First. I had surgery today. There is a cyst that’s been bothering me on my lip for the past three months and after several trips to dentists and dermatologists, I decided it was time to see an oral surgeon. The waiting room reminded me of a 1970’s office with blue plastic furniture and yellowed blinds. I sat with my hands folded in the patient chair while the surgeon explained the procedure and the risks (discomfort was the biggest… so you can tell this was a mild surgery). Then I prepared myself for the novocaine, the only part that really terrifies me about medical procedures. The feeling that comes with the initial shot is a loss of feeling, to eliminate the potential pain we might experience. This sensation is called “numb.”
Today of course is the 16th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Last year on this day, I was frantically sharing the media pieces that the Revolutionary Love team had put together in honor of the 15 year mark. 15 felt like a big milestone, perhaps because 5-year increments do, perhaps because the impending election trumpeted hateful rhetoric reminiscent of the days and months and years after the attacks. But this year as I sat dreading the needle that would make my whole face feel nothing, I wondered if we as a nation have shifted to a kind of numbness after this pivotal moment in history.
“No,” I quickly decided. There may be fewer media pieces and ceremonies, but the calls to action for help in hurricane relief and fighting white supremacy are not so different than calls to affirm our Muslim neighbors and to practice compassion. Further and perhaps more importantly, as impactful as a single moment can be, sixteen years later we should not ignore the effects this days has had on every day following. Not to mention the deep-seeded racism and xenophobia the attacks helped to expose to those oblivious.
This evening I met the new Revolutionary Love Project team and I feel like I did last year on our first team call. Recognizing that we have our work cut out, I feel grateful that we may be angry and scared, but we still believe in our message. That is not “numbness.” That is genuine, blessed feeling.
The Practivist is two this week, so I had grand plans to make a cake to celebrate. I also got donuts and baked cookies, because go big or go home. Well, this is how the cake turned out:
My mom saw it first. I got a text saying “emergency” while reading in my room, and rushed downstairs to find her laughing. “What!” I looked at her expecting something terrible, but she pointed to the cake. The marshmallow frosting was too slippery. “Geez, you scared me!” We both laughed very hard. That’s exactly what this blog is about, I realized. Finding joy in the imperfect, the disastrous. The cake tasted great, by the way. Appearances aren’t everything.
A year ago, I attended the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing retreat in Gambier, Ohio. 100 religious leaders (of sorts) stayed in the Kenyon College dorms and wrote op-eds, essays, religious commentaries, and stories. It was at that retreat that I committed to posting a blog every week, and I’m happy to share that I made it! 52 posts later, my writing feels more natural. Every week offered an opportunity to reflect on this idea of staying grounded in the daily struggle, whether it was personal or worldly (often both). Since last July, I joined a memoir writing group, started working for an amazing project (the Revolutionary Love Project, founded by Sikh-American activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur- also a personal hero), and ran a marathon. I quit my job. I got accepted to my dream PhD program in religious studies at Stanford and moved back to California. I finished cataloguing my blessed collection of books, many of which came from my grandmother’s house when she passed away. My sister graduated from medical school and started her residency at home. For the first time in over six years, my family is all in one place.
Though my writing has certainly rambled down different paths, I believe this blog remains true to my original idea of exploring how we, as human beings, demand resilience in ourselves. Suffering grounds me in my religious beliefs because all humans experience it. Yet, we are capable of countering it, and even ending it in certain circumstances. This year I often found that joy presented itself in a form of self-allowance. When we realize we are deserving of the life we are given, the gifts of said life present themselves. I’ll never forget when Valarie spoke to our group of fellows on the phone after the election and she told us we deserved joy especially in a time such as this. “We will never let them take it away,” she said.
My students often gifted me opportunities to learn, which I loved and cherished. I had no idea that my job involved so much learning, often in times I was supposed to be the teacher or coach. I feel much better about admitting my mistakes, even when they have caused someone I love to hurt. Guilt still plagues me, but I am able to name it and even let it go more easily sometimes.
Not every blog post was easy to write, and definitely not all of them turned out the way I envisioned. Some of them make me cringe reading them back, but I’ve decided to leave them as they are to trace the journey and accept the imperfection of where I was when I completed them. Authors speak often about the trajectory of their work and how much their earlier writing influences their current projects because the necessity of reflection and knowing oneself through process makes us better writers.
