The world seems to be in flux and the U.S. is leading the charge. As Americans face changing attitudes, some focused on pushing progress forward while others are looking back at the past for the future, Ventura County’s spiritual leaders have a lot to say. This week, we explore the spiritual realm in a state of uncertainty.
Jim Duran is the Lead Pastor of The River Community Church (TRC) in downtown Ventura. In January of 2004, he and his wife, Pam, and 12 other friends started a Bible study in Duran’s sister’s condominium on Stillwater Court in Ventura. Today the church is located on the corner of Kalorama and Santa Clara Streets with a congregation of 300 people that serves over 1,800 people a month in different ministries. Duran was raised a Roman Catholic but had walked away from the faith. In 1992, he was at a nondenominational service in Portland, Oregon, when he made a decision for Christ. In October 2002, the Lord delivered Duran from a seven-year drug addiction, and then a month later He brought Duran’s dead 3-year-old son back to life after drowning. He was sold out for Jesus and answered his calling to serve Him in whatever capacity He wanted.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn serves as the newly settled minister of the Conejo Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Before that she served as consulting minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City, as well as the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica. She received her Masters of Divinity degree from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. From the moment she discovered Unitarian Universalism, Eaton-Guinn felt an unrelenting call to ministry. To explore this call more deeply before becoming a minister, Eaton-Guinn worked as membership coordinator at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. Her previous careers in the arts, in management and the caring professions, were all excellent preparation for the varied and profound work of ministry. Raised in Germany and England before attending Princeton University, Eaton-Guinn has now lived in the Central Coast area for 15 years, with her husband and 12-year-old son.
Father Tom Elewaut, 62, was ordained to the priesthood in 1986. He earned his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts/mathematics; a master’s at CSU, Long Beach, in education/administration; Master of Divinity at Cal Poly SLO; and attended St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. He has 30 years’ experience in secondary education ministry and 20 years as a principal in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara. He has been the past of Mission San Buenaventura (Roman Catholic) since 2011.
The Mission has a weekly mass attendance of approximately 1,800 with 2,600 registered parishioners (even mix of Hispanic and Anglos) with ages from birth to 96.
Rev. Pam Geagan, an ordained Religious Science minster and has served at Center for Spiritual Living in Camarillo for over 13 years. CSL, Pleasant Valley, is a transdenominational community that studies and practices Science of Mind principles. CSLPV supports outreach programs for individuals, organizations in the community and worldwide.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller is in her 20th year serving Temple Beth Torah, an active congregation of about 335 families that is affiliated with Reform Judaism. Temple Beth Torah has been in Ventura for 78 years and has a thriving religious school for Jewish and interfaith families, adult programs, Shabbat worship, a busy Social Action Committee devoted to helping the homeless, and hosts the Ventura County Jewish Film Festival each spring. Rabbi Lisa was ordained 25 years ago at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Imam Ahmed Patel was born in India and moved to the United States at the age of 13 in 1982. In 1983, he left for England for higher Islamic studies, and during this time he memorized the entire Quran in the Arabic language (denoting him the title of hafidh), studied the explanations of the Quran, the Hadiths (teachings) of the Prophet Mohammed, and jurisprudence. He graduated in 1993 with a master’s in Islamic theology and then returned to Garden Grove, California, where his family lived. In 1984, he moved to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where he was the imam, or religious leader, for that community until May 2004. In May 2004 he moved back to California and has been the imam of the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley since then.
He married in 1984 and has four children. He has visited 80 different religious institutions, schools, universities, radio and TV stations to answer questions about Islam. Imam Ahmed is an active member in the local Interfaith Community and strongly believes in the vision of bringing all communities to the harmonious faith of humanity.
How have you seen your church and your congregation change with regard to traditional cultural practices and views, such as abstinence before marriage, divorce, gay marriage?
Pastor Jim Duran: The River Community Church started as a Bible study in 2004 and our main focus was to reach people who knew God but did not really have a relationship or understanding of how great God really is. As I was growing up, I viewed God as this person who was always watching me; and if I messed up, I was going to be punished. I used to believe that God had all these rules that we had to obey, and if we didn’t, we would be in big trouble. How is that living free when I have all these rules to obey? What I learned on my journey was that the rules were created to protect us so we could live a life of freedom. For example, I work with transitional living homes in Ventura. A high percentage of babies are born out of wedlock-sex before marriage; so, who ends up suffering? The baby, the mother, the grandparents. They all do. Should the 14-year old girl have waited until marriage before having sex?
