A New Kind of Congregation
Opening the Door to Zen in Church
by Deborah Streeter
David Parks-Ramage and his colleagues at First Congregational UCC Santa Rosa began Open Door Interfaith Zen so they could become better Christians.
“In the past, models of being church have been based on belief. We are exploring a new model of church, built on spiritual discovery and transformation of life. The question no longer is, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘How has your life been transformed?’”
David, pastor of First Santa Rosa, is also a Zen teacher or “sensei.” Applying the Zen method of koan study to Christian texts, he has developed a series of Jesus “koans” for use in meditation. With others he leads weekly meditation groups, Christian contemplative practice groups, and groups for sharing poetry. Santa Rosa member Gayle Madison, also a United Church of Christ minister, led a Lenten series on “Yoga and the Gospel of John.”
David says, “We focus less on giving people information about faith and more on how spiritual practices change the lives of the participants and the spiritual community itself. In a Bible study, for example, the focus is on how the text finds itself in your life, now.”
“Open Door offers a range of ways to do adult spiritual formation. We have in-reach programs for our members, and outreach programs for the community. Our Wednesday night meditation group, Open Door Interfaith Zen, is a mix of church members and non-members who come to us from throughout Sonoma County.
“Visitors are often surprised to see Zen-style meditation in a church, led by a minister,” he adds. “Open Door Interfaith Zen has become an onramp for church membership, our Wednesday night meditators showing up on Sunday mornings as well.”
David says, “Studying Zen has helped me reclaim my own tradition and see it more clearly. When Jesus is asked about the realm of God in Luke 17 he speaks of it not as far off but ‘in the midst.’ God’s realm is undivided. Our meditation, poetry, and yoga groups give people an opportunity to experience undivided reality.”
The Open Door program is living up to its name in new ways. Representatives of the prominent teacher of Hindu-Christian dialogue, Brother John Sahajananda of the Shantivanam Ashram, successor to Fr. Bede Griffiths, a pioneer in the interspiritual movement, contacted the church last summer to see if it would sponsor a presentation by Brother John on his current U.S. speaking tour. The well-attended event included Taize chanting, meditation, and Brother’s John reflections on interspirituality. David has also worked with clergy from various faith traditions in Sonoma County in addressing Islamophobia. Four hundred attended the three-hour program and 100 had to be turned away, many of whom gathered at a local restaurant to take on the issue themselves.
How does this activity influence First Congregational Santa Rosa? Their pastor says, “With our Sunday morning community, the Open Door Interfaith Zen community and other groups, our church is changing into a community of overlapping communities. This too is a new model of church.” And other congregations are interested – two northern California congregations have started their own Open Door programs after David offered a clergy workshop on Zen meditation and Christian Koans. Those who are interested can learn more about the program at the Open Door website and contact him here.
“Interfaith is absolutely crucial for churches in the 21st century. We have to be conversant with other faiths as we seek to deepen our Christian faith. Learning from and experiencing the deep meditation traditions of the East has taken me and many others deeper into our own Christian faith.”
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In this issue you can find “Becoming Intimate with Your Life,” the first in a series of three reflections David Parks-Ramage uses when introducing Buddhist meditation to Christians. The other two, “Jesus Points to the Moon” and “Creating a ‘Christian Koan’ Group,” will be published in October and November.
This article was originally published on May 10, 2016 in the newsletter of the Northern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ.