Faith; The religious take their message to the masses with the Internet's help

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Susan Zakar first had questions about her faith six years ago, she consulted her rabbi at a synagogue in Bowie. But the visit didn't cure her nagging sense of spiritual emptiness. Then she turned to the Internet.

The Jewish cyber-community she discovered changed her life. Today she lives with her husband and two children in an Orthodox neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore and regularly attends services at a Lubavitch synagogue in the Greenspring area.

On another coast, in the wine country of Sonoma County, Calif., Maureen Sheridan Scott also leads what she regards as a full spiritual life. She attends weekly Mass at her local Roman Catholic church, recites the rosary, and belongs to a Wednesday-night prayer group. And when she checks her e-mail on a typical day, more than a half-dozen prayer petitions await her.

For Zakar, Scott and millions of others, cyberspace is the new spiritual frontier. Churches, synagogues and mosques post e-mail addresses in their bulletins and set up their own Web sites. Prayers circle the globe on e-mail lists. The Bible, the Koran and other major religious tracts are accessible with a few keystrokes, along with many scholarly religious works.

"There is no getting away from the Internet," said Kenneth Bedell, a Methodist minister who recently completed a 10-month study of religion in cyberspace during a fellowship at St. Louis University.

In an online survey Bedell conducted, three out of four respondents said the Internet played some role in their spiritual lives. Another survey conducted last year by the California-based Barna Research Group found that 25 million adults use the Internet for some type of religious expression every month.

They can send an e-mail prayer to Jerusalem and have it posted on the Western Wall, listen to a Koranic recitation on Radio Al-Islam from IslamiCity (a virtual Islamic community), or search through the latest Papal encyclicals, courtesy of a Vatican Web site that runs on three computers named after the angels Gabriel,

Raphael and Michael.

A recent search of the Yahoo! index returned 26,206 religion-oriented Web sites -- including more than 100 churches, synagogues and other organizations in the Baltimore area. Some Web search engines return more Web pages containing the words "God" or "church" than the word "sex" (the perennial Web favorite).

Religious use of the Web is likely to expand with general Internet usage, which is still surging. The Commerce Net/Nielsen Internet Demographic Survey in California estimates that the Internet population will rise to 132.75 million next year, up by more than 11 percent.

For Zakar, 47, the Internet was a link to a virtual Jewish community that helped when she had questions about her faith that no one else could answer.

"If you have one question you want to ask, often you're kind of stuck asking somebody who's on this side or that side," Zakar said over a bowl of minestrone at the Kosher Bite deli on Reisterstown Road. "You can't just go out and stand on the roof and say, 'I have a question.' [But] when you put a question on the Internet, that's exactly what you're doing."

Zakar went online six years ago, feeling troubled by experiences at her father-in-law's Orthodox synagogue in Queens, N.Y., where women were required to sit in the balcony. She resented what she perceived as second-class treatment and posted an electronic note questioning Orthodoxy's views on women.

The replies she received prompted a journey of faith that led to an Orthodox conversion and a move 45 miles north to Baltimore, where she and her husband operate a Web design consulting firm from their home.

"I learned the reasons behind a lot of what seemed to be restrictions," she said, eventually accepting the Orthodox view that men and women were considered equal but had different spiritual roles.

She has written a book about her experience, "Judaism Online: Confronting Spirituality on the Internet," and has posted her story on her Web page. In her spare time, she also serves as Webmaster for Jews for Judaism and Havienu L'Shalom, a virtual congregation.

For Scott, a 56-year-old insurance adjuster, the Internet is a channel to prayer. A 2-by-3-inch picture of the Virgin Mary is perched on top of the computer screen in the family room of her two-story condominium in Rohnert Park, Calif. There she subscribes to e-mail lists and browses Web sites such as CatholiCity, which allows her to send and receive prayer requests electronically.

Sometimes she replies with an e-mail if a particular prayer request moves her, or she may just say a quick prayer at the keyboard.

"When I share prayers with others online written by others or myself, it is not an exercise but a petition to have others join me in my response to God," said Scott, who is also pursuing a master's degree in theology through courses taught over the Internet. "Prayers shared on the Internet spread this response to God."

The Internet is hardly the first technology embraced by the faithful. From Johann Gutenberg's printing press to the broadcasts of modern televangelists, innovations in communications have been embraced by the religious. But the Internet's combination of immediacy and availability is something new.