TRC is a group of people who extend grace. We read and teach out of the Bible but not everyone does everything the Bible says. As Christians, we are all on our own individual journeys with Christ. I was a drug addict for seven years while I went to church, served on the Church Council and taught adult Sunday school. I knew what the Bible said, but I didn’t do as I should. It wasn’t until one day when I had enough of that life style that I got on my hands and knees and prayed to God to deliver me from this addiction. Within 48 hours I was delivered and have never gone back to that lifestyle. And what I can tell you is that God healed me, and I have chosen to stay the course. But it didn’t matter how many people tried to talk me out of sinning (doing drugs); I finally had to come to that place on my own. And it was at that time that my life completely changed. What I have learned is that everything I have read in the Bible is for my benefit — to live a healthy and prosperous life; a life filled with joy, peace and happiness. So, why wouldn’t I want to follow those rules?
Our responsibility at TRC is to teach the truths of the Bible, all of them. But the reason I teach them is because I want people to live the fullness of life that God intended for us. When a person walks into our church, they are not labeled by their lifestyle, ethnicity, social economic status or by the clothes they are wearing. They are people, human beings, and our job is not to change them. Our responsibility is to love them, coach them and walk with them on their spiritual journey. The Holy Spirit is the one who does the changing, the transforming and the restoration. We are accepting of everyone, and the way they live is between them and God.
That’s how we have been since 2004: loving people in spite of themselves and walking with them through life. Sure, people come and go all the time for a variety of different reasons, but they are not leaving because we changed our belief system, because that is something we have not changed.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: We became a Welcoming Congregation in 2004.The conversations started then and The Rev. Betty was preaching on same-sex marriage. By 2008 we became ground zero for the “No on 8” campaign, with phonebanks and community organizing. Other churches joined us. We were the East County organizers for “No on 8.”
Father Tom Elewaut: People of faith are also conditioned, in part, by society while striving for a greater good in response to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. While some couples preparing for marriage live apart and strive for abstinence, I have found that about half cohabitate and do not abstain from sexual relations prior to marriage. While divorce is less frequent among churchgoers, and especially if the family prays together at home, there is a rate of divorce that is less than the societal norm.
Some parishioners leave the church after divorce, feeling that they are unable to participate at Mass, which is false. Some even think that they cannot receive communion due to divorce, false again unless they are cohabitating with a new partner not sanctioned by marriage in the Catholic Church.
I have seen a limited few walk out on a homily (sermon) on rare occasion, particularly when I address a specific moral issue. Some practicing Catholics migrate from one parish to another local parish for personal reasons. While church teaching or views are mostly constant, the approach to forgiveness and conversion has been stressed more positively in recent years, particularly with our present Pope Francis, stressing God’s mercy and love and forgiveness in renewed emphasis, which has brought some faith back to the Church.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: Centers for Spiritual Living are and have remained inclusive. We believe in the eternal goodness, the eternal loving-kindness and the eternal givingness of LIFE to all. We honor all faiths (One Source, many paths), races, cultures, sexual orientations, same-sex marriages and the freedom to choose our own destiny.
We teach compassion and believe there is an infinite, eternal golden thread that runs through every religion in the world. It runs through the lives and the teachings of all the prophets, seers, sages and saviors in the world’s history. I call this thread Unconditional Love.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: Reform Jews, like most liberal Jews, tend to hold liberal social values. The prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures is deeply woven into Jewish mindset and behavior, so even if a Jewish person couldn’t trace their commitment to justice and righteousness back to Jewish texts, it emanates from that place. As a minority, our concern for the well-being and equality of others comes from our own personal history of mistreatment and anti-Semitism. Jews have been activists in the most current social issues — a woman’s right to choose about her own body, health and pregnancy; equality for gay men and women in marriage and employment (which is still not assured in all states). We have a long history of concern for immigrants, and for basic human rights such as health care. If anything, our members have become more active around issues of helping the homeless and less fortunate in Ventura. Having said that, I do think that Jews, like all others, are affected by the atmosphere in our country, which makes it harder to have truthful, open and respectful dialogue regarding all of these issues. I think there is less tolerance for those holding various opinions, and constructive conversation is much harder these days.
Imam Ahmed Patel: Islam as a religion does not allow some of these practices mentioned such as gay marriage. The Islamic Center must adhere to those values and we have no way of changing those values because they are the laws of Allah. We have not seen an obvious shift related to some of these practices as a community; however, there could be some private matters that we are not aware of. Some people do bring their cultural practices back with them but that culture does not affect their practices here. Many people came to America many years ago and have adopted the American way of living while staying true to their faith.
