Woog's World / Blessed are those not labeled by faith
Published 7:21 am, Thursday, February 23, 2012
In some parts of the country, religion is the most defining aspect of life. Political candidates are judged on their "Christian values." High school football teams pray before games; God is invoked at graduation ceremonies. Sunday morning -- for this is the religion that counts, not the one that worships on Friday night or five times a day -- is sacrosanct.
In this part of the nation, not so much. Though the New England colonies were founded by religious sects, in the centuries since, religion has ceased to be the one driving force in our region's life.
Which is not to say it is not important.
As several recent incidents make clear, religion remains alive and well in Westport. It fills a strong role in many Westporters' lives. And what happens in one church or synagogue can have repercussions all across town.
On the Sunday night before Thanksgiving, the Saugatuck Congregational Church was heavily damaged by fire. Before the smoke had cleared, other institutions had offered help. Religious classes were relocated to Temple Israel. Thanksgiving and Christmas meals -- each serving hundreds of people -- were held in Christ and Holy Trinity Church's handsome new meeting center.
At a service on the lawn of the Saugatuck Church ---- with the gutted church standing a few yards away -- clergymen and women from all around town spoke movingly of the strength of the devastated but spirited congregation.
Saugatuck Church has long been in the forefront of civic life. It was home to scores of 12-step meetings each week, serving people of all faiths. It's hosted a "Festival of Flags" that honored soldiers serving overseas, at the same time drawing attention to the human cost of war. When Westport celebrated the 175th anniversary of our founding, part of the ceremony took place in the church's pews. (That's where town leaders met back in 1835.)
But the Saugatuck Congregational Church is not alone in reaching beyond its doors, in a welcoming -- not proselytizing -- way.
Every year at Thanksgiving, the Conservative Synagogue sells pies as a fundraiser for Homes With Hope. Westporters of all religions -- and none at all -- flock to the temple parking lot, eager to support a great cause.
Christ and Holy Trinity Church offers its new space -- the one used for Saugatuck Church's annual holiday meals -- to Westport groups of all stripes. It's bright and airy -- just the kind of place conducive to drawing people together.
Green's Farms Congregational Church took a turn in the Westport spotlight last year -- its 300th, as it was founded in 1711. That's a spectacular accomplishment. So is the fact that over three centuries, as the church moved away from its early role as the locus of civic life (its original meetinghouse, near the site of the current Sherwood Island Connector commuter parking lot, was where Green's Farms first developed its own identity apart from Fairfield), it has continued to serve all citizens in many ways.
The number of graduates of its superb nursery school -- many of them unaffiliated with the church -- must be in the thousands. Green's Farms Church is a consistent supporter of programs fighting domestic abuse, and other important issues.
The Unitarian Church may be tucked away in the northern reaches of town, but the congregation in the woods has long been a leader in the fight for social justice.
For decades, Westport has benefited from a strong Interfaith Council. Religious leaders from nearly every institution in town meet regularly. They don't always agree -- but they do manage to speak with a united voice on matters of the heart, when it matters most.
The Interfaith Council sponsored last month's inspiring Martin Luther King Day ceremony. And it was the Interfaith Council that, two years ago, brought the "Interfaith Amigos" -- a pastor, a rabbi and an imam -- to town for a discussion that was both entertaining and educational.
What Westport's religious leaders do for the town -- for all citizens, not just those who are congregants in their own buildings -- is impressive. Just as meaningful, though, is what they don't do.
They don't thrust themselves into "culture wars." They don't scare their parishioners from the pulpit. They surely have a variety of views on divisive issues -- abortion, say, or same-sex marriage or immigration -- but they don't urge the men, women and children in their pews to man the battle stations. They preach wisdom, understanding, thoughtfulness, and -- yes -- love.
In this election cycle, we hear a lot about religion. Candidates invoke their church's "stance" on so many topics -- some of them important, others seemingly created simply to create controversy. Candidates (and their surrogates) disparage non-believers, sow doubts about other religions, even whisper (or fail to condemn) the rumor that our president is not really "a Christian."
Those conversations are almost entirely absent from Westport life. And for that, we must surely thank god. Or anyone else we want.