Photo Essay: Finding Faith

RELIGION IN America has transformed dramatically in the past 50 years, and even in the last five, almost 30 percent of congregations reported a decline in worship attendance of at least a quarter, according to a Faith Communities Today survey billed as the largest ever conducted on the topic in the United States.

But according to Charlie Wiles, director of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation in Indianapolis, there are nine distinct faith traditions represented on the organization’s board of directors alone, confirming that the strong sense of tradition and belonging found in most of the religious communities is alive and well here. “Many of our faith traditions share historical roots that have evolved over time,” he says. “So a sacred story that began thousands of years ago in a different part of the world has a geographic ‘home’ for a group of worshipers in central Indiana.” In addition, Wiles notes the relationship to something bigger than our individual and material interests that religion can offer, providing instruction on how to order our lives as a member of a community and a confluence with the eternal.

Intrigued by the many ways and whys to worship here, Indianapolis photographer Tony Valainis set out to document the city’s spiritual side and found a diverse religious scene not only present but thriving in Indianapolis. The following images reveal visceral depictions and intimacies that cannot be conveyed through surveys and data sets.

Missionaries of Charity
Founded in 2000 | 2424 E. 10th St.

Dressed head-to-toe in white, with the distinct blue stripes known to Mother Teresa, the nuns from the Missionaries of Charity often walk the streets of their near-eastside neighborhood praying the rosary, preaching only by their presence, and offering overnight refuge to homeless women and children when needed. The superior of the order, Sister Janita (left), knew Mother Teresa personally, ministering with her around the world, and says she seeks to emulate the saint by seeing Jesus in everyone.

Hindu Temple of Central Indiana
Founded in 2006 | 3350 N. German Church Rd.

Every June, members of the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana celebrate the
anniversary of the consecration of their temple, called the kumbhabhishekam. Originally opened in 2006, the temple was expanded according to the Ancient Science of Indian Architecture, Sthapatya Vidya, in 2015, when it was consecrated. The yearly anniversary of this rite serves as an important and festive occasion for the Hindu families living in Indianapolis and beyond.

New Haven Missionary Baptist Church
Founded in 1956 | 3418 N. Schofield Ave.

“You might as well clap your hands,” calls Bishop Charles H. McClain, Jr., singing and dancing as he begins a Sunday service, afterwards wiping sweat from his brow and calling to the congregation, “This church is on fire!” Interactive sermons with physical and charismatic worship are expected from the scarlet pews in the Meadows neighborhood northeast of downtown.

Christ Church Cathedral
Founded in 1837 | 125 Monument Circle

Peter Perri has been on Monument Circle since dawn, hoisting buckets of fresh strawberries soon to cover homemade shortcakes for the crowd already gathering ahead of the annual Strawberry Festival, hosted by the Cathedral Women of Christ Church Cathedral. “Helping at the Strawberry Fest is like coming together with your family when they need an extra set of hands,” says Perri, a member of the Episcopalian congregation that has been serving the city from its home on the Circle for nearly two centuries. 

Gurdwara Shri Guru HarGobind Sahib Ji
Founded in 2013 | 1050 S. Graham Rd., Greenwood

The growing ethno-religious Sikh community has swelled to a population of more than 5,000 in central Indiana, with many residing on the city’s south side. Although they have suffered xenophobic violence here in Indianapolis, the gurdwara is a welcoming place for worship and community events. In Punjabi, gurdwara translates to “doorway to the guru,” and inside, an elaborate canopy covers a cot containing the sacred scripture of Sikhism,
Adi Granth.

Saint Athanasius the Great Byzantine Catholic Church
Founded in 1980 | 1117 Blaine Ave.

Golden halos veritably glow around the painted icons as the priest and a small congregation sing a cappella through the Divine Liturgy at Saint Athanasius. “The poetic theology of our Byzantine liturgy leads us to contemplate, sing, and celebrate our faith with an approach of peace and beauty,” writes Bishop Milan Lach in a recent parish newsletter. Though recognized by Rome, Byzantine Catholics descend from the traditions of Greece, maintaining marked differences which include receiving holy communion with a golden spoon and making the sign of the Cross from right to left. 

