Years ago, as a newspaper editor in Cleveland, I led a lively meeting clarifying my reporters’ beats. Politics. Government. Business. Retail. Education. Youth. Finally, I asked: “Who will cover religion?” Not a soul spoke up.
Journalists are terrified of religion. They tiptoe around it as if it’s poison ivy. I find that curious. Religion is the gut of human existence. It’s the DNA of powerful stories.
This week, I wrote about Pastor John Gosswein, who will retire after his final sermon Sunday at Family of Christ Lutheran Church. He’s served there for 32 years. What a story.
We sat down at Barista’s for the interview two weeks ago in mid-afternoon. With sun beaming bright as God through the windows, he sipped steaming coffee and said, “I don’t know where to start.” “Just talk,” I said.
The words tumbled out. He’d felt pulled to the ministry since childhood, but five years after he earned his divinity degree, he still hadn’t been called to a church. He considered throwing in the towel. Then he took an unpaid job at a small church in Oklahoma and sensed, at last, stirrings of his ministry. He didn’t want to come to Kearney, but he came anyway. Here, his career flowered.
Calling, they all say. Ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis. They all use that word. Lay people do, too.
You Nebraskans talk so freely about God. When I moved here from Cleveland in 2012, you astonished me. People I interviewed told me God led them to their careers or spouses as casually as they’d mention dashing up to Casey’s for a gallon of milk. If they healed from disease or stumbled into the person they’d marry or found a rewarding job, they credited God.
If they hadn’t been cured, well, they found blessings in that, too. One afternoon I even interviewed a doctor who mentioned God. I still remember his name, his office, the setting. Back home in Cleveland, this was simply not done.
Maybe that’s because Greater Cleveland has such a thick vegetable soup of religions that we kept beliefs to ourselves out of respect for others. I was raised a Methodist, but we Protestants were a pitiful few compared to the thundering armies of Catholics. Cleveland’s eastern suburbs had vibrant Jewish congregations whose social efforts put us Christians to shame. There were a couple of Baha’i temples, prominent Unitarian and Unity congregations, and Islam places of worship in African-American communities.
Their stories — all of them — beg to be told. Not just the religious sparring, wee split-off sects, sex scandals, the effort by women to become Catholic priests, the ordination of gays and lesbians, abortion, but the quieter, human stories, too.
Back in New Mexico, a group of women met every couple of months for Saturday afternoon prayer and coffee. Our meeting place was a round yurt that belonged to an Islam family. We left our shoes outside. Inside, we sat down on Persian rugs. I could look up through the skylight at the blue sky above.
For the first 45 minutes, it was absolutely silent as we prayed. We were Protestant women, Catholic women, Jewish women and Muslim women, including a few from a tiny Shiite sect who lived hidden up in the mountains. Then spoken prayer began. The afternoon ended with pastries and tea. By then, barriers erased, we shared our personal stories.
At the nearby Monastery of Christ in the Desert, that Benedictine paradise perched deep in a canyon, I once asked one of the monks why he was there. He told me he was tired of life in dusty North Dakota, so he got in his car and simply started driving. Somehow he found his way on the 14-mile dirt road that slithers like a snake along a high canyon out to the monastery. He stayed. When I left New Mexico, he gave me a rosary that still hangs on my wall.
Another monk, Brother Andre, was visiting Christ in the Desert with a friend when rain washed away that canyon road. He was marooned there for three extra days. By the time the road dried, he realized he’d been called there. That was 30 years ago.
You Nebraskans have stories like that, too. I feel privileged to tell them.