Friday, March 29, 2013

Charlotte-born doctor talks about time in heaven

Last Friday night (March 22), March Madness was in its televised glory. And Taylor Swift was singing and strumming at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Despite such competition, Christ Episcopal Church managed to draw 1,100 people.

The attraction: A doctor describing his time in heaven.

Not just any doctor. Sitting on stage, answering questions from the Rev. Chip Edens, the church’s rector, was Dr. Eben Alexander. He’s a Charlotte native who wrote “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.” His book is such a mega-seller that he has talked to Oprah – and Universal Pictures won a bidding war to turn it into a (probably 3-D) movie.

Christians believe life doesn’t end with physical death, that the soul lives on – hopefully with God. But that scenario has always been a matter of faith since those who die generally get a one-way ticket.

So there’s a natural fascination with – and a big market for – books by people who claim to have had a near-death experience, in which most report traveling down a dark tunnel, being welcomed by dead relatives, and running smack into a loving divine light. A few of these books are intriguing; many are cheesy attempts to proselytize.

Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven” is definitely in the intriguing category. Here was a man of science who had been skeptical of this idea of life after death.

After his own brain was attacked by a rare bacterial infection, he had a unique seven-day experience, in which he says some part of him entered a gateway to paradise, wordlessly communed with God – or the Core – and felt love and peace.

On Friday, Alexander was articulate, soft-spoken and yet passionate. He impressed this reporter. Decide for yourself: To watch a video of the interview, go to the church’s web site ( and click on “Christ Church TV.”

 Alexander is now a self-described Christian who attends an Episcopal church in Virginia. He told the crowd that his experience convinced him of the following: reincarnation makes sense, but hell doesn’t; scientists know less than they think they do, but there’s no contradiction between science and religion; and God loves all of his creatures – Christians, Jews, atheists, big-time sinners, etc.

Now that he’s back? “I’m nicer” and “I’m not afraid of death. I know it’s not an end.”

 I got in one question: With Easter on the horizon, how does he view Christians’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection?

 “I realize that Christ came to show us the eternity of all of our souls,” he said. “It’s all about understanding that gift of love. This talk about coming back to life someday in physical bodies doesn’t really make any sense. It’s all about souls being eternal. Easter is just a confirmation of the real miracle of Jesus coming back. But he was doing that as a gift and … showing us what we all have: eternal life.”

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 15, 2013

A chat with public radio host Krista Tippett

Public radio host Krista Tippett covers the Big Think beat better than anybody in my business.

Every week on “On Being,” this Yale Divinity School grad with the made-for-public-radio voice digs deep, exploring mystery, tradition, consciousness and a hundred other things with theologians, scientists and philosophers.

Tippett is coming to Charlotte on Monday (March 18) – it’ll be her first visit – to speak at Queens University of Charlotte (7 p.m. in Dana Auditorium; tickets are free). And I’m happy to report that, during our recent phone chat, she was just as penetrating and articulate as she is on her show. (It’s carried on 250 stations, including Charlotte’s WFAE, 90.7 FM, where it airs Sundays at 7 a.m.)

An Oklahoma native whose grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, she’s now an Episcopalian who’s “between churches.” And that much-admired voice? “I can’t stand to listen to myself,” she said with a laugh.

Tippett talked with me about everything from Jesuits (the Catholic order that produced Pope Francis) to her upcoming Easter show (on how the civil rights movement was more religious than political) to science and religion (and how they often complement each other).

Here's an edited version of that Q&A.

Q. What are you going to tell your audience in Charlotte?

I'm going to talk about my thinking about science and religion. Basically, I think we've conducted a kind of false, contrived debate (between them) in our culture. We've set up a division that is not real or necessary, but it's entrenched, we're used to it and we know how to conduct it. I don't find it to be useful and I have personally found it incredibly exciting to hear the echoes across these two spheres. This is also some of the programming that our listeners can't get enough of.

This week, because of the new pope, I've been thinking about Jesuits (the religious order that produced the pope). One of my favorite interviews of all time was with these two Jesuit astronomers. One of them ran the Vatican Observatory and the other is the director of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. Both of them have asteroids named after them, which is actually a big honor. They live in this rich intersection of being scientists and being people of faith. And finding those things to be mutually enlivening, even joyful, and not at all in contradiction. I just think that's a story that hasn't been told.

