Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 5

Sunday, May 22nd

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And an early morning it was! At 8:30 am, we arrived at Casa Maria, a house out of the Catholic Worker Movement that serves several hundreds of homeless folk meals each day. The leader Brian “greeted” us with a huff, and we were promptly set to work bagging sandwiches, cookies and eggs. The Spanish speakers in our group worked at the front serving soup, and I and one other student bagged muffins and cookies. He taught me a neat way to tie a plastic bag- flip it over twice and then tie it! One of the workers shared her story in Spanish and a student translated. She talked about coming to the United States and working so hard to provide for her daughters, even quitting her first job because the hours didn’t allow her to spend time with them. One of our students, the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan, shared that evening that she hugged Laura as we were leaving. She told Laura that she felt bad that her parents had worked so hard and sometimes she didn’t treat them the best. “They know”, Laura said. “They know”.

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We drove a little south to the San Xavier Indian Reservation to attend Catholic mass at the San Xavier Mission Del Bac. Instantly I felt warmed- in the parking lot, several folks had set up stands selling fry bread with green chile, cheese and beans, or powdered sugar. I shared one with Karin and devoured it pretty quickly. The mass was packed full of people, so much that we had to stand. I loved the guitars that guided the hymns and that at the end, the priest thanked us for coming. It was lovely to see a community of faith so strong and a highlight of the week for me.

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It was time to have some leisure, so we drove to 4th avenue and sent everyone off on their own to find lunch. Karin and two other students and I ate at a burger joint, where I had a spicy spicy burger with habanero and jalapeño. It was life giving. Next we wandered to the Chocolate Iguana where we bought coffee and chocolates and one student bought a mile-long eclair. It was a cute store that would make us laugh later on, trying to say “at the chocolate iguana” without giggling. In a local artist shop, I bought a blue pig and a small cactus plant. We were all quite tired from the early morning, so we headed back to Alma Del Sol and napped for a bit. I put the lasagna in the oven and read Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, a true story about 25 men that either died or were found in critical condition in the Sonoran desert 15 years ago. The book details accounts of the coyote, Mendez, who led the group across the border but somehow found himself unable to navigate as usual. Eerily, the anniversary of the border patrol finding he bodies in the desert was this day, May 22nd.

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Everyone enjoyed my lasagna (thank goodness) and two students led us in a very fun and meaningful hot tub reflection on the importance of water. Four students revealed a secret synchronized Bhangra and Irish Step Dance they had choreographed and we had a big laugh. Some of us took a short moonlight walk around Alma Del Sol, and then we headed to bed for our final full day in Tucson.

Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 4

Saturday, May 21st

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Ah, the weekend. But no rest for the weary… Or our group, in this case. We got ready early with our working clothes and sunscreen and drove south through Green Valley to Arivaca Road, where we drive twelve miles down to take another dirt road for Forever Yong farm. About halfway down Arivaca Road, a border checkpoint appeared and we stopped briefly. At Forever Yong, Yong and John put us to work on the farm. They were harvesting garlic, and some of us went out into the field while others waited by a set of tables to tie the garlic in bunches and hang it over ropes so it could be sold. We got nice and dirty and all smelled deliciously of garlic. After working for about two hours, we sat down near the farmhouse for a delicious, like WHAT in the world, almost totally vegan meal. Corn and black bean salad, rice pilaf, and the most intensely tasty butternut squash lasagna. The fresh iced tea was nice on our throats.

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After lunch, John and a neighbor farmer sat down with us to talk about their experience with the border patrol. They described their area as a “constitution free zone”, one in which the border patrol roams free and searches their property without warrants. One of the most frustrating things for John was the BP’s neglect in trying to form relationships with the farmers, so they might understand the issue better. “It’s a hassle to even go to the grocery store with that checkpoint there,” John said. “We’ve protested it for months.” John also told us that while they still see migrants cross their farms, the numbers have decreased quite a bit. This is due to a few reasons, namely, that the Mexican economy is actually growing, and the real estate crisis of 2008 in the United States really effected migrants’ abilities to find work here, so there is less crossing. John firmly believes migrants are not dangerous, and mentioned only one farmer had been shot, but that he had gone hunting for cartel members. We thanked our hosts, dusted ourselves off, and began the rest of the journey down to the border at Nogales.

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Nogales is a port city, and every day thousands of cars and pedestrians cross the border. Tourists cross into Nogales, Mexico to find cheap souvenirs, and workers with “green cards” drive sometimes several hours every morning to enter the US. The freeway ended, and we curved to the east where we parked next to a lot for customs workers. As we drove down the freeway, we could see the fence. It ran through hillsides, and we could see colorful houses on the Mexican side perched on the hill tops. One student sighed and said, “look at that big beautiful Mexican flag, waving slowly. It’s as if it is saying hello, beckoning to us.”

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We parked and the giant steel fence stared us down. The fence is quite porous, though- a small child could fit through the bars. On the other side, buses line up to take people to other parts in Sonora, and shops advertised check advances and medical supplies. A family met on both sides of the border. They laughed and cried and we learned that the grandmother on the Mexican side hadn’t seen her grandchildren on the US side in 16 years. Up the hill to our right, a border patrol truck rested beneath a watchtower. A police man spoke to some of the students, revealing a tunnel from a house on the Mexican side to a house on the US side had been busted just last week.

