Keeping the Faith
Are we turning away from faith, or does it only seem that way? And what role does faith play in our cities and daily lives? We went deep into the South Bay’s religious communities to find out.
- Written byMichele Garber
Photographed by Nancy Pastor
Los Angeles is often credited with being the most religiously diverse city in the world—and for good reason. It’s estimated that there are nearly 6,000 religious congregations spread throughout LA County, and every major world religion is well represented in the area. It is also estimated that well over 100 different faiths—from Anglicanism to Zoroastrianism—are practiced within the Los Angeles metro area. And the South Bay is an ideal microcosm of this phenomenal religious diversity.
Though LA has religious diversity, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey the number of Americans identifying as Christian declined 7.8% from the previous survey in 2007. Non-Christian faiths and those identifying as having no religious affiliation—often called “nones”—increased over the same time period.
On the surface that would seem problematic—especially for mainline Christianity, but a dive deeper into the study finds that those who are religiously affiliated are just as religious as they have always been. One explanation for the decrease has more to do with demographics than religious attrition.
This year Millennials overtook Baby Boomers and are now the largest generation in the U.S. Millennials are less likely to identify themselves as religious, while Baby Boomers and prior generations are more religious. It is likely that as the older generations shrink, the stats on religious-affiliated Americans may continue to decline.
If the number of Americans identifying as Christian is down, one would never guess so by visiting Rolling Hills Covenant Church (RHCC). Senior pastor Byron MacDonald says his life’s calling is to serve others. “I always knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” he shares.
He began his career as a public school teacher and administrator in Michigan and New York, but his ability to effectively help others was limited by the constructs of the public education system. Byron was determined to do more. He envisioned becoming a missionary, but his passion for preaching and teaching the word of God led him to become a pastor. In 1992 he joined the minister team at RHCC.
RHCC has deep but modest roots within the South Bay. At the time of its founding 60 years ago it had only 52 members and held its services in a small private home in Torrance. It has since grown to one of the largest churches in the region—with 2,300 congregants and a ministry team of 18 pastors.
RHCC holds eight weekly worship services ranging from a traditional service to a more informal contemporary service tailored to appeal to younger congregants. Byron leads four of the weekly services. RHCC has a devoted and active membership, yet services are not limited only to members. RHCC welcomes all members of the community openly, encouraging anyone who wishes to attend services to do so.
Indeed, one of the weekly services at RHCC is held entirely in Japanese and another in Spanish to ensure services are inclusive for community members. As Byron explains, “A church should be as diverse as its community, and here in the South Bay we live in one of the most diverse communities anywhere. Our diversity has increased significantly in the last 20 to 25 years.”
In an era when many are stepping away from faith, especially Millennials, RHCC has developed creative ways to inspire and attract members of all age groups. One especially innovative RHCC program held annually is the Pageant of Our Lord. Much like Laguna’s Pageant of the Masters, every Easter live models recreate renowned works of art depicting stories from the Bible. The art on display is accompanied by classical music performed by the Rolling Hills Covenant Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra. The pageant has been held annually for 31 years, and this year for the first time RHCC will host a Christmas pageant as well featuring contemporary music rather than classical.
RHCC also actively supports dozens of local and global programs. Notable among these is Wheels of Hope, which offers job training in welding and metal fabricating to underserved youth. The church also provides meals and services at multiple local homeless shelters and offers chaplain services at local prisons.
Unlike so many other faith communities and houses of worship, RHCC has no financial issues. They are blessed with a secure and ample operating budget funded entirely through generous donations of its membership. This budget enables RHCC to enhance and develop programs and make improvements to church facilities so they can expand their offerings and outreach to the growing congregation and community at large.
Congregation Tikvat Jacob (CTJ) in Manhattan Beach has also seen interest in its membership expanding as exciting changes are on the horizon for the South Bay synagogue—including the arrival of a new, young and very charismatic rabbi. Rabbi Joshua Kalev of CTJ and his wife, Rabbi Selilah Kalev, who is the director of the preschool at Temple Menorah, are not your grandparents’ rabbis.
