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Here’s how we can use the power of awe to make our lives more fulfilling

Being amazed by things outside ourselves is tremendous for our mental health.

A young man looking into the sky

The exhilaration of a rock concert. The feeling of deep serenity you experience during a religious ceremony. That sense of connectedness you get while walking through a dense forest. The lightness that flows through your body while dancing and the dissolution of the ego you experience on psychedelics. These are all experiences that give us the feeling of awe.

Most of us love having at least a few of these experiences and believe they help us grow. But now, a team of psychologists has explained why cultivating a sense of awe can benefit our minds and bodies and how we can create these experiences ourselves.

Maria Monroy and Dacher Keltner posit that a sense of awe can help solve the crises of individualism, excessive self-focus, loneliness and a culture of cynicism, and can even improve our physical health. They explain it in a research article titled “Awe as a Pathway to Mental and Physical Health.”


Keltner argues that cultivating a sense of awe is an essential addition to modern mindfulness practices because it’s one of the few things that take the focus off the self.

According to the researchers, awe engages five process shifts in the body and mind. Awe alters our neurophysiology by releasing oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone,” and elevates vagal tone, which relieves stress.

It also reduces focus on the self, lowering anxiety and aggressiveness while minimizing body image issues. It makes us more prosocial, so we’re more open to cooperation, sacrifice and sharing. Further, awe engenders a feeling of common humanity while elevating a person's sense of meaning.

“Meaning, or sense of purpose, is found in making sense of life events, finding connections between current events and the past, and one’s values and social relationships,” Monroy and Keltner write.

Some argue that one of the greatest obstacles to happiness in the modern world is a crisis in meaning. Maybe a bit more awe is the secret ingredient we all use to be happier?

So how do we get out there and experience the life-changing benefits of awe?

The writers say there are five different ways that people commonly experience awe: nature, spiritual engagement, music, dance, and psychedelics. That could be why people who go to raves in the forest and dance through the night often experience a lasting feeling of transcendence.

The benefits of awe have an additive effect that allows us to transcend our everyday consciousness and embrace the greater parts of ourselves, humanity and the world around us.

“Experiences of awe counter the cynicism of our times as well, sharpening our awareness of the moral beauty of others— the ordinary kindness, courage, and selflessness of our fellow humans, and our capacity for overcoming extraordinary challenges,” Keltner writes in The Guardian.

The researchers' conclusion does a great job of packaging a group of experiences that all solicit similar feelings and then tying them to measurable, practical benefits. They make an excellent case for all of us to have regular experiences of awe—whether singing in church or dancing at 3:00 a.m. at a festival—and to share them with the rest of humanity.

In June 2010, 14 people were murdered on the same day on public buses in El Salvador.

It is from that frightening environment that 19-year-old Araceli Velasquez fled to the United States.

"El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, and miscarriage is punishable by 30 years in prison," according to the American Friends Service Committee petition made on behalf of Velasquez. Finding safety was imperative.


But when Velasquez arrived at the United States border, she was detained.

"And then in detention, I learned I could apply for asylum because of the violence I was fleeing, so that's what I did," Velasquez said. She was denied asylum but stayed in the U.S. out of concern for her safety.

It wasn't until members of Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah in Denver got involved that Velasquez was able to live safely in the United States. The two congregations, along with the larger faith community, decided to offer Velasquez's family sanctuary among their own.

For Velasquez, sanctuary "means that I don't have to be fearful that I'll be separated from my family and that I can continue to fight my deportation in order to keep my family together."

In the United States, faith communities are able to provide sanctuary for immigrants because of a 2011 memo.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) document ensures "enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches." It's not a foolproof solution — the Trump administration so far has adhered to the policy but has been known to post ICE agents near sensitive locations. But for the most part, it provides much needed safety to vulnerable community members.

Steve Holz-Russell, coordinator of the sanctuary task force, recalled starting the conversation practically. "Compared to other things we've done as a church, [deciding to become a sanctuary site] went lightning fast," Holz-Russell said. The church took a vote in June 2017, and more than 80% of the congregation favored sanctuary.

Araceli Velasquez and her son, Christopher, attend a welcoming ceremony at Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah. Photo courtesy of American Friends Service Committee.

There's a history of faith communities sheltering immigrants that reaches back centuries.

Faith leaders and activists helped people immigrate from El Salvador and Guatemala to the U.S. to flee the political violence the U.S. initially refused to recognize as human rights violations. Dating much further back, the tradition of sanctuary can be found in the Hebrew Bible and the Torah, though with a different application.

Today, claiming sanctuary in a faith community means the individual or family and the faith community decide to have a relationship that includes providing the person or people in sanctuary a place to live.

While there is precedent for claiming and providing sanctuary, there is no law keeping ICE agents from entering faith communities to carry out deportation actions. Thus, providing sanctuary is considered an act of civil disobedience.

Velasquez and her family moved in shortly after her interview with the church and temple.

The apartment where the family would be living wasn't complete right away. For about five weeks, they stayed in the youth room until remodeling was finished.

The two faith communities have worked together to make Velasquez and her family comfortable and cared for. Park Hill United Methodist Church's lead pastor, Rev. Nathan Adams, described the ongoing work as very pragmatic. Community members, he said, have been asking themselves, "What needs to get done, and who can do it?"

Temple Micah Rabbi Adam Morris agrees. From his perspective, the two faith communities have found that "we're doing good, and we're pursuing justice and compassion, but the other great part has been … deepening our relationship."

From left: Jorge Jr. Jorge, Kevin, Araceli, and Christopher. Photo courtesy of Ric Urrutia.