Islamic Society of North America
Founded in 1982 | 6555 S. County Rd. 750 E., Plainfield

This is not the first, or last, time he will pray today. According to Islamic law, all Muslims who have reached puberty are required to perform prayer five times a day at specific times. “Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam,” explains Haroon Imtiaz, the Society’s director of communication. “Muslims view it as an act of submission to God and a way to humble themselves before Him.”

Verses of the Quran are recited in these daily prayers. “For Muslims, the Quran is the literal word of God, the ultimate source of guidance for humanity, and the principal source of Islamic law,” says Imtiaz.  It consists of 114 chapters that were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a span of 23 years.

Unity of Indianapolis
Founded in 1914 | 907 N. Delaware St.

On Independence Day, Karen Cheek sang “Firework” by Katy Perry six times from the stage at Unity of Indianapolis. A member of the worship team there for more than 10 years, Cheek now seeks out the worldwide Unity community as a full-time RVer. Her faith is different from traditional Christian worship. Cheek describes the inclusive, new-thought church as a practical application of biblical teachings. “I think the most important difference is how much responsibility you have as an individual for the life that you live,” she says.

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Founded in 1986 | 3500 W. 106th St., Carmel

According to Father Gregory Hohnholt, Icons are more than religious art—they are an encounter with heaven. Here, a parishioner lights a candle as he enters the sacred space, Icons gleaming from every angle. “As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the ‘Light of the world, that has come into the world,’” Hohnholt says. “When we light a candle, we pray for our loved ones, both those living and those who have passed on. We also pray for ourselves and are reminded to be the light that Christ calls us to be.”

As the day turns to dusk, the Holy Trinity Hellenic Dance Troupe promenades through the festivities during the annual Greek Fest. The group, ranging from elementary-school children to adults, breathes a new energy into old traditions. The dance is not a part of the worship ceremony, but, according to Father Hohnholt of Holy Trinity, a cultural expression of fellowship and celebration for important events in the life of the community.

Northview Church
Founded in 1980 | 12900 Hazel Dell Pkwy., Carmel

What started as a single non-denominational Christian community that met in a school cafeteria in Carmel 43 years ago has grown into one of Indiana’s largest mega-churches, hosting more than 10,000 congregants across 13 campuses each week. The Northview Carmel auditorium seats more than 2,000 and features state-of-the-art AV systems for its contemporary, tech-driven services. It might sound like a lot of people, and it is, but the motto at Northview is, “Every number has a name. Every name has a story. Every story matters to God.”

Congregation Beth-El Zedeck
Founded in 1927 | 600 W. 70th St.

The first rabbinical couple in world Jewish history, Senior Rabbi Dennis Sasso and Rabbi Emerita Sandy Sasso see themselves as teachers, pastors, preachers, and counselors who are called to model a supportive relationship and to build a partnership enriched by the beauty of tradition and responsive to the needs of the present. Together, they minister to 700 households within the northside Hebrew community at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church
Founded in 1875 | 1530 Union St.

A bride is escorted down the long aisle of Sacred Heart’s ornate sanctuary for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Catholic weddings are often held during Mass, where the couple publicly commits themselves to one another in a covenant under God. Some southside families with roots at this Franciscan parish have seen five and six generations married here.

Native American Pow Wow
Founded in 1982 | Boone County Fairgrounds, Lebanon

Native Tsa-la-gi (Cherokee) dancer Laura Zak swings her Fancy Shawl regalia to the beat of the drums inside the blessed dancing circle at the 40th Annual Traditional Pow Wow. “When we’re dancing, we’re dancing in celebration of the past and in celebration of the future,” says Sally Tuttle, a member of the Choctaw Nation and longtime advocate for the 101 different tribes represented throughout Indiana. “Pow Wows are a way for us to gather to remember our ancestors and pass on our traditions.”

An Lac Temple
Founded in 1986 | 5249 E. 30th St.

The Venerable Thien Huong “invites” a bowl-shaped bell three times to welcome visitors to the Buddha Hall and remind them to pay respect to the Buddha. “The first sound of the bell is to settle our body. It means that there is no more movement,” says Huong, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun. “The second sound is to settle our speech. It means that there is no more talking. The third sound is to settle our mind. It means that there is no more wandering thought—we are here and now.”