A student prays. Can controversy be far behind?

Yes, that really is the name of the high school mascot.

It’s been a busy three weeks for Greg Ervin as principal of Gate City (Va.) High School. He’s been fielding phone calls almost every day from parents or the press about a church-state storm that unexpectedly boiled up after a student said a simple, heartfelt prayer at a football game.

“Somewhere lost in all this was the fact that a kid died,” Ervin said this week. “No one ever intended to sensationalize this. It was a simple act of kindness and respect.”

The story started on the night of Sept. 11, when the Sullivan South High School football team played at Gate City. Not only was it the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the folks from Sullivan were still grieving the death of Jake Logue, one of their players who suddenly collapsed and died during a game in Knoxville on Aug. 21.

Before the game began at Gate City, a brief ceremony remembered the 9/11 victims and Logue, including a moment of silence. A student who was allowed to speak said a prayer, concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

At least one parent in the stands took offense and contacted the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A few days later, Ervin received a letter from the organization, advising him that a “sectarian prayer delivered over the public address system” before a football game violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Such prayers, the letter noted, carry “the impermissible endorsement of the school and coerce participation” in a religious exercise.

The ACLU had been told that Gate City regularly opened its games with prayers – but that is not the case.

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site
Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Ervin shared the letter’s contents with teachers and the Scott County school board and then responded to the ACLU, describing what happened and correcting the wrong information.

In its reply to Ervin, the ACLU pronounced itself satisfied: Case closed.

The story could have ended there, if a little more patience and a little less readiness to be angry had ruled the day.

“We don’t go looking around for incidents,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis in a phone interview this week, “but when someone calls and says this is what they witnessed, we respond. We usually resolve these matters quietly. We write a letter, and the official writes back to explain or clarify. That’s OK. That’s our standard procedure.”

The ACLU did not make its first letter public, but apparently someone in Scott County was upset enough to notify the press about it. Reporters soon arrived, and as word about the ACLU’s concern spread, anger flared. People wrote furious letters to local newspapers and posted unfounded accusations on Web sites.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.
Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Some Gate City students printed about 1,000 T-shirts to hand out at their Oct. 2 football game, taking a swipe at the ACLU. “I still pray…” the shirt fronts read, and on the back: “In Jesus’ name.” When the Virginia ACLU heard about that protest, it publicly affirmed the students’ rights to distribute the shirts, saying they were only exercising their constitutional right to free speech and religious expression.

While the ACLU has a long record of controversial crusades and debatable pronouncements, Willis insists it is not “anti-religion.” Any list of religion-related cases that the ACLU has handled, he said, will include as many defending the free exercise of religion as those challenging unconstitutional “establishment” of religion.

Last week in Nashville, for example, the ACLU of Tennessee completed a successful negotiation on behalf of Christian students from Belmont, Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities who were barred from holding worship services for homeless people in a city park. The Metro Board of Parks and Recreation had “unfairly blocked religious groups’ regular use of park space,” according the ACLU, and helped to revise the policy.

“We’re not the prayer police,” Willis said this week. “The original plan at Gate City (on Sept. 11) was for a moment of silence, and there’s no problem with that. We’re down to a really minor (legal) issue that happened one time. The principal was put on the spot. … This was something spontaneous. What was he supposed to do?”

What Principal Ervin wants to do now is move past the controversy and just “remember the spirit” when two communities shared a moment of sadness and sympathy and “a student reached out and spoke as best she knew how.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 17 Oct 2009.

The URI tries on its Bible Belt

coexistPat Griggs of Johnson City, a self-described activist, traces her “call” to a quarter century of interfaith involvement.

In the early 1980s, she helped organize people of different faiths to protest nuclear arms. On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, she sat in a school parking lot to make sure the children of Muslim friends made it to class without incident.

So joining the effort to re-launch a local chapter of the United Religions Initiative? No question.

The URI is a worldwide network designed to encourage cooperation among people of different faiths, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or agnostic. The ultimate goal is world peace, based on the idea that before the world can find harmony, the religions of the world must learn to live together.

