Where are they? What drives them? What difference do they make?
Does faith make a difference in a person’s life? Many polls reveal that the lifestyles of Americans who call themselves Christians do not differ significantly from non-Christians when it comes to either virtues or vices. Neither comfortable nor satisfied with those findings, pollster George H. Gallup, Jr., and CHRISTIANITY TODAY associate editor Timothy Jones, in their book The Saints Among Us (Morehouse), set out to leant what differences in lifestyle could be found among those who hold deep religious commitments. Their findings show that for these people, Christian faith is indeed “life changing.”
In a survey of over a thousand Americans, they found that 13 percent of the respondents could be described as “deeply religious,” based on their responses to 12 statements describing spiritual commitment and attitudes toward prayer, doctrine, and evangelism. For the purpose of their book, they called these people “saints,” because these people were more likely to be involved in works of charity, were not racially prejudiced, and were more giving and forgiving of people than most Americans—in other words, they made up “the backbone of our communities and churches.” Selecting a sample of these saints, the authors visited and interviewed people from across the nation. In this excerpt, Gallup and Jones provide a basic profile of these saints among us.
No single group of American Christians can claim a monopoly on saintliness—not Protestants or Catholics, not high achievers or disadvantaged, not men or women. People experience life-changing encounters with God irrespective of most social and theological categories.
While the religiously committed are more likely to be 50 or older (the passing years do seem to bring spiritual maturity), the category also spans a wide range of adult ages, including “baby busters” and “boomers” (contrary to the stereotype of these groups as excessively me-centered).
The tapestry of the lives of saints has other variegated threads. Although those who earn less than $25,000 a year are more likely to be religiously committed, saints are found among the rich and poor alike. They are doctors, factory workers, homemakers, and unemployed. Their church traditions are as varied as rural Pentecostal and mainline Protestant. A larger proportion may be found in the South, but their number is scattered across every region of the country. You are more likely to find saints among nonwhite groups, though no single ethnic group has a monopoly.
For all the variety, the saints share several traits that set them apart. Margie Dennie is in many ways representative of the saints we discovered. A 29-year-old black woman living in a working-class community just outside Chicago, she is back in college, after a hiatus of several years, to gain her teacher’s certification. Meanwhile, her husband serves as an associate pastor at a nearby Baptist church.
Says a long-time acquaintance, “Margie believes in making the world a better place. She and her husband both have college degrees and could have chosen lucrative careers. But she’s planning on being a schoolteacher, and her husband is a pastor—not high-paying professions, but ones in which they can serve people.”
Her friends are struck by her steady contentment, all the more remarkable in light of some of the hardships of her earlier life. “She wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in her mouth,” notes her friend.
Margie, like the other saints we talked with, has found God to be a vital part of her daily life. A friend notes, “When I’ve heard her pray, I think she ‘touches’ God. She calls him Father, and it sounds like she really means it.” Her keen awareness of spiritual realities can be traced back to a trying early childhood spent in Clarksville, Mississippi.
“I didn’t grow up in a traditional home with a loving father,” she remembers. “My parents weren’t married, my father was not around, and much of my early childhood I lived with my grandparents. I turned to God for the comfort that would otherwise be given by parents. That’s when I began to feel God’s presence and love in my life. I would talk to him and would hear a little voice inside telling me I was special.
“As I got older, I grew away from that dependence on God. I began to form other relationships.” Most important in this process was rejoining her mother at age eight in Chicago. “I didn’t depend on the Lord quite so much for comfort. But I still had a little voice inside telling me I’m special. I began to call God my Father.”
When it came to her natural father, however, Margie began to experience a longing to meet him, a desire that was to have great spiritual ramifications. She prayed that God would help her find him, and she soon found her father’s address. The letter she wrote found its way to him in a remarkable way that she credits to prayer.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but my father no longer lived in the house where I had sent the letter; in fact, it was vacant.” When a relative was preparing the house for selling, Margie relates, “a voice told him to open the mailbox,” and there, after months of neglect, lay Margie’s letter, which was passed on immediately to her father.
“Not knowing my father had been a big void in my life. Many times I would cry out, ‘God, I just want to know my daddy!’ … When I finally found him, from that point on I said, God, you know me in ways nobody else could. You are the only one who could know how important this was to me.”
For the saints we talked with, God is not just an article of belief, but a living reality. Past Gallup research reveals prayer is “an important part” of the daily lives of 76 percent of Americans. The saints, however, manifest a measurably different understanding of the role of the spiritual life. They repeatedly made mention of a moment of religious insight or awakening as central to their understanding of life and service. When we asked in mail interviews to several dozen of the highly committed, “Have you ever had a religious experience—that is, a particularly powerful religious insight or awakening?” the vast majority of those who responded said yes.
This confirms what other polls have shown us: The strongest believers are those who believe that God has intervened in their lives, who are convinced that God can be known and can act.
The saints not only experience God in a deep way, but they also respond with exceptional commitment. In a day when people tend to shy away from strong religious loyalty, the saints cut a different profile.
Margie Dennie again exemplifies what we mean. At age 16, after finally finding her father, she recalls, “I gave my life totally over to God. He had revealed himself to me in such a clear way. He had been there in the midst of all my wishes, hurts, sorrows—and understood. From that point I said, if you can be there in that way for me, Lord, I just want to be your servant and do what you want me to do.”
Her commitment held, even when in high school friends began to “get interested in drugs and parties.” Studying the Bible and being around Christians convinced her that her non-Christian friends’ lifestyle “was not pleasing to the Lord. I had to make a lot of difficult choices. But commitment to him was more important than any friendship.”
This coming to a place of reckoning, of making faith the overriding priority in life, takes place in a variety of ways. Our research explodes the idea that people commit themselves to God in only one pattern. There is no “morphology of conversion,” no rigid pattern for coming to a resounding choice to follow Christ. When asked how they became deeply religious, some saints we met pointed to decisive “crisis” conversions. Others recalled a nurture at home and church so pervasive, or a spiritual hunger so gnawing and continuous, that commitment came gradually and steadily as they grew older.
Journey Inward, Journey Outward
The saints among us, we found, are not only exceptional in their spirituality and commitment, they are noteworthy in their compassion. The outcome of their “journey inward” toward spiritual reality is often a “journey outward” into the world of need about them. They share more of themselves with others than do less-committed Americans.
The benefit to society of the saints among us must be enormous. Seventy-three percent claim to spend a good deal of time helping people in need; whereas, with the strongly uncommitted, the percentage drops to 42. Whether it is a woman taking her elderly friend to the dentist, or a man who sends letters to the editor of his local newspaper to share his moral convictions about social issues, saints tend to express their faith in tangible ways.
They told of specific people they had helped, many in the last 24 hours. One gave baby items to a young Korean mother new to the United States. Others helped victims of cancer, went out of their way to visit and pray with the hospitalized, volunteered often in church programs, and gave money to charitable causes.
One saint we interviewed described how he had become more compassionate and committed to others over the past three or four years. “I’ve tried to get more involved at my church, teaching Sunday school, for example. And I joined the Lions Club, because I’m trying to get involved through a civic organization to help people less fortunate than I am.” We were struck, however, that much of the work was done on an individual basis. Other than church involvement, few mentioned working with structured programs such as soup kitchens or homeless shelters. We suspect that the saints among us tend to respond to need when it crosses their paths. They, may not be as active in more organized forms of helping, but when they are, much of their work seems to take place through local churches.
It is significant to note here the finding of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who concludes in his book Acts of Compassion that church plays a much larger role in keeping faith from stagnating into individualist pietism than previously thought. Wuthnow found that “the more often a person claims to experience divine love, the more likely that person is to spend time on charitable activities.” Yet this did not hold true for everyone. For those who do not attend church (or do so only infrequently), the likelihood of their involvement in charitable acts is unaffected by how much or how little they feel God’s love. “This effect is limited to individuals who attend church regularly.”
The Catholic monk and activist Thomas Merton wrote that the great saints of history were not only deeply touched by God, they also had a “miraculous power, a smooth and tireless energy” that helped them change others around them and even “the course of religious and even secular history.” Some of the great mystics and spiritual giants of the church through the ages were reformers and indefatigable workers. They established hospitals and orphanages that made the contributions of more “earthly minded” friends pale in comparison. The saints have much to show us about how genuine spirituality leads to service.
A fourth and especially striking finding about the saints among us concerns their lack of racial prejudice. Eighty-four percent would not object to a person of another race moving in next door. While this may not be a “perfect score,” it beats by more than 20 points those shown by the survey to be spiritually uncommitted.
For Margie Dennie, this has meant a profound movement through scars from early prejudice to an attitude of love and acceptance for people of all skin colors. She tells of growing up black in the deep South in the wake of segregation. In the late sixties, when she was in third grade, that meant leaving her all-black grammar school to be integrated into a previously all-white school on the far side of town.
“I remember having to walk a long distance [no busing was provided] through white neighborhoods. People would come to the gates at the edges of their yards with their dogs and tell the animals, ‘Git her!’ The dogs would be restrained by the fences, but as an eight-year-old, I was terrified. Others would cry out derogatory names. I would run and a lot of mornings would cry.” Once, while she was waiting for her ride home after school, a car full of white teenagers pulled up and called her “nigger” and shouted, “You’ve got soul in the bottom of your shoes.”
