KU class to study, record stories of state's dwindling religions

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas class is recording the stories of members of the state's lesser-known religions as their numbers dwindle.

' 'I was kind of motivated by this idea that we're going to lose stuff,'' said professor Tim Miller, who created the class after completing a Douglas County religion project in 2003. ''I mean, it's the nature of human civilization that we're going to lose stuff as time goes by, but it's a shame to lose important pieces of our past.''

Class members said they also want to unearth the stories of religious experiences and sexual orientation in the hopes of demonstrating Kansas' diversity of faith groups.

Miller wants the class to become a yearly offering and the results would be posted online for everyone to access.

' 'This is going to be years. You understand, we're in stage one, we're very early in the game,'' Miller said.

Jeffrey Caton, a senior in economics and religious studies from Buhler, is focusing on the Amish and the Volga Germans.

' 'My mother's side of the family came from Victoria, Kansas, and is Volga German, and then I grew up outside of Hutchinson, around Yoder, and a lot of times saw the Amish around and thought those would be two fun groups to focus on,'' Caton said.

' 'There are books, and there's quite a bit of stuff out there on the Volga Germans,'' he said of the group of ethnic Germans who emigrated from Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries. ''It's not a terribly obscure group, but I think I'll be able to get a fair bit of information.''

Students are on their own for choosing their interview subjects, but Miller has given some suggestions. He said he's trying to find and document defunct lesser-known groups before all the members die.

' 'One thing I've been focusing on is trying to see if we can figure out what is kind of off the beaten path, what are the unusual groups, whose stories, incidentally, are in danger of being lost in many cases,'' he said.

Miller said Kansas has a rich and diverse history because of its frontier past.

' 'I think each place, each state, has its own distinctive things, and Kansas may have more than its share,'' he said. ''It may (be) partly because of the pioneering history of Kansas, the free-state struggles that helped shape the state.''