Photos by Maureen McMahon and Joni Strickfaden
Introduction by Maureen McMahon
Over the past seven years the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth has emerged on the Ann Arbor scene as a vibrant place for community events and a dynamic alternative to Sunday worship.
Many have discovered the Center by attending one of their public music events, such as engagements with Kirtan singers Shantala or their Café 704 concert series featuring some of the area’s finest musicians. Others may have visited because of their calendar of speaking engagements with popular authors like Judith Coates or Rev. John Mundy. Still, those who eventually join the community were likely persuaded by Interfaith’s unique take on Sunday service: an upbeat gathering in which attendees, alongside ministers, provide the texts, meditations, songs, and sermons that are shared, and engage with each other during an open-mic session.
Members of the Interfaith Center include people from all walks of life: doctors, carpenters, lawyers, musicians, teachers, and self-taught seekers. For many, it’s a home away from home, a place for Sunday service, but, more fully, a community center where they can find meaningful connections with other spiritual seekers throughout the week, be it at a potluck on Tuesday nights, or at a Saturday acoustic concert, or at any of the various study groups that meet to explore spiritual texts and practices.
More than just a place to socialize, there are members who say the Center literally saved their lives. And, if you asked, a lot of the membership at Interfaith would identify as “recovering” — be it from institutionalized religion, their formal education, or a previous way of thinking or acting. Those who gather there seem to share a vital interest in charting a personalized approach to spirituality and enjoy doing so in this supportive community setting.
It is an eclectic bunch to be sure. A typical Sunday attracts a broad cross section of Ann Arborites, with many attendees old enough to be nearing retirement or to have already raised a family. A youth education program draws in some families and there is a contingent of younger seekers looking for new modes of spiritual exploration. Many different faith backgrounds are represented and there is an air of openness and acceptance.
Even with the regular format of spiritual readings, guided meditations, live music, and lessons (sermons), it seems you never know what you’re going to get. Invariably, a Hindu chant and a Buddhist meditation might accompany a reading from a Sufi mystic or a page from a best seller picked up off the spiritual development shelf. Sunday music might include a harp concert one week, followed by a drum circle or a modern dance recital the next. It’s an eclecticism that is celebrated and somehow works well.
As you might expect from a group of seekers, many in the Interfaith community are well read in their areas of interest. There is a depth of knowledge in metaphysical topics and consciousness studies. A New Age vocabulary is commonly used and many members are at home in the esoteric, just as many are self-identified healers. It is a place where people think critically about their thinking — but tend to prefer things be light-hearted.
Though Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth was established in 1997, Crazy Wisdom Community Journal has never profiled the Center or David Bell, the Center’s founder and senior minister. I have been attending there since 2009 and suggested it was time we spotlight this exciting resource and place of opportunity for our readers. What follows is a profile of David Bell by Rachel Urist, someone who had never been to Interfaith before we sent her; plus two personal histories of community members Joy Pendleton and Craig Harvey; and two interviews with Interfaith leadership team members Associate Minister Delyth Balmer and Youth Education Co-Director Kellie Love.
David Bell: Interfaith Minister and Sometime Lawyer, Accountant, Politician, Real Estate Developer
By Rachel Urist
Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth is tucked away in a nondescript business park on Airport Boulevard, across from Costco. Until 2006, when it acquired its current space, the group met at Angell School, then at Forsythe, and classes were held in various homes.
Though the Center’s location is unprepossessing, its interior has a homespun charm. David Bell explained:
When I first proposed we rent it, they thought I was crazy. But I have a builder’s license — and I’m a Taurus. I could see it. It is the perfect space now, and everyone agrees, but most people thought I was nuts. We did all the work ourselves. Lots of tools got broken, but hey, that’s okay.
Bell, who has an eye for design, suggested a cantilevered arrangement for its second floor offices. This design obviates obstructions. (Without it, posts would have been needed to support the second floor.) An architect in the group drew up the plans, and members of the group built it.
The Center is a far cry from the Methodist church of his youth. “I was taught that Jesus died for our sins, but I could not abide a God who would demand such a blood sacrifice.” By age 16, he rejected this “ornery and cantankerous” God of the Old Testament. “I was a card-carrying atheist for thirty years!”
He was a good student and graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in accounting. A professor told him that he had talent and added: “You’re going to law school!” Bell took the LSAT, scored in the 97th percentile, and enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Law. He began classes a week after he married his Judy, in 1965. He laughed as he remembered: “I had $1.65 in my pocket when we returned from our honeymoon. That was all the money we had in the world!” Judy landed a teaching job. Bell earned his law degree in 1968, then embarked on a peripatetic career.
Following law school, he worked for a year as a C.P.A. Then he began practicing law, which he did for eight years. During that time, he ran against Bent F. Nielsen (of Nielsen Flowers) for county commissioner. Bell enjoyed recounting the adventure. “Reverend Don Shelton was my campaign manager. He created the slogan: ‘Elect Bell or get Bent.’” Bell lost, though it was close. Two years later, he opened a brokerage firm, Continental Capital, with a real estate developer. He soon left to work for E.F. Hutton. That lasted a year. In 1988, he returned to law, and then, in 1996, he turned to divinity.
Why? He said it was because of an epiphany he had in the summer of 1985, during a visit to his daughter, who was at Interlochen. As her orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth, Bell had what he called a “noetic” experience. It was a “sudden knowing.”
All of a sudden tears started rolling down my cheeks, and I knew, at that moment, that every thing in the physical universe is an out-picturing; that it has beneath it a matrix of magnificence. It was a revelation. I had never dreamed of asking anything about such matters. I’d been a yuppee workaholic, overachieving, happy. Judy looked, saw tears, and asked: ‘Are you alright?’
The experience led him to become involved with the Unity Church, where he began teaching and eventually participated as a lay minister. By this time, he was a recovering alcoholic. His search for divinity was multi-determined. He sought compassion and a loving God. He began to practice yoga and meditation.
In 1997, he began studying at the New Seminary in New York’s Greenwich Village. Rabbi Joseph Gelberman founded it in 1981, along with a Methodist minister; an Indian religious teacher, spiritual master, and yogi; and a Catholic priest. Bell was particularly taken with Rabbi Gelberman, a Hungarian who lost his first wife and daughter in the Holocaust.
Gelberman was from a long line of Hassidic rabbis. In the U.S., he was a pulpit rabbi for ten years before earning a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, which allowed him to separate his spiritual life from his livelihood. He explored Eastern wisdom, ventured into interfaith dialogue, and started a free synagogue. He was in great demand as a speaker, and he died in 2010, at the age of 98.
Gelberman’s personal axiom was: “Never instead of, always in addition to.” He quoted Zen, Indian, Chinese, and Jewish sages. He made a point to live each day as though it was his last (a Jewish injunction), and he peppered his sermons with aphorisms, including:
- “The average American man dies at 50 and is buried at 75.”
- “Hating is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
- “The eleventh commandment is: Thou shall have purpose.”
His followers loved hearing his quotations. A Zen master said: “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.” Rabbi Zusya, a Jewish scholar, said on his deathbed: “I do not fear that God will ask ‘Why were you not like Moses?’ But ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Gelberman was a firm believer that humankind is God’s partner in creation. It is our responsibility to maintain and continue the work of creation, to improve and repair and husband God’s world. He said: “I don’t have to search for God in the temples and the synagogues or in meditation or in service. I just look at another, and there I see God.”
Gelberman’s ideas and his vision of spiritual inclusion — of seeking divinity in people instead of in institutions — greatly influenced Bell’s interfaith training, spiritual growth, and his involvement with founding the Interfaith Center.
Bell himself had long felt a kinship with Jewish history and tradition. He felt “at home” at a Jewish friend’s funeral. In high school, he said, “every girl I fell madly in love with was Jewish.” He recalls the first time he heard Aramaic spoken — the vernacular of the historical Jesus. “I jumped out of my skin — like someone hit me with a cattle prod.”
Reflecting on this connection, he said: “I was never comfortable in calling myself a Christian. I believe Yeshu [Jesus] was real, a nice Jewish boy from Palestine, and his intention was to wake people up — never to form a new religion. I have a wonderful relationship with him.”
In the Interfaith community, Jesus is generally referred as Yeshu, the diminutive of his Hebrew name, Yehoshua (Joshua) ben Joseph. Bell believes that Yeshu’s message is, among other things, that “death isn’t real.” Bell told me of an encounter with an “energetic force,” a spirit called Aaron, channeled by his friend, Barbara Brodsky. According to Bell, Aaron was, in his last incarnation, a Buddhist meditation master.
Aaron has told me — and I have no reason to doubt it — that I was acquainted with Joshua and was physically present at the crucifixion; that I was a rabbi in those days and a Talmudic scholar; and that my karmic ancestor had become really fed up with the fear-based teachings of Judaism, took a hike and went out into the countryside, near Mt. Carmel, and built things for people. Aaron did not disclose the name of this karmic ancestor. Aaron told me I could find out on my own, in my own meditation practices. This all resonates, rings true to me. I believe that I must have been Jewish in a previous life.
Like Gelberman, Bell has created a niche for both teaching and counseling. He teaches “A Course In Miracles,” and said that the text, of the same title, is “a perfect blend of psychology and spirituality.” The book was not so much written as transcribed by one Helen Schucman, a clinical psychologist, who heard a recurrent voice that told her to “take notes.” So she did — for seven years. Until that voice insinuated itself, she prided herself on being exceptionally rational. During those seven years, she feared for her sanity. But the book that she “transcribed” now inspires others.
David Bell is well read in the area of paranormal phenomena. He cites many authors whose books on near-death experiences, prophetic visions, psychic revelations, and visits from the beyond have informed his thinking. He mentioned Raymond Moody, Jr., M.D., whose books include Life After Life, about near death experiences (NDE), and Glimpses of Eternity, which describes the "shared death experience," in which people gathered at the bedside of a dying loved one sometimes describe being lifted out of their bodies and accompanying their loved one part-way into another realm. Moody firmly believes that “it is our mission is to wake up to the divine love that’s there for us.” Moody, who talked with over a thousand people who had NDEs, became convinced that there is a life after death. “As a matter of fact,” he adds, “I must confess to you [that] I have absolutely no doubt, on the basis of what my patients have told me, that they did get a glimpse of the beyond.”
Bell explained that A Course In Miracles teaches that there is no separation: not from each other, nor from God. “We wear earth suits — bodies; but they’re impermanent, an illusion,” said Bell. “Love, souls, are eternal.” And Bell believes that there is no such thing as an “end.”
Bell rejects dogma, but he believes in a recycling of souls; that the soul “knows when its time is up” in a particular body; when its mission is accomplished and it is time to move on. He believes that every human being has responsibility for shaping his or her life. When asked about luck, Bell responded: “I don’t believe in luck.”
He invited me to attend a Sunday service, and I accepted with pleasure. I was advised to come a bit early for the “meet and greet” part of the morning. I wasn’t quite sure what this was, but I soon found out. Designated greeters, who change weekly, welcomed each arrival with hugs and warm smiles. People were embraced both literally and figuratively in this house of worship and learning. Each attendee was invited to take a program for the morning’s service, to look over the assorted announcements and flyers for classes, programs, and activities. There were flyers for upcoming activities and classes in mind-body integration. There were notices of potlucks, meditation workshops, yoga, and the Miracles class. I picked up a pamphlet, entitled: “Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth: founded on the common thread in all spiritual paths.”
The feeling of warmth followed me into the sanctuary, where I saw friendly faces and felt a sense of openness. I thought of a young family whose recent move to their new home was accomplished entirely on the backs and truck-beds of folks in this community, who showed up early on moving day and didn’t quit until the job was done.
The sanctuary is a huge room filled with sunlight. The large, southern window that stretches along one wall is framed by purple drapes. Facing east, cushioned purple chairs are arranged in a wide, shallow U. The carpet is steel-blue tweed. This eastern wall features a large, colorful painting of a lotus flower with purple petals that fan into yellow flames of light. The lotus floats above two symmetrically placed olive branches, whose green leaves match the form of the single blue dewdrop (or teardrop) beneath. The room’s industrial ceiling, painted pale blue, boasts large, exposed pipes, steel rafters, and fluorescent lighting in the style of the Pompidou Center in Paris. This room, however, is on a more modest scale.
The lotus is the Center’s leitmotif. It recurs in other paintings and tapestries on the room’s walls. These decorations are all handcrafted and donated by members. In front of the eastern wall is a small, round table, which serves as a kind of altar, handmaid to the lotus frontispiece behind it. The table is covered by a striped cloth of muted blue and white, and holds a cylindrical candle, a brass, Tibetan bowl that is sounded like a gong, and a blue planter of chrysanthemums. On the wall behind it, on either side of the lotus painting, glass blocks are arranged in a geometric pattern. These glass lenses filter additional light for the room.
