To Be a Global Citizen, Turn Inward

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog. You can find that version here.


As a higher education professional, I recognize that the term “global citizenship” has become a buzzword. We use it to advertise study abroad programs, accentuate courses of study, and develop leadership competencies. On Northeastern University’s campus, I direct the Global Citizenship Project. And I am frustrated.

At my university as well as several others around the country, we offer several programs that “train and develops global citizens.” Though every initiative defines global citizenship uniquely, many of the concepts that sustain these projects center around global awareness, practicing empathy toward different cultural norms and participating in service or civic engagement, often abroad. These are all excellent competencies. Unfortunately, the execution of teaching these competencies does not allow students to deeply understand their own particular values, thus prohibits them from knowing what they might contribute to the global community.


We are lucky at Northeastern to develop relationships with many international students who seek community. Many of the students are especially interested in faith, culture, and social justice. I remember sitting in a classroom one January evening in which our Center hosted a Global Citizenship Project dialogue centered on “immigration and belonging.” Around 35 students, both domestic and international, gathered on the floor to share a meal and tell their stories. In my small dialogue group, each person took a turn reflecting on their experience with immigration and belonging. I babbled happily about moving to Tokyo as a teenager and studying trigonometry in another language. When it came time for one South Asian student to share, he sighed, and stated: “I feel as though sharing my story doesn’t have any meaning. It doesn’t seem different than the other Indians’. I think maybe these concepts of dialogue and promoting an individual story is really just American.”


I suddenly realized that my definition of global citizenship posed a hypocrisy. As an American-born staff person, I do believe that deepening my knowledge of different cultural practices and learning to respect foreign cultural values is important. My culture and thus the worldview I hold tells me this is important mainly for my own self-awareness, focused less on the collectivist narrative. Thus if I equate these competencies with global citizenship, I am placing an American-centric lens on a term meant to reach beyond national borders. The term “global citizenship” needs to be re-examined, recognizing how narrow a lens it carries.


We in the United States are in the midst of a socio-revolution that seeks to bridge the increasing inequality gap and decrease violence on the already underserved. I see students and staff alike participating and struggling to address difficult questions around racial, gender, and socio-economic justice. My campus community, as well as many others, direly needs to explore competencies like cultural awareness, asset mapping, and civic engagement of our own deeply diverse America, and moreover our immediate communities. Thus I propose that we, the administrators of higher education institutions, need to encourage our students to turn inward. Forget transcending national borders. Our own campus is a world unto itself.


So what can a global citizen look like? As a higher education professional, I understand that students are complex. Individuals develop with many intersecting identities. The students I serve no longer accept a safe livelihood as the soul motivation to enter a particular field. They hope higher education will offer them a challenging space to explore their passions and how they might affect change. Student activists already tackle complex problems across boundaries. Many times, the work they do together more authentically addresses the national cultural revolution than high level administrative conversations around diversity and inclusion. Students as individuals already hold tremendous value. I mean this in a resource sense. Global citizenship, then, should be about cultivating and lifting up the many resources on our campuses so that the exchange of ideas is available through the practice of asking the right questions.


At Northeastern, students collaborate on a number of local and global social issues. This past year, the Northeastern University Interfaith Council decided to hold a student leadership conference around Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee’s visit to campus. They called this the NEISS: the New England Interfaith Student Summit. The student planning committee was faced with a great challenge from the start: How could a small group of students make such a large impact? As the team members reflected and recognized their own individual skills, from website development to cold-calling to leading meetings, each student realized their own resourcefulness. At the same time, each individual remained committed to their vision of bringing interfaith leaders around New England together for best practices sharing and deepening religious and cultural literacy. The NEISS took place amidst heightened Islamophobia, violence, and extremist attacks across the world. I saw the feelings of helplessness and despair many of these students previously felt transform into a strong commitment to continue their work together, to offer their resources.


Focusing inward, finding assets among individual community members has helped other institutions see their constituents as resources, not numbers. Christian institutions historically spent billions of dollars sending missionaries to different countries around the world. This practice proved ineffective and moreover harmful to other cultures and communities because the missionary process did not leave room for self-exploration or ways to find shared values. Now, however, many Catholic, protestant, orthodox, and non-denominational communities are turning inward to better serve their own community, recognizing the diversity within. How will they welcome refugees? How might they explicitly include members of the LGBTQ community, with such a wrought pain-ridden history? In an individual-centric culture, challenging every person to recognize our own particular value helps us to understand our purpose and obligation to the world.

Cultivating global citizens means we need to be frank about the inequality, privilege, and oppression built into our campuses and yet to believe we can still hold community. Let’s stop inundating students with thousands of skills and start showing them how they are valuable to us and each other.

Multiplicity: A Short Autobiography

PC: Charlie Harutaka

This summer, I have spent more hours in O’hare International Airport than hours shopping online or trying new recipes. That may sound rational. In my case, it means O’hare has become a second home (NOT- but Frontera is delicious).

This time, I was headed to the Windy City for a University of Chicago reunion and retreat with a great group of former Master of Divinity students. The themes of our retreat were integrity, multiplicity, and innovation. We spent some time thinking about each theme in the form of lecture/presentation, and then meeting in small groups to discuss our own “case studies.” On the first day, we discussed moments or experiences when we felt challenged in our integrity. We thought about our multiplicity, which Rev. Cynthia Lindner defines in her wonderful new book Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Well-Lived Pastoral Life as our “plural selves”-the different passions and gifts (and quirks and growing edges) that make up who we are. The next day, we grappled with innovation, and how the struggles we face in our respective ministries might be better answered by calling upon different parts of ourselves.

As a college chaplain, I think about the plurality of self quite often. My own self consists of many identities: a young professional, an avid reader, an emerging writer (most humble, of course), a marathon runner, an activist, a sister and daughter. In my work I often walk with students to discern how they can fuse multiple passions they hold. Often, the line of work they find easy and stable is not the work that truly feeds their spirit. Everywhere we turn, we are faced with diversity of identity, both out in the world and within ourselves. Pluralism comes when we cultivate a way to make these differences enriching, not divisive. We know this to be true in interfaith advocacy work, and I learned this weekend that our own selves can and should enrich the other parts of us. Sometimes, this is much easier said than done.

Dr. Dwight Hopkins, who facilitated our conversation around innovation in multiplicity, noted that “theology is autobiography.” I dwelt on this idea for a while. If this is true, and we consider ourselves to be multiple-minded, then our theology must also consist of various ideas from distinct roots. Our theology, the system in which our beliefs amalgamate, is constructed through a variety of experiences, relationships, and passions that we hold. As someone who works to build relationships across differences in young peoples’ theologies (among other elements), I believe that ignoring the multiple parts of our identity puts all of ourselves in crisis. If I spend no time reflecting on my identity as a higher education professional, and subsequently on my calling as an interfaith activist, my integrity is compromised because the norms and values each identity holds are in conflict and not in conversation.

On the other hand, the students that frequent my office who have embraced their multiple selves, who have lived into conflicting sets of norms for their identities by putting these identities in conversation (imagine a group of people in your own mind speaking to each other), thrive in their ability to make change. An eighteen year old Muslim woman leads one of the largest student organizations committed to dismantling institutional discrimination, utilizing her Muslim and Black identities to organize. Another Muslim student teaches his classmates Qur’an and uses mathematical analogies to help his peers understand (he studies physics). The examples of these students demonstrate their innovation within their own multiplicity, their courage to put different aspects of themselves in conversation.

In my world, the heroes who inspire me are often the people who have built their theologies upon both the plurality in our society and the plurality within. My advisor in college, Dr. Varun Soni, originally piqued my interest because he was not just a chaplain- he was an entrepreneur, an academic, and a sports enthusiast. He maintained his integrity and developed deep relationships with his students.

As I think about multiplicity with my students in this election season, this time of immense polarization, fear, and hate, I know that students seek safety and embrace of all the pieces of their identity, especially those under threat. My commitment is to keep ourselves in conversation with ourselves. By doing so, we turn a crisis of self into a dynamic autobiography. We begin to see common values across our different identities, and even find ways to mediate the values that conflict within ourselves.


On the 15th Anniversary

15 years ago today my father appeared in the room my sister Mallory and I shared. He wasn’t singing his off-key “good-morning!” jingle that normally got us out of bed within seconds so we wouldn’t endure any more. This morning, at around 6 am, my father simply took a deep breath and said, “planes just hit the twin towers.”

My sister and I, 3000 miles away from New York City and completely bewildered, followed him to our tiny dining room where my mother stood glued to the small Panasonic television. She seemed to be watching a scene from a movie that kept playing over and over again. I watched as a tiny object hit the building, an explosion erupted, and the building crumbled to the ground almost instantly. The scene replayed over, and over, and over. “Why is this happening?” my sister touched my mother’s arm. “They think it’s terrorists,” she replied, never averting her eyes.

In the next two hours, my father drove us to our small Catholic school as he would any Tuesday. Our neighbor Grayson carpooled with us. When we approached the school, the normal line of cars for drop off was no where to be found. We pulled up to the entrance and Coach Val, our P.E. teacher, met us at my father’s car. “School’s cancelled today,” she informed us. We drove home. Grayson and I tried to find a movie to see, but decided against it. “I think I should go home,” he said, and walked home.

I called my grandmother, the smartest person I knew. I felt so confused. Why would anyone fly airplanes into a building and kill thousands of people? I heard her voice on the other end of the phone. “Grandma,” I paused. “Is this like Pearl Harbor? Do you remember that?”



My grandmother remembered exactly where she was when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. “My sister and I were playing outside with toys our father brought us from Japan,” she explained. Her father was in the Navy. “As soon as we heard what happened, we took those expensive, rare toys and we smashed them. We wanted nothing to do with anything Japanese. That was like affirming the enemy and what they did to our country.”

In college I wrote my honors thesis about the parallels between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. My mission was to demonstrate that the aftermath of Pearl Harbor had caused significant civil rights violations for Japanese Americans and several other marginalized groups at the time, and that now, 70 years later, Muslim Americans and others were experiencing the very same violations in different ways. I poured over records of illegal surveillance, deportation, and hate crimes on American citizens. The inspiration for my project was twofold: Japan had become a second home for me after studying there for a year, and as a member of USC’s Student Interfaith Council, I had developed a deep friendship with another member of the Council: an Egyptian-American Muslim woman.

Through my research, the finding that gave me most pause was not the countless civil rights violations, the violence both Japanese and Muslim Americans encountered after the events, or even the conspiracy theories that 9/11 was an “inside job.” What really moved me were the stories I discovered in the Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo newspaper, about Japanese Americans fighting for Muslim Americans’ rights and safety 70 years after their own community had been “othered”, outcast, labeled subversive and dangerous. I read about Japanese American Angelinos marching outside the Little Tokyo Public Library demanding justice for Muslims. I poured over the story of Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, a man who attempted to escape internment by receiving plastic surgery and changing his name. Karen is an activist in San Francisco, and through an institute in her father’s name, advocates for Muslim Americans through education initiatives. Tears dotted my notebooks as I wrote about these stories. My heart sang witnessing a community once shunned and literally displaced from their homes and freedom making a commitment to help a different community now experiencing what they did.

In my work now as a religious life professional in higher education and interfaith leader, I am often asked what core beliefs I hold as a practicing Zen Buddhist. Usually, I respond with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and perhaps my own truth that suffering is communal and a reality for each of us. I speak often of interconnectedness, the effect every person’s actions have on the world. Not one person lives in a vacuum, we all reside in this ever-changing, impermanent world. We are all connected, no matter how hard we try to distance ourselves. When I think about people I love, this is an easy concept to hold. My care for one person is like a ripple in a pond, it spreads through one person to another, and another, and another.

As I reflect on my grandmother smashing her Japanese toys, the objects that represented her country’s enemy, I realize her effort to separate herself and her American identity mirror the efforts of millions who denounce terrorists. I have tried to separate myself completely from the people who have harmed my generation, denouncing them as sick, monsters, unhuman. The truth is, interconnectedness means that I am forever connected to my worst enemies, and to affirm this is to affirm my own implicitness in violence and oppression every single day. My actions cause suffering, and I need not look further than  next door where a family of eight lives in fear of going hungry each night for proof.

15 years later, the image of the planes hitting the towers as they crumble plays in my mind as if it were yesterday. 15 years later I know why the stories of the Japanese American activists fighting for the rights and dignity of Muslims touch my heart so fervently. These activists recognized their interconnectedness- not only to the Muslim and Sikh Americans and others who have suffered in the aftermath, but to the terrorists, the suicide bombers, the fighter pilots whose actions still have immense effect today. Hate crimes and violence against Muslims have surged this year, the wounds of terrorism and mass violence still fresh. This risky act of caring for another person or community who suffers, especially when they are ostracized, can only be sustained by love. This love is what makes the reality of interconnectedness a triumph, not a failure.

I wish everyone a blessed, contemplative anniversary of a very tragic day. I urge us to remember that every moment is full of potential tragedy and triumph, and that the difference is made when we act through love.



“The plane is broke, it’s a no go.” The United captain had barely prophesied our fate before the lovely flight attendant, hair tied tight up on her head, put herself in an “I must help everyone” mode. “Good luck y’all! There’s magazines outside!” Cellphones shot to old men’s ears. “Hello Dave this is Frank, my flight to Chicago has been cancelled…” The matter-of-fact tone not at all disguising rage, frustration, cursing with every expletive. 

A younger man turned toward me as I pulled my backpack down from the overhead bin. He looked panicked. “I’ve never had a flight cancelled before,” he confessed. “What do we do?” I told him I think we wait in a line. The helpful flight attendant 

All Are (Not) Welcome

In my interfaith work, I have taken up a bad habit that I only recently realized is bad. On posters, in newsletters, on Facebook, to colleagues when describing an event, dialogue, or even my office in general, I say, “All Are Welcome.”

It sounds great, in theory. How could you not welcome someone, given your position? Interfaith work is about welcoming those with whom we disagree. And now you’re suggesting this is bad?

I was walking on one of the warmest days of early Summer with a colleague at the university. We were discussing a joint dialogue and the details when we began discussing places of worship and the historical pain many have caused. “You can put your rainbow flag out all you want,” they said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m welcome. Where am I going to sit if there are traditional gendered seating areas. Where am I going to pee? Is everyone going to stare at me because I don’t fit?”

My colleague has a point. Many churches and other places of worship do genuinely want to welcome those whom have historically been rejected- members of the LGBTQ community, for instance. I walked by a large church on Boylston Street a few days ago with a big sign that practically shouted, “Muslims Welcome Here!” I wondered why this church felt compelled to welcome Muslims so aggressively. Moreover, I pondered what it would mean to show, not just state, the welcome.

all are welcome.jpg
PC: Peter Hershey

When students are new to interfaith work, we often talk with them about religious literacy, the deepening of knowledge about rituals, practices and beliefs that are foreign and sometimes in opposition to their own. The basic conversations revolve around knowing what kind of food to provide at an event (no pork, probably good) or how to choose a date and time (Friday evening for Shabbat observant Jews? Not a good plan) or even greetings that will make guests feel welcome (Salaam Aleikum!) These are all wonderful practices, and they catalyze a developing mindset toward religious differences. The goal is to help students eventually deepen their knowledge enough that they do not accept “normal” for them to be “normal” for another.

Still reeling from my deeply meaningful experience at the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing program at Kenyon College two weeks ago, I have been thinking about a seminar  that focused on how we as writers define our audience. Our guide shared with us a helpful catchphrase: “When you write to everyone, you write to no one. But if you write to someone, you write for anyone.” This sounds exclusive. The point is, when we turn our attention to a particular audience, we are intentional and focused. Best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me to his sons; millions of people have read the book.

Knowing my audience is key in my interfaith work. Saying “all are welcome” negates the sometimes overlooked truth that even in a space open to folks who may disagree, we still all agree on certain norms and values. If a white supremacist, fundamentalist person attended an event and began spouting hateful words, I would ask them to leave. They are not welcome. In interfaith work as in all spaces, it is necessary to demonstrate how certain individuals are welcome, from bathrooms to belief affirmations. It is also crucial that I know my audience, I understand who will come to the space and uphold the values of learning from one another, finding common ground, and respecting their peers. If we welcome all, we welcome no one. If we welcome someone, we welcome anyone.

On the 5th of July

At 10 am on July 4th from the balcony of the Old State House in Boston, the Declaration of Independence echoed through the narrow streets just as it did 240 years earlier. This time, police on motorcycles and confetti surrounded the crowd. Some things have changed.

I followed the text of the Declaration on my phone. Beyond taxation without representation, so many conditions of the text stung me. The oppression that began the rebellion against King George, that spurred Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride, that motivated what we now snarkily call the Boston Tea Party, manifests in so many ways in our country. The text states these reasons for declaring independence against the monarchy:


He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

How best to celebrate this day? I wondered.Can I really wear red, white, and blue and pretend like the tyrant King George doesn’t manifest in our government, our society, our communities? How would those who are forced to live in this system that keeps so many “out” declare their independence when there is no ship, no new land? These questions plagued me as the sky lit up with fire.

On July 5th I arrived at the Center greeted by a Turkish student who is in process to becoming a US citizen. “How was your fourth?” I asked, expecting a somewhat solemn answer.

“You know…it was really good to be out and together as a city. It felt like the Boston Marathon. I loved it.”

