Chase Charaba, Co-Editor-in-Chief
In the small, white-walled conference room at Holy Disciples Parish on the border of South Hill and Graham, I took a seat in a green armchair facing Rev. Matthew O’Leary. A yellow notepad sat on my lap. I set my bulky Canon DSLR camera on the floor and armed my iPhone for recording. That’s how I started the second phase of my quest to understand the traditions of Christianity just over a week ago.
As an atheist, the concept of faith is beyond my reach. Christianity seemed so fractured and implausible. It’s so different from what I believe, but I found much to my surprise how similar we all are.
So what’s Christianity and why do people follow this particular faith tradition? Well, it’s different depending on whom I asked. I’ve discovered that faith is more than just a religion. For those who believe, it’s a guide for life.
What is Christianity?
Christianity arose from Judaism in the days of the Roman Empire. Early Christians believed that Jesus Christ was the one who was promised and was conceived by the spirit of God to establish a connection with the world.
“Ultimately, Jesus of Nazareth, we believe, was conceived by the spirit of God in our biblical tradition,” O’Leary said. “He was conceived by the power of the spirit of God and born of Mary of Nazareth, the Virgin Mary as we call her. By this incredible action, God actually came into the world to make this extraordinary and intimate connection with all of creation and to effectively show us how to live and love as best as it can be done.”
These early followers of Jesus created Christianity, believing that Jesus was a savior. They had witnessed his deeds, teachings and his eventual death and resurrection, which is depicted in the New Testament of the Bible.
“Christians early on saw that in his death, there was this most radical action of surrender to God, to surrender to goodness and to surrender even to the love of others,” O’Leary said. “In this extraordinary radical action, Jesus somehow managed to turn a new page in human history.”
At the start of Christianity, only one church, or radition of belief, existed. Over time, geographic, political and institutional conflicts along with different interpretations of the Bible led to a split in the church. This created the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church along the political lines of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire.
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Catholic Church was responsible for providing order in many of the empire’s former lands through the Pope. Over time, new groups of people moving to Western Europe became Catholics.
In the 16th century, reform movements beginning with Martin Luther in 1517 led to further fracturing among the Catholic Church and introduced new Christian denominations.
“The reformation in the 16th and really going into the 17th century, it succeed wherever it was adopted, embraced and supported by local rulers, whether they be kings, princes or queens, or some lesser nobility, or even a city council or something that was the governing authority of the day,” O’Leary said. “If they embraced one of the reform traditions, that’s where it took hold and it generally stayed that way over time.”
These continuing reform movements and ideological variations based on different interpretations of the Bible has led to the variety of Christian churches that exist today, including Protestants, Baptists, Evangelicals, non-denominations, Presbyterians, Lutherans and more.
While Christianity can be defined as an umbrella religion for various denominations and traditions that centers on a belief of Jesus Christ as the savior and the almighty God who created all, it means different things to different people.
For Pastoral Assistant for Outreach Aleah Patulot at All Saints Parish, being a Christian means being loved by Jesus and then sharing that love with others.
“Christianity to me means being a disciple of Jesus, of Christ, and to me personally, that means more than anything knowing that I’m loved by God,” Patulot said. “I’m called as a disciple to share that love with everyone I meet, particularly those who are poor and vulnerable. That’s what Christianity means for me.”
For others, Christianity is a guide to life. It gives people who believe and follow this faith a message of hope by showing them that there’s a way to get closer to God and Christ.
“(It’s) about that relationship that we build with Christ and how that really plays out in our lives,” Director for Outreach at South Hill Baptist Church Calvin Breamfield said.
It’s surprising that being a Christian was more to those I interviewed than just their beliefs in God and Christ. It was about how they’ve decided to live their lives and devote their time to helping others.
Beliefs and Practices
Every denomination or faith tradition within Christianity has a different approach and interpretation of the Bible, which has led to a variety of beliefs and practices. Overall, most Christians believe in an almighty God who created all and that Jesus is the savior who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Christians believe Jesus’ actions opened up the possibility for eternal life with God, although every faith tradition has a different stance on how this can be achieved.
