FRIDAY PRAYERS at the Islamic Society begin with a sermon.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
At noon, cars begin rolling into the parking lot behind the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a plainly clad building at South 13th Street and Layton Avenue. Women wearing flowing jilbab clothes and hijab head coverings enter through the far-right door at the entrance to the ISM and climb a staircase to a balcony looking out over the mosque’s white-walled prayer hall. Men, some wearing ornate taqiyah hats and crochet skullcaps, enter to the left, walk into the hall sandwiched between the mosque and the ISM’s school, and take off their shoes.
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Nearby, a short, brown-skinned man covered in a windbreaker sits nervously on a plastic chair, waiting for Friday prayers to begin. He looks through a plate of glass at the wooden pulpit in the prayer hall – the masjid, the place for prostration – and back around at the growing crowd of men. When the society added the masjid onto the school in 1995, the goal was to put up a simple, functional space, not a more traditional mosque decorated with geometric patterns.
“Asa lama lakum,” Middle Eastern, African-American and Asian men say to each other, walking onto the hall’s green carpet, where they sit down cross-legged or with their legs splayed out to the side. Egyptians, Palestinians, Sudanese, Indians, Bosnians, Albanians, Turks, Southeast Asians, Malaysians, natural-born Americans – they’re all here.
As with every week, prayers begin with men and women listening quietly to a sermon. “I do not perceive him, and he is aware and sees all things,” says a visiting speaker, Mohamed Abutaleb, a systems engineer who works for a Medicare contractor in Washington, D.C. Bright-eyed and wearing a neatly trimmed beard, he has a second career of sorts as a traveling speaker, a job to which he brings a certain fervency. “And as we renew this faith,” he continues, “it is so unshakable that it is as if you saw Allah with your own eyes.” More male Muslims watch from the basement, via a closed-circuit broadcast, and several hundred students listen from the school’s gymnasium, where the flags of the world’s Muslim-majority countries hang from the rafters.
In the prayer hall, a pale light reflects from the snow outside as everyone lines up to perform the bowing and kneeling motions of Islamic prayer. Many of the men are still dressed in heavy winter coats. “Please straighten the lines, fill the gaps,” the PA system booms as chants reverberate in the hall. “Allahu akbar.” Silence follows. “Allah,” the voice says, drawing out the second syllable, and the men bow. “Allah.” Facing a northeastern wall and the holy city of Mecca, the men on the first floor and the women in the balcony kneel and press their foreheads against the floor twice, their mouths moving with prayers. Due to the curvature of the globe, the shortest distance between Milwaukee and Mecca is a hop over the northern Atlantic.
Kneeling near the entrance to the prayer hall is Mike Madouse, a European-American wearing a peacoat with an upturned collar and an Irish-style flat cap. A financial aid officer at Herzing University, the local for-profit college, Madouse turned to Islam after experimenting with Buddhism. He’s mostly white, though his features are vaguely Middle Eastern, a chameleon’s gift in an environment where Caucasian faces are a rarity. After prayers, the nervous, windbreaker-wearing man finds Madouse standing next to the stairs leading to the overflow room in the basement.
The man shows Madouse a folder filled with papers, including a laminated page of Arabic calligraphy and a letter from a social worker. The letter reveals the man is a Burmese refugee who worked as a farmer and is an industrious laborer, but he speaks no English. Madouse looks over the papers, and the refugee begins to motion with his hands, miming the outline of a cylindrical shape and then something flatter. He presses his hands together and looks at Madouse, who doesn’t understand. The refugee could be asking for money, a bit of food or prayers. “I’m sorry,” Madouse says, and he smiles. The man’s face hardens in frustration, but he accepts Madouse’s handshake warmly and slips away into the crowd, scanning the faces around him.
Between an influx of immigrants and a trickle of new converts such as Madouse – a movement sharing more in beliefs than in customs or language – Islam is easily the fastest-growing religious group in Milwaukee. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of self-identified Muslims in the metro area grew from about 2,900 to almost 9,200, according to surveys released by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Also emerging as an unconventional force in local faith are nondenominational evangelical Christians, who are hard to beat for sheer numbers. The guitar-loving Protestants now rank third in the area behind Catholics and Lutherans of all stripes. Roman Catholics still account for almost half of all area residents who identify with a religion, but those numbers are dwindling, even with Hispanic immigrants moving to Milwaukee and bolstering local parishes.
In contrast, the nondenominational Elmbrook Church, a megachurch in Brookfield that’s probably the state’s largest religious facility, attracts some 6,000 people a week to its upbeat, evangelical services, a number that’s still increasing. And consider this nugget: There are now more Muslims in the area than Jews, according to the estimates. Gradually, the tenor and complexion of faith in Milwaukee are being remade, one immigrant or adventurous believer at a time. Some Catholic parishes are filling with a new kind of parishioner. Sects of Lutherans are reckoning openly with issues of homosexuality, and communities built around minority traditions – including Buddhist sanghas and suburban Sikh temples – are taking root.
But growth in a city brought up on mainline European traditions doesn’t necessarily indicate liberalism or acceptance by the mainstream. Last year, a whisper campaign sowing fears of extremism haunted plans for a new ISM mosque in Brookfield, not six months before another kind of extremism – white supremacy – targeted the growing Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. The shooting there still colors any conversation about minority religious communities in Milwaukee. And differences between some of the area’s fastest-growing traditions and competing societal norms present other challenges. Both Islam and parts of the evangelical Christian tradition have an uneasy relationship with homosexuality, sometimes accepting it as another form of sinful behavior and sometimes using it as a basis for exclusion. Evangelical groups may also bar women from pastoral leadership or participation in religious conventions, and separation of the sexes is standard practice at Muslim facilities, with the assent of many Muslim women.
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“We are very blessed we can incorporate separation within our services,” says Inshirah Farhoud, a nurse practitioner at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a female member of the ISM’s board of directors. During Friday prayers, the main floor of the prayer hall fills to capacity with men performing prostrations. “It’s quite inappropriate for men and women to position themselves in that way next to each other,” she says on a Friday as hundreds of men walk onto the floor downstairs. “We’re bursting at the seams!”
|This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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MIKE MADOUSE prays five times a day, beginning at dawn.
At the Da’wa Center on North Teutonia Avenue, the largest mosque in Milwaukee’s inner city, men and women enter through separate doors and pray in different rooms on Fridays. When Madouse visited during a week in January, Arab and African-American men were sitting on a striped carpet in the main prayer room, where they were listening to a visiting imam’s sermon. The women listened from a room on the other side of the building, through a loudspeaker.
Among the men sat Kalem Hakem, an African-American wearing a black turban and long black robes trimmed with ornate gold stitching. The assistant imam founded a number of martial arts studios around the city before going blind in the early 1990s, when malabsorption syndrome drained his body of vitamin B12 and withered his optic nerves. “I prefer to have vision because of the convenience,” he says, sitting in a chair at the back of the room after prayers, “but the compensations of being blind are tremendous. I cannot see anyone to prejudge them. I cannot tell if you’re tall or short or fat or skinny or what clothes you’re wearing.”
Hakem’s parents, two of the first Muslims to live in Milwaukee, held prayers in the family’s house on North Sixth Street, beginning in the 1950s. Each week, they laid bedsheets onto the floor of their living room to kneel on and invited over the other Muslims in town. There weren’t many until the 1970s, when English translations of the Quran and other important texts led more people to take the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith.
Madouse sat in a chair at the imam’s knee, listening intently. Coming from a non-Muslim and generally non-religious family, he’s had to build a network of Muslim peers and advisers one person at a time. The religious director at the ISM, Zulfiqar Ali Shah, has been one teacher, and there have been several friends, including a young Muslim woman he married in February and whose parents emigrated from Palestine.