URI was born in 2000, the brainchild of Bill Swing, the Episcopal bishop of California, who dreamed of an organization that would serve as a kind of United Nations for religions. Today, URI claims more than one million people from 120 faith traditions are involved in more than 320 local self-governing organizations, or “cooperation circles,” in 60 nations. The U.S. and Canada comprise 44 circles, including the one in Johnson City, the only circle in Tennessee.

The local “CC” was formed in 2000, but small membership limited its efforts mainly to hosting an interfaith dinner each Thanksgiving.

Last spring, however, the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, who moved to the area in 2007 as the new minister of the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, gathered the few CC members for lunch, and they decided the time was right for a new start.

With Luck acting as coordinator, a dozen people from at least five faith traditions gathered at the Johnson City public library on Aug. 31 to gauge interest in interfaith cooperation and discuss what a revitalized CC might do.

“There was a lot of energy in developing a circle,” Luck said in a phone conversation this week. “The roots are already planted. We just need to nurture it a little bit.”

Since CCs are self-governing, there is not one model. Some emphasize environmental issues; others focus on educating about religions; still others work to help poor people. Whatever shape the local group takes, Luck thinks it can make a big impact.

“I think the main thing is learning to work together,” she said. “Anything to help with this community, to work on local issues that cut across faith boundaries. That’s why I think it’s a natural to do justice work. In this area, caring for the earth is a strong possibility too. It’s trying to love our neighbor in one way or another. That’s common ground too.”

URI logoThese goals sound praiseworthy, but the URI has been the object of criticism from its start. Various religious groups, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and several evangelical Christian bodies, keep the URI at arm’s length. (For examples, go here and here.)

They suspect that the URI is promoting a philosophy that artificially erases distinctions between faiths or dilutes doctrine to a hodge-podge of vague spiritual clichés. Many Christians, for example, find it hard to reconcile the URI’s goals with Scriptures that teach Jesus is “the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.” They point out that the URI’s charter is written with such broad strokes that it never even uses the word “god.”

But seeking common ground, say URI supporters, is not the same as asking believers to abandon their own faith.

“The URI is a bridge-building organization, encouraging mutual respect among all faiths, with domination by none,” according to Sandy Westin, technology and communications coordinator for the URI in North America. “It in no way encourages homogenization of religious belief, but rather encourages respect for the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition.” The URI charter, Westin pointed out, encourages members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.

“We’re trying to learn to communicate with each other, trust each other and work together toward this ideal of hoping all religions can exist together,” Luck said. “I’d like us to be visible in the community as an example of what’s possible, to be standard bearers for harmony among religious people.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Sept 2009.

American Ramadan

happy ramadanThe discipline of Ramadan is daunting: While the sun is up each day during Islam’s holiest month, Muslims will fast from food and water and sex and be extra careful about what they say and hear. It’s a time to purify the body, an avenue for purifying the soul.

It sounds stringent enough in a place with a temperate climate, like East Tennessee. But consider that most Muslims live in southern Asia, Indonesia and Africa, and that the lunar calendar nudges Ramadan into high summer every few years. Long days of triple-digit temperatures and not even a sip of water – it sounds like a recipe for misery.

On the contrary, Muslims say, Ramadan is the most wonderful time of the year.

I sat down with six members of the Muslim community at their masjid, or mosque, on Antioch Road this week, to talk about the holiday, which celebrates the revealing of the Koran, which Muslims regard as God’s word, to the prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Arabic calendar, begins this weekend, the moment when the slightest sliver of the new crescent moon becomes visible. It will conclude at the end of the four-week lunar cycle, marked by Eid-al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast.

The group was full of anticipation. Although most of them have lived in the U.S. for decades and are American citizens, they recalled memories from their homelands.

“You feel different, and there is a liveliness during Ramadan,” said Ahmed Atyia, a pharmacist originally from Egypt. “Fasting is good for your body, to cleanse it and give it a rest. You feel sad after the month ends.”

It is a month not only to change habits, said Taneem Aziz, an engineer and the Muslim Community’s president, but also a month of extra blessing. The effect of good deeds is literally multiplied 10 times, the Koran says.

“All the senses are focused on worship,” said Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh. “With the discipline, it is God making it easy for us to feel good and celebrate.”

People are friendlier and try to be more patient during the month. Crime goes down. Homes open up to family, friends and strangers like no other time of the year.

