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.

Knowing Students

I don’t know how this is possible but this quarter seems more overwhelming than the previous two. A very real possibility is that I’m tired and ready for summer. Last week, I went to bed before 11 almost every night, which is pretty rare. Finally, it occurred to me that my exhaustion was caused by teaching. I love teaching, and I feel terrified of teaching.

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Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

“Teaching” in my class consists of leading a thirty minute discussion twice a week, during the latter half of class. 19 students and I crowd around an amalgamation of tables. The space feels cramped. The students work very hard; they exude excellence. Given my background in dialogue facilitation, this should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. First of all, there was no baking soda in the time of Jesus, so cake probably didn’t happen. Second, leading a discussion about a subject that is not my expertise feels wrong, in a way. Who am I to make judgments about whether someone makes a good point, or needs to be pushed further? Very gradually, I have relaxed into the role knowing I will never feel like an expert, and that saying “I don’t know” will be an essential phrase in the next two months. Maybe on the last day of class, I will feel like I got the hang of this discussion thing.

Just when things began to feel smooth, a handful of students turned in papers for me to grade. Grading is not something I have much experience doing, and so I feel even more overwhelmed by the activity. This week, three papers sit on my desk waiting for assessment. I’ve read each one twice already and tried to utilize a rubric, only to feel more confused. You see, I find it impossible to separate the writer from the writing. Even with the limited knowledge I have about my students, their contexts influence my perception of their writing.

One student, for example, diligently sent a rough draft two days before she turned in her paper. She explained that English is her third language, and she likes when readers can ask questions of her writing to improve it. Even from the draft, I see improvement in her writing. Do I ignore the few missing articles and some awkward tenses? Another student explained that he wanted to turn in the paper early because his team would be competing in national championships during the week. Without expressing too much enthusiasm, I felt so excited for him. Who gets to compete in national championships?

The framework of college chaplaincy never stopped influencing how I see the world, and especially how I see students. This means above all else, my commitment to students is to learn who they are. It’s not just skills or exciting news, I need to know how they learn, what makes them excited or upset or discouraged, and how to push them outside their comfort areas. The key warrant is that students don’t enter a classroom having left the rest of themselves outside the door. Though perhaps more exhausting, knowing my students actually makes me feel like I can grade their work. It’s not about excuses, it’s about particularity. Good thing, because reading 20 papers with the exact same thesis would be pretty darn boring.

When Someone Asks You About the Bible

So today, I did something magnificent- I led my first section as a TA! The class is called Exploring the New Testament. You can probably guess what it’s about. Let me preface this by noting that I laughed way too loud exactly twice in class because the professor made jokes that were hilarious to any religious studies graduate student. Perhaps no one else. So much for keeping my cool.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Teaching felt similar to starting a half marathon. When I looked around the room at 35 faces, I started to feel nervous. Then we divided up into our groups and I felt SO nervous. In my mind, I babbled on like a broken fountain. Hyper-awareness of who spoke and what they said and was it smart and what did they say again swirled around me. At one point I did challenge a student to define what he meant by “sacred” and he finally came to the conclusion that the term was ambiguous. Silent high five! It was a fascinating experience.

Our purpose in class today was to problematize how we “know” what we do about the New Testament. We talked about textual criticism, issues with linguistics and language, and the evidence we have- manuscripts don’t match. What do we do with all of the conflicting information? More importantly, what do we do with silences? Our professor passed around papyrus and animal hyde so we could understand how manuscripts survived. We talked about garbage. Not a dull moment occurred in the hour and twenty minutes of class.

The discussion went fairly well, I think. The students seem eager to learn and talk to each other, even argue their points in productive ways. After we wrapped up, a student asked me a question I failed to answer well. In essence, she asked, “How can I treat the Bible as a moral compass when I haven’t spent years learning Greek and Hebrew and studying texts- basically, when we don’t know?”

This is a question we could apply to any text that exegetes truth claims. How can we use a text as an ethical guide when what we believe about it is upended? I sent the student off with some reading suggestions and an enthusiastic “you’re a budding religious studies scholar!” However, I don’t know if I really answered her question because there isn’t an answer. The answer is that maybe we derive morals from asking questions, not listening to what one text says.

