In 1997, I was traveling in Eastern Turkey and had the opportunity to spend an evening with a village of Yezidis, a religious minority in Turkey somewhat akin to Gnostics. In the course of learning about their religious traditions from the village elders, I asked about scriptures or religious texts. They told me that they had once had such texts, but that they had been lost four generations before. As it turned out, a Western scholar of religion had collected these texts in the 1800's and I had copies of his writings in my own library back home. Upon my return, I was able to make copies and give these sacred texts back to the Yezidi community. This got me wondering... How often have Western academics entered marginal cultures, collected their songs, stories, etc., returned home, written their dissertation and left the collected data to sit in on a shelf somewhere? And how often has the collected traditional material subsequently died out or been lost to the community from which it was collected? Created as a “Gift of Service” at the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Lost & Endangered Religions Project is one answer to this problem.
(LERP founder Don Frew)
What is the Lost & Endangered Religions Project?
The Lost & Endangered Religions Project (LERP) is first and foremost a service organization that is intended to help in preserving the knowledge of any marginalized religious community. Secondly, it is a consortium of concerned academics and theologians who are trying to unite efforts so as to better serve the global community. LERP seeks to build positive relationships between academic institutions and religious communities, to the benefit of both. Instead of scholars just taking ethnographic data and making a livelihood off of their subjects, participants take extra care to better understand the needs of the communities in which they work.
Whom does it serve?
Any community that seeks assistance, or if the community is beyond the point of being able to ask, we may approach them and offer them aid. Under such circumstances such aid comes only in forms that communities deem useful and under the parameters of assistance that they set.
How does it serve?
LERP takes care not to undermine the role, communal status and livelihood of its beneficiaries. It follows the example of The Office of Human Subjects Research (OHSR) with its careful observance of the Code of Federal Regulation (title 45, part 46) concerning the protection of human subjects. LERP approaches the needs for sustaining endangered faiths in a variety of ways:
- LERP works to index the ethnographic collections of the world, sort the data by source, and offer copies of the data back to the communities from which it was collected.
- LERP works to identify religious traditions in danger of being lost, often through the death of the last person holding the traditional knowledge and assist in the preservation of the knowledge in the culture. LERP offers assistance in locating satellite communities in other regions or offer to preserve documents for the community. We then let the community decide who has access to the collection, i.e. if it will be accessible only by community members or certain specialists within that community. It can then be preserved for future generations, if a community member or members may be later found. Or in the case of a terminal situation, its knowledge can then be preserved for study so that the tradition will at least live on in memory.
- LERP works to identify collections of religious data held by religious groups and institutions and facilitate connecting these with academic institutions.
Our current efforts give an idea of the breadth of LERP’s approach:
- Initiating the “Wiccan History Project”, involving copying and preserving the earliest records of the Wiccan (including the Gerald B. Gardner collection) and recording oral history from Elders of the Wiccan community.
– Canada, Spain, United Kingdom, United States
- Pursuing funding & permission for a grassroots, tape-recording project to preserve oral traditions in marginalized and endangered cultures around the world, starting with the indigenous Naxi people of Yunan province, China.
- Working in partnership with the The Mangala Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by Prof. Davesh Soneji (McGill University) to preserve and document the performance repertoire of Devadasis, a disenfrachised group of female performers in South India.
- Arranging the recording (for the first time) of the temple rites of the Araiyars – a patrilineal tradition of ritual performance maintained in only three Sri Vaisnava temples in South India – to help them preserve their practices for future priests in training; and for the conservation of their endangered religious texts.
- Organizing three archives of folk religious ballads collected in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu over the span of four decades, in preparation for returning these traditions to their source(s).
- Working with the village of Turgut in SW Turkey to revive the traditional festival of the Hekatesia in connection with the excavation and conservation of their local Temple of Hekate.
- Sponsoring original research at the unexcavated temple site of Sumatar Harabesi in the Tek Tek Mountains of Anatolia. Recent efforts included the discovery of a tomb, two temples, & several 3rd century inscriptions in Syriac.
- Copying and returning the sacred scriptures of the Yezidi to their community in Southern Turkey and their immigrant community in Nebraska.
– Turkey & the US
- Arranging, in collaboration with the Caucasus and Central Asia Program and the Dept. of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley and the Silk Road Foundation at Stanford, an academic conference on the ancient, unexcavated, and endangered city of Harran in southeastern Turkey – “Harran: At the Crossroads.”
– United States February 2008
Donald H. Frew, LERP’s Director & Founder, is a National Interfaith Representative for the Covenant of the Goddess. He serves on the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative and the Board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio and with the Parliament Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Archana Venkatesan MA, PhD is Chief Research Coordinator in LERP’s South Asian division. She is a Professor at St. Lawrence University in the Religious Studies Department. She is also the main facilitator of LERP’s Araiyar Sevai Conservation Project.
Layne Little MA, PhD is the Director of LERP’s South Asian division. He is a Fulbright scholar and teaches in the Humanities & Social Sciences Department at Clarkson University, Potsdam NY.
Devesh Soneji PhD is the Director of The Mangala Initiative and Scholar Ambassador of the Devadasi Preservation Project. He is also an Assistant Professor of South Indian Religions at McGill University, Canada.
Hari Krishnan MA is the artist in residence at Wesleyan University CT. He is the co-founder of the Mangala Initiative and is the Performing Arts Director of the Lost & Endangered Religions Project.
Primary Research Advisors
- Prof. Gus diZerega
Department of Government, St. Lawrence University NY.
- Prof. James E Frew
Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, UC Santa Barbara
- Prof. George Hart
Tamil Chair, Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies, UC Berkeley.
- Ven. Dr. Heng Sure
Institute for World Religions, Berkeley, California.
- Prof. Sabina Magliocco
Folkloristics, Department of Anthropology, California State University: Northridge.
- Dr. Ralph Moon
Doe Library, UC Berkeley.
- Prof. Martin Schwartz
Department of Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley.
- Rev. D. Andrew Kille, Ph.D.
Interfaith Space, San Jose, California.
LERP is now under the fiscal sponsorship of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. If you would like to support this effort, please send checks designated for “LERP” and made out to our fiscal agent “ICP” to:
Interfaith Center at the Presidio
Post Office Box 29055
San Francisco CA 94129
The LERP Staff may be reached online at LostRelig@aol.com.
Photos from recent celebration of the International Day of Peace with the URI Global Indigenous Initiative (Iniciativa Indigena Global) in Peru, September 21, 2009: