NYC subways may see Ramadan ads

The always colorful U.S. Rep. Peter King from The Island isn’t too happy about the MTA’s plans to put ads in the subways this Ramadan from a national Muslim group.

The group, the Islamic Circle of North America, wants to run “educational” ads during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that starts Sept. 1.

But King is antsy because Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of a Brooklyn mosque and a supporter of the ad campaign, was a character witness for Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who was convicted for overseeing the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

010508_king_web.jpg“He is a known Islamic extremist, and you would be giving him credibility and stature through a known government facility,” King tells CNN.

Wahhaj says he spoke for Abdel-Rahman in the context of “what we knew about him before the incident.”

NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg has offered some support for the ad campaign, drawing applause from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

King noted that the ads would be up on the anniversary of 9/11.

The Islamic Circle of North America says this about it ad campaign:

Due to the presence of much negativity and Islamophobia, the general public has the daunting task of sifting through uninformed and biased sources before they can find reliable outlets. We are providing an opportunity to anyone who has questions to have them answered by informed Muslims.

Giving hope (and faith) to those without

I spent a fascinating morning recently at the Children’s Village, a residential treatment center in Dobbs Ferry. The place is home to about 300 boys and teens who come from troubled backgrounds, sometimes deeply troubled backgrounds.

I was there to see the Rev. Colleen Holby, the director of pastoral care. In September, she will celebrate her 30th year as a chaplain at Children’s Village.

tjndc5-5kwxs678gleqfe5n58a_layout1.jpgI sat in on morning Bible study and listened to a half dozen kids talk about their recent experience at a summer camp run by a Christian youth ministry (one of Holby’s pet causes). Then I talked to her about her job, her vocation.

It’s not easy work. She has seen a lot. “We never have a boring day around here,” she told me.

I talked to Holby about what she tries to give the boys who wind up at CV. It comes down to a few things: real relationships (which some of the boys have never had), a reason for hope, and a spark of faith.

She takes her job seriously and loves it. My article about her will be in the Journal News/LoHud soon.

Holby is national president of a group called the National Chaplains Association for Youth-at-Risk. When the group gets together, do they have some war stories…

Should Messianic Jewish inmates get kosher meals?

How exactly are prison officials supposed to decide questions like this?

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The inmates say they’re Jewish, but the prison considers them Protestant.

A long-running debate over defining the term “Messianic Jew” has spilled into a dispute over self-described Messianic Jews at an Ohio prison claiming discrimination in their attempts to keep kosher.

Messianic Jews say they can be Jewish while believing that Jesus is the Messiah foretold in Jewish scriptures — an idea contrary to traditional Judaism.

At least four Messianic Jewish prisoners at Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield have filed grievances, alleging discrimination. Federal law says the government cannot impede the religious exercise of an inmate unless those restrictions support a compelling governmental interest.

The Rev. Gary Sims, religious-services administrator for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said he revoked kosher privileges for Messianic Jews in 2004 after consulting with Messianic Jewish rabbis who told him the meals weren’t essential. The meals also are prohibitively expensive, he said.

Another complaint stems from the fact that the Messianic Jews have to meet on Sundays because there’s no volunteer to serve them on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday. Regular chaplains are off during that time, Sims said.

He said the prison system is re-evaluating its religious-accommodation policies.

Have you heard the one about the blind rabbi running for Congress?

Yeah, the first line in one of the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” items this week just grabbed me:

“Throughout American history, the number of blind rabbis serving in Congress has remained steady at zero.”

Little did I know that a blind rabbi by the name of Dennis Shulman is trying to be the first — and he’s doing it right across the river. He is running to represent New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes a hunk of Bergen County.

300_148182.jpgShulman went blind gradually as a teenager because of a nerve disorder. After getting a doctorate in clinical psychology and setting up a practice, he decided to become a rabbi.

And then? According to the New Yorker:

Even with two careers, he was restless. While teaching a course on the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, he became haunted by Heschel’s remark “To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” “I read that and said, ‘Oh, shit, I have to run for office,’ ” Shulman recalled. “Besides, my wife was sick of me almost throwing my shoe at the television.”

In the Democratic primary, Shulman ran against two others, one by the name of Roger Bacon.

“My favorite headline from the primary was ‘BLIND RABBI’S OPPONENT IS BACON,’ ” Shulman said.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Another good line, which Shulman told the Bergen Record: “Problem-solving has been my life, not ideology.”

