By Anna Rohleder
Apr 18, 2015
Seeking the divine: Chris Tate (in the front) and other members turn during an informal ‘sema’ mage: Anna Rohleder
The presence of Sufis in the American heartland, a place otherwise dominated by Christian churches and conservative politics, can be explained by the sense of community it offers
It’s Thursday night in the Highlands of Louisville, Kentucky. Noisy bands of young people roam the commercial strip of Bardstown Road, anxious to get an early start on the weekend. And the bars are glad to accommodate them, advertising everything from free WiFi to “Thirsty Thursday” drink specials that extend happy hour until 4 am.
But a few blocks away, on a street of tall trees and stately old houses, a different sort of gathering is taking place.
In the living room of one of the neighbourhood’s redbrick Victorian homes, about a dozen people sit on couches beneath framed verses from the Koran. Most of them have their eyes closed, breathing silently. The smell of Oud incense wafts in the air. After a few moments, Sheikh Kabir and Sheikha Camille Helminski enter the room, taking their place on two identical chairs draped with white sheepskins. “We begin in the name of the Source of life,” intones Kabir, lifting his hands in prayer. “Bismillah.”
Known as “the whirling dervishes” for their practice of spinning in circles as a form of worship, the Mevlevi Order of Sufis was founded 700 years ago in Konya, Turkey, by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, or Rumi. The fact that Rumi, a 13th century Muslim mystic, is now the most popular poet in America may go some way toward explaining the presence of Sufis in the country’s heartland, a place otherwise dominated by Christian churches and conservative politics. But it’s not just happening in Louisville.
“Today people are often alienated from society, from others, or experience very few relationships that are open and compassionate,” says Kabir Helminski. “Sufism supplies something that is missing from American culture now, which is a sense of community—although this is not the end of Sufism but one of the means.” Kabir was the first Westerner officially recognised as a sheikh by the late Dr Celaleddin Celebi, head of the Mevlevi Order and descendent of Rumi.
The Helminskis moved to Kentucky from California in 2012. The community that has since formed around them only numbers about a dozen people, but is diverse for its size. Members of the Louisville chapter of Threshold Society, the American foundation affiliated to the international Mevlevi order, range widely in age and background. The oldest is 67, while several are in their early 20s: Adelita Bedzetovic, for example, is a college student who discovered Sufism after taking an introductory course in religion last fall. Some of the members are new to Islam, while others, like the three generations of the Choudry family, were raised in it. In between are seekers who have come from other traditions: Buddhism, yoga and Christianity, too. “There are always hearts that are yearning, and when they sense a source of water they’re drawn to it,” says Camille.
Natasha Alexiouk left a comfortable New York City lifestyle to be closer to the Helminskis. She moved to Louisville in 2013, but has been following the Sufi way for about seven years. “People come to the path for different reasons: Some read a book, others see a sema [the traditional “whirling” ceremony], whereas others might be looking for love in a religion of fear,” she says. “But when you look at the threads that connect all of us, you see it’s not random. Nobody is here by chance.” But the Threshold Society does not proselytise. Appropriate to its name, it occupies an unusual middle ground between public and private, accessible and invisible. It does not advertise or market itself, yet its Sufism.org website receives more than 60,000 monthly page views. The Thursday night meetings are open in principle, which means there are often one or two guests among the familiar faces. Sometimes it is a curious local seeker. John Morrison, a professor of physics at the University of Louisville, heard about the group through an acquaintance. “I came to the Thursday meetings and immediately felt I had found in this group a context in which I could resolve personal issues which arise in my life,” he says. Visitors also come to Louisville from the other Threshold circles, which meet in cities around North America, the UK, Europe and South Asia.