The Magnolia State is fairly homogenous when it comes to religion. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, almost half of Mississippians belong to evangelical Protestant Christian churches, but Northeast Mississippi is also home to Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, as well as devotees of various other faiths.
Today, people throughout the South and around the world are recognizing the reality of religious pluralism, but they also hold to essential beliefs that make their particular religion – or denomination – their preferred choice.
Ask most religious people how they became a member of their faith and they’ll likely say it’s because they were born into it.
That was the case with Mieko Kikuchi, a native of Japan who practices a mixture of Buddhism and Shinto.
“Japanese culture is very homogeneous and it’s natural for us to practice our religion as a part of our daily lives,” said the Tupelo resident.
Ahmad Arar, a Muslim and native of Palestine, agreed. “It’s something that you feel deep in your heart and associate with your childhood,” he said.
Bob Schwartz, a member of Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo, said growing up Jewish in New York City had a profound effect on his life. “It’s very much a part of who I am. It shaped my outlook on morality and the way I treat other people,” he said.
Not everyone’s early experience with religion was positive, however.
“From my earliest days of having religious thoughts – about age 8 – I wasn’t satisfied with what I was being told … in church,” said Bob Spencer, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Tupelo.
Though he was “very moved by the words in the Bible that Jesus spoke,” Spencer eventually walked away from Christianity and began studying other faiths, like Judaism, Buddhism and Native American traditions.
Spencer’s experience reflects another finding of the Pew Forum’s “Faith in Flux Survey” conducted in 2007, that nearly half of Americans change their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised.
For some people the change is only temporary.
The Rev. Joel Strahan was raised in the Southern Baptist Church but after college he became disillusioned with Christianity. His life spiraled downward to the point where he found himself homeless on the streets of Shreveport, La.
After a lot of hungry days and soul searching, Strahan found his way back to his childhood faith and is now pastor of Ingram Baptist Church in Baldwyn. He said the journey still continues.
“I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life trying to sort through what is authentic and what is not about my faith,” said Strahan.
Being born into a faith introduces people to the world of religion, but the reasons they remain with a tradition, or change traditions, are usually deeper and more theological.
Arar remains a Muslim because Islam answers a basic question he believes is in everyone’s heart. “It teaches me that I was born for a reason, to serve God,” he said. “And, despite what many think of Islam, I believe God wants me to help bring peace to the world.”
Marguarite Henry, a member of First United Methodist Church in New Albany, has remained a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church because of its openness and connectivity.
“I like the fact that our table is open to everybody and our ministers have to be responsible to a hierarchy as well as to the local church,” she said. “I like that we have the Methodist book of discipline and a worldwide body of believers.”
The Rev. Phil MacLean, minister at Lee Acres Church of Christ, takes comfort in his tradition’s “persistence of scriptural knowledge” and “rootedness in biblical teachings.”
Gina Thorderson, a member of the Tupelo Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also cited fidelity to biblical teachings as a reason why she remains Mormon. The LDS Church, she said, also addresses contemporary challenges like no other faith.
“The Bible clearly has a lot to say, but it doesn’t address things like rated R movies or texting, for example. That’s why we have a living prophet,” said Thorderson.
Some people, like Tupelo physician Dr. Jay Dey, remain devoted to their religion not because of any particular thing it stands for but because of a general openness that characterizes the faith and its devotees.
“I like the non-dogmatic character of Hinduism,” said Dey, a native of India. “Isolation is not a characteristic of the faith. It’s all-embracing and yet evangelism really isn’t part of it, either.”
Schwartz said the same of Judaism.
“I’m very happy to share my faith with others and to answer questions,” he said. “The division that exists between many religions is a created division, not an actual division.”
Spencer likes the fact that Unitarians “accept all life as sacred,” and believe that “all spirits have an inalienable right to seek their own relationship with the great mystery.”
If pressed, most people can name something good and noble in a religion other than their own. However, most of the major world religions deal with eternal salvation, and that can be a very different matter.
Strahan of Ingram Baptist said during his time away from Christianity he got addicted to sensual pleasures, like alcohol and pornography, and he searched desperately for meaning in life. He studied other faiths and genuinely tried to find truth in them. At the end of his long road, he decided that Christianity was the one, true path.
“The Bible recounts some hard, ugly things,” he said. “It doesn’t hide the honesty, the struggles of life.”
MacLean’s Church of Christ takes a lot of criticism for what some see as its exclusivist theology. He’d like to see his church involved in more ecumenical efforts and taking a proactive role in building the body of Christ.
“All churches – all of us – tend to cast ourselves in the role of Jesus and cast others in the role of Pharisees,” he said.
In a survey conducted last year The Pew Forum found that 52 percent of American Christians think that some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.
Henry of New Albany First Methodist is among them. After 81 years she’s come to a conclusion.
“God has some sort of plan for everybody,” she said. “To say that Jews and Muslims are going to hell, I can’t do that. That’s not my place or my faith. I wonder at the harm that’s been done by those of us who are so quick to condemn others.”
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal