Progressive Spirit Podcast: Secular Church

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John Shuck: [MUSIC AND INTRO] This past May you wrote an article called "The Rise of the Party of the Nones" ( for the Humanist magazine and you were responding to a Slate article by Ruth Graham that said the Christian Left could take on the mantle of the party of God, and you're skeptical of that. Becky Garrison: Oh there's no question. I mean they've been trying since 2005 when Jim Wallis' book Gods Politics came out to establish what they would call a progressive politics. And it just hasn't caught fire. The Christian Left, mainline and fractured, they don't really have the capital and the sway, the number to really move people. And evangelicals conversely have blown whatever capital they might have had by endorsing Trump. This is something that has happened in this election. Meanwhile the largest group that's been emerging as a religious base has been the nones. N-O-N-E-S not the Catholic variety. And yet, no one is really speaking or addressing to this growing need. JS: And that's both politically and religiously. Politically no one seems to be courting them in the election cycle. BG: Not at all. And I think the church seems to be kind of invested in preserving its own self. But with the death that we've been noting of capitalism, there goes the death of White Christian America, the title of a recent book that came out. I think you're going to start seeing a lot more of these books. People are going to start predicting, it's over. The game is gone. It's up. And then you're going to find the counterbalance from the Christian Industrial Complex. Here's the books that will save the church. Meanwhile, this conversation is happening in a white noise environment where people have just moved on. Over half of Americans are now raised with no religion. One in three young adults now call their religion none. But yet, they're not turning toward necessary an ardent strident form of political anti-religion. They're just wanting to be left alone to do what they want to do. And believe what they want to believe. JS: And it isn't that they're necessarily anti-religious as some atheists may be. But this group, certainly a wide variety again, you certainly can't generalize too much. But there's a distrust of perhaps the institution and its rules and regulations. And it's just not interesting. It's kind of like the Odd Fellows. BG: Yeah, that's what you saw with Bernie Saunders. He was our first secular Jew who ran - openly secular Jew, I take that back. There might have been others, but he's the first one that made this part of his platform. And his campaign really caught on with people that are dissatisfied with political institutions and religious institutions. And you're seeing a crumbling of this. We know that capitalism doesn't work for 98% of us, and possibly even 99% of us. JS: Right, works for 1% though. BG: So the question what does work? And that's here people are finding creative and interesting solutions. And they're finding it outside of church. JS: [GUEST BLURB] What I want to go to next are the alternative communities. What are the nones finding? What are some places that are offering spirituality or what it is, first of all, what is it that is being sought, that people still need? BG: Well, I think that people do want to have a heart to heart connection. They want to connect with community. If you don't have security in your job, if you're not sure about your relation with your family, you're disconnected from your family, not living there, you're moving, where do we find a way to make and create community that can give your life meaning? We used to find that through the church. People are still now seeking to build that kind of community that connects at the heart to heart level. And at one point, I think one of the things that the church had going for it was when you'd come into a church and be loved and have what we'd call a conversion. experience. You would feel this sense of, oh, wow, I really belong. This is it. You think this is divine inspiration. Well the advances in neurobiology have shown that what you're experience ing is compassion. When people care about you, love you, and accept you just as you are, you can relax and be yourself. And when you can truly be yourself, and find people where you can truly be present, that's where real community forms. JS: And one of the values is not to have to be kind of boxed into a lot of beliefs, like you said, that experience doesn't have to be understood in a supernatural framework. And so, there's freedom to search on their own for what is real and what's authentic. BG: Oh really, and you can really find this especially here I would say in the Pacific Northwest. I started moving here because I wanted to get away from the Christian Industrial Complex of the New York City publishing empire, the academic focus on the Boston whole East Coast belief and come out and just be. Really connect with nature, really connect with other spiritual seekers. There's this very strong Celtic strain here that you can really pick up on it. And it's not religious, I mean it's not tied to an institution. It's really definitely, I would say the capital of the nones where a lot of this was originated. But it's a place where as a writer, as a person, you can just be and create as you wish to create, and find other like minded souls who are doing similar things. And I have not found this kind of spirit anywhere else in the country. JS: Yeah, they say Portland is one of the most secular cities in the United States. But you talk about this Celtic thing. What is that? BG: Well, for me it's thinking what they call a thin line. JS: OK. BG: Where you're connecting this world to the next. And it had very strong roots in the paganism and Christianity when it was forming the Celtics, and