Q. You mean the false debate of science vs. religion?

Yes. And the other thing that I am totally fascinated about and am totally following is how in fields like neuroscience and biology and physics even, scientists -- whether they're religious or not -- are making observations about what it means to be human, about the cosmos, and about our place in the cosmos.

They're posing the kind of questions that, up to now in human history, theologians and philosophers posed. You can put aside the old debate about religion and evolution. There are really fruitful, mutually fascinating discussions happening now between neuroscientists who are thinking about the brain and consciousness and religious people who think about consciousness. That is opening up a great deal for all of us -- things about ourselves that we all want to learn more about.

Q. You seem to be the only one pursuing that -- you and maybe Charlie Rose (on PBS). Why are so few journalists mining that?

There's a lot of great coverage of science. There are a lot of people covering what these neuroscientists are doing and what these physicists are doing. But (journalists) are not making the connections between the great human questions that, in fact, these scientists are adding to.

People who are spiritual, who are living in the depths of their (religious) tradition, and scientists who are completely immersed in their passion for science tend not to be the people who throw themselves in front of microphones. It's a lot easier for journalists to find those strident voices who actually make for a good headline
Q. If you could land the new pope for an interview on your show, what do you think you'd ask him?

I don't know enough about him to answer that question. I haven't dug in yet. Maybe I'll say what I am fascinated about are Jesuits, which I do know a little about.

I've never met a Jesuit who wasn't intriguing. And I've met so many people who were educated by Jesuits who really value that and it really formed them, whether they were even religious for the rest of their lives.
(In interviews), I have really experienced Jesuits to be explorers. Throughout history, in the colonial period. at a time when the West was discovering parts of the world, Jesuits were there, literally, being explorers.
And I feel like they're kind of spiritual explorers, too -- searching and thinking beyond the limitations we've maybe boxed ourselves into. They don't seem to be scared of boundaries. That could serve the new pope well.

Q. Are we at a spiritual crossroads? We've seen in polls an increase in "nones" -- people with no religious affiliation. And many young people seem to have questions about organized religion.

On the "nones," I actually take a little bit of a radical view: That some of them may be a crucible of renewing and reforming religion in the coming period.

I tweeted about this a few months ago when some of these polls were out again. I always point out that, if you dig around in those numbers, a very, very small percentage of those growing number of "nones" call themselves atheists.

Q. Exactly. About 2 percent, I think.

Yeah, it's tiny. Anecdotally, I feel that a of of people who (put) themselves in that ("nones") category are pretty vigorous spiritual seekers. And, really importantly, there's a real commitment to service as a core of what they want religion and spirituality to be about. They don't always find (that) in institutions.

I think a lot these days about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany in the mid-20th century. Very, very different circumstances. In his world, the church had been totally co-opted by the (Nazi) government. But he had seen the institution cease to be the carrier of its own heart and soul and its virtues and its theology. And when he was in prison, he started thinking about this notion of a religionless Christianity. His idea was that Christianity brings truths into the world that will survive and be resurrected even as the institutions and the structures and the words fail.

I don't know this for sure, but I do believe there is something in that ("nones") movement that, 50 or 100 years from now, we may look back and say that was a crucible in renewal.

Q. I could imagine that a lot of the people you just described -- the young, spiritual seekers -- are tuning into your show. But I wonder if you're getting many Southern Baptists from Oklahoma -- and yet, that's where you came from.

I have to say that one thing that really pleases me about how the show has evolved is that we do have a great spectrum of listeners. We have really devout Christians, Muslims and Jews, and Buddhists. And then a lot of atheists and agnostics. And we have a good age range: a lot of younger people and also a lot of people at the much older range -- these times when you're asking these big questions in an energetic way.

What I really try to do in the show, whoever I'm interviewing, is honor the depths of faith and traditions and theology. I think that, even as there is a wariness about institutional religion, when you really present people with substance, with the thick of this, with a great theologian, that's an exciting experience. And I like to bring  that experience to people.

And I have funny experiences. Like: We have one of our shows, our classic shows, years and years ago, with Jaroslav Pelikan before he died. He was the great historian of doctrine. He did the great work of the 20th century on Christian doctrine. And I cannot tell you how many people, how many Unitarian Universalists (laughs) have said, "That's my favorite show, the show on the creeds."

