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Evil Among Us

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"I think Eldred Sasserine is the devil. I see it in his eyes."

A friend whispered those words to my mother more than 20 years ago, and she says they still send a chill down her spine.

Eldred Sasserine was a retired cattle rancher from Oklahoma who had made it his mission to depose the new minister in our small-town Colorado church. Sasserine and his partisans said that Glenn Greenwell wasn't preaching enough hellfire-and-brimstone, staples of Sunday sermons before he arrived. Moreover, he was "fellowshipping" with other Christians in town, flouting the received truth that our denomination stood alone on the path to heaven. I remember the day Glenn submitted his resignation.

I was about 10 years old. My family attended the local Church of Christ on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, so what happened there left a deep impression on me. Looking back, I realize I was seeing the clash between tradition and modernity that plays out in so many religious communities, written small among the red canvas pews of our little brick church next to a horse stable.

Years later, the conflict seeped back into my mind when I heard about another clash in another religious community. This one was in a mosque in West Virginia.

A colleague told me about an old friend who had just returned to her hometown mosque and found it had been taken over by a conservative clique -- extremists, she called them. These men were excluding women and families from the mosque, and their sermons lashed out against the West and non-believers. It all sounded familiar. I wondered, were these Muslims really any more exotic -- or dangerous -- than the Oklahoma cattle rancher who wanted to control my childhood church?

After all, I grew up to a soundtrack of sermons that painted mainstream American culture as an evil, corrupting force. We were to be "in this world, but not of it." The devil was out there tempting us at every turn, not least of which in the rock music I'd already learned to love. School dances, evolution, bikini swimsuits and television shows like Cheers and the Golden Girls were also his domain.

And at our church, too, women could not hold leadership positions. My mother lost a bid to teach our Sunday school class because women were not permitted to instruct a "baptized man," even if that man happened to be a 10-year-old boy.

Most sermons before Glenn arrived focused on the difficulty of achieving salvation. People of other faiths -- and Christians of other denominations -- were seen as irredeemable sinners. As my brother overheard a family friend telling my grandfather in the car, "Clarence, I'm concerned for your soul." The problem: our grandparents were Baptists. My brother remembers crying because Grandmom and Granddad were going to hell.

When he was hired as preacher at the age of 31, Glenn Greenwell tried to change the culture in the church, to create a religious narrative more useful to daily life. He entertained us with stories and tied them back to scripture. He encouraged us to ask questions. He organized breakfast meetings with other local pastors. He emphasized grace over condemnation, and he said we were not the only ones who would be saved. But the hold of tradition was strong, and Eldred Sasserine's complaints fell on receptive ears.

Half the church remained neutral in the conflict. The other half was almost equally divided between the two factions. My mother says Glenn resigned to save the congregation from splitting. But right after his departure, Sasserine and his partisans split anyway and the church was left adrift. Our family moved away a couple of years later.

My brother doesn't remember much of that. As he puts it, "Long car ride; you get there and it's all old-lady perfume and 'you're going hell,' so I just tuned it out. I went to sleep."

I did my share of sleeping in church, too. But I couldn't quite tune it out. A desire to explore that divide between tradition and modernity animated my aspirations as a documentary filmmaker, and eventually led me to begin filming in Morgantown, West Virginia in 2004.

What I found there was a lot of similarities -- and some differences, too. In Morgantown, as in Colorado, the struggle hinged on competing notions of scripture as seen through the lens of cultural tradition, underlined by an old-fashioned power struggle. In Colorado, the divide was largely on generational and educational lines. In Morgantown, it came down to those who sought to forge a distinctly American Muslim identity versus those who preferred to cling to the practices of their home countries.

And I can't ignore an obvious difference: Islam is now fraught with heavy political baggage. After 9/11, language about the evils of American culture and the irredeemability of non-believers took on a much more sinister cast. And indeed certain supposedly traditional beliefs have been harnessed to violent political ends. But ultimately, I don't believe the sermons given at the mosque in Morgantown represent anything more or less dangerous than those I heard in my church. They reflect the universal fare of conservative religion.

In Morgantown the mosque didn't split. Moderates and progressives in the community pushed back, until the mosque finally began to grow into a more inclusive institution.

Tradition is a force of nature. It will always serve as a counterweight to the destabilizing push of modernity. One can argue that its adherents in Morgantown were rigid or small-minded, but they were not evil. And neither, I suspect, was Eldred Sasserine.

Brittany Huckabee is an independent filmmaker. Her documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown, premieres on PBS stations nationwide June 15, 2009.

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