By the way, there hasn’t been a blind member of Congress since 1941. And there’s never been a rabbi.

An ‘inclusiveness of spirit’ at Lambeth?

inpage_bishops_roskam.jpgIn Bishop Catherine Roskam’s latest blog from the Lambeth Conference, the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of NY writes about the “beauty and grandeur” of Sunday’s service at Canterbury Cathedral.

She also writes, yet again, of missing Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay New Hampshire bishop whose consecration has upset much of the Anglican world:

Duleep De Chickera,the bishop of Colomba in Sri Lanka and the chair of the planning team preached the sermon. He shocked the gathered community with his forthrightness when he said as part of his exhortation to be an inclusive church, “There is space equally for anyone regardless of color, ability, gender or sexual orientation.” The air was electric. ( If you would like to hear the sermon, just google Bishop De Chickera’s name and you will find it easily both in taped and text form.) Bishop De Chickera ministers in a very challenging and insecure part of this Communion. His courage and inclusiveness of spirit was particularly appreciated by those of us who found it hard to sing the concluding hymn “All Are Welcome” when one of our number does not appear to be.

Robinson is not at Lambeth, but is in England, as Roskam notes:

After the service I did some interviews with the BBC and the AP, went for a quick bite with my husband Phil, Bishop Sisk and Archdeacon Kendall and then headed for St. Stephen’s Meadow for an outdoor eucharist sponsored by Inclusive Church (UK) and Integrity (US) and attended by about 200 people, including Bishop Gene Robinson and about 20 of the bishops from the morning service.

‘I trust the Giver because of the gift’

Bishop David Olson is just about done serving as acting bishop of the New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

rew_20080516_058.jpgHe took over in February, shortly after Bishop Stephen Bouman departed for a gig with the national denomination in Chicago. On Aug. 1, the synod’s newly elected leader, Bishop Robert Rimbo (pictured), will begin a six-year term.

In Olson’s last weekly commentary, he writes about gratitude:

Gratitude is fundamental to faith. This has been the theme of more than one Thanksgiving sermon, admittedly a tangential occasion to lift up such a crucial theological truth. It is my theme today.

The Scripture is replete with examples: the 10 lepers, the plea Paul makes for offerings, the joy of the woman who found the lost coin, the tears in the eyes of the Waiting Father, Simeon in the temple, even the Eucharist.

I have found myself distributing communion to strangers in synod churches with tears in my eyes. What is in the manner, the hands, the mouths, the eyes of so many communicants that breaks into what seems routine? It is gratitude. It is for them and for me for such a privilege.

The beauty of summer days and nights, the fruits of the earth, the orange full moon appearing low and large behind distant trees on the shore still my soul with reverence, awe, and thanksgiving. Gratitude for a gift given to millions from time immemorial stirs my soul and drives it to search for or presume a Giver. All summer I am a recipient. I trust the Giver because of the gift.

I can still see my seven-year-old daughter (this week 44!) singing in children’s choir: “Good morning, God. This is your world. I am your child. Show me the way.” I think she has more of her mother’s theology than mine. Nancy’s prayers at table are unfailingly grateful. My prayers with another pastor always move to thanks.

One is grateful to be entrusted with something precious. This synod and its people have become precious to me and refreshed my faith by trusting me to be pastor and bishop. This has been a time of great gratitude and renewed faith. A new servant is about to experience the same thing. I believe he is worth your trust and common thanksgiving. Grow together in gratitude and grace.

Fallen Catholic commentator back in the headlines

I’ve wondered from time to time in recent years whatever became of Deal Hudson.

He was the boss of the conservative Catholic magazine CRISIS and an influential Catholic advisor to President Bush and the GOP.

churchdeal1.jpgIn 2004, National Catholic Reporter ran a long piece about why Hudson had left a tenured position at Fordham, where he had been a very popular prof (I know someone who took his classes). NCR wrote that in 1994, Hudson befriended a troubled, 18-year-old freshman, took her to a bar, got her drunk, and had a sexual encounter with her in his office. After the student went to Fordham authorities, Hudson left the university.

And when the NCR article came out, he left CRISIS magazine. And Hudson has been much lower profile ever since (he was a leading critic of Bill Clinton during the Monica mess).

