Spirituality Seekers

In the middle of the night, David Giffey woke, grabbing for his rifle next to him in bed — but it’s not there. Just like it wasn’t there the last time he had this dream or the time before that or the time before that. After serving two years in Vietnam, Giffey was finally able to return home. While he left immediate danger on the other side of the world, his fears followed him back to Wisconsin.

Giffey grew up in Fond Du Lac County on a small dairy farm. As a young adult, Giffey worked for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign before he could even vote, spent a few years at UW-Oshkosh, then dropped out when he scored a job working as the wire editor for a local paper. At 20, Giffey considered himself well-informed for his young age. What wasn’t on Giffey’s radar was the Vietnam War draft — at least not until 1963. He was drafted, and one year later, found himself on a ship to Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division.

As a combat photojournalist for the war, Giffey was not only a soldier for the U.S. Army, but documented the war through photographs and stories, too. Because of guerilla warfare tactics, everybody felt endangered at all times, according to Giffey.

“I was terrified in Vietnam,” Giffey says. “It was the most frightening experience … That’s what I remembered — the fear.”

After the war, Giffey explored ways to heal emotionally and mentally from his experiences in Vietnam. He began to explore activism, artistry and, finally, religious communities as well. For Giffey, beginning a spiritual journey fulfilled a need in his life that helped him reconcile with his memories from the war. Now, 76 years old and a member of the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison, he views his life as a journey that has helped him come to terms with what he experienced when he was young.

David Giffey stands below one of his works of art. He also completed a series of paintings about his memories from Vietnam, but he didn’t start his first one until almost 25 years after he returned from service.

The idea of relying on faith to lead one’s way through fearful circumstances is as old as time. Our world today is more polarized, and the differences between us are starker than ever. When it comes to why we use our faith to find courage, the differences between denominations and religious identity are small.

When talking with people of different faiths, regardless of religious identity, common words emerge to describe how their faith helps them face fear — powerless, safety, discovery, journey. Between a Lutheran faculty associate at UW-Madison, a Muslim student, a Methodist pastor, an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a nondenominational leader, whose words are built from different doctrines, scriptures, practices and rituals, all agree on the most important thing: In times of the worst fear, relying on faith is what pushes them forward.

These same sentiments are echoed throughout Wisconsin. Fifty-six percent of adults in Wisconsin are absolutely certain of the existence of God, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study on religious landscape. According to the same survey, 51 percent of Wisconsin adults feel a sense of spiritual peace weekly. However, those numbers also indicate that almost half of the population feels doubt or complete disbelief in terms of religion.

According to the survey, the population of Wisconsin is 71 percent Christian. However, the second biggest group is religious “nones,” or unaffiliated, agnostics, atheists, and “nothing in particulars.” Compared with the rest of the states, Wisconsin ranks low on the list of “most religious states,” holding its place at No. 44. Because Wisconsin lacks diversity in terms of world religions, many Wisconsinites don’t have the opportunity to interact with people of different faiths in their daily lives. This can lead to many misunderstandings and stereotypes of minority religions in the state. It is easy to focus on differences when we don’t comprehend the similarities.

Afra Alam, a 22-year-old Muslim student at UW-Madison, grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. Alam was the only person in her middle and high school to wear a hijab, a headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women. Alam says her hijab supports her beliefs in dressing modestly and the concept that people see her for who she really is, as opposed to her outward appearance. In middle school, when Alam made the personal choice to begin to wear her scarf every day, she says it ostracized her from her peers. At such an awkward and vulnerable age, it was even harder for people who were ignorant to understand why she wore it, Alam says.

Students at school began to bully Alam. Comments ranged from questioning her wardrobe choices to calling her a terrorist. Alam says she didn’t like the extra attention that was on her because of her choice to “wear her faith.”

Because her mother and sister decided not to wear a hijab, and there was no one else at school who wore one either, Alam felt she had no one to talk to during this time. However, Alam says her faith has been her backbone for any hardship in her life, including these middle school years. She could feel support from her faith even when she couldn’t from the physical people in her life. At the end of the day, her faith made the hardships worth it, Alam says.

“When you’re at your lowest point, you feel like you have no one you can go to … then you have your faith,” Alam says.

Ulrich Rosenhagen, the director of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry at UW-Madison, says the fear of becoming stereotyped and facing animosity or hatred based on one’s religion is very common for minority students. Religious intolerance is largely based on ignorance, and the media’s portrayal of religion doesn’t give the population enough positive examples or counternarratives, Rosenhagen says. Since minority religions don’t have a sizeable platform in our news outlets and Hollywood movies, they don’t have the voice to portray their faiths in more accurate ways to the broader U.S. population.

“There’s open animosity, if not hatred, and then their [people of religious minorities’] voices aren’t heard,” Rosenhagen says. “As a society, it’s the rule of those who go out and yell the loudest and spew hatred.”

During his time in the war, Giffey began to develop a similar understanding of the hatred and intolerance humans can possess. Giffey believes the war he fought served no purpose other than to kill people. These realizations, which slowly began to dawn on him while in combat, led Giffey to feel the need to seek spirituality.

Giffey’s journey to spirituality wasn’t a sudden moment of epiphany. He describes it as “a path.” One of his first steps was realigning himself to work for peace, as opposed to war, Giffey says. Almost immediately after his service, Giffey got involved with peace activists. He still wears his Veterans for Peace button almost everywhere he goes. For three years after his service ended in 1966, Giffey worked as a journalist with the Migrant Farm Workers’ Labor Union, publishing a bilingual newspaper in Wautoma, a city about an hour west of Oshkosh. Giffey worked in southern Texas from 1969 to 1972 as a journalist for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. However, Giffey says fighting for justice for the migrant workers felt like he left one war just to come home and fight another, and he burned out quickly.

So, Giffey continued seeking. He felt compelled to begin painting, and he sold small canvases at street markets. During this time of searching, Giffey attended a Syrian Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas. While he couldn’t understand the language, Giffey found himself connecting deeply with the art that filled the church.

“Art is harmless … there is no way that it can hurt someone. And I love that about it,” Giffey says. “And so it’s very difficult, given the kind of work I’ve done, to separate art from my spiritual path. I don’t think it’s necessary because, in the Eastern church, they’re the same.”

“When you’re at your lowest point, you feel like you have no one you can go to … then you have your faith”

Afra Alam

The Eastern Orthodox Church uses icons (painted images of saints or Christ) to act as visual aids to help understand the stories and scriptures, Giffey says. The paintings are often slightly abstract to remind the church that they are not meant to be taken as literal representations. Giffey says that for the Eastern Orthodox Church, the icons are as elemental to worship as music, candles, vestments or anything else. Now, Giffey spends hours and hours painting icons at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison, where he is a member.

Giffey says exploring journalism, peace activism and art at the same time was utterly important to his spiritual journey. Without it, the other aspects of what makes him him wouldn’t exist.

“Fear is just a horrible, wasteful emotion, and it occupies so much of our minds, and it’s so prevalent,” Giffey says. “My fears ultimately directed me to pick up a spiritual path because I couldn’t live with them.”

To Giffey, his faith is “a path” because he knows his spirituality doesn’t give him all the answers. He says every day he deals with doubts, and every day he has to start all over again. Adam Clausen, the senior leader of the nondenominational church Life Center in Madison, echoed these notions that faith is a journey rather than a destination.

Clausen credits our desire to seek spirituality to the innate pioneering spirit in each of us. He says it’s because we, as a society, don’t like to be limited or unfulfilled that we search for deeper meaning and understanding to our own existences. Just as we push to discover more about space and science, we also seek to explore further into the spiritual world, Clausen says.

“I have more questions than I have answers,” Clausen says. “I don’t want to be old and have everything figured out. I think that’s the beauty of life — it’s lived. It’s explored.”

The icons on the walls of the Eastern Orthodox church depict and explain stories.

Even for a man like Clausen, who grew up and remained in a faith community through most of his life, he finds moments of doubt and moments of fear. When Clausen’s daughter was only 14 months old, she had a series of unexplained seizures. Unable to do anything else, Clausen says he simply waited while his child went through what felt like every test imaginable, including a spinal tap.

“Faith and reason can sometimes be opposed to one another, people think,” Clausen says. “But for me, what was reasonable in that moment, when I felt so helpless and powerless, … was having my faith.”

Pastor Doris Simpson of the Concordia United Methodist Church in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, approximately 30 minutes north of Madison, has dealt with times of fluctuating fear and faith. Yet, she remains a believer to her core. Through abuse, addictions, health scares and cancer, Simpson credits God for the grace he’s given her to overcome these challenges.

Simpson says that while most of the time we can convince ourselves we are in control of our lives, she thinks we strongly turn to faith during chaos because it is a reminder of just how powerless we actually are.

“Any thought that we have power is an illusion … that doesn’t mean that we shrink up and go into a closet. But it means that I have to trust that there’s something that’s stronger and bigger than I am that will carry me,” Simpson says. “And for me, that’s the spirit of God.”

For Alam, her faith outweighs the fears of being rejected for her religious identity. For Clausen, his fears open new doors to continue to be mystified by the discoveries there are to be made through and about his faith. For Simpson, she feels her faith has saved her from her greatest fears. For Giffey, he feels his faith taught him how to live again, despite the fear. For all, the courage of their convictions gave them the strength to grow, heal, recover, rebuild, forgive and continue to explore their endless journey of spirituality.

Mckenzie Halling

Mckenzie Halling

Mckenzie is one of our managing editors and a senior studying reporting and strategic communication with a certificate in digital studies. In her spare time, Mckenzie is a freelance photographer.