Tell us about recent converts and/or new members to your church and why they have come to it.
Pastor Jim Duran: There seem to be two types of new members. There is the new Christian: the one who just had a transformation occur in their life, and what they are looking for is an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. They are looking for a place that will accept them for who they are as they begin their journey with Jesus. They are looking for a group of people who will guide and mentor them and allow them to make mistakes. They are not looking for religion or for rituals — they are looking for answers regarding their faith.
The other type of member is the consumer Christian — the one who becomes a member because a particular “church” meets their needs. The challenge is, when a new “church” comes into town with the new bells and whistles, the consumer will leave their current church to see what the new church has to offer. When they realize the new church can meet some of the needs their old church could not, they jump ship. The consumer Christian has the “all about me” mentality, and they will leave when the next newer, better place comes into town.
The Bible teaches us to find a place of fellowship and to share life with one another. That means to build authentic relationships by serving one another. When a disgruntled Christian comes to The River and complains about their previous church, I direct them back to their former pastor. Biblically speaking, if we have issues with something or someone, we are supposed to go to the person who can make a change and discuss our concerns. Very rarely does this happen. Often a person leaves a church only to take all their problems to the next church.
The reality is, there is mostly “transfer growth” in our churches today. Unfortunately, many new church plants focus on how to attract other Christians instead of focusing on how to reach the un-Christian. Transfer growth is not growth at all; it is just people moving from one building to another, again and again and again.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: People come to us because we are the liberal bastion in the area and we are very accepting of diversity, and inclusive. We also draw families with young children who want their kids raised with open minds and to learn UU values.
Father Tom Elewaut: They want “community,” seeking friendships to share their faith with but also to share their troubles and life experiences with. Not just Mass attendance or Bible study groups or the like. The Eucharist is what is most often mentioned as what is missing in other religions. People are looking for a “welcoming” environment, which in turn supports involvement in more than one ministry, which makes for more friendships and spiritual growth.
They are looking for people who are Christ, who love because they “know God,” who don’t drive them away with rules, regulations and I-am-better-than-thou attitudes. Someone who acknowledges their differentness and still will welcome them and love them.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: Our congregation has changed significantly throughout the years. New members, mainly, are now looking for inclusion in a spiritual family along with learning spiritual tools on how to live happier, more fulfilled lives, through personally connecting with the Divine. They also want to serve, in greater ways, in the community.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: A synagogue is unique in that people join our congregation looking for a place to meet other Jews or interfaith families. They are looking for a community to be in, or to raise their children in, where there are shared values, and where they can learn about and celebrate Jewish holidays, life cycle events and find a comfortable prayer community.
Imam Ahmed Patel: They are coming to the Islamic center looking for answers that will give them peace, which they felt they were not able to find it in their church, synagogue or temple.
What are your thoughts on atheism and faithlessness?
Pastor Jim Duran: My heart breaks for those who deny the existence of God. At creation, God gave us free will, the choice to choose. Everyone on earth can choose to believe in God or not. When a person believes in God, we have hope for the future, life after death. When we choose God, we believe that when our bodies die, our spirits go to heaven and we live eternity with God in heaven. The Bible says we have a new body and there is no more pain and suffering. How awesome!
But the atheist believes this world is it. When we die, it’s all over. There is no hope for the future. It’s surprising to me how many atheists I know who have great attitudes, kind hearts and are caring individuals. Quite frankly, this baffles me because if this world is it, and there is no heaven or hell, why not live for the moment and take whatever you want whenever you want? If an atheist subscribes to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which endorses “survival of the fittest,” then why would an atheist ever help anyone else? By helping another individual would mean that you are helping a weaker creature who will eventually die anyway because only the strong survive according to that theory.
The bottom line is we have two choices: We can believe that we have been created by a Creator or that we have evolved from a rock. I subscribe to the premise that God created each of us individually for a purpose, that our life has meaning, not just in this world but in the life everlasting.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: We are welcoming to atheists, humanists and theists alike. We have a humanist group that meets here who are both members of our community and others. Our church has the philosophy that “We need not think alike to love alike.” We are focused on our seven UU principles, based in love, acceptance and justice.
Father Tom Elewaut: There is so much violence in the world … I think people just don’t believe there is a God. Of course there has always been violence, beginning with Cain and Abel, but it wasn’t broadcast play by play all over the world … just one thing after another.