It’s difficult to imagine a year from now because as life has taught me, plans often meander or even take a sharp turn away from an original intention. That’s why this blog has been so important to me, because the friends and others who have read even one posting and commented or messaged me saying, “I identity with this” have made it worth it to stay up late or carve out time (when I really didn’t have it) to keep going. I plan to keep writing and learning and making mistakes. Here’s to another year and maybe even another cake that resembles the leaning tower of frosting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Snow crunched under my boots as I paced the sidewalk. Valarie was finally here! It had been 8 years since I last met her in person and up close. She gave me a great hug before we trekked back to the Curry Student Center to drop off her bag and begin her Master Class as the opening to the New England Interfaith Student Summit.
Valarie captivated everyone’s attention immediately. She also helped participants feel like they could be vulnerable in a group of 35 others-as we learned to tell our own stories for movement building, I witnessed several soul-baring moments. Moments of shame, of fear, of knowing acutely how different one felt from everyone around them because of their queer identity. We learned together how these moments blossomed into activists and teachers and interfaith leaders.
I fell in love with the students I serve all over again. After a snow day that cancelled our planned Keynote Address with Valarie just the day before, they committed to each other to make the day a success. They treated every participant and staff person with kindness and jumped at opportunities to be helpful. A few students ate their lunch with Valarie, and offered some of the most poignant wisdom and relevant questions for leaders and activists at this time. “What is the boundary I am allowed to set when it comes to engaging with people who do not agree that my humanity is sacred?” “How do we actually take time for self-care, and what does it look like?” “Who are the MLK and Gandhi’s of OUR generation- the folx that understand the context in which we struggle?” I scribbled notes furiously.
After lunch Valarie planned to show snippets of her first film, Divided We Fall, and take questions. “What if instead, we show the Public Radio International video of Rana and me calling Frank Roque?” She asked me. This is a 30-minute video of Valarie and her Uncle Rana calling the man who murdered Rana’s brother Balbir Singh Sodhi four days after 9/11 in Phoenix, Arizona. This man’s act of violence is what broke Valarie’s heart and made her an activist and filmmaker- the first hate crime against Muslims or Sikhs after the towers fell. Balbir was killed because of the turban he wore on his head, and the beard he kept long as a sign of his faith. The murderer’s name is Frank Roque. He has been sentenced to life in prison.
“I want to know the audience’s reactions. I’ve never seen the video in full.”
I loaded up the video in the crowded workshop room. About 20 of us watched Valarie and Uncle Rana sitting in Rana’s kitchen, speaking to Frank. Valarie holds the cellphone so Rana can listen and respond. I hear Frank say he “couldn’t help” what happened, that he had experienced a mental breakdown. I watch Valarie’s frustration but miraculous ability to stay calm. Rana listens politely, and when he does speak, pours love out from his heart into the phone. He tells Frank that he, Rana, already forgave him, that he sends love to Frank’s wife and daughter, that if he had the power- he would release him from prison. I have watched this video three times, and each time my eyes cannot help but respond to this with tears, in awe of the grace Rana bestows on Frank.
About halfway through the video, Frank tells Rana that he never forgot Balbir’s name. But it isn’t until almost the end that Frank addresses Rana using his name instead of “his brother.” “Rana,” he says, “I am sorry.” Finally, I thought. A tiny transformation. Frank has finally started to humanize the person whose life he destroyed, who still lives in pain and suffering yet loves without chains.
One audience member spoke about feeling dissatisfied with the conversation. “Frank isn’t there,” he said. “He didn’t ask you (Valarie) or Rana any questions, and he didn’t seem to fully admit his harm.” We agreed. In my reflecting on NEISS as a whole, I believe it is necessary that we remain deeply dissatisfied AND recognize the tiny transformations. This is Practivism, the ability to believe our work, our suffering, our struggle is working even when we cannot see it.
Don’t tell us to calm down, for we are angry.
Don’t ignore our rage, for we are outraged.
Let us ask one another and ourselves WHERE the outrage comes from, and understand that the root is love.
As I walked with Valarie back to our office so she could prepare for the closing, with tears in her eyes she stopped to hug one of the participants who watched the video. “My grandfather was killed in a hate crime,” he told us all. “Please write me,” she said. “You are not alone.”
“When you let rage fester in isolation, this is when it becomes violence,” Valarie said as she closed her Keynote Address. “Love is a choice, an act of faith and courage.” I knew at that moment that the dissatisfaction we all felt with Frank’s response is rooted in faith- faith that Frank has more to change, more tiny transformations to experience, and much more love to choose to put out in the world. We all have this capacity. And we are not alone.
Many of my fellow writers (and others) have shared that they feel lost for words- what do we add to the conversation this week, especially as we still feel a sense of shock? I really want to sit with that tension, especially to state that I don’t feel like I can give any wisdom or say anything inspiring like, “it’s going to be ok.” What does that mean, “it’s going to be ok”? I decided that sharing two things I learnedM specifically as a white person this week may be helpful. This post isn’t well-written or even logically in order, which reflects the sentiment.
Tuesday of course was a day of fatigue for me and pretty much everyone at work, most especially the students. My colleague did an amazing job of creating a space for the community to come dialogue and for many, this was the first space they could do that. I listened to my students, my beloved Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, unaffiliated students, share their emotions as well as they could. There were certainly tears. And there was love. There was an unabashed, boundless, courageous love that filled the room. I felt it in every hug, every handshake, even the way we looked at each other. As one of the dialogue facilitators, much of what was said echoed my emotions and fears, but I didn’t share.
That evening, I got a call from a really good friend who led the USC Interfaith Council with me. We threw out suggestions for what we could do on our campuses and how we knew folks were mobilizing already. It felt really good to talk to him. After we finished our call I went on a run and listened to Valarie Kaur speak dazzling beautiful and powerful words on our Revolutionary Love Conference Call. She echoed much of what I and many were feeling and told us to think about this moment as birth: first, there is darkness. Then, there is beginning, and creating, and building. One of the Revolutionary Love Fellows shared a heartbreaking reflection on feeling like a failure to our country, and I sobbed as I ran the last few steps to my door. The rest of my evening was pretty quiet- I tried to write something for National Novel Writing Month, to keep up my word count.
On Thursday at our Spiritual Advisors’ Meeting, I realized too late that I hadn’t processed my own feelings fully, especially not out loud. The idea that a man with a track record of normalizing sexual harassment and assault will control decisions and moreover, messages to people in our nation that say “women’s bodies are up for grabs” elicits a significant level of panic for me. I mention this for personal reasons, but also cannot forgive the messaging that has normalized homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, the fact that Black Lives don’t really Matter. Further, to lose my friends who are undocumented, DACA-mented, and/or are immigrants in the blink of an eye feels shattering- it’s as if what I wrote about in college, the rounding up of Japanese Americans and immigrants and physically removing them is coming back to haunt us. So, in a group of 20 people from different faith traditions, I sobbed. I told them that I was scared. That I had been ignorant for being critical of interfaith communities who practice a “basic” understanding of what interfaith is because clearly- we need to encourage any positive interfaith action in full force. I told them the students were my heroes this week. They fricking SHOWED UP for each other, despite their fear and anger. And I made it about me, which I shouldn’t have done. I cried white tears, and learned the necessity of self-care this week. It was an important lesson to learn.
This weekend I flew home to LA to run a 10K and half marathon at Disneyland. The theme of the weekend was Superheroes, which felt all too necessary. Home is strange for me right now- my family did not vote for the candidate I wanted to see in the Oval Office, and have been vocal about their dismissal of people who feel afraid and angry. I’ve worked on asking open questions about why they made their choice, and tried to push back with some counter ideas to their analysis. They are my family and I love them, and we don’t agree. I’m going to sit with that discomfort for some time.
This morning I finished my second half marathon race. This weekend was dedicated to self-care because, as noted above, I learned an important lesson. You ran 13.1 miles for self-care? Indeed, while excruciating at points and not what I love doing at 5:30 am every Sunday, the race was something to which I looked forward and for which I trained over the past 12 weeks. Running is a practice for me, it helps me stay focused and motivated. The race started in the dark and just before we sang the National Anthem, I thought: this is what an intentional community looks like.
Around me, there were people who looked like me and people who didn’t. There was a man next to me who told me he came from Japan for this race and donned a full Minnie Mouse dress and ears to run. “You look so great!” people told him. Four runners in wheelchairs started the entire race. There were people over the age of 70, people from Kansas and Oregon and Australia, people of size and people who were very slender, people who had never run a half marathon before. There was a man who had made the US Olympic Marathon Trials. The course was tough- not hilly, but all asphalt, and as the sun rose it got warmer. For the hour and forty five minutes I struggled through that darn course, people encouraged me unflaggingly. Even in the last 2 miles, we gave each other thumbs up and simple, “you got this!” greetings. It felt like a community. Not perfect, not all the same, just people sharing a goal.
I’m going to focus on simple relationship building in the next few weeks. Finishing this race and thinking about the necessity of building bridges, the dire, urgent necessity, is where I want to start. I’m going to keep reading, keep asking my friends and students how they are feeling, keep supporting. And I will make mistakes, and try my best to write about them in a way that encourages learning.
In the wee hours of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 the world either ends or begins. This is the rhetoric I hear, the anxiety my friends feel, the way we as a country have been visioning our future for the past couple of weeks. What will be our new national narrative?
The world goes on, simply. Nothing really changes overnight, and yet everything changes in our minds: we either lose everything or make history in whatever way our nation decides. This has been a long, grueling, terrifying election season for many. What will we do, who will we be on November 9th?
The past few months I have witnessed some awful events. Recently I wrote about why Donald Trump’s comments around sexual assault and objectifying women hurt me personally, and cause much deeper harm to the marginalized and oppressed. I cannot claim that any presidential candidate has not made worrisome or downright damaging decisions. And, I can say that in these past few months, wondrous moments have also shaken me and made me believe in love as a human act, indeed an extremely courageous one.
Moving to Boston I have struggled to find and maintain community. Being alone is a part of who I am. Yet this time of great fear and hurt has given me a window into the true importance of community and dedicating everything I can to the ones that hold me and keep me. Let me give you some examples.
The Revolutionary Love Project launched in early September and we, 17 fellows, 250 ambassadors and one fearless leader, quickly got down to business. In the course of only eight weeks, we completed three huge goals (one of which will be completed this Tuesday). We took grassroots action and organized over 100 people across the country to host screenings of Divided We Fall, a documentary by our project leader Valarie Kaur about violence against Sikhs and Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. Some of these screenings happened in living rooms (like mine), and some on college campuses. Just as we reached our targeted 100 screenings, our leader Valarie went on tour with the Together Tour and reached over 20,000 people in 6 cities: Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Denver. Though I couldn’t attend any of the actual tour dates, I felt a surge of hope every time someone new felt inspired to take action after one of the evenings and posted about it on Facebook or Twitter. So many new Love Ambassadors spoke openly for the first time about their pain and how they have healed, and helped others to do the same. Now, each of us have been making calls (and encouraging others to make calls) to Get Out The Vote, especially in key states like Florida. We have felt the urgency to build bridges and acted upon it through love, not hate.
A few weeks ago I passed by one of the main quads on campus to find almost 50 students occupying a large sector of the grass with tents and signs seeking divestment from fossil fuels at my university. The students demonstrated a deep commitment to our earth and each other as they educated passersby on their way to class. They showed us that climate change is not an issue by itself, but a gender issue, a faith issue, a human rights issue. Hundreds of students showed their support by wearing orange. Just this past Wednesday, several student leaders of faith engaged with members of HEAT (the Husky Environmental Action Team) in an essential conversation about how our faith calls us to care for the earth and take action on climate change. We expanded the boundaries of our own communities that night, welcoming each other among ourselves.
Besides election day, November also hosts National Novel Writing Month. Writing 50,000 words in one month always seemed downright impossible to me- the time and moreover, the content pose a large obstacle. This year, an interfaith activist and professor at Cal Lutheran University started an online group for professors and chaplains in which to participate. My writing class also created a joint account, so we could all contribute to the word count. Both communities in the past five days have been ruthlessly encouraging to every member, posting inspirations on Facebook and checking in with each other individually. So far, I’m on track: it’s November 7th and I’ve written almost 10,000 words. Without these two communities I could barely write this blog post. Though unspoken, there seems to be a deep understanding that though the world feels dark and scary, we have our team and we are writing for each other. Every time someone posts that they have achieved their daily goal, I send them a silent high five. “You DID IT!” I want to scream.
Late on a Friday afternoon, several women leaders of faith crowd in my office, sitting on the floor and watching YouTube videos. We don’t speak about our fears or hopes, but we hold each other’s company. We keep each other safe simply by listening and laughing. I smile, packing my bag to head home for the weekend. We hug good bye, and implore each other to make good choices.
On November 9th, I hope we maintain the urgency that each of these communities has utilized to turn love into action. My fingernails are gone, my eyes are puffy. My heart feels weary, but not closed. The world goes on, and no matter what happens, we can care for each other if we find the courage.
On November 9th, I will recommit to practicing love with optimism and honesty. I will keep writing. I will keep imploring my students to make good choices.