When he gets together with “some of the younger crowd” for barbecues, men and women all pray in the same location, he says. “We’ll stop and line up with the men in front of the women, so they don’t have to bend over in front of us.” He prefers this to the separation practiced at the ISM and the Da’wa Center, which makes him uncomfortable.
As a young teenager, Madouse hung around with kids who used drugs and drank but gradually became repelled by intoxicants. He swore them off during his later teens, effectively distancing himself from his friends, and he began to spend long periods of time alone, playing guitar and reading about meditation. “I didn’t have an organized religion growing up,” he says, “but I became very spiritual.” After graduation, he went to work at a factory that made hot water dispensers, and a relationship with a longtime girlfriend split apart. He found himself heartbroken and floundering in adult life. “And then I just went outside one day, and it was early spring, and there was a little snow on the ground,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words. Maybe you could say it was the beauty of things, or that I felt like I could feel the earth waking up underneath my feet. It got me started.”
After a six-month stint at a Buddhist complex in California, Madouse began studying Islam and the Quran with greater purpose. They explained the origin and meaning of the world, and the Arabic text told stories from nature, suggesting, “These are signs for those who reflect.” He began to pray five times a day, even at his Herzing office building, sometimes in a corner of the conference room. He fasted for Ramadan for the first time and started taking social work classes at UW-Milwaukee.
Hakem’s definition of a Muslim life as pursuing a lack of “disease in the heart” and justice for everyone began to make sense. “That’s what it is,” Madouse said emphatically, walking out of the Da’wa Center and down the sidewalk. “That’s what being a Muslim is.”
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In the months after August’s Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting, the ISM headquarters expanded its security systems and consulted with the Milwaukee Police Department Intelligence Fusion Center, a multijurisdictional unit that keeps a floor plan of the mosque and school on file, for tactical planning. There are now three security cameras at the entrance to the facility’s driveway and three at the back, which watch the rear approach. On a weekday in January, a security company’s SUV sat watching another ISM facility off Carpenter Avenue that contains an elementary school and a community center.
“It could have been any one of us that was targeted,” says Othman Atta, the tall, genial lawyer who serves as the society’s director. Since Sept. 11, 2001, community groups and Christian churches have peppered the society with requests for guest presenters, and this is often Atta, who’s learned to set aside most of the time allotted for questions. “I make it very clear that the only bad question is a question that isn’t asked,” he says.
Those that arise include whether Islam supports violence, and he says no. People also ask if the women wearing Muslim dress are oppressed. “No one is forcing anyone to wear or not to wear,” he says. “According to the religion, women and men are supposed to dress modestly, especially when they’re out in public.”
Earlier in 2012, when the ISM proposed building a second mosque in Brookfield, the local chapter of a national conservative organization – the Eagle Forum – lobbied fiercely to stop the project. A letter written by a member and submitted to BrookfieldNow.com claimed that “where mosques exist in other U.S. cities, they are routinely used as facilities in which to train their members in terrorist activities.” Still, with support from the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and other religious groups, the mosque cleared the suburb’s Common Council and is expected to open this spring. (In the end, most of the criticism related to extra vehicular traffic the facility is likely to attract on Friday afternoons.)
In addition to putting area Muslims on guard, the Sikh shooting has renewed interest in the Interfaith Conference, a union of Baptists, Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, Presbyterians, Quakers, Catholics, Methodists, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and members of the Baha’i faith. Its leader is Tom Heinen, a Catholic and the former religion reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His office in the basement of the organization’s storefront on Vliet Street is bare-bones, sits across from a supply room and floods on rare occasion. One of Heinen’s proudest accomplishments in recent months was recruiting Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to speak at the conference’s annual luncheon in December.