I don’t understand how they cannot grasp that God doesn’t exist. I was brought up in a time when almost all of us believed in God, whether Catholic or another denomination. I think so many people are into this new age, big bang stuff that they are looking for anything that denies God exists, I also blame it on parents, who even though they were raised as Christians, just stopped praying and never taught their children to pray. They are so busy with providing material love that they neglected to teach their children God’s love; therefore, when the children become young adults, they are easily swayed into an atheist mind set.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: The internet, questioning minds and more open hearts have led to a greater understanding of how science and mysticism are one. There is a conscious awakening of seeing ourselves as part of the oneness of everything rather than separate from it.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: I am deeply bothered by atheism because I think most people really are spiritual and really are open to an intelligent, meaningful relationship with something that is sacred. I think many people may be rejecting how organized religion portrays God, rather than really rejecting what God can be in their lives. When we anthropomorphize God and talk about God in a one-size-fits-all fashion, we turn off many who might otherwise be willing to explore the still, small voice within.
Faithlessness is such a sad word — how sad to try to make it through the emotional and physical challenges of life without having a Source of strength to have faith in.
Imam Ahmed Patel: A Muslim is a person that submits to the will of Allah, and that means that Allah has to tell us how to live our lives, which is detailed in the Quran and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Atheism takes a person away from his or her belief in Allah and we do not recommend that anyone turn away from his or her faith. We are seeing some Muslims turning to atheism but not in our immediate community; although it is not a common trend, it is there whereas it was not as prevalent in the past.
What are your thoughts on non-practicing members of your congregation/church/mosque?
Pastor Jim Duran: Some fall away because they are tired of living by the rules. Some people fall away because they have grown up with their parents’ faith. They have come to the point where they are not sure if God exists for them. All their life they were forced to go to church while their home life looks just like everybody else’s home life. They have been told that Christians are different, and they will be known by their love, but in their very own home, there is not much love. So they begin to doubt. Faith is not about religion; it is about a relationship with Jesus Christ, and until one comes to that place where they recognize Jesus exists in a real and meaningful way, God is just a theory. Christianity is not easy, but it sure is rewarding. When one has a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit, there is no turning back.
Some people walk away from church fellowship because everything is not going their way. For some reason we have been taught, incorrectly I might add, that when you receive Jesus, all your problems go away. That could not be further from the truth. Yet, if one has this mentality, as soon as things don’t go their way, they get angry with God and they walk away from Him and the Church. As a Christian, you still have problems but you are taught to look at the problems differently. If we truly believe in God, then there is nothing that He can’t handle. That is called having faith and trusting in Him. Our problem as human beings is that we live in a microwave, fast-paced world, and we want results right now. When we don’t get what we want, we bail. I guess this explains why our divorce rate is so high: because when we don’t get what we want, we bail, even in a marriage.
Another reason attendance has fallen off is because there is so much competing with Sundays today — youth sports, marathons, camping, etc. Many people feel that they work hard all week and the weekends should be for whatever they want. It’s amazing how so many people can’t carve out two hours a week to worship and study God’s word. The reality is, they can, they just don’t want to because they do not see the value in it. We (Christians) need to do a better job showing others that there is value in coming together on a Sunday morning to worship God and study the Bible. There is great value in authentic relationships that can be cultivated during the week and then celebrated on Sunday, or whatever day a group of believers chooses to meet. It makes me sad to say that there are about 800,000 people in our county who do not attend church on a Sunday morning. A lot of this has to do with the fact that only 7 percent of Christians actually share their faith with another person. Attendance has dropped because we (Christians) have dropped the ball sharing our faith.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: People have less time for church and often have other commitments on Sunday mornings.
Father Tom Elewaut: I say, all are welcome and each of us has a responsibility to offer healing and welcoming to those who are not practicing the faith. We need to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others … and continue to extend an invitation to return. Like a family member who will not speak to another, no reconciliation will occur until both parties begin to communicate. Past systemic scandals in the Church and the way they were handled opened the doors for many to leave. Also, sometimes people feel unwelcome or look at a single event as a straw to break the camel’s back to leave. Sometimes I think expectations are so high that we forget that each of us is human and can make errors. We want and expect God’s forgiveness and mercy, but find it difficult to extend that same grace to others … and so the outcome is to leave.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: We hold, in consciousness anyone, practicing or not practicing spiritual integrity. I believe, eventually, we’re all going to reach enlightenment. On the road to nirvana we’re offered limitless opportunities to experience life at its highest … and at its lowest. How quickly we get there depends upon our choices, our exploration and exploitation of all that life offers. Some take the high road, and some take the low road, but eventually we all come back to Source.