He is director of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture, and has a blog called

Now a liberal Catholic group called Catholics United is calling on John McCain to drop Hudson from his “National Catholics for McCain Steering Committee.”

Of course, the group is citing Hudson’s personal conduct. But they also really dislike his politics:

In addition to questions about his personal conduct, Hudson has a long standing history of using Catholic teaching to advance a partisan agenda. In 1999, Hudson’s magazine Crisis authored an influential study explaining how the Republican Party could achieve greater success at the ballot box by making specific appeals to Catholic swing voters, a move that prompted Bush strategist Karl Rove to invite Hudson into high-level campaign conversations.

About God’s name

I’ve gotten quite a lot of reaction to an article in yesterday’s Journal News/LoHud about a Westchester rabbi who believes he has some insight into the meaning of God’s name.

More than a decade ago, Rabbi Mark Sameth hit on this theory: that the Tetragrammaton — the Hebrew, four-letter name of God in the Hebrew Bible — has something of a secret meaning. If you take the four Hebrew letters (Yud-Hay-Vov-Hay) and reverse them, the new word makes the sounds of the Hebrew words for “he” and “she.”

Based on his study of Jewish mysticism, Sameth concluded that this hidden name of God shows that God has a dual-gendered nature. In other words, God is not masculine.

tjndc5-5ktvfmic5gpmfkkyeqx_layout.jpgSameth, the spiritual leader of Pleasantville Community Synagogue, spent the last decade researching commentaries on the Torah and Talmud — particularly those with a mystical bent — to build a case for his theory.

The result will be an article in the upcoming issue of the CCAR Journal (the journal of Reform rabbis) called: “Who is He? He is She: The Secret Four-Letter Name of God.”

By the way, the four-letter, Hebrew name of God is held by Jewish tradition to be unpronounceable (although others have pronounced it as Yahweh or Jehovah). Sameth does not intend to speak the reversed name or have others speak it.

The reaction I’ve gotten has been tremendously positive (not always the case, believe me). People from all sorts of religious backgrounds seem to be finding some appeal — meaning, solace, the oddness of it all — in Sameth’s ideas. It’s hard to tell from emails, but many of these folks seem to be on spiritual quests of various types.

And what of those who disagree with Sameth’s conclusions?

Someone asked me why I didn’t include any comments from a religious authority who thinks it’s all nuts. The answer is simple: Because few people have actually seen Sameth’s article, which will be published over the next few weeks. I wasn’t going to ask someone to respond my brief summary of the article (yes, something that journalists do all the time with courts decisions, etc.).

But if anyone reads it and wants to offer a critique, I would ask the editorial board to print it. And I would certainly put it on my blog.

Heavy metal thunder

I’m off today, but had to share the story of the heavy metal monk…

Brother Cesare Bonizzi is a Capuchin friar in Milan who rocks out. He got into heavy metal 15 years ago at a… Metallica concert! Exit light! Enter night!

“I was overwhelmed and amazed by the sheer energy of it” he tells the BBC.

He began fronting a metal band, howling above the din, his white beard and friar’s hood swaying to the heavy beat.

The heavy metal monk says he would like to send his new CD to a certain lover of Mozart who lives in Rome.

“He is a music lover and metal is music!” Bonizzi says.

I kind of doubt that the pope would dig it, though.

Check it out:

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What would Borat say?

I’ve wondered from time to time why Sacha Baron Cohen chose to make his Borat character from a real, if little understood, place: Kazakhstan.

Sure, it’s all a (sometimes hilarious, always offensive) joke. But Kazakhstanis don’t think it’s funny.

Cohen must be getting a chuckle over complaints that the real Kazakhstan is cutting back on religious freedoms. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says it is “deeply concerned over a draft religion law in Kazakhstan that would significantly weaken protections for human rights, including religious freedom.”

borat-flag.jpgAmong other things, the new law would stop smaller religious communities from teaching their faith and would prohibit contributions from foreigners or anonymous donors.

In addition, the USCIRF says: “A new requirement that religious organizations must have existed for 10 years and operate in at least five of Kazakhstan’s 16 regions means that two of the country’s four Catholic dioceses could not register as a ‘centralized religious organization,’ the only category with the right to conduct religious education and publishing.”

No, Kazakhstan is not making “Throw the Jew down the well” the national anthem (if you haven’t see the show, just forget it).

But Borat may have some new material, just the same, if he returns.