Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 13, 2014

Diverse beliefs mirror national trends

Young people in the community are the new faces of faith

By Lindsey Ziliak
Kokomo Tribune

---- — [Editor's note: This is the final installment in a three-part series about faith in the community. The first explored churches that faced dwindling memberships because they struggled to get people ages 18 to 35 to join. The second looked at churches that had successfully attracted people in that age group. This installment goes straight to the young people in that demographic to find out about their beliefs and practices and to share their spiritual journey.]

One Kokomo woman prays five times a day, often in her office, pointing herself northeast toward Mecca as she does. Meanwhile, a young man who works for her isn’t even sure he believes in a god.

Indiana University Kokomo’s athletic director found his Christian faith in college and now prays twice a day and meets often with his pastor. A New York native and Kokomo transplant worships at the Jewish temple in town once a month, essentially the only young person there apart from the student rabbi who travels from Cincinnati to teach them.

These are the faces of faith in the community. Young people here have a diverse set of belief systems, mirroring national trends.

Pew Research’s latest Religious Landscape Survey states, “The diversity in religious beliefs and practices in the U.S. in part reflects the great variety of religious groups that populate the American religious landscape.”

According to the survey, which included more than 35,000 people in the United States, the greatest percentage of people in the country are affiliated with evangelical protestant churches at 26.3 percent. But 23.9 percent consider themselves Catholic, and 18.1 percent are part of mainline protestant churches.

More than 16 percent of people in the country are unaffiliated — meaning they are atheist, agnostic or just don’t know.

Less than 2 percent consider themselves Mormon or Jewish, and less than 1 percent are affiliated with the Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu faiths, according to the survey.

Behind every statistic, though, is a story.

MARIA AHMAD

Twenty-four-year-old Maria Ahmad recently organized an interfaith “speed dating” event at Indiana University Kokomo. Students got to know each other’s spiritual beliefs in two-minute intervals.

They asked each other questions like, “What happens when we die?” and “What values do you hold most dear?”

Trying to understand people’s religious beliefs is an important part of fostering diversity in a community, said Ahmad, the director of diversity at IU Kokomo.

“It’s often overlooked, especially in public institutions,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh, you can’t talk about this here.’”

Ahmad has never shied away from sharing her religious beliefs. She wears a very visible symbol of her faith for all to see — a hijab or head covering — that prompts questions from those around her.

Ahmad is a Muslim.

She believes in one God and that the prophet Mohammed was the last messenger. His example and the words of the Quran guide her life.

Like all Muslims, she believes in Moses, Jesus, Abraham and all of the other Christian prophets. She believes the Quran is the final edition of the Bible.

Ahmad prays five times each day.

“The five prayers to me are an opportunity to center myself in my busy day of emails, calls and meetings,” she said. “It gives me an opportunity to calm down and realize what life is really about, kind of like meditating throughout the day.”

When she prays, she faces toward Mecca, which is northeast here in the Midwest. Each of the five prayers has a number of "sets,” which include bowing and prostrating with her forehead to the ground.

“It is a sign of humility before God,” she said. “All the prayers are from the Quran and are recited in Arabic. You can pray anywhere you want, and I often end up praying in my office.”

Ahmad is among a small Muslim population in Kokomo, and very few of them are her age. Most are either small children or older adults, she said.

Ahmad doesn’t mind. She said she grew up in the Kokomo of Ohio. It was a mid-size city with a small Muslim population. She was the only Muslim in her high school class. She’s used to answering people’s questions, she said, and it’s actually served to strengthen her faith. Sometimes people ask her questions about Islam that she can’t answer, so she researches her own religion to find out for them. It has helped her grow closer to God, she said.

When she first moved here, her bosses worried that people would treat her poorly or unfairly because she’s Muslim, Ahmad said.

“Mostly I get a lot of smiles and questions,” she said.

MARISA MULLETT

Many people aren’t receptive to 34-year-old Marisa Mullett’s beliefs, or lack thereof. Mullett is a practicing atheist.

She’s a member of the Secular Student Alliance at IU Kokomo. The group recently handed out pamphlets explaining their beliefs.