This is the way interreligious encounter works, when it's profound. It's not a proselytizing thing -- it's not "My religion is more interesting than your religion." When we encounter the religious Other, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about them. I've seen this over and over again. It's a paradox. It's hard to talk about unless people have experienced it.

If people have had this experience, you can become much more deeply and richly planted in your soil at the same time that you have this new appreciation, even awe of this religious Other.

There's no contradiction there. That is a reflection of the reverence for mystery that our traditions call us to at their depth as much as they call us to orthodoxy. I just think it's a creative tension.

Q. You have a divinity degree from Yale. Is your interest in religion these days just scholarly or do you go to church?

It's scholarly and more than scholarly. What I care about with the show is inviting my guests to trace that line between what we know and who we are, the life we lead and the theology and the positions we hold and how they influence each other and change across time.

I walk that line, too. Sometimes people think I wouldn't be able to declare myself, to have a religious life, because I'm a public radio host and a journalist. I think that's kind of a weird bias to hold journalists to when compared to other spheres. You wouldn't trust an economics correspondent who didn't have a bank account. And you wouldn't trust a political correspondent who didn't vote. Now, you still hold people accountable for understanding the boundaries between their personal convictions and professional role. I certainly accept those boundaries.

Christianity is my mother tongue and homeland. And that's just as true now as it was 10 years ago. My life and my spiritual life are so enriched by the people I talk to from many traditions.If I did this work and if I had these conversations I've had and I didn't have a religious life of my own, I don't know what kind of person I would be. I'm in there, I care, right? If someone wants to tell me what they know about leading a worthy life, what they know about God and it's a person of integrity, of course I want to hear that.

I just recently went on a civil rights pilgrimage that was led by (U.S. Rep.) John Lewis, the great civil rights legend. And I sat down with him in Montgomery (Alabama). That show is going to be on Easter. And it was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. One of the things he reminded me of was that the civil rights movement was a religious movement. Faith was absolutely in the forefront. Nonviolence was a spiritual confrontation inside yourself and then with the world outside. It was about love of enemies. We have completely changed this memory collectively. We've turned it into a political movement and (Dr. Martin Luther) King into an activist. Everything there started and ended in churches. Every march. The music was as important as the agenda.

We've whitewashed this out of a lot of our memory about who we are as a culture. But I'm committed to being part of that, that substantive place of these ideas and these virtues in a public life. I'm part of that personally as well as professionally.

Q. Do you identify with any church?

Right now, I'm kind of like a lot of people -- I'm kind of between churches. I grew up Southern Baptist. I became an Episcopalian, or Anglican, when I was living in England. Technically, I'm Episcopalian. But I don't really have a church right now that I feel great about. I will again. I moved a few years ago and haven't found a place.

Q. Your voice seems to match your show's focus on mystery and depth. Is that natural?

It's very strange to me that people talk about my voice. I was really insecure about my voice when I started this because I hadn't done radio before. And I didn't have a radio voice. And if you listen to interviews I did 10 years ago, I sound like the same person. But if you listen to me doing the script and narration introducing the show, I sound really uptight because I was. I found it incredibly nerve-wracking and traumatizing to do that piece of it.

I finally realized that a radio voice is just a real voice. When people talk to me about my voice now -- I can't stand to listen to myself. I can't listen to a show when it's on radio.I think something happens when you hear a voice come out of the radio. It's like an aura illusion -- not an optical illusion, but an aural illusion. Now the ironic thing is that when a person says to me "You have such a great voice for radio, such a great voice for the subject," I just think it's because it's evolved and your hear it and it seems to sound right.

This is a very funny topic for me, because I'm essentially insecure about it.

Funk: 704-358-5703;

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Before going home: A visit to 'occupied' Bethlehem

After more than 12 hours in the air, Charlotte's interfaith travelers broke into applause at 5 a.m. Tuesday when their flight from Tel Aviv landed in Philadelphia.

A few hours later, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, there were hugs, kisses and promises to work together as a group -- as a new "family:" of Jews and Christians, as some put it -- to build on the lessons they'd learned during their eight days together in Israel and in parts of the Palestinian territories.

It was advertised as an interfaith religious trip for members of Temple Beth El, a Reform Jewish congregation, and Myers Park Baptist, a liberal Protestant church. And, indeed, the group of 40-plus pilgrims -- led by Rabbi Judy Schindler and the Rev. Steve Shoemaker -- spent most of their time touring sites sacred to Jews and Christians.

