Religion Off the Cuff

By Christopher D. Cantwell and Catherine Abbott

Kenwood Boulevard runs through the heart of Milwaukee’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Though the street now forms the southern boundary of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s main campus, Kenwood’s wide birth and landscaped dividers are reflective of the boulevard’s earlier life as a thoroughfare through the one of the city’s most fashionable residential districts. Also indicative of the neighborhood’s history are the stories of the places of worship that line the street. Walking west from Lake Michigan where Kenwood terminates, one passes a Christian Science Reading Room that now houses the Chinese Christian Church of Milwaukee; the former home of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun that now belongs to the University’s Peck School of Arts; the gothic home of Kenwood Methodist Episcopal Church, where Wisconsin’s first ordained Native American woman preaches; and the former home of a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Church that now houses the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s University Center. And all in just three blocks.

The remarkable diversity of this stretch of Milwaukee was the inspiration for a new project run out the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s history department called Gathering Places: Religion and Community in Milwaukee. Under the directorship of faculty member Christopher D. Cantwell, the project has teams of graduate students partner with places of worship across Milwaukee to document their history. Throughout the Spring 2018 semester, students consulted public records, conducted research in denominational archives, scoured old sanctuaries for materials, and interviewed current and former members of a congregation in an attempt to reconstruct a place of worship’s history and ongoing activities. All of this material will then be published online on a map-based interface in order to build a living archive of Milwaukee’s religious diversity.

In addition to exploring the history of Milwaukee’s churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, however, Gathering Places will also now document the sounds of the city’s religious life as a pilot site partner with the American Religious Sounds Project. Our partnership with the ARSP has been incredibly beneficial. The ARSP’s focus on religion’s sonic dimensions has not only changed the kinds of material our project takes in, but has also complicated our conception of what, exactly, religion is. Catherine Abbott recently encountered this phenomenon as one of Gathering Places’ student researchers. Charged with writing the history of Plymouth Church, a progressive United Church of Christ congregation, Abbott and her research partner initially expected that documenting the community’s commitment to social justice would be easily accessed through the printed word and the church’s material culture. Like many liberal, mainline congregations, Plymouth’s sign prominently displays an LGBTQ flag and its sermons and bulletins are replete with announcements about opportunities for social activism like a rally in support of undocumented immigrants and refugees.


The sanctuary of Plymouth Church UCC, Milwaukee. Photograph by Jordan Heller.


Members of Plymouth Church UCC, Milwaukee prepare banners for an upcoming rally in support of refugees. Photograph by Jordan Heller.

But a field recording collected on April 29, 2018 complicated our perhaps stereotypical understanding of progressive religion. Like many congregations, Plymouth publishes its sermons on its websites. But in an interesting twist, Plymouth’s pastor Andrew Warner also publishes the texts of his sermons online. If someone were to study Plymouth solely based on the texts of these sermons, they would be able to construct an entirely predictable portrait of a mainline congregation that is committed to liberal politics. The April 29 sermon on the ways we perceive the person of Jesus, for example, makes an explicit reference to supporting refugees in America. But in our recording of the service what came across as the sermon’s highlight was an off-the-cuff remark made at the beginning of the service. While illustrating how Christians tend to romanticize Jesus’s love through hymns like “He Walks with Me in the Garden,” Pastor Warner paused after reading the line “And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known” and remarked, “Actually, I’ve known men arrested for that in the park.” The congregation laughed at the line, and then the minister continued. The rest of the sermon focused on how an expansive conception of Christ’s love should compel Christians to identify with those in need. As we suspected, standard mainline, liberal Protestant fare.


Pastor Andrew Warner preaching. Photograph by Jordan Heller.


