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Forum to encourage respect for a diversity of beliefs

Daily Record staff

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Paul Kuehnel - York County Heritage Trust
From left, Nancy Worley, a pagan and organizer for the ‘Being non-Christian in York County’ forum, talks with Cathy Ash, executive director of York Human Relations Commission; Randy Freedman, director of cultural diversity for the York Jewish Community Center; and Ann Booth, of the Baha’i Congregation of York, about Monday’ program during a recent meeting at the commission’ office in York.
People sometimes confuse Nancy Worley as being a “good Christian woman.”

“I look like one,” Worley said, laughing.

While well-intentioned sayings like “I’ll pray for you” and “Happy Easter” are not offensive to her, Worley, a pagan, wishes people would not always assume she’s Christian.

”There’s a general assumption that these things are OK,” she said. “They are not OK.”

Worley, 43, hopes she and others can get their points across next week at a “Being non-Christian in York County” forum she has organized.

The forum, sponsored by Lancaster’s Alliance For Tolerance and Freedom and York’s No Place For Hate Task Force, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at York Little Theatre.

The event marks the final diversity event that could make York the first county outside of the Philadelphia area to become a “No Place For Hate” community, said Cathy Ash, executive director of the York Human Relations Commission.

Ash said once three events are held, officials can apply to the Anti-Defamation League. The first two events were Martin Library’s Family Festival for Unity held earlier this month and the commission’s 21st Annual Dr. Frederick D. Holliday Memorial conference held in October.

A fight against racism started more than a year ago when a racist group held a meeting at Martin Library in York. Two other racist groups have visited since, and another is planning to visit in May. Some people have responded by holding church and community events that bring together people of different races and ethnicities.

However, few have addressed people’s differing religious beliefs.

Worley hopes forum attendees will be enlightened after listening and meeting people who are not Christian or who don’t follow a mainstream religion.

“These people all live in this community,” Worley said.

“They are here. They are not going anywhere.”

Stereotypes and misconceptions

Worley describes pagans as “tree-hugging dirt worshipers.”

“But, what being pagan means to me is not necessarily what it means to someone else,” she said.

Generally, she said, pagans consider themselves to be on an earth-based spiritual path. Today’s neo-pagan movement focuses strongly on agricultural holidays such as Beltaine on May eve, and the summer and winter solstices and the spring equinox, she said.

Worley’s paganism doesn’t involve sacrificing.

“Most pagans are vegetarians,” she said.

Non-Christians don’t always admit they are not Christian because bringing it up can be difficult, Worley said. Data was not available to show how many pagans live in York County, but Worley said she keeps in contact with several in the region.

Panel member Randy Freed- man, director of diversity affairs for the York Jewish Community Center, said she doesn’t experience many negative responses when she tells Christians she’s Jewish.

But she does get pity.

“It upsets them that I’m not what they are,” she said. Some have told her that her religion is not good for her.

Judaism has a commonality with Christianity believers worship one God, and each has believers all over the world, Freedman said. For those reasons, it is better understood than less-followed beliefs such as atheism and paganism, she said.

Yet, there are still some people who only know Judaism as being the faith that doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

Liz Burcin, director for Pennsylvania American Atheists, said some people have the wrong view of atheists.

“They feel we have no morals. We’re devil worshipers. We’re evil,” she said. “They feel they need to save us.”

Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife or anything supernatural such as gods, heaven or hell, devils or angels.

“Live a meaningful life while we’re here,” she said. “We don’t know if there is a tomorrow.

“I’m not all-knowing either, but we believe what we see and what science tells us.”

If there is a hell, and she doesn’t believe there is, she won’t be alone.

“Everyone I know will be there,” she said.

Burcin’s atheist group in York has about 300 members.

Steve Snell, representing the Unitarian Universalists on the panel, said a common misconception about Unitarians is that they can believe in anything.

“There are some principles,” he said. “It’s just the principles run across a broad spectrum.”

Unitarians believe that there are a variety of faiths and they are equally valid.

Susan Savia, the Buddhist panel member, said when people talk to her as if she is Christian, she usually accepts the notion. If someone says “God bless you,” she thinks that’s very kind and assumes that they are blessed by Buddha.

And she thanks them.

“In the big scheme of things, it’s not that important,” the 49-year-old said.

Denouncing Christianity

When Christians try to convert and save Burcin, her response is simple.

“I’ve been there and won’t be going back,” she said. “No matter what they say, no matter how hard they try to scare me.”

Some Christians she encounters tell her she’ll go to hell if she doesn’t start believing in God. She’ll face the wrath of God.

“I don’t want to be in a religion when you are scared of your god,” she said. “Do they think that makes it attractive?”

Burcin was a Catholic for 25 years. She began questioning her belief and, after reading a book about atheism, discovered she didn’t believe in God.

Savia was baptized Episcopalian, and her family later joined a Methodist church. She attended Mass occasionally with a relative and sang in the folk Mass. Eventually, she converted to Catholicism.

But an upheaval in her church led her to dip into paganism, agnosticism, born-again Christianity and even Judaism. She started practicing Buddhism after reading a Buddhist text.

“Happiness is a state of mind,” Savia says, describing her religion in the most simple way possible.

