Where is utopia?

At the Arch Street Friends Meeting House, Dr. Emma Jones Lapsansky-Werner told us how William Penn’s vision of utopia led to the urban design of Philadelphia, city of brotherly, sisterly love. 

When asked where utopia can be found today, Dr. Lapsansky-Werner, a Quaker historian at Haverford College, said, God lives in:

  • public transportation
  • community parks
  • markets where people sell their own stuff
  • schools where parents participate in teaching

I would add:

  • grand old train stations

Unlike airports, which are made of glass, steel, sterility, full of uniformed personnel intent on efficiency and safety, train stations are grand dames, made of marble, wood, vast ceilings, wasted space, meandering Art Deco design, and welcome to all kinds of wandering characters.

My Amtrak train just pulled out of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, passing Newark Station. We are on route to New York City.

I like that Amtrak conductors are characters. (I’ve written about this on another blog and on seeing nature from the windows, on Looking for Eagles on Amtrak).

In fact, train conductors have shared their cookies and fellow passengers have shared their chocolate cake with me on Amtrak excursions. Nobody really shares at airports or on airplanes.

I find utopia in places where people share. Where do you find utopia?

Dr. Lapsansky-Werner was a featured speaker at the Religion Communicators Council annual meeting.




CBS Producers

Producers John P. Blessington and Liz Kineke from CBS Religion and Culture Series spoke to New York’s Religion Communicators Council at lunch today in a conference room in the Mormon temple near Lincoln Center.

The two talked about their love for producing television documentaries on topic’s like this year’s line up — unemployment, the environment, immigration, and pluralism — all from a faith perspective.

Melissa Crutchfield's hands at a memorial for Sam Dixon in Haiti. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The two won a 2011 Wilbur award from the RCC for their documentary, “Haiti: Religion’s Response to Disaster,” which featured my colleague, Melissa Crutchfield, disaster relief exec at UMCOR, (you can hear her on Youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-TEg7om4y4). I didn’t see the Haiti documentary but I think it included the story of our beloved UMCOR colleague Sam Dixon who died after being trapped in the collapsed Hotel Montana in Port-Au-Prince.

Blessington spoke about making the decision to focus on Haiti, even though, “We knew there would be fatigue on the issue of Haiti.” The producers didn’t shoot new footage in Haiti, but relied on B-roll from Church World Service and other faith-based relief agencies.

The discussion was mostly in the form of a Q and A. I asked if the producers would consider another topic that is often seen as heated and confrontational in culture and religion — sexuality as a gift from God. I mentioned the cover story in today’s New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/us/19gays.html about the struggle of evangelical college students to affirm their sexuality identity.

But Blessington said they couldn’t cover that. Any television show on sexuality and religion would irritate too many viewers he said. Hmmmmm..

That’s too bad since their documentaries seems in-depth and compassionate. And on compassion, Blessington mentioned that he loves the Charter for Compassion. And who doesn’t? How can you not love a charter that overleaps religious differences to unite the world through the golden rule? http://charterforcompassion.org

The CBS Religion and Culture series website is pretty lame, but they’re working on it. You can check out when their documentaries will be released and in which local markets at: http://www.interfaithbroadcasting.com/rc.aspx

As always, the couple of dozen religious communicators in attendance were pretty interesting people — Christian Scientist, Mormon, Jewish, Catholic. I chatted with a guy who is producing events called Laugh Out Loud to end bullying through laughter.

So the luncheon started with a discussion on Haiti and religion, and ended with laughter and bullying. And that’s my report from this month’s RCC luncheon.

Huff Po Editor Talks About AOL Merger

Alana B. Elias Kornfeld, the Living section editor at Huffington Post, told the Religion Communicators Council yesterday she is not sure how the AOL-Huff Po merger will play out.

But she does know that some trends will definitely remain worthy of reportage — like the green movement and our need to unplug.

I find it ironic — and cool — that a plugged-in website advocates unplugging from the web. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of living off the grid. I renamed this blog The Connected Life because I’m trying to connect more to family and friends through face time rather than Facebook time.

On religion, Kornfeld said Huffington Post is not interested in religion — as in the politics of religion — but in religion — as in providing a “Space that gives rise to an inspired experience.”

I’m a fan of share and inspired experiences. And a lot of people are fans of Huffington Post — 56 million unique visitors per month and they’re expecting at least 200 mill more with the AOL merger. Kornfeld said that AOL has a loyal brand following, while Huff Po has substantive content. Nice when big brand marries big content!

I am a fan of Alana’s. And of Arianna’s. I met Arianna a long time ago and kinda knew she was going places.

I love what Arianna’s been saying lately about our need to get more sleep! (my post from last month, inspired by Huffington’s Ted Talk:  https://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/get-up-early/ ) I’d like to say more about yesterday’s luncheon, but you guessed it, I’ve got to go to bed!)

Incidentally, yesterday’s RCC was held at the Opus Dei headquarters on 34th and Lexington. Really nice and clubby, reminded me of the Yale Club. Nicer than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints near Lincoln Center where the RCC met last month.

The RCC is a great group. At the annual gathering this year in Little Rock, Arkansas, Abderrahim Foukara, Head of Al-Jazerra in the US will deliver the keynote address. http://www.religioncommunicators.org/ Should be interesting.

ABC Producer

At any given luncheon, there are three factors I consider:

1. What’s to eat?

2. Who do you sit with?

3. Is the speaker interesting?

The answer to these questions are:

1. Wraps, chips, cookies.

2. Pat Pattillo from National Council of Churches. Good conversationalist.

3. Yes, substantive. Jeanmarie Condon, senior producer for ABC News Nightline.

Before I head to another luncheon, let me post a few takeaways from last week’s RCC* luncheon.

1. Take Religion Seriously

When making a documentary about Waco TX, Condon learned the big mistake in law enforcement was that they didn’t take the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians seriously. This ignorance is lethal. “Mainstream media ignored the religious content.”

“When Chilean miners got down on their knees to thank God for their rescue, did the media tell this story?” Condon asked.

Yet the tides are turning. At this moment, people are paying attention to religion. Religion is relevant. After all, “God and money motivate people,” Condon said.

Condon produced a documentary, Jerusalem Stories, with Peter Jennings. It was unpopular with conservative Christians. Condon also made a documentary about St. Paul. (Presumably that one was more popular.)

She was asked for The Century Project, What was the most meaningful event of the 20th century? “The Iran Hostage Crisis,” Condon concluded. That event ushered in the Islamic Revolution but started as a secular movement. Due to a vacuum of power, Khomeni moved in. And so, too, the West Bank and free media for Palestinians. “What started as a conflict over land was taken over by religious leaders.”

2.  Cover Religious Content with Respect

The wrong way to approach religion in the media is “from a quaint anthropolgical perspective. ‘Look what they believe and what they do,'” Condon said. Rather, “Have respect for all perspectives. Do not look at religion from the outside in. Look at it from the inside out.” Peter Jennings established the religion beat (Terry Moran, educated at Notre Dame, among others at ABC News, like Condon, are continuing to cover religion.)

When Condon traveled with Peter Jennings to the Church of Holy Sepluchre. “We were watching religious pilgrims touching the stone (where people claim Jesus’s body was anointed before his burial). He (Jennings) was crying.”

3. Make A Good Story

Condon said three things are essential:

1. Character
2. Narrative
3. Access

A character is a person or group of people interesting enough to write a short story about.”

The narrative is the story — with a beginning, middle and end — wherein the characters are compelled to take a journey.

By access, Condon means Nightline has to have uncensored time with the character, even if the subject of the profile is Hilary Clinton.

Condon produced a documentary on the search for the Real Jesus (using chants and Bob Dylan music). She also created a special setting out to uncover any facts upon which the novel, The DaVinci Code, was based.

“No truth to it…Mary Magdalene was probably a wealthy businesswomen,” Condon said.

A recent example of a good story? Nightline learned that Christian pastors from the Congo were performing excorisms. “We went and investigated.” The story uncovered abuses by the parents, the pastors, and the overarching need for medical care for kids there. It’s this kind of investigative story Nightline does so well. And perhaps the reason Nightline is the Number One late night show with four and a half million viewers.

Another recent religion story from ABC was their town hall meeting about Islam where the variety of Islamic pundits and practioners showed that Islam is as diverse as Christianity.

Good luncheon = Good food. Good table. Good speaker.


*RCC = Religion Communicators Council.

The locations of the monthly meetings of the New York Chapter of the RCC rotate. The October meeting was held in a windowless meeting room of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.