A Matter of Faith

Six Women Reflect on their Spirituality

Madison is known as many things: a Big Ten football town, the home of a large and prominent university, a progressive capitol of a politically conflicted state, and year after year a great place to live. What Madison is not often described as is a faith center.Home to the national Freedom from Religion Foundation, located at the historic Freethought Hall, Madison may frequently appear at the top of various best cities lists, but has yet to make the list of most faithful cities. Wisconsin was ranked 31st most religious state in 2013 by a Gallup poll and Madison is undoubtedly the least traditional city in the state.Conversations about faith in Madison most often revolve around Badger sports speculations, hoping the snow blower will start when that first blizzard inevitably arrives, and whether this political candidate or that one will eke out an election win. But, faith in the traditional sense of the word—a higher power at work in our world—is alive and thriving in Madison, and there are women of all religions following their faiths to make our community a better place.Society is most often tuned in to differences, particularly among religions. Different faiths are often pitted against each other, even when there may be little or no conflict at all. Our eyes are trained to see the few ways a Catholic nun and a Buddhist nun differ. Our ears are trained to hear how deep the divide is between Jews and Muslims. When one looks closer however and takes the time to really look and really listen, what is seen and heard are only the many beautiful and striking similarities.

The six faith leaders interviewed for this piece made it clear they all believe that faith and religion are two different notions. While faith was most often described as a belief, religion was described as the actions or traditions surrounding the practice of a particular faith. So, even if one does not belong to an organized religion, they, too, can use their faith to impact their own lives and the lives of others. As retired Episcopalian minister Pat Size says, “Spirituality is available to anyone, even little, tiny children can be aware of the holy.”

Pat Size describes faith as “a belief in something that is not logical, rational or knowable, but something you know is true in your heart.” Size further explains that in her eyes the holy can encompass people, both one’s self and others, a higher power, a divine entity, or the Holy Spirit. She believes that everyone, both religious people and those who would profess no faith, have something in their lives that they would consider holy. Size says if you push people on the question, “What would you die for?” you can quickly identify the sacred in any person’s life.

Size believes wholeheartedly that although she did not become ordained until age 55, she’s been guided by her faith her entire life. She grew up in a Protestant household, but truly witnessed what faith meant when she visited Bolivia and was struck by the realization that she had so many gifts in her life. Size’s faith in God has led her to lend her gifts to many social justice issues, including first working with victims of domestic abuse and sexual abuse as a psychiatric nurse, “The research that she collected for her master’s degree thesis on domestic abuse in Madison became the basis for the initial grant that started the first battered women’s shelter in Madison in 1978, now known as Domestic Abuse Intervention Services or DAIS. As a minister, she continued to advocate for domestic abuse intervention and focused particularly on the church’s role in identifying and safely dealing with instances of domestic violence in the parish.

During her time as a nurse she remained busy with her job, her family and coordinating staff development at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on the Near West Side of Madison. She was surprised and honored when her home congregation called her up to become ordained. Size says though it felt like the right direction for her faith path, it was not an easy decision. “It was a surprise in my life, but not impossible,” she says. After her graduation from seminary in Chicago and completion of a residency at hospice, Size went on to become the Hispanic minister at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square, “There she led Sunday services in Spanish for eight years and helped establish a Hispanic food pantry at the church.

“Though Size has been retired for the last several years, her faith continues to fuel her life as she practices its rituals, such as prayer, communion and the other sacraments. She remains a strong participant in social justice organizations in many different areas of need and continues to serve as an interim minister at various congregations as needed and as a chaplain at Meriter Hospital.

She has spent years trying to make her community a better place, a job that can often go without recognition or reward. When asked what guidepost of her faith is most helpful to her in times of sadness or stress Size states without pause, “”The scripture; the scripture is my anchor.”

Sister Maureen McDonnell grew up in a large Catholic family, the eldest of five children. She credits the roots of her strong faith with the practices modeled by her parents, as well as many influential sisters and priests, particularly the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. It was when she attended Edgewood college in 1962 that she made the decision to join the sisterhood, but the Dominicans put such strong emphasis on education that not only did McDonnell go on to earn her bachelor’s degree in English, but also two master’s degrees. She is the former Edgewood campus minister and is currently a spiritual counselor through Wisdom’s Well in Madison, which offers spiritual guidance to both individuals and groups.

