A Fractured Vision

Taking a 6 am bus is pretty committed. Or silly. I’m not totally sure which. Anyway, at 6 am our bus left Boston for NYC, so I could make it in time for the Revolutionary Love Conference at Middle Collegiate Church. I was looking forward to this gathering for several reasons, including getting to meet the Revolutionary Love Fellows for the first time in person, hearing from many of my activist and organizer heroes, and finally getting the chance to visit Middle Church. The conference focused on racial justice and specifically, how we might make love a public ethic in a time of great division.


As more speakers took the stage- Valarie Kaur, Van Jones, Brian Maclaren, Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, Dr. Traci West- the crowd filling the sanctuary listened and learned, cheered and encouraged. I felt myself experiencing a sense of joy and belonging that I haven’t for a long time. This is not to say that the content of every speaker’s message was uplifting- in fact, they shared some downright despairing stories and facts. The urgency to do this work together- the work of intersectional racial justice- is not at all overhyped. Yet the authenticity of each person on the stage inspired me to believe I can do the work without knowing all the answers. Perhaps without knowing any answers at all.


During one of the first panels, Anurag Gupta challenged us to imagine a world without racial bias. Gupta is the CEO of Be More America, an organization that trains leaders to examine and let go of unconscious bias.

“Close your eyes,” he asked us. “Imagine what this world would look like.”

I have to admit something- this was an extremely difficult exercise for me. I imagined the big loud streets right outside the church I sat in, in the middle of New York City. If you’ve ever walked down 2nd Avenue on the Lower East Side, you know the cliches are true. There aren’t many places you can smoke hookah at bar owned by an Egyptian man that sits next to world-famous Japanese restaurant on one side and a Halal Indian market on the other. You can meet one million kinds of people in New York City- and yet, this romantic picture does not do justice to the injustice. It would be so easy to sing the praises of diversity without recognizing the bias, the racism, the bigotry. I couldn’t fully imagine a world without the bias, which both scared me and then, empowered me.

One thing I know for sure is that eliminating bias cannot eliminate our differences, any single one. The danger of creating a more similar society is far worse than one in which people must grapple with particularities. As the conference carried on, I realized each person’s vision for fighting racism and bias is not the same- in fact, some of the ideas shared vehemently disagreed with others spoken.

So perhaps the question “what does the world without bias look like” is better asked, “what does A world without bias look like,” recognizing that even the vision must fracture. As Becky Bond and Zack Exley write in Rules for Revolutionaries, “the revolution isn’t handed to us on a silver platter.” We are inventing the mechanism as we build it. The important thing is not to agree completely, but to utilize the variety of gifts we hold to work toward the vision. We learn along the way.

We Never Should Have Met

Facebook has been reminding me of memories recently (this must be a new feature- unless I’m only now realizing it. Or old enough to get memories?) and I have been feeling nostalgic. How much has changed in five years- and yet, how much really hasn’t.

This morning, Facebook informed me that five years ago today, the USC Interfaith Council hosted the first ever Student Multifaith Leadership Conference (SMLC) on campus. I remember planning that conference with the other IFC members. We spent many nights crammed in one of our apartments, working tirelessly to get spread the word and get our logistics in place. It was my last semester at USC, and I recall a distinct feeling of being busy beyond imagination- writing two theses, taking twenty units, still fulfilling my role as IFC president, and finding time to make the most of LA with my friends- and yet experiencing pure joy despite the stress. The IFC really bonded as a team.

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Reflecting on myself five years ago, I can’t help but feel proud of the students I served at Northeastern, and the amazing interfaith leaders I have met around the country since the SMLC. The world is in a different place, sort of- on the whole, these students are much more aware of the role interfaith communities must play in dismantling systems of oppression and including various identities at the table. I see a great success and opportunity in partnership- beyond dialoguing and learning, the young people are showing up for each other to seek racial justice, gender equity, rights for immigrants and the undocumented.

