Golden State Sacred!

The day after something big feels a little eerie. “I’m definitely supposed to be somewhere, but I can’t remember where,” entered my mind several times this past Friday. The mobile exhibit that I spent the last year developing and growing has finally launched. On Thursday evening, we hosted a reception to reveal the objects, artifacts, photographs, and stories that only begin to touch on the sacred history of California. It felt great to welcome so many folx to an iconic Los Angeles space: the first synagogue in Los Angeles, the host to the Women’s Mosque of America, and a place of intersection for faith, art, music and community (Pico Union Project, shout out!).

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Sneak peak of GSS before the crowd

This week I’m cheating a little bit by posting the transcript of my opening remarks for the exhibit for a few reasons, not the least of which is, I didn’t get to writing a regular post last week. More importantly though, I believe in this project because the purpose is similar to this blog, which is to lift up stories of perseverance and commitment despite marginalization and oppression in the world. I am so thankful to everyone that came, ate, observed and interacted, asked questions, offered feedback, and met someone new.

Hey Friends. Thank you for coming out to Downtown LA on a warm August night during California’s inaugural Interfaith Awareness Week. It’s really wonderful to see so many familiar faces, and equally great to see new friends. I’d like to give you a brief picture of the vision for Golden State Sacred: A mobile exhibit dedicated to California’s sacred history. Before anything, I want to acknowledge and thank the Tataviam and San Gabrieleno tribes who are the original stewards of this land, and whose land we occupy here. A note about the food we are enjoying tonight- X’tiosu is a Oaxacan-Middle Eastern fusion restaurant in Boyle Heights, started by two brothers who migrated to California speaking no English or Spanish. X’tiosu means “thank you” in Zapotec, one of the many indigenous languages spoken in the Oaxacan region. Hello Cake Girl is a practically all vegan and gluten free bakery also located in Boyle Heights.

I love California. Though I have spent almost half of my life living outside the Golden State, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and believe me, it doesn’t get much better than living an hour from the beach, the mountains, sports matches, and the best of every cuisine you can imagine. So when Reverend Jim Burklo, whose office is full of fascinating artifacts, suggested how cool it would be to start an interfaith museum, I thought “sure, that would be cool.” When he mentioned that someone told him the concept was impossible, I knew we had to pursue it. Golden State Sacred is an un-museum, in a way. The objects you see here represent only a tiny amount of our history. Through this project, we hoped to raise awareness of the stories of sacred communities that often go unheard, or perhaps have been erased. These communities have all contributed to social, political, and public life here in alta California- through immigration, innovation, and interfaith cooperation.

The exhibit challenges two main ideas: first, that history is static and in the past, and second, what we usually mean by “religion.” Golden State Sacred is never finished- as we continue to collect stories and artifacts, the exhibit grows richer. The exhibit also takes on the presence of its location. For example, tonight we gather in the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles. As a true interfaith community center, this space hosted the first Women’s Mosque in America and consistently welcomes faith-based celebrations, art installations, music, and other community building activities. This space matters to our sacred history. We might not say that absolutely anything is religion, but what can we include when we consider ritual, community, commitment, divine images and names, culture, race, gender, and so many other intersections?

Some of this history should make us deeply uncomfortable. As you’ll see, religion is embedded in violence and oppression, from enslavement to internment to state-sanctioned surveillance. It is essential to engage with these truths, often ignored or avoided, because the pursuit of justice requires a deep understanding of past injustices contributing to current ones. Golden State Sacred is a balancing act- how do we engage with our own communities in ways that promote interfaith cooperation by both celebrating those before us and recognizing the wrongs committed?

Finally, and most important, some notes of gratitude. To the Interfaith Youth Core, the Germanacos family, the Stanford Office for Community Engagement, and the most beloved USC Office of Religious Life, thank you for both resource and moral support. I offer the most profound gratitude to the individuals and communities who shared their time, their stories, and their objects with us. Thank you to my family for dealing with a mess of objects and book stands and tablecloths and glitter in the living room. Many folks in this room offered their wisdom, including obscure sports chants like “Och Tamale” from the University of Redlands. Finally, though I do not mean to single anyone out, there is someone who has been with this project since its unique inception- this person designed the logo on all the materials, worked to make the exhibit aesthetically pleasing, and most of all spent many late nights talking through everything from social media to color schemes to sharing a mutual love for Jackie Robinson. Jose, thank you for never giving up.

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Questions

Hypothetical Question.

You’re a professor, a teacher, an instructor, a TA…anyone with some power to craft a syllabus or introduce material you haven’t written for the purposes of learning. That’s a big net, but this is a big problem. Let’s say (like me) you’re developing a World Religions syllabus. You’re really into it- So many great readings! An interesting assignment! Field Trips! Guest speakers! Literally, you cannot wait to teach this class because you’ve curated the entire semester down to a note and the students will be AMAZED. Ok. Here’s the problem: you find out one of your most crucial readings, one written by a foremost scholar in the field, has been arrested for something icky. I’m not picking one thing because this isn’t just a “one instance” issue. I’m asking what we do. Because so far, everyone I have spoken with rightfully thinks long and hard before answering. No one has really offered an answer.

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Photo by Mike Ko on Unsplash

I do not have an answer either. My first reaction? Take it off the syllabus, take it off websites, get rid of it. Poof, gone. That’s an option. My friends and colleagues have responded with thoughtful questions to this idea:

-What if the reading really is that crucial? I ask- can we differentiate who influences our students based on the quality of their work, or more likely the level of their fame? And isn’t any press good press- won’t students go looking for this source when they learn the scandal?

-What if the crime really has nothing to do with the scholarship? Someone stealing cars could definitely still write an excellent history of Early Christians. I ask- does any part of our lives have no bearing whatsoever on our work? Can we really separate ourselves from our research?

-What if the person admitted the crime, served their time, and apologized? What if they really feel sorry? I ask- is it good to find redemption in people? Do we have to forgive if someone has been harmed? Does an apology change trauma that someone faces every day? (No. That’s a no.)

-We need to know the identity of this person. Maybe they aren’t guilty. If you start finding dirt on one person, how far will it go? No one is perfect. I ask- how should we view law and the justice system in this conversation? Can we trust that people who “do bad things” will get in trouble for it? (That’s also a big fat NO.)

I have been grappling with these questions in the midst of deep reflection on the #MeToo Movement. About a year and a half ago, I wrote my #MeToo story. To date, it is the most read story on this site. We cannot ever downplay the widespread violence on women that happens every single day because we live in a culture where rape is normative and sometimes even celebrated. This is where my initial reaction- tear it all down!- gets tricky.

I sit in the “remove” camp still. If anything, I believe my role is to be upfront with my students about why they will not read the best article on “X” subject. I think in order to stop violence against women and others, the change in resources should be as widespread as the culture that allows the President of the United States to laugh about sexual assault. In order to change normativity, that’s what it will take. In closing, I do think we need to consider that we humans, no matter how famous and learned and experienced we are, do our work from the wholeness of ourselves. Our research, our teaching, our careers are all influenced by who we are and who we have been. The question becomes- how do we let ourselves come in?

 

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Today I rode my bike to church on campus for a special multifaith celebration. During the service, 24 students were officially commissioned as Fellows for Religious Encounter. This year, they will meet every Wednesday over dinner for dialogue and to hear from engaging speakers. They will visit sacred sites and experience rituals and practices they may have never seen before. As they recited the commissioning prayer before the congregation this morning, I couldn’t help noticing two things: time FLIES, and how necessary this kind of intentional learning is as religion either brings us wisdom to seek justice or violent division.

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Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

I remember stumbling upon a Buddhist Temple in my neighborhood when I was little. It was a temple dedicated to Kwan Yin, a beloved bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition known for her mercy and compassion for human beings. Inside the temple, there was a wood floor with black square cushions lined along the edges of the walls, and at the end of the long hall there was a statue of Kwan Yin sitting on a lotus flower. My entire understanding of God and faith shattered as I scoured the public library, trying to find books about this way of life called Buddhism. My grandmother told me whatever she knew, and encouraged me to keep looking. I didn’t know any Buddhists, though, so all I could do was take my reading at face value.

Seeing these bright young faces this morning made me want so many things for the fellows. I hope they don’t shy away from noting disagreement, especially when it is harmful. I hope they are forced to wrestle with a misconception dispelled in conversation. I hope they feel a range of emotions: anger, confusion, sadness, and joy when wonder strikes. I hope they listen and learn, and talk openly and teach. I hope they are confronted with not just questions about religion and privilege, but constantly engage in self-reflection.I hope they enjoy each other’s company. Of course if all these wishes are fulfilled, these students will inevitably be transformed.

Meeting someone who practiced Buddhism proved quite different than reading about the life of the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths. My teammate’s grandmother didn’t talk about her beliefs in an organized, bullet-point style lecture (she didn’t draw me a chart), she told me about her father and his father going to temple on New Year’s Day, and contacting monks for funeral services, and living life with compassion at the forefront of her mind. Every Sunday I sat in church and learned about the life of another man who preached compassion, who died so that we could go to heaven. I was confused and upset, scared to talk to my parents about these discoveries but excited about my findings, and bouncing from deep discomfort to honest wonder.

I think about walking in to that temple more and more these days. It seems like if everyone could walk into an unfamiliar place, ask some open questions, and struggle through some necessary discomfort to learn an alternative worldview, we could feel this wonder more often. Of course this is not so simple, but interfaith work is not simple at all. Feeling vulnerable to both share one’s own beliefs and subsequently hear views that thwart them takes courage and patience, and not the least of all trust. It is a worthy exercise for anyone to be faced with doubt. Often, confronting this leads us to an even wiser truth that we don’t take for granted.

I hope they learn. I hope they laugh. !

Saying Thanks to My Parents

It’s been a jetset weekend. On Thursday, I flew to Philly to watch my sister graduate from Drexel School of Medicine (THAT WENT FAST). On Saturday My parents and I jetted all the way back to LA to attend the Honoree Mass at my elementary school, Mayfield Junior School in Pasadena. I was very humbled to receive an award along with two of my favorite teachers- both women that played a significant role in making me stop messing around, and start taking school seriously. Honestly, they don’t look a year older than I remember. 
The mass began at 4 pm on Sunday in the gymnasium- the same gym where we won the 7th grade basketball finals, played tag and graduated. What an experience coming back after 15 years. As the mass closed, the headmaster called me up and offered me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I knew what I wanted to say. Below is a version of my very brief remarks, and is especially dedicated to my parents. They’ve been the real jet setters and deserve a vacation. 

A photo my science teacher handed me (of me)

Thank you, what an incredible honor to return to MJS after quite a while!. It seems like yesterday I was in Mrs. D’Argenio’s second grade class making my first communion, or Mrs. Hermanson’s fourth grade class building my California mission project. As an avid baker, I built Mission Santa Cruz out of sugar cubes, but didn’t have the foresight to not leave it outside overnight. The next morning, it was clear that raccoons had promptly feasted upon the structure. I remember finishing the eighth grade with Mrs Holtsneider, studying what has come to be the work I love and will devote my life to- bringing people of all and no faiths together to know each other, learn from one another, and most importantly, to find common values and ways to work together. 
I need to address my parents because Mayfield is a school rooted in faith and family as the foundation to education, and they have been my and my sister Mallory’s foundation from the very beginning. Mallory just graduated from medical school, so if anyone needs surgery, she starts her surgical residency at Huntington hospital in less than a month. My parents, Liz and Dennis, taught me two things in the last 29 years, one of which I believe created a monster. You see even when Mallory and I experienced failure or roadblocks which we all do, they wouldn’t stand for it- they never told us “you’re not smart enough, you’re tall enough, you’re not fast enough…you can’t do that.” They asked what we needed, and how they could help. From this, we learned that in our work we should always be asking what we can provide and how we can help. 
My parents believed education would better us and help us achieve our goals, but that if we didn’t acknowledge our deep privilege in receiving an education and attempt to give others the same opportunities, that life would not be full of meaning and thus not worth living. When Mallory wanted to be an actress, my mom drove her to auditions. When I wanted to be a professional basketball player, my dad came to every game with me- all five foot four of me- to watch me play. When we both wanted to live in our education, to attend boarding schools, they found a way. They have read admissions essays and scholarship applications and listened to practice interviews, and helped us pick what to wear- all because they believed in us even if we felt unsure. 
They chose Mayfield because as we know, education is perhaps the greatest gift and right we have as human beings, and they wanted it to intersect with the other values in our family. I’m so honored for this award, and it is dedicated both to the steadfast teachers here at mayfield and everywhere, and to my parents for saying yes to any sentence that began with, “what if I tried…”
Thank you mom and dad. I love you.

The Feast

I have been feasting for two weeks. It started with Thanksgiving, understandably, but since then I have been enjoying time with my family, and quite often that includes food. What I mean by feasting; however, is not solely about a buffet of delectable dishes from various cuisines. My time in LA has been a cornucopia of meetings and greetings with friends and mentors, and even new colleagues. I visited five campuses this week across California for a few reasons. First, when would I not take a chance to go back to USC’s campus? I also wanted to get a pulse for interfaith efforts around the election and the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock. Visiting these campuses also gave me the chance to road trip up the coast listening to tapes of Grateful Dead shows all the way up (another post on that coming up). A feast for the belly, the eyes, and the ears, yes. This week I also enjoyed a feast for the heart.

On Tuesday I drove to Claremont to have lunch with an esteemed and beloved professor, someone who has mentored me since college. She consistently bridges the scholarly study of religion with spiritual practices with activism, which we desperately need right now. We caught up on projects and our families and the latest American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. After lunch, I got to sit in on a class with one of her closest colleagues, Dr. Frank Rogers, who studies narrative pedagogies, religious education and engaged compassion practices. In class we discussed several paradigms of religious education and even played a riveting game akin to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a popular game show. The students welcomed me warmly, and we laughed about our struggle to put historical events in order. At the end of class, Dr. Rogers sent us with a sending question: What metaphor would you use to describe education? At first consideration, my mind thought “prism,” but after reflecting on this week, I think “feast,” and perhaps more accurately, “potluck.” Mmmm, potato salad.

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PC: Sweet Ice Cream Photography

On Saturday, two Revolutionary Love Fellows Meha and Simran and I met up for brunch and to finally see each other in person after working closely together for months having never done so (technology is great, but so strange sometimes). As we shared updates on our personal lives and then planned for our upcoming retreat, we commented on the remarkability of the unique gifts each fellow possesses. On our team, we’ve got doctors with facilitation skills. We’ve got lawyers who also do graphic design, and writers who are expert marketers. You could say our group is “stacked.” Meha noted something I’ve been thinking for a while. “I get excited to come home and do RevLove stuff,” she said. “Not only is it so important, but the fact that we all get it, there’s 15 other people who are giving their time for something they feel passionate about is really motivating.” Returning to the question of a metaphor for education, let me explain my choice in “potluck.”

I never would have met Meha and Simran had I not joined this team- Meha has a background in health care and is working toward an MBA, and Simran works at UCLA as a Project Manager. Their background alone brings a different kind of dish to the potluck, and no one likes a potluck with the same dish. Education for me is about bringing great minds with distinct experiences and beliefs, unique ingredients, together to learn from each other at a common table. If too many people with the same identity crowd the gathering, we lose other important perspectives. We need appetizers, main dishes, desserts, and drinks. At the same time, we’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected. The potlucks I remember from the Japanese Community Center where we played basketball often included pizza, spam musubi, and chocolate milk. While this might not represent a conventional meal, educational spaces are enriched by new epistemologies, new ways of learning. On the #RevolutionaryLove Team, I especially see how this happens. My understanding of the legal field and even what motivates teams has increased dramatically. Most of all, a potluck is never successful without a vibrant community committed to maintaining the space, and education is definitely most especially about community. As social creatures, we learn most effectively among others.

My sending question then, is: what will you bring to the potluck? What ingredients and textures will set your dish apart for others to enjoy? Are we hungry yet?