One unforeseen outcome of housing Velasquez in sanctuary? The upswell of support from the broader community.

More than 90 people regularly give their time as either door monitors or overnight volunteers. They have come not just from the faith community but also from the broader neighborhood and throughout Denver.

ICE is known for conducting raids early in the morning or late at night. Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah have protocols in place should agents show up at their building.

"We had a scare where ICE went to Jorge's place of work," said Rev. Angie Kotzmoyer, an associate pastor. Holz-Russell received the call from Velasquez saying she thought ICE was on their way.

Recalling that frightening day, Holz-Russell said, "I called everybody," and Adams added, "And everybody came."

Sanctuary has given Velasquez the ability to keep her family together. It has also shown her that change is possible.

"I really believe that if more churches had the experience that Temple Micah, Park Hill [UMC], and I have had, where we learn to trust one another and share with one another deeply, that that would change the politics and the laws that we have," she said.

Park Hill United Methodist Church and its board are considering sponsoring legislation around shifts in immigration policy as well as declaring support for those living in sanctuary in Colorado. Adams knows that providing sanctuary and considering legislation is just the beginning.

"We see a neighbor in Araceli and her family that are in need," he said. "I think God is providing volunteers, people who are interested and care about this, to make it possible. So, we gotta do it. We gotta put our faith into action."

Ultimately, the hopes of Velasquez and Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah are the same: that she and her family will be able to return to their own home.

Furthermore, Adams said, "we really want to live in a place where the idea of sanctuary isn't even needed."

To learn more, visit www.sanctuary-phumc-micah.com.

This story originally appeared on Greater Park Hill News and is reprinted here with permission.

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A pastor shares the exact moment he changed his mind about the LGBTQ community.

For this Christian pastor, the Bible is a framework, not a rule book.

Ryan Meeks was brought up as an evangelical Christian. He was taught that homosexuality is a cardinal sin.

“When it came to the conversation about the LGBT community, I always felt awkward about it and I didn’t want to bring it up,” he explains.

A decade or so later, Ryan founded the mega-successful EastLake Community Church. Within a matter of years, attendance grew to the thousands thanks to Ryan’s captivating and approachable preaching.


But when a friend and a longtime musician at EastLake came out to Ryan and admitted she was afraid of being fired because of her sexual orientation, “I realized I had been a coward for too long,” Ryan says of the moment he changed his mind.

He knew he had to address the topic. He was ready to speak out.

While Ryan hadn't been hostile toward the LGBTQ community before, now he admits his lack of attention to the subject helped create a culture of fear surrounding homosexuality and the church.

Since Ryan announced that EastLake would be an open and affirming church, hundreds of people have left the church. But Ryan stands by his decision.

“I don’t care if the Bible says, ‘Gay people suck,'” he says. "I have lots of things I disagree with about the Bible."

Pastor Bill Hybels was reading from the Gospel of Matthew 25, when he came across a verse that he couldn't shake:

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

"As Bill was reading this passage of scripture, that phrase, 'When you were in prison you came to visit me,' it kind of just hit him like, 'I don't know if we're doing this as a church,'" Willow Creek teaching pastor Steve Carter says.

Out of Hybels' focus on that verse was born the idea for a program to bring Christmas presents to every inmate housed in an Illinois prison.

In the program's first year, the church and its congregation helped pack and deliver 30,000 presents to Illinois inmates. Using the connections the church had already made with the Illinois Department of Corrections through their prison and jail ministry program, they tested their new plan out in 2013. The following year, they set out to provide a pack to every single person in an Illinois prison.


A July 2015 report by the Illinois Department of Corrections lists the state's prison population at 47,483.

Josie Guth, Willow Creek's director of local compassion and justice, announces plans to reach every prisoner in the state of Illinois this December. All GIFs from Willow Creek Community Church/Vimeo.

Packing that many presents is an all-hands-on-deck experience, turning the church into its own version of Santa's workshop.

Willow Creek, located in South Barrington, Illinois, is one of the country's largest churches, averaging more than 20,000 attendees per week. As the holiday season rolls around, parishioners line up to help pack presents — which include popcorn, honey buns, Christmas cards, puzzle books, calendars, journals, and Bible studies.

Volunteers at Willow Creek pack presents.

Behind bars, inmates often feel forgotten and isolated, cut off from the outside world. The gifts from Willow Creek make them feel seen again.

On Willow Creek's Facebook page, they shared the story of Brandon, a former inmate and recipient of one of the church's prison packs. His story shows how something so small can do so much to bring hope to the hopeless. When he was 16, Brandon joined a gang and began selling drugs. After his third conviction on gun possession charges, he was sentenced to six years in prison; he would spend four behind bars.

"I joined a gang because I wanted some attention. I wanted some love," said Brandon in Willow Creek's video. "Like the guy who showed me how to sell crack. He checked up on me three times a day."

Each box costs around just $5 to pack, but the inmates who receive them get something far more valuable: a reminder that there are people out there who care about them.

Brandon discusses the effect Willow Creek's prison packs had on him.

"I think deep in our core, everyone wants to feel seen and known," says Pastor Carter. "And so who are those people we can see or know?"

This is a lesson that goes beyond inmates and beyond any one specific situation. It's a lesson in empathy and giving that's worth remembering year-round. Life is filled with small things that can have a big impact on the lives of others, and there's no better time than now to give back (if you're in the position to do so), to call a friend or relative you haven't spoken to in a while, or to just let someone know that you're there for them.

It's a season of hope, and we can all be a part of it.

Dino is an Illinois inmate and recipient of a Willow Creek pack.

To learn more about Willow Creek's Prison Packs program, check out the video below.