I think I’ll enjoy teaching and probably be exhausted by it in no time at all. For all the theory and strategies and activities to implement in each class, ultimately the material masks what students really need, which is to find their voices and feel uncomfortable. I have a feeling more questions that have no answers are coming my way. What is awesome is how it makes me reflect on why I love this subject. The stakes can be high. It’s cool to be a curator of conversations that matter.

Jesus the Teacher

As traditions abound this time of year, my family hastily put up a tree, wrapped gifts, and cooked all kinds of complex dishes, culminating last night with Christmas Dinner. My dad and I always attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and this year was no different. I could see my breathe walking up the hill in Sierra Madre to St. Rita’s Parish, perhaps the greatest sign of winter that will come to Southern California. My dad and I found a seat in a pew almost in the very last row, off to the side. Normally, my dad sits front and center. As we sat down, he muttered something about the people who only come on Christmas and Easter. “But they’re here,” he corrected himself. “That’s good.”

Midnight Mass at St. Rita’s looks the same every year. I mean, exactly the same. The same carols welcome everyone to their seats. About 15 minutes late, we all stand as the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest come down the center aisle to the altar, where they bow and take their places. The priest and deacon “visit” the nativity scene off to the left side, sprinkling the scene with incense. The first and second readings remain: Isiah (the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light) and the letter of Paul to Titus (the grace of God has appeared). The gospel rotates from Luke to Matthew to John each year. In elementary school I learned to remember: Luke= shepherds, Matthew= wise men, John= The Word. Everything else, down to the beginning of the priest’s homily, remains the same. Tradition, ritual. Sometimes, we find relief in the expected. Truthfully, I fought sleepiness the whole time.

There was one essential difference that woke me up. During the homily, the time when the one who says mass teaches the congregation about the readings and offers lessons, the priest acknowledged that our brothers and sisters of another faith were also celebrating: our Jewish neighbors were celebrating Chanukah, the festival of light and rededication. “We must pray for them, and for people of all faiths that they experience peace, enjoy relaxation, and welcome a new year just as we hope to,” he said. 1000 people heard that message, a message of interfaith cooperation in the form of prayer. The priest, our teacher, offered us an important lesson. I believe one of the most important teachers, Jesus, taught that lesson over and over.

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PC: Ben White

Yesterday among the cinnamon rolls and piles of gift wrap scattered around the family room, I reflected on the importance of teachers and the gift of learning. Teachers come in many forms: people, sacred texts, books, stories, experiences…anything can be a teacher if our persons are open to learning. One of the most powerful things about Jesus as I see is that his teachings transcended a particular time and place, and often related to the divine potential of each human being as a steward of resources. Many of the prophets and founders of great traditions of wisdom were also first and foremost teachers, and they were concerned with the flourishing of humanity. The Buddha traveled across Southeast Asia, teaching crowds of hundreds about suffering and liberation. I concluded that teaching is one of the highest forms serving human kind, especially because in teaching, we learn continuously.

Many of us will admit to spending too much money on something in particular: fancy food, clothes, alcohol, sporting events, you name it. I have much to work on in this regard. In particular, books are my downfall. The last time I walked in to a bookstore, there was a table with a “sale” sign, and I walked out with four new paperbacks. In this moment in time, memoirs and books dealing with race, gender, and religion are stacked in my “to read” pile. Besides my students who always prove to be my best teachers, books offer me a constant window into learning, the process that makes me feel most alive. Over my lifetime, the people who have most impacted me have been teachers: they have challenged me, believed in me, journeyed with me.

I closed my eyes with everyone else as we prayed for our neighbors celebrating Chanukah. I remembered something my friend Steven, an Orthodox Jew, taught me while we were on the Interfaith Council at USC: “When we light the Menorah, we take the first candle and light the others with it. Lighting one candle with another does not diminish the light in either.” Such is the case with great teachers, the more we learn from one another does not diminish the vast capacity we have to continue.