Although Abdul Rauf Mir, a native of Srinagar, Kashmir, came to the United States in 1972 to accept a medical internship at Trinity Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City, he figured that the relocation definitely would be temporary.
“Five close friends and I became interested in doing specialized training in the United States, and then coming back to Kashmir to practice. We ended up doing them in different cities. Initially, I was offered an internship in New York City, but a friend warned me against going there,” Mir said.
After he finished his internship, Mir was “very flattered” to be offered a residency in internal medicine at Kansas City General Hospital from the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, as well as an instructor position in the school’s Department of Medicine.
“I had intended to go back to Kashmir after my training, but I was becoming very involved in things here, including establishing a Muslim community, so I decided to stay,” he said.
And 31 years later, he now is an American citizen and still finds himself in this Midwestern city.
Mir, the youngest of seven children, was born in Srinagar on June 14, 1945. Ghulam Mohiud Din Mir, his father, was the secretary of education, commerce and industry for the Government of Kashmir. Zebun Nisa, his mother, was a homemaker, but died when Rauf was just five years old.
“I was traumatized, but my older siblings and my stepmother helped to raise me,” Mir said.
While attending Christian Mission High School, he began studying biology, and became particularly interested in learning about the human body.
After high school, Mir completed a pre-medical program at Sri Pratap College, and then earned an MD from the University of Kashmir School of Medicine. Mir later relocated to England, where he was the senior house officer in charge of internal medicine and nephrology on the University of Liverpool campus.
Mir then moved to the Kansas City area, but was surprised by the dearth of Muslims here.
“I was only able to locate five Muslim families, and when searching for a place to worship, I discovered that there weren’t any mosques here. A few weeks after I arrived, I got up at 5:30 am on a cold, frosty day to drive to Manhattan, KS, so that I could pray with a group of Muslim students there,” Mir said.
Later that year, Mir became the catalyst for getting the five local Kansas City families together, and they soon established the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City. He also traveled to visit relatives and friends in Srinagar, where he was in for a surprise.
“My family had arranged for me to meet a young woman, Naseema, whom they wanted me to marry. Within a month, we were married,” Mir said. The couple now has a daughter, Qurat, who teaches high school in Boston; a son, Imraan, who is studying at Harvard University; and another son, Aadil, who is completing a double major in philosophy and biology at the University of Kansas.
Mir subsequently served as an assistant professor, associate professor and professor of Internal Medicine at the School of Medicine at UMKC and as a professor of medicine at the University of Health Science in Kansas City.
His other posts have included medical director of the Blue Springs Dialysis Center (1983-2000) and medical director of the Kansas City Dialysis & Transplant Center (1985-present). In 2001, Ingram Magazine named Mir one of Kansas City’s Top Doctors and he currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Kashmiri-American Council.
However, during his time in Kansas City, Mir has faced his share of difficulties. In the early ’80s, the fiancé of one of his colleagues convinced him to become involved in an investment plan. This turned out to be a scam that could have ruined him financially, but eventually a settlement was reached. Also, at this same time, a niece from Kashmir, suffering from leukemia, came to stay with Mir and his family while seeking treatment. She received chemotherapy, but it was unsuccessful, and she died after returning home.
Mir attributes his faith with helping him through these troubled times.
“If it wasn’t for my faith in God and the hereafter, it would be difficult to face things. Faith is the cornerstone of my life, and it fits right into my profession, with its emphasis on medical ethics,” said Mir, who is the president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America.
Mir says that growing up among large groups of both Muslims and Hindus helped him to gain a strong appreciation of the importance of interfaith understanding.
“As a Muslim, I’m comfortable with people from other traditions, such as Christians and Jews. We all can work together without having to compromise our own faith,” he said.
Mir met Vern Barnet, the minister in residence for CRES, in the early ’80s and is a founding member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council. He still serves as the Muslim representative on the council, and in 1999 was given the CRES award at the Council’s annual Thanksgiving Sunday convocation. Mir also served on the NCCJ board (formerly the National Council of Christians and Jews) and was a founding member of the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group here.
Every year or two, he returns to Kashmir, where he can indulge in his love for his extended family, beautiful mountains and nature photography. But the political tension of the region often creates an odd juxtaposition with the incredible beauty and serenity of the area.
Although he maintains a deep fondness for his homeland, Mir doesn’t regret that he decided to stay in Kansas City.
“I never planned for this to happen, but am I glad that it did? Absolutely!” he said.
Ever since Cukierkorn was a small boy he has wanted to be a rabbi. “How can I help the people of Israel to the best of my ability?” he asked himself. At the Universidade de Sao Marcos he majored in psychology because he thought it would be helpful in performing the duties of his life-long ambition. Cukierkorn later graduated from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and has since been a rabbi. He has also written several books. His latest, Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, is an introduction to Judaism for both Jews and non-Jews.
Cukierkorn values scholarship and believes that education can “broaden horizons.” He believes that in order to understand the Bible better, one should be able to read in its original language. “Only if you know Hebrew can you interpret the Bible.” He finds it amusing that fundamentalists go “screaming about one particular verse” when, once you try to translate it yourself, you see how certain Hebrew words are open to different interpretations. As an example he said: “Christians think the Bible says that Mary is a virgin. This is a nice thought and all but it is not true. The word that describes Mary is almah which means “girl or maiden,” not “virgin.”
Cukierkorn is a Reform Jew, who shares some beliefs with Orthodox or Conservative Jews but has many fundamental differences. For example, Reform Jews look on the Torah not as the word of God but written by humans. Although they are encouraged to follow the kashrut (dietary laws) they are not obligated to; however, the ethical and moral laws are obligatory. Cukierkorn has performed interfaith weddings and gay commitment ceremonies. Divorce is allowed at his temple without a get (document of divorce); however, Cukierkorn does not think divorce should be taken lightly. “In ancient society people got married to build families, and marriage was happier then than compared to today when many people marry for self-fulfillment.”
Cukierkorn enjoys being a rabbi because he never knows what the day will bring, but one thing he likes to do everyday is to have lunch with a congregant. He also enjoys traveling, especially to different Jewish communities around the world. While traveling he likes to visit cemeteries and other Jewish historical sites. Cukierkorn thinks that Jews should go out into the world and make contributions wherever they go. He supports the Zionist movement (Jews moving back to Israel) but he does not want to live there himself.
Worship for Cukierkorn is mostly ritualistic although his faith does allow for personal prayer. Cukierkorn does not believe God is omnipotent. “People have two inclinations: for good and for evil.” God created the world but it is up to people to help Him by making good choices. Cukierkon does not think God brought the Holocaust upon the Jews but that He was too weak to stop it.
Why does Cukierkorn think interfaith work is important? “Because all people are not Jewish. It would be much easier if the whole world was Jewish but since there are Gentiles around, we must interact with them.” Cukierkorn does not believe in religious tolerance—he wants to be accepted and to accept people of other faiths. To tolerate is something that you do to someone or something that annoys you. He does not tolerate Benny Hinn, nor does he tolerate any other “dishonest” person. Cukierkorn may not agree with other people about certain things but he wants to try to understand their motivation. Amongst all honest people he wants more than tolerance, he wants acceptance.
Cukierkorn says that the Jewish community (at least amongst Reform Jews) has a lot of interfaith resources to offer Kansas City. He says that all of the liberal synagogues are very open to interfaith work, and the Jewish Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee with Marven Szneler is willing to do what it can to serve the area.
Cukierkorn currently lives in Overland
Park with his wife Denisse and his two daughters, Raquel and Dahlia.
As a young girl growing up in the little town of Warrensville, IL, Kara Hawkins experienced a spiritual awakening, but she had no idea about the remarkable and varied journey that would follow.
“My life was shaped by the years that I spent with the Franciscan nuns at the Catholic school there. They instilled in me a sense of the sacred in all things, of mysteries and miracles. They also instilled a sense of the ideal, of making a difference in society, and the need for social justice,” said Hawkins, now the American Indian Spirituality representative on the Kansas City Interfaith Council.
One of the nuns, Sister Avelino, nurtured her talents in singing, writing, and performing, and she credits her mother, Virginia Hawkins Pilarski, for generating her artistic and creative nature.
In her mid-twenties, Hawkins was drawn to metaphysics, and became particularly interested in Rosicrucianism, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, Theosophy, and the Edgar Cayce Foundation. While attending a Cayce seminar, she met Sun Bear, and by writing to a source mentioned in one of his books, met her first Native American teacher, Sac and Fox, Teri Stanford.
“Teri had a tremendous influence on me. She taught me the simplicity of faith, the importance of remembering that all life is sacred, that we are interrelated with all things, and that we need to find our relationship with Spirit in all things,” Hawkins said.
After moving to the area in 1987, Hawkins became involved with the Kansas City Pipe Circle, and since 1991 has been a ceremonial elder in the group. She currently apprentices with a Native elder in Kansas, who is of the Ioway-Oto tradition.
Hawkins, who grew up in an old-world Polish household, didn’t realize her own American Indian heritage until she became an adult. Her maternal grandmother was born on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, ID around 1902, but Hawkins feels that participating in American Indian spirituality isn’t dependent on bloodlines.
“Many people automatically assume that since I practice it, I must be an American Indian. I never wanted to claim this heritage, but society doesn’t understand that people can follow this general tradition without being born into it,” she said.
Hawkins became involved with American Indian spirituality because she resonates with its essential teachings.
“Basically, I felt a need to leave my study of the mental and esoteric, and relate to the earth. I found this in American Indian spirituality. God, or Spirit, is right here with us, and all we need do is align our awareness with the oneness,” Hawkins said.
She is quick to point out, however, that she still believes in the mysticism of the Catholic Church, though not its politics.
“I believe that religion needs to return to Jesus’ teaching to love one another,” Hawkins said. “It’s too bad his message often finds its way to the back seat of religious politics. American Indian Spirituality is ‘walking in a sacred manner’ as Jesus did. It is something you do every day, not just on Sunday. It is a living and breathing faith.”
Hawkins, who has served on the IFC since 1996, also emphasizes the importance of appreciating other faith traditions.
“I believe that people from different faith backgrounds need to work together so that they can understand each other better.
I’ve found that the basic heart of each faith is very much alike,” she said.
Hawkins has also nurtured her spiritual growth through the Alliance of Divine Love Church in West Palms, FL. She is an ordained minister and ministerial trainer for this foundation, and last month was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity in Metaphysics and Spirituality, and joined its faculty.
“The program promotes individual spiritual development from the point where you are and encourages your best efforts to find the greatest degree of love in any situation. Students in the program come from all walks of life, many of them ministers in their own right looking for a way to expand their spiritual growth and become more effective in ministering to others,” she said.
And Hawkins absolutely lights up when talking about her most recent project.
“I’m working on my first CD, with (flautist) Stumbling Deer, who is a ceremonial leader in the Kansas City Pipe Circle. It’s called ‘Buffalo Thunder Dreamer,’ and will consist entirely of our original compositions,” she said.
When the Rev Dr Wallace Hartsfield discusses his life, he resembles an artist painting vivid and sometimes haunting images, each of which shape the development of the greater whole. And often, the significance of these images only can be fully appreciated in retrospect.
Indeed, from the dirt roads of Hazlehurst, GA, to the streets of Kansas City, Hartsfield, the Protestant Christian member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, has experienced a great deal in his 73 years, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit.
Hartsfield was born in Hazlehurst, and since his mother was busy teaching in various locations, her parents, Thomas and Lourenia Hartsfield, helped to raise him.
“My grandfather loomed larger than life. He was quiet and reserved, and had strong moral character. When he punished me, even strapped me, I still could feel his love. I never understood this,” Hartsfield said. He also was a deacon at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, which Hartsfield attended. “Faith was a major part of his life, and I wanted to embrace what he did,” he added.
The pastor of the church, the Rev J M Benton, also inspired the boy and planted a seed deep in him. “Rev Benton not only preached: he always wanted to help people. When I saw him counseling people and giving them advice, I wanted to be like him,” Hartsfield said.
His great-grandmother, Ida Hartsfield, a former slave, also made a great impression on Hartsfield, mainly due to her steadfast faith. Among the countless stories she told was one about seeing smoke in the distance during Union General William T Sherman’s famous march to the sea in 1864.
When he was 12 years old, Hartsfield moved to Jacksonville, FL, to live with his mother, who had taken a job setting up daycare centers in the state. After his junior year at Stanton High School, Hartsfield served in the Philippines for the US Air Force for three years.
“The war was over, but we still were occupying the Philippines. As I encountered people of different backgrounds and faiths, I began to examine my own values and began making some decisions about my life. I also began to wonder why my life was spared when other soldiers were ‘taken out,’ ” he said.
Yet when Hartsfield returned to Jacksonville in March of 1949, he fell into bad habits. He impregnated a woman and one night in July found himself lying on the sawdust floor of a honky-tonk, rolling in his own vomit. When he returned home, he heard his upset mother praying for him.
He vowed at that moment to change his ways, and by April of 1950, he had received his high school diploma, celebrated the birth of his first daughter, and delivered his first sermon, at Second Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
That fall Hartsfield entered Clark College in Atlanta, GA, where he earned a BA in elementary education with minors in religion and psychology. In his junior year, he felt a call to the ministry, and later received a scholarship to go to seminary. In September of 1954, Hartsfield enrolled at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, where in 1957 he earned an MDiv degree.
Hartsfield’s first pastoral call was to Griffin Ebenezer Baptist Church in Pickens, SC, where he met his wife, Matilda Hopkins. The couple now has three children.
He later was called to pastorates in Brunswick, GA, and Bartow, FL, before coming to Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City. He remained there for six years, and then was called to Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, but four years later, he returned to Metropolitan.
“I guess I came to a point where I realized this is where God wants me to be,” said Hartsfield, laughing. He has been at the church ever since, and has become an influential contributor to the community and nation.
Among other things, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr, worked with Jesse Jackson, chaired the Economic Development Commission of the National Baptist Convention of America, and hosted the Black Achievement Awards on Black Entertainment Television. Hartsfield has earned many community service awards and is nationally recognized for his oratory skills.
He appreciates the leadership in our community of the Rev Dr Bob Meneilly, minister emeritus of the Village Church. Meneilly “stood up for justice during the civil rights movement at a time when it wasn’t safe for him to do so. He recommended me for the Interfaith Council position,” Hartsfield said.
Despite mounting world tensions among nations and faith groups, Hartsfield remains optimistic. “I think that the conflicts of ideology and war will lead people of different religions to really listen and talk with each other around the world,” Hartsfield said.
“Most religions have a great deal in common. We place the same worth on human life and hold many of the same values. Our belief in God sometimes differs, but this is true even among Christians.”
But he feels that religious communities must strive harder to remain relevant. “Many people today don’t want to deal with the mysteries: They want to have everything explained rationally,” Hartsfield said. “For instance what does ‘being saved’ mean to the post-modern person?
“When I explain about how forming right relationships, and how they are borne out of pain, people can better understand creating a right relationship with the Eternal. So, the terminology needs to be changed. It’s not about changing the message—it’s about changing the clothes you put it in.”
When George Noonan was in elementary school, he and his classmates took a test designed to detect their budding career proclivities.
“The test indicated that I was best suited to be a priest or minister,” Noonan said, laughing.
And lo and behold, Noonan became increasingly involved with the Catholic Church, leading to a scholarly and professional career that spans nearly three decades. He now serves as the chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph and has been the Catholic member on the Kansas City Interfaith Council since 1996.
He was born and raised in Springfield, MA, the fourth of Timothy and Connie Noonan’s eight children. The family was very active in Holy Family Parish, and the children attended school there. The immediate neighborhood, which had consisted of people from a wide variety of European extractions, became more racially diverse in the ’60s and ’70s as George grew into adulthood.
“Some of the people feared people of color, and we experienced a ‘white flight’ to the suburbs. But in hindsight, it was pretty interesting, because people in the neighborhood faced a new challenge,” Noonan said.
It was a challenge that Noonan welcomed. The Catholic Sisters at the school he attended, Sisters of St Joseph, and Father Roland Renaud at Holy Family Parish had planted the seeds of social activism in Noonan.
“During my youth, people were challenging many social assumptions and stereotypes. After the Second Vatican Council (which met from 1962-65), Father Renaud and the Sisters became more fully engaged with society, and with the world. I was heavily influenced by them,” Noonan said.
They stimulated his interest in race relations, social justice, and the Vietnam War peace movement, among other things.
Noonan graduated from Cathedral High School in 1971, and then attended St Michael’s College in Winooski, VT. During his freshman year, he met his future wife, Maureen, then a student at the University of Vermont. The couple married in 1975, when George received a BA in religious studies and philosophy, and now has three sons.
Noonan then taught for a year at the all-girls Notre Dame High School in Springfield, MA. The school’s director, Father Leo Hoar, convinced him to enroll at Yale Divinity School, where in 1979 Noonan received an MDiv.
“My years at Yale were very exciting,” Noonan said. “I was able to rub shoulders with people from many faiths, people who are as committed to their tradition as I am to mine. A great-aunt of mine said, ‘Don’t go to Yale, because you will lose your faith.’ Actually, quite the opposite happened with me: As I was enriched by people from different backgrounds, my own faith deepened.”
Following graduation, he served as the first director of Northwest Connecticut Christian Youth Ministry for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford. He was the Catholic chaplain to six boarding schools and one regional high school. Five years later, Noonan became the director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“We had been living in a rural area of Connecticut, so it was exciting to come back to a city, but it took time to get connected and to develop programs,” he said.
Noonan and eight colleagues were responsible for religious education, Christian Initiation, leadership development, ministry formation, and continuing education for pastoral ministers. The center created New Wine: Diocesan Formation for Ministry, a nationally recognized program for ministry formation.
In 1987, Noonan also became the director of the Ministries Service Area of the diocese. Eight years later he became the first layperson to be named chancellor of the diocese, one of just 20 or so laypeople to fill such a position within the US Catholic Church. He continues to occupy the post, and is responsible for the coordination and oversight of diocesan-level ecumenical and interfaith work.
He also is a co-host of KCMO’s “Religion on the Line,” (Sundays, 6-8a) a radio program dedicated to promoting interfaith understanding. This program harmonizes well with his work on the Interfaith Council.
“The Catholic Church at a diocesan level had lost much of its connection to the broader community in the ’70s and ’80s. When I joined the council, I wanted to help strengthen this connection. I believe that this has happened, but we still could improve,” Noonan said.
But as relationships are forged, differences often arise.
“Members of the Interfaith Council sometimes have conflicting views on important issues, such as capital punishment. This requires us to be patient with one another,” he said.
Noonan feels that such patience can lead to greater understanding.
“Many misconceptions still exist even among members of the Interfaith Council, and they need to be raised and challenged, he said. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to work more diligently to understand and to bridge the differences between people of different faiths. While being completely involved in our own traditions, we need to learn more about others and develop deeper respect and relationships with them.
Chuck Stanford had no idea what he was getting into when he invited His Holiness Orgyen Kusum Lingpa to Kansas City in 1997 to teach members of the Mindfulness Meditation Group.
“When I picked him up from the airport, his translator told me that the lama wanted to establish a center where Varjkilaya, an advanced form of Tibetan Buddhist practice, could be taught,” Stanford recalled. “The lama said he wanted to do this in my home, so the following day, I picked him up at 7 am, and took them there.
“He wanted to see our shrine, so I took him down to the basement, but he immediately shook his head. When we went back upstairs to our family room, he began rearranging all of the furniture. He then constructed a huge shrine right in the middle of the room, and told us not to touch it until he came back in a year!”
While the lama’s actions required some physical adjustments in the Stanford household, Chuck was experiencing a much more significant spiritual transformation.
“During that weekend the lama and I felt a deep connection. He even wanted to ordain me as a lama, but I didn't feel ready for such a commitment,” Stanford said.
However, in May of the following year the lama ordained him as a lama of the Nyingma school, which brings together the oldest Buddhist traditions of Tibet. Stanford also was given a lama name, Changchup Kunchok Dorje.
At the time, the Mindfulness Meditation Group, which originally practiced at the Roeland Park Community Center, met at the Shambhala Center in Kansas City, KS, for a weekly meditation and class. The group eventually changed its name to the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery, and in July of 2000 secured its own, much larger space at 700 W Pennway in Kansas City.
Since then, membership has grown from a mere handful to some 100, and popular events attract around 200 people. And now, 75 different classes are offered yearly, by 15 teachers. Jigme, a young Tibetan monk from the Dalai Lama’s monastery, now resides at the center, and many venerable Tibetan teachers have offered teachings there.
“Even I am amazed by our growth. Moving into our space made a big difference—without it, we still might have only six to eight members,” Stanford said.
As the center has grown, so has his workload. Stanford is the spiritual director and executive director, and has a wide variety of daily responsibilities. These recent developments in Stanford’s life may appear a bit mind boggling, but actually they are part of a discernible pattern.
Stanford grew up in Johnson County, and attended Country Club Christian Church, of the Disciples of Christ denomination, in Kansas City. “The church was very important to me when I was younger, but I drifted away as a teenager. As a young adult, I visited other faith communities, and was particularly intrigued by the Quakers. But for most of my life, I felt a real spiritual void,” he said.
After graduating from Shawnee Mission East High School, he received a BA in psychology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He then was the director of fundraising for several non-profit organizations, including the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Big Brothers, Big Sisters. He also worked for the Gillis Home for Children, a Kansas City home for emotionally disturbed boys. While working there, he met his future wife, Mary, a native of New Orleans. The couple now has two children.
In 1980, Stanford decided to pursue an earlier ambition of attending medical school. He took one year of pre-med classes at UMKC and Penn Valley Community College to supplement those he previously had completed. He then took the MCAT, and was accepted at two schools, but as he was about to enroll, funding for medical schools was cut nationwide.
Simultaneously, another career was taking off. From the time he was a boy, Stanford has been intrigued by magic, and performed in shows during his undergraduate years. He eventually performed at trade shows, and by the early ’80s, bookings were piling up.
He began traveling extensively to the shows, and people began asking him to organize parties and provide other forms of entertainment, such as standup comedy. This resulted in the formation in the mid-’80s of Stanford Productions, which he and Mary ran in KCK until October of 2000.
In the late ’80s, Chuck and Mary discovered the Shambhala Center, which offered a popular form of meditation practice based on the teachings of founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
“In the ’70s Mary and I had read some meditation books, but they weren’t Buddhist. In the late ’80s I discovered Buddhism, and found that it made a lot of sense to me, because its worldview was consistent with mine,” Stanford said.
In 1993, Chuck and Mary decided to start a meditation group, thereby planting the seed for the eventual flowering of Rime. Besides serving Rime, Chuck is a member of the Western Missouri Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, is on the Board of Directors for the National Coalition for Community and Justice, writes columns for the Faith section of The Kansas City Star, and serves in prison outreach programs.
He has been actively involved with CRES since 1995. “It’s an amazing, unique organization that has enriched my life, and I’ve established wonderful friendships with Vern Barnet and others on the Interfaith Council,” he said.
ADDITIONAL BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
Chuck Stanford is an ordained Lama within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. His 20 year course of study has included trips to Dharamsala India where he received teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to Golok, Tibet, where he received instruction at the monastery of his teacher, His Holiness Orgyen Kusum Lingpa. Lama Stanford is co-founder of the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery & Institute of Tibetan Studies located in Kansas City.
Lama Stanford is the Buddhist member for Kansas City’s Interfaith Council. In addition he writes a monthly column on Buddhism for the Saturday Faith Section of The Kansas City Star. He has also written other freelance articles on Buddhism and Tibetan culture. In 1998 after doing extensive research in Dharamsala, India, he wrote an article on Tibetan medicine, published in The Star. His book on Buddhism is a study guide for use by other Buddhist Centers.
Currently Lama Stanford serves as the spiritual leader and Executive
Director of the Rime Buddhist Center which he administers on a day to day
basis. In addition he teaches classes on meditation and Buddhism
and performs Buddhist ceremonies, including weddings and funerals.
He also serves on the boards of the National Conference of Community &
Justice and the Friends of the Dept. of Religious Studies at the University
of Kansas, and consults with and gives dharma teachings at other Buddhist
Centers. Lama Stanford is a leader in prison outreach and serves
as a part time Chaplain at Leavenworth Prison.
After Kris Krishna obtained his MBA degree in international business, he began actively searching for a job, and one day in Feb of 1977 he ran across an advertisement for Midwest Conveyor Co in the Kansas City area.
“The ad described Kansas City as ‘the last decent place to raise a family in America,’ Krishna said. “I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and ended up buying a plane ticket to visit Kansas City. The morning I left, it was 32 degrees and snowing in Philadelphia, and when I arrived in Kansas City, it was 65 degrees, and bright and sunny. I said to myself, ‘This is it.’”
Krishna soon began working for Midwest Conveyor, and in September his wife, Padma, began working as a pediatrician at Wayne Minor Community Health Center, now Samuel Rodgers Community Health Center.
The couple has remained in the Kansas City metro area ever since. Kris has worked for several engineering firms, and now is a part-time consultant for Lutz, Daily & Brain in Overland Park. Since 1980, Padma has been the chief of pediatrics at Samuel Rodgers. The couple has raised a daughter, Priya, who now is the chief resident in ear, nose, and throat surgery at the medical school at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
And during the past 26 years, the couple has seen the local Indian population mushroom from around 300 to some 4,500, resulting in a great increase in members of Indian faith traditions. The Krishnas were raised Hindus, and plans to create the Hindu Temple & Cultural Center were made in their home.
Kris, who has been a long-term follower of Vedanta, recently succeeded Anand Bhattacharyya as the Hindu member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, and is enthused about becoming more involved with it.
Clearly, Krishna’s intriguing life experiences and varied background will benefit the Council.
All of his grandparents were born in Tamil Nadu during British rule, and relocated to Burma (now Myanmar). His father, Ramamoorthy, and his mother, Savithri, married in 1935. Kris, one of their four children, was born in Taunggyi, capital of the Shan State in eastern Burma. He inherited his father’s first name, but later changed it for practical purposes.
