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Is it safe for religious believers to 'come out of the closet' in the modern workplace?

Is it safe for religious believers to 'come out of the closet' in the modern workplace?

Americans wrestling with religious conflicts in the workplace need to start by doing some math.

Right now, about 157 million Americans work fulltime. Meanwhile, a 2013 study by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding found that 36 percent of workers surveyed said they had experienced religious discrimination at work or witnessed this discrimination happening to someone else.

This sobering trend "affects all groups, including evangelical Christians reporting high levels of discrimination. Muslims, Jewish people and people with no affiliation also experience discrimination on the basis of religion or belief," said Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in Annapolis, Md. He led a panel on faith-friendly workplaces during a recent religious liberty conference at Yeshiva University in New York City.It was cosponsored by the International Center for Law and Religious Studies at Brigham Young University.

"If you turn that into numbers," said Grim, this means "36 percent of the American workforce is 50 million people. That's a big, big issue."

These conflicts cannot be ignored. For starters, religious institutions and "faith-friendly businesses" contribute $1.2 trillion annually to the U.S. economy, said Grim. And while headlines focus on rising numbers of "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- in America, birth rates and religious-conversion trends indicate that the "religiously affiliated population of the world is going to outgrow the religiously unaffiliated by a factor of 23 to 1. … We're going to have a much more religious workplace and much more religious marketplaces."

Meanwhile, some economic powers -- China, India, Russia, Turkey and France, for example -- have increased restrictions on people's "freedom to practice their faith, change their faith or have no faith at all," he said. This often causes violence that is "bad for business. It's good for businesses that produce bullets and bombs, unfortunately."

Corporate leaders in have addressed some diversity issues, such as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, but "religion is the next big issue that they need to be looking at," said Grim. Last year, he noted, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about religious discrimination outnumbered LGBTQ cases nearly 2-1.

Grim asked this big question: "What is the right way to … come out of the closet about your faith at work?"

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.

In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.

The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."

Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."

St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."

So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.

"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."

Evangelicals learn to (heart) New York

Pastors have their own brand of insider humor, just like doctors, lawyers, accountants and other skilled professionals. The same is true for the missionaries, researchers and pastors who plant churches. Thus, Ed Stetzer once heard a veteran missions professor tell the following bittersweet joke at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

It went like this: How do you start a new Southern Baptist church in a big city up north? That's easy. You go into local grocery stores and introduce yourself to all of the people who buy grits.

"The point, of course, is that this is what you do NOT want to do," said Stetzer, a native New Yorker who is president of LifeWay Research, linked to the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "If you're starting churches in places like New York City, those churches need to look like the indigenous churches that are already growing there.

"A successful church plant in Manhattan is obviously going to look a lot different than one in Alabama. ... We've known that for a long time, but we've learned a lot more since 9/11."

Stetzer was referring to a faith-shaped trend that has quietly emerged in the Big Apple in the decade since the twin towers fell.

Here's the statistic that insiders keep citing, drawn from a Values Research Institute (www.nycreligion.info) study: Forty percent of the evangelical Protestant churches in Manhattan were born after 2000, an increase of about 80. During one two-month stretch in 2009, at least one Manhattan church was planted every Sunday.

The impact has been big on one scale and tiny on another. According to the institute's research, the percentage of New Yorkers in center-city Manhattan who identify themselves as evangelical Protestants has, since 1990, risen from less than 1 percent to three percent. In other words, the evangelical population has tripled.

While even 3 percent of the people living in greater New York is a significant number, this small slice means that -- from an evangelical Protestant viewpoint -- missionaries still consider the city's population an "unreached people group" when compared with other regions. Thus, in 2003 the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention pinned its "Strategic Focus City" label on New York, initiating a four-year project offering additional funds, volunteers and church-planting professionals.

It's impossible to tell this story without discussing the impact of 9/11, noted journalist Tony Carnes, who leads the Values Research Institute team. Rescue workers poured into New York City from across the nation, including volunteers from heartland churches not known for their affection for New York City.

"For the first time, to a large degree, important evangelical leaders realized that New York City was not what they thought it was," said Carnes. "They learned that you didn't need to walk down the street at night looking over your shoulder, worried that you were going to get shot. ...

"They also learned that there were already many evangelical churches here and that they were not weak, struggling and embattled. Many were strong, vital and growing."

The bottom line is that, while 9/11 was crucial, this story didn't start with 9/11.

Carnes stressed that 42 percent of the evangelical churches in the city's outer boroughs were founded between 1978 and 1999. This earlier surge was, in large part, driven by rapid growth in Pentecostal flocks led by African-Americans and Latinos. Another crucial event was the 1989 birth of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, led by the Rev. Tim Keller. Since then, teams from this Manhattan megachurch -- which has attracted waves of Asian Christians -- have planted 75 new churches across the city.

While it's easy to focus on the past decade, said Carnes, those striving to see the bigger picture need to study ongoing trends of among immigrants, young adults and others who continue, as they have for generations, to rush to New York City seeking changed lives and new opportunities.

New York, he said, remains America's great "unsettling city."

"New York is going to change you, whether you are from Texas or Africa," he said. "This city leaves you unsettled and that bring moments of pain and loneliness, but also moments that offer great freedom. ... Church leaders have started to realize that many of the people who keep arriving in this great city are seeking spiritual freedom, as well. They truly want to start over."

College life (Christian) in the city

Any list of great cities in the ancient Mediterranean World would have to include Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Corinth, or some other crucial crossroads near what would become Constantinople.

Thus, these cities became the five patriarchal sees of Christianity in the first millennium.

"From day one, there was a commitment to the dominant cities and regions of that time," said J. Stanley Oakes, chancellor of The King's College in New York City. "That's where the early church flourished. That's where the early church did its work. ... People who care about nations and culture and economics have to care about what happens in great cities."

Yet any study of American Protestantism in the early 21st Century would focus on Colorado Springs, Colo., Grand Rapids, Mich., Wheaton, Ill., Orlando, Fla., and, perhaps, Dallas. It would not include New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Washington, D.C., or the other great cities that shape this culture.

Oakes thinks that's tragic, which is why he has dedicated a decade -- backed by Campus Crusade For Christ's vast network -- to building an evangelical college in the Empire State Building. The leaders of The King's College are convinced that if their students can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

The college is based in a 45,000-square-foot "campus," with offices on the 15th floor and classrooms, a small library, a workout room, student lounge and other basic facilities on two floors underground. There are only 220 students, but administrators expect 130 freshmen next fall, said Dean of Students Eric Bennett.

This is not a normal Christian college setting and everyone knows it.

Quartets of students live in one-bedroom apartments in two high-rise buildings nearby on Sixth Avenue. Student life activities revolves around flexible activities in nine academic houses named after leaders selected by earlier students -- Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony.

It's hard to explain a college's mission to outsiders who consider its core values a kind of heresy against the status quo. As a Village Voice profile put it: "King's students adjust well to the style and pace of midtown, though their relationship with the city is never quite clear: Are they here to contribute to New York? Or save it?"

A recent Washington Post style feature contrasted an after-hours student chat group about the writings of Protestant hero John Calvin with what it called a more typical Saturday-night student scene in mid-town Manhattan, which would offer "mind-altering substances, which segue to deafening music, which ultimately leads to nudity."

Continuing with its "Sex in the City" theme, the story added, "Dating is permitted," but that "there are no rules against sex, but it's quietly discouraged."

Actually, Bennett said students pledge to follow an honor code backed by a handbook full of traditional doctrine. The sexuality statement, for example, says the college "promotes a lifestyle ... that precludes premarital and extramarital intercourse, homosexual practice and other forms of sexual behavior incompatible with biblical admonitions."

But the city is what it is. Thus, these fresh-faced Christians from 37 states and 11 countries are going to run into some New Yorkers who want to hook up, sell drugs, flash tattoos or worse. Bennett said that no one flinches when students sit in bars all hours of the night, studying for tests. No one wants to build a cloister.

"We're not out to police our students," he said. "You could try to live in a bubble here, too. But that's not what we're trying to do. That's what we're fighting against."

It would be easy to say that The King's College is about evangelism, said Oakes. It would be easy to explain that it hopes to help churches serve the poor and engage in other social ministries. That work is essential, but the goal is to build a college, not a church. And the long-range plan is to live and grow in New York City, as strange as that may sound.

"We love it when people mock us," said Oakes. "But we honestly believe that, if we keep doing what we do here, in about two decades people are going to be saying, 'Even though we don't agree with them, those King's people are interesting.' We want to make it hard for people to avoid us."

'Animal House' with crosses?

After years of single life in New York City, Dawn Eden knows how to study the crowd at a social event.

She knows how to let her gaze wander from man to man, while a voice in her head whispers, "That one's handsome," "That one's with someone," "That one's too old," "That one's got a wedding ring," "That one looks too interested in the man he's speaking to."

Eden heard that voice a lot during her years as a rock-music writer, back when she knew the music scene, knew the hot musicians and knew the score -- in every sense of that word. Then she converted to Christianity and her beliefs about love and marriage turned upside down.