She soon moved to Chicago to rejoin her mother. While attending high school there, the racial issue came to a head: “I was the only black on my school bus. It brought back all the old memories. I don’t know if it was hatred, or hurt, but I would actually get sick on the bus.” She began to pray in desperation, “Lord, I don’t want to feel like this. I don’t want to hate.”
“I don’t remember the specifics,” she relates, “but I remember one day riding the bus and realizing that I wasn’t getting sick anymore. And I knew God was helping me not to hate. He also gave me a friend who was Japanese. I began to see the different cultures, and to realize that not all people were responsible for what happened to me as a child. Then, in college, my roommate turned out to be a white woman who was also a Christian. God revealed to me how love can overcome all the differences. As I studied the Bible, I realized anew how, as Paul says, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’ [Gal. 3:28].” Says a friend, “You’d expect a person who’s been through what she’s been through to be bitter, but she’s not.” The statistics from our survey indicate that spiritual commitment leads to a similar openness among white respondents.
We can all think of notable exceptions to such a picture, of course, of instances where zealous religiosity is linked to bigotry; of certain segments of fundamentalism that use Scripture to justify segregation; of people who have not yet realized the implications of their following Jesus, who was a friend of tax collectors and social outcasts, whatever the race. And it must be admitted that religious faith at times has seemed to fuel prejudice and intolerance.
Yet it is striking how deep faith can change people’s attitudes. Many of our saints, when asked about their unprejudiced attitudes, spoke of God’s fatherhood, of the Bible’s emphasis on love for neighbor, of how faith lifted them above narrowness to see the presence of God in others.
The Happiness Factor
We found that saints are slightly more likely to lead fulfilled lives. Ninety-three percent of the saints said they were “very happy,” compared to 86 percent of the rest of the population.
This happiness is apparently not a transient experience, but rather an abiding one. In Margie Dennie’s case, as with many of the saints, its solidity was tested by difficulty and gritty circumstance. For all Margie’s painful experiences, she spoke of God’s intimate care sustaining her. During the peer-pressure temptations of high school, she remembers concluding, “God gave me a keeping power during that time. He gives you confidence … where you wouldn’t want to harm your body with drugs or premarital sex.” One saint with multiple sclerosis said simply, “If I didn’t have God, I’d be down in the dumps, not able to smile or laugh.”
Another saint describes the joy that met her upon her baptism as an adult. “I felt forgiven. Suddenly the sky looked brighter, the clouds whiter.” When asked to describe the “rewards” of spiritual commitment, respondent after respondent mentioned words like peace, assurance, and joy.
This is all the more striking given the stereotypical belief that religion dampens joy or that religious faith is stifling and oppressive. “Joy is the echo of God’s life within us,” writer Joseph Marmion once said. Spiritually committed Americans uncovered by our survey would testify to that.
The Last Who Are First
Finally, the saints are found in places that challenge society’s conventional wisdom about who wields influence. They give the lie to the assumption that only the well-placed and powerful can make a difference. For example, women yield a disproportionate percentage of saints; 15 percent of women are saints, as opposed to 11 percent of men. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be saints. Saints are slightly more likely to be found in the South or earn under $25,000 each year. The saints are almost twice as likely to be found among those who did not graduate from high school as among those with college degrees.
The faith of the saints confirms Jesus’ words that in the transformed values of the kingdom, those the present world considers last are instead in some sense first. Many come from what society considers the least recognized and least powerful group: the nonwhite, female, uneducated poor. While most people point to the powerful and wealthy as the movers and shakers of the world, the saints may matter far more. They are making a contribution to society too little recognized, too quickly overlooked.
While they do not often stride down our government’s corridors of power, the influence of these spiritually committed Americans, because of its dailyness, is consistent and pervasive. Many lack formal theological training, but they have fashioned a workable faith that works in the push and pull of the businesses, factories, and neighborhoods they inhabit. They also stand close enough to need daily to be humble, not proud. They resonate with the apostle Paul’s admonishment in 1 Corinthians: “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.… He chose the lowly things of this world … so that no one may boast before him” (1:26–29, NIV).
C. S. Lewis wrote of what he called the “new men,” the people transformed by faith, who are much like the saints we describe: “Every now and then one meets them. Their voices and faces are different from ours, stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant.… They are … recognisable; but you must know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but need you less.… When you have recognised one of them, you will recognise the next one much more easily.”
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