City welcomes religious diversity
City welcomes religious diversity
Tuesday, September 7, 1999
By BRIAN BETHEL
Beyond Abilenes veneer of mainstream Christianity lie
vast worlds of religious thought and expression that subtly touch
the city and its residents in ways that are both simple and
From Buddhists to Bahais, from Muslims to modern-day
neopagans and everything else in between, Abilene residents who
are not members of mainstream congregations find the strength
of faith to worship as they will, adding pockets of diversity
and color to a fairly homogenous religious landscape.
Abilene is a very Christian and Protestant community,
theres no doubt about that, said Lt. Col. Richard
L. Blanton, senior chaplain with Dyess Air Force Base. But
in my line of work, I see people from all religious backgrounds,
and I have learned a great deal about the needs of others and
their right to free exercise of their religion. It has made me
far more sensitive to the religious needs and rights of others.
In addition to the base, which brings in members of various
religious communities at a steady clip, individuals of many faiths
may be found coming from all walks of life and all economic and
Local physician Dr. Mohammad Maher Al-Sayyad, a devout Muslim,
has been living and practicing in Abilene with a small group of
other devotees of the Prophet of Islam since he first came here.
I find that people are very willing to enter into a religious
dialogue with me and learn about what I believe, he said.
Once they learn a little bit about it, then they understand
that it may not be what they have always thought.
Stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals of Muslim faith in
popular culture and media has led some people to believe that
its followers are terrorists and worse, Al-Sayyad said.
But those willing to get to know devoted followers will find
a religion based on the same ideals of compassion and redemption
Christianity claims as its own, he said.
They are really not that different at all, he said.
Obviously, they share many common elements of origin, but
if you look at the Bible and then you look at the Koran, you find
they are very compatible.
All religions are trying to answer the same sets of questions,
Al-Sayyad said. To that end, it is important to look at the similarities
and try to understand the differences with intelligence, compassion
and faith, he said.
For Barbara MacArthur, being a Jew in this part of the world
has been an adjustment, but one that has made her stronger in
Ive not experienced any discrimination based on
who and what I am, she said. We have a small Jewish
community here, but I have found strength within it as well as
strength within myself from the responsibility of passing my faith
on to my children.
Abilene is a place that values religious practice, MacArthur
said, and she is often asked if she and her family have a church
People ask us all the time if we belong to a
she said. As long as the answer is yes, then things seem
to be fine. From what I have seen, thats what matters most
here that you have found a place where you can worship
and feel comfortable.
Far from a sea of false stereotypes that once pervaded certain
segments of society, MacArthur said those who approach her seem
to have a genuine curiosity and respect for her familys
For Mike Daniel, a member of the local Unitarian Universalist
church, Abilenes religious climate isnt necessarily
as free and open as he would like, but it also is not as closed
as it could be.
My experience in Abilene has certainly not been one of
open-armed acceptance, he said. But Ive not
had what I would define as any genuine, long-term ill will.
To Daniel, religious diversity means allowing both himself
and the other people he comes into contact with the right to pursue
spirituality they way they choose.
To me, that sums it all up, he said. Were
a fairly liberal theology, and we believe it is important to be
tolerant of others beliefs, their ethics and their respect
of other people.
Unitarian Universalists value reason and respect for the beliefs
of others in the pursuit of their own religious goals, Daniel
Generally, Id say the community has been sort of
neutral toward us, he said. I certainly havent
received any death threats, although I have some comments made
to me or brought to my attention by a third party in reference
to my faith. A good number of people are willing to live and let
live, although I have had a few tell me theyre praying for
Susie Wilson, a follower of the earth-based religion Wicca,
said following her chosen spiritual path had at times made her
I sometimes feel a little scared and very angry that
I have to be afraid to be open and honest about what spiritual
path I have chosen to follow, she said. I have even
had someone try to get me fired from a job, just because of my
religion. Although I didnt get fired, people made it so
hard for me, to just do my job, I must admit I gave up and quit.
Sadly things, like this are the reason so many of us
who worship outside the mainstream religion here in Abilene are
Even with misunderstandings about the intent of pagan faith
still commonplace, Wilson said she has been and continues to be
approached by those willing to learn about her chosen path and
its tenets of harming none, worshiping of both a god and a goddess,
and appreciation for the natural world.
I have found that there are people here who, after we
have gotten to know one another, truly want to know about my spiritual
path, she said. When they learn more, they can see
the good in what we believe and within us.
There are also people that feel to better understand
their own religion, they need to know and understand something
about others, Wilson said. Together we have found
common ground on which to build a mutual respect for each other
©Copyright 1999, Reuters
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