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We decided to walk to the crossing, and I went ahead. Ed’s Border Parking Lot sprawled to my right. Tears rushed down my face as my flip flops slid along the pavement. The wall, though domineering and darkly regal, was just a wall. And yet, it separates an entire lifestyle and set of opportunities. I thought about my friends, undocumented in this country, who could very well be reaching their hands through to touch mine. This will never be my story. I can’t pretend to understand or be in solidarity, so I hope to hold the image of the wall in my mind as a reminder of my privilege and my own narrative. But there’s opportunity to build community. Some kids play volleyball using the fence as the net. In El Paso, a joint Catholic mass happens on both sides every Sunday. The fence may be made of steel, but the border won’t stop innovation. I wrote this in the car:

The exit numbers keep decreasing. The temperature marker in our car increases. I feel butterflies. International border signs flash. No weapons allowed in Mexico, some say. I feel familiar tears.

When we park at the border I smirk at the parking lot name. Ed’s Border Lot. It’s funny how the exclusion of a border creates opportunity, capitalistic. I’m feeling sad. I can see Nogales through the fence, through the slits. Children small enough could fit through. I see a border patrol truck parked up the hill by the watch tower. It’s hot. We walk slowly up the hill. I watch a family greet each other through the fence and then a girlfriend and boyfriend. I see signs in Spanish across the fence, banks, markets, shuttles. The line of cars to cross looks congested and slow.

I feel as though I bought a movie ticket and created a display in my mind. It’s a guilty feeling. The power in human connection should not be exoticized but should be acknowledged. The border is not my territory, it’s my privilege to walk free without anyone questioning me. The migrants are invisible and hope to stay that way. They don’t want any trouble, but the migra do. They zoom around, all over the farms, acting like they’ll protect us from the big bad wolf. More like those who cried wolf. The checkpoint patrol agent gives us a light talking to, reminding us to carry identification. Freedom?

I think about putting my hand through the border fence and quickly negate the idea. Fences, fences, fences. Cars. Barbed wire. The colorful houses look over the fence that sit on the hills of Nogales. The fence cannot hide the view.

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So many complications- such a Buddhist moment. One ripple causes several. A solution causes other issues, we have no answers though we think we might.
We stopped briefly at Tumacacori Mission before returning home. A beautiful church and historic site, Jesuits had used it to build up the Catholic community in the area. Warring tribes strained this though, and we learned that the whole property was abandoned for about 65 years. I felt distracted walking around. Across the street, I bought a delicious guacamole and carne asada mix at the Santa Cruz Chile Company. We drove home and Karin cooked us a fantastic specialty of hers, what she calls “feisty chicken”. After dinner we enjoyed a bonfire night, roasted jumbo marshmallows, and got to know each other through some quirky ice breakers.

Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 3

Friday, May 20th

It was a still morning, even warmer than the day before. I ran by two coyotes crossing the street. As I sat on the deck eating breakfast, I listened to the different bird songs and felt my grandmother with me. She had a big bay window in the kitchen that we used to watch all the birds through. Every morning she would fill the bird feeders and as the birds came to eat, she would tell us about the different birds. I remember the bushes so tight together just beyond the bird feeders, my cousins and I would clamber through them on our adventures. We would build forts around her house, using the trees and rocks and boundaries. Once she woke us all up early and told us a pirate had hidden treasure nearby and left us a map. We set out on an all day adventure, following the clues. The pirate had been running from some rival pirates and hidden the treasure in a place they would never find. My grandmother had always wanted to be an archaeologist, so I believed her. When we finally dug up the chest, buried at least a foot underground underneath her deck, we donned our plastic gold necklaces and eye patches and yelled “arrrrr!” One of the aunts filmed us. It was only several years later when I hid behind a chair my grandmother sat in to talk on the phone with someone that I heard the truth, she had planned the whole thing.

Half of our group ventured to Casa Maria this Friday morning, while the rest of us stayed behind to journal and leave for Jumah prayers at the Islamic Center of Tucson. Karin and I searched for parking and smirked- the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center had similar issues. We eventually parked and though we made it to the prayer almost on time, we soon went in search of some new sandals for Karin (no broken sandals in Tucson!). Finally we witnessed the last part of the prayer and met the rest of our group for a discussion with some of the Center’s leaders.

The first thing I learned was that at least two of the leaders were converts to Islam. Many of us commented on how diverse and organized the Center seemed. They noted that the Center served over 5000 people and hosted a variety of classes, activities and gatherings for children and adults. One particular issue we learned about was the high rise apartment building next door. Tenants throw glass bottles toward the Center and a few times, these bottles have almost hit people. Once, a bottle landed less than a foot from a child’s head.

This discussion arose out of a broader thematic question for our group: why does it seem that mainly Christian organizations engage in border justice activities, like water bottle drops? One of our hosts answered that in the first place, combating Islamophobia tends to be the main focus in Islamic Centers. This Center had tried to work with a church to do water bottle drops, but faced intense legal trouble for it. The church they worked with simply received a warning. The idea of “justice” alone is distinct for different faith communities- this also means that responses to injustices will be different. What I see is a type of privilege in this instance- an ability for one faith institution to engage in justice activities that may push legal limits while another is strictly prohibited. Perhaps this is an example of how privilege can be utilized to do good. Would we rather no one drop water bottles?

