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Defining faith's adherents: 2-29-12

When is it proper and accurate to call someone a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim? Or a Whatever?


It's intriguing that this question has come to my attention twice in recent days.

The first instance was one of religious scholar Martin E. Marty's "Sightings" columns, which carried this headline: "What Are the Jews?" (Normally that column is online, but for some reason it hasn't been posted yet. When it gets online I'll update this posting with a link to it.)

Marty was writing about a recent piece in Commonweal magazine by Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson of Harvard University. It's a piece called "What Are They: Modernity and Jewish Self-Understanding." (The link to the piece will give you only the beginning. It's available online just to Commonweal subscribers.)

Levenson argues that almost no matter how you define Jews -- whether religious adherents or members of a particular race or nationality -- you wind up being only partly (if at all) right.

A similar point was made about Christians by Presbyterian writer and blogger Nancy Werking Poling in this piece.

Muslims have told me that all it takes to be a Muslim is to publicly declare that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's prophet and then to commit to living by the five pillars of Islam.

But just as some Jews and Christians argue about who really is a Jew and a Christian, so some Muslims argue about who is a true Muslim -- especially after 9/11, when people claiming to be Muslims wildly violated the religion's tenets.

I don't have a slick and easy answer for how to tell whether one is a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu or an adherent of any other religion. In some ways, I think it's a matter of self-definition, and yet that can wind up being too sloppy.

All I'm sure about is that those who insist they know whether someone else is a member of the faith they claim seem arrogant and are often wrong.

(I shot the photo here today of an interfaith display at the Botanic Gardens in Denver.)

* * *


The Republican Party may well nominate a Mormon this year as its presidential candidate, but as this interesting Salt Lake City Tribune piece points out, the GOP began its life as almost virulently anti-Mormon. Yes, but surely that's the only thing a national political party ever got wrong, correct?

* * *

P.S.: This Sunday, Shinnyo-en, a Japanese Buddhist denomination, is hosting an interfaith fire and water ceremony at the the Gallmann Africa Conservancy in Kenya, as part of the 10th anniversary conference of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. If you're interested in dropping in on this event online, it will be live-streamed at

KC's deep religious roots: 2-28-12

Several days ago I was interviewed for an online radio show called Everyday KC. The interview has not yet been aired (is aired the right word here?) but when it's scheduled I'll try to let you know.


The thrust of the conversation with Duane Daugherty and Rachel Ellyn had to do with religious history in the Kansas City area and the importance of religion to our region.

To prepare for the interview, I began digging around in various sources to learn (or mostly re-learn) some of our regional religious history, and I came away from that experience freshly impressed with how much religion matters here not only today but throughout the area's history.

A few tidbits:

* You've all heard of the United Methodist Church, a national denomination? But did you know that the first "uniting" of Methodism occurred in Kansas City at the "Uniting" conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church held from April 26-May 10, 1939?

* Did you know that what today is called the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was established Sept. 10, 1880, which, by the way, was just 11 days before the very first issue of The Kansas City Star was published?

* Did you know that Kansas City is the international headquarters of Unity, the Nazarene Church and the Community of Christ (once known as the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints)? Unity goes back to 1889, while Nazarene history formally began in 1908. The Community of Christ traces its origins not only to the 1830s and Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, but also to the 1850s as a separated movement. Independence has been the home of the Community of Christ since 1920. (By the way, the photo here today shows the Community of Christ's temple in Independence.)

* Were you aware that Jews have been part of our community since at least the late 1830s? Today there are 12 or 13 congregations, including the newest, Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City, led by my co-author and friend, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkon.

Well, there is much, much more -- including our several seminaries here as well as Bible colleges and other schools rooted in religion.

I say all of this simply to remind all of us that you really can't understand our culture and community today if you don't factor in the role religion has played in all of it since the beginning.

* * *


The Southern Baptist Convention recently agreed not to change its name to, well, something else. Religion News Service offers this interesting piece about religious rebranding and how difficult that can be. The problematic word in SBC's name seems to be "Southern." But surely that's better than, say, Directionless.

