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Many conservative religious people feel disconnected from a society they see as hostile to their beliefs. Some have organized politically, taking a stand against secular culture. Today, we begin a series of occasional stories about the way Americans exercise their faith in their daily lives. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten on a community that has turned inward, where religious people are focused more on deepening their faith rather than defending it.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: About 150 Roman Catholic families who put their faith at the very center of their lives has settled in a small Maryland suburb called Hyattsville just outside D.C. They've moved here deliberately to be near other Catholics with the same values. Most attend the same church and send their children to the nearby Catholic school. They socialize. They have scripture study groups. And they pray together in each other's homes, as these women are doing this weekday morning.
JANE MURPHY: I'd like to pray in Thanksgiving for just a new day of life, for marriage and family, for this community and also for my husband's job, for his focus taking...
GJELTEN: The room is full of babies. Thirty-two-year-old Jane Murphy and her husband have three children under the age of 5.
MURPHY: We're just - we're very open to life obviously. You know, in the Catholic Church, we don't believe in artificial contraception. And that results in a lot of babies.
GJELTEN: These Catholic families hold to official church views on family, marriage and worship. The women pray the rosary together. They call themselves the rosary moms.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
GJELTEN: The Catholics of Hyattsville are not separatists. They have non-Catholic friends. They have jobs. They vote. But they are living purposely in community.
CHRIS CURRIE: It started with my having invited people I knew to come here.
GJELTEN: Chris Currie moved to Hyattsville with his wife 20 years ago and joined the local parish, St. Jerome's. His sister and her family followed. It was the beginning of an intentional community.
CURRIE: And then we started to see by word of mouth people coming here to join this kind of heightened or thicker community life, including graduate students at Catholic university, faculty there, others who were moving to Washington for jobs.
GJELTEN: Among them, Dan Gibbons.
DAN GIBBONS: The parish life was very important to us, and the idea that a parish isn't just a place where you come on Sunday for a couple hours.
GJELTEN: Gibbons and his wife have four young boys.
GIBBONS: I know from my own childhood that it can be very hard to raise children as a Catholic if you don't have a community of other Catholics who are trying hard to raise their children in ways that are harmonious with their faith.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And let's go into the trial. Please turn in your books to Chapter 14.
GJELTEN: The parish school, St. Jerome Academy, is part of what draws Catholics to this community. The curriculum includes regular science, literature and history classes but infused throughout are lessons about God and the value of Christian faith. This class is discussing Joan of Arc, who's said to have been divinely inspired to lead French troops against their English enemies only to be captured and burned at the stake.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Morgan, go ahead.
MORGAN: Even though she's destined to be killed, she still has a reward after she's killed of going to Heaven and seeing God.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. So had God abandoned her?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: No.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you think she feels like God abandoned her?
GJELTEN: The Hyattsville community has come to the attention of the writer Rod Dreher, who's known for his observations on contemporary Christian life. He sees the Hyattsville Catholics as an exception to an increasingly weak religious culture in this country.
ROD DREHER: I think for a lot of people in modernity, religion has become sort of like a psychological help, a way of rationalizing what we want to do anyway.
GJELTEN: To Dreher, the Hyattsville Catholics are living a version of what, in a new book, he calls the Benedict option, after the sixth century saint who founded one of the earliest Christian monasteries. In his book, Dreher calls on Christians to follow a modern version of that monastic life.
DREHER: It means that we have to pray more intentionally. We have to learn how to fast again and how to deny ourselves things. It means that we're going to have to spend a lot more time in worship. We're going to have to burrow more deeply into the scriptures. And I think it means we're going to have to be a lot more contemplative.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) Mary, your praises we sing.
GJELTEN: The rosary moms end with song.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) You reign now in splendor with Jesus our king.
GJELTEN: These women are not new to their Catholic faith. Jane Murphy always went to church, but she says it was mostly an intellectual experience.
MURPHY: It wasn't until coming into this community that I became much more spiritual about my faith and discovering the joy that comes with my spiritual life and growing my spiritual life.
GJELTEN: The challenge for the Hyattsville Catholics and other Christians living Rod Dreher's Benedict option is not to be so segregated as to oppose America's growing diversity. Dreher himself has faced criticism for not being sufficiently inclusive in his vision of Christian life. The Hyattsville Catholics know they're in a minority with their theologically traditional views and values. But unlike some other conservative Christians, they don't focus on their marginalization. They're not angry. They're not especially political. The community founder, Chris Currie, looks to the example of the early Christians back in Roman times.
CURRIE: I think that's what we're trying to do now is live the way they did, not live defensively in sort of a paranoid xenophobic reaction to the rest of society, but to realize that we're all human beings created in the image of God and live that life ourselves and share it with our neighbors.
GJELTEN: Those early Christians were persecuted mightily for their faith, Currie notes, but still they thrived.
CURRIE: They lived joyful lives and attracted converts by the example of the lives that they were living.
GJELTEN: And so do the Hyattsville Catholics. Their numbers are steadily growing, even as many Christian congregations deal with decline. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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