“The community is one of the reasons we are excited,” said Aziz’s daughter, Imani, a 19-year-old student at East Tennessee State University and the only American-born Muslim in this conversation. “Every night, we worship together.”

Life slows down during the day in Muslim countries. Families rise long before dawn to eat together. People who go to work feel unhurried, but many businesses just shut down. The normal daily prayers continue, perhaps with greater attention and attendance at the mosques.

But when prayers are finished at sundown, communities spring to life in a different way. The Koran commands Muslims to break the fast as soon as they can each night, and they do it with gusto.

Food comes out from almost every house, spread on tables lining the streets or served under colorful, open-air tents. Festive tin lanterns with colored glass glow in windows. As people pass by, whether or not they are strangers or Muslims, they are likely to be invited to stop for food – and conversations and games and songs and prayers and extended readings from the Koran. The nightly celebrations can last almost until the early morning meal begins the daily round again.

“It’s like having Christmas for a month,” Natalia Suit, a Christian friend who lived in Cairo, told me later. “Ramadan really is the best time of the year there.”

The holiday, of course, takes on a different cast in the U.S., where Muslims are a minority in the same way Christians are a minority in Pakistan or Egypt. No one expressed any resentment or regret. They accept the differences.

“We don’t feel conflicted, living in America,” said Yusuf Gangat, a pharmacist originally from Pakistan. “The purpose is to worship God in everything. It’s a very easy life, once you accept it.”

Besides, they agreed, the times are changing, and non-Muslim Americans are growing more aware of Ramadan. They notice in ways both small and significant, from seeing their holidays printed on calendars to having employers provide time off.

Imani Aziz was smiling broadly during the entire conversation. She simply enjoyed thinking about the month to come, she explained.

“I’m just excited it’s almost here,” she said.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 22 Aug 2009.

The 1,600-year-old online Bible

  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (www.codex-sinaiticus.net/en/).

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.
A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

George and Martha and Adam and Eve … and other problems with a patriotic Bible


Thanks to a marketing video that compares George and Martha Washington to Adam and Eve, I’m trying not to think about the nation’s first First Lady walking around a garden without her petticoats.

But what really sets my teeth on edge is how the advertisement equates Jesus and his disciples with the Continental Congress as “founding fathers,” with its closing line: “Sometimes history does repeat itself.”

The ad is for the American Patriot’s Bible, released last month by Thomas Nelson, with Atlanta megachurch pastor Richard G. Lee serving as general editor. Nelson won’t disclose sales figures, but it is already preparing for a second printing of the hefty, colorful book.

“You will find a great volume of both information and inspiration revealing the ‘strong cord’ of the Bible’s influence that runs through the colorful fabric of our nation’s past and present,” Lee wrote in the introduction. “Joining with the sacred text are stories of American heroes, quotations from many of America’s greatest thinkers, and beautiful illustrations that present the rich heritage and tremendous future of our nation. If you love America and the Scriptures, you will treasure this Bible.”

Maybe so, but I mostly just felt annoyed. It’s not the emphasis on the role of religion in the American story, particularly a certain strain of Christianity. That’s old news.

It’s true, after all, that the majority of revolutionary leaders were Christians of some kind and many were motivated by their religious convictions, often arguing from the Bible against tyranny. There’s no question that the nation’s founders, not to mention later leaders, were shaped by their beliefs, which of course influenced their ideas and actions.

Even unorthodox deists like John Adams, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson (who literally cut the miracles out of his Bible) used religious rhetoric and biblical imagery.

But then there’s the matter of what is often called civil religion, a kind of ecumenical devotion to the ideal of the United States. The nation itself becomes the object of veneration and Uncle Sam is dressed in priestly garments.

It’s a common impulse. People throughout history have considered their kingdoms on earth to be special outposts of heaven: Italy, Poland, Spain, England, France, Japan – the list goes on.

Many Americans can keep their belief in their country distinct from their religious faith. We can love the U.S., they say, and we can love God and remember the two are different.

But others forget the distinction, entwining American ideals so tightly with a Christian identity that they become confused, usually with bad results. That is the trap where the American Patriot’s Bible falls.

John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."
John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."

A full-page sidebar uses a story from Abraham’s life to illustrate … the right to bear arms? That seems like a stretch. John Quincy Adams is quoted saying that “in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior” – and that notion isn’t challenged?

Then there’s the irritating historical revisionism that comes from leaving out uncomfortable details. Adams, Jefferson and Paine are all favorably quoted, for instance, but the details of their beliefs – or lack of beliefs – are glossed over. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking they were Christians.

Likewise, the book frequently presents wartime sacrifice as supreme examples of Christlikeness, but ignores the significant tradition of Christian pacifism.

Then there is the two-page essay that rightly discusses how Christians led in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, but does not explain how other Christians opposed those rights, quoting Scripture to justify sexism, segregation and slavery.

"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817
"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817

Such myopia isn’t only annoying. It’s unnecessary. Honest historians know that biblical ideas (along with Greek philosophy, rationalism and other worldviews circulating in the 18th century) helped the founders craft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s no secret that men and women of faith are among this nation’s chief architects.

We can admire leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln without confusing them with Adam, Moses or Jesus (much less imagining Martha Washington as a new Eve). I can believe the U.S. fills a distinct role in the world without casting it as God’s singular chosen nation.

And today I can certainly celebrate what the nation’s founders did without believing their sacrifices repeated the history of Christ’s sacrifice. Believing that wouldn’t make me a patriot. It might only make me a heretic.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 4 July 2009.

Southern Baptists in Louisville: Listening for a call. Maybe.

ear_guards_ear_plugs_33691Earplugs are available at the Believers Church, in case the band plays too loud.

The seven-year-old congregation, which attracts about 150 worshippers weekly, meets in a rented building, a former gymnastics studio at 213 E. Springbrook Drive, using an intentionally broad-brush name.

At first glance, you’d never guess this is a Southern Baptist congregation. That’s by design, according to Lead Pastor Mike Friday.

“We’re not running from who we are, but at the same time, Southern Baptists are not all the same,” he said in a phone conversation this week. “We don’t push the denomination. We push Jesus.”

He insisted that it doesn’t take long for visitors to discover the Southern Baptist connection, and he discusses it in the required membership class. But while he values the cooperation of the denomination, his time is limited, with him being the one full-time staff member.

“It’s not a lack of interest (in the denomination) as such,” he said, “but it’s hard to give that time.”

Even so, when Friday and his wife launched the church in 2002, they gave it a name and took an approach to ministry that would fly under the radar of people who may have been soured on church in the past. The phrase “Southern Baptist” is nowhere to be found on any of the church’s signs or on its Web site.

“There have been a lot of people hurt in the past from various denominations, unintentionally,” he explained. “We wanted to take out that hurdle for someone looking to get back in.”

The church has been growing, he said, with new members joining regularly since moving to its new location last November. That fact alone makes the Believers Church unusual among the 42,000 Southern Baptist congregations in the U.S.

Membership is shrinking in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims more than 16 million members. The number of baptisms has sunk to a 20-year low. Giving is down. More than a few leaders wonder about the overall health of the SBC.

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote that Southern Baptists “are fractured and factionalizing. … We have tragically devolved into ‘a giant movement now in decline,’” quoting a professor at his school.

These concerns will be high on the agenda next week during the annual denominational meeting, the literal Southern Baptist Convention, when thousands of SBC leaders and “messengers,” delegates from congregations, area associations and state conventions, gather in Louisville, Ky.

In advance of the convention, Johnny Hunt, a pastor from Woodstock, Ga., who is completing his first one-year term as SBC president, published a 10-point declaration titled “Great Commission Resurgence” in April. (The title refers to the last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, directing his followers to “go into all the world, making disciples.”)

The document mostly reaffirms historic Southern Baptist beliefs and values, particularly their concern for evangelism. But it also addresses some thorny issues, such as the denomination’s racist past. Hunt would like to see the convention vote to adopt the document next week and set up a task force to study how to implement it. So far, more than 3,700 church members, including seminary presidents and past SBC presidents, have signed in support.

But one section, which calls for an examination of the structure and workings of the denomination “at every level,” set off alarm bells among other leaders. Some read it as an implied but unjust criticism of state conventions and other organizations. Others wonder if it opens the door to merging two of the SBC’s most important institutions, the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board.