Muslims talking 'reformation': 2-27-12

I have been reluctant to use the Protestant-rooted term "reformation" when speaking about Islam and whether somehow it needs to shake itself to the core and reinvent itself for today's world.


The term reformation, after all, refers to a particular set of events in the world of Christianity and it has seemed to me to be both historically anachronistic and even inhospitable for Christians to call for a reformation in and of Islam.

But it now turns out that some Muslim scholars are using that very term, consciously borrowing the concept from Christianity as a way of encouraging fellow Muslims to think about ways Islam might adapt itself to what has moved past modernity to become post-modernity.

All of this was the subject of a recent "Sightings" column from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The author is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic studies at that divinity school.

He writes about Abdulkarim (or Abdolkarim) Soroush, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, who now is being described as a Muslim Martin Luther -- to drag the reformation connection directly over to the Christian experience.

And he quotes Muhammad Iqbal, a Muslim reformer, this way: "We are today passing through a period similar to that of the Protestant revolution in Europe, and the lesson which the rise and outcome of Luther's movement teaches should not be lost on us."

Maybe now that some Muslims themselves are using Protestant Reformation language to describe what is happening -- or perhaps what some think needs to happen -- in Islam it's more permissible for Christians to explore the Islam-Reformation connections.

And yet I remain a bit skittish about doing so. For one thing, it is terribly difficult to take something that happened 500 years ago in Europe and overlay it on Islam, whose center of gravity is found in Saudi Arabia. There are countless ways in which the analogies of that are awkward or simply don't fit.

For another, I'm perfectly happy to let Muslims use whatever language they like in describing possible ways Islam can or should adapt to new times. But I think it's discourteous -- and maybe even arrogant -- for Christians, especially Protestants, to call for changes in another religion along the lines of what their religion experienced centuries ago.

Still, Muslims seeking various changes in Islam would do well to study the ways in which other faiths have adapted to changing times -- and one area of legitimate study would be the Protestant Reformation.

Perhaps what is needed is a public seminar among Christians and Muslims in which the topic would be how best to study one another's history and learn from it. Included in such a seminar would be discussion of proper language to use, whether by Muslims or Christians. What we don't need is for a gathering of Christians to be demanding reformation of Islam while a gathering of Muslims picks apart Christianity for its perceived sins and errors.

* * *


Speaking of the Muslim world and Christianity, a 1,500-year-old Bible, it turns out, is being kept by authorities in Ankara, Turkey. Apparently Turkish police found it in an anti-smuggling raid. Well, I don't know to whom it belongs or where it should be kept, but I do know I find it impressive that people managed not to destroy a Bible over 1,500 years. I guess that's why we call such documents sacred texts.

* * *

P.S.: Have you signed up yet for the 7-9 p.m. March 1 workshop on "Writing Persuasive Essays" that I'll lead at the Writers Place in Kansas City? The link I've given you gives the modest price and details for Writers Place members. Here's the link for nonmembers. Tell your friends. Let's have a good crowd and some fun as we learn.

A new time of awakening: 2-25/26-12

Religion in general -- but Christianity in particular -- is in a period of upheaval.


Diana Butler Bass, a religion scholar whose expertise is Protestantism, puts it this way in her compelling new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening: "What was is no longer."

Anyone with even a slight interest in matters spiritual knows this is not news. For a decade and more many voices -- from academics such as Harvey Cox to Emergent Church gurus such as Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Tony Jones -- have been describing the exciting and sometimes troubling turmoil within Christianity.

The effort to be faithful and relevant in the 21st Century has driven church leaders not only to books such as Bass's new one but also to seminars, Webinars and, eventually, to their knees.

So if you've been well tuned into all of this angst and spirited exchanges and study in recent years, you won't find anything shocking in Bass's new book. But you will find here an excellent summary of what's been happening, why it's both necessary and important and some thoughts about how to face the future with hope.

Bass reclaims old "awakening" language here to describe what she senses to be happening now:

"I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being, to borrow a phrase, 'born again.'"

This is what she calls "The Fourth Great Awakening," a term with deep historical references to the "Great Awakenings" that occurred in this chronological order: 1730-'60, 1800-'30 and 1890-1920.

Bass doesn't cry out in anguish about the changes Christianity is experiencing, nor should she. The death of Christendom in Europe -- and its slow demise in the U.S. -- is, in the end, a good thing for the church. It means that the church need not be in charge of the world any more and need not be in direct collaboration with the political rulers. The church, instead, can serve its proper role of court jester, standing on the sidelines and pointing out the ways in which society in general is losing its moral way -- and then offering some solutions rooted in eternal values.

In an increasingly pluralistic country -- one in which a growing percentage of people are detached from institutional religion and declare themselves "spiritual but not religious" -- Christianity can take its place as a force for good, for peace, for harmony without seeming to be in cahoots with the powers that be. (I wish all our politicians understood this.)

What I find especially reassuring about what Bass has to say is that she understands the responsibility of Christians to share the gospel with the world -- the good news that Jesus proclaimed, which is that the reign of God is dawning and everyone can experience that at least partially today. Christians proclaim the gospel both in word and deed, offering small demonstration projects to show what the reign of God will look like when it finally comes in full flower. Bass writes:

"Instead of waiting around, we can display awakening in our lives, churches, and communities. We cannot bring the kingdom with this awakening, nor can we make Isaiah's ancient promise come true. (See Isaiah 2:2-4). But we can embody some of its ideals and precepts more fully in this world. We can love God and neighbor better. Every spiritual awakening seeks to make visible, even if only in some incomplete way, God's dream for creation. . .This awakening will not be the last in human history, but it is our awakening. It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just, and loving."

If you've been dozing through recent decades of churning change within American Christianity and want to catch up on what has been happening, this is a good place to start. Then read McLaren, Tickle, Jones, Danielle Shroyer, Doug Pagitt and others.

You don't want to sleep through this awakening.

* * *


Speaking of great awakenings, has Fidel Castro had one? News reports suggest that when Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba next month, Castro will rejoin the Catholic Church. If so, he'd go from In-Fidel to Fidel-ity, right?

* * *

P.S.: The Greater Kansas City Disciples of Christ Regional Ministry of Leader Development and Leadership Training for Church Leaders has scheduled what look to be two excellent seminars coming up. One will feature my friend Glenn Carson, the other Malinda Spencer, who works for Heartland Presbytery. Glenn is president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and will lead a seminar on Saturday, June 2, called “Calling All Disciples: Leadership Lessons from the Lord’s Table." For a pdf describing that, click on this link: Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerJune2012. Malinda is our presbytery's resource director for Christian education. She'll lead a seminar on Sept. 29 called “Best Practices for Christian Education” and “Support for the nearly childless church.” For a pdf describing that, click on this link:  Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerSept2012.

Connecting across borders: 2-24-12

When we think about the connections religious Americans have to entities and people abroad, perhaps our first thought is about the Vatican and its connection to the 65 million (or so) Catholics in the U.S.


Or we might think of the Church of England and its relationship to Episcopalians in the U.S. or of Mecca in Saudi Arabia as a pilgrimage destination for American Muslims or of Israel and its connections to American Jews.

There are, of course, many other international faith connections, and I was reminded of that reality the other day when I saw this plea from Greek Orthodox Archbishop Dimitrios of the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Holy Archdiocese of America.

He was seeking help for the people of Greece as they suffer the sad results of their government having run amok in terms of its sovereign debt.

As the archbishop noted, "the suffering of innocents and the ordeal of common people cry out for urgent and substantive help.  So many of our families have roots in Greece and many of us have relatives and friends who are now experiencing privation unknown in that country since the time of the harsh occupation of the Second World War."

Indeed, this is exactly what faith communities do -- they help out their members no matter where in the world they are. National borders, after all, are not divinely ordained. They are the result of political decisions, sometimes after wars. And when people are in need, such borders must be crossed in various ways.

These cross-border relationships (my own congregation has such relationships with Presbyterians in Guatemala and Pakistan, for instance) help to remind us of our commonalities as humans, as well as of our responsibilities to people with whom we share a heritage.

* * *


Garry Wills is nothing if not opinionated, which gets him as a Catholic into trouble now and then, but he's a compelling writer with great insights at times. So here's his take on all the to-do recently about contraception. This no doubt will make him some new friends. Or not.

Blessing an interfaith home: 2-23-12



Sharon Johnson (in the photo below left) stood at the lectern set up on the front steps of her new house and could not hold back the tears of joy.

Lawrence W. Anderson, her pastor from the Dowtnwon Church of Christ, stood behind her, patting her on the shoulder for encouragement. Finally, she was able to catch her breath and tell the dozens of people standing on her lawn for a house blessing this:


"I thank God for this house. I've never had a house before."

The new home, north of 27th and Bellefontaine in Kansas City, for Sharon and her children represents yet another interfaith milestone for Kansas City. This is another in a series of "The House That Abraham Builds" constructed under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City. (I last wrote about this project here this past December. You'll find lots of details there and in a Catholic Key piece to which I link you there.)

The project bears the Abraham name that because it brings together congregations of Christians, Muslims and Jews -- followers of the Abrahamic faiths -- to work together.

As Yahna Gibson, Habitat's executive director, told the crowd this past Sunday, "God has provided a wonderful group of people for Habitat." And why would this crowd of workers set aside their theological differences to build a house together for a needy family?


The Rev. Stan Runnels of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kansas City had this answer: "In all of our communities there is a singular focus on the idea of justice." (Runnels is shown in the photo at right with Shakil Haider, left, a Muslim representative who read passages from the Qur'an.)

Ground was broken for this house on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as people rededicated themselves to living in religious harmony and not caving in to the kind of religious hate that drove the hijackers that day.

So it was good at the house blessing to hear quotes not just from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament but also from the Qur'an.

One house built by an interfaith team doesn't resolve all of our religious difference and tensions. But it's a wonderful step toward that goal. And, besides, we all got to sing together a modified version of the song that carries this line, "Our house is a very, very, very fine house. . ."

And we didn't sound all that bad.

* * *


Speaking of homes, there's a free home available for a Christian institution in Northfield, Mass., where plans to create a C.S. Lewis College have fallen through. Now the owners of the 217-acre site with its 43 buildings are willing to give it away. If I could set the rules, I'd say, "Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., need not apply."

* * *

P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.

Bigotry in a new generation: 2-22-12

I am not sure why it's so distressing to find bigotry, prejudice and hate move from an older generation to a younger one.


I know it happens. My head knows it, anyway. But my heart always aches when I see it, especially in places where I might not expect it.

Another example surfaced last week in the Kansas City area when, as Syed Shabbir of KSHB-TV reported, "Blue Valley Northwest High School performed a skit on Jan. 27 that a student at rival Blue Valley North High School claims mocked the Jewish students at his school."

The second link I gave you in the previous paragraph will give you details of what happened and show you the video of the Northwest boys making fun of North because of the perception that North has a heavily Jewish population.

Although I'm appalled that the Northwest students thought what they did might be acceptable (and that you can hear laughter from the crowd watching), I am more appalled that the adults in charge of the event at which this took place did not call an immediate halt to it and use it as a teaching moment about antisemitism.

The administrators of the school district need to dig into this deeply and educate not only the young people about bigotry but also educate the faculty and administration of Northwest as to what is just good fun and what is the sort of hateful carryover of antisemitic sentiment that has done the whole world so much damage.

If you want to read my essay on the long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity and how it helped to create both modern antisemitism and the atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen, look for it under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Maybe the Northwest High kids who put on this repulsive skit (and the adults who should have stopped it) should read it, too.

* * *


Ever since I visited Saudi Arabia in mid-2002, I've been watching that fascinating and dangerous country move toward reform even as it continues to embrace a rigid form of Islam -- a form that would feel more at home 1,000 years ago. Columnist Richard Cohen describes this dilemma and suggests that the country needs to decide what century it wants to live in. Good point.

