Being Here Now

FEATURE-January 2014
by Jaed Coffin
Photographs by Fred Field

Exploring spirituality in the least religious state in America


Perhaps you have heard: according to several recent studies, Maine might just be the least religious state in America. One study performed by the National Association of Religious Data Archives—a study referenced by the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News—claimed that in 2010, just over one quarter of Mainers classified themselves as aligned with a specific religion—a decline of nearly ten percent since the survey was last performed in 2000.

I grew up in the midcoast region, sort of going to a Unitarian Church, a deeply New England institution whose doors were open to our family’s Buddhist faith. But by about fifth grade, my days at the church were over, replaced, really, by weekend sports. During college, I spent a summer in my mother’s village in Thailand, as a Buddhist monk—a ritual performed by some 80 percent of Thai men—but within a year of my return, I’d stopped meditating and, despite the availability of meditation groups in my area, I now engage with my religion as a passive afterthought. I wear a Buddha around my neck, and when my daughter asks me what happens to people when they die, I tell her that we all return to the earth and then become something else—like the leaves that fall from trees every fall, rot into the ground during the winter, and in the spring sustain the worms and bugs and flowers that feed the crows and squirrels that caw and chitter outside our windows every morning. Reincarnation, Maine-style, I guess.

This kind of casual spirituality might resonate with a lot of us, but somehow, it still doesn’t sit right with me that Maine has been crowned the least-religious state in America. So, I recently sought out the guidance of two friends who in their lives have been at the center of spiritual communities in Maine, and who might be able to offer me a different take on Maine’s religious state of affairs.

On any given day, Jeanette Good, pastor at the State Street Church United Church of Christ, anticipates that just about anyone might show up at her office door.  In a recent meeting, she described her visitors: “People who’ve gotten out of prison, the homeless, they come to my door. People who have lost their jobs, who are dealing with life-threatening illnesses, they come to my door. People who suffer from depression, people in grief, people who are in love, they’ve all come to my door. I’ve seen recent refugees fleeing genocide, people in their 40s who are undergoing a professional crisis, people who are trying to find meaning in their life. No matter where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I first came to Reverend Good’s door on an icy Sunday in January, when a friend of mine, the Iranian-American writer and human rights activist Reza Jalali, had been invited to speak at State Street Church on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2005. I was not accustomed to the notion that a Muslim might be openly welcome in a Christian church. America was at war in Iraq, and interfaith practices seemed necessary but tenuous. But without meeting Good personally that day, I left her church feeling a bit more hopeful than when I’d come in. About eight years later, when my wife and daughter and I were “church-shopping,” we found that State Street was the one place that we, as a family, felt we could belong. Part of that feeling came from the aging beauty of the church: historically one of the biggest churches in New England, there is a stately, majestic feeling to the building. But really, it was the way in which Reverend Good responded to what I thought might be a difficult proposition that closed the deal.

“You know I’m Buddhist?” I told her.

“Good,” she said, smiling. “Then you belong here. And I think you should stay Buddhist, because we all have a lot to learn about non-attachment.”

Over the next year or so, I found myself listening to Good’s sermons most Sundays. She often spoke about her experiences working around the world—in human rights and non-violence in France and Brazil, where she worked with child prostitutes, orphans, homeless, and landless peasants. She also took bold stances on issues that I always felt were elephants in the room: she doesn’t believe in hell. She doesn’t believe that God punishes people with a lightning bolt from the heavens. She often referred to God with the pronoun “she.” The diversity of the congregation was something I took particular note of: same-sex couples and their adopted children, the homeless, new immigrants from Africa, groups of seniors and solitary twenty-somethings in horn-rimmed glasses, all sat in the same pews. When we left Portland later that year, I continued to visit with Good, just to check in. “Come when you can,” she told my wife and me. “I just want you to feel that you belong somewhere, that you have a connection.”

In our recent meeting, when I brought up the issue of Maine’s declining religious community, Reverend Good didn’t become defensive or deny the issue. “I still haven’t given up on the church as an institution. When times are tough,” Good said, “I just hope that the church is still a place where people feel they can turn to.”

One of Good’s concerns is that many people she meets these days often tell her, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” The lack of religion is not something Good is particularly concerned with; rather, it’s the implication that “being spiritual is something you do alone, while religion requires community. The question I then have to ask is: why would people rather isolate themselves than be together?”

The answer to that question, for Good, is both obvious and elusive. Good recalls her first ministry job in Colorado, where “90 percent of my time was spent unpacking people’s horrible religious experiences, convincing them that God was not a punitive, cruel presence, but an unconditionally loving presence.”

Reverend Good, who grew up in Sebago and was born around the corner from her church in the old Maine Eye and Ear Infirmary, also wonders if our penchant for individualized spirituality might be the unintended consequence of our Yankee self-reliance on overdrive. She believes in the importance of solitude, and often spends quiet time working in her organic garden.

“There is a reason there were cells in the old monasteries,” she said. But Good’s larger concern is that we, as a culture, have worn out the word “community,” and forgotten that it has religious, spiritual origins. “Communion, community, and in some senses communism in the sense of sharing, is a central Christian idea. Historically, the core of the early Christian community was that people pooled their resources, and were basically there for each other. The idea of communism has been dismissed because of its totalitarian nature, but the essence was idealistic and beautiful, a sharing of things with each other.”

A few days later, I got an email from Good, which included scripture that she had recited to me days ago in her office. From Acts, the passage referenced “the whole group…of one heart and soul…great grace upon them all…distributed to each as any had need.” I looked over the notes from our conversation: “People are people,” Good had said. “I’m very interested in the secular being sacred. Not to be offensive to people who wouldn’t want this put on them, but I do believe that God is in every one of us.”

Where, I asked myself, did any of that appear in the archives of religious data? Perhaps there was no statistic for the grace within us all, but in my experience, that grace of character, of connection to the land and to one another, was at least as strong in Maine as it was in any other place in the world.

I first met Jonathan Appleyard when I was in fifth grade. A family friend, he served for nine years as the priest of the Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s, in our town. Before coming to Maine, Appleyard served an urban congregation in New York City, and, most recently, after working for a time in the diocese in Boston, took a position at St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church in Bar Harbor. Two years ago, Appleyard retired, and now lives at the end of a quiet road in Woolwich with his wife, Ruth.

Over the years, I have seen Appleyard speak on normal Sunday mornings, and also at the weddings and funerals of close friends. Most recently, I ran into him at a wedding reception at Grace restaurant in Portland. Still dressed in his collar and black suit, he sat with me at the bar to catch up. Appleyard is not the kind of man for small talk—neither am I, I suppose—and so while the attendees danced to “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Appleyard and I got deep. I told him that my wife and I, after several long conversations and somewhat aimless-feeling weekends, were interested in cultivating a more spiritual life for our little family of three. My concern, I told him, was that I felt I wasn’t really cut out for a church community: I felt I was a bit too reckless, too loose, too scientific, and too uncouth for the life of the faithful. I told him how the night before we’d been invited to attend an Easter service at our friend’s evangelical church, I’d gone to Blue on Congress Street, listened to jazz all night, then stayed up until 2 a.m. messing around with wood in my garage. It didn’t feel right being in that church, half-asleep with music still in my head. Appleyard laughed. “It’s all connected,” he said. “The more I live, the more I realize that everything—the jazz, the late night, even your headache—nothing is left out, and it can all be holy.”

Now, Appleyard and I meet on informal terms, once a month, to discuss the “big questions” from my Buddhist perspective and from his Christian perspective, an activity which typically transforms into some third perspective that both of us, I think, are still learning about.

Last fall, on one of those fading golden afternoons that I would like to trap inside a jar and release like so many fireflies during the icy days of March, I drove out to Appleyard’s house. He had recently recovered from surgery, and after spending the last year in a wheelchair (a time which he seemed to embrace with a kind of reflective gratitude) he was excited to be back on his feet. Rather than sit at his kitchen table as we usually did, we walked out on the road. After a long silence, I shared my concern: if Maine is not a religious state where then could we find our spiritual values, could we locate some center that holds come what may?

Appleyard remained quiet for several long seconds before answering. “I’m finding,”— Appleyard often speaks in the continuous present, as if even after a lifetime of religious study certainty were an illusion—“that there are so many dimensions to a spiritual life: physical, emotional, internal, and external, being alone and in a group. Maine is, for me, an open place, a large field, where a person has the room and choice to explore all of these dimensions together, without feeling burdened by the weight of an institution.” In Appleyard’s experience, when people start resolving mystery with words like God and religion—no matter what the faith tradition, they settle for their own constructs, and that open field starts to shrink. “Really, I don’t even care if someone believes in God. Right now, that’s not important. What’s important is whether or not we are paying attention to where we are, to all that’s happening around us, to who we are, and how we live.”

As we walked, Appleyard showed me the small tool shed he was restoring; he showed me the old farmhouses that had been in his wife’s family for decades; the old white pines that, against the crisp autumn sky, looked as ancient and majestic as cathedral spires. He recalled an evening we had spent together over 12 years ago in Boston, when, by chance, we were both living in that city and had run into each other in Harvard Square. My bike had just been stolen, and as I looked for it, I found Jonathan on a street corner. We had dinner that night, and now, though neither of us could recall what we spoke about, we both remembered what we did before our meal: we stacked wood. The night was crisp, it had recently snowed, and there, in a city more populous than half of our entire state, something was returned to us by the simple act of splitting and stacking logs. “I recall that that act,” Appleyard said, “was somehow healing for both of us.” I agreed: as two fish out of Maine water, the wood in our hands, the cold air in our lungs, our sweating and swinging seemed communion.

“When Ruth and I decided to stay in Maine, to retire in Maine, it was because we had recognized a spiritual space, a place charged with challenge,” Appleyard said. This, to me, reflected my own desire to be here: perhaps there were more jobs in other places, but my wife and I had come back home because we wanted to live closer to the ground, to the woods, the ocean, away from the rat race but still engaged with a community in a meaningful way. I thought of my neighborhood—newcomers and old-timers both—who, beneath layers of logistical details, were all here, essentially, for spiritual reasons. How did those reasons factor into the “least religious state in America” standings?

As we walked past a horse stable, I asked Appleyard what, now that he’d retired, he considered to be his own spiritual community.  “Right now,” Jonathan said, “I’m just trying to get comfortable with my own silence.” We sat on a small knoll overlooking the bay. Through the tree line, a jigsaw puzzle of sunlight reflected off the rising tide in Montsweag Bay.

“I sometimes wonder if we overlook the spiritual communities that we belong to. Maybe this, right here, is as much a spiritual community as any church. As a person who has devoted his life to the church, that’s a very odd thing for me to think about,” he said, his eyes laughing.

We continued our walk, pausing to look at a small ridge covered in flaming yellow birch trees. On my drive home, I thought about people I knew who had lived in Maine for a long time, those who had just arrived, oftentimes leaving behind more ambitious careers in big, swarming cities. For all of us, each in our own way, choosing to live here, now, was perhaps, in its own right, an act of faith.

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