because in Ireland the Celts were so remote, they were pretty much left alone to kind of develop their own spirituality away from the institutional church as it was developing. And in the Pacific Northwest, you find something very similar. People pretty much left the Pacific Northwest alone. It didn't have the pull of the finance that you might find in New York, it didn't have the Ivy League cachet, it wasn't part of the Madison Avenue publishing kind of media political empire. So it just went and flourished on its own. And from there, you can find a number of examples where people are finding community in secular settings. JS: Well, let's talk about a couple of those. What did you find? BG: Well, one of the ones I found was Karen Ward. Now, she's a reverend, an Episcopal priest, but she's also, in her church in North Portland, she's founded a group called Portland Abbey Arts. And through here, she offers secular programming. People who come to these programs have an experience and joy in experiencing the arts but there's not necessarily a religion tag put along with this. They enjoy the experience in and of itself. She started this up in Seattle through Fremont Abbey Arts and has continued that vibe here in Portland. For example, you've got this program called the Round I've been trying to get you to go to where you get three musicians, a slam poet and a visual artist come together once a month to create a unite artistic experience. And for many people, myself included, feels more spiritual than any church service I've been to. JS: Now, talk about the Round now. Is this something that you watch or is there a sense in which you participate in? BG: Well, you're watching it as it's being created but it has a feeling that you are part of the audience, by being in the audience, I feel like I'm kind of participating by watching and absorbing what I'm absorbing. JS: And they're not just doing kind of a canned performance necessarily. BG: No and because there's different people up there, they may have a song they want to perform but there's something about hearing three different musicians, many of whom have never met, a slam poet who has never met, and then a visual artist paints what they are experiencing there. And we as an audience absorb and take all that in. JS: Karen Ward is an Episcopal priest, so she's got one foot in the traditional church and then yet another one in the community offering an alternative vision. BG: And it's also very important to note that a lot of the programs they're doing here, they're not necessarily religious imprimatur. This not Vacation Bible School, this is not like you have to participate, here's your little faith thing, here's your faith spiel. This experience is completely loving and valid in and of itself. And another thing, my improv teacher Gary Austin who now comes to Seattle, through him, we're having a community formed through improv. We don't do the improv games per se. But he's been working with him, I started working with him in 1996 when I was in New York City and I'm now back to Seattle. And I've noticed that the Seattle group has started to form a community among fellow truth seekers. We support each other when they want to do different performances based on the work that we're doing. And we're all getting together and trying to seek out and explore our authentic truth. And that's what Gary helps us to do. He founded the Groundlings and this is back in the day he was telling me that in the '60s and early '70s, there was this community feeling of wanting to create something magical, something unique. Similar to the Round where the audience would participate and share in this truth telling. And since then it's become all commercialized and become like a vehicle for Saturday Night Live and different comedy venues. But Gary is returning it back to the core of what it used to be back in the '60s, and it's really exciting to see this emerge. JS: [GUEST BLURB] Now the spiritual part of that, secular church, what is the phrase that we're using? BG: I would say secular church in some ways because in many ways, these communities are fulfilling a lot of the roles that a church used to fulfill. It's providing a place for community, a place where you can find meaning making, and it doesn't necessarily have to have a divine connection to it. With Gary Austin, for example, he has been recovering from cancer and the way were all forming a community around him has been really amazing and beautiful. And just watching as we're all searching for our own meaning making through improv. Now, you wouldn't have thought of that as being a religious experience, and I wouldn't call it that. But I would call it a spiritual experience. When I'm connecting to the core of myself, connecting to who I am. And another example of that I found was when Troy Conrad founded Set List. And I saw him do this in Portland and in San Francisco. This is where comics are going on stage with nothing prepared, none of the prepared packaged stuff they've been doing. They're given their topics right then and there. And then as the audience watches them, they get into their truth by speaking through improv, which is basically at the core of it, improv is speaking your truth when you get in touch with your body and you begin to just say, this is who you are. And something magical happens. The real you comes out. Now all the training I've done in improv, the training in standup, it adds to that your ability to tap into that truth. But it's really so simple. It's just be quiet, getting in touch with yourself. Letting the truth come out. And then the audience and you have this experience where we're all connecting truth to truth. And I think when you get to that core, that's where community can be built and happen. JS: And you can't think it through. BG: No. JS: You can't plan it out. It just has to come from what's