Cohen, who once led lawsuits against the KKK, cycled through slides picturing white supremacists and other extremists before ending on a photograph of the Sikh temple shooter, Wade Michael Page. “We had actually had Page on our radar for about a dozen years,” Cohen said, adding that three months before the shooting, the center released a police training video, “Understanding the Threat: Racist Skinheads,” which singled out Page as an example.
Cohen also read the names of the six Sikhs killed Aug. 5, 2012, as a table ringed with Sikh men wearing suits and turbans looked on. One of those in attendance, Kanwarjit Singh Bajwa, helped to shepherd the construction of the Oak Creek temple in 2007, along with Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple president who died trying to stop Page’s attack. Before immigrating to the U.S., Bajwa supervised the installation of sewers as a captain in the Indian Army Corps of Engineers, and after, he and his wife ran a corner store at 40th Street and Lisbon Avenue that they purchased from Bajwa’s sister.
The couple worked from 8 a.m. to midnight. “And when we came home, the alarm company would call us,” he says. Everything was alien. “Crisco? I didn’t know what Crisco was.” Bajwa’s enterprises expanded to businesses sometimes undertaken by Sikh immigrants. He leased taxicabs, bought a pair of gas stations in Watertown and opened a liquor store on South 27th Street.
Portraits of the six Sikh victims hang just inside the entrance to the low-slung temple in Oak Creek, where a sunglasses-wearing security guard stood watch on a chilly Sunday morning in November. “You never know if it can happen again,” says Swarnjit Arora, a professor of economics at UWM and probably the first Sikh to settle in Milwaukee long-term.
He ignored the counsel of an adviser at the National Bureau of Economic Research by coming to the low-profile Wisconsin school in the 1970s. As other Sikhs immigrated, they held prayers in homes, in the basement of a savings and loan, and at a location on Lincoln Avenue. A purely monotheistic faith, Sikhism came to the U.S. from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, where it emerged in the 15th century as an egalitarian alternative to Hinduism.
There are many sinks inside the Oak Creek temple for hand-washing and rows of narrow rugs in the dining hall where Sikhs sit on the floor during meals. Volunteers run up and down the aisles ladling out a thick spinach dish, a thin preparation of kidney beans called rajma and tangy translucent yogurt. On this Sunday, young men wearing kerchiefs over their hair hurried around the kitchen with catering pans, and Arora scooped milky tea from a large pot, pushing aside cardamom pods to reveal a swirl of their seeds underneath. He says men and women share cooking duties equally, and they sit on opposite sides of the prayer hall.
There, a priest stood behind an ornate reddish-brown altar, swishing a feathery tassel over an open copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Above the altar hung the Sikh khanda symbol combining the outlines of a kettle and two curving swords.
“The Guru Granth is truly an interfaith book,” Arora says. Earlier in the morning, a visiting speaker from New Delhi lectured on Namdev, a Hindu saint. And in the dining hall, there’s a large painting of a Muslim saint – as well as a smaller one showing Punjabi Sikhs and Afghan Muslims clashing on horseback under a cloud of dust.
No obvious signs remained of the shooting other than posters from Sikh temples around the world signed with colored markers, all expressing sympathy. Children clumped together for a game in the basement, organized by Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, a young neuroscience student at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the former temple president’s nephew.
“This is my precious, precious, precious fellow!” Arora said as Kaleka approached.
Another man came by, Balhair Singh Dulai. With shining eyes and a lilt in his step, he told Arora that it would be “35 years this December” since he immigrated to the U.S.
“Time flies,” the professor said.
ELMBROOK CHURCH’S Scott Arbeiter left a career in accounting to pastor at the megachurch.
The Elmbrook Church megachurch in Brookfield is designed to induct, inspire and entertain. There are three public entrances, a Christian bookstore, a welcoming station, a library, a gymnasium, a 900-seat chapel and an a la carte food vendor, and that’s just on the ground level. On the other two, there are nurseries painted in a jungle theme, a student lounge with foosball tables, a coffee shop, a preschool and an administrative wing with offices for 13 full-time pastors, including Senior Pastor Philip Griffin, the lead minister.