Being together as a city. Suddenly, images of the day before flashed in my mind. A father trying to keep up with his three kids as they rushed excitedly over the bridge before the firework show. A group of friends acting silly together and laughing. Feeling the heat and light of the sun and gazing at the reflective deep blue ocean water along the harbor. There is joy all around, I remember. It’s moments we don’t often notice that really keep us alive. I am glad to have felt such community yesterday.

Holding myself and my country accountable is really difficult sometimes. I hear statements such as “but it’s gotten better, right?” and “we only hear about the bad things. Overall, people are good”. I don’t know if these statements are true or even helpful. Relativism does not heal the pain felt by so many in this moment. This afternoon, some students and I sat on the grass holding silence in honor of the victims of violence as far away from me as Dhaka and as close as just across campus. Providing this space is one of the only ways I feel like an ally. Focusing on the pain of individuals and celebrating their triumphs is what makes sense- for in a world rife with violence, we must recognize moments of peace as nothing short of miracles.



As we know, it has been a week, and it has felt like a year, and it seems as though the event, the incident, the unspeakable tragedy has happened over and over and over again as I peruse facebook, grasping at articles and statuses and emoji.

I didn’t know if I should write a post. Frankly, why should I be speaking when I don’t identify as a member of the LBGTQ community, as Latinx, as Muslim, or really as marginalized in pretty much any sense of the word. And yet, if I am silent, I get to hide. I don’t have to worry about my own identity in danger at this moment. So if I go about my normal daily life without writing or speaking or extending my hand, it feels like ignorance and well, bliss of ignorance. So I would like to recount my week here in Boston and what I have learned. In this post, all of my friends and colleagues are kept anonymous because safety is not something to take lightly right now.

Monday felt long. The facebook world mourned and screamed and felt both as though a thousand things happened at once and nothing could happen because everyone sat in paralysis. At my university, we tried to decide how to respond to Orlando. I read articles that friends and colleagues posted on social media, and stayed quiet for most of the day.

Tuesday my colleagues worked on a response to Orlando and I felt the fresh pain of the tragedy bump up against institution. I heard individuals share their needs and others wonder about the needs of “the university”. As my coworker noted, “Just because you are in mourning doesn’t mean you can’t cause violence.” And I struggled to think about balancing a public display with the safety of those in the most pain. Sometimes vigils and public gatherings that are highly ritualized can be helpful as a starting point- we light candles, perhaps listen to readings or speeches or music, and hold some silence. This helps us set aside a time that is not normal, not part of the daily grind, recognizing that the lives touched by untimely death will never be the same.

Sometimes, order reminds us all too well that oppression is present in orderliness, in ritual, in public spaces. For many members of the LGBTQ community, religion represents oppression in the form of ritual and order. From separating gender in worship to hearing the words of old privileged men condemn the sins of those who do not comply with dogma, ritual and tradition remind many that they are not welcome, that they are who we pray for, that they are the ones who need saving. And yet, the first precept in my tradition reminds me not to take any one dogma as truth: the world is impermanent, after all, and who the hell am I to say what’s right has always been and will be? Furthermore, public vigils take a public stand. They say, “we do not accept the events that transpired, and thus, we are mourning.” Public vigils put individuals in the spotlight and these individuals do not come from equal places of safety. For the LGBTQ community and other marginalized people, safety is not guaranteed, and sometimes a public space creates a heightened sense of danger. The 50 murdered and even more injured in Orlando were murdered in a place that felt safe.

On Wednesday I attended a big staff meeting. I listened to a presentation about students’ experiences with racism and discrimination. The presentation and subsequent conversations allowed me to reflect on my own college experience, and I realized how the experience of students at my current university remind me of instances in which my friends experienced racism, oppression, and violence because they are Latinx, immigrants, or Muslim. My friends never explained or spoke about racism. We didn’t have that vocabulary or example. As women we assumed that we really did deserve to be catcalled because of what we wore. Only in the past few years have I learned that oppression is really an iceberg, that only a small piece is overt.

On Friday, I attended a Teach-In at the Law School and wrote eleven whole pages of notes in just under two hours. Law School faculty offered short reflections on topics like the Gay Nightclub, Islamophobia, and the history of HIV/AIDS in the United States. About fifty people sat on couches and chairs in the Law School commons, many queer, and shared personal experiences. Some cried, and the space felt somewhat safe despite all the factors. Folks shared that this tragedy hit so hard because the nightclub IS a sacred space for the queer community- it is a place where individuals can go, dance, drink, and be who they are. I immediately wondered, where is my safe space? And further realized, after having some trouble naming one, that my privilege prevents me from having just one. Safety is a privilege, and not one that many feel by default. This past week in a somewhat unrelated conversation with an international student, I asked the student if he felt like people in our office treated us differently. Us: me, a white, American-born woman, he, an Indian national man. The student said yes, of course he felt as though he is treated differently, but that it didn’t matter much. He shared that experiences with threats of violence and suspicious looks on the train and on the street (public spaces) because of his head covering has made him less sensitive to “being treated differently” because in the scheme of things, physical safety takes precedence over words and microaggressions. I tilted my head, thinking deeply.