After our hosts provided us a fantastic and gracious lunch, we returned to the minivans to drive 90 miles to the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center on the Reservation. The reservation sprawls over the southwest of Arizona and continues across the border- and of course, this land belonged to the O’odham long before there was any border. The moment we entered the Reservation, our cell phone service plummeted. All around us was green- treetops, the distant mountain ranges, and crops. We passed a border checkpoint and continued on toward Sells, where we would turn off. Along the way, we noticed a slow procession of cars to our right. A ranger vehicle led, followed by a white pickup with a tall white cross along the back window and a coffin in the bed, and finally another ranger SUV. It seemed as though we drove for hours. After passing through Sells, we turned left onto a tiny dirt road where we followed the directions from the Cultural Center’s representative: head south and the road will curve east, go past a white landmark on your right, and turn on to Rt. 19. Follow the road 12 miles and when you see the water tower on your left, make a left. Miraculously, we made it to the Cultural Center and yet again, our hosts were so gracious to keep the Center open for us past closing time. Jeannette led us through the museum and outside, where we learned about some historic architectural buildings made from cacti ribs. One of us asked why the migra were crawling around the Reservation. “The cartels are big through here”, she said. “You don’t see it through the bushes and trees, but they’re there, and at night, they’re very active.” Some of our group shuddered. We learned further that the Tohono O’odham have experienced much trouble with the border patrol searching their homes and stifling their cultural gatherings. What’s more, the US Mexico border runs right through the Reservation, causing issues within the community as some members are documented US Citizens and some are not, and the divide between those with documents and those without has put great strain on their ability to preserve cultural competency. Jeannette also talked about the hierarchy of family lines within the O’odham. She said, “you see all these plaques with young people who have represented the tribe in DC and other places? They’re always the same kids, same families. Many of the young people would never dream of getting to do these things.”

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On our way back after taking two hours of Jeanette’s time, we began our drive back to Tucson. I wrote this in the car:

We start our drive on a familiar road, Old Ajo Way. It runs all the way through Tucson to the border with the Tohono O’odham nation. As we inch closer the road becomes less populated with gas stations and stores. At one point, I wonder what would happen to us if we got a flat tire. We see a funeral procession crawling on the right shoulder, a small wooden white cross in a pickup truck surrounded by Rangers. All along the road, the Border Patrol zoom past us in white SUVs with green stripes. La Migra. I look to my left at the vast cacti and creosote and notice dust kicked up in the distance. Mountains surround us at various distances. We are quiet, nervous- I hope I can follow the cryptic directions the man on the phone told me. We finally turn left off the highway and see a town. Small haphazard houses sit along the road. We pass a modest mall, a high school, and a district office, all mixed with more nothing. We see a cow and feel lifted. We see the water tower, our land marker- we turn left. Our car shuffles along the dirt road and we arrive at our destination, the cultural center and museum. I’m amazed that we made it, and grateful. On the way back we stop at the border checkpoint and the migra jokes with us. I feel like an invader, a mindless soldier behind the general. We have so many questions. How do the natives feel about the migrants? How dangerous is it- really? Why isn’t their more violence between the migrants and the natives? I can’t answer these questions. I know I’m feeling uneasy. I wonder if this will ever change. The desert is a blessing and a curse depending on who you are and where you are going, or not going. I feel love for the students in the car as I feel their emotions rise. We pass dollar general. We are back in Tucson, no passport necessary. 

After reaching Tucson we drove into town and picked up Ethiopian lentils and stew at Cafe Desta for dinner. Two students led us in a reflection on the last three days, and we slept.

Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 2

Thursday, May 19th


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This morning, I woke up even earlier at 5:30 am because the sun lit up our room. I ran again, and two students joined me. It was really nice to have company, even if the temperature was significantly higher. While we trotted uphill, we waved to a man that looked half-Jack Sparrow and half-Indiana Jones. I saw him every day.

After a leisurely breakfast on our deck at Alma del Sol, we set off to visit the Tucson Indian Center. Though we didn’t have an appointment, the very generous Director of Programs gave us a thorough tour- so thorough that we had to rush over to the University of Arizona for our next meeting (“Travel is blessed”, Karin reminded me- we should always hold those whom we meet in our travels with highest respect). The TIC gave us all a significant amount of hope, especially given the brief history we received of the Center and the immense struggles their clients have endured. The TIC is over 50 years old, and many of the employees have worked their for more than ten years. Each day, they receive clients who wish to utilize wellness services or employment services (and many times both). Wellness services include health care referrals, meditation and exercise, diabetes courses, and a program similar to AA with specific cultural attention to the local tribes’ cultures. In every program, this attention is present. After greeting several employees and taking a hasty photo in the Center, we bid our new friends farewell and sped to the U of A.

At the University, we were greeted by a shy PhD student who led us down into a basement quarter with no windows. The space is home to BORDERS, a department devoted to the study and technology of national security and protection. We listened to the student describe a kiosk that they are developing for ports of entry to increase efficiency of immigration procedures. Then we got to see the kiosk in action, when one of our graduate student leaders asked if he could try it out. We all had a laugh when the kiosk avatar, named “Brad”, told the student leader that from his answers Brad “sensed deception”. “I’m sorry Brad”, he replied. This visit was quite important for our group- though we questioned the intricacies of the technology and its purpose, one student put it well when he said, “we should try to understand this…it’s the way of the future.” I had mixed feelings about the department. The technology is quite advanced, and could be utilized in other fields like healthcare. I couldn’t help but wonder if we will ever get to a point where no human interaction is necessary to cross a border (or be denied entry). And moreover- do we want that?


A local artist’s work in the Tucson Tamale Company

Karin and I stole away for a few minutes before the rest of our group finished asking questions, and bought delicious tamales for everyone to eat for lunch. Most students had never tried them- soft cornmeal cakes with cheese, meat, or vegetables on the inside. The whole cake is steamed in a corn husk (and in banana leaves or other vehicles in different countries). I devoured a green corn cheese tamal and a spicy chicken. After a lunch much awaited, we walked just down the street to a much different department on campus, the Binational Migration Institute, housed in the Mexican American Studies office. Though our appointment did not pan out, we poured over the research projects represented by detailed posters along the hallway. The Institute promotes research on abnormal migrants and their experience both during migration and after arrival. They recently released a study around unidentified bodies found in the desert, and unfortunately, the number has increased recently. I felt really drawn to the work of the Institute, perhaps because there is nothing more endearing in my mind than an individual or group crossing the Sonoran desert. I understand the complications around immigration processes and the law…yet realize that death is a very real fate for many who attempt the crossing. 

