traditions, I suggested that it would lead to deeper understanding, respect, and appreciation for the differences we hold, and thus a community that embraces and thrives off of diversity and authentic engagement.

Nearly one year later, and the national climate we find ourselves in is even worse – more hateful and divisive than just a year ago. But the question remains: have we gotten to know our neighbors? Are we any better off, or further set behind by a society more divided than united?

When one reads the national news headlines or views trends across the United States, we often hear of the pain, marginalization and violence.

However, when we focus in on local contexts, we can find reasons to hope. We see stories of coming together, getting to know one another, that can not only send ripples of hope into our communities, but show a way forward in our small, daily encounters.

The following are just four stories of hope from our own interfaith community, led by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and our numerous, committed community partners. These stories barely scratch the surface of this past year’s activities, but they start to reveal the power and potential of bridging our community by getting to know our neighbors.

Welcoming Refugees to Grand Rapids

Last winter, various organizations and community members came together to address the needs of newly arriving refugees, particularly those arriving from war-torn Syria. For two days in January and February, students from Grand Valley State University traveled to Masjid AT-Tawheed, Grand Rapids’ largest mosque, where two classrooms were overflowing with clothing for refugees donated from a partner church. Students spent hours sorting clothes, learning about the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis, and meeting members of the local Muslim and refugee community. Then, in March, an evening event entitled “Welcoming Refugees: Do Unto Others” had over 400 people from various traditions come together to hear stories of from former refugees like Mustafa and Flory, Elodie, Abigael, and Benedicte. These stories and conversations moved many from passive concern into intentional action – as a result, individuals, families, and congregations connected with local refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts.

Learning from Faith Matters Network

Later in the spring, Reverend Jennifer Bailey spoke to our community about her experience leading an organization called the Faith Matters Network, whose mission is to train, connect, convene and amplify marginalized people of faith, primarily people of color, “to chart a new moral horizon.” Bailey spoke to an audience of students and community members of all traditions about the way all faith and spiritual commitments can promote prophetic voices to challenge injustice and oppression. Her focus on the “ethic of accompaniment,” walking alongside those who are marginalized or oppressed, is an approach that has remained in the minds of many in the interfaith community here – who now articulate their own allyship in a variety of social justice movements as a form of accompaniment.

Interfaith Leadership Lab

In late summer, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute collaborated with national organization Interfaith Youth Core to host an Interfaith Leadership Lab, meant to train area college students to become interfaith leaders that further create spaces of positive encounter across religious difference on their own campuses. With over 50 students participating from 10 campuses in Michigan throughout the weekend, the time together included a Shabbat (Sabbath) Dinner hosted by Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan, an all-day training on Saturday, and an interfaith service project at Blandford Nature Center on Sunday. Students from various campuses shared their own stories of identity, learned from community members representing diverse traditions, and engaged in common action rooted in the shared value of conservation.

17th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration

Finally, in the fall, we celebrated the 17th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration – a night where people representing various religious, spiritual and secular identities share their own messages of why their tradition promotes coming together and welcoming all. We heard songs from Baha’i and Buddhist kids’ choirs, recitations from the Qur’an and psalms from the Bible, reflections on gratitude from Jewish and atheist community members, and keynote remarks from Faye Richardson-Green. Richardson-Green, as Executive Director of Partners for a Racism-Free Community, shared a reflection on what it means to be an inclusive community – and challenged us to think of ways we can make sure everyone not only feels welcome, but feels wanted by the broader community. Following the service, the nearly 700 people who squeezed into the sanctuary stuck around for food and fellowship with one another, taking advantage of the time to share space and conversation with our neighbors of different traditions.

These are just four examples of the ways people in Grand Rapids got to know their neighbors throughout the past year, despite and perhaps emboldened by the divisive political climate. Beyond these examples, even, people came together every day to work on collaborative projects toward the common good. Each example of an encounter, conversation, or relationship across religious difference, sends a ripple – a sign of hope – into our community. The ways we grow as individuals, as people of conviction, and as communities of faith, hold much potential to transform our views of the “other” and our city as a whole.

This coming year, we remain committed to providing opportunities to build bridges of understanding and cooperation across our community, and we aim to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise discouraging climate of division. If enough local efforts such as ours occur, we hope that getting to know our neighbors transform not only our individual communities, but our nation at large. We need it more than ever before.

Stand with Standing Rock

It feels like one of the biggest historical moments of our time is occurring right now – a confluence of both great injustice and violence, but also prayer and solidarity. The moment, or more appropriately movement, that I’m referring to is the Standing Rock resistance against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Or, if you think of movements through the frame of hashtags, #StandwithStandingRock / #noDAPL.

I haven’t known what role I should play from my small sphere of influence in Grand Rapids, and as someone whose identities put me in the “colonizer” camp of history. How could I appropriately and meaningfully be an advocate for those suffering and putting their lives on the line to protect their land and futures? How could my public decries of what’s happening match with my daily actions in someway? How is my platform and my influencing power most usefully utilized to elevate voices and promote a narrative of mobilization and action?

Thankfully, the opportunity fell into my lap to use my radio program – Catalyst Radio – and my role as a community journalist – to provide space to have someone at the core of this issue share his story and insights. I merely asked the questions.

From his perspective as a Navajo person and as an organizer, Colby Roanhorse shared in a 30-minute interview moving insights on his time, along with the Grand Rapids group, in Standing Rock, as well as important context for the movement and concrete actions people can participate in from home.

I’ll say no more, because I really want everyone to hear this interview.

Check it out – Catalyst Radio: Grand Rapids DAPL Resistance Fellowship