Chaplains return to military bases

Last week I posted about how the government shutdown banned contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases to facilitate mass or any religious sacraments.  As of Thursday, October 3, military priests were facing arrest if they attempted to celebrate any religious services with members of the armed forces.

Lawmakers were being urged to pass a resolution that would allow them on bases despite the shutdown.  The House of Representatives passed the legislation in a 400-1 vote on Saturday, October 6.

As the government shutdown enters its third week, many government agencies previously deemed “unnecessary” have reopened thanks to legislation passed by Congress as well as many private donors and state governments.

Military chaplains have been given the okay to offer worship services on military bases once again.  The Senate approved the measure late Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin edited the bill, stating that “the availability of religious services and clergy were important to the morale and well-being of many members of the armed forces and their families.”

Levin also included a provision stating that he hoped Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would provide the necessary support to see that military clergy would be covered under the same law that pays troops despite the government shutdown.

The question of military chaplain pay as well as death benefits for the families of fallen soldiers was debated during the shutdown.  Republicans said that the law passed outlining the shutdown included these payments, but the Pentagon said the legal interpretation of the bill barred them from paying them.

While President Obama has since signed legislation ensuring the death benefit payments, military chaplain pay is still in question.  This is just one of the many arguments between both Republicans and Democrats concerning the reopening of the government.

While both parties agree that the shutdown should have no effect on the religious rights of armed forces members, military chaplains will have to volunteer their time until this matter can be straightened out.

Along with chaplains returning to military bases, other agencies previously closed by the government shutdown have reopened.

Across America, individual states have been finding creative ways to reopen national parks to prohibit further damage to their local economies.  The Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, all national parks in the state of Utah and the Statue of Liberty reopened over the weekend, and Mount Rushmore started accepting tourists again Monday.  These national landmarks have reopened thanks to the generous private donations, readjustments of state tourism budgets as well as business and non-profit donations.

As the shutdown continues, Americans across all tax brackets are being affected but are finding creative ways to around the shutdown rules.


Hello social media, goodbye Yellow Pages

According to Dr. James Caverlee, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M, social media can “harness collective intelligence to perform tasks, to persuade and change minds and maybe even to change the world.”

As we approach the year 2014, we are well aware of the power of social networking.  It has changed the way we receive our news, keep up with our friends and even the way we engage in our communities (political and otherwise).

In a sense, social networking has replaced everything from the U.S. Postal Service to the Yellow Pages.

Today, when somebody is trying to find a new place to worship, they don’t open the phone book.  While word of mouth may still be the number one form of evangelical advertisement, social media is quickly becoming the second.

Not only are churches sprucing up their web pages, but according to an article by The Cap Times, “local churches have had to upend their print- and Yellow Pages-based marketing strategies in favor of Facebook pages, photo-saturated websites and carefully worded Twitter feeds.”

“The front page of your website has replaced the front door for young adults and millennials,” said Pastor Brian Konkol of Lake Edge Lutheran Church.

Social media can help lead people to a niche group of specific beliefs, help them find a new home in which to worship or encourage them to try something new that could broaden their religious perspective.

This Google map tracks the journeys of two people searching for a religious organization that fits their lifestyle as well as young women looking to garner a variety of experiences in college.

The blue pins map the journey of Christy Schwartz; the green, Mackenzie Ford and the yellow, Adam Poling.

Christy Schwartz, a teacher for Putnam County Schools, used social media to find an organization that fit with her specific spiritual beliefs.

Through the use of the church’s website, Facebook page, blog and various survey sites, Schwartz found Unity of Kanawha Valley.  She was drawn in by the “spiritual premise of the organization, which embraces the universal truth in all faith traditions” that the church promoted on social media.

“The church is attractive to my family because of its practices of inclusion and open-mindedness. On any given Sunday, an attendee might hear Beatle’s music, contemporary jazz, a traditional hymn and a message that includes truths from new age spiritual practices, eastern mysticism, Judaism and traditional Christianity all in the same service,” Schwartz said.

Adam Poling and his wife moved to Morgantown, West Virginia from Philippi.  For a while they commuted home on Sunday mornings to attend their church.  The couple began looking for a new church to attend and turned to social media and the web to find the perfect fit.

Poling came across Crossroads Church with a simple Google search, but used the church’s website and Facebook page to research its beliefs and core values.

“I liked the church’s statement of beliefs, as well as the fact they are a part of what is called the Acts 29 network, a group of connected churches started by church planters,” Poling said.  “The churches share similar values and beliefs. Because I had respect for some of the more well-known members of the network, Matt Chandler and Mark Driscoll in particular, I decided to visit the church.”

Poling thinks social media plays a big role at Crossroads Church.  Many of the members stay connected through Facebook and Twitter, but the church also has its own social networking site called The City, which functions as sort of a private Facebook-type site for the church.  Members use The City to share prayer requests, announce events, plan the weekly Bible study and make plans for outings.

While social media can certainly lead you to a place of worship, it can also simply open up new opportunities.

Mackenzie Ford, a freshman human food and nutrition major at WVU, recently attended a Jewish dinner at the Chabad Jewish Center on campus.  Ford was drawn to the event through advertisements on campus as well as the Center’s social media presence.

The dinner took place during Passover, and Ford could tell that it was a very spiritual time for those in attendance.

“I’m not attending this place; I believe one experience was it for me,” Ford said.  “The people and the atmosphere were great and very welcoming though.  The most attractive qualities were the hospitality of the people. Although I am not of the Jewish faith, the people were very welcoming and invited me to share their culture with them, and that truly warmed my heart. It was a very small group of practicing Jews, so it was a warm, friendly environment compromised of both the young and the old. To be accepted into their group without question and open arms was the best part.”


The government shuts down religious services

Last week, many people were shocked to learn that while the government was shutdown, “many government service and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide [were] not permitted to work – not even to volunteer,” according to the general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, John Schlageter.

Schlageter wrote an op-ed piece on the Military Services USA webpage last Thursday expressing his concern and outrage that military personnel were being denied their First Amendment rights to freely exercise their religious faith.  Because military personnel are considered a “captive audience,” the government is required to provide members access to their faith, which is why we have a military chaplaincy.

As of last Thursday, military priests were facing arrest if they celebrated mass or held any religious services on military bases during the government shutdown.  This is due to the face that there is a shortage of active-duty Catholic chaplains, so the military often hires civilian priests to serve as contract ministers.  However, during the shutdown, civilian priests are not allowed on military bases.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, an Army veteran, said, “The constitutional rights of those who put their lives on the line for this nation do not end with a government slowdown.”

Schlageter said that the military appeared to be looking for alternative sources of funding to maintain base sporting events and other programs, but no effort had been made to enable Sunday masses to continue.

Today, lawmakers are being urged to authorize civilian contract priests on base to perform mass and other religious services.  Until this exemption is granted, all services remain suspended.

Shortly after Schlageter released his statement, a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives to allow religious services to resume.


The resolution brings to light that the government is charged with protecting the religious rights of its armed forces and asks Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to permit the performance of religious services on property owned or maintained by the Department of Defense and to allow military chaplains to perform their ministry to the same extent that they did before the shutdown.”

The bill was sponsored by Republican representative Doug Collins, who used to be a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain.

This legislation was passed by the House in a 400-1 vote on Saturday and currently resides in the Senate.

Military Archbishop Timothy Brolio’s statement on the legislation resounded in my mind as an expression of the larger collective feeling of the nation during this government shutdown, which has affected the lives of so many.

“Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the ‘Free Exercise’ of religion,” he said in a statement after the legislation passed in the House.  “In the current political climate, however, nothing can be taken for granted.”

According to executive director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty Ron Crews, some Protestant services could also be impacted.  The Protestant military services use contract employees for certain positions as well.

While it has not been voted on yet, the Senate is expected to approve this measure.

The government shutdown has trickled down and had (at least some) effect on the life of almost every American.  The shutdown has temporarily suspended services not deemed necessary, which has caused many people to go without pay.

I think this religious angle helps give perspective to how far reaching the touch of this shutdown really is.  Americans have taken to social media to express their outrage and concern.

Popular hashtags include #governmentshutdownprobs and #DearCongress, a hashtag sponsored by NBC News.  Launched by Today’s Carson Daly, #DearCongress has been tweeted more than 75,000 times collectively across both Twitter and Facebook since last Tuesday.


Check out my follow-up post on the government shutdown & military chaplains- Military chaplains return to bases!

Part II: Judaism & Social Media

Yesterday we discussed the decline in Jewish-Americans who actually practice Judaism versus those who view being Jewish as simply the source of their heritage.

For the 4.2 million Americans who identify as as Jewish by religion, September 13 & 14 marked what is arguably the most important Jewish holiday of the year, Yom Kippur.

The holiday begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by ten days of penitence.  During this time, Jews ask for atonement and repentance from God and also the forgiveness of those they have wronged in order to wipe their slates clean before the New Year.

Traditionally, people of Jewish faith would observe a 25-hour period of fasting and prayer and attend a synagogue service on Yom Kippur.

