Reflecting on Better Together Day

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

Happy Better Together Day!

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

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

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



The Interfaith “We”

Last week my friend Katie Gordon visited Boston so of course we had to get dinner and catch up. I showed Katie around campus, took her to the LGBTQ Resource Center to see our mutual friend and colleague Lee, and after a quick tour of our Sacred Space, we wandered over to Newbury Street. We stopped in Trident Books and mused over some titles, mainly discussing what had been happening on our respective campuses. We nerded out about a few particular books, mostly related to feminism and/or religion. Finally, we sat down to a delicious South Asian dinner.

PC: Samantha Sophia

Katie is the Program Manager for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Grand Valley, Michigan. She identifies as secular, but make no mistake- Katie is one of the most influential interfaith leaders of our time. She trains for the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes and has introduced Krista Tippett, creator and host of the radio program On Being, because she’s that cool. I have known Katie for a while through our mutual Interfaith Youth Core affiliations. One thing I really appreciate about Katie is her ability to unapologetically be who she is without inhibiting anyone else from doing the same. She is open about her whiteness and privilege, but not guilty or frozen in working to make change.

At some point in our conversation, we both expressed concern for the interfaith movement as it exists now. What does it mean to train leaders when many people of faith live under real threat for their lives- because of their faith? Can white, secular young people train in the same spaces as black Muslim women? As queer Jews? As Hindu immigrants? As refugees who, despite looking death in the face, have held close to their devotions? How do we expect those who seem to lose power and voice every day to lead others when there is real, imminent danger?

I have been reflecting on this question for some time now. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about activist and filmmaker (among other amazing things) Valarie Kaur’s message and definition of Revolutionary Love is that I feel so strongly about Valarie herself. She represents to me the very type of leader that begins to answer this difficult question of how we as developing interfaith leaders might live into our identity as such. You see, Valarie may have several thousand Facebook friends, a database of over 100,000 subscribers via different projects she has started, and one of her recent speeches has now acquired over 16 million views on social media (that’s remarkable, just FYI), but Valarie never does her work alone. She always thinks, speaks, and acts in community because she recognizes that while her voice is essential- as a woman of color, a Sikh American, an accomplished pioneer in filmmaking and civil rights law- hers is by no means the only voice with one particular set of concerns. We need not look further than the daily news to see how many communities need more voice for dire concerns.

In this way, I think our answer begins not at the “I” that defined the previous era of interfaith leadership, the years I spent building my toolbox and story collection. Interfaith work has always been about bringing communities together, but allowing particular individuals to serve as the face of communities, to represent traditions and belief systems even if inadvertently has in the past been enough- we look around our table to see a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and seeker, and we feel good about our group. We can dialogue and serve together. We might not talk at all about the intersections of our own identities, or how unequal access to this table might be.

We have reached a moment in our public landscape in which the “I” interfaith leaders will quickly feel devastatingly alone or completely exhausted, and probably both. The interfaith movement is at a true “we” moment- a time when it needs to be acceptable and encouraged for us to ask each other to do things like march on the front lines, speak publicly against bigotry, or give money to civil rights organizations. Going to prison for disorderly conduct. The reality is, we cannot all risk the same things. We need to know our limits. Focusing on “I” can help us learn these things about ourselves, but will not build networks. Right now, the fact that our different identities afford us unique privileges is an advantage if we use them in community.

As Valarie so beautifully stated recently, “We can practice Revolutionary Love for those who are in prison because they have committed great harm. This does not mean they shouldn’t be in prison. This means we free our hearts to believe they can be greater.” For some of us, practicing Revolutionary Love, just like interfaith leadership, means asking our allies to put their words and bodies on the line. At the same time, for some of us, it means being asked and saying yes.



Upaya in Elon, North Carolina

Even though it was 4 am, I felt joy seep through my veins as I quietly tiptoed out of my apartment. On Friday I hopped down to Elon, North Carolina to experience the 2nd Annual Ripple Interfaith Conference at Elon University. My friend Carrie graciously picked me up from the airport at 8 in the morning, coffee at the ready. That was the first of many acts of hospitality I received from everyone involved in the conference.

The theme of the Ripple Conference this year was “mindful plurality,” and I gladly accepted the invitation to share my thoughts on mindfulness, interfaith work, and Buddhism as an accessible set of values. Not because I am an expert (heh, NO) but because I have fallen in love with my faith in the past year and felt encouraged that mindfulness practices have entered the realm of activism and resistance. That’s what this blog is all about- practivism. How we sustain ourselves in the long, arduous haul against oppression, violence, bigotry.

On the opening plenary, five folks of different faiths shared what mindfulness means to them. We heard from a practitioner of Ignatian Spirituality, a Protestant with a regular mindfulness practice, a Tibetan Buddhist, A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Zen/Engaged Buddhist. I felt unworthy to speak after listening to such great wisdom. After we each shared, a member of the audience asked perhaps the most urgent question of the moment: “How do we remain mindful under threat, when I wear this (points to hijab), when people have strong negative assumptions about me just by looking at me? How can I simply work on my inner peace when others are dying without dignity every single day?” Long pause.

A version of this question has plagued me for quite a while- in fact, it has caused me nothing short of a faith crisis in the past year and a half. I do not wear hijab, and I pass easily as a “regular ole’ white woman.” So- isn’t it my job to get my behind out in the streets and be on the front lines? Yes. And how, then, do I work on my inner compassion?

As Zen Buddhism would have it, there are at least two relevant concepts to begin chipping away at this question. First, interconnectedness. We can’t hide from the world and luxuriously put our feet up in the enlightenment hot tub, for our world continues to suffer. We are still in the world. We are responsible for walking with those who suffer. The second concept is one that frankly, I hadn’t thought about in a while. Upaya: expedient means. What works for you in this present moment to walk toward enlightenment? Upaya is about our context: it puts the quest for ultimate truth aside so that we might take a step in the right direction without doing wrong. Simply put, it means we don’t need to feel frozen: try something and see if it works. More importantly, upaya recognizes that the presence of everyone around you at any given moment is necessary. All Bodhisattvas (Buddhas who opt to stay in this world to help the rest of us) offer us different skills and wisdoms- human beings do the same.

As I reconnected with this concept I realized that all of us in the room needed to struggle through this question together, in that moment and moving forward. I fell in love with each of the students and conference planners as I began to see their complex identities. Each moment I was gifted a story and inner desire over coffee, a joyful memory in the Truitt Center kitchen, even a moment of anxiety or uncertainty as is par for the course of any conference, the expedient means of each community member unfolded as the weekend pressed on. It felt so good to witness the success of this group of people, to be reminded of my time in Japan and the opportunity to travel, to talk honestly about how Buddhist communities must work for racial justice, and above all, to laugh uninhibited. Laughter surely is upaya at its best. 

I am grateful for this weekend as we continue to invest in interfaith leaders as the key to our future. As one of my students often tells me, “the people that needed to be in the room inevitably came to the room, and it was good.”