But during the final days of their visit, the focus shifted from the ancient past to the "complicated" present, as one Israeli rabbi characterized modern-day Israel. The Charlotteans got front-line reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the state of interfaith relations in Israel, and the tensions within each of the major religions in the Holy Land.

Last Friday night, as part of a Shabbat dinner at a kibbutz, the group was serenaded by French Catholic nuns living in Emmaus and got a progress report from a Muslim sheikh who has founded a peace center in Nazareth.

Two nights later, at a hotel in Jerusalem, they listened -- and asked questions -- during a panel discussion hosted by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. Speaking were an Arab Episcopal priest, a Muslim Sharia law judge, and a liberal rabbi.

But the Charlotte group seemed most affected on Monday. That's when the tour bus passed through an Israeli security checkpoint to enter the Palestinian West Bank -- and Bethlehem. 

For Jews, Bethlehem is the City of King David and the place where Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is buried. And for Christians, it's where Jesus was born in a manger, a history-changing event that, according to some Gospel accounts, drew angels, shepherds and Wise Men bearing gifts.

Today, 30 percent of Bethlehem's population is Christian. But, mostly, it's a city of Muslims.

The Charlotte group bounded off the bus and hurried through the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, stopping only long enough to hear some words from Palestinian Christian tour guide Suhair Sababa. She explained how St. Jerome had translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin -- it's the version called the Vulgate -- while living in a chapel cell deep in the bosom of the Bethlehem church.

There was also time, though barely, to admire the church's wall sculpture telling the story of how David, the young shepherd boy, was anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel.

But what's happening NOW soon overwhelmed what happened back then as the Charlotteans exited the church to the sound -- via loudspeakers -- of  Muslims being called to prayer. And a sign on the pilgrims' path back to the bus read this: "Welcome to Bethlehem. We welcome you in your journey as we welcomed the Prince of Peace. Pray for the freedom of Palestine."

As the group waited for the bus, Temple Beth El member Ellen Martin posed for a photo with one of the Palestinian police officers.

"My wish is for peace," she said she told him.

His response: "I don't think that's going to happen."

But earlier in the day, the Charlotte group -- Jews and Christians -- seemed to bond with Sami Awad. He's a  Palestinian Christian who founded a group called Holy Land Trust to seek non-violent solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via workshops for, among others, leaders in the region.

"The majority on both sides say in polls that they want peace," Awad said of the Israelis and Palestinians. "So what is missing? Leadership."

Murmurs of "a-ha" went up in the group.

Awad was critical of what he (and virtually all Palestinians) call the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank, complete with a 25-foot wall that surrounds a section of Bethlehem. But he added that violent retaliation by some Palestinians only confirms Israeli suspicions that they can't be trusted.

Though some supporters of Israeli policies have charged that Awad does not sufficiently recognize Israeli security concerns, there were calls in the group on Monday to bring him to Charlotte to speak to an even bigger audience.

After a quick visit to a park said to be where the shepherds heard the angels that first Christmas, the Charlotte tourists went shopping. Bethlehem is abuzz with vendors hawking everything from rosaries and Nativity scenes made from the branches of its famous olive trees to luscious fruits and vegetables.

And suspiciously familiar-sounding coffee.

By Monday night, when the Charlotte group held its last supper in an Arab village, members of the two congregations were pledging to work even closer together to promote peace, to further interfaith dialogue and to present a gray -- not a black-and-white -- picture of the various conflicts in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

 "This trip has opened my eyes to the complex situation (involving) the Palestinians and Israelis -- you just don't learn about it in the States," said Ira Bass, a member of Temple Beth El. "It's opened my mind to what the Christian faith is about. And more than anything else, we've opened all of our hearts to each other."

That got a rousing second from Myers Park Baptist member Bobbie Campbell: "I feel like I am a different person today than 10 days ago . . . And I really love you all. Where have you been all my life?"

-- Tim Funk

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Retracing the Holocaust at Yad Vashem

Two Charlotte doctors, healers by trade, recoiled at the sights of Nazis -- including Nazi doctors -- systematically torturing, starving, shooting and gassing men, women and children.

Dr. Larry Fleishman and Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown are among the 40-plus interfaith tourists who have spent the last week visiting sacred sites in Israel.

And Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist came Sunday, is among Israel's most sacred, if heart-crushing, sites. It chronicles the murder of 6 million Jews by Hitler's "death factory," as one sign called it.