Social media and television offer so many opportunities to connect, worldwide, to the wisest, most charismatic, Spiritual leaders. However, one of the greatest gifts belonging to a place of worship is the human spiritual connection.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: I think people are missing something so deeply fulfilling in their lives. I see people let virtual community replace human community — feeling that they are so busy they can’t possibly be involved with a congregation, which might ask them to give something more of themselves than they think they have the time for. We grow in the most unexpected and fulfilling ways when we connect to community and find that we are asked to give of ourselves. As Reform Jews, we get to blend traditional practices with new creativity, reaching for spiritual meaning in a dynamic way all the time. It might be in new music, or learning to meditate, or studying Hasidic text but with modern eyes. Why are some people falling away? It’s not because they are not spiritual. It’s because they have filled their lives with other things and often don’t accept that religious life is dynamic, changing and growing. So if it’s not just as they want it to be, or remember it to be, they give up.
Imam Ahmed Patel: In every religion, you have people who are either ultra-religious or not religious at all. This exists among those of the Islamic faith as well; we are all human beings with different values and cultures, and we do have people who are not practicing. It is a little troubling because I fail to understand why someone would turn away from God Almighty, who actually created him or her, but this is not personal to any individual. I cannot judge them because I do not know why they are going through what they are going through, but I feel for them because of their pain. I pray that they come back to Allah and that they start practicing. We hope and pray that this trend will not continue.
What are your and your congregation’s/community’s biggest concerns?
Pastor Jim Duran: Since Christians aren’t supposed to worry, I think our biggest concern is that people in our community are not having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Something that is continually on our mind is how can we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ through our actions, not just our words. We are continually looking for ways to serve our city.
On a national level, a concern would be the loss of rights that Christians have today. Will we be put in jail for teaching from the Bible? Will we continue to remove God from our court systems, our schools, our government?
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: Here are two possible answers: 1) We’re concerned that our message isn’t reaching people who would find it life-giving and healing. 2) As UUs we’re a huge stand for social justice, inclusivity, the state of the climate and protecting our diverse freedoms. We stand for marginalized populations, those who are voiceless or oppressed.
Father Tom Elewaut: Some feel unworthy, that maybe God really doesn’t love us, because we are too sinful or just not good enough. Others worry about health or finances or personal safety. That when we are gathered, we can feel God and His love, but in our everyday life we see people doing very bad things to others (and getting away with it), and seeing our own children not believing in God nor the importance of Church.
Safety for children and youth is major and our parish takes all precautions. A mandatory VIRTUS class and fingerprinting has to be done by anybody working with children in the church or school as the coordinator for the fingerprinting; people are happy to do it.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: Our congregation’s biggest concerns are maintaining independence during the aging process, how to serve the community and the world, climate change, political change, financial challenges and leaving a legacy of good.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: Congregations are not static — they are dynamic communities, where people move in and out for many reasons. Most of us are very sensitive to community — we come when we feel we know people, we are warmly welcomed, we have activities we look forward to. So the challenge of community is always that people are looking for the familiar in a setting that is, by nature, always dynamic. Our concern is always making people feel welcomed, connected to others, and that temple is the place where they live out their deepest values. Our biggest concern is caring for our ongoing community.
Imam Ahmed Patel: The biggest concern for our community is how to prevent any kind of affiliation for radicalism in our children in the future — we are concerned with raising our children with true Islamic values, which actually very much are based on maintaining the important balance between spirituality and worldly life, on equality and on tolerance of all human beings. So far, we are succeeding. The other concern is related to the recent election that appeared to amplify uncomfortable levels of rhetoric and paint the general Muslim population at large in a very negative light. We hope that some of the things that have been said and/or actions implied will not come true because they could result in more division among the American population and in more unnecessary and, in most cases, unwarranted scrutiny on our community and on Muslims as a whole. The last concern is that people judge our community without knowing up — we continue to work on outreach in our local areas to help the general population learn more accurate information about us, their Muslim neighbors, and we hope that we will be able to live in peace, raise our families in peace, and serve the greater community in peace.
Has anyone in your community suffered from persecution in Ventura County?
Pastor Jim Duran: Yes, I have experienced harassment as well as others I know. A while ago I was stopped at a traffic light in the church van and when the light turned green, a person in a truck came along side of me, flipped me off and called me a SPIC. I had my youngest daughter in the car, and she could not figure out why the man was yelling and flipping me off. I didn’t respond to him. But if I would have, I am sure he would have gotten violent.
Another example is a young man from our church who has admitted to being gay was beat up at school. A group of boys singled him out because he was gay. Just terrible!
I also have been cussed out in front of our church building by someone who hates Christians.
A homeless friend of mine got beat up just because he was homeless. Yes, we experience hate speech that turns violent. But as Christians, we are called to do what we are taught in Matthew 5:43-44, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: Immigrants and LGBTQ folks have suffered in schools and their communities, and the hate speech multiplied in the last week since the election.
Father Tom Elewaut: I haven’t heard that anybody I know has been through any persecutions or physical attacks other than a few who have experienced a difficulty due to someone being on drugs and homeless. Our pro-life group has been mocked by dissenters but that is more of a faith witness reality. Occasionally I hear that an immigrant may be taken advantage of in business relations, but those are isolated situations.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: Yes, there are those in our congregation that have felt persecuted, but it was years ago. However, any kind of discrimination creates an atmosphere of fear that is imbedded in consciousness of those discriminated against.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: Jews feel very personally the anti-Semitism of others in our community. We absolutely have teens who face it in school and on college campuses. We have Holocaust survivors, and Persian Jewish families who originated in Iran who know anti-Semitism firsthand. So there is deep concern for the apparent “validation” of the alt-right, which is filled with anti-Semitic references. Some say the alt-right isn’t anti-Semitic, only the fringe, but many latent anti-Semitic ideas have found a home there. That is something we will not condone. And our history calls us to speak up whenever there is racist speech against anyone. Racism is a slippery slope. Today it is the Muslims, tomorrow the Latinos, the next day the Jews, and then on to de-humanize the next group.
Imam Ahmed Patel: I, and my friends, have been called names occasionally — I have been called Osama, for instance. The majority of hate comes from people who are ignorant, meaning the type of people who are uneducated and have been taught bigotry. Two to three times a year I hear about an incident in the immediate community. Sometimes we get hate mail at the Islamic Center, and occasionally, the mail has a return address. We are in constant touch with the local police and sheriff’s departments; we forward to them the email/mail and they take whatever action is needed. Other than these, we have not heard of any members of our family or community being physically attacked.
How do you feel about the current political atmosphere?
Pastor Jim Duran: Romans 13:1 states, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” So if we believe this to be true, then we know that God allowed [or caused] the person who was elected to be elected. As Christians, we must believe that God has a perfect plan and no matter who is elected president of the United States of America, God is still on the throne. So quite frankly, God is our sovereign ruler and people are in the positions they are because God either caused it to happen or allowed it to happen. As Christians, our trust needs to be in God, not man (or woman).
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “ ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ’As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: That we are going to roll back all the progress we’ve made in the past 60 years and put the health of our planet at serious risk. We’re also concerned about vulnerable populations and racial violence and economic inequality.
Father Tom Elewaut: This is a true test of our faith in God. Can we believe that God is in this mess too? Is our faith big enough to believe that God will be able to use Donald Trump for his divine plan? While at first I was appalled, I see how communities are coming together with law enforcement, etc., to quell fears, work together. Perhaps in a strange way President-elect Trump might bring people together in a new way. The idea of a “common enemy” brings unlikely people together.
The Church will need to take appropriate measures and influence to ensure that basic tenets of our Christian faith are upheld in moral and ethical situations that influence society as a whole.
Nevertheless we need to respect the people’s choice. I can’t believe how some people are acting, wanting to provoke violence. Peaceful protests are a constitutional right and yet we have to give our president-elect a chance. I think the citizens want change, more jobs, and a lot of people tell me that they want God back in our government and country; the fact that God’s name is being taken off from our currency, monuments, etc., is worrisome to us.
The Rev. Pam Geagan: As a Religious Science minister, my job is to hold the High Watch for our President, beyond my personal feelings. We also talk about staying in spiritual integrity and standing strong in our spiritual principles while taking action to promote what supports inclusivity in America, and in the world; “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” To quote Mother Teresa, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: No congregation is of all like-minded people. Jews traditionally vote about 70/30 democrat/republican. We are often fiscally more conservative, and socially more progressive. The congregants I have spoken with in the aftermath of the election are deeply upset about the language of intolerance and xenophobia that has been unleashed. To see positions of influence go to people who espouse these beliefs is terrifying for us, who know what racism looks like and sounds like firsthand. Our response is to be there for other minorities, to recommit to core Jewish values of justice and righteousness for all people.
Imam Ahmed Patel: We all understand and believe that the election cycle may bring out the worst in some individuals, and sometimes candidates say things that are not going to materialize into any kind of action. However, there are concerns that our President-elect Donald Trump may surround himself with people who are known to be intolerant of diversity among people of different backgrounds, religions, race, etc. We sincerely hope that the election cycle was just the election cycle and that the president-elect understands that in order to govern a nation where the majority of the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton that he still serves to safeguard the interests of all Americans. We hope and we pray that he will have the understanding not to go forward with the bigoted ideologies that he portrayed towards our Latino, Muslim or other communities during the election cycles. Our concern was high during the election cycle but now we accept the outcome. We respect the fact that he will be our president, we had a democratic election, and we have confidence in the Constitution and laws of this land. This is what democracy is all about.
Why do you think our country is so divided at this time?
Pastor Jim Duran: Bottom line: We have people who have ignored the teachings of the Bible. We have lawmakers creating laws that are unbiblical, and we have people living in our country who do not believe in God or in the teachings of the Bible. We have a country that believes this is a dog-eat-dog world, and it’s every man or woman for themselves. But the teachings of the Bible teach us compassion, generosity and unity. We are taught to work together for a common good not for self but for others. I mean, think about this, Jesus gave His life for all humankind. He was born so He could die so we would not have to. His whole purpose was to save humanity. This was the greatest selfless act ever done. If the population of the United States put others before self, trust me, there would be no riots, hate speech and division.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: The discourse in media has created a divide-and-conquer atmosphere that has polarized our country. The rural and urban divide has grown, and progressives have been blind to the economic pain being suffered in the Rust Belt.
Father Tom Elewaut: I think it’s fear. Too many are feeling out of control. But this can be a good thing, for when we are not demanding to control everything, the Holy Spirit can come act through each of us. Not unlike Civil War times, for example, everybody thinks he is right and believes it passionately. People who believed Trump would make some “good” changes were willing to overlook his spewing hateful speech. No candidate is perfect but Hillary represented the status quo and people are sick of it as well and may not really know what they want. It’s all very complicated.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: I’d like to think that Democrats and Republicans can share concerns, and respect each other, but I know that civility is endangered in our country and has been for more than a decade. I do think that the demise of a vigorous, independent, investigative media and the rise of media-as-entertainment is a big contributor, as is the ability to be spreaders of hate, hyperbole and hysteria on the Internet.
Imam Ahmed Patel: I don’t think the country is divided; but if you look at what happened during the election, it seems like the country is divided. In my opinion, there was a stark division between educated and well-versed people and less educated and less traveled people such as in the Southern states. I have personally lived in the state of Kentucky and I know the lifestyle there. They are very nice people, very family-oriented, and many are Southern Baptist. Unfortunately, their minds follow one direction and their hearts follow another direction. For instance, in the state of Kentucky, in my personal opinion, Obamacare has been one of the biggest successes because of the population’s wealth and how Obamacare may have helped them. On the other hand, they display their affiliation with the Republican Party, which is opposed to Obamacare. So sometimes, it appears as if the voter does not care about what the candidate is saying and they simply want change because they are tired of the same party ruling. I don’t think the country is divided at its roots but everyone likes change and wants their voices heard. And that is what democracy is all about.
How should we react to the recent protests and hate speech?
Pastor Jim Duran: Once again, as difficult as it may be, we need to subscribe to the teachings of Christ in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Unfortunately, this is a generational thing. People are taught hate by their parents and grandparents and by those they associate with. Think about it — babies and toddlers seem to get along just fine but when they grow up, somewhere along the way, they are taught to hate. It’s really an attack on God if you think about it. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Believing that this is true, then all the hate in the world is directed at God’s image.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: We support nonviolent protest, and our First Amendment Rights to free speech and protest. We condemn violence and hate speech.
Father Tom Elewaut: People have a constitutional right to voice their concerns. However, when a protest begins to destroy the dignity or property of others, that is unacceptable. We should and must, as Christians, address hatred in all of its forms, first by prayer and then by peaceful actions that are in stark contrast to the hatred. My parents taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right … a good axiom for all of us. Better yet, Jesus said that the least we do unto others we do unto him.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: Personally, I understand that these protests are not just venting over an election loss. We all know how to deal with the zig and zag of elections. This is unprecedented in America to elect a man who has no experience, no deep knowledge of the complexities of critical issues, and the interconnectedness of issues in the global environment. So many election norms and character qualifications have been broken and disregarded, and many are pretty horrified that half the country doesn’t seem to mind. Running a country is not the same as running a business. The bottom line of a country isn’t only economic — it is about our character, our civility, the values that unite us, like liberty, justice and equality. It is about our belief in the common good — which comes with believing so much in our country that I might be willing to put aside what is personally good for me, for the better of my country.