My Senior Ministry Project at UChicago focused on interfaith dialogue as a model for building identity awareness. I think it’s no secret that when we seek to hear convictions that conflict or sometimes even threaten our own, we learn more about ourselves. We are forced to contemplate our own beliefs. One afternoon on the fourth floor of Swift Hall (the home of the Divinity School), I presented my thesis to the Dean of the Divinity School. He asked me to dig deeper on a couple points, and finally, he said, “Tell me honestly- how many students do you really think would participate in this kind of thing? It seems like such a specialized program.” “All of them should,” I responded. He laughed. “You really believe that?”

The idealist in me says yes, I do believe that. I think everyone should participate in interfaith dialogue- even the vehement atheists. Education is about confronting ideas that bring us discomfort. Interfaith dialogue at it’s height is deeply uncomfortable. I have learned over several years of doing this work that humans are pretty particular when it comes to our worldviews. And yet, voicing our particularities is exactly what makes the work together so meaningful.

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I remember the day of the SMLC donning my purple and turquoise shirt proudly. There was a typo on it, but that made it our own. At the closing panel, I sat next to my friend Antonia, a pagan writer and anthropologist, feeling a little sad that the experience was over. We had all put such heart into the work. And we never should have met, that group of people. We studied different fields, traveled to different places, called several nations home. The intentionality of the group is what gave me so much life, so much joy. As I continue to reflect on my journey at Northeastern, I believe the days I felt the most joy were the days I saw that intentionality in my students.

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When there is no reason for us to meet, we are faced with our own truths. We can’t fall back on assumptions that we are friends because we find the same things interesting. Discomfort brings learning. It also helps us build deeper relationships because it helps us dismantle the systemic urge to stay safe in our bubbles. If every person we encounter is meant to teach us, we learn most from those who are most distinct from us. We never should have met. And yet, here we are, finding joy in the world together.

26.2

It’s the greatest marathon in the world, they say. Once you’ve done this, you can check it off your bucket list. 


During the training season, veterans of the race share their advice and the lore of the course. Don’t start too fast. Pour water on your head. Heartbreak Hill isn’t actually the hardest. Only pass people naturally, not in a weaving fashion.  They told us what to eat, what to wear, how to stay motivated when our legs screamed. This weekend I realized that while running is one of the most individual sports, it takes a village. 


The city of Boston loves the marathon. Sure, it’s a holiday, but the event is a source of pride and recognition for Bostonians. I saw that love in so many forms. Volunteers at the expo, the drivers that took us out to the start, the sarcastic announcer guiding us to our corrals, the families cheering, the dogs wagging their tails, the medics, the pacers. With 30,000 runners, the production of this event takes almost double that to put on. Knowing this, it felt like a real honor to be running for Revolutionary Love and Trinity Foundation. 

At Mile 16, I looked to my right and saw 4 students who were screaming my name. I screamed back and gave them all hugs. It gave me such a boost knowing they were there. In perfect fashion, my dad awkwardly high fived me while taking a picture half covered by his finger. And at Mile 20, I found one student holding a sign with my name (!) and she ran with me. Another great boost. Then I saw Jose, and he ran with me. 


The last five miles were tough. I hobbled most of the way, hoping to see the next mile marker around the corner. I know now that if I were running by myself, I would not have made it to 26.2. But the village didn’t give me that option. The village reminded me why this day was about finishing.


Yesterday was about running for something, when over the last year I’ve been running with something. Running has helped me confront pain and trauma, sadness and loneliness. It gave me a community to embrace. Community is not easy for me to find or maintain for various reasons, but yesterday I ran for them. I ran for my beloved Northeastern students. I ran for my writing class. I ran for my new scholarly community at Stanford. I ran for the Revolutionary Love fellows, imagining their smiling faces at the finish line. And I ran for me- never once letting myself utter any words of doubt or fear that I couldn’t do it because I knew it was possible. Love really carried me over that line. 


I don’t know if I would run another marathon (halves sound great at this point!), but I would do it again given the chance. I can now call myself one of the finishers of the greatest marathon in the world, and that feels pretty cool. 

Some Anecdotes for my Northeastern Family

I made it. I made it through my first full time job. On Friday at 5 pm, I walked to the train station with the gifts and cards my students so lovingly chose and wrote for me. I didn’t say goodbye forever to anyone, because I want to personally see to it that for us it is not goodbye.

 

A week ago at my going-away gathering, I told a few anecdotes about the students and staff that have been my life for the past two years. I thought that instead of processing what it means that I won’t be sitting in the bright orange office chair on the second floor of Ell Hall, sipping coffee out of an enormous thermos, greeting students and colleagues as they drop by- I would tell some of these stories. Not for the purpose of inferring a message, just for memories. Feel free to add yours to the comments 🙂

 

-I remember Karin’s (co-worker, sister, co-conspirator) interview at CSDS. She was tasked with facilitating an activity that would showcase her ability to put on programs relevant to the center. In typical Karin fashion, she had us all speak out for two minutes about something we felt passionate about. Then, the audience had to give a ridiculously obnoxious round of applause for at least 30 seconds.

 

-Our first Spring Break, Karin and I organized a “Stay-cation” with the help of one of our graduate students. We visited several sacred sites around the Boston area. One of the days we traveled to a Thai Buddhist temple that turned out to be stunningly gorgeous- the ceilings were coated with gold. One of the monks showed us the many different quarters of the temple grounds, and was very interested in taking pictures at every turn. Each time, he would hold the camera, pause for several seconds, take a picture, and make us wait, saying, “one mooooooooore.”

 

-One of the best gifts I received (CSDS folks can gift give, for real!) was from Karin after Umrah. She brought me a gorgeous blue prayer rug and said, “I thought of you meditating on this and knew you had to have it.” Such a beautiful interfaith moment.

 

-Our first year at Renew, we had a great time performing a skit that poked fun at ourselves and some of the Spiritual Advisors. Seeing the students take on their own skit, and especially the student who wore a yellow scarf and sunglasses to play me, made me both laugh uncontrollably and almost cry because it was so well done. Side note: the talent show at Renew was the best talent show I have ever witnessed.

 

-Both years, I’ve been gullible enough to be surprised on my birthday. This year, Karin ran into our office, shouting that a spider had gotten in her coat and she needed help. Even though I have a crippling fear of spiders, I dashed after her to save the day (I guess?) and of course found myself in the middle of a giant chocolate cake.

 

I remember my first day at CSDS. I took this picture to show my mom that I actually did have a real job. I want to be honest- it wasn’t all fun and roses. Making mistakes and learning from them are hard, being vulnerable is scary, seeing people you love go through unbelievably rough times is heartbreaking. Walking with you has been incredible. Congratulations to the cheesecake bars for winning the baked goods showdown.

 

Full Circle

I don’t have to tell you that the world is funny, that life is not linear, that time is sometimes not a helpful tool for us- and sometimes it is.

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PC: Joey Kyber

Just last week I was writing a short story about stepping outside my comfort zone. I wanted to talk about joining the Interfaith Council at USC after meeting Varun, the Dean of Religious Life. The story of finding Varun is a silly one, it involves pulling a newspaper out of a trash and seeing his name in the headline. “What’s a Dean of Religious Life?” was the first question that popped in my head. The article in the Daily Trojan (our university’s daily paper) described the many experiences Varun lived that led him to this role. Living in Nepal as a Buddhist Monk, finishing both a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University and a law degree from UCLA, hosting a radio show, meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even being an avid sports fan- all of these influenced the person he is today. Reading about them, I thought, “I want to live like this person. I should probably meet him.”