As I listened to professors debate statistics and make brilliant point after brilliant point around gun violence, mass public shootings, and after witnessing the unflagging courage of queer individuals stand up to comments like “it’s not so bad out there, we don’t need to walk around afraid all the time”, I silently committed myself to a few things as I scribbled pages and pages. For this whole week, I wondered, what can I do, being a non-marginalized individual, wanting justice, wanting to care for the people I love?

I committed to keep reading. Through this week I have read about guns and gun control, how institutions perpetuate violence, and statistics that paint a picture unique from politicians narratives (on any side, frankly). And I have barely scratched the surface. Yes, there’s a great amount of crap on the internet, but with my reflective lens on, I think it’s worthwhile to hear many folks out right now.

In a similar fashion, I committed to listen. The folks targeted by this tragedy have been very brave and forthcoming about what they need- everything from food to being blunt about who loves them. I can’t even imagine the exhaustion, not just this week, but every day, for many. Being a person of faith and an individual who believes that ending the suffering of others is a duty means listening and acting on these needs.

And I commit to being compassionate, the obvious, the “duh”…But in all seriousness, compassion is almost impossible sometimes. In this moment, in the days to come, my job is to hold the suffering and mourning responsibly, to remember that pain can cause more pain. Sending metta, and lovingkindness. May all beings be free.




Fasting, Emptiness, and the Sonoran Desert

Yesterday (Friday, June 10th) I fasted for the first time this season of Ramadan. Ramadan is the time when Muslims around the world fast from food, drink, sex, cigarettes, and other amenities between sunrise and sunset for about 35 days. It is considered a very special, holy time, and many family gatherings and special iftars (the breaking of the fast) are arranged. I have fasted almost every year since I learned about the month- in Malawi, Turkey, Chicago, Los Angeles, and now Boston. It has been wonderful to learn particular traditions and feel like I get to share something with my Muslim friends.

Yesterday was a long fast, from 3:23 am to 8:21 pm. I skipped Suhoor (the meal before the first prayer of the day) to sleep, and for most of the morning, my hunger was subdued. During the afternoon, I felt slow- not a bad slow, though. Karin and I agreed that fasting helps us to realize how much time we spend thinking about food- from preparing it, to buying it, to eating it, to then thinking about our next meal. It makes a difference when you don’t spend time or money on three meals a day. We also agreed that the slowness we felt helps us be more reflective. Throughout the day, I returned to a comparison I always remember during Ramadan between Shaykh Al-Alawi’s teaching on fasting as “abstaining from seeing all that is other” to one of Zhunagzi’s Inner Chapters that distinguishes fasting from food to “fasting of the mind.” In advising a companion, Yen Hui, in political affairs, Confucius (a common character in the Zhuangzi), says:

You must fast!…I will tell you what that means. Do you think it is easy to do anything while you have [a mind]? If you do, Bright Heaven will not sanction you.

The exchange continues:

Yen Hui said, ‘My family is poor. I haven’t drunk wine or eaten any strong foods for several months. So can I be considered as having fasted?”

“That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fasting of the mind.”

“May- I ask what the fasting of the mind is?”

Confucius said, “Make your will one! Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty- and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

Emptiness is a key element to many faith traditions. My Christian friends describe their pursuit to be “empty vessels” for God to fill. In my practice of course, emptiness is associated with Nirvana or attaining enlightenment, which is the state of lacking any desires or cravings and not suffering from worldy impermanences. I could probably name examples from almost any faith tradition or ethical framework that somehow deals with emptiness.

Yesterday, I was thinking much about the physical state of emptiness. Perhaps this was because my stomach was empty, and I realized how much nourishment I both lacked from food and gained in solidarity with my friend and co-worker who is fasting for many more days than me. My mind was also preoccupied with the emptiness of the desert- a place I call home, and a place I recently visited with my colleagues and eight students (you can read more about the journey in past blog posts). I have always found the emptiness of the desert to be both terrifying and beautiful. The vastness of uncultivatable terrain, no water to be found unless you really know where it is, a place where only the strongest forms of life survive, and yet, the desert is so alive and colorful with the prickly cacti, poison rattlers, and gold, all-consuming dust. The desert is a place rich people go to cleanse their bodies in soothing hot springs, while only a few miles away, migrants die trying to find a better life.

Ramadan is a time to sit with our emptiness. The emptiness is, like the desert, an experience that both pain us and offers a unique opportunity to draw closer to the divine- and for me, this is the divine I see in every human being. I cannot forget that some of these human beings perish in the emptiness, empty stomachs, empty bladders, empty minds. Luis Urrea soberly visualizes the last moment of a man’s life in “The Devil’s Highway”, an account of several men who died or almost died crossing the Sonoran desert:



ʻAlawī, Aḥmad Ibn Muṣṭafá. Knowledge of God: A Sufic Commentary on Al Murshid Al-Muʻin of Ibn Al-ʻAshir. Norwich: Diwan, 1981. Print.
Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. Print.
Zhuangzi, and Burton Watson. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.


High School Reunion

This past weekend, I rode up to New Hampshire with my two high school friends to attend our ten-year high school reunion. “We’re getting old!” jokes aside, it was an interesting learning experience. In the ten years since I have graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, I have gotten to experience and learn quite a bit. I’ve traveled, completed more education, and met plenty of new and wonderful people. Yet sometimes, it is necessary to re-experience snippets of our past to make sense of our present. This weekend, the present became more clear to me.

High school was a generally positive experience for me, with moments of great triumph and hardship. My first year I remember waking up to snow covering my window on a December morning. This was the first time I could touch snow and it didn’t melt like it would in the mountains of California. The winter was very dark, and much of the time I felt alone, missing my family and friends. Finally during the Spring Term I started hanging out with a group of other freshman (Third Formers, to be official) who would become my best friends for the rest of high school. My outlook on the experience started to feel more positive.

Throughout my entire time at St. Paul’s, I struggled with a complicated relationship to food. The dining hall offered many options for both entrees and dessert, and my habit was to take multiple desserts at each meal. I think food reminded me of my family, because we always ate dinner together. As you can imagine, I started to gain weight, and by the time I was at the end of my freshman year, my clothes wouldn’t fit and needed two or three sizes larger in pants and dresses. Much of the time I avoided the mirror, or when it was unavoidable I sucked in my stomach and put my face down. My face also suffered from terrible acne. My weight would fluctuate a little through the four years- generally over the summer I would return home and naturally lose some, and would gain again most during the winters when being outside was difficult and cross country season had ended. It was not until my senior year of college that I would truly change my lifestyle and lose almost 40 pounds.

There were very few instances I can remember in which my weight was directly mentioned. No one necessarily called me fat to my face, or told me I couldn’t be part of something because I was too heavy. My weight affected me first, and my self-confidence, which in turn affected my ability to make friends and maintain relationships. This weekend, as we reminisced about high school and how we have changed, one of my friends commented “I think you’re just more comfortable in your own skin.” What she may not have realized is how literally that sentence holds meaning. My skin has less acne and isn’t stretched across rolls of fat. Running has never been more enjoyable to me than it is now, and I believe the real joy of it is quite separate from the calories I burn while crossing the three, five, or ten mile line. This weekend I realized that I have found things that bring me joy because I was forced to encounter times during high school (and beyond, in some cases) that caused me great pain. Hearing that one of the popular boys in high school as well as my freshman roommate thought I was weird initially brought back this pain, but as I process, I realize that pain, if handled properly, can push us to seek joy.

For many people this is quite difficult or even impossible, especially if pain comes from powerlessness. The preacher at the Alumni Memorial Service on Saturday spoke beautifully about powerlessness in death, in our fear of losing power and then feeling paralyzed when a loved one passes away. She called on the wisdom of all religious and spiritual traditions and ethical frameworks to help us begin to think about death now, not when it is too late. I could feel her love and joy from her encounters with patients of all sorts of backgrounds, how they have suffered, and how they have used the wisdom from their traditions to face the suffering. In reflecting on my own experience at St. Paul’s, my only regret is not turning toward my faith more fully to face my own pain- though I believe now that this may have been impossible given my life stage.