Since we had some time, we ventured to find raspados, or Mexican ice desserts. Most of our group ordered a “Macedonia”: fresh cut fruit with ice cream and condensed milk, or lechera. I ordered a big cup of fresas con crema, or strawberries and cream. It was a delightful midday break.


Our bellies full, we drove south of Tucson to Clinica Amistad, a free clinic that Father Ricardo, a Catholic priest engaged in border justice work, began a few years ago. The clinic is run entirely by volunteers, and sees between 30-70 patients in an evening. Clinica Amistad operates Wednesday and Thursday evenings and now Saturday mornings, and they hope to receive some grants that will quadruple their capacity. This clinic is so important, not only to the patients that are served here, but to the entire health care infrastructure. One of Clinica Amistad’s Board members explained to us that many “middle class” patients are now virtually uninsured- though they have insurance, they could never pay their high deductible. This is an increasing issue in the US. After we learned the history of the Clinic, which moved locations about a year ago, the clinic manager shared with us about growing up on the border. We again left in a hurry and I wished we could stay longer. In just two days, we had been blessed to meet several folks enthusiastic to share with us, even though we arrived unannounced. I loved one student’s observation of a house across the busy street- a dilapidated gate, vintage pickup truck with chipped paint, and the mountains singing blue in the background. “They are happy with this”, she said. 


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Our last stop for the evening was at El Tiradito Shrine in the oldest part of Tucson, Barrio Viejo. We met yet another enthusiastic new friend who runs a nonprofit next to the Shrine called Spoken Futures. Their mission is to give space to young people who have ideas and passions and channel them through poetry and spoken word. The director noted, “I think it’s silly to say that we encourage young people to have a voice. They already have a voice. We need to get people to listen.”After an improptu tour, we spent some time praying at the Shrine and waited for the vigil to start. The vigil happens every Thursday evening and is dedicated to the migrants and the lives lost. Members of Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths were in attendance. The vigil was led by a very nice priest named Father John, and we introduced ourselves. At dinner I shared the legend of El Tiradito with the group- a sad tale about a man named Juan who falls in love with his mother in law and in turn, his wife murders him. There are several versions of the story. El Tiradito is a cultural icon in Tucson, and full of wishes and dreams, some fulfilled, some still in waiting.

As I lay in bed, I reflected on how much the sounds and smells of Alma del Sol reminded me of my grandmother’s lake house. If only she were there to educate us on the different bird songs.

Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 1

Bajo La Misma Luna: Tuesday and Wednesday, May 17-18

Over the next few days, I will post about my recent trip to Tucson, Arizona. Along with the two other CSDS staff and eight student leaders, I spent seven days studying border justice, interfaith leadership, Native American history, and desert spirituality. This pilgrimage was offered by the Global Citizenship Project in the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service at Northeastern University.

My alarm barked at me at 4 am on Tuesday. Dammit, it’s so early. I zombie walked into the shower and quickly got ready. My green smoothie froze my throat as I gulped it down. Ten of us met at the airport and anxiously awaited our flight to Minneapolis, where we would connect to Phoenix. The landing in Phoenix was terrifying- the high heat caused rollercoaster drops and jerks. After gathering our bags and waiting for the final two students to join us, we were on our way to rent our Kia Sedona minivans. Finally, we headed to our first meeting with the Arizona Interfaith Movement (AIM).

The AIM spoke to us about their work with congregations around Arizona, and their focus on the Golden Rule as a way to find common ground. They asserted that while not political, many of the participants in the work cared deeply about many social justice issues. “We are the most diverse interfaith organization in Arizona”, the Executive Director shared. I wondered what exactly that meant. Among the three full-time staff members we met, some students at Arizona State University shared the work of their interfaith group called Sun DABT, or Sun Devils Are Better Together. Their leader used much of the language familiar to the Interfaith Youth Core around shared values and social justice. As we left, AIM showered us with gifts: an interfaith calendar, an AIM pin, a license plate sticker with the Golden Rule, and several pamphlets. We were uplifted by our new friends and excited to learn about another campus’ interfaith work.


On the road to Tucson

We ate our first meal together at the Original Burrito Company, where we devoured burritos and carne asada plates. I sighed. Finally, decent Mexican food. After finishing our dinner and feeling rushed by an oncoming dust storm, the twin minivans headed out of Phoenix toward Tucson, where our Air BnB awaited us. We drove 80 miles on the 10 E before exiting the freeway, and I suddenly felt closer to home: the 10 connects directly to Los Angeles. We drove another 20 miles into the dark desert, finally curving onto a dirt road where a beautiful solar house called Alma Del Sol welcomed us. The owner of the house lived next door and showed us to our rooms. Karin and I settled on one of the downstairs rooms, where I gladly chose a futon with a southwest-style blanket.

Though we all felt exhausted, Karin, three students and I jumped back in the minivan to pick up our groceries. We had decided to cook our own breakfasts and three meals throughout the trip, creating a deeper sense of community (and saving some money). Our drive to the store was perhaps the hardest I have laughed all year- two Indian students and a Pakistani-American student, along with Karin and me, discussed everything from the disgrace of processed salami to BHANGRA!!!!!!!!!!! We loaded our trunk with cereal and ingredients to make butter chicken, and finally headed home. I fell asleep in less than two minutes.