Nine years (!) later, I’m sitting at my desk at Northeastern University in Boston, where I have served in a chaplain role for almost two years. First I see the text messages from my mom and dad: “Did you see the LA Times article about Varun? I think he mentioned you.” Friends are sharing on Facebook. Varun himself emails me a link to a stunning story about his trajectory at USC, as a non-ordained Hindu attorney. It sounds just like the article I read as a lost sophomore at USC, at a time when I knew I loved studying religion, but had no idea what to do about it. This was the article that pushed me to email him in that chilly office on the second floor of the business school, that for the first time showed me I could live a life full of passion like Varun, combining so many different interests. And it’s my last week here, which feels as though a circle has been completed.

I think it’s really important to experience nostalgia sometimes, as a reminder to feel gratitude for the people who have been a constant support in our lives. I was going to post a bunch of vignettes this morning from my time at Northeastern, because there are so many wonderful and hilarious moments from these two years. I only got to tell a handful at my lovely going away party. This morning I took a Lyft to work because I baked too many treats to take on the T, and as we inched along on the 93 toward Roxbury, I looked out at the Boston skyline centered on the Prudential Center, its windows shimmering in the sunlight, and realized today is my last Monday here. Only two years ago, my mom and I attempted to navigate this ridiculous freeway and street system to move me into my tiny apartment in the North End. I remember sending Varun a picture, knowing I had made him proud. The community here has made me proud, especially after so much hardship. On the wall behind me hangs three simple letters that welcomed me on my first day: J-E-M, my name. I’m taking them with me to hang in my new office (if I get an office).

Link to the story: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-usc-chaplain-20170403-story.html

The Ideal is Possible

Today I did something really cool- I spoke on air about my work with the Revolutionary Love Project for L2O, a platform that organizes online communities. We talked about what Revolutionary Love means from a Buddhist perspective, how we practice in our own contexts, and most importantly, what it means to stand in love with our opponents.

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PC: Jeremy Bishop

I really enjoyed thinking critically about these questions, especially when it came to calling on wisdom from faith traditions and sacred texts. I realized as I was talking that much of my faith comes from stories and written wisdom- stories take us from a place of wonder or discomfort to a new idea. They often involve learning. I feel most connected to my own practice when I think about stories of the Buddha, and the stories tucked away in the Zhuangzi and Laozi. Whether or not they are factually true, I think these stories reveal the essence of what kind of people we hope to be. They hint at values and ethics. We walk with the protagonists to learn lessons.

At the end of the interview, Sara from L2O asked, “What does an ideal world with Revolutionary Love look like?” I admit I was rolling along through the other questions, having practiced my elevator pitch several times before. The Fourth Precept of Engaged Buddhism tells us not to turn a blind eye to suffering. We must practice knowing our own innate goodness in order to know that of others. I have a sizable story bank that allows me to illustrate what I believe quite often.

This question forced me to think about my end goal in this work. What is it all about? I know that writing and reading and dialoguing give me life, especially on the topics of faith and social justice, but to what end? I admit: I don’t know what “the ideal” is.

Pause for a second. One of the ways I ground myself in love is recognizing that everyone suffers. My job is to help alleviate that suffering- but not the reality that suffering is the way of this world. I think it’s important to acknowledge that everyone holds pain and fear. I believe further that it’s important for us to sit with it for a while. Running away only further embeds these harmful emotions into our bodies and minds. So an ideal world is not one free from suffering necessarily, but one in which the suffering translates to discomfort. When we sit in a place of tension and discomfort, we are learning. When others share with us that we contribute to their discomfort, we learn how to alleviate that. I found myself saying out loud that a world grounded in Revolutionary Love isn’t one that is absent of sadness. Instead, it is one where every emotion has a purpose, and every person sees relationship as divine. It is one in which fear drives us to build bridges, not retreat.