The main sanctuary of 3,000 seats rises above all of these floors, and it’s here that Elmbrook’s “producer,” Elliot Lund, oversees the lights, music, video projections, sound effects and stage settings needed to pull off Elmbrook’s weekend worship services, which, all together, attract more than 6,000 people. It’s a big operation, and one that’s served as a model for 13 “daughter churches” in the area that follow a similar nondenominational and missions-centered approach, albeit on a much smaller scale. Most chose names that echo their predecessor – Eastbrook, Meadowbrook, Brooklife – but have no financial or governance ties to Elmbrook.
There are about 180 nondenominational, evangelical congregations in the Milwaukee metro area, according to a 2010 survey released by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Around the Brew City, the faithfully nondenominational have primarily derived from Elmbrook, which began with a Baptist affiliation but disconnected in 1968, going solo. Attendance grew in leaps and bounds, and in 1994, the huge sanctuary, with pews seating 2,000 on the lower level and 1,000 in the upper, opened its doors. Missions also multiplied in the 1990s, led by then-Senior Pastor Stuart Briscoe, an evangelist and former banker from England. Lead Pastor Scott Arbeiter, the clergyman serving immediately below Griffin, also had a first career in financial services. He was a partner at Arthur Andersen, the international accounting firm brought down by the Enron scandal in 2002, but he left just before, trading a commute to downtown Chicago for a position at Elmbrook.
The church’s size means it can marshal not just pastoral but financial assets, some of which go into programming for young families and a popular summer camp. Elmbrook also spends millions on foreign projects and supports about 80 missionaries, including a team that, earlier this year, cleaned out houses flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Arbeiter’s wife, Jewel, is the child of missionaries, and so is Griffin, who grew up in Mexico City. In a recent sermon on the First Beatitude – “blessed are the poor in spirit” – he evoked the beggars he saw every day when he took the subway to school. “Happy, fortunate and favored are you when you can’t even pick yourself up off the floor spiritually,” he said, “and you become a spiritual beggar coming to God broken, empty, bankrupt. This is what it’s about.”
Photographs of an elephant and a mother lion hang on the wall in Arbeiter’s office, which looks out over the stone-covered roof of the branching, expanding Elmbrook facility. “We didn’t end up being large,” he says. “We ended up being faithful, and large happened.”
Elmbrook strives to be inclusive, but its theology precludes one group from formal membership: “practicing homosexuals.” Gays who commit to celibacy may join. A former staff member, a lesbian who practices celibacy, sometimes returns to the church to speak on the issue. “We believe homosexuals are precious and loved by God,” Arbeiter says, and if someone identifies as gay, “We would say, ‘We’ll walk with you, but we do not condone homosexual practice.’” Gays in relationships are welcome to attend services, though Elmbrook’s pastors are unlikely to approve of those relationships, according to Arbeiter. “The scriptures are clear that sexual expression is designed for a heterosexual, monogamous relationship.”
Elmbrook’s policies toward homosexuality are similar to those at two of the three largest synods of Lutheranism. The most conservative of the trio, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), is based in a former office building in Wauwatosa. With 1,820 congregations in 49 states and 23 foreign countries, WELS is the only major national church body headquartered in the Milwaukee area, where 44 of its churches are located. Current president Mark Schroeder grew up in Watertown and previously oversaw the town’s Luther Preparatory School, the synod’s boarding school, which produces students for its seminaries. About 95 percent of WELS pastors and teachers are trained in WELS’ Ministerial Education program. “All of our pastors basically come out knowing the same things and teaching the same things,” he says. “Our faith is based on the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross to set us free. Everything else flows joyously from that.”
Like many forms of Lutheranism, the WELS way teaches that the Bible is the literal word of God. Humans wrote its pages, but God “breathed the words of scripture into the authors and moved them to write what they wrote,” he says. “We would believe that God created the world in six days. End of discussion for us. Were people evolved over billions of years? No.”