As I settled into my seat, music filled the room. Laura Massaro, music director of I.C.S.G., played keyboard. David Bell offered an invocation: “We are expressions of divinity; our mission is to bring that into consciousness.”
Later in the service, another member stepped forward with his guitar and played his own composition. In the songs, invocations, benedictions, and incantations echo the credo of the Interfaith community:
- Honor the universal truths in all spiritual paths.
- Acknowledge the inseparable Oneness of Spirit with Humankind.
- Understand the power of our thoughts in our lives and of co-creation in our communities.
Bell offered reminders that we make our own destiny; that life throws us monkey wrenches, but we define ourselves through our reactions. We make adjustments “by adapting an attitude of openness.” Prayer, he said, is an “alignment with divine energy.” He defined “divine” as “infinite love and blessings; ineffable joy.” Expansively grateful, he noted: “We say thank you thank you thank you.” It is not surprising that “Namaste,” both word and gesture — palms together in front of heart, accompanied by a slight bow — is much in use here. Namaste is Sanskrit for “the Divinity in me salutes the Divinity in you.” It is the salutation used in India and in yoga classes the world over. It is a greeting, a note of respect, and has gained global currency.
Before introducing the guest speaker, Bell announced: “Today we’re trying to be Jewish. We are now in the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.” Bell talked about the concepts of judgment and atonement, concluding that the first is of little use to those interested in living a life of compassion, and the second is testament to our capacities to start fresh, to reinvent ourselves and our lives in the pursuit of meaningful existence in the service of ourselves and others. Then he introduced Reverend Lauren Zinn.
An ordained interfaith minister active in Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Round Table, Zinn’s Jewish heritage informs her life choices and today’s message. Like Bell, Zinn resists the notion of judgment. She talked about the frightening aspects of the high holy days, about the overwhelming nature of the sins we name, for which we beg forgiveness. She quoted from the Hebrew: “Tshuva, tzdaka, t’filah, ma’avirin et roah hag’zeirah,” then translates: “Prayer, deeds of loving kindness, repentance, can change the decree.” Rather than be cowed by the day’s fearful liturgy — “Who will die by fire, who by water, who by sword…” — she exhorted her listeners to: “Use fire (passion); don’t be consumed by it. Use water; don’t be buffeted by it, and don’t float or drown in it. Use the sword, which is: your strength.” She spoke of atonement as a transformational process. It is change, self-improvement. Yom Kippur, she said, is a time to make our own judgments as to how to be better. “It is an act of will. It is a way to let go of the past.”
Zinn enchanted the crowd with stories of how she learns from her students. In citing examples, she demonstrated both learning and humility. These are core values of every religion, and they have been integrated into the Interfaith model.
The attendees conclude the service by forming a circle and singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” followed by the lyrics from a sacred Sufi poem: May the blessings of god rest upon you, / May god's peace abide with you,/ May god's presence illuminate your heart, / Now and forever more.
When the service ended, the group retired to the adjoining social hall for refreshments and socializing. There were round tables and chairs, and members (about fifty that day) sat to catch up. I chatted with Delyth Balmer, one of the associate ministers, who pointed out that “Dave [Bell] is fond of saying that at the Center, there are opportunities, but no obligations.” I also spoke to Kellie Love, a freckled, blue-eyed, Irish redhead, and co-director of youth education at the Center. She works with children during the service and gets to hobnob with adults afterward. I watched people chat and felt a sense of community.
Later, David Bell and I talked in his stark but cozy office on the second floor, which we reached by climbing a long, open staircase in the back of the sanctuary. “I have an eclectic belief system,” he said, “and I don’t insist that anybody agree with me. People can be who they are, believe what they believe.” Bell talked about addicts who try “to fill a void with something tangible. The void is a hole in your soul. The answer is filling it with love and forgiveness.” He has visited people in prisons, tried “to be something to hang on to — a life preserver, if you will.” He has supported people “in getting their life together, clean, sober, getting out of legal scrapes. At least one person considers me a surrogate dad.” He leaned forward and said: “There’s nothing to compare to the heartwarming thanks you get; to hearing people tell you: ‘I feel so much better.’”
David Bell left his law practice in 1996. He finds immeasurable rewards in his current life. He and his wife plan to retire within the next few years and spend more of their time in Florida.
The Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth is located at 704 Airport Boulevard, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48108. Sunday services are held from 10:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m. A full calendar of events and further information can be found at www.interfaithspirit.org.