(Photo by: Brooke Marsh)
Richmond may sit just inside the Bible Belt, but it’s not immune to the national trend of an increase in those who are unaffiliated with religion — including Christianity.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, Christians in Virginia make up about 73 percent of the population; non-Christians, including Jews and Muslims, make up about 6 percent; the unaffiliated, including atheists and agnostics, make up 20 percent.
But according to the study, Christians nationally have declined by 7.8 percent since 2007, to 70.6 percent of the population. The decline has occurred primarily among mainline Protestants and Catholics, while non-Christians have increased 1.2 percent, and the unaffiliated have increased nearly 7 percent. Marc Becton, senior pastor of Grove Church — a Southern Baptist church known for its Sunday morning live broadcast of “The Victory Hour” — says those trends hold for his congregation.
“We wouldn’t allow them to ask the hard questions,” Becton says of people who have left the church, referencing David Kinnaman’s book, “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.” Kinnaman found that nearly 60 percent of young adults who grew up in a Christian church are not connected anymore.
To address that, Grove Church encourages young parents to find community within small groups, allowing them to bond and have deep conversations about their faith.
“This is where you have those honest, transparent conversations about where you’re struggling,” Becton says. “If they can be honest and real with each other, they can be honest and real with their children.”
In Richmond’s Jewish community, Rabbi Jesse Gallop, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Ahabah, sees similar declines in participation among young adults. Gallop, who founded the J-Town Richmond group to create a stronger community of Jews in their 20s and 30s, attributes that decline to a cultural shift.
“What we see here in Richmond is that the younger Jews have a strong Jewish identity, but feel less need for affiliation with an institution,” Gallop says. “Judaism is about a culture and a people as much as it is about a traditional religion … and there’s a social value to finding other Jews since it’s a minority.”
Even with Christians representing the vast majority of the population, Gallop says the area has always been welcoming, if sometimes a bit unaware. For example, he is often invited to speak to groups about Hanukkah, “one of our least important holidays,” yet there is often a struggle to get local governments and schools to recognize Jewish High Holy Days.
“There’s a definite religious social context in Richmond, but it’s not a narrow-minded social context,” he says. “There’s a lack of awareness, but not a bigotedness.”
Bryan Tunnell, president of the Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association — a community for people such as atheists and humanists who do not believe in the supernatural — shares Gallop’s sentiment about Richmond’s inclusivity. President of the group on and off since 2004, Tunnell says he personally has had a positive experience, and has seen interest and participation in their group grow in that time.
But because there’s a “general notion of an angry atheist,” he says the area’s hospitality about matters of faith can depend upon the crowd in which you find yourself.
“We do borrow the phrase ‘coming out’ about atheism,” he says. “People have really mixed experiences, and people make different choices about who to be open with.”
Yet despite how disparate the area’s religious — or decidedly not religious — organizations can be, many are working to build a community of cooperation. Beth Ahabah has a close relationship with Franklin Street neighbor St. James’s Episcopal Church; Grove Church
partners with Hope for Israel, an organization of Jews and Christians; and Tunnell says the Unitarian Universalist Church is especially welcoming to atheists and naturalists.
That sense of community and shared respect among faith groups is the goal of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond. Yet the council’s president, Sabrina Dent, acknowledges there is still work to be done — as evidenced by the council’s joint statement with the Richmond Peace Education Center in late 2015 expressing support for members of the Muslim community and rejecting the conflation of Islam with terrorism.
“We’re not there yet in the city of Richmond,” Dent says. “Our goal is to continue to move forward. If we don’t lend our voice to the issues that are important and relevant, then we fail to do the work of interfaith cooperation and promoting religious acceptance."