Building Community Relationships

By Caroline Toy, ARSP Project Manager

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.

These relationships are enormously rich and each evolves very differently. This evolution is driven by the communities’ own interests in working with us, particular themes that emerge in our conversations with members, how the community presents itself to the public, and even dramatic changes in material circumstances.

St. Stevan of Dechani Serbian Orthodox Church in Columbus, Ohio
This past week, a group of researchers at OSU attended a Friday evening fish fry dinner at the St. Stevan of Dechani Serbian Orthodox Church. The church hosts these dinners every Friday in Lent, and advertises them prominently to the public on their website and signs placed to attract passing cars. The research team was led by Lauren Pond, the ARSP multimedia content producer, who has been working with this church for over a year. In fact, if you’ve explored our preliminary website, you may have come across her photos and audio collage from the fish dinners in Lent 2016:

Lauren has attended services at St. Stevan of Dechani, and she and I also recorded at the church’s Serbian cultural festival in July 2016. As a result, Lauren has great contacts with a number of committed members of this community, a relatively small church where we typically see many of the same people at every event. Last Friday we were happy to see David Kos again, who welcomed us warmly, sat with us while we ate, and showed us the church’s beautiful collection of traditional Serbian resist-dyed Easter eggs. Another church member also showed us around the sanctuary, explaining this history of the art on display. Other members were familiar to us from the vendors’ booths and lamb roast at the summer festival.

An ongoing community relationship like this one can also be a great way to introduce new researchers to fieldwork. In addition to myself and Lauren, the OSU team at St. Stevan of Dechani also included new researchers Soncerrae and Frank. Surrounded by a community that was already well-informed about the ARSP and eager to participate, our new team members gained invaluable experience with both recording technology and, more importantly, introducing themselves and explaining their work.

Columbus Karma Thegsum Chöling Center in Columbus, Ohio

Another community the OSU team has worked with for an extended period of time is the Karma Thegsum Chöling Center, our local Tibetan Buddhist community. Back in May 2015, when the project (then known as the Religious Soundmap of the Global Midwest) was in its infancy, a team from a May term course taught by Dr. Weiner visited the KTC, recording Tuesday and Sunday meditation practices and interviewing several members, including Tuesday night lay leaders Craig and Tanya, and resident teacher Lama Kathy Wesley. This initial work was among our very earliest material published online. My visits to the KTC and interview with Lama Kathy were the beginning of my adventure with the American Religious Sounds Project as a student researcher, leading to my current role as OSU Project Manager.

Our subsequent work with the KTC has happened in very different ways, and for very different reasons, than out ongoing work with St. Stevan of Dechani. In early 2016, the KTC lost its temple building in Columbus’s Franklinton neighborhood to a fire, beginning an interfaith sojourn among other local communities—a fascinating story in itself. Local interfaith organizers rallied behind the KTC, sponsoring a prayer rally and helping with fundraising, events I was also able to document. Currently, the KTC is housed in shared space at a synagogue, Congregation Tifereth Israel, where I have recorded some of the same practices we attended at the original Franklinton meditation center. We will be sharing our 2015 recordings with the KTC as an archive of practices in their old building, which they are currently working to rebuild.

Throughout this time of transition, the KTC, and especially Lama Kathy and Tanya, have continued to welcome us. Since moving to Congregation Tifereth Israel, they have twice hosted groups from my religious studies classes who wanted to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism in America at their Tuesday evening Chenrezig meditation practice.

The KTC and St. Stevan of Dechani are just two examples of deepening relationships with congregations that have let us listen beyond formal services, into the dynamics of community life, cultural heritage, and the interfaith landscape of Columbus. We are immensely grateful to these and other groups for welcoming us as we learn from them!

Columbus KTC:
St. Stevan of Dechani Serbian Orthodox Church:

Sound As A Point Of Contact

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.

2. Buddhist Chant

Wat Buddha Samakidham is a Buddhist temple in the Theravada tradition, whose community consists primarily of Lao- and Thai-Americans. In May 2016, the temple celebrated Vesakha, or the Buddha’s birthday, with a special weekend-long festival. Inside, the temple’s resident monks engaged in lengthy sessions of chanting and meditation, while outside was staged a cultural bazaar, with food, kiosks, and vendors selling all sorts of Thai, Lao, and Buddhist-themed goods. This recording begins inside, with the monks, and then gradually moves outside, where the sounds of the monks’ voices can still be heard, just barely, amidst the background noise of the festival and nearby highway. Their faint echoes subtly undercut any sharp distinction between inside and outside, temple and marketplace, religion and culture.

3. Meeting during Asatru Midsummer gathering

In July 2016, the Nine Worlds Kindred, an Asatru group based just outside of Columbus, convened for a Midsummer ritual. Asatru, rooted in ancient Germanic (predominantly Norse) literature and lore, is strongly nature-based. In this clip, the sounds of the Midsummer meeting at the group’s hof – a large, outdoor shed where many gatherings occur – spill outside and combine with the sounds of the surrounding farmland, underscoring the faith’s connection to the natural environment.

4. Ethiopian Timket celebration

In late January 2017, the Columbus Ethiopian Orthodox community observed Timket, a celebration of the Epiphany. The event began at a banquet hall on the southeast side of Columbus, from which community members transported a replica of the Ark of the Covenant to their church, located right alongside a busy thoroughfare. The following clip illustrates what this church service sounded like – from outside of the building. Sonorous music rattles the church windows and combines with the sounds of passing traffic, suggesting both the volume of this religious community and its integration into the city.

Recordings, images, and writing by Lauren Pond and Isaac Weiner
Audio editing by Lauren Pond

Recording the Human Side of Ceremony

By Bree Gannon, ARSP Project Manager at MSU

The Imam prays. A baby cries. This is the human in ceremony, the spontaneous in orchestration.

I made this audio clip from material I recorded at the Muslim celebration of Eid-Al-Fitr, the end of fasting for the month of Ramadan. It was my first time attending an Islamic service. As I observed, I noticed the children: They climbed in their parents’ laps, exchanged small gifts, ran around, and talked with each other. Having grown up in a religious tradition where children were tucked away in nurseries and church basements, this was a novel experience for me.

After six months working on the American Religious Sounds Project, I find at times that I don’t know how I feel watching, listening to, and recording religious ceremonies as an outsider. That status feels like a giant, clunky sign that I carry with me into religious communities. The weight is uncomfortable. I worry that I make others uncomfortable, too.

At the Eid service, two little girls run up to me. They tell me that they love my blue scarf, and that it matches my eyes. Greetings, eye contact, and head nods provide evidence of my welcome. An older woman comes by and holds a basket of candy out to me. She smiles and gestures for me to take a piece. I smile and reach for one.

An elder says that many of the thousands here today are from around the world. We are in a warehouse-like structure in a small Midwestern college town. This place is not my home either, but I recognize the farther distance many had traveled to be here, in order to invoke the feeling of home together.

I am here to capture sound, but the bright colors of the women’s clothing overwhelm my other senses. The colors and noises of talking and laughter accumulate into a collective energy in the air. It feels celebratory. My black dress, which I wore to hide behind, makes me stand out.

What am I looking for in a one-minute clip? It is perhaps impossible to select a sound that captures the essence of a religion. Instead, I seek to find a sound that portrays the movement within religion, its vitality. I exercise some privilege in selecting the clip, and I don’t carry this lightly. In many ways, it is troubling to select what I would consider peripheral or central. A baby’s cry – because it is hidden in my tradition – stands out to me. Perhaps it is a sound central to the Islamic faith.

The Eid service is filled with sounds and colors, but it is also full of stories and complexities. By including ambient noise in my recordings, I am pushing against the urge simply to show the broader, more expected narrative of Islam. Although it is impossible to capture everything in a moment, the voices of the people in the background, with differing needs and agendas and hopes, might allow us to listen more attentively. It might allow for one of these stories to disrupt our narrative. A baby is here.