I am scribbling furiously in a cold conference room. Something about “we” and “endings” and “tribes” and “bunkers.” In front of me, two of my fellow Interfaith Youth Core alums on a panel share stories from the social action projects they built during the 2016 Germanacos Fellowship (a program for IFYC alums who envision and execute interfaith action projects). This year, I am humbled to call myself a Germanacos Fellow. I am also ecstatic, and terrified, and itching to launch my project: a pop-up traveling exhibit depicting California’s religious and interfaith history.
Folding a new page onto the top of my notebook, a vision flashes in my head. This past Thursday, I asked the students in my New Testament section to imagine what it would be like if religion scholars 1000 years from today tried to understand Harry Potter as a sacred text. How would they reconstruct our world, with very limited materials and a pretty substantial translation problem? What about “facts” and “reality?” I asked them to do this in order to understand our task as students of the New Testament. I ask this about my own faith tradition’s most central figure, Siddhartha Gautama. You might know him as “the Buddha,” the one who was awakened. The task of constructing other worlds means something when the process of asserting and legitimizing my own worldview is at stake.
Because I am not Christian, I experience tiny moments of enlightenment in my class when the students grapple with material that for many of them is actually quite familiar. When we began our course, the students wrote learning contracts explaining why they enrolled in the course and how they best learn. The majority of essays began “I grew up in a Christian household…” with some adjectives or qualifying statements added every so often. Quickly, I realized that in my role as a teacher and because of my own spiritual practice, every day I ask my students to endure some very difficult tasks. I wonder, what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview?
Back to scribbling. I’m thinking about a conversation my fellow “Fellows” and I just engaged in with the Director and Founder of an organization I have admired and supported for more than ten years now (and more frankly, has believed in me as an interfaith leader, graciously supporting projects and investing in my skillset). I listen intently. The theme of the conversation: strangers. Not just people we don’t know. These are the people we don’t see or hear or think about. People we don’t ever, even in our wildest dreams, imagine knowing. These strangers might look like me, but they don’t have a degree from a top 20 school in the world, a masters from a top 5, or are in process of a PhD at a top 3 (please don’t take this as a brag, rather, a statement of immense privilege that allows me to even huddle over this laptop as I write). There is a sense that these strangers, if given the opportunity, would switch places with me. There is an even heavier sense that these strangers put the current president in the White House because they saw him not as a stranger, but as a beacon. In my circles, the same man often bears titles like “white supremacist” and “racist” and “fascist,” and I agree with those statements. The question on the table sinks into the room as silence falls for a moment. Is this- this huddling, this turning inward, this tightening of our own “clan” if you will- is this the reality of bridge building in America right now? Of pluralism? Of interfaith work?
I get stuck. Who is “we?” At first glance it sounds like “liberals,” or “democrats,” or “the people of the interfaith movement.” That makes sense. “We” tend to be the elite, the educated, the folks with access. We get to dream and throw around the word passion and dispute each other’s Facebook ponderings. But, it’s complicated. My parents have this access- they have bachelors and masters degrees. They own their own businesses and a two-story home in a great school district. They choose freely to incur debt when purchasing land. My parents are just as “elite” as me, according to Capitalist America. But they didn’t vote like me.
I think about someone else I love. Someone I met an an elite university, in our Arabic class. Someone who speaks three languages fluently. But he is not “we.” He is not a documented citizen of this nation. He is the stranger, the alien, the criminal who deserves not a single, solitary physical atom on this land because no papers, no proof of humanity. Stay out of spaces that don’t belong to you. Don’t talk to me about stolen land.
From my perspective, my students are “we.” I don’t know their political leanings, where they find community on campus, or if they can afford a plane ticket home at Thanksgiving. I do know they have access to one of the world’s largest libraries and can spend their Friday nights pouring over real Medieval manuscripts (some do). I know that when they graduate, the name on their diploma will welcome them automatically to a class of careers and social circles that others will see as mythical. The lore starts even before graduation: you don’t know someone who got in to Stanford. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone. And yet, the reality is, not all of them are “we,” because they are still outsiders in an institution built specifically for upper-class white males. Access doesn’t always mean belonging.
Let me return to the New Testament for a moment. In all the gospels, more or less, Jesus intentionally curates his schedule to spend more time with “sinners” and “undesirables”- lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors- than with the Jeff Bezos’ of the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus suffers with the suffering, and then he tells people to do the same thing, to their fury. We know the ending to this story- Christ rises. Christ bestows the potential for liberation. But before this, Jesus loses. In any case, the outcome is printed neatly at the end, allowing us to work backwards from the ending to see that everything Jesus did led him to the cross. And yet, we know so little about this man’s world- we can’t dive into the archives of CNN to scour the 24-hour news cycle to understand what else is going on.
When I visit my childhood home, my mom and I walk four miles early in the morning. My mom waves to just about everyone we pass. She points out her favorite landmarks. The family that owns the pig. The house that grows giant pumpkins in the fall. The alley where she can almost always spot a deer looking for water. One morning about a month ago, she said something I didn’t expect. “We’ve got to do something about the guns. Really, we’ve got to.” This, coming from someone for whom pretty much any other issue would fall neatly into a “conservative” standpoint. But this is different- I, her daughter, teach on a college campus. Statistically speaking, if I stay long enough in my current position, it’s not highly likely I will encounter a school shooting. It’s certain. This complicates “we,” because strangers and kin are not just organized by red and blue. We don’t know the end of this story. Does it come down to a checkbox on a ballot? Or can we consider other affiliations that illuminate some Venn Diagrams?
Remember my dilemma with my students learning the central Christian text from a Buddhist? Here it is: what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview? I think “we,” the folks with access and voices in the interfaith movement, could all stand to demand of ourselves that we question the statements our “we” uphold AND deny- things like democracy as ultimately good, like what religious freedom really means, and who, frankly, can’t be part of our movement. Where are the lines now drawn? Do we have a duty to consider the plight of the stranger? Before I feel like I can do that genuinely, I want to put my energy into widening a circle of folks ready to ask with me. I want to look at the limited materials and construct a world that legitimizes and asserts our movement as one comfortable with not knowing the ending, but rather wants to initiate some beginnings.