Familiar agreements (for Sunday School)

On Wednesday morning, I awoke at 5:30 am due to sunrise and jetlag. I pulled my spandex on to attempt my first run in the desert. What a thrill. The dry, warm air hit my face as I stared down the road. Cacti for miles. The view was priceless. I felt right at home, my shoes crunching in the dirt.Our first stop after enjoying breakfast leisurely was to Southside Presbyterian Church’s Day Labor Registry. Driving by the church, several men across the street jumped up and waved, hoping we were hiring cheap labor. We circled the church and entered the parking lot. Though we didn’t have an appointment, the coordinator of the Day Labor Registry, Eliezar, eagerly showed us inside and seated us. We spent almost two hours speaking with Eliezar as he shared his story of being undocumented and struggling to find work. Now that he is documented, he coordinates the Registry several days a week. Eliezar explained the rules of the Registry (he showed us how the lottery works, as well as the agreements that include not drinking or using illegal substances, not accepting less than the minimum wage, and completing a training course). He told us that often, undocumented people are caught by means of simple traffic violations or noise complaints. “I was at a party and we were drinking, but we were inside the apartment complex. Someone called the police, and they demanded ID from everyone. I didn’t have mine with me, and they threatened to call the Border Patrol.” It’s not uncommon for the BP to accept bribes from undocumented people. As we thanked Eliezar on our way to lunch, he educated us: “People call me illegal”, he said, “but I am not illegal. A person cannot be illegal. If someone runs a red light in their car, are they illegal?”

The view of our backyard at sunrise

From Southside Presbyterian, we made our way to downtown Tucson for lunch at Nook, where we enjoyed yummy but modestly priced fare. I devoured a vegetarian tamale pie with green chile sauce and a chai latte.


Decor and tamale pie at Nook

After our lunch, we headed back to Southside Presbyterian to meet with Reverend John Fife, one of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement, and Amy Beth, the Director of Ministry. John shared his story of starting the Movement with the legendary Jim Corbett, and Amy Beth told us about the work of Southside now, in a revived Sanctuary Movement. She shared some of the recent sanctuary seekers, including Rosa, who was able to stay in the United States to care for her children. After taking a moment of silence at Southside’s dedicated sculpture to the unidentified bodies found in the desert, we headed home to Alma Del Sol for a workshop on storytelling for social change, led by one of our graduate students. We spent two hours listening to the stories of our peers and coaching them to be persuasive and relatable. The workshop not only made us effective storytellers, it also served as a great way to be vulnerable with each other and thus to start building deep relationships.


Cactus at Alma Del Sol

One of the Indian students made us a delicious dinner of butter chicken and gobi (cauliflower) and as soon as we gobbled it up, I fell asleep, ready to run again in the morning.

On Self-Diminshment and Owning Decisions

On Thursday morning, I read two lines from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach and burst into tears: “No punishment anyone lays on you could possibly be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment.” (Palmer, 178) The context of this text was describing Rosa Parks’ courageous decision to sit in the front of the bus. She was willing to take the criticism and even physical arrest before playing a role in her own oppression. Wow.

The reason I burst into tears is because, honestly, this week has been tough. Several instances with students and staff challenged me in how I see myself as a leader. Without breaking anonymity, I will describe the greatest challenge and what I (think I) learned.

I remember the ministry class on leadership in divinity school. It is strange to study leadership from books, yet necessary, as I found this week. In our course, we diagnosed ourselves as leaders- what skills were particular to our leader personality? We analyzed an organization and how the leaders succeeded, or didn’t, in running the organization. Along the way we read different wisdom on leadership. We read Leadership on the Line, a book by Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linsky, two professors at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The thing I remember most from this book is that when leaders make decisions that involve change, especially change that undoes roles of individuals, people get upset. Some people may go so far as to leave the community. It sounded simple, but its real.

This week I had the difficult task, along with my two colleagues, of deciding who among the 19 excellent applicants would come on our pilgrimage to the US desert southwest. I knew this would be challenging for a few reasons. First, I experienced a blatant “who the heck am I” syndrome to be a decider of this fate. Second, many of these applicants are wonderful students that I know. And finally, I knew this would be deeply challenging because the issues around border justice and the interfaith action around this plague me and inspire me. In my humble opinion, the more passionate young people working together on border justice, across religious and spiritual lines, the better. It feels terrible to that people might believe, through my actions, they are not worthy to learn or serve- because they certainly are.

My colleagues and I made our decisions. We spent hours reading, discussing, arguing, and scratching our chins. Finally, we sent out the emails. I have been on the receiving end of countless acceptance and rejection emails. The acceptances make me giddy. I’ll admit, even the smallest workshop proposal acceptance makes me feel like I have accomplished something. Rejection is never easy. The process stinks. In my experience, I read the first line, close the email, and tell myself I didn’t care that much. I quickly negate that. I wonder what I could have done better. I wonder if it could be a mistake. I wonder if I should apply again next year, or find something else. I write in my journal. I call my mom. There is no rejection email, however emphatic of how excellent the candidate pool was, that can assuage one’s pain. At least, not to me. The worst kind of rejection is one that makes me believe my role in the community has changed, or has become less important. It is as if someone is saying “you really are not as meaningful to this community as you think”, even though this might be completely unfounded.

I know some of the students we love felt angry, upset, or dumbfounded. Frankly, their feelings are legitimate. I suppressed my urge to email them, text them, or call them and say “I am so sorry…I love you, you are amazing, you are essential!” because, unfortunately, real leadership demands that we stand by our decisions. In higher education, we talk often about not speaking for anyone but ourselves. Sometimes, however, leadership demands that we take a stand on behalf of others.