During World War II, Burma was invaded and occupied by Japanese forces until April, 1945, when a resistance movement drove them out. Burma attained independence from the British Commonwealth on January 4, 1948. “So, when I was in pre-school, children learned the Japanese language, sang the Japan anthem, and saluted the Japanese flag,” Kris said.
Kris later attended the Indian Education Society Central School and then Rangoon University, where in 1959 he obtained a BSc degree in mechanical engineering. He graduated at the top of his class, and then hoped to attend a master’s program at the California Institute of Technology. However, his citizenship papers weren’t processed in time, so he enrolled at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, in southern India.
He had visited India in 1953, when he stayed for five days with relatives in Madras, but had a much different experience the second time around. “On my first trip, I had a negative impression of India —there was a lot of poverty, and it seemed to be an inferior country. But I loved being in Bangalore: I was a bachelor in my early twenties, and had a great time,” Krishna said.
He received his master’s degree in 1962, specializing in gas turbine engines, and then served as a sub-lieutenant in the engineering division for the Indian Navy for about two years before working for two firms in India.
During this time, he met Padma, and they married in 1970. A friend, S V Raman, then helped Krishna land a job with Food Machinery Corp in Philadelphia.
“I had dreamed of coming to the United States since I was a young boy in Burma, when my father, who was an aficionado of American movies, took me to Westerns. When I arrived, I found the US everything I had hoped it would be,” said Krishna, who speaks Burmese, English, Hindi, and some Bengali and Malayalam.
One day, Krishna noted that a particularly significant figure from his past was scheduled to deliver in a lecture in nearby Allentown, PA. “I had first heard Swami Ranganathananda deliver a captivating lecture at a Ramakrishna Mission in Burma when I was 14 years old. He was coming to Allentown to discuss the message of the Upanishads,” Krishna said.
From 1949-62, the swami, a native of Trikkur in the Kerala State, was the secretary of the mission’s New Delhi branch, and from 1962-67, he served at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Calcutta as the secretary, director of the School of Humanistic and Cultural Studies, and editor of its monthly journal. Now nearly 95 years old, he has written several books and lectured in over 50 countries.
“Swamiji says that the goal of life is to realize God, so I’ve been getting more and more involved with my faith,” said Krishna, who meditates and prays daily. Krishna also attends talks by Swami Chetananda, the head of the Vedanta Society in St Louis.
Aside from his spiritual interests, Kris loves to listen to classical music, both Indian and Western. Friends are well aware of his rousing renditions of “Tom Dooley” and other songs.
“I play popular Indian tunes and Western songs, including cowboy songs,
on the harmonica,” he said, smiling.
Purkh Singh Khalsa
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa left his native New York City in 1971 on a spiritual search that took him to many parts of the country, particularly the West Coast. But he didn’t find his path until he sat down three years later at the Golden Temple Restaurant, then located at 51st and Main in Kansas City.
“I saw a sign on the wall advertising a yoga class at Sat Tirath Ashram. I enjoyed the food at the restaurant, and I thought I might enjoy the yoga and meditation. So, I decided to take the class,” he said.
He found that the ashram was devoted to the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh born in 1929 into a Northern India family of community leaders and healers.
In 1968, Yogi Bhajan left a successful career with the Indian government to come to America. The next year, he founded 3HO, an educational foundation dedicated to the excellence of the individual and uplifting of humanity through Kundalini Yoga, meditation, and conscious living.
The foundation also offers courses in stress management, vegetarian cooking, overcoming addictions, and alternative medicine.
Karta Purkh immediately was drawn to the ashram. “It all made so much sense to me. I had done a lot of drugs when I was searching for a spiritual path, and through the yoga and meditation classes that I took at the ashram, I found what I had been looking for—without the drugs,” he said.
Later in 1974, Karta Purkh attended classes given by Yogi Bhajan in Kansas City. “He came to teach White Tantric Yoga, a form of meditation in which couples sit facing each other. I also had a chance to meet him. He helped me to realize why I was where I was, and that I need to work on myself to experience my own divinity,” he said.
Karta Purkh, who as a youngster had served as an altar boy in a Roman Catholic church, adopted Sikhism. Until then he was Richard Negretti, but Yogi Bhajan named him Karta Purkh Khalsa. “Karta Purkh” means “God as the doer of all things,” while Khalsa (“the pure ones”) is a name given to all Sikhs who take vows to live according to the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru.
One day during Yogi Bhajan’s visit, Karta Purkh passed by his room. “He is a wise man, so many people were lined up, waiting to ask him what they should do in life. For me, it seemed to be a silly question because it was clear what I should do: move into the ashram. I thought that I would stay about six months, and learn what I needed to learn, but I’ve been there ever since, and I’m still learning!” Karta Purkh said, laughing.
From the beginning, the yogic lifestyle in the ashram, even yoga, prayers, and meditations in the wee hours of the morning, fit like a glove. “I’ve always been an early riser, eager to begin the days even while others slept. This made absolute sense to me, both personally and logically: The stillness of these hours is ideal for prayer, yoga, and meditation. We call it amrit vehlathe ambrosial hours,” he said.
In 1976, Karta Purkh traveled to Espanola, NM, the adopted home of Yogi Bhajan, to attend the 3HO Summer Solstice gathering held each June. “A mutual friend there introduced me to Sat Inder, a woman from St Louis. At that point, neither of us wanted to get married to anyone, but after talking and doing White Tantric Yoga together, we realized how compatible we are. Our birthdays are just five days apart!” Karta Purkh said.
The couple married later that year, and now have a daughter, Guru Shabd, who is just entering college. Karta Purkh has two other children, Sarah and David. “Sat Inder and I keep each other committed and strong in our faith. I doubt if either of us would be Sikhs today if we hadn’t married each other,” Karta Purkh said.
He worked as a cook for several years at the Golden Temple, and then decided to enroll at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he eventually obtained a BA in secondary education and an MA in reading education. He then taught language arts and reading classes to elementary- and middle-school students. This year, he will be teaching at Southeast High School.
He also is certified by the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association, and teaches yoga classes that are available to everyone, regardless of age, ability, religion, or background. “A lot of different people, including many devout Christians, take classes and practice yoga,” he said. “In India, many people regard Kundalini Yoga as a mysterious process, as magic or witchcraft, and the tradition is to keep teachings close to the vest.
“But in the US, we want to make them readily available to people, and to create teachers. I feel gratified that a number of my students now are teachers.”
He has helped CRES actualize its mission for over two decades, and for some 15 years has served as the Sikh Dharma member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council.
“We find so many examples in the world of people combating each other. Sikhs believe that all religions are valid, and emphasize cooperation amongst them. The most important thing is for people to practice their faith, whatever it is,” Karta Purkh said.
His turban and long beard always have attracted plenty of attention, but now people seem to be more curious about the faith they reflect.
“Ever since 9/11, it seems than more people have been asking me about
it. I believe there now is greater awareness of both Sikh Dharma and Kundalini
Yoga, and the uses and benefits of both,” he said.
When Caroline Baughman was in sixth grade, she declared that she was an agnostic.
“I told my mother that I believed in a universal power. I didn’t begrudge other people’s faith, but it didn’t make sense for me to keep going to church, so I stopped,” Baughman said.
The news caught her mother, Judy, a bit off guard, but it wasn’t totally a surprise, since she had encouraged Caroline to develop an inquisitive nature.
Baughman, the Pagan member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, was raised primarily in Lake St Louis, MO. She began taking dance classes when she was 3 years old, and started performing in school dramas, playing the flute, and singing in choirs while in elementary school.
At Wentzville High School in Missouri, she performed in several productions until she graduated in 1993. She then enrolled at the University of Indiana, and after her freshman year there, participated in an intensive Shakespeare program at the Globe Theatre in London.
Later she headed back to England for an internship sponsored by Washington University in St Louis. “The focus of this inventive program was for interns to be working members of the theatre group, as much a part of it as possible,” she said.
She worked at the Show of Strength Theatre in Bristol, first as an administrative assistant. Then she posed for publicity photo shots, delivered readings of original material, and sat in on rehearsals.
“I made friends with a lot of people. I had a great experience, and when the program was over, I stayed on as an assistant director,” Baughman said.
With the encouragement of Patrick Spottiswoode of the Globe Theatre, Baughman then returned to the US to finish college — at the prestigious Tisch School of Arts at New York University.
“I had an awesome experience there,” she said. “The teachers were fantastic — they expected me to be ‘me.’
Baughman specialized in acting, and received a BFA in 1998. She then performed in several small productions in New York City, and began to more fully realize how theatre can be a vehicle for personal growth.
While in NY, Baughman’s spiritual longing led her to an intensive period of private study. She came to believe that everything is made up of the same energy, which, if understood, establishes a commonality and influences all of our actions.
She felt a strong affinity with the Taoist teaching of acceptance, and the Pagan and Wiccan emphases on authenticity and the natural elements. Baughman was particularly struck by Starhawk’s book, The Spiral Dance.
“The book even has a set of concentration and visualization exercises that teach the same skills that I learned in acting classes. This was both pleasing and alarming to me, because I was wanting to establish my own belief system, and generally took everything with a grain of salt,” she said.
Baughman eventually attended classes at Enchantments, an esoteric spiritual shop on the West Side. Baughman and a friend from the classes, Lisa Harris, eventually formed a coven along with four other women.
During this time, she worked as a receptionist in a British law firm, which initially was an enjoyable job. “The firm was small, and I was given a fantastic salary, great benefits, and a clothing allowance of $4,000 per year. But within two years, the number of people in the office had grown from 12 to over 100, and everything was becoming very regulated,” she said.
Growing weary of the urban landscape surrounding her, Baughman was persuaded by her lifelong friend, Darci Graves, to move to Kansas City.
“I had five goals: live with Darci; find a know-nothing, non-desk, casual job; find someone to share my life with; have a car again; and audition for a part and get cast. All of these things happened within two months,” Baughman said.
She moved in with Darci, landed a job at Vulcan’s Forge jewelry store, found a car, and began acting in local plays.
Baughman also hooked up with the Gaia Community, a Pagan-themed congregation in Shawnee Mission that lives by the slogan, “caring for the earth and each other because our lives depend on it.” She now is vice president of the board, co-chair of the adult-education committee, and a priestess of “team” which leads rituals.
She also is a new member of the Heartland Spiritual Alliance and is a wedding consultant for Events by HeatherAnne, which specializes in alternative and nontraditional weddings.
Baughman serves as a director, actor, voice, and speech coach of The Voice, Breath Body Connection and currently is directing Thrice Upon a Time, scheduled for January of 2004.
Eventually, she hopes to merge her spiritual and theatrical talents by forming her own theatre company, Passion Plays.
“I would like to recreate an environment in which artists and audience members alike can experience theatre as sacred,” Baughman said. “I want to develop a format similar to the Medieval Passion Plays, which provided a way for telling sacred myths. Passion Plays would provide like-minded people with a space for community and training.”
And last but not least, she is thrilled about fulfilling her remaining goal.
“I met my husband, Roger, at an audition for Gorilla
Theatre’s production of Major Barbara. We didn’t talk during the audition,
but we shook hands when we left, and both felt a low-grade, electric shock,”
she said, smiling.
Larry Sousley was shy at first to give an interview; three house later on his way through the door he was still talking with enthusiasm for his faith.
He grew up “Baptist in a Polish neighborhood,” and was not exposed to different faiths or ethnicities; for example, in his childhood he “never met a Jew.”
While a student at UMKC Sousley came across Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. This book led to others taking him on a path through the texts of the early American Transcendentalists, the Vedantists, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus. Finally in 1976 he found Samuel Lewis’ In the Garden.
Sousley was drawn to the aspect of universality in Lewis’ teachings. His ideas of “love and harmony leading to beauty in creation, in a refined personality, and in the heart opening to compassion” especially touched him. His explorations led to the writings of Hazrat Inyat Khan, who brought Sufism to the west in 1910. Inayat Khan’s only goal was to “make God a reality.”
Sufism, originally a mystical form of Islam, in America has come to embrace all faiths. “Sufism studies the esoteric parts of all religions; beyond tradition, beyond superstition.” Sousley often goes to American Indian Pipe Circles and sweat lodges, to Islamic worship services, to a Christian church, to Shabbas; he also currently lives with a Buddhist monk.
Larry loves the Sufi open gatherings on the second Saturday of every month at St Mary’s Episcopal Church on 13th and Holmes. Sufis begin their meetings by saying together: “Toward the One, the perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty, the only being united with all the Illuminated souls who form the embodiment of the Message, the Spirit of Guidance.”
The group is “blessed with great musicians.” There the famous Sufi dancing, recalling the “whirling dervishes,” takes place with devotion and glee. The dancing is a time for the “little self, the ego” to “die or dissolve into the Ultimate Source.” During worship, Sufis also practice meditation in which they try to focus on the divine with every breath. The dhikr — “remembrance” — is a practice of remembering God through recitation and chanting by which the heart is purified to receive divine attributes. It is considered a staple of spiritual food for many Sufis and is usually “auditory.”
Sufism has a history of transmission by “teacher to student going back thousands of years,” the teacher being “proved by the student.” At the meetings Sousley says, “everyone is a teacher in their own way and has something to offer.”
Sousley thinks that the importance of interfaith work lies in education and understanding. By studying many faiths he has come to the conclusion that they have “more similarities than differences.”
He feels the Interfaith Council is heading in the right direction — though their work has just begun in “broadening understanding” . Sousley speaks very highly of Vern Barnet and appreciates all the work he does in the community. He thinks that the next step for the Interfaith Council should be to develop a higher “visibility.”
Sousley, whose religious name is Ali Kadr, contributed
to CRES a beautiful banner with symbols of many faiths. Network CBS-TV
saw it when they were taping the half-hour show, “Open Hearts Open Minds,”
here last year featuring the work of CRES and the Interfaith Council.
Barb McAtee, a mother of three and a grandmother, was born in St Joseph, MO and grew up in a Christian tradition. Early on she was questioning things like “what about people who don’t know Christ, do they go to hell?” She resisted the notion of a vengeful God and spent her teen years reading about comparative religions and the practices of many faiths. One day a friend who sat next to her in high school had a book about Bahá'í. Here was a religion she had never heard of and her own curiosity led Barb to borrow the book. The faith took root in her and before long Barb was observing its fasts and prayers. This was in 1963 before organizations like CRES had helped to dispel fears and prejudices against other faiths; Barb’s parents forbade her to attend Bahá'í meetings.
Discrimination and even violent persecution has plagued the Bahá'í faith since its beginning in 1844; Muslim figures in Persia (modern Iran) have filled mass graves with tens of thousands of tortured Bahá'ís.* Despite attempts to destroy the faith, it is still the largest religious minority, 300,000, in Iran. It has spread to more than 100,000 localities in more than 340 countries and territories. Each local community elects nine members to form a Spiritual Assembly. The combined Spiritual Assemblies then elect nine members to form the Universal House of Justice.
Bahá'ís regard service to the community as a form of worship. Witnessing the need for women in law enforcement, and an interest in justice, led Barb to leave her job as legal secretary to become a police detective. For eight years she was dedicated to serving and administering justice in Manhattan, KS and for 14 years at the KU Medical Center. To her the work was both interesting and fulfilling.
Consultation is an important part of a Bahá'í’s life. For example, to get a divorce a Bahá’í couple needs first to consult with the local assembly to try and remedy problems. If the couple still feels “repugnance for one another,” then a year of patience is given. At this time the couple are not allowed to live or sleep together, but they do have meetings. Only after this will a divorce be granted. Barb describes consultation as being “similar to David Nelson’s method of Appreciate Inquiry,” and it is used for all major life decisions.
In 1997 Barb took her required 10-day pilgrimage to Mt Carmel in Israel where she met several members of the Universal House of Justice. There she was impressed with how vibrant and strong the faith is with leaders from all over the world. The beauty of the famous hanging gardens also left an impression.
Death for Barb is a transition to another state of existence in which growth in knowledge and faith of God is deepened. Bahá’u’lláh wrote that if one had a glimpse of the next world, life on earth would no longer be bearable and one would pass away in longing to be there. For the deceased, by the “will and grace of God,” an ability to intervene on earth remains. Barb believes that writers, artists, musicians, and scientists are inspired through the souls of the dead. Everything experienced and learned will stay with the individual in a way more readily accessible than now.
Barb’s knowledge of her faith demonstrates how important education is for Bahá'ís. Daily reading and prayer is practiced along with “deepening classes” on-going study circles and attendance at Bahá'í schools. Bahá’u’lláh, the author of the sacred Bahá'í texts, would be pleased with Barb’s scholarship.
Interfaith work comes naturally to the Bahá'ís. Bahá’u’lláh said the founders of all major religions were divine and that God never left any people without guidance. Barb says that “as we develop faculties, we become more spiritually conscious and grow toward one global community.” Bahá’u’lláh believed that there are no separate races, only one human race. World peace should be the norm while war is “an aberration.” It is important for people of different religions to respect one another and “wrong to deny the validity of other faiths.”
Barb puts her beliefs into action; she founded and for years has run the KU Med interfaith lunch program, which is highly praised by the university administration. Often over a hundred people participate weekly in learning to quell ignorance. Because the Bahá'ís have been persecuted so much within some Muslim communities, for Barb, “it has been a source of joy and inspiration to see how Muslims and Bahá'ís become trusted friends in this community, in large part due to interfaith activities here in Kansas City.”