But in processing our recording in the days and weeks after the service, we kept coming back to this moment of laughter. It became clear to us that this spontaneous moment also had as much meaning as the broader message of the sermon itself. It revealed both the congregation’s familiarity with the hymn as well as the its understanding of the practice of “cruising” for sexual encounters in public parks, which gay man often did in times when knowledge of their sexuality brought discrimination. It also made clear that the community found the pastor’s remark to be humorous and not shocking or sacrilegious. Why the community found the joke to be humorous is a matter in need of greater scrutiny. Does it signal the community’s belief that they had grown beyond a supposedly retrograde religious sensuality? Or is it a demonstration of the congregation’s diversity or cultural sophistication? The answers of such questions hopefully will emerge when we put this laughter in conversation with other sources from the church’s history. But it is important to note that none of this information would be available to scholars studying only the sermon’s printed version. Nor would even an official recording of pastor Warner’s sermon have picked up this information as the minister’s microphone would have lost the sounds of the crowd. But by listening to the audience listening to a sermon, our field recording revealed a great deal about the culture of that community.

We at the Gathering Places team are grateful to be partnering with the American Religious Sounds Project. The ARSP’s call to take sound seriously, to ask what religion in America sounds like, has already transformed how we study religion in Milwaukee. We hope it promotes an even greater commitment to listen to the sounds around us.

From the visual to the sonic

As the ARSP multimedia content producer, I create audio clips, collages, and essays from recordings gathered by the project’s student and staff researchers. In my editing, I try to tease out specific themes (such as food and drink in religious practice, and the presence of religion during protests, to name a couple). I also call attention to unexpected sounds, such as the roar of a landing plane during a Serbian Orthodox chapel blessing, or the rumble of idling semi-tractor trailers just outside of a travel center chapel.

However, my focus on religious sound is relatively new. My background is primarily in documentary photography. Since 2010, I have specialized in documenting faith and religion, and have used my camera to explore both formal religious rituals and the intersection of belief with life and culture. Before the ARSP, I had experience working with audio, but I still thought of it mostly as an accompaniment to visual media.

When I joined the ARSP team in 2015, I primarily thought of myself as a photographer who happened to carry a recorder. Now, though, I often see myself as a recordist who happens to carry a camera. Making this transition from imagery to sound – from visual to sonic documentation – has been a challenging process at times, but one that I have ultimately embraced. Sound, I’ve learned, has a rich capacity to cultivate both intimacy and empathy.

In the autumn of 2015, before Donald Trump came on the scene, an anti-Islam protest took place outside of the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Dublin, Ohio. Only one protester showed up, but she carried multiple Islamophobic picket signs and shouted hateful things at the dozens of NICC supporters who attended.

 

 

When I arrived, I carried both my camera and recorder, intending to document the protest in multiple media. When I was photographing the protester, I noticed that I felt nothing, other than vague annoyance. However, as soon as I put down the camera and started recording audio – as soon as I actually began listening to what she was saying – my anger and frustration mounted. Suddenly, I was in a position similar to that of the Muslims standing around me, confronted by the woman’s uninformed opinions and hateful rhetoric. I could feel myself wanting to interject, to counter the false narratives she was espousing.

After the protest, I realized how much my camera had served as a barrier for me that afternoon, a way to separate myself and disengage from the situation. At certain moments, I had put a piece of metal and glass between me and an upsetting reality. The act of photographing, while it can be incredibly intimate, often creates distance. Photos themselves can also have a similar distancing effect on viewers. As moments that have been distilled and flattened, they may lose their impact when viewed repeatedly over time.

But sound is different. It confronts both the recordist and listener, demanding attention and reaction. It can be jarring or harsh, soothing or buoyant. But most of all, it is encompassing: There are few ways to shield against it. That afternoon outside the mosque, through my ears, I found myself confronted by America’s rising tide of xenophobia and Islamophobia – with no escape.

Paying attention to sound has important implications for researching religious groups and practices. Sound opens up new opportunities to understand traditions and issues we may normally only read about or view in the past tense. It puts us in the midst of communities, rather than keeping us at a distance, and invites us to engage with them in new ways.

