Monday, January 3, 2011

Spiritual Beings: Project Origins and Overview

In 2008 I was invited to participate as a member of a search committee to identify candidates for the position of Rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church located in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.  In that capacity, I, along with a team of dedicated individuals, embarked on a two-year process to find a new rector.  Two years may sound like a long time to recruit a new leader to a church (and it is!), however, considering that our goal was to call a rector who we hoped would not only become a member of our community but would be committed to leading our parish for the next 10 —or more-- years, it was paramount that I approach this assignment with utmost care, sensitivity and diligence.

Before reaching out to qualified candidates, our Search Committee spent the better part of our first year surveying not only the spiritual needs of the current members in our church, but also those of the greater community neighborhood we hope to serve.  With this latter objective in mind, I would often engage family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances on this topic. However, since my goal was to understand the broader spiritual needs of the community-- regardless of the church they attend or the faith they practice--- whenever I broached the topic, rather than ask “What religion do you practice?,” I would ask a more open question “How do you express your spirituality?”

This question elicited many fascinating and, frankly, unexpected responses. I say “unexpected” as during my 16 years living in the Pacific Northwest friends and colleagues rarely, if ever, openly discussed their religious, spiritual or faith affiliations. Growing up as a native of the East Coast, I was accustomed to friends and colleagues openly identifying and celebrating their respective faith traditions in a very public manner. Kids wore their Catholic school uniforms in public; Jewish friends missed baseball practice to attend “Hebrew school” and Eastern Orthodox friends extended their public school holiday a week beyond the New Year to celebrate “Little Christmas.” Being part of a faith community was part of your public identity not some dark secret you kept to yourself.

What I came to realize was, in fact, people in the Pacific Northwest (and more specifically my home town of Seattle) practice a wide variety set of spiritual and faith traditions spawned at least in part by the rich and varied cultural communities that have taken root in the Northwest.

With this insight now in hand, after successfully calling our new rector, I did not want to simply let this information fall by the wayside. Rather I wanted to find a way to shine a spotlight and celebrate the rich and varied spiritual traditions that are thriving here in the Northwest.  Through this project, I also hope to alter the stereotype cited in social commentaries and repeated by faith communities, that the Pacific Northwest is “The None Zone” where no prevalent form of worship or faith exists in this region.  Lacking any single dominant theological institution or culture, combined with the influx to the region of radically diverse peoples and cultures versed in both Western and Eastern faith, spiritual and mystical traditions, the Pacific Northwest is, in fact, fertile ground for faith seekers looking to express their spiritual yearnings in a manner that is at once both profoundly personal and yet connected to a broader community. 

To highlight the broad range of spiritual practices at work in the Northwest, I have embarked on a three-year project (that officially began in April 2010) titled “Spiritual Beings”. Through sensitive use of photographic and audio recordings that respect both the deeply personal, as well as the corporeal expression of spiritual worship, ritual and ceremony, the project attempts to capture the diversity and scope of spiritual and faith traditions being practiced today in Seattle and the greater Salish Sea (aka Puget Sound) area.

I plan to use this blog as a means to periodically publish the images and field audio recordings as well as share insight I gain throughout the duration of the project.

I hope that you enjoy the work and are inspired as I am by the deep and varied spiritual practices documented throughout the duration of this project.

Participating in the Documentary: If you are a member of a faith or spiritual community and would like to be included in this project, please email me at

Artist’s Statement: This project is a personal art project whose sole purpose is documentary in nature and has no affiliation or association with any organized group, religion or faith community. The project is a self funded, independent production and is not sponsored or funded in any way by any 3rd party organization.

Copyright Notice: All images and audio published on this website are protected by Copyright and cannot be copied, reproduced or distributed in either print or electronic formats without prior consent and written approval by the copyright owner. All images are © Mark Ippolito/