Fleishman, who is Jewish and attends Temple Beth El, has visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. But he said he found Yad Vashem -- Israel's Holocaust History Museum -- more affecting.

"Maybe it was going through with the group, maybe it was the time of my life," said Fleishman, 56, who is on the tour with his wife Patricia Fleishman. "You could see some of their stories: a child, an accomplished artist -- all slaughtered like we slaughter cattle or chickens . . . It brought it home to me."

Garmon-Brown, who's Christian and a member of Myers Park Baptist, had never before walked through such a place, with images and stories she called "horrific and difficult to understand."

"As I looked at the children, looked at the women, looked at the level of starvation," she said, "it was more than I  could bear. And my response was just to weep."

The tour

She was hardly alone.

"It's really OK to cry -- especially here,"  Doron Harel, the group's popular Israeli tour guide from Mabat Platinum Touring Services, told them near the entrance.

Launched in 1953 by an act of the Knesset, Yad Vashem is responsible for preserving the record of the Shoah -- translated as the "Catastrophe."

Many non-Jews kept silent or even collaborated in the mass murder. But there were heroes. On the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, Harel pointed to the tree planted to honor Oskar Schindler, whose story of sheltering Jews during World War II was told in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

Inside the crowded, but solemn museum, members of the two local houses of worship listened on earpieces as Harel set the scene at many of the stops.

"You have to leave your home: The enemy is coming and they will kill you," he said as old black-and-white footage showed European Jews enjoying their everyday lives one moment and fleeing with the bare necessities the next. "What will you take? You don't know how long the war will last. People just grabbed whatever they could."

Looking through a glass case at hundreds, perhaps thousands of the victims' once fashionable or sturdy shoes, Harel iinvited the Charlotteans to "find a shoe your size. The person murdered was probably your size."

Six million Jews gone. "Think about how many Albert Einsteins we would have?" Harel spoke into their ears.

Near the end, they moved into the Hall of Faces. Many of the pictured Holocaust victims smiled for the camera in these portraits taken before the war..

"Look at all these people who were murdered," said Harel, who has guided Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups through the museum. "Children and young couples. Orthodox (Jews), secular (Jews)."

But his last word, as they moved to the exit, was an uplifting one. "Now we go out to the light of Israel," Harel said, naming the country where many Holocaust survivors and their offspring found a home. "The future is bright, I promise you."

-- Tim Funk

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Praying at Masada, floating in the Dead Sea

Praying, learning, and floating.

That was the agenda Saturday for members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist as they neared the end of their interfaith tour of sacred sites in Israel.

The day started with a Shabbat, or Sabbath, service atop Masada, the mountain-high desert fortress of old where Jewish rebels made their last stand against the Romans in the 1st century.

Roman soldiers had already destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and they were determined to defeat the escaping rebels -- called Zealots -- by somehow breaching the walls amid cliffs more than 1,400 feet high.

"It is beautiful to be on top of the mountain . . . which Zealots escaped to in that moment of crisis to keep Judaism alive in this land," said Temple Beth El Rabbi Judy Schindler, who led the service in Hebrew and English.

Christian ministers in the group stood  to offer prayers, a poem, a song, and a story about Jesus from the New Testament. Among them: The Rev. Sam Slack, a retired United Methodist minister who first visited Israel with wife Natalie Slack in 1959. They now attend Myers Park Baptist.

Chanting the Torah in Hebrew was Temple Beth El member John David Kling, who has twice lived in a kibbutz, or Jewish community, in Israel. His passage Saturday, from Exodus, was about how Moses told the Israelites that God commanded them to set aside the Sabbath for solemn rest.

Next stop: Qumran, a long-ago desert refuge for a separatist sect of Jews called the Essenes. It was in a cave here in 1947 that a young Bedouin goat herder found Essene scrolls in earthen jars. They caused a sensation when they turned out to include ancient Biblical texts. Many of these Dead Sea Scrolls are now in the Israel Museum. The famous cave can still be seen from a distance by tourists -- including, on Saturday, the group from Charlotte.

And then, after nearly a week of crossing seas, climbing hills, walking through tunnels and touring every sacred building in sight, it was time for some R&R. Time to follow the example of this loafing beast of burden the Charlotteans saw Thursday after the long hike up the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

So the group headed for the Dead Sea. Its shores are the lowest point of dry land on Earth, at 1,373 feet below sea level. Nine times saltier than the oceans, it can support no fish or other life. And tourists love to float in it -- that's what happens when they lay back -- and to slather mud from the sea floor all over their bodies. The Charlotte pilgrims did both Saturday.

And the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, outgoing pastor at Myers Park Baptist, was among the muddiest.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 8, 2013

A disquieting Friday in Jerusalem

When Charlotte's interfaith tourists reached Jerusalem on Thursday, the sounds of the holy city were a testament to its religious diversity: Jewish groups banged on drums to celebrate bar mitzvahs; an amplified Arabic speaker chanted the Muslim call to prayer; and Christian churches rang bells to beckon pilgrims to worship.

By Friday, as they walked along the stone alleyways of old Jerusalem, the Charlotteans heard another sound: Explosives.

Israeli police used loud stun grenades to disperse young Muslims who began throwing stones and firebombs on the Temple Mount -- an area sacred to both Jews and Muslims, who call it the Noble Sanctuary.

Members of Charlotte's Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist didn't witness the clash. But they were nearby, preparing to visit  the Western Wall -- the most important shrine in Judaism.

But it was clear first thing Friday morning that the Israeli army was on high alert: At nearly every intersection, young soldiers stood at the ready with their M-16 rifles. They were also on guard at the Western Wall.

The morning and afternoon hours on Fridays are especially crowded and tense times in Jerusalem: Muslims gather in great numbers for Friday prayer; Jews get ready for Shabbat, or Sabbath, which starts at sundown; and those Christian pilgrims from Eastern Europe, Africa, the United States and elsewhere solemnly note the day of the week that Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem.

-- Tim Funk  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Holy water: Experiencing Sea of Galilee, Jordan River

Some of the most powerful moments for Charlotte's interfaith tourists in Israel this week have involved water.

The Rev. Sharon Doar, who teaches Bible stories to children at Myers Park Baptist, was "awestruck" -- her word -- during  the Wednesday boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. She and the rest of the 40-plus pilgrims were on their way to the places where Jesus is said to have given his Sermon on the Mount and fed a crowd of 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes.

"I'll tell those stories so much livelier from now on. I'll just be flipping out," Doar said, tears in her eyes, as the boat sped along on the same sea that give rise to the Gospel story of Jesus walking on water. "I'll now be able to say, 'Guys, I was right there.' To come and follow him is just something."

Before the return boat ride, there was time to linger at the water's edge. Susan Jacobs, the education director at Temple Beth El, scooped up a few rocks from the sea. They'll return with her to Charlotte and be placed on her grave of her father, Ben Jaffa, who died in 2004.

This longstanding Jewish custom is meant to show "that we are still connected to that person," said Jacobs, who has collected rocks all over Israel, especially in Jerusalem. "It's a sign that they are not forgotten and that you are still visiting, still taking care of them."

On Thursday, the body of water that stirred the imagination and brought tears was the Jordan River.

The tour bus traveled into the Palestinian territories to visit a spot sacred to both Jews and Christians. Just across the border from Jordan, it's a modest grassy -- and muddy -- stream that's believed to be where Joshua brought the Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant into the Promised Land more than 3,000 years ago.

"I pictured all the people walking, coming across, thousands of them," said Nancy Romanoff, a member at Temple Beth El whose daughter, Shoshana Gugenheim, is a scribe living in Israel. "I just had this vision. And I was standing here wondering how they felt. If it were me, I would get down and touch the land."

This stretch of the Jordan River -- or the River Jordan, as it's called in some Christian hymns -- is also where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus just before his public ministry began.

For Peggy Seale, a leader at Myers Park Baptist, it was an opportunity to have her outgoing pastor, the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, baptize her. Born an Episcopalian, she'd been baptized as an infant. But on Thursday, she wanted her Baptist preacher to make the sign of the cross on her forehead with this holy water and tell her that she was God's beloved.

"I just thought: Oh my gosh, what a time to do this. And so I did. And it made me cry," she said. "(The river) wasn't the sight I expected. It was so peaceful . . . so untouched."

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Interfaith tourists talk Armageddon, get N.C. shout-out from Muslim teacher

Hailing from a country that's not even 300 years old, Charlotte's interfaith travelers in Israel this week have had a hard time wrapping their heads around just how old parts of the country are.

