By Ethan Bauer | November 30, 2017
Questions of purpose are eternal ones for humanity.
Why do we exist? How should we live? Is there meaning behind it all?
In Gainesville, many find the answers — or at least try to — through faith. Whether it’s through the non-specific guidelines of Unitarianism, or the longstanding traditions of Judaism. The relationships within Seventh-Day Adventism, or the uniqueness of Mormonism, or the charity of Baptists.
To explore these five religions’ and denominations’ answers on purpose, as well as how they converge and differ, WUFT News spent time with five congregations that sit within two miles of one another in northwest Gainesville.
This collection of stories addresses questions about how some of the congregants got there, what about their faith motivates them and why they come back.
Unitarian Universalists: ‘Intentionally creedless’
Everything feels just about the same — the songs, the seats, the minister who delivers sermons from a pulpit. But someone attending a service for the first time might notice a major difference: the absence of God.
In Unitarian Universalist services, God is rarely mentioned by name and isn’t interpreted any one way.
Some followers do believe in the traditional monotheistic God. But others believe in paganism, or in a mysterious force at work in the world, or even in nothing at all.
“We cover the whole waterfront, which makes life interesting,” said the Rev. Maureen Killoran, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville.
Such an open nature brings out conflicting beliefs, but to Unitarians, that’s OK. In fact, it’s encouraged.
The religion is, as Killoran explained, “intentionally creedless.” What is important is following the church’s seven principles. They include: accepting the inherent worth of every person and embracing a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
“We do not have unanimity on theology at all,” Killoran said. “We don’t look for it. We don’t want it.”
So what entices the church’s members — including the atheists who have no interest in theology — to the church’s sanctuary every Sunday at 11 a.m.?
For Barney Capehart, it started with following his family. His daughter attended, and his granddaughter sang in the choir. So one Sunday, he joined them and was intrigued.
Capehart began attending talks with the minister about what Unitarianism is, and he realized it’s what he has believed in all along. He and his wife had never gone to church regularly, but the practical approach of Unitarianism was a perfect fit.
“We really do believe in love your neighbor,” he said. “We’re interested in what happens to people.”
Capehart figures that most of his fellow church members are former Catholics who didn’t quite accept some of its nuances. That description fits Mallory Szymanski, who was raised Catholic but left the church amid scandals of priests molesting children.
Szymanski never thought she’d return to any church, deeming them too judgmental. But her friend convinced her to try the Universalist Fellowship, and she appreciated that, as a newcomer, she wasn’t asked to stand up and be known by her fellow churchgoers.
“Not all Catholics are the same,” she said, “but my own experience is, ‘Do it this way and believe these things, and do anything outside the boundaries, you’re gonna be an outcast.’ We take the outcasts in.”
Rev. Killoran said she herself was a bit of an outcast when she arrived in Gainesville in 2015 as a “transition minister.” The Universalist Fellowship had lost its previous minister, so Killoran’s job has been to bridge the gap to the next one, who will arrive after her retirement in a year and a half.
Her goals for the congregation have been inclusiveness and building a community of different voices. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, for instance, she stood at the pulpit and, rather than delivering her usual sermon, asked congregants to share their storm stories.
They come to be seen as whole individuals, and they come looking for a place where they can either find or continue to strive for help.
One woman spoke about being trapped in her home by floodwaters for a day and a half because the roads were inaccessible. That didn’t stop her neighborhood from having a barbecue. “Best two days that we had,” she said to some laughs.
Another woman recalled having plans to close on her house as the hurricane approached. She announced that the house made it through OK, to some applause.
Yet another said her family came up from South Florida to weather the hurricane. It was priceless, she said, to see her conservative sister-in-law interact with her son’s blue-haired, tattoo-covered girlfriend. Once again, folks laughed.
During the same service, Killoran told a story to the congregation’s children about the importance of teamwork. Separately, the choir sang a goosebump-inducing song in a style reminiscent of a Gregorian chant.
There was also money collection, which took place while pianist Thomas Royal performed an elaborate version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” earning an ovation.
Through it all, a chalice near the front of the stage burned.
Essentially a candle holder that looks like a cup, the chalice is Unitarians’ main symbol, like Christians’ cross or Jews’ Star of David. It’s lit before every service and, like the service itself, can symbolize different things to different people.
“As the flame of this chalice reminds us of our values,” Killoran recited.