Devoted WELS Lutherans believe through other passages in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin and God defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, two conclusions of great debate among many protestant denominations. “We’re open to people who are homosexual,” Schroeder says, “but we treat that as we would any other sin,” meaning “the Law and the Gospel” are brought to bear.
Salvation is won by God’s grace alone, Lutherans believe. That’s the belief within WELS and also at the Missouri Synod, the second-largest group of Lutherans in the country. Its president overseeing southern Wisconsin, John Wille, says its synodical convention allows women to vote and chaplains to serve in the military, but most other practices align with WELS. Neither is predisposed to interfaith efforts, though the Missouri Synod has allied with Roman Catholics on the issue of abortion. Like all three of the synods, its membership is slowly falling.
The largest synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, still counts about 90,000 members in southeastern Wisconsin. Its Milwaukee-based bishop, Jeffrey Barrow, favors ecumenical work, a nonpartisan form of social advocacy and a differing interpretation of the Bible’s stance on homosexuality. He’s what a WELS Lutheran might call liberal. “All children are God’s children, OK?” he says. “When I baptize a baby, I don’t put an asterisk on the birth certificate and say, ‘Only if this is a heterosexual child.’”
During ELCA’s 2009 convention, delegates voted to permit openly gay pastors, and the synod has long allowed women to minister. “In a society that was male-dominated, Jesus seemed to uphold women,” Barrow says. “If you read the Bible honestly, it’s hard not to ordain women.”
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The area’s other religious powerhouse, the Milwaukee Archdiocese, has gone through a pruning of its own, falling from about 471,700 self-identified Catholics in 2000 to 382,700 in 2010, according to the ASARB surveys. The decline comes as clergy abuse scandals dating back decades have subjected the church’s image to a prolonged erosion. “Those have been abysmal in terms of people being hurt by the very thing that should be protecting them,” says the Rev. Tim Kitzke, who oversees four parishes on the East Side and Downtown. As one of many poster children of the city’s priest shortage, he works 60 to 70 hours a week, moving between hospital rooms, the homes of the elderly, a central office on Humboldt Boulevard and all seven parish churches.
Youngish and spry, he has a reputation as a buzz-maker, and since he transferred to the East Side 14 years ago, membership in the largest parish he tends to has roughly doubled. “Churches are filling again but with a new population,” he says. “People are not looking for dogma so much as connection.” So he pushes evening activities, adult formation groups and an attitude of welcoming. “I say a lot that you enter our doors as a stranger but once,” he says. “With a church that’s cliquey, grouchy or judgmental, who’s going to come back?”
At Saint Hedwig Church, which borders on Brady Street, Kitzke tore down bricks that covered up stained-glass windows on the sanctuary’s west side and removed plywood panels attached to intricate wooden vents in the ceiling. He’d like to one day tear out a wall to expose more stained glass on the east end of the church. “That’s my next project,” he says, walking briskly to the sacristy and past a wall of drawers. They’re labeled ablution towels, purificators, white gloves, Saint Blaise candles, cinctures, funeral pall, red altar cloth, baptism supplies, finger towels, wedding towels and ornate lectionary.
He swings down a staircase to a remodeled room in the basement, home to couches and Christmas lights, which the church opens to the poor on Fridays. In an adjoining room, piles of clothing lay on tables, and to the north, on Bremen Street, the parish runs a food pantry at the Saint Casimir Church. “Catholic social teaching is a hidden jewel,” he says, looking around at a dining room set and a coffee pot. For Lent, he pledged to take better care of his health, which isn’t easy when he’s assisting with about 140 weddings, 120 baptisms and 100 funerals a year. He sees the funerals as an opportunity to present his version of Catholicism to former Catholics or people who’ve had little exposure to the denomination.