Take Megiddo, site of a national park with ancient remnants of palaces, stables, gates, and altars dating back 5,000 or more years. On Tuesday, these members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist even descended 180 steps to reach an underground water tunnel from 4000 B.C.

 Israeli tour guide Doron Harel wanted to show how many different empires have seized this one-time "city of chariots" in the heart of Galilee over the years. So he asked the Charlotteans to temporarily donate their hats and then piled them -- like so many layers of civilizations -- atop the head of Mary Rothkopf, a member of Temple Beth El. The Canaanites, Israelites, Syrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Persians, Muslims. "That's just for the last 3,000 years," Harel said. "I'm not talking 6,000 years."

Atop the excavated Megiddo fortress, the Jewish-Christian group could also look down on the lush expansive valley destined to be the site of Armageddon -- that Apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil. At least that's how some interpret the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, the outgoing pastor of Myers Park Baptist, wasn't buying that scenario, telling the group of 46 that the Book of Revelation has been distorted by some who have literalized and militarized it. Still, he had to admit that he could see why "the ancient imagination saw this as a site for great battle...On this great plain, you can imagine all the great armies of the ancient world sooner or later battled here."

One last highlight from the stop in Megiddo: A Muslim teacher's shout-out to the Tar Heel State. As the Charlotte group explored the ancient stones, they suddenly heard, amid a rush of shouted Arabic, the words "North Carolina!"

Turns out the teacher, lecturing nearby to his 8th grade students -- from the village of Hura in the Negev Desert -- wanted to acknowledge the Charlotte group by reminding his class that he had taught them about the Wright Brothers, whose historic ascent in Kitty Hawk made N.C. first in flight.

According to a later report from one Charlotte pilgrim, a Muslim student seconded the hat-tip to North Carolina by pretending to shoot a basketball Michael Jordan-style.

-- Tim Funk

Monday, March 4, 2013

Charlotte's interfaith tourists arrive in Israel

Etta James was on the intercom, belting out "At Last," when the spiritual tourists boarded the plane at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport late Sunday afternoon.

It was a fitting sendoff for members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist, who were finally embarking on the first leg of the interfaith trip to Israel that they'd planned for many months -- and a first for Charlotte houses of worship.

The group switched planes in Philadelphia, and then -- 10 hours, 27 minutes and 5,884 miles later -- they landed in Tel Aviv. The local time was 3 p.m., though the travelers' body clocks said 8 a.m. (the time back in Charlotte).

The trip will last until early next week, with stops at sites sacred to Jews (Masada, the Western Wall) and Christians (Nazareth, the Via Dolorosa).

On Monday, the main attraction was Jaffa, possibly the world's oldest port. Legend has it that it was named for Japhet, one of Noah's sons. And it was from Jaffa where the prophet Jonah set off on a boat before being swallowed by a great fish.

Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El drew a connection between Jonah's mission from God and the Charlotte interfaith group's "nine-day mission of self-discovery."

Outgoing Myers Park Baptist Pastor Steve Shoemaker, who is co-leading the trip with Schindler, found some levity in Jonah's sea story: He said the big fish saved the prophet's life by spitting him out and proving once again that "you can't keep a good man down."

(Jaffa is also where this group photo was taken, with St. Peter's Catholic Church and the Mediterranean Sea in the background).

By nightfall Monday, the group was 45 strong -- some had left for Israel before Sunday. -- and was breaking  pita bread together at a Tel Aviv restaurant founded by a famed Israeli paratrooper. As they traded their stories and hopes for the trip, they also shared the red grape -- "wine gladdens the soul," the bottles read -- and plates of hummus, tabouli, eggplant, pickles, olives and more, much more.

Personal stories

Like many on the tour bus, Al and Margie Levenson are making their first trip to Israel -- still called the Holy Land by many pilgrims. And the couple, who attend Temple Beth El, spoke for many when they said the fact that it was an interfaith tour is what finally sold them.

"We had talked about going, and did some research," she said. "Then when this came up, we said 'Wow!'"

By Monday night, after the four-table banquet, the Levensons were visiting with Margie's cousins -- Israelis she'd never met until now and a link to grandfathers who'd emigrated long ago from Russia, one to Israel, the other to the U.S. 

"I feel like we're where we belong," Al said.

Though there are no Muslims on the trip, Bill Gupton -- raised a Baptist and married to a Jew -- said he packed a Koran to read during the trip.