Making decisions is core to the human condition. As a Buddhist, I know this- change happens all the time because of decisions we or someone beside us make. Change drives suffering. Leaders are people with whom we trust to make decisions. When I took my current position, I deemed myself a leader of a community, and thus, someone who would make educated, fair, and informed decisions. Heifitz and Linsky were right- decisions that involve change make some people upset because they uproot the roles in which we have planted ourselves. This happens with rules and expectations as well- when rules change, we feel like our privileges are being taken away. I do not use the word privilege as a bad thing- I enjoy countless privileges that while I believe I have worked for, would be pretty upset if they were taken from me. This week I made a decision, with my team, that congratulated some and excluded others. People felt upset and angry because they felt as if their wonderful contributions to the community did not matter. And the hardest part of this is knowing I caused harm, whether I could avoid it or not.

Back to Parker Palmer and The Courage to Teach. The reason this quote made me burst into tears is because I have had to question my own understanding of myself as a leader this week. For a few days, I told myself “the reason students are upset is because they do not see me as a leader, and I am a bad leader.” Yet, this was not necessarily true- and irrelevant, to be honest. The crucial point is that I was not sure I saw myself as a leader. When we lead, we make crucial decisions that influence our communities. The real test of whether we are a leader or not is not the decision we made. The test is how we own the decision. How we carry on after we make a decision and continue to affirm every member of our community as essential reflects how just and informed we are. My leadership was tested this week, and initially, I failed. I let others’ pain diminish my view of myself. I am working to own my decisions this week, however big or small. Most importantly, I will work to affirm those who see themselves as diminished, because Parker Palmer is right- the worst pain is that which makes us feel as though we are less than we thought.

 

Religious Literacy: It’s Personal

“Dad,” I stuttered nervously. “I think I’m Buddhist.” My father looked confused. “What kind of Christianity is that?” he responded.

It was not easy to explain to my devout Catholic father why I felt drawn to another faith at the age of 16. I wasn’t hurt by the church, or bored at mass, or even trying to rebel…I simply found a practice and philosophy that made sense to me in a confusing, ever-changing world. Spending my junior year of high school studying in Tokyo, Japan, I delved into the study of Buddhist philosophy and the practice of compassion after a spiritual encounter at a Buddhist Temple. When I returned from Japan, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path became central to my high school life, and still, they guide me in the work I do as higher education professional.

The good news about my father is that through our discussions and his willingness to learn, he has grown to embrace my faith and recognizes how essential my practice is to my work and success. He even organized an interfaith leadership conference for high school students, which warmed my heart. I feel lucky to have an open-minded father, and through my experience with him, I know that religious literacy is essential for both our society to flourish as a whole, and for individuals to feel welcome and included, that their identity matters. My dad showed me that I mattered to him by committing to learn about my faith and how the core elements of Buddhism guide me in my work and relationships.

Last week, Northeastern University students were on Spring Break, and many students traveled on Alternative Spring Break trips around the country and the world to learn, serve, and get away from homework. As the Director of the Global Citizenship Project, housed in Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service, I decided it would be great to offer students unable to leave Boston a chance to “get away” and gain some religious literacy. Over the course of four days, we bused, rode public transit, and walked to nine different religious and spiritual sites. We observed worship, met community leaders, and took in the beauty and particularity of each sacred place.

Traveling to different sacred spaces with students is always a wonderful experience for me. I see them challenged with the discomfort of entering a new place and their struggle to remain respectful but curious. I see their eyes light up when they learn something surprising about a tradition that is not their own but that connects with their own convictions. But the most exciting part of these experiences is seeing students realize that their differences are an asset, that engaging with differences help us understand our own beliefs better.

Increasing religious literacy certainly includes deepening our knowledge of other faiths’ practices and rituals. Part of cultivating diversity means knowing what food to serve, how to dress, or where to sit. Yet I see a higher level of religious literacy not in the knowledge that we grow, but in the openness of our minds that we develop. Just as my students are learning to make connections between traditions and acknowledge particularities, my own father learned to view other faiths as members of the same team committed to love and justice. I am deeply thankful he committed to developing this state of mind, and that we can play for the same team.

 

How A Million Planning Meetings Taught Me to Humanize: Reflecting on the New England Interfaith Student Summit

12698482_1210046665691835_7266303570145258112_oI remember sitting in my friend Karissa’s living room, crammed between Sean and Antonia on a vintage couch, typing furiously. Around me, my fellow Interfaith Council members shouted questions to no one in particular:

“We need to update the website to change the time of the workshops!”

“When are the t-shirts getting here?”

“Did someone confirm the lunch order?”

This warm Los Angeles night, the twelve committee members of the Student Multifaith Leadership Conference (SMLC) worked late into the night. The SMLC was only one week away. We felt excited, but overwhelmed- how would everything get finished in time for the big day?

The inaugural SMLC took place five years ago this April. I remember plopping down on my couch that Friday evening when all of the chaplains, student leaders, and community leaders had finally gone back to their respective campuses. Though not everything went as planned that day, the committee agreed that the SMLC was a success. I took a long look around the room at my fellow Interfaith Council members who had become my closest friends. This conference had offered us so much- a chance to meet students from other campuses, event planning experience, and most of all, it had brought us together in a way only late-night planning sessions with snacks and laughter could.

This past Friday, the student leaders of the Northeastern University Interfaith Council (NUIC) welcomed over 100 students and staff from college campuses around New England to the first ever New England Interfaith Student Summit (NEISS). The day made me nostalgic for my last year at the University of Southern California (USC), the year I wrote two theses, chatted with Antonia long into spring evenings about our futures, the year the Interfaith Council “peace-lucks”, our informal snack hangouts, birthed the idea for the SMLC.

