After graduation, a college football star turned doctor, left everything behind to dedicate his life to live in a civil war zone in Sudan, directing the only hospital within 100 miles. Julie Coyne left her home in Connecticut to work with some of the poorest communities in Guatemala; now, thirty years later, she is still there operating a school, daily serving up nutritious meals for kids, a beacon of hope in the community.
Examples of heroic individuals can be drawn from all over the world, such as Ida Puliwa in Malawi who has organized 3,000 local volunteers in her village to help the elderly, or Maggie Gobran in Egypt who has developed a network of early childhood development centers in the poorest slum areas of Cairo and beyond.
The Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California has launched a global project to study spiritual exemplars: People who are advancing human development, inspired by their religious faith and sustained by their spiritual practices as they tackle some of the most challenging problems in the world – ranging from poverty to climate change and human rights.
Donald Miller, the lead researcher on the project, said that the literature on exemplars indicates that they are oftentimes religious. He and his team wanted to know why. What if spirituality and religion are responsible for both inspiring and sustaining these individuals? How does their engagement with these issues change them, their theology, and their vision of human possibility? In short, what new spiritual information can be gleaned from an examination of spiritual exemplars?
“The initial task,” says Miller, “was to create a database of individuals who might be candidates for study.” He and his research team created criteria for the candidates, based on the following:
Eventually, the research team created a database of over 350 people from all over the world and from all of the major religious traditions. This process involved searching news articles as well as inviting the lay public to submit nominations, which were vetted to make certain they fit the project’s criteria. Then the question was how to narrow to 100 exemplars and conduct such an expansive research project.
Miller said he had an inspiration while struggling with the complexity of launching a global project that crossed multiple religious traditions, “Why not involve highly respected international journalists with a track record of publication? Why limit the project to articles in magazines and newspapers? Why not include podcasts and short documentary videos?” But, of course, there needed to also be a scholarly component, so he wondered if journalists would be willing to share their interview tapes if the project agreed to transcribe them.
Applications from journalists to participate in the project were overwhelming. From over 300 applications, the research team narrowed the pool to two dozen, which included print as well as radio journalists. And they were from all over the world, including some who were teamed with photographers.
Currently, over fifty exemplar profiles have been written and published, representing a dozen faith traditions and over thirty countries. The research team is currently coding the interview transcripts and developing a number of theoretical insights which will be published in academic journals and a capstone book.
While there are differences across religious traditions, spiritual exemplars share a number of commonalities. Miller says, “Whether one is a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, all the exemplars engage in practices that renew them on a daily basis, such as meditation and prayer.”
For some exemplars, there is a period of “formation” during which they make the decision for a lifetime commitment. For other exemplars, they found themselves confronting an urgent human need and responded, making the choice not to be a bystander, and in the process, they drew on a power beyond themselves—what theists identify as God and other exemplars simply refer to as having discovered their true self, the self beyond ego needs and desires.
“Spiritual exemplars are not so concerned with the question,” says Miller, “of, ‘What is God?’ They are more likely to ask, ‘Where is God?’” The answer is often that God is to be found when serving the poor, the vulnerable, and those who are suffering. “Religion is not an abstract and theoretical word game for exemplars,” he says. “Exemplars are rooted in real life problems and issues.”
Miller further explains, “Engaged spirituality is not simply applying a set of religious values or virtues to a situation. In fact, the process is much more dialectic: In the act of doing – responding to a human need – one is drawn into a deeper understanding of religion and moral values. Religion ‘inspires’ people to engage in humanitarian work. It also ‘sustains’ them in doing the hard work of engaging difficult issues. There is also a sense in which ‘doing the work’ has a reciprocal effect; it potentially transforms the individual and their own theology or spiritual understanding.”
Once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control and journalists and researchers are back in the field, the project team – with a goal of 100 published articles, podcasts, or videos – will continue to focus on the central questions associated with this project: