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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Stranger Endings

I am scribbling furiously in a cold conference room. Something about “we” and “endings” and “tribes” and “bunkers.” In front of me, two of my fellow Interfaith Youth Core alums on a panel share stories from the social action projects they built during the 2016 Germanacos Fellowship (a program for IFYC alums who envision and execute interfaith action projects). This year, I am humbled to call myself a Germanacos Fellow. I am also ecstatic, and terrified, and itching to launch my project: a pop-up traveling exhibit depicting California’s religious and interfaith history.

 

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Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Folding a new page onto the top of my notebook, a vision flashes in my head. This past Thursday, I asked the students in my New Testament section to imagine what it would be like if religion scholars 1000 years from today tried to understand Harry Potter as a sacred text. How would they reconstruct our world, with very limited materials and a pretty substantial translation problem? What about “facts” and “reality?” I asked them to do this in order to understand our task as students of the New Testament. I ask this about my own faith tradition’s most central figure, Siddhartha Gautama. You might know him as “the Buddha,” the one who was awakened. The task of constructing other worlds means something when the process of asserting and legitimizing my own worldview is at stake.

Because I am not Christian, I experience tiny moments of enlightenment in my class when the students grapple with material that for many of them is actually quite familiar. When we began our course, the students wrote learning contracts explaining why they enrolled in the course and how they best learn. The majority of essays began “I grew up in a Christian household…” with some adjectives or qualifying statements added every so often. Quickly, I realized that in my role as a teacher and because of my own spiritual practice, every day I ask my students to endure some very difficult tasks. I wonder, what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview?

Back to scribbling. I’m thinking about a conversation my fellow “Fellows” and I just engaged in with the Director and Founder of an organization I have admired and supported for more than ten years now (and more frankly, has believed in me as an interfaith leader, graciously supporting projects and investing in my skillset). I listen intently. The theme of the conversation: strangers. Not just people we don’t know. These are the people we don’t see or hear or think about. People we don’t ever, even in our wildest dreams, imagine knowing. These strangers might look like me, but they don’t have a degree from a top 20 school in the world, a masters from a top 5, or are in process of a PhD at a top 3 (please don’t take this as a brag, rather, a statement of immense privilege that allows me to even huddle over this laptop as I write). There is a sense that these strangers, if given the opportunity, would switch places with me. There is an even heavier sense that these strangers put the current president in the White House because they saw him not as a stranger, but as a beacon. In my circles, the same man often bears titles like “white supremacist” and “racist” and “fascist,” and I agree with those statements. The question on the table sinks into the room as silence falls for a moment. Is this- this huddling, this turning inward, this tightening of our own “clan” if you will- is this the reality of bridge building in America right now? Of pluralism? Of interfaith work?

I get stuck. Who is “we?” At first glance it sounds like “liberals,” or “democrats,” or “the people of the interfaith movement.” That makes sense. “We” tend to be the elite, the educated, the folks with access. We get to dream and throw around the word passion and dispute each other’s Facebook ponderings. But, it’s complicated. My parents have this access- they have bachelors and masters degrees. They own their own businesses and a two-story home in a great school district. They choose freely to incur debt when purchasing land. My parents are just as “elite” as me, according to Capitalist America. But they didn’t vote like me.

I think about someone else I love. Someone I met an an elite university, in our Arabic class. Someone who speaks three languages fluently. But he is not “we.” He is not a documented citizen of this nation. He is the stranger, the alien, the criminal who deserves not a single, solitary physical atom on this land because no papers, no proof of humanity. Stay out of spaces that don’t belong to you. Don’t talk to me about stolen land.

From my perspective, my students are “we.” I don’t know their political leanings, where they find community on campus, or if they can afford a plane ticket home at Thanksgiving. I do know they have access to one of the world’s largest libraries and can spend their Friday nights pouring over real Medieval manuscripts (some do). I know that when they graduate, the name on their diploma will welcome them automatically to a class of careers and social circles that others will see as mythical. The lore starts even before graduation: you don’t know someone who got in to Stanford. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone. And yet, the reality is, not all of them are “we,” because they are still outsiders in an institution built specifically for upper-class white males. Access doesn’t always mean belonging.

Let me return to the New Testament for a moment. In all the gospels, more or less, Jesus intentionally curates his schedule to spend more time with “sinners” and “undesirables”- lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors- than with the Jeff Bezos’ of the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus suffers with the suffering, and then he tells people to do the same thing, to their fury. We know the ending to this story- Christ rises. Christ bestows the potential for liberation. But before this, Jesus loses. In any case, the outcome is printed neatly at the end, allowing us to work backwards from the ending to see that everything Jesus did led him to the cross. And yet, we know so little about this man’s world- we can’t dive into the archives of CNN to scour the 24-hour news cycle to understand what else is going on.

When I visit my childhood home, my mom and I walk four miles early in the morning. My mom waves to just about everyone we pass. She points out her favorite landmarks. The family that owns the pig. The house that grows giant pumpkins in the fall. The alley where she can almost always spot a deer looking for water. One morning about a month ago, she said something I didn’t expect. “We’ve got to do something about the guns. Really, we’ve got to.” This, coming from someone for whom pretty much any other issue would fall neatly into a “conservative” standpoint. But this is different- I, her daughter, teach on a college campus. Statistically speaking, if I stay long enough in my current position, it’s not highly likely I will encounter a school shooting. It’s certain. This complicates “we,” because strangers and kin are not just organized by red and blue. We don’t know the end of this story. Does it come down to a checkbox on a ballot? Or can we consider other affiliations that illuminate some Venn Diagrams?

Remember my dilemma with my students learning the central Christian text from a Buddhist? Here it is: what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview? I think “we,” the folks with access and voices in the interfaith movement, could all stand to demand of ourselves that we question the statements our “we” uphold AND deny- things like democracy as ultimately good, like what religious freedom really means, and who, frankly, can’t be part of our movement. Where are the lines now drawn? Do we have a duty to consider the plight of the stranger? Before I feel like I can do that genuinely, I want to put my energy into widening a circle of folks ready to ask with me. I want to look at the limited materials and construct a world that legitimizes and asserts our movement as one comfortable with not knowing the ending, but rather wants to initiate some beginnings.

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 🙂

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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.

 

 

Horrible People (Or Not So?)

This past weekend, I traveled all the way across the bay to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley for the American Academy of Religion Western Region Annual Meeting. That title sounds intimidating to me, but the meeting itself was great.

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http://www.pegasusbookstore.com

Why was it great? Well, there WAS a bookstore around the corner. First of all, every panel I attended had more POC presenters than white people, more non-men presenters than cis-men, and the audience felt empowered to participate in deep conversation after each presenter finished their paper. The papers all mattered- they told stories from unheard actors, suggested how the way we do things in the academy and elsewhere is perpetuating harm, and offered alternatives. Keynote speaker Dr. Jane Iwamura led us through meditation in her talk on kindness. The audience members told their stories to gentlely tweak or further a presenter’s point of view. People didn’t feel afraid to put themselves in their work. Overall, I found myself at home in this space as a listener and learner (and especially an un-learner).

I also found something bugging me, that I myself need to unpack and unlearn. While the meeting was one of the least-white of any academic I have been to, whiteness still permeated the spaces. That isn’t surprising. One of my classmates developed the hashtag #maleconferencing a few weeks ago after a particularly egregious all-white, all-male panel responded to all-white, all-male audience questions. That hashtag definitely surfaced here too. Beyond the visible panel-audience relationship, I have found that white people who feel “aware” or perhaps as allies or “hopeful allies” find ways to confide in other white people to whom they feel “safe” admitting things. Better than putting the burden on a POC. The problem is when we separate ourselves and our “knowledge” from “those people.” We lift ourselves up by putting others down.

This comes in a few forms. At the meeting, I presented a paper on college chaplains and how they cross boundaries to serve students. What my research showed was a lack of real intention, in some cases, toward students’ racial, ethnic, gender, ability, and other identities. In my paper I didn’t make a value judgement on this because it is “research” and I was channeling what my subjects shared with me. But the audience rightfully didn’t buy that. They wanted to know who served students without thinking about this. “Maybe this is obvious, but mostly white men,” I told them. “White men, white women, and Christians.” The people for whom the institution of chaplaincy was built. After the panel ended, a few folx found there way to me. They started telling me about “a terrible person who did ____.” How heartbreaking and shameful. In doing this, we white people uphold white supremacy. We just do it a little differently.

I struggle with this because something I’ve been socialized and taught to do is “be an expert.” Not to mention focus on strengths and not weaknesses. Skills not growing edges. The idea has always been to further hone what I’m good at and forget what I’m not good at. Most all white people are not familiar with admitting their own harm and reflecting on it. I definitely avoided it for a very, very long time. My goal was always to prove “how much I listened.” Truly, the only thing I prove is how much privilege I hold in being able to learn from the folx who taught me. It seems so laughable now, but I write this because I hope to nudge the folx that look on disgusted at white people who perform acts of racism to self-reflect more. We all perform them, and letting go of our need to separate ourselves begins to break down supremacy in ourselves.

 

 

Women Who Grieve

Happy International Women’s Day! I love the outpouring of pictures and writing and speeches about the women who have trail blazed and led and mentored, those who are, and those who will.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’m going to say something bold. This week, it seems like grief and death have surrounded me- from Coco winning at the Oscars to thinking about empathy in end of life care in my class to an interfaith memorial service to…the horrid violence that can occur when grief goes unchecked. Now, this violence is also rooted in toxic patriarchal and white supremacist attitudes. Grief can play a role in exacerbating this. In my short life, I have encountered lots of grief and found that frankly, often women deal with it better.

On Sunday my partner and I watched a live performance of “Remember Me” at the Academy Awards. The song was up for best original song (and it won!). I think many people would say it’s easy to cry- the premise and the melody remind us of friends we have lost. We cried too. This morning my partner texted me saying that he listened to the song while looking at pictures of his father, and he didn’t understand why he did that. It only made him cry again. “It’s been more than a year, why am I still doing this?”

I’ve written about death and grief a fair amount. In my work, we think about memorial services, funerals, and other ways of ritualizing death quite often. I think what goes unnoticed is not the raw grief from more “fresh” loss but the grief we carry through the rest of our lives. We often hold this idea that at some point in time, grief will exit, it will leave us. We “get over” it. But that’s false. Several people that came to to the interfaith memorial service grieved for people they lost five, ten, or even thirty years ago, and perhaps their grief looks different than someone with raw pain, but the entity is there. Grief becomes a part of us as soon as we experience loss, and it stays with us- it morphs and changes and takes different forms. This is why we wake up crying, or feel empty, or sometimes even laugh out loud for no reason. The other day I was thinking about my grandmother who loved to tell anyone, much to their chagrin, who visited her house about these dolls she had- King Henry VIII and his wives. It was one of those moments that explodes with joy and pain and yearning and sorrow all in the same instant.

I think it’s crucial to talk about grief often. Grief is not always related to the end of life, but it is always related to death as an end. The end of a career, the end of a relationship, the end of living in a particular place. Is grief our friend? I think we might discover different ways to relate, but knowing it exists within us is helpful and actually soothing, sometimes.

Today I am lifting up the women in my life because they hold grief in ways that push them. My mom, my sister, my friends, my classmates, my professors, the activists and teachers and writers I admire- we all hold grief for loss. Some of this loss is what should be and simply isn’t because women constantly fight for space. Our grief can be shared by the space women make for each other.

Wrath

This weekend marked one year. Women swarmed the streets again. We aren’t finished here.

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Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

This year felt slightly different, in my book. The marches focused on increasing voter turnout and encouraging potential candidates to run for political office. Toxic feminism still reared its ugly head, excluding trans women and centering whiteness, in some instances. But some organizers intentionally welcomed non-cis marchers and centered stories from women of color. We can recognize good practices and confront where xenophobia still dictate who holds the microphone.

The county still feels more divided than ever. The government shut down illustrates how impossible and frankly, how oppressive “compromise” is. The people continue to organize. The artists keep creating. The musicians imagine lyrics. The scholars continue to interrogate, analyze and hopefully disseminate their findings in a way that reaches beyond the academy. We need work in all disciplines.

Today I found myself at an interfaith panel put on by the Islamic Networks Group, an organization whose main purpose is to educate the American public about Islam. The panel featured five women who shared some beautiful stories about women leaders of their faith traditions.They also acknowledged how scriptures and practices have held women back. In some instances, religious communities perpetrated violence or legitimized oppression. I appreciated the critical yet appreciative flavor to the conversation. It’s a flavor I’ve been trying to apply to my research.

One of the panelists was a bada** Buddhist feminist who reminded me that we must be endlessly compassionate while taking the firmest stand against bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. She told a story about losing it when one of her students wouldn’t read her work any longer because his friend convinced him that it wasn’t worthy. Or when she wasn’t allowed in the “monks only” lecture because of her gender. I fell in love with her honesty. In my practice, I often feel guilty about allowing anger or frustration to permeate my body and thoughts. But she is absolutely right- we can and should practice compassion by speaking up when possible (and safe- it is NOT the obligation of marginalized people to educate others about their oppression).

This past week I felt frustrated by a few incidents that demonstrated a clear prioritization of maleness where I study. It made me exhausted. Thankfully, I had a willing sounding board after a long week, and decided to inflict some wrathful compassion and speak up for myself. I don’t always feel safe doing this, but I’m willing to push my limits because I also live with several privileged identities.

Sitting in a room full of women who understand faith as complicated and helpful reminded me how sacred these spaces are. The first ever ordained woman Conservative rabbi extolled us to take this sacred with us, even in a world that feels unwelcoming. I held her words as I reflected on the weekend while driving home, at the same time comparing the ideas of Revolutionary Love to wrathful compassion. At the core of both is radical joy, the pursuit of happiness despite a plethora of suffering.

 

Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”