For most religious communities, the church or temple serves as “a place where the primary cycles of life are observed and celebrated,” says Rabbi Ronald Shapiro at Congregation Shalom in Fox Point, the area’s largest synagogue, “and I think that creates a closeness.” He occasionally wanders into the synagogue’s main sanctuary to find someone sitting alone in front of the blue and green stained glass tree that rises over the sanctuary’s ark, which contains a set of Torah scrolls. “People are really in need of finding community,” he says, “because those in which they grew up don’t exist in the same way they used to.”
In Shapiro’s office is a wide, wheat-brown couch mounded high with blankets and pillows, a place for any of the 1,041 families who are members to “come in and agonize about” the loss of a loved one, a period of unemployment or a painful question such as, “Why do bad things happen to people who are inherently good?”
Kitzke, the Catholic, would advise pastors not to answer that question directly. “People in these situations are not really looking for an answer,” he says. “People are just asking for their pain to be validated and for their fears and doubts to be taken as real.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that President Mark Schroeder had said that “love and the Gospel” are brought to bear in the case of homosexuals. In fact, he said that “the Law and the Gospel” are brought to bear.
FOX POINT Rabbi Ronald Shapiro wore a Packers cap during part of the 2012 Hanukkah service.
The Rev. Steven Harris, senior pastor at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on the city’s North Side, stood at the front of the church’s sanctuary, uttering the first sentences of a stem-winder of a sermon on the Holy Ghost. “Since the ’80s, we’ve been saying, ‘We are going to take back the streets,’” he said, his voice projecting from a pair of Peavey speakers mounted at the front of the sanctuary. “And we ain’t took them back yet. They’re still out there. Same streets, even worse.”
Harris held his hands so his fingertips pressed lightly against his breastbone. “We’re afraid to realize just how strong we really are,” he said. “We’ve got the power to change this society in which we live.” According to an ASARB survey, there were about 38,600 black Protestants in the metro area in 2010 and some 48,900 Baptists of all races.
Harris used other motions. He gripped the podium’s top and rocked from left to right. He pointed twice to a space above the 100 or so men and women sitting in the pews, the white vestments billowing under his arm. He pulled a square of handkerchief out of his pocket, dabbed at his chin and lowered the cloth in his hand like an elevator.
“I’m talkin’ about Holy Ghost power,” he said. “It is the power that enables us to survive those terrible tragedies and difficulties that come into our lives.”
Sitting next to her mother near the back of the congregation, Alicia Blalock listened and readied herself to leave for her job at Kohl’s corporate headquarters in Menomonee Falls once the service concluded. This was Super Bowl Sunday, and she expected to answer calls from a number of “sick” employees requesting the afternoon off. In past years, she worked for U.S. Bank in Minneapolis and in Sacramento, Calif., where she attended another black Baptist church.
She was living there in 2008 when California’s Proposition 8, a state constitutional ban on gay marriage, went up for a vote, and members of the church encouraged each other to vote in favor. “And I followed suit, feeling like it was the right thing to do,” she says, “but now that I think about it, I wish that I had voted against it and stood up to the beliefs that were being preached in my church at that time.” She doesn’t accept a number of positions commonly held by Baptists: that Jesus Christ is the only path to heaven; that legislation should outlaw abortion and gay marriage; and that creationism excludes the acceptance of evolution.
After returning to Milwaukee, she enrolled in the religious studies program at UWM and made friends who were Jews, Muslims, even atheists. “To me, faith is a very personal thing,” she says. “My church is very big on proselytizing. I’m not.”
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The Unitarian Universalists – which have lively congregations in Milwaukee, Mequon and Brookfield – push open-mindedness and the definition of pluralism to their outer limits. A 2009 survey of the Milwaukee church’s members uncovered a disorienting variety of religious practice: 15 percent identified as humanists; 15 percent as transcendentalists; 12 percent as agnostics; 11 percent as existentialists; 9 percent as naturalistic theists; and 8 percent as mystics. Others identified as atheists, Buddhists, neo-pagans, pantheists and henotheists.