In 2010, Rabbi Jason Miller of the Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park, Michigan, delivered a sermon about a concern he had about the use of social media during Yom Kippur that received a lot of national media attention.

The rabbi said he was seeing an increasingly popular trend of people seeking forgiveness and delivering apologies via Facebook and Twitter as opposed to face-to-face interactions.   This rise in the use of social networking is, according to Miller, diminishing the significance and sincerity of repentance.

“He believes that people are using sites like Facebook and Twitter to issue mass, unspecific apologies in order to eliminate uncomfortable, individual personal interaction,” wrote Warren Riddle, a blogger for AOL.

Miller believes that the true spirit of Yom Kippur means admitting you’re wrong and seeking forgiveness even if it’s challenging and that posting one-size-fits, all blanket apologies on Twitter or Facebook is taking the easy way out.

While Miller encourages the use of social media (he even has a blog), he believes there is a way of overdoing it.

Ann Brenoff, a senior writer for the Huffington Post, agrees with Miller.  She said that apologizing in person during Yom Kippur is like visiting someone in the hospital instead of sending flowers— it demonstrates sincerity and caring.

However, other congregations see social media as the perfect twist to the time-honored tradition.

NPR did a program last month featuring Cantor Debbi Ballard, founder and member of the Shema Koleinu synagogue in Miramar, Florida.  Ballard talked about how her congregation was invited by its leaders to use Facebook and Twitter to seek forgiveness from those they’ve hurt or wronged in the past year.

Ballard created a hashtag for Shema Koleinu’s High Holy Day services because of the increasing amount of young people in her congregation.

“… I’m not saying use technology all day long. I’m saying let’s use the technology and have it enhance our atonement today by tweeting or texting our sins away, and looking at those sins on a big movie screen. And then letting them roll past us so that we can let them go, so that we can live a more powerful life this year. I think that’s what Yom Kippur and atonement is about,” Ballard told NPR host Michael Martin.

To make their High Holy Day services even more interactive, Ballard explained that they had a flyaway movie screen that would show the congregation questions throughout the service that they could text their answers to.  Ballard had already set up a number and the texts went straight to the text-to-screen platform.  The answers then scrolled down the screen.  Questions included things like, “What limiting behavior or belief do you need to let go of this year in order to live a more powerful life?”

There’s even an app for that!  Mobile applications such as eScapegoat allow Jews to confess their sins anonymously.

Such a debate highlights the way Jews have embraced social media and what a powerful tool it is.  While some traditionalists, such as Rabbi Miller, may not agree with it, there is no doubt that Judaism has embraced social media for its ability to connect, express and serve the needs of an interactive society.

Part I: Judaism & Social Media

Judaism is another religion that has taken to social media to voice its beliefs and connect its members.

Lisa Colton, a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia writes for Reform Judaism Online, the electronic version of the widely-circulated Jewish magazine.  She is also the founder and president of Darim Online, a company that offers Internet strategies for Jewish organizations, including a free social media boot camp.

“Congregations are about relationships, which means they need to be where the people are.  And these days, people are on social media,” she writes.

There is even a Jewish social networking site called Schtik! that helps Jewish people from around the world connect.

Synagogues and Jewish communities are reaching out with social media at a critical time.  Following the trend of all major religions in American, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, the number of nonreligious Jews in the United States is rising.

Approximately 4.2 million American adults identify as Jewish by religion, a number that twice as high in the 1950s (according to Pew).

The Pew Research Center surveyed 3,475 Jews from across America in earlier this year in order to better answer the question, “What does being Jewish in America mean?”  According to the survey results, 15 percent of American Jews said that being Jewish is mainly a religious matter, while six in 10 said that being Jewish is about culture, ancestry and identity.  However, among the 15 percent that claimed Judaism as a religion, less than one in three said that religion is very important in their lives.

Daniel Burke, co-editor for CNN’s Belief Blog, reported on the results and potential consequences of this trend earlier this week.  One of the questions his post presented was that with the number of Jews who identify only with Jewish culture and the growing number of Jews marrying outside their faith or culture (60 percent of Jews who have married since 2000 have non-Jewish spouses), what does this mean for the future of one of the world’s oldest religions and historical communities?

Last year blogger Esther Kustanowitz presented at the World Council of Jewish Communal Service Quadrennial in Jerusalem on how “sharing, liking and tweeting build stronger Jewish communities.”

In her presentation, Kustanowitz talked about how it was in the Jewish community’s best interest to embrace social media so that “everyone can be a rabbi or a writer or an activist” and Jews can become “a nation of priests.”  She encouraged her audience to be committed to listening first and foremost, and then responding and engaging to deepen relationships.

I thought the most profound thing in her presentation was the phrase “trust the transparency” of social media.  By embracing social media resources, will the Jewish community see a rise in followers?  The trends reported by the Pew Research Center serve as a motivator to embrace social change and use today’s most powerful tools to try.

Check in tomorrow for Judaism & Social Media, Part II!

Plugged in or unplugged? That is the question.

Recently my fellow blogger and classmate Rachel Simpkins posted a very interesting commentary on the concept of a “second screen” while watching TV.

She informed her readers (including me) that the use of a second, social screen allows viewers to interact with the show or movie they are watching.  What makes the second screen social is not just your ability to tweet about the show.  The second screen becomes social when you interact digitally with the show and there is some type of response.  Rachel used examples such as live betting during sports events, voting for your favorite contestant on The Voice or live tweeting during the Video Music Awards.  Mashable has also put together a great list on TV shows that are seeking social interaction with their viewers.

Earlier this month, I suggested that religious services could benefit from this type of social interaction.  Some pastors are asking their congregations to live tweet their sermons or ask questions about the sermon via Facebook.

However, Rachel also pointed out the dangers of this plugged- in lifestyle.  If we as a connected society can’t event watch TV without a second screen to interact with, how can we possibly sit in church and just listen?

While I think that a digital component could help sustain religious organizations, we also need to look at the flip side.

Is using social media in church distorting its purpose?  Is a congregation that is tweeting, posting or pinning actually learning anything or taking in any information?

While some religious groups are adapting to change and embracing social media, others are worried about the effects it could have on them.  This leaves a lot of people questioning its necessity versus its effect on traditional worship and face-to-face outreach.

In life, and in church, we need to strike a balance.  Sometimes its nice to unplug and take things in the old-fashioned way.




Blog-A-Day Week

I consider myself a good student—prepared, hard-working and confident.  However, this past week my class assignment was to write and publish a blog post every day, and I have to admit that I found the task difficult.

I have always had a deep respect for reporters, and I have always known I wanted to be one.  But as someone who requires eight hours of sleep a night and does not usually stray from what’s written in her planner, I have always wondered how I would transition to a lifestyle of strict deadlines, last minute interviews and a news cycle that never sleeps.  I admire those who are dedicated to reporting in-depth, accurate news, and now I have a similar admiration for those whose job includes blogging every day.

I had every intention of writing most—if not all—of my blog posts at the beginning of the week.  This way I would simply have to schedule my posts to publish themselves, my work would be done and my work-load a little lighter.

This was not the case.

The good news is I did not have to write many of the posts the day of—that’s a little too much pressure for me.  For the most part I wrote the posts the evening before they were to be published.  This allowed me to look at each one with a fresh pair of eyes the next morning before I posted it.  However, I’m a stickler for edits, and I often found myself re-writing what I had already written.

I learned a lot through this experience.  I learned that I work well under pressure and that Google is an amazing, amazing thing.  The challenges of writing a post every day were coming up with new ideas and content, finding sources to back-up my posts and having something relevant and well-written to publish at the end of the allotted time every day (9 a.m. – 4 p.m.).

Writing often can sometimes dry up your creativity, but it can also stretch it.  Writing is a skill like any other, and doing it regularly will make you better.  I also think that writing a blog post every day was good practice for a future in reporting.  The ability to produce a story without a week to do so is a required skill and not one at which I’ve had much practice.

I certainly didn’t do it perfectly.  Although I tried my best to make sure I didn’t get sloppy as the week progressed, my professor still had comments to make, and there were things I had to go back and fix and edit.  Overall though, I think this was a positive experience.

Over time, one subject began to lead to another.  In the end, instead of a bunch of haphazard, unrelated posts, I felt that I had created a conversation of posts that flowed one right into another.

When I needed help or inspiration, Google always came to my rescue.  I also learned that even veteran bloggers struggle to maintain a frequent posting schedule and high content.

When I went searching for inspiration, I stumbled upon the blog GigaOm.  The blog was founded by Om Malik and details the relationship between business and technology.  When Malik started the blog, he wanted to increase his traffic, so he began to write every day.  In one post, he chronicles his decade-long blogging journey and includes some astounding statistics.  Over the course of a decade, Malik wrote 11,165 posts (an average of three posts a day, every day for almost 10 years), about two million words and an average of 215 words per post.

Yes you read that last part right—three posts every day for 10 years.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure if that was inspiring or terrifying.  However, GigaOm is a leading blog of its kind and is surely profitable.

I hope that this experience makes posting only twice a week seem like a breeze.  I also hope that through the feedback I received that the skills I garnered, my future posts will be better, higher quality content posts that are worth reading.