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Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited

Rick Nahmias | California, United States

The Circle, Women of Wisdom
“The spirit is powerfully present to us when we gather. Everyone feels the connections, inspiration. There is no preparation, only presence. There is no homework, only inspiration. There is no black-brown-white, just people. There is no preferential seating in this group to insiders or outsiders, just women. No Catholic-Protestant-Muslim-Jewish-Native American, just women of faith drawing on our common wellspring as women,” says one of the group’s leaders. Every month, this formal gathering of female inmates and women from outside welcomes participants, no matter the faith, into what they call their “alternative circle of grace.”

While depictions of conventional middle-class religion are widely visible, rarely seen are the sacred worlds of society’s marginalized: the outcasts, the fallen, those that have been labeled “other” - ironically, those for whom religion was first formed. “Golden States of Grace” aims to give image and voice to some of those whom are active parts of our nation’s diverse religious landscape, but who because of the world, society, or their own actions, may have been silenced, and now worship as a means of finding refuge, family or of forging community.

Using California as the lens, “Golden States of Grace” documents eleven marginalized communities at prayer in eight different faith traditions. Through photographs, oral histories, and actual prayer, this work represents groups who are reinventing time-honored modes of worship, pushing their respective traditions into the 21st century. Participating communities include:

✤ The world’s first transgender gospel choir

✤ A Jewish congregation of recovering addicts

✤ A Muslim community of survivors of the cambodian genocide

✤ Inmates inside San Quentin prison practicing Zen Buddhism

I am of the firm belief that every one of us carries something within that is marginalized: some piece of personal history or trait that has been, or that we wish would be, left behind or cast off—the emotional scars or shame left by an abusive mother, the malformed foot, a poor immigrant heritage…

This belief combined with Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious has led me to conclude that those whom who society considers or relegates to has cast off as “them” are, in reality, “us.” It has also inspired the creation of “Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited.”

Even after working on this project for a cumulative seven years, I can’t deny the deep ambivalence I have towards organized religion, but I have found a way to look deeper into it and the questions it brings up, and to let it fuel me creatively.  Even with the prevalence of mainline religious institutions and middle-class America continuing to exclude and even vilify those they view as beyond the pale – the addicts, the ill, the fallen, those – there are still reasons to be hopeful that we, as a society, can see beyond our religious tunnel vision.

If I have one singular hope for this body of work, it is that our collective eyes remain open long enough to simply acknowledge every human being’s need and right to come to some profound understanding about his or her own connection to a higher power. Be it in a prison cell or in the darkened corner of a small suburban chapel, in the end, “Golden States of Grace” is a study of otherness—the otherness out there, the otherness within each of us, the otherness that begs us to bind together as human beings to celebrate, contemplate, and find meaning in our lives.

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