“Generic Christianity is going to embrace (Jesus) as the savior of the world in that sense,” O’Leary said. “Now, there will be lots of nuances and disagreements with just how one goes about becoming who is saved and who isn’t, or what’s involved in all of this. There will be lots of different responses to how that works. My hunch would be that today, the differences among a lot of Christians aren’t as sharp as they were back in the 16th and 17th centuries.”
A common practice for a majority of Christians is to be baptized. O’Leary said a baptized follower of Jesus is one definition of a Christian. Baptism symbolizes admission to Christianity through a form of purification, although it’s not required to attend church. It is, however, considered a sacrament in many denominations.
Some traditions celebrate communion, where church members eat bread and drink wine in Jesus’ memory. Depending on the denomination, beliefs surrounding communion differ. O’Leary said in the Catholic tradition, Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is a direct experience of the glorified body and blood of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe at the end of the respective prayers for the Passover bread and wine, Jesus told his followers that the bread was now his body, and the wine, now his blood.
“We believe that each time we partake in Holy Communion, we are transformed (sanctified) a little more by God’s sanctifying grace (God’s freely given love),” O’Leary said. “It’s important to realize that the first time Jesus’ followers would have celebrated Holy Communion would have been after his resurrection. Therefore, the Eucharistic or Communion service (also called “Mass” from the final blessing and commission) isn’t a reenactment of the Last Supper but a sharing in the glorified (that is risen or resurrected) body and blood of Christ.”
Other practices include church services to worship and pray. Breamfield said at South Hill Baptist, the service starts at 11 a.m. on Sundays and includes the singing of worship songs and prayer. They also encourage kids to attend a kids’ church while adults listen to various Bible stories and applications of those stories for life.
“Then we do a little more worship,” Breamfield said. “We like to sing and pray. We usually end with prayer and a benediction, which is usually scripture from the Bible that we use to encourage and uplift people.”
How Christianity Has Affected Its Followers
When one starts to believe in Christianity and follow its teachings, it becomes more than a religion and becomes a lifestyle.
Breamfield grew up going to church, but his belief in the Christian faith developed as he became older. He said new believers look at the Bible differently. They see it more as a set of instructions on how to have a relationship with Christ than truly living out that belief and applying it.
In his early 20s, Breamfield began to try to love out the faith.
“I believed (what the pastor said) because he said it, but I never really applied it to my own life or situations,” Breamfield said. “It wasn’t really until I was about 23 or 24 years old that I had somebody approach me and ask me, not only what I believe, but why I believed it.”
He said it took someone more mature in the faith to help guide him and answer his questions to determine what it meant for him to be a Christian.
“I definitely am fully ascribed to the fact that I believe Christianity has made me a better person in general just from my character, not only what I believe and what I stand up for, but just how I view people and how I tend to view negative situations and positive situations,” Breamfield said. “The ability to interact with people without being judgemental because I really believe that’s a key part to Christianity. Being able to speak what I think is the truth of my faith without judging someone else, even if what they believe is completely opposite of mine.”
Patulot from All Saints Parish also grew up a Christian and considers herself a cradle Catholic, someone who was born into a Catholic family. She said it’s hard for her to separate her Catholic identity from her cultural and ethnic identities. Patulot’s father is from the Philippines, a country where 400 years of Spanish rule left the culture steeped in Catholicism.
“I come from a family (where) three of my great aunts were nuns,” Patulot said. “One of them is still with us, actually. She’s like 95 now. My uncle’s a priest. He’s still a priest in the Philippines.”
Patulot went to mass and attended Catholic schools growing up, so being a part of the Catholic experience was all around her.
She believes that being a disciple of Christ means to care for others, which is why she became a social worker and why she tries to help the community in any way she can.
O’Leary, a priest at Holy Disciples Parish, was also raised a Catholic. He went to church, where his father was involved in the life and leadership of the church communities. Because he moved around a lot, he frequently changed schools and parishes. However, being involved in the church gave him an anchoring in faith no matter where he was.
“Living in different places, we were exposed to a lot of people from different parts of the world,” O’Leary said. “They were still Catholics, and so it showed me early on the really incredible, universal nature of our church.”