In conversations with various friends and classmates, I felt hope in the successes they have achieved so far. One friend described her exhaustion from the third year of medical school, another expressed her anxiety toward starting graduate school in the fall. Hearing about the work of these classmates put my own work in perspective, and the privilege I encounter as a college chaplain. To be honest, it occurred to me at some point on Saturday night that I had been mainly interested in connecting with fellow women-identified classmates, and sat with that for a while. In my work I am privileged to think deeply every day about privilege, intersectionality, and how to help students turn their passion into meaningful work, whether this includes religion and spirituality or not. For the most part my colleagues and coworkers listen and brainstorm with me, and I enjoy hearing their enlightened perspectives about making our community more inclusive and welcoming. Through these conversations I have felt empowered, because they help me understand my own identities better. This empowerment is a privilege. I hope that the challenges these conversations bring help me to continue finding joy, especially as pain surfaces.


Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 6

Monday, May 23rd


The final day of our trip and perhaps the hardest. I ran four fast miles along the road, pushing myself on the hills. My knee felt better than it had. We first drove to Native Seeds, an organization that seeks to preserve ancient seeds used by Native American tribes around Arizona so they can continue to grow the food so important to their history. A gorgeous sunflower greeted us. We met Stephanie, a young AmeriCorps Volunteer, who gave us a short tour of the site and the seed refrigerator. We were ready to step back into the heat after chilling in their for a bit. Stephanie talked to us passionately about her interests as an anthrobotanist, or studying the effects of plants and seeds on culture and human interaction. She was concerned that the organization sells the seeds they grow, because people from anywhere can buy them and try to grow them. This doesn’t work so well when a New Yorker tries to plant a desert flower. We learned a bit about grains and grinding seeds, and as we left decided to make an impromptu stop at Fort Lowell Cemetery. The cemetery itself is home to several members of the area, whose families have lived there for generations. Several veterans were buried there. In the neighboring building the remains of unidentified bodies found in the desert are interred. It was a beautiful, humble site.



We drove to the best Mexican restaurant in Tucson, El Charro, and sat at a patio table. I ordered my absolute favorite, horchata and chile relleno with chicken and Raza sauce. Yum. We ate plentifully and even our vegan contingent was excited to have some menu options. El Charro is the oldest family owned restaurant in the United States, so we had a good time exploring the property and old photos. From there, we walked to the US courthouse to witness Operation Streamline.


Operation Streamline is a business law (yes, business) that streamlines the process of criminalizing illegal entry into the United States (without proper documents). The convicts are given a choice: go to trial (and most certainly lose, making their crime a felony) or plead guilty, receive a misdemeanor, serve between 30-120 days in a detention center and get deported. The courtroom was beautiful, and enormous. A male judge sat overlooking several rows of convicts- all young men, handcuffed, scooted together on dark wood benches. Seven men stood close together at the front, where microphones waited for them. An attorney represented about seven men at once. Before a new set of men came up to the microphones, the judge would repeat information. “You are here for the crime of entering the United States illegally. If you choose to plead not guilty, you will go to trial and face a jury. If you waive your right to a trial, you also give up or waive some other rights.” A translator spoke in Spanish into headphones that each man wore. Each man answered four questions:

“Are you of sound mind to make a decision?”

“Is it true you are not a citizen or US national?”

“Is it true you attempted to enter this country under illegal pretenses?”

“Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”

And every man answered like this: “Si…si…si………..culpable.” Guilty.

We watched for a while as line after line of young men were led back to their cells. The judge always ended with “thank you gentlemen, and good luck.” A coffee vat sat on a table in the courtroom with white paper cups. I wondered who that was for.

We left the courtroom in silence and meandered back to our cars. We returned to Sonoran Delights and tried to pick up our spirits. This time I ordered raspados con nieve: like a snow cone with strawberry syrup and ice cream. It was just as delicious as the first time. I continued to process Operation Streamline in my mind- while watching the courtroom, it’s almost difficult to feel emotional because the process is so.. Mathematical. As I reflected on the rows and rows of young men in handcuffs, I wondered why they had come, how they had come, and if they would come again.


At home, we napped and many of us journaled in quiet. For our final reflection, two students prepared a beautiful affirmations table on which each of us had a namecard next to a glass. We each wrote notes to each other, describing what we love about one another. Then we shared our favorite meals, our biggest challenges, and who we would like to connect with more on campus. It was a lovely end to a most meaningful journey together.

Tuesday, May 24th

The plane shook as we ascended into the desert heat. I watched the sand spread across the ground and gazed at the plateau formations. The desert slowly changed to ocean, and we turned to land at LAX. A tear escaped my face as the coliseum and 110 freeway came into view. Home.