The Kalevs embody the new face of Judaism. They are a young, vivacious couple with a modern vision of Jewish faith. They respect and honor the rich traditions and rituals that comprise the backbone of Judaism. They also recognize the challenges that Judaism will face in the 21st century if its congregations are unwilling to recognize or adapt to the changing needs of their community. One of main reasons Judaism has survived through millennia is the adept way the Jewish diaspora has assimilated in the cultural dynamic of any adopted homeland. This instinctive inclination to adapt has served the Jewish people well.
Many mainline religions in the U.S. have seen their ranks decline, and for Judaism that attrition has spurred earnest concern and debate. For a people who faced an actual existential threat only a few generations prior, the mere thought of dissolution of their faith through attrition is beyond disturbing. Throughout modern history many Jews have had to conceal or publicly denounce (while secretly observing) their faith merely to survive.
Judaism also faces an unusual added complexity in that it is not only a faith but also widely considered an ethnicity and a culture. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 22% of American Jews say they don’t identify with any religion, even if they had at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish. They consider themselves to be cultural or ethnic Jews.
For Judaism to continue to thrive, faith leaders will need to evaluate and identify the needs specific to their community and provide the type of worship environment that best serves those needs. CTJ is a self-described conservative-style egalitarian synagogue and has a membership of 400 families. The temple strives to be welcoming and inclusive to members of the community, offering a wide array of activities for people to participate in and pursue their Jewish faith. Its location in Manhattan Beach affords it the opportunity to offer worshipers unconventional ways to practice their faith, including services held on The Strand or on a rooftop at sunset.
A San Francisco native, Josh recently moved back from Pennsylvania to become the rabbi at CTJ, but he is very familiar with CTJ. While in rabbinical school at American Jewish University, he was a teacher at CTJ. Josh brings with him a youthful and progressive viewpoint of Judaism, complemented with the experience and understanding of the congregation he now serves. He recognizes that in order to nurture and grow its congregation, CTJ will need to attract young families.
As he describes, “Affiliation with a synagogue community is something the younger generation is trying to figure out. Our approach is to make each family feel comfortable in their own way. I see great opportunity in this area. There are so many unaffiliated many members of the community of all ages that haven’t been made excited about their Judaism. I’m hoping that by reaching out into the greater community we can show them that Judaism has many facets to it. It doesn’t mean you have to just come to services or eat matzah on Passover. There are so many paths to being Jewish. Come and explore them with us and see which ones have meaning to you in your life.”
With young families he sees a huge opportunity. “I’ve met with so many young families who are looking for a Jewish community that is dynamic and exciting, where young parents can connect and where kids can connect with other kids. I’m really excited about the future of South Bay Judaism and what it has to offer.”
Selilah adds, “About 50% of the kids in our preschool (at Temple Menorah) are not Jewish. I have families from Brazil and Beijing. There is a willingness to be part of the Jewish community and an interest in learning about Judaism. I have a family that is coming from Mumbai, and they’re so excited that their children are going to be exposed to Judaism—not because they want to be Jewish but because they want their children to have an understanding of it. They respect and appreciate the values that we teach. It’s an amazing multicultural community of interfaith. Our enrollment is increasing. The Chabad preschool has a waiting list. People are hungry for it.”
For Josh, faith is really about the joy of Judaism. “Life is serious and has dark, difficult moments that we as a faith community can really help people go through and heal. Ultimately we have to be about the joy of life. Look where we live. It’s this bubble of paradise. We have to rejoice together. There is a saying: ‘Judaism shouldn’t be about the oy, it should be about the joy.’ I just really love that. Judaism has so much light to share with the world, and to do that through celebration and smiling and being hand-in-hand together, that’s our focus.”
If mainline congregations are declining, Eastern religions are growing. Interest in Buddhism seems to be steadily increasing, especially the essential Buddhist practice of meditation—with numerous luminaries and leaders espousing its myriad benefits.
At the Mahamudra Kadampa Buddhist Center (MKBC), resident teacher Gen Kelsang Tangpa leads daily classes in meditation and discussion of Buddhist teachings. Based in Hermosa Beach, the center offers classes at several locations throughout the South Bay from Manhattan Beach to San Pedro. The center has about 40 member practitioners but each week welcomes more than 100 local community members at meditation and discussion classes.