“Faith is a way of life that helps human beings make meaning out of life, out of humanity and the natural world. Faith holds everything else together. It’s a unifying force,” says McDonnell. She believes that often faith is strengthened by beliefs, creeds or religions, but that faith is possible without those things. A person’s faith grows gradually as they mature emotionally, spiritually, physically and intellectually. McDonnell is quick to note, however, that often a person can have what she calls “a leap of faith” or a sudden growth in their faith usually resulting from a trauma such as illness or death of a loved one.

McDonnell’s faith, she says, “provides strength when I’m discouraged, comfort when I’m sad. It provides energy and confidence on a daily basis and especially when I’m challenged. Faith gives me a sense of guidance and protection as I go through life.” She recently celebrated her Golden Jubilee, or 50 years in the sisterhood, but still finds ways that her faith is both tested and then strengthened each day. “That’s just what happened when McDonnell traveled to El Salvador and meet Salvadoran people whose lives had been all but destroyed in the civil wars lasting from 1979 to 1992. McDonnell marveled at how, despite the poverty, death and violence the Salvadorans had seen, they remained steadfast in their faith.

On a dead end road, abutting Highway 30 on Madison’s East Side, there sits a small, neat bungalow flanked by hydrangea bushes. It is home to the Eastside Friends of the Dharma and their spiritual leader, Buddhist nun Chodon Lhundup. A small, smiling woman with a shaved head, Lhundup is modest in dress and humble about her accomplishments. Lhundup’s correct title is “Venerable Chodon” because she is one of the few women in modern Tibetan Buddhism to receive the highest ordination possible, “The title is meant to show respect for her devotion to an immense amount of training and practice.

Lhundup’s dedication to her faith and nurturing the faith of others came 25 years ago quite unexpectedly. Born and educated in Madison, Lhundup was then living in New Mexico and working as a building contractor. She struck up a mentor relationship with a troubled young woman, who on an impulse asked Lhundup to attend a Tuesday night seminar on solving personal anger issues. Lhundup felt that it would be beneficial to the young woman to attend, so accompanied her. It was the first time that Lhundup had met a Buddhist and little did she know at the time, that chance meeting would introduce her to the life she believes she was meant to live and the work she was meant to do. “Leading with faith cleared a path for me that connected me with the world,” Lhundup says.

She spoke quietly, calmly and easily as she talked about her faith. Lhundup believes that faith is “your ability to understand yourself in relation to the world. Your confidence to act in the direction of your full potential toward love, kindness and generosity.” She devotes every day to spreading love and kindness through her Buddhist practices, and rarely turns down an opportunity to talk about her faith because her faith is what fuels and guides her entire life path. Lhundup and the East Side Friends of the Dharma lend their hands, invisibly most often, to a wide variety of local organizations. She finds Madison an easy place to be a faithful person. “It’s easy to tap into that open heartedness of the Madisonian,” she says, and states her hope that “more people would know how much work is being done” and her belief that “more work is being done than not.” When she’s not busy serving others, Lhundup finds time every day to practice prayer and meditation, using the quiet, contemplative time to focus on herself so she can in turn better serve others.

When asked if she had a mantra or intonation that gave her calm in the midst of chaos, Lhundup did not respond with any words of wisdom at all. Instead, the tiny nun simply struck a copper bowl with a small mallet and a lovely, golden tone rang out loudly and then faded away to silence, “The tone, she said, signifies the time to bring her body and mind together. It reminds her to live in the present moment and breathe because, she says, “it is only in the present moment that you are truly alive.”

Senior Minister Eldonna Hazen of First Congregational United Church of Christ says that faith is “the belief that something can happen that is bigger than we are. [It’s] not our responsibility or done by anything that we have control over. It’s done by bigger hands than ours.” Hazen’s journey to her faith was long and twisting, but after many years being just “okay with God,” she realized that what she really needed was the community of a church.

“I could bargain with God all I wanted to,” she says, but without a community Hazen didn’t believe she was really held accountable for her actions.

Hazen long wanted to become a minister but struggled with finding a community that would accept and respect her as a gay woman. Hazen found her faith home in the United Church of Christ, which has a long history of opposition to discrimination of people based on sexual orientation, and ordained the first openly gay minister in 1972. “The First Congregational Church in Madison became one of the city’s first churches to formally welcome all people regardless of sexuality or gender expression and in 2013 Hazen became its senior minister.