As a further example, I once documented Eckankar, a religious community whose members chant HU – which they say is an ancient, monosyllabic word for God – in order to raise their consciousness. When I attended an Eckankar event where members sang a group HU song, I was asked not to take pictures, and could only record audio. Doing so encouraged me to focus on the characteristics of the song – the way disparate voices seemed to combine into a singular, undulating melody that filled the room with some sort of electric current. I could again feel myself relating to members of the community, feeling the same kind of energy that they try to harness in their practices.

 

I likely will always think of myself as a photographer in some capacity, and I continue to take my camera with me during fieldwork assignments. However, I do so knowing that audio can provide a rich complement to my images, helping animate them and provide a new layer of engagement and understanding.

ARSP Spring Pilot Sites

On October 20, the ARSP leadership team gathered at OSU for an all-day brainstorming session with our three pilot site coordinators. In Spring 2018, our project will be incorporated into university courses led by Christopher Cantwell, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Rachel M. Lindsey, at Saint Louis University, as well as a similar research project led by Kathryn McClymond, at Georgia State University.

Over the course of the day we discussed numerous aspects of managing the project from audio recording and editing to tagging and uploading materials into our archive. We shared experiences of incorporating digital humanities projects into our courses and considered  ways to standardize our procedures across multiple institutions and teaching contexts. At the end of the day, two OSU undergraduate researchers joined us for a Q & A about their work on the project, and provided suggestions as well as advice for future student researchers.

Next spring we will share the syllabi from the pilot project courses and blog post updates from the researchers at the pilot sites.  We are very excited about the expansion of the ARSP through these pilot sites and look forward to watching it grow!

Rachel Lindsey, Kathryn McClymond, Isaac Weiner, Amy DeRogatis, Chris Cantwell, Lauren Pond.

Second ARSP Advisory Board Meeting

On September 14-16, 2017, we were delighted to host our second ARSP advisory board meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The Ohio State and Michigan State leadership teams met together with five members of our advisory board: Vicki Brennan, Associate Professor of Religion, University of Vermont; Pamela Klassen, Professor of Religion, University of Toronto; Laura Kwerel, Senior Producer, Interfaith Voices; Ely Lyonblum, ethnomusicologist and Research Grants Officer, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto; and Kristen Mapes, Digital Humanities Coordinator, Michigan State University. Over a day and a half of productive conversation, we received constructive feedback on mockups of the ARSP website, discussed the ARSP’s broader intellectual objectives, wrestled with some of its key ethical challenges, and plotted next steps for further development and expansion. We also enjoyed good food, good drink, and good company!

The meeting left us energized and motivated to get back to work with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. We are grateful to all of our advisory board members for their time, energy, and insight. We are also grateful to the Henry Luce Foundation, OSU’s Center for the Study of Religion, and OSU’s Research Commons for providing funding and material support to make this meeting possible. We look forward to sharing publicly some of the products of our conversation when the ARSP website launches in spring 2018!

The ATL Maps Project and the ARSP

ARSP Advisory Board member and project co-originator, Kathryn McClymond, has a wonderful blog post up about her work with the ATL Maps project, in which she reflects on the value of sound mapping for studying and teaching about Atlanta’s religious diversity. We are excited about bringing our projects together in the near future. Stay tuned!

Singing HU

By Lauren Pond

 

In 2015, when I initially got involved in the American Religious Sounds Project (then the Religious Soundmap Project), my very first assignment was to attend an Eckankar seminar in Dublin, Ohio. Eckankar centers on the idea that humans are connected to God through a divine spirit, which can be “heard as sound and seen as light.” One of the cornerstones of Eckankar is the HU song, a chant that adherents say allows them to raise their consciousness and become closer to the divine.

Upon coordinating my visit to the Eckankar seminar, I learned that although I could record a group HU song, I would not be permitted to take photographs. Granted, the ARSP focuses on sound, but with my background in documentary photography, I was accustomed to telling visual stories, and I had anticipated at least being able to take a few contextualizing photographs to accompany my recordings. I became somewhat concerned: How was I going to tell a compelling story about Eckankar without a visual element?