One of those defined atheism, in its simplest form, as a view that there are no gods. An atheist’s philosophy of life is based on real-world experience and the scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds, the pamphlet said.

“It’s all about personal accountability for me,” she said. “You don’t do something out of fear or reward of heaven. You do something to be a good person.”

Mullett said people often assume that if someone’s an atheist, they’re not a good person. Often atheists follow some of the same moral codes that religions preach, she said. The only difference is they don’t think their morality will lead to a life in heaven.

Mullett wasn’t always an atheist. She went to church for a few years as a teen. Her family is ultra-religious, she said.

After she had her son in 2004, though, she had an epiphany of sorts. Though she didn’t want to discuss the specifics, she said it led her to start researching science and history. Before long she was convinced there’s no God out there.

Mullett doesn’t often talk about her beliefs. It’s a little scary, especially in a conservative area like Kokomo, she said.

“It’s sometimes hard to say you’re a non-believer because of the connotations that come with it,” she said. “There are definitely negative connotations. I’ve lost family because of it, but I haven’t lost friends.”

BRANDON PODGORSKI

Brandon Podgorski grew up in a family that had very little religious involvement.

They went to church only on Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day.

“I was Christian probably in name only,” the 34-year-old said. “I did not get serious about my faith until I was a junior in college.”

His brother was a college sophomore at the time. They both attended Indiana University.

Podgorski’s brother started going to church regularly. Then he testified to Podgorski and started witnessing to him. Podgorski felt in his heart that God was calling him to start attending church, too.

He considers himself a non-denominational Christian. The basic tenet of his faith is that Jesus Christ is Lord.

He explained that using a passage from the Bible.

According to Acts 4:12, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”

Podgorski moved to Kokomo late last year when he took over as athletic director and director of the new fitness center at IU Kokomo.

Shortly after, he started searching for a new church home. It proved to be a tough task.

“I’m picky,” he said. “I don’t think one size fits all.”

He eventually found his home at New Life Church.

He admits there aren’t a lot of single, young professionals like him in the church. All of the young people are married with kids. Still, he was drawn to the church for its pastor, Randy Blankenship.

“I really like that he teaches straight from the Bible,” he said. “It wasn’t his own doctrine. Either you believe it or you don’t. It’s straight with no chaser.”

Podgorski said he attends church as often as he can, which with his work schedule is not as often as he’d like. He meets with his pastor to talk about his faith regularly, though, and prays twice a day.

“I take my faith seriously,” he said.

STEPHEN GREEN

Twenty-three-year-old Stephen Green has faith in only one thing: the here and now.

“I live in the here and now,” he said. “I’m doing what I can right now to be the best person I can be.”

The only thing he’s certain about is his life here on Earth. The afterlife just doesn’t make any sense to him.

He considers himself agnostic. He doesn’t believe in a deity or divine being, but he concedes that he might be wrong. There’s a chance that someday his beliefs may change.

“I keep all of my options open,” he said.

Green grew up in a Catholic family. He prayed regularly and wore a crucifix around his neck. His family didn’t often attend church, though, and faith rarely came up in their day-to-day conversations.

He said his family is probably 95 percent secular.

For years, he still called himself a Catholic, but at some point, he realized he just didn’t believe in God anymore.

Green rarely talks about his beliefs for fear that he will be judged by others. He stepped out of his comfort zone recently to attend Ahmad’s interfaith event.

He talked about the values that are important to him and said he thinks there are valid points to every religion.

He knows he’s probably practicing components of many religions without even knowing it. Green works in IU Kokomo Director of Diversity Maria Ahmad’s office. Sometimes the two of them will talk about their philosophy on life.

“Sometimes Maria will say, ‘That’s a tenet of Islam you just said,’” Green said.

Not everyone is as open and understanding as Ahmad, though, Green said. People tend to misunderstand non-believers.

“I’m not in the majority here,” he said.

AIMEE DERSHOWITZ

Twenty-seven-year-old Aimee Dershowitz knows a thing or two about being a minority.

She’s a young, Jewish woman living in a community with a small Jewish population.

She moved to Kokomo in September to start her career as a psychologist. Dershowitz immediately found the temple in town, a little piece of home away from home. When everything else was new and different, at least that was the same.

“No matter where you go in the country, the services are basically the same,” she said. “That’s nice.”

The congregation meets about once a month at Temple B’Nai Israel on Superior Street. The reform temple was established in 1942 to preserve Jewish life in Kokomo.

The temple’s members are much older than her. One member’s son is close to her age, and the student rabbi who travels from Cincinnati to teach at the temple is 23. Everyone else is over 50, she said.

The temple practices the least strict form of Judaism, Dershowitz said, meaning many members aren’t kosher. That includes her. She eats whatever she wants, just like she did growing up in New York.

Being Jewish in New York was much easier, though, she said, because the Jewish population is much larger.

She attended a Jewish preschool, and even public schools were off for major Jewish holidays. Here, she spends a lot of time explaining what she believes. People in the community don’t seem to know anything about the religion, she said.

“We believe that the messiah has not yet come to the Earth,” she said. “We believe that Jesus was a rabbi, not the messiah.”

Their Sabbath is Friday night through Saturday, not Sunday like in Christianity.

Their holy book is the Torah. It’s written in Hebrew on scrolls. There’s a particular way to carry it, and it can’t touch the ground, she said.

Judaism relies heavily on traditions.

“There’ve been traditions passed down for generations,” she said.

One tradition might be tough for her to stick to if she stays in Indiana for too long.

“My parents want me to marry a Jew,” she said. “That’s next to impossible here.”

HAILEY ALEXANDER

Hailey Alexander, 24, and her husband were raised with different religious beliefs.

She grew up in a Christian church. His family had no religious beliefs at all. The two of them are trying to find a church they can attend together.

The problem is they both feel comfortable in different settings. He prefers worshipping at mega churches with loud praise bands. She prefers smaller, more intimate churches that focus more on spreading the word of God.

As a result, she still has no church home and hasn’t attended services recently.

“I don’t like not being in a church,” she said.

Instead, she reads from a daily devotional and prays.

She’d love to find a church that supports her like Greentown Family Christian Center supported her as a child.

The pastor there was great, she said. He really helped their youth group, even if there weren't many of them. The group consisted of Alexander and four other kids.

“Everybody knew everybody there,” she said. “We kept each other in check.”

Alexander doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with big churches, or any churches for that matter. She doesn’t even judge religions outside of Christianity.

That’s one of the basic tenets of her faith.

People should be accepting of each other’s beliefs, no matter what they are, she said.

“I feel like there’s a possibility we’re all worshipping the same God anyway,” she said.

People should choose the church that helps them grow most in their faith. Everyone’s walk in life is different, she said. If someone feels called to go to a big church, that’s where they should go.

She’s going to keep searching for the place God’s calling her to, even if she has to do it without her husband.

“I’ll continue looking,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll find a church I can call home.”

EZEKIEL ZIMMERMAN

Ezekiel Zimmerman’s mom was a Catholic who attended church regularly. She never made him practice her religion, though. From the beginning, she let him choose where he wanted to go.

So as a kid he attended First Christian Church with his grandparents. While his mom stuck with the Catholic church, she still supported her son.

“She was there for my baptism into the Christian church,” the 33-year-old said.

He became strong in his belief that Jesus Christ was crucified to save him from his sins. The church taught him to live a good and wholesome life and to love everyone.

He continued at First Christian until his grandparents died, and then he started drifting away. He didn’t feel comfortable there anymore.

For a while, he wasn’t attending church at all, but he knew he needed to get back.

A friend invited him to First Baptist Church one Sunday. He was immediately drawn to the church. He felt welcomed there. He felt like he had come home.

“It was the way Pastor Paul delivered his sermon,” Zimmerman said. “It was new and fresh every Sunday. I felt the urge every Saturday to set my alarm and be there Sunday morning.”

Zimmerman spoke with his pastor recently about prayer and reflection. He said he doesn’t spend much time with his hands folded in prayers. He thinks about God every day, though.

“I find myself flipping through the Bible almost daily,” he said. “It’s a time I spend with just the word and God.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune Life & Style editor, can be reached at 765-454-8585, at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LindseyZiliak.