* * *

P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.

A distressing Amish story: 2-21-12

For many reasons the Amish fascinate those of us who aren't Amish.


Indeed, sometimes we imagine how lovely and simple life would be if we, like them, somehow were living in the 1830s (or so) without electricity or all the crazy bother of modern technology. It strikes us as bucolic, rustic, wonderful -- and all underpinned by a strong faith and a tightly woven sense of community.

Well, no doubt that lovely picture is true for some of the Amish. But if the experience of Saloma Miller Furlong, as described in her new book, Why I Left the Amish, is in any way typical, that peaceful picture of Amish life is far too one-dimensional.

Furlong, who grew up in a large Amish family in Ohio, describes a life at once simple and complex. And that's part of what makes this such a compelling read.

But I think it's important that we not universalize her critique of her Amish life so that somehow we imagine that life is like that for all the Amish. The reality is, as she acknowledges, she left the Amish mostly because her father was uncontrollably abusive in violent ways. Indeed, the picture she paints of her parents and their vastly different skills as parents is distressing not because they are Amish -- though clearly that complicates already difficult matters -- but because they seemed to have no idea how to be loving parents in healthy relationship to their children.

As Furlong's husband notes at one point -- seeming to separate what it meant to be Amish from what it meant to be in Saloma's family -- "The problems in your family as so complex."

The Amish live in what Furlong calls a "closed community." And any closed community struggles with fear of what is outside its bounds.

"In a close community," she writes, "(a) lack of self-confidence is seized upon -- the people at the top stay there by putting others down. And the ones near the bottom see this and join in on the belittling, hoping they might improve their own standing."

This was her experience both within her own family and within the larger Amish community of which her family was a (low-on-the-social-order) part. And her extravagently dysfunctional father felt "like an outsider within the community all his life."


Once Furlong (pictured here, as well as on the book's cover) left (escaped quietly is a better description) her Amish community when she was 20 years old, "they shunned me, which means they couldn't eat with me, accept gifts from me, ride in cars driven by me or do business with me." This didn't matter all that much because Furlong had moved to Vermont, but it came into play in various ways when she returned for her father's funeral.

It is striking that Furlong and all of her sisters left the male-dominated Amish way of living, while her brothers stayed -- though even in that regard she acknowledges that some of her sense of not fitting related not just to Amish community rules but to her own personality: "I would have needed to be endowed with a whole different personality to be able to conform to the Amish ways."

And yet the insularity of the community made life different not just for her but for everyone. Three of her siblings, for instance, married second cousins -- a common practice in her community. And most of the boys Saloma dated before marriage "turned out to be my second cousins," she writes.

Furlong is relentless and even fearless about describing what went wrong within her family and her community. She relates in painful detail, for instance, how her brother sexually abused her and the many times her father got violent with her and her sisters -- though not with their mother.

One of the things that made leaving her Amish community so difficult, she writes, is that "when one leaves the fold -- then all hope is lost for that person's salvation." Somehow she had to decide whether she believed that to be true and, even if she did, whether having an unknown number of years of relative happiness outside her family and community was worth eternal damnation. After considering, but rejecting, suicide, she voted yes on leaving.

In the end, she wrote a note to her mother saying, "I'm leaving because of Datt's (Dad's) violence. I can't live like this anymore. You had a chance to get help for him, and you didn't."

Despite all of that, she was glad she returned to Ohio for her father's funeral, partly because she hoped her presence "conveyed to them (her family and former community) that I wish to honor their long held traditions."

So although there are universal lessons here about the problems inherent in living inside an isolated, closed religious community, it's important to separate out those problems from the more personal problems inherent in particular families.

In some ways I wish the book's title could have conveyed this better, though I acknowledge that "Why I Left My Amish Family and, Thus, the Whole Amish Community" is too cumbersome, even if more accurate.

* * *

People of Cuban origin in Florida are quite hopeful that Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to Cuba in March will be a significant event that will help transform life on that island, it's reported. I find it hard, after so many decades of dictatorial rule, to be too optimistic about immediate change there, but it's also hard to imagine that the Fidel/Raul Castro era will last much longer. But then what? May the pope encourage the growth of freedom -- both religious and political -- next month.

Finding our moral center: 2-20-12

I was intrigued by this study from California educators about morality, but it took me awhile to grasp how it fit in to faith communities.


In thinking about why some people behave morally and others fail to, two researchers are proposing that what they call the "moral self" is key.

An individual's understanding of his or her moral identity, they concluded, determines in many instances whether that individual will behave in moral or ethical ways.

And how is that moral identity created? Well, in many ways over time, but, the researchers said, "Religious traditions that promote reflection on moral issues and foster charitable work also help individuals recognize moral meanings.”

That seems pretty obvious to those of us who have been part of religious traditions for a long time, but, in fact, what we may not recognize is the cumulative effect of being members of a community that teaches and demonstrates moral behavior even when such behavior may not seem to be in the individual's best interest (though it is in the broader community's interest).

Thus you get such concepts as the "greater good" and the "common welfare" versus looking out for No. 1.

I'm not suggesting that you simply must be in a faith community to understand and buy into the ideas that make up your moral identity, but I do think it may be more difficult outside of such communities for individuals to develop a deep sense of what is moral and ethical because in such cases there may well be no collection of people off of which to bounce questions and ideas.

At any rate, have a look at the press release about the study to which I've linked you and see what else you learn there about this study.

* * *


It's going to be a long, rocky Santorum presidency if he regularly has to stop the next day to explain what he meant the day before, as he just did with his comment that President Obama's agenda is based on “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” Oh, no, he said later. He wasn't criticizing Obama's Christian faith. Certainly that wasn't it: “I am talking about his world view, and the way he approaches problems in this country.” Oh, well, then. OK: Here's the rule on the campaign trail: It's OK to criticize someone's theology and complain it's unbiblical and everyone will know it's no criticism of that person's faith. Got that? Me, either.

New Holocaust students: 2-18/19-12

As someone who has written about the Holocaust in blog postings, columns and my latest book, I am always glad to see others become interested in learning about this genocide.


That's especially true as the time between World War II and now grows and as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain alive. Indeed, four of the approximately 20 survivors my co-author and I wrote about in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, already have died since the book was published in late 2009.

So I was glad to see two recent stories that describe how new generations of people are gaining an interest in the Holocaust and what its history can mean to them.

First, there's this New York Times report from Jerusalem about the growing number of people who are coming to Yad Vashem (pictured here) in Jerusalem to learn. Yad Vashem, which I plan to visit in April, is Israel's Holocaust memorial authority.

It's the agency that honors non-Jews who helped to save Jews in the Holocaust with the title "Righteous Among the Nations" once the story has been verified.

As The Times reports, "Seven decades after the Holocaust, with its survivors rapidly dying, the most systematic slaughter in human history is taking on a growing and often unexpected role in education across the globe."

The other is a piece I read in the print version of the current issue of The National Catholic Reporter. (I didn't think it would get posted online but that happened yesterday, so click here for the whole piece.)

The story describes the various ways in which young people in Poland now are learning about what happened in the Holocaust in their own communities.

The story, "Educators revive history of Poland's Jews," pays special attention to the work of The School of Dialogue, which NCR says is "intended to recapture the lost history of the Jewish presence in Poland." It's a presence, by the way, that goes back centuries, not merely decades.

The lessons of the Holocaust certainly aren't limited to Jews and those who sought to murder all of them. Rather, there are universal lessons contained within the particular stories, and if we miss those we do so at our own peril.

* * *


Clearly we're not doing enough to educate Americans about the constitutionally based requirements of church-state separation. Otherwise, people in Rhode Island wouldn't be making life miserable for a 16-year-old who successfully challenged a printed prayer hanging in a public school. Now she's the target of threats and abuse.