Imam Ahmed Patel: As Muslims, my understanding is, if we stay true to our religion and faith, and we practice Islam the way we ought to practice it, then we will have a harmonious society. However, one person or one community cannot change the entire the community of the United States. Hate is there but what I have noticed is that if there is one hater, there are plenty of people who love each other. The majority of this world is a peaceful world and they do not hate anyone. Whenever a negative incident like a terrorist attack has occurred, different communities and different faiths have come together. Just to share with you our personal experience, since the election we have received so many emails, cupcakes and cookies at the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley from our neighbors, the broader Conejo Valley community, churches and other religious institutions, some of whom we have never met. All of them have expressed their support by letting us know that everyone are not bigots and that they understand that the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley may be going through some uneasiness. By far, the majority of people that we have come across are very nice people and are not hateful, and we hope that soon hate will vanish from the face of the earth.
How do we promote civility, peace and acceptance?
Pastor Jim Duran: We really need to reevaluate why we do the things we do in our country. But more importantly, we need to value life! We need to value each other. One of the reasons that Rome fell was the lack of value they placed on life. Killing was commonplace. When we devalue a human life, our morality takes a dive.
Written in The Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire, “One of the main causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire was the Decline in Morals. The decline in morals, especially in the rich upper classes, nobility and the emperors, had a devastating impact on the Romans. Immoral and promiscuous sexual behavior including adultery and orgies. Emperors such as Tiberius kept groups of young boys for his pleasure, incest by Nero who also had a male slave castrated so he could take him as his wife, Elagabalus who forced a Vestal Virgin into marriage, Commodus with his harems of concubines enraged Romans by sitting in the theatre or at the games dressed in a woman’s garments. The decline in morals also affected the lower classes and slaves. Religious festivals such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia where sacrifices, ribald songs, lewd acts and sexual promiscuity were practiced. Bestiality and other lewd and sexually explicit acts were exhibited in the Colosseum arena to amuse the mob. Brothels and forced prostitution flourished. Widespread gambling on the chariot races and gladiatorial combats. Massive consumption of alcohol. The sadistic cruelty towards both man and beasts in the arena.”
We don’t sound like we are too far off. We have taken the value from life and placed it on things: drugs, money, pleasure, etc. We really need to get back to the basics: Luke 6:31 says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” What if we all actually lived this way?
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn: Our congregation is going to host a series of forums to explore and promote dialogue and address issues facing diverse communities. We want to have a focus on listening campaigns to really learn to understand one another better. Change begins with each of us individually.
Father Tom Elewaut: First we must be peaceable persons ourselves, even in the face of hatred. We accomplish nothing good by fighting back with vulgarity or hateful actions. I often say, if you want a peaceful community, greet each other and the stranger on the street with a smile and a kind word. Like most concerns or issues, acknowledge the hurt and offer positive support. However, there comes a time when we have to shake the dust off our shoes.
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” Matthew 10:14
“And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11
The Rev. Pam Geagan: As a native Californian, I personally, for years, have believed that California could easily be an independent country. We appear to have an overall different culture than the rest of the county. I believe it’s the weather, its cultural diversity, the beauty of its mountains, oceans, lakes, national parks and rich agriculture. The earliest explorers thought that it was an island, and it is in fact a geographical and cultural island.
Ventura County, specifically, appears to be more conservative, than other counties in California. However, individually, we are passionate and compassionate, spiritually, politically, and have the appearance of standing strong on principles that reveal a higher consciousness of equanimity.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller: When we stop seeing each other as “the other” we will be on the right track.
Media has to stop agitating people, for the sake of ratings and entertainment, because we are at a place of such extreme agitation, that we can’t talk, think and work with each other — we only know how to yell, fight, and belittle.
Ideologues have brought Congress to a standstill — politicians must work with others and tackle issues, not each other. Once they model that, the rest of the country will follow.
And lastly, the president-elect must learn the language of statesmanship. His language has ignited much of this — it is in his words that he can calm some of this.
Imam Ahmed Patel: Each and every religious leader should take it upon themselves to reform their own community by teaching all their members that no matter what type of hate, bigotry and uncivilized behavior is out there, you should always be civil. Two wrongs do not make a right. There is an appropriate verse in the Quran that means: Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with good and when you repel evil with good, that animosity that existed between you and the other party will vanish and you will become great friends. (Al-Fussilat 41:34)