The irony, said Eden, is that many clergy seem to think it would be a good thing if singles kept playing the spot-the-hot-date game in church.

"I am not an expert in church singles groups because I am not a connoisseur of them," said Eden, author of a controversial book entitled "The Thrill of the Chaste." The title betrays her work as an award-winning tabloid headline writer, as does the book's pushy subtitle, "Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On."

While doing online research into the Christian singles scene, Eden found a New York group that was promoting an "Extreme Charity Pub Crawl." Then there was the ski-retreat invitation that told young believers to prepare for fellowship in the hot tub.

This isn't what singles need from churches at Valentine's Day or any other day, said Eden, 38, who currently works as an editor at the New York Daily News.

"My church life got so much better the minute I stopped trying to look for someone to date at Mass," she said. "I mean, it isn't a good thing if people learn to look each other over at church the same way they look each other over in a bar."

This is not the kind of woman whose work usually shows up on shelves in Christian bookstores.

Dawn Eden Goldstein was reading the Bible by the time she was in second grade, witchcraft books by fifth grade, had her bat mitzvah at 13 and wandered into agnosticism shortly thereafter. Later, her encyclopedic knowledge of '60s pop landed her a steady stream of jobs writing album liner notes and magazine profiles.

Then, in 1996, a rocker introduced her to the books of the Christian apologist and journalist G.K. Chesterton. It took time for Eden's grasp of the New Testament to trump her knowledge of the Kama Sutra, but one thing led to another and she eventually became a modest, chaste, but hip Roman Catholic.

Changing her lifestyle was hard, she writes in her book, because she "had dutifully followed the Cosmo rule, which is also the Sex and the City rule and really the Universal Single-Person Rule in our secular age: 'Sex should push the relationship.' This rule can also be expressed as, 'We'll talk about it in bed.' "

The logic of this doctrine convinces many women that men can be forced into lasting commitments "through the persuasive force of your physical affection. It forces you to follow a set of Darwinian social rules -- dressing and acting a certain way to outperform other women competing for mates." In the end, said Eden, she realized that her strutting self-confidence wasn't real and that "you can't transform a pair of $14.99 Fayva slingbacks into a pair of $600 Manolo stilettos with a mere coat of paint."

If church leaders truly want to reach out to women and men who are looking for an alternative to that lifestyle, said Eden, they must realize that the last thing single adults need is a singles ministry that turns "your church basement into a sort of 'Animal House' with crosses."

What congregations should do is rally single adults around worship, prayer, books, the arts and service to others, she said. Then friendships and relationships can develop out of activities that strengthen the faith of those that choose to participate.

"You really don't have to dumb things down for us," said Eden. "There are plenty of ways for single adults to get less church if that is what they really want. Why not talk to some of your young adults and ask them what they really want. They may want more church -- more faith -- not less."

Graham looking to London?

Billy Graham promised that he would avoid politics and stick to saving souls during his final New York crusade.

The New York Times offered a sigh of relief, noting that the closest he came to danger in the first sermon was when he said: "There's a lot of discussion about the Ten Commandments being in a courtroom or in our country. We need to look at the Ten Commandments because they convict us of our sin."

The key was that Graham remained silent on the "divisive issues of the day" such as -- the newspaper offered this handy list -- "stem cell research, or abortion, or gay marriage, or even homosexuality."

Nevertheless, the world's most famous evangelist did emphasize the Christian belief that Jesus is the only path to salvation. He also talked about "sin" and "repentance," judgmental words that often attract ironic quotation marks.

"What causes lying, cheating, racial prejudice?" asked Graham, as he began the crusade last weekend in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. "The Bible says, 'For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.'

"These are the things that defile a man and they defile a country. They defile our world today. ... The Bible says that our problem is sin."

To which legions of "values voters" would say, "Amen."

That's the problem these days. It's hard to talk about "sins" that "defile" a country without people connecting the dots to Hollywood, courts, laws, schools and a host of other hot-button subjects.

It's true that Graham did little during this historic crusade to embrace the Bush White House or its allies on the Religious Right, noted Rice University sociologist William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story." Graham deflected questions about abortion, talked about poverty and noted that he remains a registered Democrat.

Graham didn't need to dwell on social issues, said Martin, who attended the rallies in Queens. For example, the evangelist stressed that sex is a blessed gift, as long as people remember to follow "the Word of God." That was all he needed to say.

"I am sure that he was not as explicit as he has been, especially on all the moral issues that he used to preach about so much," said Martin. "But you don't have to repeat yourself all the time. By now, I think most people know what Billy Graham believes."

