Faith lift

Higher Ground clergy are pretty cool

When I tell people I write a column on religion and faith leaders, I’m met with a quizzical expression. “Religion?” they repeat, as if the word itself has gone out of fashion. “So you talk about, like, God and stuff?”

God does pop up now and then, but mostly we talk about more practical matters: teenage sex, race relations, drugs, depression, divorce, re-marriage, homosexuality, suicide. You know, the easy stuff.

In the past six months I’ve broken bread with Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Mormons, ex-Mormons, Pentecostals, “radical” Christians, Orthodox Greeks, Buddhists, Christian Scientists and Quakers. Amazingly, not one punch has been thrown.

In the spirit of retrospection, I’ve drawn up a list of seven things about faith leaders you may not have guessed from watching The 700 Club.

1. They’re in-demand. I’m talking Beyoncé in-demand, complete with Blackberries and multiple secretaries. OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but they are busy. Someone’s always dying or being born, which means clergy are constantly canceling their lunch dates in order to officiate a funeral or perform a bris. When you answer to such an unpredictable boss as God, you gotta be flexible.

2. They’re nice. They may not be on par with Mother Teresa, but how many people hug you goodbye after disclosing to the world that they were a 21-year-old virgin?

3. They’re open-minded. Aside from the two clergy who turned us down because of the sex ads in the back of the paper (hey, Jesus hung with harlots, didn’t he?), nearly every faith leader I’ve met has surprised me with their tolerance and receptivity.

4. They’re hip … sort of. From the female rabbi with the Bon Jovi ringtone to the former rock ’n’ roll deejay, these aren’t your typical religious killjoys.

5. They’re not trying to convert you. Unless, of course, you want to be converted. But, according to Ananta McSweeney, founder of the Ananda Center of Sacramento, “Different paths are suited to different temperaments—and that’s what makes the world go round.”

6. They’re all about diversity. Gone are the days when like-mindedness meant sharing the same skin color, sexual preference or country of origin. The majority of churches are welcoming the full spectrum of human experience, insisting that Sunday not be, in the words of Baptist minister Eli Hughes, “the most segregated day of the week.”

7. They’re not perfect, and they don’t have all the answers. (And they admit it.) The pious know-it-all preacher is so passé. Today’s faith leaders are humble, receptive to new ideas and open about their struggles. In the name of what Imani Community Church’s Janice Steele calls “transparency,” they bravely expose the skeletons in their ecclesiastical closets, whether it’s alcoholism, failed marriages, or losing the faith. Heck, a few of them even inhaled.