As Gina Kirkland was telling a researcher from the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) the story about how she “came out” as an atheist when she was a teenager growing up in a Catholic family in Texas, her phone chimed. The sound of a slow, resonant meditation bell filled the room. It was a reminder for her to take a moment to be mindful of the present, explained Kirkland, an entertainers’ and speakers’ agent in Los Angeles.
“I can go for the woo. I just can’t go for the woo‑woo.”
“I can go for the woo,” she said when the researcher gave her a quizzical look. “I just can’t go for the woo-woo.”
Though she does not believe in gods or ghosts—the supernatural “woo-woo” of deistic religions—Kirkland not only keeps a mindfulness chime on her phone; she also meditates regularly and observes a period of meditative silence, along with 200 other congregants, at monthly gatherings of Sunday Assembly L.A., part of a global network of godless churches.
Kirkland was one of many seekers that we met in studying creative religious communities in Los Angeles. While CRCC’s Religious Competition and Creative Innovation Project [[link to RCCI]] largely focused on organizations, each community is shaped by the individuals who lead and join them.
We found that these individuals have been and continue to be on a journey, and even if they subscribe to a particular faith tradition, these journeys are not the well-worn paths of previous generations. In the following pages, you’ll find the stories of five individuals whose journeys lead them to humanism and neo-shamanism as well as to distinctive expressions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. These “uncharted pilgrimages” often led the people we met through traumatic, healing and transcendent experiences—and to a new sense of leadership and community.
“It’s great to spread the message that there’s just more than one right way to do things.”
The journeys of these individuals, while uniquely their own, help shape common characteristics of what we call “Reimagined Communities.” [[link to reimagined communities]] At a time when many traditional institutions are in sharp decline, the distinguishing themes of reimagined communities are the enfranchisement of individuals, whose embodied experience within the group is the locus of authority; empathetic embeddedness with the wider local community; openness to adaptation, even among groups that acknowledge a sense of boundedness within a larger tradition; and an eagerness to network with similar movements across religious and social boundaries.
The five stories in “Uncharted Pilgrimage” chronicle the ways that millions of seekers are forging community, identity and meaning beyond established ritual and doctrine. You can explore the stories in order or according to your interest, and we’ve highlighted aspects of each narrative that correspond to the themes of reimagined communities.
Kirkland’s path led her from a Catholic upbringing to being a religious “none”—a category that encompasses tens of millions of Americans who check “none of the above” on religious identification surveys. Some of these “nones” are truly uninterested in religion, some embrace the “woo,” and others find themselves fully embracing spiritualties that are new to them. Some seekers have to change denominations to find the spiritual sustenance they need, while the journeys of others bring them back “home.” Many seek to find meaning by living out their faith in the public square, and sometimes, their struggle to find a community that reflects their beliefs leaves them unmoored.
Far from signaling the death of religion or the ascendance of secularism, these stories show that the decline of formal religious institutions may yield the raw materials for a future spiritual renaissance—the latest iteration of America's perennial Great Awakening.
“I think community is really a primal need,” said Kirkland of Sunday Assembly. “To me, life is about fellowship. Who is going to bring you casseroles and who is going to celebrate the good things with you and be there in the bad? Any time we have an opportunity to create community it helps people individually.”
“It’s great to be a community,” she added. “And it’s great to serve others, but it’s also great to spread the message that there’s just more than one right way to do things.”