In a rare moment of public disagreement among top denominational leaders, Morris Chapman, president of the SBC executive committee, issued a statement to explain why he opposes the resolution as long as it contains the offending section, calling it “distracting” and “divisive.”

Mike Friday of the Believers Church certainly cares about the outcome of the convention. He’s served in Southern Baptist churches more than half his 46 years. He has paid attention, as best he can, to the discussions surrounding the Great Commission Resurgence, which could steer the denomination for a generation.

But he also has a congregation to lead, with studies and sermons to prepare and people to visit. Vacation Bible School starts on Monday. And no doubt someone will need to check the supply of earplugs.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 20 June 2009.

The mixed history of Cherokees and Christians

Tobacco was a sacrament in the old Cherokee religion, the smoke a messenger carrying prayers to the spirit world.

Wine is part of a sacrament in the Christian tradition, signifying the blood of Jesus.

Dr. R. Michael Abram sees a rich irony here. Abram and his wife, Susan, are the owners and curators of the Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery in Cherokee, N.C. He is a keynote speaker at the Native American Festival at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton this weekend.

“Take those two items and put them in each other’s culture with no religious meaning,” he said in a phone interview, “and both get into trouble.”

Millions of American Indians have struggled with alcoholism, and millions of other Americans – descendents of Europeans who brought Christianity – became addicted to tobacco.

That’s not a bad metaphor for the uneasy history between whites and Indians, which has been punctuated by conflict, ignorance and suspicion.

When he teaches about Cherokee heritage, Abram finds that religion is a popular topic.

The Cherokee belief system embraced a complex collection of legends, rituals, symbolic colors and numerology. While scholars can identify several common ideas, such as a reverence for fire and water, other specifics are hard to pin down. Scholars disagree, for example, on Cherokee thinking about a single, ultimate creator.

“It depends what century you’re talking about,” Abram said. “It was always evolving.”

But one constant was how Cherokee beliefs saturated daily life.

“You can’t just tease apart Cherokee culture and the old religion,” he said. “The religion is interwoven with daily life – medicine, government, all aspects of Cherokee life. I like to think of Cherokee life as a basket, with all the strands woven with one another.”

The Cherokee culture, once spread over thousands of miles in the Southeast, started changing dramatically as European settlers pushed westward in the 1700s. Christian missionaries, notably from the Moravian Church, lived and worked among the Cherokee and were strong advocates for their rights. The first conversions to Christianity came before the American Revolution, and by the early 1800s a number of prominent leaders were devout Christians.

But there was a dark side as well: European settlers, often misreading or ignoring the teachings of their Christian faith, systematically and violently drove out the Indians.

To this day, many Cherokee revile President Andrew Jackson because of his removal policies, which Abram compared to the Nazi Holocaust. Even faced with fierce opposition from other white leaders, including Davy Crockett, Jackson rammed through his policies bent on Cherokee removal.

According to Abram, Jackson used the Cherokees’ trust of clergymen against them, appointing the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn as his treaty commissioner to settle the now-infamous 1835 New Echota Treaty, which led to the expulsion of the Cherokee nation from the eastern United States. In 1838, the remaining 17,000 Cherokee people were force-marched over 1,200 miles to what is now Oklahoma. Starvation, sickness and exhaustion on this “Trail of Tears” took between 4,000 and 8,000 lives.

Today, few Cherokee practice the traditional religion. Many are fervent Christians who consider the old ways “pagan.” Others are what Abram calls “mixers,” combining ideas from Cherokee religion with Christian teachings.

Despite obvious differences, the two religions echo each other at certain points. The “going-to-water ceremony,” an important Cherokee initiation rite, is reminiscent of baptism, for instance. Then there’s Stone Coat, a central figure in Cherokee mythology, who sacrificed himself for his people and is “certainly a Christ-like figure,” according to Abram.

Abram, who grew up as a Pentecostal and is still a Christian, has “absolutely no qualms about that mixing.” In fact, he thinks white Christians could learn a few lessons from the Cherokee religion.

“The old religion followed ways of nature and emphasized preservation and balance. It was practiced in every aspect of life all the time,” Abram said. “The idea of establishing balance – that’s what really stands out in the old Cherokee religion.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 June 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 4 June 2005.)