When I talk to groups about religion writing and the most compelling or memorable things I have covered, I always mention Robert Drews, whose story I hold in envy.
Drews was an 87-year-old widower who had just completed a faith odyssey — going to 100 different churches on 100 consecutive Sundays. When he shared his story, he was going to start on his next 100 houses of worship, beginning with his first visit to a Catholic church.
His eclectic worship marathon was the ultimate “comparative religion” exercise for a man who belonged to no particular faith but was openminded about belief. Avuncular and playful, Drews told me that it wasn’t some quest for the “holy grail” or final truth. It wasn’t even an original effort to get closer to God. The biggest reward, he said, was hearing so many different sermons and homilies. It was purely an adventure. Some would say it took courage — a stranger darkening the doors of unfamiliar churches eager to add him to their rolls.
Drews’ experience causes us to ask ourselves whether most of us have boxed ourselves in by simply embracing the religions and faith traditions largely given to us through family or marriage. Would a search like Drews’ give us more authenticity to what we ultimately settled for? Or do all religions basically get the job done in giving us moral bearings and treating each other better than we might otherwise?
Drews picked churches at random, but he kept track of those he visited and amassed a large pile of worship bulletins along the way. Typically, he arrived 15 minutes before the service and took a seat in a second-row pew on the lefthand side of the church so his right ear, his good one, could pick up the words of the pastor, whose hand he always shook afterward. After each service, he wrote a critique in a spiral notebook.
Drews was an easy target for churches wanting to follow up with a visit and draw him into the flock. One church gave him a Bible and “then sent out a man, and he gave me six Bible lessons over a six-week period, and I enjoyed that.” He told me about the “awful long-winded” pastor who preached for 2½ hours and about a charismatic pastor who gave no sermon but kept calling folks forward to be “slain in the spirit,” fainting and falling backward onto the floor. It was fascinating, but it left him cold.
I asked Drews whether all that diverse doctrine and dogma turned his mind into theological mush — the “swirl of teachings, liturgies, rituals, styles of worship, sermons and worship music” — just left him unsure of what to believe.
Naw, he said. The undertaking proved what many faiths don’t want people to know: There’s nothing all that important that separates authentic faiths. Most of them embrace immutable verities that they think they discovered first and have best refined.
Actually, it was part of Drews’ habit to “do things that other people don’t do”: visiting every Mesa city park and every area museum, playing golf at every course, bowling at every alley in the Valley. Some irony, then, that he embarked on such a serious and disciplined exploration of faith.
Drews didn’t live too many months after that story was published, and his son called to tell me of his death and how the article had somehow affirmed his father, that his weekly drill actually had given great purpose to his octogenarian years.
Recently a reader, Carrie Davis, wrote me in the spirit of Robert Drews. She said she had read 11 Bible translations and thoroughly enjoys keeping the doors open on religious truth. She reminded me how liberating it is to not get too serious and too convinced of the absolute rightness of a certain belief system or theology. She says that “truth is all around us,” and we can educate ourselves from what the ancient minds and teachers offered and what comes new to us each day.
“Everything I do in my life is based on trust and belief,” Davis said. “Teach what you learn. Knowledge is wisdom, and wisdom is empowering.” One’s spirit keeps one free, she said. “Our soul takes us home,” while belief itself is something others cannot touch. She said she embraces Spiritualism, a “natural way of believing,” which “raises eyebrows,” conjuring everything from “tree hugger” to “witch” to “hippie.” But she said no one should be told his or her religion is wrong unless it leads to hurting others or breaking the law. She believes in teaching children so they can choose their own spiritual paths.
If you want a fun exercise, take the “Belief-O-Matic” test at belief.net/story/76/story_ 7665_1.html. Call it “pop religion,” it nonetheless serves to define where you are on the spiritual spectrum. If you truly believe what you say you believe, you get a sense of what faith traditions tend to match you.
So, is wandering the canyons of faith worthwhile? Are perennial seekers wasting the soles of their shoes and doing little for their wayfaring souls?
I encounter plenty of folks who have shopped around, grown here, felt unfed there, been burned, saw faith in action in several places and seen epic tedium in the grind of religious life. But years of bold search have deepened their spirituality and made them less apt to accept some airtight orthodoxy, to question authority and wonder aloud. They may seem aloof and standoffish as you tout your good news.
Aloof like Robert Drews, who kept on roving in what truly was a faith journey.