“There will be light,” the congregation followed.
“As the flame of this chalice encourages us to hope,” Killoran said.
“There will be light,” they responded.
“Let there be light in our hearts and in this community,” she concluded, “and let us carry that light into the wider world.”
At the end of the service, Killoran extinguished the flame, and the congregation left the semicircular chamber.
Many headed to the lobby for coffee and snacks and began talking about Saturday’s game, or the paper they hated grading, or what they’re doing this afternoon, all of them marching along to build, as Killoran explained, an inclusive community.
“They come to be seen as whole individuals,” she said, “and they come looking for a place where they can either find or continue to strive for help.”
Jews: ‘This-world, community-centered religion’
Robert Jordan will tell you he doesn’t fit in at Temple Shir Shalom. He’ll explain he’s from Levy County, and that he’s the vice president of a gun club.
Most of the other folks at Shir Shalom simply aren’t like him.
“We come from a very conservative county,” he said. “This is a very liberal synagogue. I’m outraged more than half the time at what the rabbi has to say. ”
That rabbi is Michael Joseph, who’s led Temple Shir Shalom, a reform Jewish synagogue, for about 12 years. He grew up Jewish and graduated from Yale with a degree in Near-Eastern language and literature in 1980.
Joseph then worked as a chef at upscale restaurants in Boston and San Francisco before eventually landing in rabbinical school. From there, he served in congregations in New Orleans, Louisiana; Norfolk, Virginia; and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He arrived in Gainesville in 2004.
And he’s been making Jordan fume ever since.
“He’s liberal,” Jordan said. “He says liberal things, and I just wanna throttle him.”
But do those differences make Jordan want a new rabbi? After saying he wanted to throttle Joseph, Jordan paused for a second and continued.
“Michael Joseph and I are friends,” he said. “He’s a great man. His heart is in the right place. He can’t help it that he’s a liberal Democrat and doesn’t have any concept of how the world really works — which is what I think about almost everybody at this synagogue.”
Jordan’s friend John Auerbach was seated next to him when he said that.
“Right,” Auerbach chimed in, “and I think that about you. So it’s OK.”
They both laughed.
“I’m gonna treat this man with respect,” Jordan said of working through disagreements with Auerbach. “He’s an intelligent man. He came to his convictions from intelligence and life experience.”
As Jordan and Auerbach explained, Judaism is different from other religions in that it isn’t just a set of beliefs. It’s also an ethnicity. People can be Jewish without practicing Judaism, yet they still attend services for the feeling of community.
Jordan said some members are atheists, but building a Jewish community is nonetheless important to them. Auerbach was quick to add a caveat to that.
“Remember,” he said, “where you find two Jews, you’ll find three opinions.”
Both men felt that building the community involves preserving heritage, traditions and life itself. That builds on one of Judaism’s core teachings, per Auerbach: living this life rather than focusing on an afterlife. Jews, Jordan said, are supposed to promote social justice and treat other people with respect.
“It’s part of our charge,” he said, “to do things both personally and as a congregation [for] good in the world.”
That means working with tutoring programs or organizing food drives during Judaism’s high holidays to support Gainesville’s poor.
But it also means helping the congregation. Jordan said he was the first person there, chainsaw in hand, to clean up after Hurricane Irma. He recalled working himself into heat exhaustion.
Auerbach and Jordan also help build the community through life events. Bar and bat mitzvahs. Passover. Other holidays. Weddings (the one for Auerbach’s second marriage was performed at Shir Shalom).
An event is also what brought Auerbach and Jordan there on that particular Thursday afternoon. It was Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year, and the synagogue was packed with people enjoying bagels, apples and honey.
But after talking for about 30 minutes, Auerbach and Jordan were asked to quiet down. The children’s service was about to start.
In the main part of the sanctuary, Joseph looked ahead at the audience of about 50 kids and their parents.
What followed was reminiscent of a Catholic mass in the sense that everything was wrapped in tradition. Most of the service consisted of Rabbi Joseph asking the kids questions.
What’s something good you’ve done to help others?
“Gave food to the food drive,” one said as another yelped in the background.
“Helped [Hurricane] Harvey victims,” another answered while a baby cried elsewhere.
“Took out the trash,” one more shouted.
We’re really supposed to work to make life better here for as many people as we can.
Then there was a traditional Hebrew prayer.