One of America's most outspoken religion-news critics agreed. The 86-year-old Graham has become such a revered figure, noted writer Jeff Sharlet, that most Americans -- journalists included -- no longer recognize how his beliefs about culture have soaked into the images and themes in his preaching.

"There's this idea that Billy Graham is no longer conservative or has somehow transcended politics," said Sharlet, editor of TheRevealer.org, in a WNYC interview. "That's a really shallow understanding of what conservative theology is about and what Billy Graham's conservatism has always been about. He no longer needs to talk about politics because the alignment of evangelicalism and the kind of politics he's always supported has become so neat at this moment that he no longer needs to exhort people in the direction he feels is the right way."

The public and the press are paying especially close attention as Graham struggles through the final events of his 58-year career, which has included 417 crusades in 185 countries. The white-haired patriarch's voice sounded stronger at the end of the New York crusade than at the beginning and he is considering an invitation to return to London in the fall.

This would complete what Martin called a 14-month "victory lap" of the locations of his most famous crusades -- Los Angeles, New York City and London. The question is whether Graham has the strength to cross the Atlantic, due to his fight with Parkinson's, fluid buildup on the brain and prostate cancer. The health of his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, is just as fragile.

But Graham sounded like he wants to go back to London.

"That sermon the other night just didn't sound like the end," said Martin. "It was classic Billy, with that emphasis on the Second Coming that we have heard him use for so long. There's just something about hearing Billy Graham say, 'Jesus is coming again. Are you ready?' "

Sept. 11 -- Dreams of St. Nicholas

The first thing police found at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a piece of a wing and landing gear from American Flight 11.

Then the World Trade Center's north tower fell on the humble, white-washed walls of the tiny sanctuary across the street. It took time for work crews to find much of anything after that.

Eventually they found a paper icon of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos, but never found its frame or silver cover. They found an embroidered velvet cloth, but not the Bible it covered. They found a bell clapper, but not the bell. They found a silver hand in prayer, a wooden icon of a healing fountain, fragments of the marble altar, a twisted piece of a candelabrum and beeswax candles that survived the hellfire from above.

Church officials recovered part of a ceremonial book of New Testament epistles, with the smell of smoke in every page.

But the faithful have yet to recover the 700-pound fireproof steel safe from the office, the one containing the golden ossuary with its fragments of the bones of three saints, including their patron. St. Nicholas of Myra is the 4th century saint who in Western lands has evolved into St. Nick. Father John Romas explained all of this to workers at the New Jersey landfill as they sifted through mountains of rubble from ground zero.

"I told them about the relics of St. Nicholas and St. Katherine and St. Sava," said Romas, priest at St. Nicholas for almost two decades and a chanter for years before that. "I told them about the safe on the top floor. I described everything in detail. But our little church was gone. There were no windows, no doors, no walls -- nothing."

The priest paused, trying to find English words for his emotions.

"What can we say? Someone may have picked up a gold box thinking there would be money in it and then they threw everything else away. Who knows? Who knows? Who knows? But this we do know -- we will rebuild our church."

The parish's 80 families have every reason to be hopeful, said Romas, as they wait for city, state and regional officials to solve what the New York Times calls an "urban-planning Rubik's Cube." The goal? Build 10 million square feet of commercial space and rebuild lower Manhattan's infrastructure, while creating a towering architectural masterpiece that honors those lost on a day that changed the city, the nation and the world.

Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America has received assurances from New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the sanctuary can be rebuilt next to the World Trade Center site. Architect Daniel Libeskind's winning design for the site and memorial also includes St. Nicholas, the only church that was destroyed.

And the parish (www.stnicholasnyc.org) does control its site at 155 Cedar Street. But the old building was only 22 feet wide, 56 feet long and 35 feet high. Church leaders hope to raise funds to buy additional property to build a slightly larger church, in anticipation of new families and visitors to the Sept. 11 memorial.

The building that became St. Nicholas was built in 1832 as a private residence and even spent several years as a tavern. Greek immigrants bought it in 1916 and it was dedicated as a church the next year. Part of the church's charm was its size -- a Byzantine haven dwarfed by steel, glass, concrete and stress.

Every Wednesday, St. Nicholas invited workers and executives to spend the lunch hour in prayer.

In the future, Wednesdays will not be enough.

"Downtown New York City is crazy. It's another world. Yet when you stepped inside St. Nicholas you were taken someplace totally different," said John Pitsikalis, the parish council president. "You literally had the hubbub of the whole world of commerce only a few steps away and yet here was this small zone of peace and quiet and beauty.

"You would come in and the air would be still, the candles would be lit, there would be soft liturgical music and you would be surrounded by the icons. ... People needed that place of sanctuary and that is what we have to have again."