But not everyone scheduled to be on the panel has denounced Christianity.

Ann Booth, of the Baha’i Congregation of York, said she is not happy with the name of the forum “Being Non-Christian” because her religion believes in Jesus Christ.

“We don’t deny that the Bible is a holy book and that Jesus was a great teacher,” she said. “But we recognize other great teachers, too, like Buddha and Mohammed.”

After high school, 52-year-old Booth, who was raised Christian, sought a new religion. Baha’i “seemed like it fit the bill.”

Bahaists believe that all people of all religions pray to one God.

“God has created all people and there’s no room for racism in any way,” she said.

How Christians see different paths

Some Christian churches in York have begun tackling racism, an issue that has drawn increased attention since the cases of two unsolved murders from York’s 1969 race riots were reopened.

Last month, a Catholic church held a meeting to discuss how racism can be eradicated in churches and the community. The task is challenging enough.

Yet, there are two other hot buttons in Christian churches nationally, said David Danneberger, executive director of the York County Council of Churches, which consists of only Christian churches. Those issues are homosexuality and differing paths to God.

A Moravian pastor, Danneberger said some pastors argue that there could be other ways to God.

“I am a Christian pastor and I feel very strongly that my way for me and for others is the best way,” he said. “However, I realize there are other faiths and other ways of approaching God.”

But, when talking about non-believers, it’s a different story, he said.

“Now, there I’m very intolerant,” he said, joking sort of.

“I do find it very difficult to understand how someone cannot believe in God,” he said. “It’s hard for me, as a believer, because there’s so much experience and so much evidence.”

Culturally, he said, Christians have been taught that if you don’t believe in Christianity, then you’ve turned away from God, and that belief has instilled a negative feeling toward people who don’t. Also, he said, people tend to relate better to people who share the same beliefs.

However, just because it’s difficult to understand a non-believer doesn’t mean he can’t relate to that person or be friends with them. In fact, he said, he has atheist friends.

Danneberger said Christians should accept everyone including homosexuals.

“Whether you think homosexuality is a sin or not, isn’t the greater sin that you have rejected them?” he said.

The same goes for non-believers, he said.

“That person should still be a child of God in your eyes,” he said. “Whether they believe it or not, they are created in God’s image and that’s biblical nobody can argue with me on that.”

Danneberger admits, though, that his heart goes out to people who don’t believe in the Christian God.

“I grieve for people who have turned away from God,” he said. “I want them to get to know Jesus.”

Founding Fathers’ diverse views

“We’re raised to never discuss religion or politics, but, in a sense, there’s a disconnect because of that,” said Savia, who founded York’s Kalpa Bhadra Buddhist Center.

The result of not talking about religious differences is that people don’t really know what other people believe, Freedman said.

Snell said as a Unitarian he’s looking forward to speaking because he’s tired of hearing that America was founded on monotheistic beliefs.

“Our Founding Fathers were diverse in their religious views,” Snell said.

John Adams, the second U.S. president, was a Unitarian Universalist. Additionally, Thomas Paine was a deist and Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the Gospels by cutting and pasting them together, excising all references to miracles.

Snell worries that America’s law is being portrayed to the world as Christian law.

People have been bantering for years about whether the U.S. government was built on Christianity, said David Dreisbach, a law professor at American University.

Culturally, he said, most Americans identify themselves as Christians. The founders were no different, he said. While people such as Jefferson and Adams adhered to secular beliefs, others, such as George Washington, were religious but didn’t speak publicly about it.

Dreisbach believes the founders preserved religious differences so they did not have to pick one denomination of Christianity.

While the debate continues, York County residents are looking forward to speaking openly later this month.

Panel members, and some other York County residents, hope that the forum will reach some Christians who make up more than 70 percent of the country and help them become more accepting of people’s beliefs.

Burcin said some Christians take her beliefs personally and they shouldn’t.

“What does it matter what I believe?” she said. “Why would you be threatened by my beliefs?

Reach Shawn Ledington at 771-2048 or


Atheism: The belief that there is no God.

Baha’i: Modern religion that stresses principles of universal brotherhood and social equality.

Buddhism: Buddhism teaches that right thinking and self-denial will enable the soul to reach Nirvana, a divine state of release from misdirected desire.

Islam: Monotheistic religion in which the supreme deity is Allah and the chief prophet and founder is Mohammed.

Judaism: Monotheistic religion based on laws and teachings of Holy Scripture and the Talmud.

Paganism: Pagans are not religious, but do celebrate traditional agricultural holidays such as the summer and winter solstices and the spring equinox.

Unitarian Universalist: Belief that denies the doctrine of the Trinity. It accepts moral teachings, but rejects the divinity of Jesus and holding that God exists as one person or being.


What: ‘Being non-Christian in York County’ forum

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: York Little Theatre on Belmont Street in Spring Garden Township

Panel members: Anser Ahmad, Muslim; Ann Booth, Baha’i; Liz Burcin, atheist; Randy Freedman, Jewish; Susan Savia, Buddhist; Steve Snell, Unitarian Universalist; and Nancy Worley, pagan.

Details: The event is free and open to the public. Each panel member will speak for several minutes and a question-and-answer session will follow.

©Copyright 2003, York Daily Record (PA, USA)

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