Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2007


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A Test of Faith

A Test of Faith

When the going gets tough for religious leaders does their belief ever falter? five alumni share how they keep their faith alive.

by Tracy Thomson Teare ´88

The expectation that religious leaders never lose their faith can be a burden in itself. Episcopal priest Barbara Cheney ´63 learned this firsthand when her mother was drowned in the Connecticut floods in 1982. “I was assumed to have my faith all together, but I was really a shocked, deeply grieving child,” she recalls. In the face of this challenge, however, Cheney says she found comfort in the idea that “God is a God of life and love.” Cheney also took solace in the scores who attended her mother´s funeral. “I felt as if [my mother] was within me, wanting to speak to them, to give them hope, to help them live. … It was those people, making so present the love and respect they had for my mother, and their own sense of loss, who helped make real again for me my own faith in God´s love for us all.”

Even without a seismic trigger, the challenges of maintaining faith can be ongoing. “My faith is tested every day,” says Mother Augusta Collins ´73, who, like all nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, is cloistered. “What has brought me through and helped me keep my faith alive is love — for those who have been there for me, those who depend on me, and those with me in struggle.” Asking who the struggle is for and who you love can make all the difference, she says. “It´s the ´who,´ not the ´what´ that pulls you through and lets the light back in. In those moments, you see the face of Christ in someone you love.”

Matthew Stanten ´90, founder of River Ridge Church in West Virginia, is a self-described skeptic. “I am constantly examining and re-affirming my faith,” says the evangelical pastor. But instead of leaving his congregation in doubt, he creates dialogue. “I talk about the tough issues instead of glossing over them.” Take the contradiction between the idea that God is loving, yet people suffer. “It might be easy to say God loves us all and move on.” But Stanten puts the big issues on the table. “Wrestling with this disconnect makes faith authentic and relevant to life today.” Stanten says that his congregation appreciates his honesty.

At River Ridge church, it may be the contemporary environment — an automotive-themed space for teens called The Garage, with Starbucks coffee and a casual dress code — that helps bring about this relevance. Conversely, Mother Lucia Kuppens ´73 recognizes the importance of looking back. Way back.

“There´s more focus now on the individual experience, on the need for spirituality more than religion per se,” she says, pointing to a revived interest in monastic traditions like the Gregorian chant as evidence. “Going more deeply into the ancient roots of our tradition is one way we respond to spiritual longing.”

Having ancient roots can also be problematic, says Rabbi Barras, when different sects of your religion see them in different ways. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews have different beliefs about the formation of Jewish law, or halakha. These views direct how loosely Jewish law can be interpreted and how strictly the traditions that flow from it are followed. “I´m a rabbi in the most liberal type of congregation, and I wonder if there´s enough tradition and adherence to Jewish law,” he explains. “For me, there is a deep theological tension vis-à-vis how I can remain a liberal Jew and still place great credence in the halakha.”

Sometimes it´s not faith in God, but faith in our fellow citizens that falters, says Collins. “My faith in God provides for death, disappointment, destruction ... but when a person I trust walks away from a relationship, or there seems to be no way through a conflict, I can find it very hard to keep my bearings, to keep moving with joy,” says the nun. She relies on strategies that are accessible to all of us — devout or not. “I look to someone who does have faith, who can maintain buoyancy despite the circumstances, and I try to maintain the same type of buoyancy for others,” she explains. And she turns to nature. “There I see that capacity to be renewed and to change. The sun comes up every day. The weather can change from cold, damp rain to a sun-filled breezy morning. I know I can find that in myself if I dig a little deeper and I am willing.”l

Matthew Stanten ´90
Pastor and founder, River Ridge Church, Charleston, W. Va.
Stanten´s spirituality was sparked in high school by Young Life, a Christian outreach program for teens. At Connecticut College, he led the College´s chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and helped start a progressive church in Stonington, Conn. Following graduation, Stanten spent five years launching Young Life programs in Ohio and West Virginia. He and his wife started River Ridge Church in 2002, which has grown from 20 worshippers to 450. “God has put a heart in me for starting things,” he says.

Rabbi Jeremy Barras ´97
Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth El, Charlotte, N. C.
During junior year abroad at Tel Aviv University, Barras attended the rally in downtown Tel Aviv at which Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was assassinated. “His impact on people and all he had done for Jewish people made me really examine how my life could have significance.” Though faith had always been an important part of Barras´ life, he decided to make it his profession. Roger Brooks, Elie Wiesel Professor of Judaic Studies, helped Barras prepare for rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College. Now an associate rabbi at Temple Beth El, the largest synagogue in the Carolinas, Barras will become senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Fort Myers, Fla., this summer.

Barbara Cheney ´63
Rector/Episcopal Priest
Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James, New Haven, Conn.
For this lifelong Episcopalian, the call of God was always there; the question was how to follow it when she felt the presence of Jesus inviting her to deepen her faith and pursue a leadership role in the church. The church adopted a policy allowing women to be ordained just before she attended Virginia Theological Seminary. She held two positions in Michigan before returning to Connecticut in 1993.

Mother Augusta Collins ´73
Order of Saint Benedict, The Abbey of Regina Laudis, Bethlehem, Conn.
As an undergraduate at CC during the tumultuous late ´60s and early ´70s, Collins — like many young adults — searched for deeper meaning and truth. Though raised Catholic, she didn´t find it easy to picture herself — an active young woman who loved sports — as a nun, yet she was drawn to the cloistered life at the abbey. “The aliveness and beauty of the community and the sense of dedication to a life of faith in love spoke to me more than the arguments against the preposterousness of trying to live such a life.” With a newly earned doctorate in agronomy from UConn, she helps operate the Abbey´s 400-acre dairy and beef farm and orchard.

Mother Lucia Kuppens ´73
Order of Saint Benedict, The Abbey of Regina Laudis, Bethlehem, Conn.
Kuppens was a freshman at CC when she first visited Regina Laudis. She was particularly struck by the abbey´s strong sense of community and 1,500 years of tradition. “Regina Laudis had something solid and deep,” she says. “Its members radiated a joy that was increasingly hard to come by as the experiments of the ´60s began to fade, and idealism turned to cynicism.” With a doctorate in English, she serves as the abbey librarian, heads up the kitchen, and helps produce best-selling recordings of the Gregorian chants that help support the abbey. The nuns´ fourth CD, “Announcement of Christmas,” was recorded this spring.

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