I remember that year feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work on my to-do list, yet somehow having the most fun during my time at USC. I remember sitting on Karissa’s couch a week before the SMLC thinking, :”Oh my goodness, there is too much to do! And yet- how the heck did we pull this off!?” I remember those planning sessions now, and I know that the friendships we formed working under stress and lack of sleep are unlike any other. I remember this past month watching the NUIC leaders with the utmost attention to their project, the NEISS, learning to work together and support each other. This past Friday, I witnessed the laughter among them, mirroring the close relationships I cherish with my fellow USC Interfaith Council members to this day. The truth is, I remember those late-night meetings more than the actual SMLC itself. I remember laughing at the chaos of coordinating all the moving pieces. I remember rushing out to buy Karissa a birthday cake so we could celebrate as we worked. I remember feeling so proud of our team, just like I do today.

The New England Interfaith Student Summit offered a Master Class with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee. I have admired Ms. Gbowee for some time, as the founder of an interfaith women’s movement in Liberia, her home country, that brought an end to the Civil War in 2002. Hearing her stories of triumph, struggle, and ultimately of working across difference made me think about my own foundational beliefs as an interfaith leader. Ms. Gbowee spoke about shared humanity in her keynote address to Northeastern on Thursday evening, posing a powerful question to all of us. She addressed the Northeastern community with a powerful assertion: “Until you have the difficult conversations, the ones that acknowledge our differences, you will walk around campus seeing the people like you as people, and the people not like you as objects.” She continued, “I see your humanity. Do you see mine?”

Thinking about shared humanity brought me back to Malawi during my training for the Faiths Act Fellowship. The Fellowship brought thirty young interfaith leaders together to travel around the world, gathering stories of interfaith cooperation around the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. With nine of the other fellows, I spent almost two months traveling around Malawi to learn from religious leaders about their communities’ actions to end poverty, specifically, to treat Malaria and other infectious diseases. I remember visiting a community hospital in the Mangochi District, an area in central Malawi on the bank of Lake Malawi. The hospital boasted three doctors- more than any in the district. Some hospitals in Malawi had no doctors, as we learned.

A line outside the hospital had already formed that morning as the twelve of us (ten fellows and two guides) piled out of our seven-person van. The line was comprised mostly of young women, many of whom craddled their newborns in their arms. The dust kicked up around us as we wiped the sweat off our faces. We followed our guides into the hospital and proceeded down a long corridor toward the Malaria ward. As we filed into a narrow room with several beds, our guide began to explain the history and structure of the hospital. I listened intently, scribbling notes. When the lead in my mechanical pencil broke, I glanced up, and suddenly the guide’s words fell away. A young woman around my own age at the time met my gaze. Her dark eyes seemed to call out to me with a look both inviting and filled with fear. In her arms, she craddled a tiny baby. The baby was pale and slept peacefully. Our guide gestured to the woman. Matter-of-factly, he said: “This child has Malaria. The paleness of the baby is due to severe anemia. It is not likely the child will survive.” My eyes welled with tears as I maintained eye contact with the young woman. How could my guide be so factual about this? Was he used to this? Did this mother know the chances of her baby surviving? Did it matter?

Ms. Gbowee described the immense work it took to bring the women together before they began the work of building a movement. She said, “We had to work on ourselves first. We had to show each other that we are more than someone’s wife. We are people. And we have passions, and we can use them to make peace.” She remembered telling the women that they could find common ground, despite their differences. Then she said something that so closely resonated with my own story. “When a Muslim woman cries at the loss of her child, are the tears different than that of a Christian woman with the same loss?”

I left the hospital in Mangochi holding back tears, recalling something my own mother told me once. I had asked her if she was excited when I was born. “I was terrified,” she said. “Here I was holding this tiny person and I knew that I was responsible for keeping you healthy and happy. And more importantly, I was responsible for teaching you to be a good person, to care for the world.”

Witnessing the NUIC leaders plan the Summit these past two months evokes Ms. Gbowee’s message of shared humanity. The leaders remained attentive to difference- from dietary customs to Shabbat observance. They offered the beginnings of difficult, perhaps deeply painful conversations about religion, race, and suffering in the world. Yet, they committed themselves to working together, and they formed deep friendships beyond the differences in their own creeds. They laughed together and listened to each other. I called my mother, exhausted after the seemingly endless week of printing, emails, and food orders, and told her how proud I was. In my thoughts, I sent silent messages of thanks to my USC Interfaith Council friends, feeling grateful for the friendships we hold dear today.

 

 

A Trip to the Gurudwara (or, nourishment for mind and tummy)

I handed Ramandeep tickets in 4s, the maximum we could purchase at once. When we finally procured day passes for everyone, thirty students (and me) rushed down the stairs to catch the Orange Line to Sullivan Square, where we would catch a bus to the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara in Medford, Massachusetts (we didn’t end up getting the bus, but that’s another story for another time). A Gurudwara is a Sikh place of worship, and there are currently two in the Boston area.

Outside the Gurudwara, I rushed to put on my scarf, and then to pull my boots off before our first encounter: breakfast. I piled my plate with pakoras (fried vegetables) and chutney, and my new favorite sweet: besan burfi. After cleaning my plate, I circled back to the buffet line and reached for a second burfi…woops! The man behind the counter gently pushed my hands away and put three on my plate (my hands were dirty from eating). Then, he wrapped a big pile of them for me to take home- he could tell I was enamored.

We made our way upstairs to watch the Kirtan, an expression of praise to God based on singing and chanting. I tried to match the Romanized Punjabi words on the screen with the music, frequently distracting myself by watching the children around the room. You can learn much about a community by observing children, I find- their actions are nothing but authentic. My coworker Karin and I sat cross-legged among the women on the right side of the Kirtan hall. Everyone faced the screens behind the Guru Granth Sahib (a compilation of words of the Guru) and remained seated for the most part. At a few points, we stood and bowed. When the music ended, everyone chanted for a few minutes, and finally the Guru Granth Sahib was carried back to a resting place.