As O’Leary grew older, he began to understand more of what Christianity was about. He was deeply touched by the prayers, rituals and sacred hymns in the Catholic Church, and as he studied more he realized that there was no other explanation for life being here.
“As I got older and began studying the faith, studying both the faith and its history, I came to a better understanding of just what it is that we believe,” O’Leary said. “(I came to my) absolute conviction that there’s just no way all that’s around us is here by some random act and chance. There are far too many things that seem to work in almost a perfect sequence that almost defy the human imagination to try to structure.”
He said he was fortunate to know clergy, priests, nuns and laypeople who live out Christian values. They taught him these values and this human contact underscored the conclusions that he had reached about his faith.
He came to his faith as an adult early in life, meaning he went from understanding who God is and what God wants and knowing the rules, to changing his life to follow those values. He decided he was going to try to live more to serve those Christian values.
“I’ve always felt called from very early in life to serve this mission by serving the Church, and in our (Catholic) tradition, for me that meant doing it as a priest,” O’Leary said.
No matter what one may think about Christianity, it can be hard to argue that churches don’t give back to their communities. My experience interviewing people who are involved in their churches has revealed that they do a lot more for the greater community than I previously thought.
Holy Disciples Parish hosts the Graham-South Hill Foodbank with FISH foodbanks of Pierce County, which is next to the church. The Parish is also committed to helping the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, which helps people with financial and material assistance.
“In addition to that, we take on civic projects now and then just as citizens and members of the community,” O’Leary said. “We’ll be involved in cleaning up some public place, making sandwiches for Special Olympics or other community events.”
South Hill Baptist Church members are involved in the Freezing Nights program, where a church provides shelter and food for the homeless during the winter.
“We actually have joined with High Pointe Church to provide shelter and food,” Breamfield said. “We provide dinner and breakfast at this location and, obviously, the shelter from the elements, a warm and safe place to stay for the night.”
Breamfield said South Hill Baptist also partners with Woodland and Karshner elementary schools to tutor students and participate in the Weekend Backpack Program, where church members fill backpacks with enough food for the weekend for low-income families. The church members also coach a basketball team for fifth and sixth grade boys at Karshner.
As pastor assistant for outreach, Patulot oversees All Saints’ outreach to people in need, which includes a delivery food bank program, providing meals at New Hope Resource Center and assisting other churches with Freezing Nights.
“(The delivery food bank program) is the only one of its kind in East Pierce County,” Patulot said. “It’s a delivery service because we have lots of folks in this area who can’t get to a food bank, but they can still cook food at home. We have volunteers, about 50 people from the church, who are involved in some aspect of the food bank every week.”
These volunteers perform tasks such as answering phone calls, scheduling food deliveries, delivering the food and stocking the food and supplies. The program is designed to help those who are elderly, disabled or lacking transportation to a food bank because most places in East Pierce County aren’t serviced by mass transit.
Patulot said All Saints Parish also has a prescription assistance program to help community members who can’t afford their essential medications for asthma, diabetes and heart problems, among others. However, with changes in the county’s healthcare, Patulot said church members don’t know if many of the community members will be able to afford their medications anymore.
“When I started working here in 2011, we were spending, I think it’s 75 percent more money on prescriptions in need in our community than we are now,” Patulot said. “It was Obamacare that covered our most low-income people. It ensured that they would have their prescriptions paid for.”
While I don’t see myself becoming a Christian, I found the faith interesting. It was amazing to have the opportunity to learn more about what others believe and to take a look at the churches where worship takes place.
I can take away principles from this experience, even if I don’t see myself being religious. These principles include treating others with respect, helping those who are less fortunate, not judging others for what they believe and working toward the common good of our society. These universal traits that go beyond the Christian faith.
Christianity is a subject too big and too broad to learn about in the time I spent researching and interviewing for this article. I didn’t have the opportunity to touch on the beliefs of every denomination or explore areas with much depth.
Without spending years studying the faith, I don’t believe I’ll ever know just how vast Christianity is and how different every tradition is. But, I’ll do my best to keep an open mind and continue exploring what others believe.
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