She would like to see the Kansas City Interfaith Council meet more frequently and have longer meetings. She respects the work Vern Barnet has done and hopes that new leadership will emerge as he steps down.
The Rev Kathy Riegelmen
Except for a few Navy tours with her dad and then going off to college in Arkansas, Kathy Riegelman has always lived Kansas City. Music has long been a driving force in her life and continues to play upon her passions, enriching the ears fortunate enough to hear her.
Kathy first met her husband, classical guitarist Larry Beekman, through music. They were both teaching in the same music academy and became “musician friends.” The two fell in love and later married. They have been playing together ever since — as many of us who have attended the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Sunday Ritual Meals have been able to appreciate. Kathy’s reason for donating this time: “It is something Larry and I can do — one small thing I can give — and besides it is fun and I get a kick out seeing people I sometimes have not seen for a year.”
While teaching flute, she discovered that many of her students were from the same church. Kathy and Larry were then invited to perform there. They were so well liked that the church invited them back many times. For years Kathy had been “un-churched.” She and her husband were impressed by the church — All Souls Unitarian Universalist — and its sense of community. With birth of their daughter, Laurel, they decided they wanted that community for support.
One day the pastor asked Kathy if she would like to study theology. She at first did not take this notion seriously, but it stuck with her and eventually led, at the age of 40, to her enrollment at Saint Paul School of Theology. After four years of intense study and one year of residency, Kathy was awarded a master’s degree of divinity and became a chaplain. Education for Kathy is more than just training; it is a “process that should help the student to know more about who one is and how to use one’s strengths and to know one’s limitations in order to reach one’s fullest potential.”
Working with patients at St Joseph’s Hospital is a “huge joy” for Kathy. She feels privileged and honored to be invited into another person’s “sacred ground” especially during a time of difficulty. As a chaplain, she does not push her beliefs onto people, but is with them as they are. One of the things Kathy loves most about her work is that she gets to encounter people not only of different faiths but also of different races, classes, sexual orientations, abilities, ages, and so forth. “Everyone is as deserving as anyone else,” she says. Kathy calls this ministering to all people “social justice.” This principle in part is what led her to become a member of the Interfaith Council.
Kathy feels that practicing social justice in the community “lifts up the richness of who we are as human beings.” She loves working with the Council because it deepens her own sense of faith. By building “flesh and blood” relationships, Kathy learns more about the religions of the world and life in general. She has made friends with people who bring her joy who otherwise she would never have met. Kathy thinks that over the last twenty years the Interfaith Council has done a “fabulous” job. She says: “I have learned so much from Vern; he is such a gift to the community.” Kathy values the work that the Council does so much that she hopes to be able to devote even more time and energy to interfaith work in the future.
Kathy’s aptitude for learning is ongoing. Currently she
is training to be a supervisor for clinical pastoral education. And fortunately
for us, her music never stops.
Dr Daryoush Jahanian
Daryoush Jahanian was born in Tehran, Iran. He went to high school and began his study of medicine at the university there. After a brief period of service in the Iranian army, Dr Jahanian came to St Louis for his internship. He went back to Iran after graduating but was concerned that he would not be exposed to the latest advances in the medical field, so he returned to the States. Dr Jahanian came to Kansas City because he knew some people who lived here and because he “landed a job.”
Choice is important for Dr Jahanian. He believes people can choose God; this is different from other Monotheistic traditions that hold God does the choosing. People should be able to choose their government; it should not be forced on them.
Dr Jahanian points to the Yasna (the 17 chapters of the Gathas that contain Zarathushtra’s genuine teaching) to illustrate this point: “When a man wants to marry Zarathushtra’s daughter, he gives her full freedom and suggests she consult her wisdom and decide with full serenity whether her husband is with good mind and righteous and with God. Zarathushtra says nothing about class and wealth — he says ‘I do not want to interfere; think carefully.’”
Dr Jahanian believes death is a transitional period and those who have done good in life will pass through judgment with a clean conscience. Heaven and hell can be experienced as states of mind; people that do good, bring happiness to themselves; and those who do evil, misery.
Dr Jahanian thinks that the best way to approach God is through good works. Good actions promote good results. This formula seems to work for him and for other Zoroastrians who as a group have one of the highest ratios of college graduates. “In India, Zoroastrians are the best scientists, military people, big industrialists, and heads of government. They are 100% educated.”
Wisdom and intelligence are valued by Zoroastrians. “When I was a young man I was interested in history,” says Dr Jahanian. His formal study was entirely medical but on the side he poured over history and religious texts. A love of learning is passed down through the generations: “My father was interested in history, philosophy, and religion. He published a magazine and traveled as a guest lecturer.” Dr Jahanian speaks with a thorough command of the history of ancient Persia and Zoroastrianism. His book, published in 1997, The Zoroastrian Doctrine and Biblical Connections demonstrates his scholarship. In it Dr Jahanian argues that from the Zoroastrians in Persia, the Jews developed eschatology, angelology, and demonology, and a hope in the victory of good over evil. Christianity and Islam later adopted many of these ideas. The “bridge of judgment (Sarat),” punishments of hell, and the rewards of heaven are examples of this influence.
Persecution has plagued Zoroastrians. Since the revolution in Iran, only Muslims have been allowed to hold government office. Nations that have not accepted the principle of separation of church and state, Dr Jahanian argues, always carry the risk of establishing a repressive religious government.
Dr Jahanian admires the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus, because he left the people free and was tolerant of their religious beliefs. Xenophon writes of him: “We were then compelled to change our opinion and decide that to rule men might be a task neither impossible nor even difficult, if one should only go about it in an intelligent manner.”
There are “many religions but they are different; they are not the same. But their goal is one: to provide spiritual wealth for the whole society.” Organizations such as the Kansas City Interfaith Council “provide a better understanding” and enhance cooperation among people of different faiths. Dr Jahanian thinks the Interfaith Council is “doing its best — limited financially — but doing its best.” He thought the 9/11 observance was especially important and helpful to the community and he always enjoys the annual Thanksgiving Sunday Interfaith Meal. “Dr Barnet’s leadership has been great.”
In the future Dr Jahanian would like to travel to the former
USSR where it is said great scholars of the Avestan language can be found.
We hope that he will bring back some of their learning.
The Rev Sharon Connors
The Rev Sharon Connors was born and raised in Chicago. She went to Michigan State University where she majored in Spanish. She chose this major not for any “logical or intellectual reason” but because of a love of the language, people, and Spanish-speaking culture.
Since then, her Spanish has been very useful not only working as a Spanish teacher but in her ministry at Unity where she often gives retreats to groups from Mexico and Central America. Last June she went to the Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona where she was able to have a much richer experience because of her bilingual ability. Sharon received her MA in counseling from Northeastern Illinois University, then worked as a high school and substance abuse counselor.
She chose this profession because she has always liked helping people. While a counselor, Sharon became certified as a graphoanalyst (someone who discovers personality through handwriting) because she thought that if she knew more about her students she would be able to be even more helpful to them. Engaged in this successful and rewarding career, Sharon felt a calling while sitting in church at a workshop. In her heart she heard a voice: “You would love to do this.” The notion would not leave her for a whole year until finally she applied and was accepted at the Unity School of Christianity. Since then she has been a minister in both Florida and California and here, in Kansas City at Unity Village, since 1997.
Her usual day as senior minister at the Unity Village Church at Unity World Headquarters is filled meeting with staff, making pastoral calls, creating exciting Sunday services, planning classes and curricula, working with one of the ten teams of the church (liturgy team, hospitality team, etc), and preaching on Sundays. She loves being a minister because it keeps her developing her relationship with God and because she is able to inspire others to “develop a relationship with God that impacts all of their relationships in life.”
Her first book ADVENTURES IN PRAYER: Praying Your Way to a God You Can Trust, was seven years in the making and just came out this September from Bantam Publishers. Sharon believes that prayer is the connecting link with the Divine and the infinite resources of the Divine. “Prayer gives us resources for every arena and every circumstance, resources beyond what we of ourselves can do.” She also thinks that one of the biggest misconceptions about prayer is that there is an absolute way to pray.
Sharon is now working on a second book about miracles. Besides ministerial work and writing, Sharon is passionate about dancing, rollerblading, tennis, golf, music (she “tinkers” with the piano), concerts, and the symphony. She also loves beautiful things like certain architecture, designs, and flowers. Sharon has raised two children, has three grandsons, and a kitty named Munchie.
