Reverend Karen Campbell glanced at Rabbi Dan Geffen to her left and Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson to her right, and Reverend Peter Devaraj and interfaith minister Nancy Remkus across the aisle at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor.

“Oh, am I fortunate,” she recalled thinking to herself. “Just look at these great colleagues. I count my blessings every day.”

They gathered together and smiled as the camera focused on the group of religious leaders — capturing the admiration, harmony and respect between them, despite the radically different denominations they each represent in an increasingly secular society.

“I know if I had need, I could call any one of these people and say, ‘Will you come have a cup of coffee with me? I’m having difficulties with something.’ And they’d be there,” Campbell said from her office at Christ Episcopal Church. “We see each other in all of our goodness, and it’s a no-brainer to me that all the fighting that’s going on for thousands of years — and all of that division — is because people were looking in the wrong direction.

“Every single one of our faiths says, ‘We are to love God and we are to love our neighbor,’ and we can agree upon that,” she continued. “There may be differences in the nitty-gritty pieces, but we have more in common than we have that separates us.”

A Long History of Togetherness

Four years ago, lifelong New Yorker Dan Geffen found himself under the wing of Rabbi Leon Morris, meeting his new congregation at Temple Adas Israel before his predecessor departed for the Holy Land.

Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

Then, he met the larger Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton clergy — an active, vibrant community leading the way — and Geffen was shocked.

“One of the things that became immediately apparent to me was that you could see Sag Harbor — especially during the off-season — as this calm, sleepy town, but the religious community is truly a year-round community, one that takes a rather remarkable involvement not just in their own places of worship, but in the collective health and success of the religious institutions in the village as a whole,” Mr. Geffen said. “That was really quite striking to me, early on.”

Village historians would explain to the newcomer that, of all the villages and hamlets on the East End, Sag Harbor quickly established itself as a place welcoming of various streams of religious practice and belief, because of its very nature as a port town. Dating back to 1844, when the Old Whalers’ Church opened its doors, there were 1,000 people in attendance, according to guest minister Nancy Remkus.

Interfaith Minister Nancy Remkus. Michael Heller photo

“The captains of the whaleboat ships stayed in harbor an extra day so they could attend that opening day service,” Remkus said. “And when I’m in there and I preach, I can feel the presence of the whalers and their children, and the women in their long dresses, and that energy. My hope is that comes again, and if it doesn’t, I hope people find the spirituality in their hearts and continue connecting to something bigger than themselves.”

A Crisis in Faith

According to recent Pew Research Center studies, the United States has experienced slight but steady declines in the overall number of Americans who say they believe in God — lining up with findings that American adults under age 40 are less likely to pray, attend church services and identify with any religion than their elders, threatening the future of organized religion.

“Religion is not a thing that seems important or necessary to people, and I’m not really sure what that’s about,” explained Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. “I think for less conservative people, religion has become very fundamentalist and very conservative, and the public face of religion is conservative and fundamentalist. And it’s not in line with what people think their values are.”

The Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the East End. Michael Heller photo

There may be a misconception among some of the data, according to Berel Lerman — studies that the Chabad North Haven rabbi calls a case of “broken telephone.” Participants who consider themselves non-religious, or not involved with organized religion, may instead identify as being “spiritual,” he said, which does not point to a more secular society.

“I think people don’t see mainstream religions as a spiritual experience, and that’s where there needs to be a lot of improvement, because people naturally are spiritual,” he said. “The very definition of a human being is a spiritual being in a physical body. Everything about us is spiritual: our intellect, our emotions, our talents, our desires. Those are all not physical things we could touch. Naturally, we’re spiritual, and that’s what we offer — a spiritual experience — and that’s how we stay relevant.”

Arguably one of the most progressive congregations in Sag Harbor — comprised of theists, humanists and even atheists — the Unitarian Universalists stay nimble and continue to evolve by welcoming and hearing differing opinions on religion and politics, and social issues including abortion and same-sex marriage, while helping one another understand their own relationship with God.

Rabbi Berel Lerman of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

“It is more challenging to talk about God,” Johnson said. “People aren’t in the practice of disagreeing, and disagreeing in public. You can craft your life in such a way that you’re surrounded by people and information that already agrees with you, so people don’t have the mettle, or the resilience, to disagree about God and about politics — and I do think they are slightly related.