"We were afraid it would get snagged in (Israeli) customs," said wife Nancy Yudell, who has attended Temple Beth El since kindergarten.

(Gupton, who likes to study different religions, has also read "a couple of different versions" of the Bible.)

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown,  a medical doctor and ordained Baptist minister, said she's interested in learning more about Jesus -- including his Judaism -- in this land where he walked 2,000 years go.

"How did he live the first 30 years of his life and how did that shape him?" said Garmon-Brown, who attends Myers Park Baptist. "Some of the Bible stories I read about -- when I read about them again, I'll go, 'Oh yeah!'"

A hint of the tensions

 But there were reminders on the way to Israel about just how tense a place it can be amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the group boarded the Tel Aviv-bound plane in Philadelphia, a U.S. agent stopped Garmon-Brown's 29-year-old nephew, Oliver Thomas, for some questioning.

Thomas is assistant director of admissions and recruitment at Wake Forest University's divinity school and an ordained minister like his aunt. And on that flight to Tel Aviv, he read Homer's "Odyssey."

But as an African American with olive-colored skin -- one of his great-grandfathers was white -- "he looks Middle Eastern," said Garmon-Brown, whose "heart started jumping" when somebody mentioned that her nephew had been stopped on the way to boarding.

The agent let others pass, but asked to see Thomas' passport and quizzed him on everything from how much currency he had on him to whether it was his first time in Israel -- it is -- and whether he was going with a group.

"My first thought was: 'Why does he want to see my passport?'" Thomas said. "Then I thought: 'Oh, I know what this is. He's profiling.'"

Tuesday's itinerary includes Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and Canna, where the Bible said he performed his first miracle, as well as Zippori, where Rabbi Yehuda "Nassi" compiled the Mishna.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 1, 2013

Follow my blog posts from Israel

Traveling to Israel - or the Holy Land, as many pilgrims still call it - has been on my bucket list since I was a kid.

Thumbing through my illustrated Catholic Children’s Bible decades ago, I ooh-ed and aah-ed at pictures of David decking Goliath, farm animals congregating around the newborn babe in Bethlehem, and Jesus walking on water as his dazzled apostles looked on.

This was a land I needed to see with my own eyes.
Next week, I’ll be there.

I’m joining 46 members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist Church on what is believed to be the first interfaith trip to Israel involving Charlotte houses of worship. Leading the trip: Rabbi Judy Schindler and the Rev. Steve Shoemaker.

Our itinerary includes sacred sites: The Western Wall, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Mount Gilead, Bethlehem, Masada and the Via Dolorosa.

My plan, technology willing, is to blog every day. I’ll begin posting Monday or Tuesday and continue into the next week.

So check out 'Funk on Faith' at

It’s become a trend, at least locally: Neighborhood churches banding together during Lent to host joint services, complete with sermons and light food.

-- The Plaza-Midwood/Shamrock/Commonwealth churches are meeting Wednesdays at noon (through March 20) for worship and lunch at Plaza Presbyterian, 2304 The Plaza. Next week’s preacher: The Rev. Nancy Kraft of Holy Trinity Lutheran.

-- 'The Wednesday Worship' by churches in Elizabeth will continue at noon - with a $5 soup lunch at 12:25 p.m. - through March 27 at St. John’s Baptist, 300 Hawthorne Lane. Next week’s preacher: The Rev. David Docusen of Center City Church of Charlotte. Crisp will serve the soup and bread.

-- The churches of Park Road will have dinner, programs for adults, children and youth, and a brief worship service on the next two Wednesdays, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Next week’s speakers: The Revs. Jane Summey Mullennix, Avondale Presbyterian, and A.J. Thomas, St. Paul United Methodist. To RSVP and get locations, call 704-332-4171.

-- Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour will be in Charlotte Friday 3/08 to celebrate Mass (in English, Arabic and Aramaic) for the local Lebanese Catholic community. The service starts at 7 p.m. at St. Matthew Catholic, 8015 Ballantyne Commons Parkway.

-- Gen Kelsang Jampa, a Buddhist monk and national spiritual director for the New Kadama Tradition, will speak about modern Buddhism, 2-4 p.m. March 17, 2-4 p.m., at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St..

-- Charlotte-born neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who wrote about his near-death experience in the best-selling 'Proof of Heaven,' will speak at 7 p.m. March 22, 7 pm at Christ Episcopal Church, 1412 Providence Road.

-- Tim Funk