However, my fears began to dissipate when I put on my headphones and started to record. Despite the fact that the HU song was just that, a song, it had almost a three-dimensional quality to it. About 50 disparate voices, all chanting “HU” at their own pace, combined to form an encompassing, undulating melody. Most people closed their eyes as they chanted, and I later learned that some had visualized colors or peaceful scenes. I, too, felt my mind drifting.

There was no need to photograph people chanting HU, I realized, and to do so would probably be a disservice to Eckankar. Sound served to help the mind wander, both visually and spiritually. Attempting to represent HU through imagery would flatten this experience.

What can we learn about religion if we begin by listening to it? This is one of the guiding questions of the American Religious Sounds Project. It only took one assignment for me to realize the importance of taking a sonic approach, and how this might help us understand religion in a more nuanced manner.

Tsougrisma

Text by Amy DeRogatis
Recordings by Emma Pittsley
Photographs and Audio Editing by Lauren Pond

On Saturday, April 15,  the Michigan State ARSP research team attended the Holy Saturday Divine Liturgy service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lansing, Michigan. After the service, we joined congregants to help wrap red eggs for that evening’s celebration after the Paschal Vigil. During Thursday of Holy Week, congregation members had dropped off dozens of eggs that had been dyed bright red. These were ready to be wrapped in tulle on Saturday.

Continue reading

Takin’ It to the Streets: Pilgrimage in East Lansing

By Amy DeRogatis



Last Sunday, April 2, 2017,  I participated in an interfaith pilgrimage through the streets of East Lansing. To prepare for the event, I spent a few days reading and thinking about pilgrimage.  Why do people take pilgrimages? What do they hope to accomplish? Where are they seeking to go? And, significantly for this project, what are the sounds that I might expect to hear while on a pilgrimage?

Continue reading

Building Community Relationships

Text by Caroline Toy
Recordings, editing, and photographs by Lauren Pond

At many sites and events where ARSP researchers record, we try to make ourselves barely noticeable to the community. While we get permission to record and answer questions openly, it’s not unusual for us to document a service or festival understanding that our recordings are only an auditory snapshot, a single, ephemeral slice of religious life at a particular place and time.

In other cases, the opposite is true, and we set out to create a collage of such snapshots, stitched together by interviews with community members, the cycle of a sacred calendar, or narratives of change. These deeper relationships allow us to document how religious communities create and understand their place in their religious landscapes (local, historical, political, and the like). Many of the examples featured on this blog so far – such as the Nine Worlds Kindred community of Asatru practitioners, Wat Buddha Samakidham temple, and Three Cranes Grove of Druids (who sponsor the Krampus Parade in Columbus) – come from ongoing relationships with communities where we’ve recorded multiple times, interviewed clergy and practitioners, and tried to capture religious practices in multiple contexts.

Continue reading

Sound as a Point of Contact

Recordings, photographs, and text by Lauren Pond and Isaac Weiner
Audio editing by Lauren Pond

One recurring motif to which the ARSP team has been attuned is how different sounds–including those deemed religious and those deemed secular–intersect and overlap in particular social contexts. We are interested in what it sounds like when religion spills outside of the institutional boundaries meant to contain it and, conversely, how the ambient sonic qualities of a given social situation shape the experience of religious life. In these moments, sound becomes a point of contact, mediating interactions among diverse religious communities, between religion and its broader social environment, and between human practice and the natural world. The following clips offer a few examples of what we have found.

1. Isha prayer at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center

 

Located just outside of Columbus proper, the Noor Islamic Cultural Center is one of Central Ohio’s largest mosques. On the day of the 2016 Presidential Election, the NICC served as one of the region’s largest polling sites. Likely for political and safety reasons, it abstained from projecting the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day, but resumed doing so for the last prayer of the evening, the Isha prayer, which took place shortly after the polls had closed. At the time this recording was made, it was pouring rain. The combination of the precipitation and the prayer made for a mournful-sounding recording — which, in retrospect, seems suggestive of the election outcome and the xenophobia and Islamophobia that have flourished since then.

Continue reading