Unity was founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in the late 19th century. Myrtle was told that she had six months left to live on account of her tuberculosis, so she began to search and pray seriously. She was healed. Her husband Charles was watching her progress and began his own healing prayer work. He had a clubfoot, but by praying his leg began to grow until he no longer needed a lift in one shoe. People heard about the couple and began to form prayer groups in their homes. The groups spread and grew until now there are over 1000 churches worldwide, a prayer ministry, publication ministry, and the 1400-acre Unity Village. All of this originated on Tracy Street in Kansas City.
Unity is divided into two parts: Unity and the Association of Unity Churches. Both are governed by a separate CEO, board of trustees, and leadership team. Sharon likes working at the world headquarters because it has a global reach and because people come there from all over the world.
The Unity faith has a “metaphysical” interpretation of the Bible. This is not to be confused with a philosophical type of metaphysics that you find in, say, Kant or Hegel. For example, in her “metaphysical” interpretation of the Bible, wine symbolizes the “vitality that forms the connecting link between body and soul” (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, Charles Fillmore Reference Library, Unity Publishers, Kansas City). Sharon thinks that Jesus was not a “great exception but a great example.” Everyone and everything is a creation of the Divine and all have a divine spark. She believes that Jesus maximized his spark. Sharon does not think that evil exists except as an absence of God; Satan is only a state of mind. Nor does Sharon believe Heaven and Hell are physical places but rather states of consciousness. She does believe that the soul is eternal. For her, the Resurrection happens over and over. People are born anew as “dead states of thinking and consciousness” are replaced with new thinking and life. Sharon believes that knowing Greek and Hebrew are central to Biblical education and necessary for “in depth” interpretation; however, Unity does not train its ministers in these languages nor are they required to learn them. Sharon prefers the Revised Standard edition of the Bible.
Sharon thinks that Interfaith work is important in “bridging
differences.” She believes that by discovering similarities people
can create world peace. Sharon strives to understand other people within
herself and to promote understanding amongst others. As a minister she
promotes interfaith understanding by offering a 60-day season for nonviolence
celebrating Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi and bringing speakers like
Vern Barnet to present world religions. Sharon, the official Unity observer
on the Kansas City Interfaith Council, would like to see the Council do
more educating within area churches. She would also like to celebrate holidays
from others faiths within her own church.
The Rev Grant McMurray
Forget the joke about the Vatican cardinal delivering good news and bad news to the Pope. The good news: Jesus has returned. The bad news: He’s in Independence.
The arrival of Jesus on earth for the second time probably won’t take place in Independence, home of the Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At least W Grant McMurray, Community of Christ President, said he could not imagine it happening there. It is a common misconception that the church holds such a belief, he said.
Frequently McMurray must spend time explaining what his church is not before talking about what it is. It is not a Mormon church and hasn’t been since it broke with the Mormons in 1844. It has no secret rituals. Its temples and services are open to the public. It has a far greater affinity with Christian Protestantism than Mormonism. It does not proclaim itself as the one true church or the only source of salvation.
“It’s not my job to worry about salvation,” McMurray said. “I believe in a just and loving God, and the pathway to salvation is a personal choice. My job is to preach the Gospel and live the Gospel and invite people to participate, but without judgment on other churches.”
McMurray patiently relates the church’s early story as
though telling it for the first time. The Community of Christ shares its
first 14 years of persecuted, violent history with the Mormons. They were
driven out of Jackson County into northern Missouri in 1833. Later, the
governor of Missouri issued an extermination order against them. They settled
in Iowa and Illinois. Along the way, the movement’s leaders were beaten,
its buildings burned and its founder assassinated.
Internal conflict mainly over the practice of polygamy led to the split. Monogamous communities did not follow the Mormons on their trek to Utah. They reorganized and settled in Independence.
Here is McMurray’s nutshell summation of what the Community of Christ stands for today: “We proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities in joy, hope, love and peace.”
So the church born in conflict and violence now embraces the qualities of peace and reconciliation. Its new World Headquarters Temple was dedicated in 1994 to the pursuit of peace. McMurray said former church President Wallace B Smith’s call for a mission of peace and reconciliation turned the movement’s self-identification and self-consciousness upside down. The church evolved from an exclusive sectarian movement in its early days to one embracing an inclusive, global community.
McMurray’s role since he took over the presidency in 1996, as the first non-Smith family member to do so, has been to guide a global church with 250,000 members in 50 nations along a pathway of peace. That is not an easy task when the church’s diverse membership includes those with opposing viewpoints on a variety of subjects.
Take homosexuality, for instance. Two years ago McMurray asked the church to participate in a loving, respectful dialogue on the issue. That created a firestorm of controversy among some members who felt there was nothing to discuss. At this year’s world conference, McMurray successfully called for continued dialogue in small groups led by trained facilitators experienced in the skills of conflict resolution. The goal is not to convert anyone to another point of view but to achieve understanding, he said. “Our hope is that we can avoid the terrible conflict that other religious denominations have had over this issue,” he said.
On other matters, such as actual warfare with bombs and bullets, the church is still feeling its way, McMurray said. The church has no tradition of pacifism. The convictions of its members range from the embrace of pacifism to those serving honorably in the military. The church has not taken a position on the war in Iraq. It urges prayer for those in harm’s way and prayers for peace.
Yet McMurray said the church continues to search for answers to the question, “If we really believe we are dedicated to the pursuit of peace, what does that mean for us in this time?” He finds the challenge of that process energizing.
Following the path of peace, he said, sometimes involves calling attention to the offensive practices of other faiths. Christian denominations that preach a divisive gospel that denies the worth of some persons damage the culture, he said.
“I just think the whole focus of the religious right that marries a certain political philosophy with ‘true’ religion is very damaging. . . . This is a time when faiths need to find common principles that we can affirm together. Otherwise, we run the risk of terrible religious and ethnic conflict on a global scale. It’s very frightening to ponder and we can see it happening.”
Yet McMurray was amazed by the interfaith progress made in the Kansas City area under the leadership of the Interfaith Council. He said he dreams of what could happen if all major faith movements spoke with a united voice on a single controversial issue.
Despite the strides in interfaith relations here, McMurray said he was frustrated by the lack of financial support for the Interfaith Council’s work and the resulting cutbacks.
As the son of an alcoholic father, McMurray knows about conflict personally. He did not see his father at all from age 11 until age 35. “The ghost of my father has danced through my life over the years,” he said.
McMurray attributes his sensitivity to the pain of others and his yearning for wholeness to his experiences of family brokenness. And his father was a minister in the church for several years until overcome by alcoholism. McMurray said he still receives comments from members of his father’s former congregation about the positive impact the minister had on their lives. “My sense of connection to that story, which was so broken, I know has had an impact on me.”
McMurray said his cornerstone belief is that every moment of life’s journey is sacred. God is present in each moment and each personal encounter. Becoming aware of the sacredness of the present moment deepens one’s understanding of the Divine.
“If you aren’t looking, you can miss it completely,” he said, adding that such awareness, “affects how you relate to others, affects the kind of person you are and the kind of world you want to see.”
Past experiences, both pleasant and painful, are not lost, he said. It is possible to go back and tap them for meaning. When doing so, it is helpful to realize that the manifestations of God often arrive as a still, small voice during the most ordinary moments of life. He said his most enduring insights have arrived while doing such things as sitting by a lake, reading a book or listening to music.
McMurray, a native of Toronto, Canada, in 1969 earned his bachelor’s degree in religion from Graceland College, Lamoni, Iowa. He earned his master’s of divinity at the Saint Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, in 1975. The church has employed him since 1971.
His interests in politics, government, contemporary culture,
computer technologies, and communications reflect his youthful ambition
of becoming a journalist. Instead, his son, Jeff, became the journalist,
currently for the Associated Press in Washington, DC. His other son, Brian,
works in the field of video and computer technology for Opus Communications
in Kansas City. McMurray’s wife, Joyce Lynette McMurray, is a library-media
specialist for the Fort Osage School District.
The Rev David Nelson, DMn
David Nelson was born in Algona, IA in 1945. At that time, the town was the home for German prisoner-of-war camps. Because many American men were fighting in Europe, the German prisoners helped out on the neighboring farms and factories. David loves good stories and learned these details from his father who was on good terms with several of the prisoners (David was too young to remember this himself). His family later moved to Holdredge, NE where his father served as a Lutheran pastor. The Nelson family then moved to Boone, IA and then to southern California where David went to high school.
He went to Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS, majoring in political science and history — two areas where he still has a lot of interest. During the summers, David went back to California where he worked in a wood supply store. He made enough money doing this to pay for his schooling and lodging over the entire winter.
David graduated in 1967, a time of great civil unrest. JFK and Martin Luther King Jr had both been assassinated, people were fighting for racial justice, and the Vietnam War was in full swing. David knew that he could not serve in the war with a clear conscience; he felt the need to stop the war. During seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, David helped to set up a boycott of the Museum of Science and Industry where there was an interactive display that encouraged violence by allowing kids to shoot Viet Cong from an Apache helicopter. After several days of protesting, the museum finally toned down the exhibit.