“Most churches center themselves around a religion,” says Rev. Drew Kennedy of the First Unitarian Society on Astor Street, “but we’re centered around a search for answers, a quest.” The bookshelf in his office (where a bumper sticker declares he’s “Doing My Part to Piss Off the Religious Right”) holds copies of the Analects of Confucius, the Rig Veda of Hinduism, the Quran, the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text. “I like Buddhism,” Kennedy says, sitting near a Buddha statuette that holds a soccer ball and an Einstein action figure with electrified hair.
Many Buddhists, who believe in the essential impermanence and interdependence of all things, find reinforcement of their tradition in scientific descriptions of atomic particles. “We all have a nature, but it’s transient and changing,” says Tonen O’Connor, a follower of the Japanese Soto Zen school and the former resident priest at the Milwaukee Zen Center. And because all things are linked and nothing is static, she says, “The idea that I can discard you without hurting myself is just not true.”
In the late 1990s, O’Connor began visiting prison inmates around the state and holding meetings for them that included zazen meditation and periods of group discussion. In 2012, she self-published a book, Buddhas Behind Bars, containing the self-reported stories of three of her students: two men convicted of homicide and another serving time for sexual assault. Over the course of about four years, the men mailed envelopes filled with typed and handwritten pages to O’Connor, who carefully retyped the manuscripts, making only minor changes. She mailed the resulting documents back to the prisoners, who replied with more changes, and the cycle continued. Eventually, O’Conner brought the Wisconsin Department of Corrections into the loop, and officials allowed her to deposit proceeds from the book’s sales into an escrow account for the men.
When she left the Zen Center in 2011, she threw out a filing cabinet filled with correspondence from inmates, but now she’s started another. She still visits the Racine Correctional Institution three Fridays a month, with the fourth Friday reserved for the Wiccans.
At the age of 80, she says she’s “really hoping to slow down.” Buddhism, after all, was a second calling. Between 1974 and 1995, she worked as managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the job that took her to Japan, where a friend invited her to attend a Buddhist temple. The encounter was a landmark in her journey of religious and philosophical identification, which progressed from Presbyterianism to Unitarianism, Existentialism and lastly Buddhism, which shapes her world view today.
She compares the universe to a fishing net strung with jewels that shift and reflect each of the others, ad infinitum. “You could say something must have put all of this into motion,” she says, wearing brown Buddhist robes and a plum-colored coat warm enough for the January weather, “but it’s kind of irrelevant.”
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Mike Madouse’s February marriage was an intercultural affair attended by the Palestinian family of his bride, Fatmeh, and his own relatives, to whom the couple sent an email on Muslim customs to read as a primer. When the big day arrived, the couple signed a marriage contract, per Islamic custom, and the families shared dessert and coffee at Fatmeh’s parents’ house. It was coffee that made the union possible – for some weeks leading up to the service, Madouse took Fatmeh’s father out for coffee once a week, and the two talked religion and politics until the father said suddenly, and to Madouse’s surprise, that he had his blessing to go forward with the marriage.
Madouse was nearly as persistent when he befriended a Jewish man at Herzing, a psychologist who developed curriculum for the college. For a time, until the man was transferred to another building, Madouse would hike up to his office once a week to debate religion and politics. “I’d ask him a lot of questions to learn about Judaism,” he says, “and we’d sit in his office and duke it out for an hour. But we loved each other, and we were getting to be friends.”
The man finally, when Madouse got up to leave one day, said, “All right bro, I’ll see you next week,” but retracted his statement. “We’re cousins!” he said. Madouse laughs about it today. “We’re spiritual cousins.”
Madouse hasn’t seen him since and is back to answering the phone “a million times a day,” exercising his people skills and advising potential students on financial aid options – until it’s time to pray again.