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Quest for something to believe in moves beyond church walls

March 02, 2008, Palm Beach Post, Quest for something to believe in moves beyond church walls, by Rhonda Swan.

Sunday School is now a "meetup" in your neighbor's living room.

And the tent revival is a rally in an 80,000-seat football stadium.

A burgeoning spiritual movement is afoot in America, and two of its biggest leaders are Oprah and Obama.

Many of its participants no doubt make up a portion of the 28 percent of American adults who have left the faith of their childhood for another denomination or no religion at all.

That's according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released last week.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Study, based on interviews with 35,000 people, also found that people not connected to any religious tradition - 16 percent - are the fastest-growing group and rank third in the country behind Protestants and Catholics at 51 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Their numbers have been increasing steadily for the past decade.

That doesn't surprise Valerie Langley, a Catholic who left the church and considers herself spiritual.

"People are tired of being controlled," says the 58-year-old life coach who lives in West Palm Beach. "Religion doesn't have to be about control and fear. A lot of the religions - God bless them all, they serve a purpose, they enlighten people, they give them peace and quiet, they give them serenity - but a lot of people are held down by the fear that God is cruel or God is going to condemn them or that they're gonna go to hell."

Religion minus all the rules

Layla Jean Samiljan of Lake Park, who also is spiritual and grew up Presbyterian, said people are leaving churches because God no longer dwells in the house of the lord.

"They've taken the spirit out of it and you're left with the empty form of the ritual and the rules, and people have lost their real connection to spirit, to God, and then they wonder why they're not feeling anything, why they're not getting better and why they're not getting answers."

Perhaps this departure from religion and church teachings - this exploration for new meaning and purpose - is behind the recent success of books on spirituality such as Rhonda Byrne's The Secret and Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, both bestsellers.

In A New Earth, Tolle asks readers to create a more loving world by leaving behind their egos and embracing a higher state of consciousness.

"Millions are now ready to awaken because spiritual awakening is not an option anymore, but a necessity if humanity and the planet are to survive," Tolle writes.

Tolle and Oprah Winfrey, spiritual guru to millions, will teach a 10-week interactive Web seminar on Oprah.com based on A New Earth beginning Monday night. More than 500,000 people from 100 countries have registered to participate in what Oprah says she hopes will be the world's biggest classroom.

And tonight is the premiere of Oprah's reality show, The Big Give, about inspiring people to do good for others.

Oprah has said helping others is her purpose.

For hundreds in South Florida, part of living a spiritual life and finding purpose involves social gatherings with like-minded people they find through the Web site MeetUp.com. The meetings take place in living rooms, coffeehouses, bookstores or anywhere else the host decides.

Local meetups include The Palm Beach Gardens Spiritual Empowerment Meetup Group, Spiritual Nutrition Happy Hour Meetup in Delray Beach, Spirituality Club & Discussion Group in Boca Raton and the Royal Palm Beach Law of Attraction "Dream BIG" Meetup Group.

Susan McKemy of Palm Beach Gardens hosts a West Palm Beach law-of-attraction meetup called Beyond "The Secret."

A former Baptist, she now attends the Unity Church.

"I don't like to call it a church," says McKemy, 52. "It's a center for spiritual study."

The 'Obama Phenomena'

In January, the Network of Spiritual Progressives sponsored a conference in Boca Raton for people of various faiths and no faiths interested in being part of this spiritual movement.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, chairman of the network and author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From The Religious Right, describes the network as people who want to "replace the bottom line of money and power with the bottom line of love and generosity and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation."

He says this hunger for things spiritual explains what he calls the "Obama Phenomena."

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has attracted millions to politics for the first time. His evangelical-type rallies have attracted as many as 30,000 in stadiums across the country, including women who swoon and faint.

Lerner attributes Obama's appeal to his message of hope and unity.

"They see in the Obama campaign the possibility of addressing the huge spiritual vacuity, the emptiness that exists in their daily lives in American society," he says.

Lerner once was dubbed the guru to the White House during the Clinton administration. First lady Hillary Clinton, now a senator running against Obama, invited him to the White House to strategize with her.

For years, Lerner has been calling for a "politics of meaning."

"For a while, she was into it," Lerner says.

"Obama's campaign is politics of meaning. People are hungry for some kind of meaning and purpose for their lives that transcends the materialism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace."

They also are searching for a connection to one another, he says.

"The Obama campaign is touching at once a product of the alienation that people feel from each other and the hunger to overcome that and connect with each other."

Even nonbelievers may yearn for such a connection, which brings atheist Enos Nelson to study with the Unitarian Universalists.

"It's not really a church," says Nelson, a retired restaurateur who grew up Lutheran and gave up religion nearly 50 years ago. "They call themselves a congregation. They don't have a creed there, and you can be anything you want there."

Nancy Kennedy of West Palm Beach, 60, a reflexologist who left both the Methodist and Lutheran traditions to follow what she believes is a more spiritual path, agrees.

"We say it differently, but we're all looking for the same thing," she says. "We're all spiritual, we are all connected to the source. It's all called love."

Find this article at: Palm Beach Post website

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