As others headed back downstairs for Langar, the practice of serving a meal to everyone on long carpets, our group gathered for a question and answer session. A Sikh man, Gurinder, and some others shared some basic knowledge about Sikhism, relating the concepts to those in other faith traditions. Hardeep and Ramandeep, two leaders of the Northeastern Sikh Student Association, chimed in the lively presentation. As I listened, I caught myself nodding my head often, showing that I was familiar with what we were hearing. And I paused, realizing something crucial about religious literacy.

My job for the last nine years as an interfaith leader has been to build my knowledge of other faith traditions, from practice to theology to the languages these faiths speak. I have shown off my knowledge to adherents of these faiths- speaking the few words of Arabic, Japanese, or Punjabi that I know, seeking acceptance and perhaps some praise. I have spoken up when people around me are not familiar with a practice or concept- delightedly sharing my wisdom that has come with the amazing experiences I am blessed to have. Yet today, I realized that no matter how many times I hear someone describe the Five Pillars of Islam, the contention over the meaning of the Eucharist, or today the “Five Ks” (five objects Sikhs carry with them, symbolizing different values), that each person’s story is unique to their own experience, and it is a privilege to hear these stories. Watching our presenters dialogue with each other over a ritual’s meaning, history, and the relationship with their faith prompted me to quiet my mind and listen.

I think sometimes religious literacy feels like a huge hole that we seek to fill with knowledge, and as we fill the hole, we “advance”, we increase our literacy. Yet today I wondered if religious literacy is more a mindset than holding on to “what we know”. Visiting sacred sites like the Gurudwara today reminds me that embracing the current experience and learning to be a good guest by dropping assumptions is the best way to be an imperfect stranger. Knowledge of rituals, greetings, and practices is certainly important, but even more so is the willingness to learn something new every time we encounter someone new. This openness is what interfaith work is about- taking the time to hear one person’s story, even if we know the basics. Stories connect us on an individual level, a human level, regardless of our way to find meaning. This to me is what truly defines global citizenship.

As I enjoyed Langar number two with the other Northeastern students, we joked about the bus mishap earlier, noting that despite this, we all enjoyed ourselves. I find that putting ourselves in new situations is a good thing for two reasons: it allows us to learn, and it allows us to laugh. As we continue our “Souljourns” this semester, my hope is that everyone will learn and laugh. We grew together as a Northeastern community today, and we get to keep growing as we share more experiences together.

Guest Post: Conversations that Matter: A Dialogue About Immigration and Belonging

I am excited to introduce my first Guest Post on Shiawasen Sangha! This is a piece by Sagar Rajpal, an Office and Program Assistant at Northeastern University’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service. Sagar is currently pursuing his Masters in Engineering Management at Northeastern University.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, a speaker and writer on matters that concern humankind, believed that dialogue is a form of communication in which question and answer continues till a question is left without an answer. He went on to say that it is a conversation in which investigation reaches a certain point of intensity and depth which then has a quality that thought could never reach. Don’t you think such conversations are refreshing, or even liberating?

At least that’s what we at the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service believe and hence have started “Conversations That Matter: A Campus Dialogue Initiative” which will create a comfortable space for participants to indulge in meaningful conversations. Our most recent dialogue was held in the warm Sacred Space on a cold January evening and attended by a diverse group of students from various fields and backgrounds. The dialogue was centered around the idea of Immigration and Belonging.

A group of over 25 participants along with facilitators from the center started off the discussion with how and when they felt like they actually belonged to a place away from home. Students spoke about the process of gradual adaptation to the new environment. One of the participants pointed out that back home, we are set in our ways. To venture out of the comfort zone is a massive step to take but the experiences that follow, build, strengthen and uproot some values and that is how one grows and broadens one’s horizons. Someone added by saying that we take our perspectives for granted and believe that the world is exactly how we think it is, but only when we are in the midst of the most diverse settings, we realize how wrong we have been.

The group agreed that going away from home is not easy, but it definitely gets better, mostly because in due course, you meet people who share the same ideas and people with contrasting ideas, both making you wiser and hence altering your personality for the better.

Next, the concept of Home was discussed. The facilitators asked the participants what it might mean to not have a place we call home or to never be able to return to a place we call home. Numerous answers popped up, some said home is where they are happy, others were of the opinion that home is where family is. One of the students shared his experience of leaving the comfort of his home and shifting to a new place. He said that the decision felt like shutting the doors on the life he once had. He said that the whole process was a storm inside his head, but meeting and becoming friends with people who come from such different backgrounds and learning something new every day made him believe that he made the right decision. An introspective vibe spread across the room as everyone began contemplating over their journey and sharing their experiences with the group.

The facilitators then asked the group how they can ensure that everyone feels a sense of belonging, regardless of generation. A student excitedly volunteered to answer and just said one word: Food. The group broke into laughter and after a good few minutes, a beaming facilitator asked the student to elaborate. With the utmost sincerity, the student said that she believed that in a University having people of different races, religions, languages and mindsets, food is the only thing that brings them together, the only universal language with which you cannot go wrong. She went on to say that if she would want someone to feel welcomed and included, she would cook for them. Everyone nodded in agreement and one student pointed out how he felt the same warmth when he entered the Center and saw the numerous desserts from all over the world. A facilitator reassured that he can get back to them soon as the group had almost come to the end of the dialogue.

A general agreement stood suspended in the air as everyone looked around at placid and peaceful faces. One student broke the silence and said that he admired all the people who put themselves in such different and difficult situations to get closer to their aim. Another student added that amidst all the classes and assignments, she doesn’t know whether she’s happy or sad,  but she does know that she’s at ease.