Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons writes for Religion News Service.

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Some Protest, Others Celebrate Roe v. Wade with Festive Meals

by Tracy Simmons 01-22-2014

Mary Wissink, pictured here with her dad, Al. Photo courtesy of Mary Wissink/RNS

Arriving home from school on Jan. 22, 1973, Mary Wissink noticed her mother was unusually animated.

The dining room table was pulled away from the wall for a festive meal. The linens were ironed. The smell of turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes wafted through the house. Mom was polishing the silver.

Wissink, then a sophomore in high school, realized her mother had come home from work early to prepare a feast.

“Mary,” her mom said, “today you have the right to your own body.”

It was the day the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of a woman’s right to an abortion. Wissink and her family have been celebrating Roe v. Wade anniversaries ever since.

Victims Raise Profile of ‘Spiritual Abuse’

by Tracy Simmons 03-26-2013
Mixed media illustration, Elena Ray /

Mixed media illustration, Elena Ray /

SPOKANE, Wash. — Karen Wanjico had no choice.

Turn away from her mother like the rest of her congregation, or be exterminated by God at Armageddon — which could come any moment — with no hope of resurrection.

Wanjico, of Casa Grande, Ariz., was 17 years old when she chose to go with the congregation and shun her mom. Looking back now, at age 49, she says it was the most devastating thing she’s ever done.

After earning a Master of Divinity degree and working several years as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, Wanjico can talk about what happened to her: She was spiritually abused.

U.S. Mosques Hit By Shortage of Imams

by Tracy Simmons 01-14-2013
betto rodrigues /

Shiite muslims in the parade of the Ashura festival on Nov. 18. betto rodrigues /

SPOKANE, Wash. — The Spokane Islamic Center wants something mosques all across the country are seeking and can’t seem to find: an educated, bilingual, experienced imam who understands American culture.

According to the report “The American Mosque 2011” by University of Kentucky professor Ihsan Bagby, half of all mosques in the U.S. have no full-time staff, and only 44 percent of imams work as paid, full-time leaders.

In Spokane, the Muslim community has been seeking a leader for 18 months and counting.

Woman Crusades to Save Sister’s Life, End the Death Penalty

by Tracy Simmons 10-29-2012
Victoria Ann Thorpe protests against the death penalty outside of a Spokane mall

Victoria Ann Thorpe protests against the death penalty outside of a Spokane mall.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- They stood in front of a shopping mall, shackled together, heads down, nameplates dangling around their necks, bearing the names of men and women who have died on America’s death row.

Cal Brown.

Teresa Lewis.

Cameron Todd Willingham.

Behind them, stood Victoria Ann Thorpe, dark makeup painted on her cheeks and a sign painted to look like blood stains waving above her head: “Their blood is on our hands.”

Somehow, despite Thorpe’s gory exterior, she’s approachable.

“Would you like information on the death penalty?” she asks shoppers as they exit the mall, unable to avert their eyes from the scene in front of them. She hands them a clipboard and one by one, they fill out postcards showing their support to abolish the death penalty in Washington. The cards will later be sent to state lawmakers. The group has also protested at Gonzaga University and so far has collected more than 200 signatures.

Thorpe, along with the Safe and Just Alternatives organization and The Inland Northwest Death Penalty Abolition Group, is seeking to pass a state law to replace the death penalty in Washington state with life without parole.

Buddhist Abbey a Dream Fulfilled for U.S. Nuns

by Tracy Simmons 05-07-2012
RNS photo courtesy Sravasti Abbey

Vens. Chonyi and Jigme in their Chinese Bhikshuni robes. RNS photo courtesy Sravasti Abbey

NEWPORT, Wash.—There aren't a lot of Buddhists in America -- around 3 million or so, according to the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. There isn't exactly an abundance of monasteries here either, let alone Buddhist clergy.

Yet just outside of this town of about 21,000 people, Sravasti Abbey sits as one of the only monastic communities in the West for Americans wishing to study the Buddha's teachings. What's even more unique is that the abbey now has five U.S.-born, fully ordained nuns, called bhikshunis.

With the five ordained nuns in place, official sanghakarmas (Sangha ceremonies) can be held at the abbey, including the twice-monthly private Posadha (ceremony of confession and restoration of precepts). To have the special rites, the abbey needed four bhikshunis. By this summer, the abbey expects to have six.

Pro-Tutu Petitions Flood Gonzaga

by Tracy Simmons 04-23-2012

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the World Economic Forum in January. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

After nearly 700 people tried to push Gonzaga University to rescind its commencement speaker's invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, supporters of the anti-apartheid hero responded with 11,000 signatures of their own.

Opponents claim the Jesuit school had lost sight of its Catholic values by inviting the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, to speak at next month's commencement and receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.Now a second petition is circulating, this one protesting the anti-Tutu petition.

Now a second petition is circulating, this one protesting the anti-Tutu petition.

Alumni Don’t Want Desmond Tutu to Speak at Gonzaga

by Tracy Simmons 04-13-2012

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the World Economic Forum in January. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is slated to deliver the commencement address next month to Gonzaga University’s graduating class. A group of alumni, however, are saying he isn’t welcome and are urging administrators to withdraw the invitation.

Patrick Kirby, a 1993 Gonzaga graduate, said Tutu is pro-abortion rights, has made offensive statements toward Jews and supports contraception and the ordination of gay clergy and shouldn’t be honored by a Catholic institution.

The university plans to give Tutu an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at commencement. Kirby, a local attorney, said Tutu’s visit violates the U.S. bishop’s 2004 policy, "Catholics in Political Life." The policy states that Catholic institutions should not honor those “who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Pastor Says Hospitality Staff Can’t Live by Bread Alone

by Tracy Simmons 03-13-2012
Group meal photo, AISPIX by Image Source,

Group meal photo, AISPIX by Image Source,

Kevin Finch was a pastor's kid and a pastor's grandkid. Two of his uncles were also pastors and so was his cousin. It was the family business. Finch doesn't tell many people that he, too, became a minister.

The idea behind Big Table isn't about proselytizing, praying or preaching. Finch's only goal is to befriend local food industry workers and pamper them at the regular Big Table dinners.

"God is big enough to show up when he wants to show up," Finch said.

As a recent evening of fine dining wound down, Finch picked up the microphone and looked at the 45 people sitting at the big table. Together they had drunk wine and chatted over a lavish five-course meal.

It was time for full disclosure.

"I was a pastor," he said sheepishly, "but whenever I mentioned that to folks in the (food) industry they would stop talking to me. It could clear a table in about 30 seconds."

Washington Becomes 7th State to Legalize Gay Marriage

by Tracy Simmons 02-14-2012
Two grooms wedding cake topper. Image via Wylio,

Two grooms wedding cake topper. Image via Wylio,

In an emotional ceremony Monday (Feb. 13), Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation that makes Washington the seventh state to legalize gay marriage.

"Today is a day that historians will mark as a milestone for equal rights," she said to a hailing crowd at the state Capitol in Olympia.

The House passed the bill with a 55-43 vote on Feb. 8, one week after the Senate approved it. The gay marriage law is slated to take effect June 7.