there. It makes you vulnerable too. There's risk in that, isn't there? BG: Oh without a question, and then you're also seeing another area where I was finding this similar connecting, this is getting into connecting to our sexual beings and ourselves, a topic the church still has a lot of issues when it comes to dealing with this. For example, we have an ecstatic dance community here that's very strong. And there people dance similar to what you might see in charismatic services. You dance through your body, you don't speak. And through your bodies, through your motions, you connect heart to heart, soul to soul. And I've met these, I got connected to ecstatic dance by meeting people from the Sex Positive Portland community, which has now become Sex Positive World. And they're now exploring ways of how do you bring about the conversations of sexuality for people who want to embrace their entire sexual being, whoever they are, exploring alternative forms of sexuality. Who's to say that a polyamorous community cannot be just as caring and loving as what we call the traditional family. And with over, what is is half of the marriages end in divorce - clearly whatever the church has been espousing as the traditional American family, which we know has only been in existence since World War II if you want to look at this historically, it's not working. So what is working? So this is one of the groups, Sex Positive World that is leading the conversation for what does it mean to be truly authentic sexual beings? JS: Rather than being told who you are or what you are to be or all those kind of things with these authority figures, it really is you are your authority. BG: Yes but you're also doing it through a community. So you're not just becoming a narcissistic, a little dictator. You have a community that helps shapes you and molds you, and to me, holds you accountable. Otherwise, you could very easily go off on the rails and you do need the community to make sure, am I really feeling this? Is this really of the spirit or am I just experiencing something that I want to experience. JS: You've found some communities that are connected with food and sustainability. One of them is the Orchard Kitchen. BG: Oh, yeah, this is a group when I was on Whidbey Island, was really surprising because I had been looking at, you know, when you're a travel writer, you get invited to food festivals and beer festivals and it's been quite enjoyable to experience the craft movement here in Portland. But with Orchard Kitchen you begin to see there's a different level to this. It's not just enjoying nice quality food, great craft beer and occasionally a fundraiser where a little bit of money might be given in charity but a whole rethinking of this. And the Orchard Kitchen, it's a sustainable farm that brings people together to have these dinners. They offer cooking classes. And through this people discover by sitting at a dinner table family style, connections they didn't know they had before. People are discovering they might come to Whidbey Island and have a meal and discover that the person sitting next to them is someone they knew from another context. JS: Oh yeah, there's another one Copperworks Distilling. BG: Oh yeah, when I met this gentleman Jason Parker, he was was quite a character. First of all, he started his job working at Pike Brewing Company. Pike's Brewing was founded by Charles Finkel, who was one of the major figures in bringing about the craft beer movement here. He's also created in Pike's Pub a way to create community by the way he's set up the layout. He's done things like renovate a little park near his pub where people who are homeless and low income can come in and get a bit of respite. So, it's not just brewing craft beer. It's creating an environment that's very conducive. And he also told me about a whiskey community that's being formed, a collective. These guys found through the whiskey collective a way to establish community. They now travel with these people. They have dinners together, they text each other, So, Jason was telling me about this collective. I'm like wow, this is more than just getting together to sample spirits. It's creating a craft culture. And Jason, Charles and other woman Patty at Fremont Mischief were telling me how these people are now getting together to help the Skagit Valley farmers by producing a malt to make their whiskies and beers that has not been seen in this area in over a hundred years. And yet how do you keep the small sustainable farmers going? Another issue which is why Skagit Valley and here in Oregon the Willamette Valley won't become just another condo complex, another high end farming kind of like environment that you can enjoy. It's going to continue to be a sustainable small family farm. What I'm describing to you, doesn't this sound to you a little bit like dinner church? JS: Uh-hum. BG: Sounds a little bit to me like outreach programs. Sounds a little bit like what a lot of I can see churches do. And I'm not discounting the work that churches do and continue to do. I'm just saying that a lot of people have been finding this experience well outside of the traditional Christian model. JS: And while we might be calling them secular church, they themselves who participate probably wouldn't go with the church word. BG: No, I wouldn't go with the church word. The reason I'm liking to use that word is to be it's basically Ecclesia, it's a gathering of the people. And who is to say that just because a certain denomination has become institutionalized and crumbling that that word Ecclesia still does not have a value as a gathering of a people for the common good. JS: [GUEST BLURB] One of the communities is PrismHouse PDX. BG: Oh yeah, so that's another organization that I've been noticing here in the Pacific Northwest. We happened to be two of the three states that have legalized recreational cannabis. And what you find, and I noticed this when I covered Hempfest in Seattle, when I been looking into different cannabis events in Oregon is it's moving beyond just here's a chance for us to have weed and get stoned. There's a medical component, a health and wellness component, a way to build community around people that went to partake of this product recreationally. And Prism House has been one of the organizations that I've been meeting. It's a private event space led by a woman named Samantha. As far as just creating a community and celebrating people that want to enjoy the multiple benefits of this plant. And in particular, I'm very excited to look at how the health and wellness component here. There's been a very long tradition of working with people here, medical marijuana patients. And as this moves into a larger recreational sphere, as desire to help people with, how does this plant help people? How do we help people who have been imprisoned because of their desire to help people with this plant? And we're finding, when you go to Hempfest for example, you don't find nearly, there's 100,000 people there, you don't find nearly let's say any kind of public drunkenness that you might find at a music festival or another type of festival of that nature. But there's something unique that's happening around the community that's forming in celebration of what this plant can do. JS: What about outside of the Pacific Northwest? Even the Bible Belt, I came from Tennessee and there certainly are alternative groups there. The nones are as much there as anywhere. BG: Oh I think there are and there's a report I read called How We Gather ( that came out that collectively identified ten of these communities including CrossFit which got a review by the New York Times ( And I think there is valid communities rising. The reason why I focused on the Pacific Northwest, there's something about the connection to the soil, the spirituality and the way these communities are being formed that I think is a model that's worth really looking at in-depth. This is different than just joining CrossFit and discovering oh, wow, there's a mutual group of people here that I like that I can be communities with. There's something happening in this whole ethos here that to me is a very exciting learning lab. JS: Yeah, exciting learning lab. That's Portland and Seattle. [GUEST BIO] Now could there be some risks with these alternative communities? BG: Well, as any movement grows, there's always the potential for it to be commercialization. There's always that temptation to get on the author/speaker circuit, to be the next big thing. And similar to the clergy scandals we'd cover with The Door, there's always the potential for abuse. I've met my fair share of mindfulness practioners, therapists and the like who in some ways display varying degrees of predatory or not very safe behaviors. That's going to happen. We're human. And sometimes in my quest to be excited about a community, this is so exciting, this is going to be formed, I can be too quick to endorse a venture without doing due diligence. I am learning from the mistake I made when I got very excited about emerging church, I thought this was going to be the next big thing that I didn't quite research and I realized it's still controlled by white men. What's interesting with this movement I mentioned to you that's giving me hope is this is much more gender balanced. Because we're in the Pacific Northwest, there does need to be more racial diversity. Karen Ward is the only person of color that I've mentioned. But yet, there is hope and this is giving me the hope is that as I'm seeing this movement develop, it's already avoiding some of problems that I've seen in the church. It's being more embracing of different people regardless of their class, their race, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, and other factors that I've seen in similar movements such as the emergent church that continued to be a male dominated movement. This isn't. And I think that's going to be very exciting to see what happens when this full diversity is allowed to continue exploring. And the Pacific Northwest is the perfect place for this because here you can be a spiritual being and explore the beauty and the connectedness of nature without having to necessarily go to a church. JS: Right, and draw from other religious and spiritual wisdom traditions as well. BG: And people definitely do that here. They draw from what speaks to their heart and their authenticity. And as you're making those connections, you can make them however they happen. They could happen around a table like Orchard Kitchen, an event space-Prism House PDX, through improv with Set List and my improv teacher Gary Austin. It can happen through the Round with arts and music. Sex and spirituality-ecstatic dance and Sex Positive Portland. However, you encounter it and experience that which is beyond yourself and make these connections where you can be your true and authentic self, that's fantastic. JS: [GUEST BLURB] Alternative spiritual communities, alternative secular church, whatever we call it, we're finding that religion and spirituality is undergoing a great change. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it might be a very, very good thing. BG: It is what it is. We are definitely undergoing what they were describing as a major reformation. Where I think people have the made mistake is assuming if you change the charge the church and make it cooler with candles, people will come. No if you build a better church, they're not going to come. But if you give people experiences where people can connect to themselves at their authentic core and be who they want to be, that seems to be where the spirit is moving. And it may be in a church, but more than often, it's not. [CLOSING OUTRO AND MUSIC]