“The church has strong social justice programs surrounding not only issues of LGBT rights and acceptance, but also programs aiding Madison’s hungry and homeless populations and prisoners in local areas. It is this wealth of work in the social justice field that makes Hazen happy to practice her faith in Madison. She appreciates what she calls “the faith diversity of Madison” and the support for social justice work. “It’s easier to be involved in social justice here, to stand up for the little guy and the people who have been marginalized,” Hazen says.

She spoke passionately about the power of community, how it created a richer, deeper and broader faith. Much like Lhundup, Hazen talked about the importance of pausing and listening. “This busy world allows little time for rest and refueling, but Hazen believes it is crucial in order to turn outside oneself to better understand the needs of those around you. “Those pauses, those quiet times of reflection also “allow the presence of something that we may or may not understand to enter our lives, and work through us.” If we do not take the time we may miss the gentle nudge of those “bigger hands” tenderly urging us away from our own anxieties toward someone or something that may benefit greatly from our gifts.

Sadat Abiri immigrated to Madison at 19 to study nursing at the University of Wisconsin, and though she grew up Muslim in Nigeria, she truly found her faith in her adopted homeland. Calm, confident and positive, Abiri says that she hasn’t always felt so at peace. Despite being married with a loving family and a good career, she long felt that something was missing and it wasn’t until a Christian friend suggested she start connecting with her church that Abiri realized the power of faith. “I was doing well, but something was missing. Faith connected it all for me. “The moment I made that connection I found my happiness,” she says.

Faith, Sadat believes, “is knowing that whatever happens, there is a higher power out there. Whatever comes to us, there is a solution.”

“Without faith I would be lost. Faith has helped me become who I am today,” she says. Not only does Abiri’s faith power her own daily life, it fuels her larger life’s work. Abiri has made it her mission, with the help of the World Health Organization, to bring compassionate care to Nigeria’s mentally ill. She has worked as a psychiatric nurse in Madison and worked with both the city’s homeless population and its veterans. Closer to home, she started the Muslim women’s support group at the Neighborhood Center and serves as a committee chair for the Islamic Community of Madison. While Abiri has never personally felt endangered because of her religious beliefs, she does see a good deal of ignorance about Muslims and so takes every chance she gets to teach people of other faiths about Islam.

Sadat has worked for years in a field that often involves heartbreak and emotional strain and when asked if she had some particular words of wisdom for when life gets difficult. Abiri says, “God is your protector; have that faith in God. No matter where you find yourself there is someone worse off than you are. [People say] why me? Well, why anyone? You must be grateful no matter what comes to you.”

Laurie Zimmerman serves as the rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, a small, progressive Jewish community in Madison. She believes that faith is “having a really strong belief that things do not ‘ have to be as they are.” “That goal of making a better world is a core aspect of Zimmerman’s life path and she says it wouldn’t be possible without her faith and even more importantly, her community. Zimmerman believes that all aspects of faith, prayer, social activism and education become more powerful when done together.

Zimmerman was raised in a culturally Jewish family that she didn’t consider religious, but always found joy and contentment in the traditions and rituals of her Jewish community. “This community piece is what initially drove Zimmerman to become a rabbi and through it her own faith continues to grow. She completed a chaplaincy program in inner-city Philadelphia at a hospital that often saw acts of horrible violence. It was through those intense experiences that Zimmerman believes her faith was truly born. She learned that “there is something sacred in both joyful and difficult times.”

Zimmerman’s own congregation has diverse levels of faith, religion and spirituality, but she welcomes the challenge and says she’s “content to walk with people wherever they are on their journey of faith.” Zimmerman described some of her best faith teachers as Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. “We all have our own particular path on this journey; we have much to learn from each other’s traditions,” she believes.

Zimmerman is a woman of faith who recognizes the fluidity of faith, its ability to grow and change shape through life. “These are the inspiring words Zimmerman shares as others make their way down this often meandering path.: “All the world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to make yourself so afraid that you can’t walk across that bridge. Walking through life can be precarious and it’s okay to be afraid, but not so afraid that you stop walking.”

These six women of faith prove that the rituals you partici-pate in, the church you attend, or the religion you profess, matter much less than how you put your faith to work for others. “Though each has a different definition of faith, all six women use their faiths to fuel their dedication to enriching their community. You may come to your faith early in life, with the guidance of strong role models, or you may wander down a winding road toward it before you finally find what feels like home; a faith that soothes and strengthens, energizes and calms, “The bridge may become narrow at times, but you must not be afraid to continue. Reach out for a hand, hold tight and walk forward together.

– Rebecca Anderson-Brown

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