And finally, I turned to my old friend gratitude. Gratitude for me is the acceptance that we may not have fully realized a goal or gotten exactly what we wanted, but we acknowledge that we are better off having met someone, experienced something, learned something. A world grounded in Revolutionary Love is one in which gratitude abounds. I must say, I feel very grateful to have gotten this opportunity today.

Starting Fresh

When I was 14, I moved across the country to go to boarding school. There were a few reasons for this, none of which involved discipline (what many assumed). Attending this school was a huge privilege for me, it meant studying with classmates who also wanted to immerse themselves in learning, meeting friends from around the world, and most especially spending a big chunk of my junior year studying on exchange in Japan. I even got to study two languages all four years.

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PC: Margot Pandone

There was another reason I was excited about going to school 3000 miles away. Since kindergarten, I had attended the same small Catholic school. That’s 9 years with the same 45 people. I wasn’t popular or cool in my class, I often felt invisible. This was mostly my own fault- I spent most of my time pursuing interests that my classmates didn’t find interesting. Like learning Japanese, or reading about religion. Middle school is hard, period. I don’t know anyone that didn’t have a hard time. For me, boarding school not only meant opportunity for rich study, it meant leaving my life behind. It meant a fresh start.

Moving at 14 was hard. I actually almost didn’t make it. I called my mom every hour the first week at school, most of the time choking through tears, “I don’t think I can do this, I want to come home.” My mom listened with endless patience. “What’s next on your schedule?” she would ask, and I would tell her the next class, or sports, or dinner. “Try that, and see how you feel after.” After a while, it became, try it for a day. Try it for a week. Look- you’ve almost made it half way through the semester. And suddenly, it was time for finals, and I was flying home for winter break.

I believe a large reason why those first few months- the first year, really- were so difficult was because I had a false perception about what this experience would be like. I could be anyone I wanted, I thought. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. But I was so sure-and wrong- about one thing: starting fresh. Starting fresh is a farce. Sure, this experience was new and unique, and I certainly changed and grew at this school. But starting fresh in place and people doesn’t mean starting fresh by forgetting who I was proved impossible. I carried with me the same pain, fear, curiosity, and love to this new place. I still carry it today.

Instead of forgetting the unpleasantness, I have learned that new experiences- entering a new community, starting a new school, a new job, leaving a life behind- actually teaches me more about who I am at the core. Interestingly, one of my most firm convictions comes from the Buddhist tenet that change is constant and inevitable. Nothing is permanent. Yet, just because change occurs does not mean we let go of the impressions made upon us. Outwardly, we can withhold anything we want and no one may have any idea what we’ve been through. The most permanence in the world is our internal truth.

A student very dear to me gave me a book, called The Shack (it’s now a movie). I don’t normally choose novels, but this one intrigued me because it’s a story of struggles with pain and faith and the image of the divine. The beginning of each chapter is marked with a quote or two. The second chapter starts with one by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician who is well known for pastoral counseling. “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” I paused after reading that. Of course, we feel most alone when our inward truth feels dissonance with our outward environment. This is why starting fresh only really teaches us what we are already carrying.

My first year at boarding school I tried hard to re-imagine who I was by convincing others that jem was not Mary Ellen. I don’t believe I lied explicitly- but I hid the pain of being away from my family and the struggle to do well enough and be enough for this highly talented and hardworking community. I felt so lonely, even when I was surrounded by classmates who perhaps were feeling exactly the same as I was. As I slowly started to realize that my inner truths were not only accepted but embraced, my presence at this school began to feel legitimate. To be sure, I always struggled with questions of self-worth and being enough, but I found people who could walk with me. To this day I can call my best friend that I met in our freshman dorm and talk to her as if we’ve lived next door our entire lives.

As I transition to a new experience (more on that later), I’m bringing some baggage that’s tough to carry. I’m also bringing a ton of love and memories of joy. The freshness of this beginning isn’t about erasing what I’ve been through, but opening to the possibility of learning more about who I am.