That cycle of questions and then prayer went back and forth until the kids were invited to the front of the temple.
One boy seemed uninterested. He weaved through the crowd, forcing his father to chase him, grab him and hold him in place. But he got loose at every chance, and the process started over.
Meanwhile, the others recited more Hebrew prayers. Then Joseph produced a shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn that’s blown on Rosh Hashanah.
The shofar let out distinct sounds. One resembled an elephant’s trumpet, another a fire alarm. The last one was the loudest, and Joseph seemed to run out of breath as the congregation laughed and clapped.
Despite such traditions, this is not a traditional congregation. Some members are transient, and some families comprise different faiths.
Joseph said the mixture does make it harder to build a community within the 35-year-old congregation. But it also brings advantages: It’s more welcoming for newcomers, and there’s no pressure to fit in.
At his long-established congregation in Norfolk, Joseph said problems — any problems — were often solved in one way only because they’d always been solved that way. He prefers Gainesville, where the congregation can come up with new solutions, helping each other prosper as a religion and a people.
“We’re really supposed to work to make life better here for as many people as we can,” Joseph said. “It’s a very this-world, community-centered religion. Not really what happens after death to any one individual soul.”
Seventh-Day Adventists: Church on a Saturday
Pastor Daniel Graham stands in front of his office mirror and scrapes a razor against his already-bald head, producing a sound similar to sandpaper rubbing wood.
It’s a quick touch-up before this morning’s communion rehearsal.
When he emerges, members of his congregation, the Gainesville Seventh-Day Adventist Church, greet him and one another with, “Happy Sabbath.” But today, it’s especially meaningful for Graham. It’s his last day.
Graham came to the church 13 years earlier to be a pastor for the first time. Now, with his wife’s parents aging in Kentucky, he’s moving to Tennessee to be closer to them.
“It’s hard as a pastor to leave,” he said. “You have that shepherd’s mentality, and all these beautiful people, it’s hard to leave them.”
The members seem to feel the same about him. A woman stopped by his office to give him a cake as soon as he arrived on his last day.
The cake rested on a desk atop a tissue box, next to a study Bible, a MacBook, and two bottles of hand sanitizer. Three bookshelves bracketed the desk.
Soon, all the shelves will be empty. But for the congregation, life will continue, as will the church and the worshiping.
This place is a refuge, its community a life preserver in tough times. Members pride themselves on helping others — within the church or not — and consider it central to their faith.
The church is also a lighthouse on a sea of confusion, guiding its members to clearer waters.
The head elder, who asked not to be named, said he started attending about 20 years ago as a student at the University of Florida. He started going only because his friends invited him.
He didn’t grow up an Adventist. But around the time he started going, he was confronting existential questions about why things happen the way they do, what morality means and where he fits into the world.
“You’re realizing that there’s something bigger than you,” the elder explained. “That it’s not all about you.”
He found answers in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, an American Christian church founded in the 1863. He said the church is logical because it’s based on the Bible in what it views as the most literal way possible.
Any justification for any Seventh-Day Adventist belief can be found in the Bible, the elder said. This view gave him the answers he was looking for.
That Biblical focus, Pastor Graham said, is at the core of the religion.
I never had any miraculous voices or anything like that… But I felt a desire to help people, and that was the great desire.
To further explain it, he broke down the name. “Adventist” refers to a belief in the imminent second coming of Christ. The “seventh day” part is the Sabbath, which for Adventists is Saturday, not Sunday like most Christian churches.
The Sabbath must be kept holy and must be used to reconnect with God, so no work or business is permitted. Members instead get to participate in service, prayer and reflection. (The key words there are “get to” as opposed to “have to.”)
It’s clear by their faces when they greet each other with “Happy Sabbath” that Saturday is indeed a celebration for them, whether they’re wearing bow ties, blazers and buckled leather shoes or sneakers, cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirts.
Head deaconess Susan Jones joined the church when she moved to Gainesville in 2005. Her husband died almost immediately after and never attended with her.
“I didn’t know very many people here at that point in time,” she said, “and one of the church members called me and said, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Members came to Jones’ house while she grieved. They drove to Jacksonville to pick up her sister from the airport so she could make funeral arrangements. They consoled her afterwards.
“They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them,” she said. “But that’s the kind of people we have in our church.”
Jones said she appreciates the church’s diversity, which is apparent when the service starts. People are there from many races, and some talk with Jamaican or Haitian or Filipino accents.
