Crying in Public

A week after Thanksgiving, I found myself seated in a cushy, high-tech theater in the center of LA’s Little Tokyo sobbing. Around me, an audience of about 50 listened as a scholar of Japanese mass incarceration and a filmmaker and activist discussed their work. At first, I attributed my inability to stifle the tears running down my cheeks and ruining my mascara placement to hormones and fatigue. But through these two months, I have found myself, well, beside myself, several times.

In that moment, I cried because someone in the audience asked a seemingly simple question to the speakers. Something like, “My grandpa talked about working with some Japanese Americans who were arrested and he took care of their stuff while they were away…did other people do that?” The speakers explained that many people who knew Japanese Americans personally did take care of their homes and belongings while they were away. Another audience member raised their hand and revealed that a series of photographs the filmmaker used in a short film featured a former neighbor. Then, stories started flowing. Children of formerly incarcerated started sharing about their parents’ time in “the camps.” A few veterans talked about feeling inspired by the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the regiment composed almost entirely of Americans with Japanese ancestry. One survivor finally- slowly- revealed his own experience in the camps.

These stories weren’t necessarily sad. In fact, I felt an intense spirit of kinship in the room, as if these folks waited decades to share and finally got the chance. I stopped taking notes like a good scholar and started listening, really listening, through body language and facial expressions and laughter. I think the reason I cried is because that space- one where scholars and activists and folx who might have simply been there to learn or share- were all essential to the conversation. That is the space I want to inhabit and create in whatever kind of work I do.

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The pop-up Planetarium

This past weekend, I found myself beside myself again! This time, over 5,000 people flocked to the Los Angeles Public Library for a Mobile Museum Festival. My partner and I brought along our exhibit materials and kept our eye out for innovative display ideas or stories to include in our exhibit about the religious and inter-religious history of California. We saw a pop-up planetarium (think an upside-down bounce house), a museum of miniatures depicting African American history and culture in America, a set of matchboxes from gay bars, candy wrappers, marionette dolls, indigenous food sources, and a feminist book wagon. We also saw a massive iguana and a tarantula that made me itch. I felt my impulse to cry when we crowded into a packed room full of sports memorabilia- the California Sneaker Museum. The display cases were cracked. Some of the posters looked slightly tacky. The table cloths revealed a few stains and fray. But the imperfections of the accessories fell in silence compared to the objects and the stories they held. Magic Johnson’s sneakers. The founder of the museum is a sports enthusiast and has been collecting objects and stories for over 20 years. He is a scholar of popular culture- and his mission is to share his work and passion with anyone who will stop and look.

I think we have moved beyond the false notion that scholarship should be objective and emotionless, as if our sources demand we put our humanity aside for more authentic understanding. While it is true that biases and our own experiences can shape what we think and how we study, I can’t imagine not “feeling” as I interact with them. How could I not be heartbroken upon reading a letter from an incarcerated Buddhist priest, who begged the government to grant him freedom so he could return to the religious community he served for over 35 years only to find the building sold and condemned after his seven-year internment? Or courage, looking at the old photographs of the first Sikh woman Mayor in the US and her journey as a sexual assault survivor? I don’t mean to say we should make value judgments on our sources- this often shadows the authenticity of them by projecting false context- but that we are missing a key aspect of research if our own emotions go unchecked, or worse, are stifled. So, I’ll keep crying, and laughing, and finding spaces where my work is a compliment to the stories waiting to be shared.

 

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We’re Good, Now.

I’ve been thinking about this question: Can I still wear/eat/drink/listen to/shop at/buy X if the designer/founder/store/musician/artist did/said something racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic? What about redemption?

PC: Jose Revuelta

The short answer is no. Don’t do it. If you have to ask…the answer is pretty clear.

The complicated answer is, everything is tied up in systems and structures of power that marginalize and oppress (ahem, capitalism). So we may very well be left with nothing to support, and everything to abandon.

That’s not an excuse. I’m not listening to Morrissey again, let alone pay to see a concert. Not that I ever did, or would. That’s just an example of a simple answer to the question.

Here is where I’m doing more deep thinking. Nike just put out an ad with Colin Kaepernick, featuring this tagline (parodies abound already): “Believe in something. Even if it means losing everything.” Fox News was offended, suggesting this is a great thing. Nike’s stock fell. But in the long term, is this good for business? Is this continuing the exploitation of athletes of color for the benefit of white corporate greed? That’s where my caution comes. I don’t mean to suggest this ad is only about making money…but I do, because it’s an advertisement! Supporting Kaepernick not only as an athlete but an activist and a person of color willing to sacrifice his work is a great thing. Supporting a corporation with a very abusive history is not. So just because Nike is “woke” now…

What about Nike’s history of horrific labor conditions- including using hazardous chemicals and child sweat shops? Do we ignore these atrocities in favor of supporting a movement?

In this questioning, two points guide my thinking. The first is, forgiveness is irrelevant and not something I feel empowered to offer, but sustained change can make a difference (not saying Nike specifically has changed for the better). According to more recent reports, Nike has attempted to change some of their unethical practices. Does this mean they’re off the hook? Absolutely not. Sharing the ad is important because it means taking up space where a racist or misogynist ad could be. It means I need to constantly question where I spend my resources and realize nothing is entirely pure.

Which leads to the other point. There is no room for complacency here. Questioning every purchase, every donation, even where I spend my time on a daily basis is crucial. It may seem extreme, but supporting a coffee shop that participates in and advances gentrification in a low-income, historic neighborhood is a choice that has an impact.

Supporting companies and people who do have a positive impact is important too, I believe. Recognizing that everything is inter-related, standing for something is important. Activism isn’t always about “losing everything,” it’s about putting our skills and talents to work to create change in every sector. If everything is about sacrifice, it can be difficult to find anything worth fighting for. Activism and movement-building are messy and often provoke questions without answers. I think the best strategy is to engage with the questions, listen, and work to change our own behavior in ways that benefit our communities. Dare I say, Just Do It.

Stranger Endings

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.

 

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Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

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.

Reflecting on Better Together Day

As we celebrated Better Together Day yesterday, I felt exhilarated by the photos and social media posts from around the country. Folks in their stylish shirts attending gatherings, sharing what they appreciate about different sources of wisdom, and especially getting outside (weather permitting!) to cultivate a presence on college campuses across the country appeared throughout the day. I even took a selfie with my shirt because I wanted to feel included in the celebrating 🙂

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Happy Better Together Day!

This past week has been full of interfaith happenings on Stanford’s campus. On Monday night, I watched a Buddhist leader speak about mindfulness meditation to a crowd of almost 1000 people in Memorial Church, the heart of the Main Quad. The Office of Religious Life prepared an Open House to celebrate the CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-religious Community, Learning and Experiences) 10th Anniversary. We also worked to finalize readers for an interfaith service that will take place this Sunday as part of University Public Worship. Last night, I got to moderate a fantastic panel of four professors in the Religious Studies Department speaking about “faith and feminism,” which took place at Stanford’s Hillel House. Over 50 students showed up on a Tuesday evening to learn about women in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. What I loved so much about the panel was the panelists’ commitment to complicating the history of women in these traditions- they reflected on the term feminism within different contexts and why the word doesn’t necessarily help us understand women’s roles or agency- we must consider a variety of experiences. The students asked really difficult questions, especially related to oppression and equality.

What really moved me, beyond the wisdom I took from the panel, was representation. The crowd held many religious and non-religious identities, some of which caused me to reflect on difference as the basis of contention. Some of the questions roused deep emotion because they stemmed from a fundamental disagreement on what a sacred text tells us, or how women should function in a particular community. That contention helps us to be honest about difference. Further, it opens an opportunity for hearing. In that room, we heard each other, even if we didn’t agree.

For me, Better Together Day is about hearing and seeing each other. It sounds simple, but in a world where intolerance quickly leads to ostracizing and violence, seeing and hearing matter deeply in creating communities that can center learning as a way to build relationships. Though we may not remember the content of events and activities on the particular day, we do remember who is present and thus know that we have possibility for community. I will remember not only the panelists from last night, but the audience as well- how we showed up to a space together, listened, and acknowledged that we each carry questions important enough to ask out loud. Better Together Day reminds me that community can be built on difference, because a shared commitment creates the starting point for a contentious but deeply meaningful space. And of course, we all looked pretty great in our blue shirts.

 

 

When Someone Asks You About the Bible

So today, I did something magnificent- I led my first section as a TA! The class is called Exploring the New Testament. You can probably guess what it’s about. Let me preface this by noting that I laughed way too loud exactly twice in class because the professor made jokes that were hilarious to any religious studies graduate student. Perhaps no one else. So much for keeping my cool.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Teaching felt similar to starting a half marathon. When I looked around the room at 35 faces, I started to feel nervous. Then we divided up into our groups and I felt SO nervous. In my mind, I babbled on like a broken fountain. Hyper-awareness of who spoke and what they said and was it smart and what did they say again swirled around me. At one point I did challenge a student to define what he meant by “sacred” and he finally came to the conclusion that the term was ambiguous. Silent high five! It was a fascinating experience.

Our purpose in class today was to problematize how we “know” what we do about the New Testament. We talked about textual criticism, issues with linguistics and language, and the evidence we have- manuscripts don’t match. What do we do with all of the conflicting information? More importantly, what do we do with silences? Our professor passed around papyrus and animal hyde so we could understand how manuscripts survived. We talked about garbage. Not a dull moment occurred in the hour and twenty minutes of class.

The discussion went fairly well, I think. The students seem eager to learn and talk to each other, even argue their points in productive ways. After we wrapped up, a student asked me a question I failed to answer well. In essence, she asked, “How can I treat the Bible as a moral compass when I haven’t spent years learning Greek and Hebrew and studying texts- basically, when we don’t know?”

This is a question we could apply to any text that exegetes truth claims. How can we use a text as an ethical guide when what we believe about it is upended? I sent the student off with some reading suggestions and an enthusiastic “you’re a budding religious studies scholar!” However, I don’t know if I really answered her question because there isn’t an answer. The answer is that maybe we derive morals from asking questions, not listening to what one text says.

I think I’ll enjoy teaching and probably be exhausted by it in no time at all. For all the theory and strategies and activities to implement in each class, ultimately the material masks what students really need, which is to find their voices and feel uncomfortable. I have a feeling more questions that have no answers are coming my way. What is awesome is how it makes me reflect on why I love this subject. The stakes can be high. It’s cool to be a curator of conversations that matter.

Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”

Myth

As the quarter closes this week, the writing process continues at full speed, with half-finished thoughts and some consolation. There is never enough time, but perfectionism impedes creativity and progress. I’m realizing that my three classes all revolve around narrative this quarter, so making sense of how stories dictate values is on my mind.

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Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

One of the projects I am working to finish is an essay about myth and interfaith dialogue. In my circles, I don’t need to stress the importance of dialogue (preaching to the choir) but I do think it’s important to complicate what actually happens when people are vulnerable and share how their own experiences lead them to convictions. More wisdom is better than less, but what if that wisdom promotes conflicting values? This seems a necessary question as not a day goes by without someone noting “how divided our country is.” We are living by irreconcilable myths, and we cannot deny that a selection of these myths intentionally ignores or legitimizes pain and dehumanization.

Northrop Frye, a literary critic, and Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, both deal with myth in their work. Both stress myth as narratives that deal with human crises, especially finitude. Comparing myth across cultures and traditions is dangerous if we are not careful to acknowledge context and particularity. What I find compelling about myth, especially as a process for dialogue, is how we pull meaning from stories that have no historical or logical basis. I think our ability to do this speaks to creative expression as one of the highest forms of spirituality. I also think this process of meaning making is the closest we can get to a universal human experience, which is living with inevitable change. We are constantly attempting to make sense of “why things happen.”

This quarter has been tough, not just because of the rigor and caliber of work required, but because moving to a new place heightens the knowledge that meaning is obscured. I always enjoy learning through a variety of channels- reading interesting texts, lively discussions, and especially making connections to my own work in the field of interfaith studies. But as a person who enjoys nerding out about baseball statistics and marveling at bright, obnoxious fashion trends as much as writing papers and discussing medieval saints’ lives, finding wholeness has been a real challenge. I think the process of living by a new story takes time and struggle before the narrative truly emerges. Communities are struggling to incorporate old stories into new problems. When the stories generate no meaning, it’s time to start telling new ones.

One thing all the stories have taught me this quarter is that crisis never leaves the human experience. It’s false to believe we will ever live without the apprehension of some kind of challenge, and there is plenty of wisdom from various times and places to aid us in remaining present and to let go of attachment to a particular outcome. Still, there is something comforting in the fact that a benchmark of the human experience is grappling with narrative and meaning-making. I think this is important to remember, especially when we need to reflect on how we participate in narratives that cause harm.