Also in 1967, David married Ann Sandberg. They have three children and two grandchildren. Lars lives in Bozeman, MT. Lucia has two children and lives with her husband in Lyons, KS. Molly died when she was just a year old.
After seminary David served in a small rural parish, Andover Lutheran Church, near Windom, KS. He next served as pastor at Peace Lutheran in Manhattan, KS, and then as senior pastor at Saint James in Kansas City. He has also served on the adjunct faculty for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in its Doctor of Ministry program.
David describes himself “as an avid reader.” He reads everyday, keeping several books going at once. David loves fiction but often finds himself buried deep in nonfiction researching one of his many interests. Currently, he is studying brain development and emotional intelligence. Although his formal education ended with his doctorate, David continues to teach himself new things. “Everything is education,” he says, from books, to magazines and newspapers, talking to friends, attending workshops, walking in nature, or on the sidewalk.
David also likes to write. For the past thirty years he has been keeping an elaborate journal filled with drawings and photographs. He also writes charming stories which Many Paths has occaisionally published.
David usually begins his day very early, around 5 am. He then likes to sit in silence “rather Buddhist-like.” Next he keeps a correspondence with his many friends through email. David is the founder of The Human Agenda, which provides resources and coaching for people and organizations to claim their full human potential. This keeps him busy during the day motivationally speaking , consulting, and serving as an Appreciate Inquiry Coach. His work often involves a lot of travel which gives David even more opportunities for learning. Since 1995, David has served as Associate Minister for CRES and helps in its educational, ceremonial, and networking services to the community. For two years he was the coordinator of the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group.
David also provides services to the Leaven-worth Prison, where he instructs inmates on Hinduism and Buddhism. In the evenings, David likes to have a social hour in the garden room with his wife, a public school teacher. Together they share the events of day and the things that brought each of them laughter or tears. Whenever he gets a chance, David loves to go hammocking. He does this even in the winter, wrapping himself up like a caterpillar with a blanket for a cocoon. David is also a skilled and active tennis player.
For many years David read the New Revised Standard Bible everyday. He thinks that studying the church fathers is excellent religious training and helps one to learn more about Christianity. David has studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and considers these languages to be both beneficial and important for understanding the Bible. David still worships at a Lutheran church, but instead of reading only the Bible, he reads the sacred scriptures of other faiths.
David does not believe God inflicts evil on people. Earthquakes and tornadoes are just a part of nature. If people build their houses where these phenomena strike, it is not the fault of a malicious god, but of poor human foresight. David thinks that there is something good in every human being. People sometimes do evil actions to others because they are hurt themselves. The evil that hurts David the most is that which is done in the name of God. One of the most rewarding things for David about being a minister is seeing peoples’ hurt reclaimed to a loving nature.
David says that “birth and death are bookends.” After death, the body goes back into the earth. He is intrigued by notions of resurrection and reincarnation, and has a longing to know that his love and existence will remain a part of the community; however, he is not convinced as to how this will happen. He wants to reach as close to heaven as possible while on earth, and to do many good works of lasting impact. He thinks that if he does this, and lives with hope, then, when he takes his last breath, he will not be panicky, because somehow he will be received.
David has been active in the men’s movement, and on gender and sexual orientation concerns. He says: “My gay and lesbian friends tell me that they never made a choice.” He does not know all the reasons why some people are gay and others not, but he does know that we are sexual beings. Our culture has made it difficult for people of different orientations and creeds. David thinks that we should bring justice and equal rights to all. He is in favor of blessing gay unions and would like to see the religious community be more open to this as well. In the Lutheran Church, the clergy must either be celibate or married to a member of the opposite sex. David is concerned that if there is a vote to allow for gay clergy then the Church might split as the Episcopalian Church has.
David served as the first Protestant member of the Interfaith Council before later becoming its chair. Interfaith work is important “because we live in the world.” People are just like the birds in air or the flowers or plants on the ground: we live in a wonderfully diverse world. The many families of faith help to keep life full and wholesome; plurality enriches people’s lives. David thinks that limiting one’s hymns and rituals to only one faith tradition is like having the same food on one’s plate day after day. David loves Kansas City because it is cosmopolitan, and because it is the most welcoming community in the world of faith.
There is still room for growth. David would love to see
the Gifts of Pluralism Conference become an annual or semiannual event.
He would like to see mosques, synagogues, temples, and churches work to
make an impact on the community for understanding and compassion beyond
tolerance. He would like to see Baptist ministers embrace Buddhist priests,
Islamic and Jewish leaders celebrate such diversity and not see it as a
threat. David believes that the Kansas City Interfaith Council can bring
Uma (Linda Prugh)
Linda Prugh was born and raised in Kansas City. She went to UMKC where she majored in English. Since then she has served our community as a freshman English teacher, later going back to school for her MA in reading education. She currently works for a market research company.
Uma is often published in the leading journals of her faith tradition. Most recently her article, ‘The Role of Devotees in Promoting Non-Violence,’ was printed in The Vedanta Kesari (Dec 04).
In 1836 Sri Ramakrishna was born in India. He wanted to test the ancient declaration of the Rig Veda: “Truth is One. Sages call It by various names.” Sri Ramakrishna practiced the spiritual disciplines of the various sects of Hinduism, and found that each one led towards the same God-realization. Then he meditated for three days on Christianity, then on Islam. These too he believed led to the same direct experience of the one God of the universe. This led him to declare: “As many faiths, so many paths.” One of his disciples, Swami Vivekananda, founded the first Vedanta Society in the United States in 1894. Swami Vivekananda is one of Uma’s great heroes because he brought out Sri Ramakrishna’s ideas of serving God through other people. She also admires him because he persevered with humility when many people, both in the East and the West, slandered him. Another of Uma’s heroes is Winston Churchill, who also believed in himself “and his destiny even when his warnings that war was eminent went unheeded by His Majesty’s Government, and he was treated like a pariah.”
Uma loves being a member of the Vedanta Society because Vedanta is not confined to any religion. She says that Vedanta encourages people to deepen and strengthen their own faith tradition but not abandon it. Uma and her husband, an attorney, also attend Methodist Services.
Uma is very passionate about Vedanta. Her favorite hobby is reading Vedanta books and books about illumined souls. Uma has written a book herself. It is a biography of Josephine MacLeod, an American, who met Swami Vivekananda in New York City in 1895. Josephine MacLeod was so struck with him because everything he said she recognized as the "truth." She came from an affluent family and helped Swami Vivekanan-da introduce Vedanta to the West. Josephine MacLeod remained a Christian throughout her work with him, and served as a model for interfaith and inter-cultural relations by maintaining both Eastern and Western friends. Uma had a lot of fun reading through old letters and visiting the places where Josephine MacLeod and Swami Vivekananda went. Writing her 600-page book took Uma 9 years which Uma describes as “a very long time for one project.”
Uma has been to India twice. What impressed her the most was meeting some of the old monks of the Ramakrishna order. Many didn’t speak English, but Uma could “feel something genuine just sitting in their presence.” Speaking through a translator or to those who could speak English, Uma felt great admiration because their conversation was almost solely about God. One notices this similar feature about Uma.
Vedanta students are encouraged to establish a room or a corner of a room in their homes for the purpose of spiritual practice: prayer and meditation. Vedanta students remove their shoes before entering any worship room. This is a reminder that this room is special and should be kept as clean as possible and is a symbol of respect.
There are no strict doctrinal moral prohibitions in Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda taught that said that in order to know the basis of ethics, and to truly benefit the world, one must first know one’s true, divine Self (the Atman); then see that same divinity, that Pure Consciousness, pervading all beings and all things.
Uma thinks that she won’t know what happens after death until she experiences it, though she does think the idea of reincarnation makes sense. Vedanta places a large importance on experience. Members are encouraged not to believe things about God on faith alone, but to first experience any of the many manifestations of the Godhead. Uma says: “One’s experiences or realizations are their own proof.”
Uma believes strongly in interfaith work. The harmony of religions is one of the central tenets of Vedanta. She thinks that too often people tend to see only the differences between faiths and not the similarities. She feels that different faiths are necessary to meet various tendencies and tastes. Uma thinks that the Kansas City Interfaith Council is vital to promoting understanding between religions, and to making the community aware of the rich diversity of faiths that is available within its midst. Uma feels that the Gifts of Pluralism Conference was “extremely beneficial to the Kansas City community.” She hopes to see another conference take place in the near future. Uma also thinks that the Interfaith Council’s Speakers Bureau is very helpful to the community and would like to see it listed in the phone book. She would like to see a Christian Orthodox member on the Council.
Uma and her husband have one daughter who works in Chicago as an actress.