This particular service features seven baptisms in a chamber behind the pulpit, with three glass angels blowing trumpets above. The water is about belly-high on Graham. He jokes about it being cold because the heater never got turned on.
Later, the church offers communion. But first, some songs, led by a five-person choir, followed by a sermon. It’s Graham’s last and is titled “The Great Reunion,” in reference to what it will be like for believers to meet again in heaven.
Graham had wanted to be a doctor, like his father. He wanted to help people, but he hated talking in front of them. Yet there he was, speaking to a crowd of several hundred.
He struggles to answer the question of why, in his early 20s, he decided to switch to being a pastor.
“I never had any miraculous voices or anything like that,” Graham said. “As an 18-year-old young man, I really didn’t have a lot of gifts to bring or talents.
“But I felt a desire to help people, and that was the great desire.”
Mormons: Drawn to the mission
There are no symbols here. No banners. No stained-glass windows.
Instead, the room is mostly brown, from the pews to the walls. There’s one analog clock on the left side and some orange and green flowers up front.
The carpet is a modest bluish-gray. And despite the congregants professing themselves as Christians, there is no cross.
That’s because this isn’t a Protestant or Catholic church. This is the meetinghouse for Gainesville’s first ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons.
It’s Sunday, and it’s almost time for the 1 p.m. service.
As the congregation chats and waits for it to begin, pleasing piano music fills the room. In the back, a baby lounges in his stroller like a first-time visitor to a Florida beach. Other small children toddle to their seats wearing untucked button-down shirts.
My faith gives me the chance to serve other people, and I get a great deal of value in trying to help other people.
When it’s time to start, a burly bearded man called brother Engebretsen approaches the pulpit in the center of the room, and the noise stops.
“Good afternoon, brothers and sisters,” he says before referring them to today’s opening song, “Choose the Right.”
There’s no leading choir, so the congregants — almost all of them wearing their fine suits, dresses and shoes — stand and sing.
Jesus, communion and Biblical references are included in the service. But something still just feels different. For Sanford Porter, that’s OK. That’s what makes this place special to him and many of the other congregants.
Porter was baptized into the church at age 8 in Wisconsin and hasn’t veered since. He went on a mission trip to Indonesia and also helped Floridians in Hastings and Middleburg get through flooding caused by Hurricane Irma.
“My faith gives me the chance to serve other people,” he said, “and I get a great deal of value in trying to help other people.”
Porter’s great-great-great grandfather was one of the early converts to join Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet who said God spoke to him and revealed the Book of Mormon. That part of Porter’s family tree has remained Mormon ever since. His wife, however, converted at 19.
Many Mormons can trace their faith back generations, while others converted more recently through the church’s extensive missionary work. Those efforts are satirized in the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which follows a young “elder” on a mission to preach in Uganda.
The musical uses Mormonism as a metaphor for religion in general, but it also makes the faith look different than others by focusing on its missions, which are highly encouraged and fairly common.
While Porter was talking, another man walked by. Porter asked the man where he’d done missionary work, taking it as a foregone conclusion that he had done at least some.
“Seattle,” the man answered.
Another distinct mark of Mormonism is the structural hierarchy of its buildings. All are welcome in Mormon meetinghouses, which host Sunday services, but not everyone can walk into a Mormon temple. They’re open only to Mormons who meet certain qualifications, and they’re reserved for special events like weddings or other occasions of making covenants with God, which the church keeps secret.
For the sacrament, Mormons use water instead of wine. That’s because God revealed to Smith that it doesn’t matter what’s used for the sacrament as long as the meaning remains.
The names mentioned during services — Noah, Paul, Jesus — are common among Christian churches. But every once in awhile a unique something catches the ear, like the Book of Nephi, a book in the Book of Mormon, the faith’s other holy text aside from the Bible.
At this particular service, there’s a program centered around the congregation’s 50 or so children, with one child mentioning Mormon church President Thomas Monson.
“We can listen to him in general conference two times a year,” she says of the big Mormon meeting in Salt Lake City.
The children, like those in any other church, stumble over words.
“Heavendly fader gabe us the gibt of agency,” one kid says.
“Agency means we get to choose to be good or bad,” another says.
The service ends soon after, and as the children leave, they present the dichotomy of Mormons: Some of what they recited in their yearly program was similar to what might be said in other Christian churches. Some of it was different. But even those differences felt similar in the way they were said.
“Great job!” one woman told a group of them as they left. “You guys were awesome.”
Southern Baptists: ‘They love lost people’
Jeffrey Haglund believed he was destined for hockey greatness.
As a teenager in Minnesota, Haglund played with a ruthless style. He once got ejected for fighting five opposing players. As he and the five left the ice, he pushed them onto the surrounding concrete, forcing them to crawl back to avoid scratching their skates.
“Hearing my name called when I smashed somebody into the boards and there was blood,” he said, “man, that was great.”
He’s a Baptist preacher — or at least he was when he moved to Gainesville in 2014.
Now, the Santa Fe College economics professor doubles as the lead strategist at the North Central Florida Baptist Association, an organization that provides support for North Central Florida’s Southern Baptist churches.
For Haglund, the association serves the same purpose as a church. Just on a larger scale.
His story of going from hockey player who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team to Baptist missionary who spent 15 years overseas is one full of twists, turns and surprises, but it’s also one that’s rooted in faith throughout.
A good place to begin is Oxford, Mississippi. A knee injury had derailed Haglund’s hockey career, so he was there to get his Ph. D in finance from the University of Mississippi and “be rich” instead.
He was married by that time, and he’d given his life to Jesus Christ long ago, but he said he wasn’t living out his vow while at the Ole Miss.
His wife came from a family of preachers, though, so the couple tried to find a church in Oxford. They tried different ones, but none fit.
“I knew that if I was going to go to church, I didn’t want to waste my time being friends with a bunch of people,” Haglund said. “I wanted to have the Bible.”
He eventually found what he wanted at a Southern Baptist church, so he and his wife planted themselves there and took root.
“Why Southern Baptists? Because they preach the Bible,” he said, “and they love lost people.”
Hagland was still lost in some ways. Despite giving up hockey, he was still overly intense. He still got angry. And he still wasn’t living his faith in the way he wanted.
He eventually went to Canada, where a university had offered him a job as dean of its business school. He had been there a week when his wife called.
“Jeffrey,” she told him, “God has impressed on my heart that we need to do something different. We’re going to go to seminary.” So they did, and they became missionaries to eastern Europe for the next 15 years.
They spent time in Bulgaria, where Haglund played some professional hockey. They also spent time in Turkey, where Haglund coordinated medical and sports clinics to try and convert some in the majority-Muslim population.
Finally, in 2014, he came back to the U.S. to be a pastor at Westside Baptist Church in Gainesville. About a year later, a friend told him to send his resume to the North Central Florida Baptist Association, which was looking for a new lead strategist.
He did, and he got the job.
Haglund’s job is nothing like being a preacher. He basically helps out the Southern Baptist congregations of North Central Florida when they need it.
We’re all here trying to help our community. It’s not what you might think when you call a Baptist church.
For example, one congregation needed a baptismal, which is basically a mini swimming pool used to baptize people. He found one that was converted from a horse trough on Craigslist, bought it and gave it to the congregation.
Among other initiatives, the association helps
homeless population at Grace Marketplace. It holds back-to-school drives for some of its poorer congregations. And it collects clothing for those in need.These are all parts of the image Haglund wants to create of Southern Baptists.
“When you think about Baptists, you think judgment,” he said. “You think someone is gonna look at you and find value in you — or not — based on your actions or the way you look.”
Haglund is working to combat that stereotype.
“Baptists have historically been a negative thing. But it’s not,” he said. “We love to help our community. It’s who we are.”
Haglund also bestows recognition on the area’s Southern Baptist churches for community work. When Parkview Baptist, for example, feeds the poor and makes them flavored coffees every Wednesday night, he makes sure the congregation knows the work is appreciated.
When Haglund talks about those flavored coffees, his intensity for his work becomes as apparent as his intensity for hockey once was.
It’s also visible when he talks about moments that have reinforced his faith over the years.
He said a homeless man recently asked him, during a shoe distribution, if he happened to have size 13s. His assistant said there was no way they had any size-13 shoes, but when he reached into the box, the first shoe he pulled out was a size 13.
Then there are the “miracles” of creation: the oceans and trees and forests, which he said have allowed him to never question his faith.
And part of that faith, he said, is helping others.
“We’re all here trying to help our community,” he said. “It’s not what you might think when you call a Baptist church.”