Writing for the Revolutionary Love Project with one of my heroes, Valarie Kaur, and her team of Revolutionary Love Fellows these past three weeks has been nothing short of exhilarating. Every night I find myself writing an op-ed, article, or blog post that speaks what my heart is feeling: that love needs to go further at this moment in our world. I have been reading stories of love overcoming fear and pain and hate. The stories I am privileged to read from other “love” enthusiasts like me always demonstrate a difficult decision they face and ultimately the choice to act rather than stay silent.
I have learned through these stories and reflecting on my past that “loving our neighbor” must mean more than loving only those who agree with us. In fact, as a practicing Zen Buddhist, I believe that that revolutionary love is about demonstrating compassion for those with whom we completely disagree, those whom we believe cause harm to ourselves and our world.
A few years ago, I was on a bus to Columbia, Missouri, to visit a friend working at the University of Missouri. Since my bus wasn’t direct, I connected in St. Louis. My first bus was almost two hours late arriving and in order to make the connection, I sprinted what felt like miles through the terminal, throwing myself on the steps in the bus just as the doors closed. “Whew,” I gasped for breath. “Made it.” I took the only seat open next to a young man wearing an old baseball cap and tattered jeans. “Ma’am, would you like the window seat?” My partner stood up to move before I could even refuse. I slid across the faux leather seats and thanked him. “On my way, see you in two hours!” I texted my friend.
The first half an hour or so, neither of us spoke. I tried reading John Rawls’ Political Liberalism, but my stomach began to feel queasy. Luckily, my polite seat partner began a conversation at that moment, asking me what I do. He explained he was on his way to Denver to become a truck driver. He had been traveling for over 30 hours by bus already. “I’m studying religion,” I started to explain, when he interrupted excitedly:
“Well thank GOD for that! Finally, I meet someone who is spreading the word of Jesus and being a good Christian. I’ll tell you, all these Muslims and gay folks contaminating our country, it is sure a relief to meet you.”
My heart sank to my feet. No words. I looked down at my lap, and stared at my backpack for a moment- the very backpack that held my UChicago Spiritual Life Council folder decorated with pictures of my friend Sunil (a Hindu-Buddhist classmate), my mentor (a lesbian Quaker woman), and my partner (an atheist international student). This man, a perfectly polite individual, had just shattered my hope in humanity for the moment. I was faced with a choice- I could say nothing, or I could tell the truth. If I said nothing, I could let him assume that I was a Christian, that I believe Muslims and gays sully our society, and I could guarantee we would have a seemingly pleasant conversation.
Or, I could tell him the truth. I could tell this man that I don’t believe in God, at least not the one he does. I could tell him that one of my best friends (who happens to have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do) is a Syrian-American Muslim. I could tell him that my family includes a two gay uncles who adopted a son years ago. I could tell him that I vehemently disagree with his assertion that Muslims and “gays” are detrimental to our society, and that in fact, I believe they are essential.
I took a deep breath and explained that my master’s program was an interfaith one, that my classmates included Christians from several denominations, an agnostic playwright, a Lesbian seeking ordination, and that I don’t actually spread the word of Jesus as my messiah- though I do love his message and works. My explanation wasn’t smooth, or confident, or perhaps even completely comprehensible- I fumbled with my words and used “like” and “um” far too much. Silence followed. The man grumbled something about the next 1.5 hours of his life being wasted. I closed my eyes pretended to sleep. After an eternity, I arrived in Columbia and never saw this man again.
Yet, I did see this man again. I see him every day. I see Islamophobia right before my eyes when people stare at women wearing hijab on the train and grimace. I see homophobia and transphobia and plain ignorance when perfectly well-meaning adolescents use the words “gay” and “fag” as insults, or when people in my community mis-gender my trans colleagues and friends. I see the oppression my own mind, body, and existence are implicit in, and know that more often I don’t see it and no one calls me out because that’s what privilege is. The man on the bus is everywhere, and this is why I am a Revolutionary Love Fellow. The reason I chose to tell him the truth is love. Love for my friends and my family, and also love for the human being who invoked such harm. Revolutionary Love is not perfect, it is a process. It’s about compassion, for ourselves and for others.
My call to action is to share your story with me. Every time I read a story of someone choosing love and taking action, I am deeply inspired and motivated to continue the hard work and long hours. I want to know what Revolutionary Love means to you. What difficult path did you choose in order to put love in the world, and what has come of that decision? You can comment, email me, find me on social media. I won’t share your story unless you give me permission. Please consider sharing- your story matters to me and to the world.
For more info on the Revolutionary Love Project, visit http://revolutionarylove.net/ and look at the three calls to action. A little time can go a very long way. Thanks for your support and love.