Mahamudra Kadampa Buddhism is a school of Mahayana, which follows the Gelugpa Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Mahayana is the most widely practiced school of Buddhism in the U.S. Practitioners of Kadampa strive for dharma, which means both the teachings of Buddha and enlightenment. Through meditation and study, Buddhists strive to calm the mind and cultivate patience, compassion and wisdom, ultimately bringing inner peace and contentment.
Gen Tangpa first developed an interest in Buddhism at age 17 and became a dedicated practitioner of the Buddhist faith, participating in daily meditation and Buddhadharma study. He went on to become a disciple of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), and ultimately was invited to become an ordained monk. In 2002 Gen Tangpa took his ordination vows and became resident teacher at MKBC in Hermosa in 2004.
There are approximately 950 monks and nuns in NKT worldwide. Gen Tangpa explains, “In Mahayana the possibility to achieve enlightenment is available for all, which is not the case in all Buddhist schools. Our door is open to members of the community so they may practice daily meditation, study Buddhadharma and listen to oral teachings. Buddhism enables people to solve problems through the mind.”
For those interested in studying Buddhism, Gen Tangpa recommends finding a Buddhist teacher to help guide them on their path to develop a mind of faith and devotion. As he explains, “Faith in dharma induces a strong intention to practice it, and in turn this induces effort. And with effort we can accomplish anything.”
He adds, quoting the Buddha, “’Faith is the source of the attainment of happiness.’ Just as a mother gives birth to children, so faith is the source of all virtuous activities. The wealth of faith cannot be destroyed by fire or stolen by thieves—even death cannot take it from us. In that way it is our protector.”
Along with Buddhism, the number of Americans affiliated with Islam and Hinduism are also on the rise. Milia Islam-Majeed was born in Bangladesh into a traditional and close-knit Muslim family who lived together in a multi-generational home with her grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Every evening the family would eat dinner and pray the last of the five daily prayers together.
At age 6 she immigrated with her parents and older brother to Fulton, Missouri, a small town about 30 minutes from Columbia. An uncle sponsored Milia’s family to come to the U.S., and the visa process took six years from filing to approval. In the interim, Milia’s parents enrolled her in an American private school where she was exposed to English. When she arrived in Fulton and began second grade, she was able to understand English and quickly became fluent with no trace of an accent.
The move was a culture shock for the Islam family. Life in Fulton was a world apart from what they knew in Bangladesh, and they had their first encounters with prejudice and discrimination. The small enclave of Fulton was comprised predominantly of Christian and Caucasian people who had never met a family of color or of an Eastern religion. It took time, but eventually Milia and her family adjusted to their new home and overcame misperceptions, developing deep, true and enduring friendships with their neighbors and community.
Milia assimilated well to her new environs. She would attend an occasional church service on Sundays and was crowned prom queen at her high school. Though a faithful Muslim, when her grandmother passed away Milia wanted to take part in the tradition of washing her body. The experience proved life-changing.
She decided to become more devout and practice the head scarf. She also decided not to pursue a degree in medicine but instead to study religion. People’s reactions to the change in her attire spurred her to pursue a double major and also study psychology. Milia graduated from Westminster College in Fulton with a degree in world religions and psychology. She received her MA degree in theological studies of world religions from the Harvard Divinity School.
Her arrival in Boston marked her first real experience with diversity, and Milia was thrilled to encounter people of varying ethnicities and religions. In an odd twist of fate, her first day of graduate classes was September 11. As a Muslim woman who practices the head scarf and whose last name is Islam, Milia had to deal firsthand with the Islamophobia and fear that most U.S. Muslims experienced in the wake of 9/11. It was this backlash based in ignorance and bias that shaped Milia’s future.
Milia moved with her husband, Arfan, to be near family in California, and she became the executive director of the South Coast Interfaith Council (SCIC). Her effervescent, positive personality and her personal experience with overcoming misperceptions and educating people on religious diversity and tolerance make her the ideal person to serve in such a pivotal position.
“The work that I am tasked to do is to provide the space for others to come and share their faith traditions and in doing so really connect on those moral precepts that tie us together as human beings,” Milia shares. “I truly believe that once you connect as human beings, heart to heart, then all these things subside. We are all really one human family. Let’s treat one another with compassion.”
She goes on to explain, “If you look different it may take a little longer, but my life attests to this: Once you connect, there is a thirst out there to know about other faiths. In my experience, 90% of people come with good intentions … they are genuinely curious. We provide a safe space where people can ask questions without feeling someone is intruding on their boundaries, and the other can answer questions about their faith without feeling as though they have to defend themselves.”
As part of her work with SCIC, Milia holds about two dozen speaking engagements per month, whether on interfaith issues or specifically on Islam. In the current political climate, people really want to know more about Islam, and requests for Milia to speak to groups and explain the Muslim faith have come pouring in.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about Islam, and some people are simply uninformed but they want to learn,” she says. “It speaks volumes of our community that we live in that they welcome me into their worship space during their worship time to talk about faith and afterwards to stay and educate even more. People sometimes feel that by participating in another faith’s service or rituals it will somehow water down their faith, but in actuality the complete opposite is true.”
The SCIC motto is: “We pride ourselves on creating communities of compassion among people of different faiths and cultures.” They accomplish this through a three-pronged approach of service, education and celebration. They support a variety of community programs from feeding homeless to hosting interfaith gatherings from the South Bay to Orange County.
Dr. Rini Ghosh is president-elect for SCIC and will assume the post in March 2017. Dr. Ghosh, a long-time resident of Rancho Palos Verdes, also serves on the board of trustees of the Vedanta Society of Southern California (VSSC) and is president of Vedanta International Cultural Center (VICC) in Redondo Beach. VICC is the service and cultural arm of VSSC, and members devote most of their time and resources to feeding underserved children and the homeless. As Dr. Ghosh says, “Any and all money we collect goes immediately to feeding people.”
Dr. Ghosh has organized so many successful food service programs for local homeless people that representatives of Children and Family Services have reached out to her for support. As if those activities weren’t enough to keep her busy, Dr. Ghosh also owns her own small business and serves on the board of trustees for The Guibord Center, a nonprofit interfaith educational organization.
Dr. Ghosh practices Vedanta, a school of Hinduism founded by Ramakrishna that is a renaissance of original Hinduism precepts. “In Hinduism we say it’s not what you learn, what are the rules, do this or do that,” she explains. “You have to experience God through your own way and go to the level that you have achieved through reincarnation in this life. We believe every soul is divine and we have the potential to achieve the ultimate … to be mingled and absorbed in divine eternal bliss and complete joy. We are all small waves, and the joy is the ocean.”
She continues, “You’re not the body. You’re not the mind. You are the soul. You are pure consciousness. You are ultimate bliss.”
Vedanta is a spiritual philosophy based on Vedas, which are the oldest Sanskrit literature and Hindu scriptures. Similar to the Bible, they are considered holy, supernatural and authorless. Vedanta followers believe there are four ways to achieve ultimate bliss: bhakti yoga, the practice of love and devotion through praying and rituals; karma yoga, implementing action such as feeding the homeless without any expectations for results from the action; Jnana yoga, the path through true knowledge—not knowledge acquired from books but from what’s inside the mind; and raja (ashtanga) yoga, the king of all practices, combining the other three and especially meditation.
The term “yoga” used in the four ways to bliss does not directly correlate with the fitness practice with which we’re more familiar. In Vedanta terms, it means the plus sign, which is the symbol for your union with God.
Hindus use the lunar calendar and have many “puja” or worship ceremonies and celebrations throughout the year. Hindus are monotheistic, and much like how Christians pray to Jesus, most Hindus believe in a Supreme God whose persona manifests in several deities to whom Hindus make religious offerings. Some of these include Ganesha, the elephant deity; Hanuman, the monkey deity; and Durga, the divine mother.
As many Western religions are shrinking slightly in numbers, many people—especially Millennials—are expressing interest in Eastern faiths including Hinduism and Buddhism. As Dr. Ghosh notes, “I’ve noticed many Hindu beliefs and symbols becoming mainstream, such as cremation and the belief in reincarnation. And it seems ‘namaste’ is everywhere, along with the popularity of yoga. Even Ganesha is everywhere. The key thing about Vedanta is not if you pray or how much, or do this or that thing. What matters is that you are good. Our sages call it by different names, but religion is truth and truth is one.”