City welcomes religious diversity

City welcomes religious diversity

Tuesday, September 7, 1999

Staff Writer

Beyond Abilene’s 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 profound.

From Buddhists to Baha’is, 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, there’s 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 social backgrounds.

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 her faith.

“I’ve 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 home.”

“People ask us all the time if we belong to a congregation,” she said. “As long as the answer is yes, then things seem to be fine. From what I have seen, that’s 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 family’s chosen faith.

For Mike Daniel, a member of the local Unitarian Universalist church, Abilene’s religious climate isn’t 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 I’ve 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. “We’re 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 said.

“Generally, I’d say the community has been sort of neutral toward us,” he said. “I certainly haven’t 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 they’re praying for my soul.”

Susie Wilson, a follower of the earth-based religion Wicca, said following her chosen spiritual path had at times made her feel alienated.

“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 didn’t 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 so secretive.”

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 as people.”

©Copyright 1999, Reuters

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