The Internet is shrinking the world every day, making beliefs from far-away corners of the globe available at just a touch. Guidelines for spiritual practices that used to be confined to one corner of the world can now be easily downloaded in seconds.
However, the recent death of the Rev. Oral Roberts has caused some to stop and think about what constitutes an authentic spiritual teacher.
Over six decades Roberts’ ministry drew both praise and criticism. Besides bringing Pentecostalism into the mainstream, Roberts was a seminal figure in launching Christianity as a multimedia phenomenon.
Throughout Northeast Mississippi people of faith differ slightly about what constitutes a spiritual leader, but their criteria center on a concern for humanity and leading by example.
Delores LaGrone of Tupelo has never had much use for televangelists. She sees them as people who are always taking, rather than giving.
“They take from people’s mentality, like a cult,” said LaGrone, whose father used to watch televangelists religiously. She saw it as a kind of cult of personality.
“The evangelists make it more about them than anything else – than about God.”
Authentic spiritual leaders, she believes, call forth the best qualities in those who follow them.
“They awaken what’s inside a person, equip them to reach their own capabilities,” said LaGrone.
She has a particular distaste for ministers who preach the “prosperity gospel,” meaning that God rewards his faithful servants with financial windfall.
“I don’t like to see ministers dressed to the nines,” she said.
“God wishes us all to be prosperous, but the older I get the more I realize I don’t need as much as I thought I did.”
Using the past
For Tiffany Neal, a spiritual leader is one who embraces his own faults and uses them to help transform the lives of others.
“We all feel so unworthy of God’s love,” said Neal, a member of Cedar Grove Pentecostal Church in Tupelo. “It’s hard to get past our past.”
Neal doesn’t drink alcohol, but she understands that her pastor, the Rev. Danny Robbins, has the ability to reach addicts because of his personal struggles with chemicals.
Robbins is the inmate chaplain for Lee County jails, and he counsels people wrestling with substance abuse every day.
“People are out there struggling and fighting for their lives – their souls,” said Neal. “Brother Robbins has genuine concern and compassion for people.”
The idea of a spiritual leader doesn’t mean much to those who consider all people to be on an equal spiritual footing.
That’s the case for Jim High, the organizer of the Tupelo group of the South Points Association for Exploring Religion.
SPAFER is a not-for-profit organization that meets each week to discuss topics that some consider outside the bounds of mainstream religion.
“I believe that all human beings are spiritual….because we all feel a connection to something that we can’t quite describe,” said High. “Being spiritual means feeling and understanding your connection to everything.”
For High, a spiritual leader is one who isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
“Spiritual leaders know how to help you realize and understand the connections between all things,” he said. “They are not concerned with a set of rules you must follow. They don’t try to build some type of organization or church.”
To some extent, Reformed Jews share High’s democratic view of spirituality. According to George Copen, debate and personal conviction are the central tenets of his spiritual life.
“You might have two or three teachers in the room and maybe six opinions,” said the member of Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo. “Many religious people are taught that they should look to clergy, but we’re taught that we can question a rabbi or teacher.”
“We’re always looking for answers. Many ministers say ‘Believe in me,’ but we have to ask is that just the polish on the crystal chandelier? We believe that we learn a little bit from everybody we meet.”
For Jimmy Young and his wife, Helen, a spiritual leader should be concerned with social justice.
“Jesus’ church was out in the community,” said Jimmy Young, a former school administrator and a deacon at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Tupelo.
For more than 40 years he and Helen have worked with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to help those who are less fortunate in their community.
Particularly within the black church, the Youngs feel that a spiritual leader should also be a social activist. “The old saying is that it takes a village to raise a child,” said Jimmy.
“A spiritual leader needs to be out among those who are considered tax collectors and Pharisees, people despised by the community.”
Interpret for today
Muslim fundamentalism got bad press in the last decade, and that’s why Ghassan Mahmoud believes that Muslim spiritual leaders have to be able to interpret ancient texts in light of contemporary circumstances.
“A true spiritual leader has to have knowledge of our holy book, the Koran, but also know how to interpret it today,” he said. “A prophet has nothing to fear but God himself.”
Life isn’t what it was in the 7th Century, when Islam began to take over Europe and Asia, and Mahmoud thinks concessions have to be made in all aspects of Muslim life.
“There were no banks when Muhammed lived,” said Mahmoud, adding that, as a devout Muslim, he accepts no interest on the money he deposits in a local bank. The bank, however, earns interest on his money.
Mahmoud also sells beer at his store, but Islam strictly prohibits the sale or consumption of alcohol.
“This is vital to my income. I am not skilled to do anything else,” he said.
Dr. Ahmed Galal, a Muslim professor at the University of Mississippi, shares Mahmoud’s belief that Muslim leaders have to be flexible.
“I disagree with the word ‘enemy,’” said Galal. “This is against tolerance.”
Wary of deceivers
Jan Goin of Lee Acres Church of Christ has a more conventional view of a spiritual leader, but she’s also wary of deceivers.
“David was a man after God’s own heart,” said Goin. “A true leader will demonstrate the fruits of the spirit in every aspect of his life.”
The late Rev. Jim Bakker, she believes, was not such a man.
“There was something in his movements that said ‘Look how great I am,’” said Goin, describing watching a TV program in the 1980s of Bakker walking over a plot of land that was to become Heritage USA.
“I believe those are the movements of Satan,” she said.
Like LaGrone, Goin believes a spiritual leader will “gently move a person to follow a path that leads to salvation, while continuing to love and care for that person no matter what their decisions are.”
Just as she believes she saw evil in Jim Bakker’s movements, she also sees good in people whose touch communicates authenticity and sincerity.
“Body language communicates so much,” she said. “Eye contact is important, people can be warmed by just a touch.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal