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.

We do believe in spooks. We do. We do. We do.

 Ghost poster


That’s the word in pop culture. It’s hard to keep up with the revolving doors of TV programming, but the primetime schedule is well populated with psychics (“Medium”), ghosts (“Ghost Whisperer”), vampires (“True Blood”), demons (“Supernatural”) and other paranormal wonders (“Heroes,” “Lost,” etc.). That’s not even counting the movies, the books and the blogs.

Some observers wonder if this fascination with things that go bump in the night indicates a rising interest in so-called alternative realities.

A rising interest? It’s already high. Gallup polls consistently find that about 75 percent of Americans hold some form of belief in the paranormal, including extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation or channeling.

This is old news in East Tennessee, which has long offered fertile ground for supernatural stories – and little wonder, with its hills and hollers, its spiritual fervor and its long heritage of early Native American and Scots-Irish settlers (who brought tales from the old countries).

It’s all familiar territory for Nancy Hamblen Acuff, a well-known researcher into alternative realities for three decades, about as long as she taught developmental psychology at ETSU before retiring in 1993. As the official historian for her native Sullivan County, she dug into local folklore – and that led her to ghost hunting.

“I started to collect these stories and began to realize there’s more to this than folklore,” she explained in a phone interview. “With my background in psychology, I had to say this is not just someone’s fantasy or mental illness. This is something else.”

She started to research what that something else might be, including investigating reports of unexplainable events.

“When someone calls me about a problem, I follow it almost as a detective would,” Acuff said. “What kind of occurrence is this? How often does it occur? What was the person’s religious and ethnic background? There are hundreds of questions.”

She recalled a sighting in Johnson City, where a woman who bought an old home kept seeing a man in a World War I army uniform carrying an umbrella. She also heard children’s voices and a barking dog.

Acuff discovered that a minister lived there around 1920, and he was so proud of his wartime service as a chaplain that he often wore his uniform around the property. His family owned a dog.

“I think he was simply captured in time, a true ghost,” Acuff said. “Sounds and images are frozen in time … like a shadow or part of a photograph left in a place. It may diffuse over time. But you’re hearing that puppy from 1920.”

Acuff, who earned a Ph.D. at Ohio State University, also believes in what she calls spirits, “the essence of the person, an entity that can move even in places where they didn’t live in their lifetime.”

The 1990 hit movie Ghost was “one of the more sensitively and accurately done” portrayals of that phenomenon, she said. She thinks the movie may have been a turning point in American acceptance of supernatural phenomena.

Acuff, who was reared as a Christian and now considers herself a “real unitarian, who believes Jesus is the messiah,” believes that acceptance is a good thing.

 “We do not handle death well in this society,” she said. “We are just now moving into a state when we’re beginning to recognize our mortality.”

Acuff suspects more traditional societies, such as those of Native Americans, held a better grasp on death than more complex ones.

“They accepted death as an integral part of the life cycle,” she said. “More complex societies run into so much denial.”

In other words, people in a more modern society find it easier to believe we’re able to keep death at bay with technology, whether it’s chemotherapy or cryogenics or cloning.

But Acuff thinks American views about life, death and afterlife – including how they think about ghosts and spirits – are growing up.

“I think we’re coming into a time of great spiritual maturity,” she said.

That maturity, according to Acuff, understands that life exists in different dimensions, even though we live in only one of them. The mysterious events that stretch the limits of belief – those are strange and rare openings into alternative dimensions.

 “And that’s all right,” she said. “Maybe we’re not supposed to know about the other dimensions. Maybe it’s only by accident that we do know.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 8 Aug. 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 29 Oct. 2005.)

Cowardly lion