“I think we don’t have the language and I wish that we did,” she continued. “I know that in here, we try to help people develop that language and the capacity to disagree, but also to be open enough to possibly be transformed by somebody else’s opinion or experience.”

Zen Buddhist priest Michel Engu Dobbs — whose sangha congregates at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse — says he can relate to the aversion to mainstream religions, growing up atheist as a child, and once had reservations of his own.

“Big, organized religions, including Buddhism, have a tendency to create an organization that needs to be supported and protected, and sometimes even when they make mistakes,” Dobbs said. “Things like the Catholic priest scandals, those things are almost unforgivable for the people they were perpetuated upon, who were the victims of it. But I also think it can be a shame for someone.

“Whether we call it spirituality or religion, or call it understanding and living a well adjusted, meaningful life, I think that’s a really important thing,” he continued. “I think there are so many aspects of religious communities that offer some very important things that we’ve lost in our modern society.”

The Evolving Role of the Clergy

An erosion in social services helping the hungry, poor and homeless — as well as “the last several years of upheaval in this country,” according to Geffen — has forced some clergy members to question their role in society and their purpose.

“Oftentimes, when there are shifts in the world at large, the religious world has a choice to make,” he said, “in terms of whether or not they’re going to stick completely by the practices and perspectives of their ancestors, or whether they’re going to adjust to the new realities that exist in the world.”

What used to be a predominantly conservative faith base in the church is evolving, Johnson said, and so are its ministers, priests and reverends at the forefront.

“I had the idea, when I was younger, that church is a place where people yelled at me about being a sinner. I imagine there are some people who still have that idea, and if that was the idea, I wouldn’t want to go to church either,” she said. “We are trying to find ways to open up people’s imagination about religion and about God and about faith and about values, and how that stuff is still relevant — and not just relevant, but really essential to how we live our lives and community.”

The Reverend Peter Devaraj of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

Through charity work, interfaith activities — such as the annual Thanksgiving dinner that rotates congregations — and social justice demonstrations, including the mass rally for immigrant families in July, the congregations say they are leading together by example and, at the St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church, they are relying on parishioners more than ever, according to Father Peter Devaraj.

“Years back, we had plenty of clergy, plenty of religious nuns; but today as the number is smaller, more and more laypeople are becoming more active and are very involved in different ministries and taking leadership in many ways,” he said. “We come together and plan for the church and for the community. Without them, it would be very difficult.”

For too long, the Catholic Church lost itself and its mission, Campbell said, focusing on outward appearances instead of looking within. In a time when the rhetoric of “whoever dies with the most toys wins” is law, a religious resurgence is critical, she said.

“I think we spent a lot of years, most major denominations, feeling privilege and feeling like, ‘We just are, so there’s no question,’” she said. “And now that attendance is down, we are starting to rediscover what it means to live the gospel. The gospel teaches us we need to care for the poor, the hungry, the needy and the vulnerable, and how we do that is a measure of how we live out our Christian faith. It’s the same for Jews, it’s the same for Muslims. We’re all together in this.”

The Challenges That Lie Ahead

At monthly meetings, or even over an emergency cup of coffee, Campbell said that she and most local religious leaders find common struggles among their congregations, including an aging population, declining attendance and religion no longer presenting as a priority in day-to-day life.

“Even when I was growing up, even 30 years ago, church was just what people did on Sunday. And now, it’s just not,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to be open-minded and say, ‘Maybe that’s fine.’ I actually don’t think it’s fine. I think it’s a real loss that religious community doesn’t occupy a larger space in people’s lives.”

Despite the challenges they face, the group agrees that Sag Harbor still shines as one of the liveliest religious communities on the East End, and that can be seen from the quality of life in the village overall, according to Lerman.

“The more vibrant of a religious and spiritual community, it benefits and elevates the whole society, the whole community,” Lerman said. “People are more altruistic, people are more tolerant, people are more giving, people are more charitable, people are happier, and it just makes it a better environment for everybody. Kids are fostered in a more wholesome environment and have a better upbringing.

“I think Sag Harbor certainly fits into those categories,” he continued, “but of course, as they say, the room for improvement is the largest room in the house. If we have achieved one level of success, we shouldn’t grow complacent and should try to do even more.”

As published in the Express Magazine

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