Over the summer, for example, Muslim professionals gathered at a West Coast conference on technology and Islam to discuss entrepreneurial opportunities on the Web and how to use technology to spread their faith.

For Salman Azhar, one of the conference organizers, technology can enhance ancient rituals. Following the basic tenets of Islam, Azhar prays five times a day; as a reminder, a computer in his home office and another in his master bedroom sound a two-minute Muslim call to prayer five times a day.

Online services and other Web gathering places have embraced religion, too. With almost a million hits a week, the Microsoft Network's religion community is the most popular destination among its virtual communities -- which include groups dedicated to subjects as diverse as professional sports, pets and personal finance.

Microsoft hired Lynne Bundesen, one of the Web's top designers and author of several religious books, to oversee the site's religion offerings. Bundesen characterizes online spiritual communities as much more accessible and chatty than many churches, but still considers them a congregation and argues that they even offer a touch of ritual.

"You can turn it on 24 hours a day, day or night. It's like having your own little church there," she said. "The ritual is technology, the ritual is signing on and if you have a modem, hearing that modem connect."

For religious leaders seeking ways to invigorate their churches or temples, the Internet helps keep lines of communication open 24 hours a day and offers new ways to reach worshipers.

Consider St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air, which offers worshipers the chance to hear recent sermons audio-streamed over the Web.

"There's a lot of people seeking Christianity; that's what the Web site is for," said June Walter, the church's director of outreach.

Sue Rogers of Forest Hill, a 10-year member of the congregation, says the site gives her family a chance to catch up after vacations and other absences: "If we don't make service, we can go back two or three weeks later to access it."

One of the Web's largest Jewish education services, Project Genesis, got its start in New York as an outreach program for college students before moving its operation to Baltimore several years ago. Today it offers virtual classes taught by rabbis and Jewish scholars via e-mail to more than 30,000 subscribers around the world. Lessons are based on the week's Torah reading and subjects include Jewish law, philosophy and ethics.

"It allows us to reach directly to people who live very far away from any synagogue," said Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the project's director.

Despite the Web's surging popularity, even its most enthusiastic promoters don't believe that virtual worship will replace the real thing.

"The nature of church assumes a community, and I don't know what kind of a community you get in a chat room when you don't know the people," said the Rev. Fred Anderson, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, which maintains an active Web site.

During his study of religion online, Bedell said he found no evidence that the Internet was being used to form new religious communities or fundamentally change the way they worship. "I wasn't able to find a single online community that had a substantial congregation."

Charles Henderson, pastor of the First Church of Cyberspace,, disagrees. He says the cyberspace church is indeed a congregation that gets thousands of visitors a day. He argues that the Bible itself was really the first "hypertext" document, designed cross-referenced, jumping from section to section, just like a Web site.

Henderson said that when he started his religious forum, which calls itself the first virtual congregation, "I saw it as a way to communicate with a much wider audience, creating a constituency that was beyond the bounds of the traditional church."

Religion sites

Here's a brief list of religious communities on the Web, including those mentioned in this article.

Aish HaTorah's Window on the Wall (www.thewall.org)

A.M.E. Christian Education (www.ameced.com)

Archdiocese of Baltimore (www.archbalt.org)

Baptist.org (www.baptist.org)

Religious Society of Friends (www.igc.org/quaker/)

BuddhaNet (www.buddhanet.net/)

Catholic Information Center (www.catholic.net)

CatholiCity (www.catholicity.com)

Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace (www.chabad.org)

Episcopal Church Home Page (http://ecusa.anglican.org)

First Church of Cyberspace (www.godweb.org)

Gospel.com (http://gospel.com)

Havienu L'Shalom (www.havienu.org)

IslamiCity in Cyberspace (www.islam.org)

LDS (Mormon Church) Web Site (www.lds.org)

Lutheran Web Links (www.lutheran.org)

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (www.mapc.com)

Monastery of Christ in the Desert (www.christdesert.org/)

Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (www.pcusa.org)

Project Genesis (www.torah.org)

St. Matthew Lutheran Church (www.smlc.org)

United Synagugue of Conservative Judaism (www.uscj.org)

Vatican Web site (www.vatican.va)

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