Hallowed Ground

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Today Andover Hall is at the center of our Divinity School campus. Crowned with a gothic tower, flanked by the stately Theological Library and the modern Rockefeller Hall, with Jewett House and the Center for the Study of World Religions paying their homage from across Francis Street, Andover is Harvard’s sole example of college gothic architecture. It looks every bit the home of a divinity school. But it was plain, unassuming Divinity Hall that I would first discover when Stephanie Paulsell, our Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of Christian Practice, encouraged me to explore HDS for graduate study.

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Emerson Chapel – Photo by Rose Lincoln

“Go to Divinity Hall,” she told me, “Emerson Chapel’s on the third floor—don’t miss it!” Leaving Harvard Yard, where Stephanie was teaching Literature of Journey and Quest that summer, I set off in search of Divinity Avenue and the hall for which it’s named. Harvey Cox, our beloved emeritus Hollis Professor, delights in telling us of our “exile” from Harvard Yard in 1826. In his telling, our troublesome forbearers were hard at work afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and Harvard  wanted a little distance from the theological rabble-rousers in their midst. On that hot summer day when I finally came upon “Div Hall” as we call it, I would find it facing resolutely away from the street, its back to the Yard, determined to engage the world.

On that hot summer day when I finally came upon “Div Hall” as we call it, I would find it facing resolutely away from the street, its back to the Yard, determined to engage the world.

Dutifully climbing the stairs to the third floor, I discovered a small, quiet chapel with chairs arranged in an open square, facing each other across the room. Bookended by a pulpit on one end and an organ on the other, the chapel is adorned with several large plaques commemorating the luminaries who helped to shape the Divinity School’s early history. On that day the two old chandeliers seemed superfluous as natural sunlight streamed through the large colonial style windows. Stephanie had described it as a secret gem, and indeed it seemed that I had stumbled into a well-preserved bit of history, still extraordinarily well-suited to quiet contemplation and reflection.

These days, it is Andover Hall’s Chapel that serves as our gathering place on Wednesday’s for Noon Service and on Tuesday mornings for our Ecumenical Eucharist. We gather there for Seasons of Light and other big occasions throughout the year. By contrast, Divinity Hall’s Emerson Chapel has come to serve as a place where members of the HDS community come to find respite from the rush of activity that can sometimes characterize the divinity school experience. Students seek out this space to read or pray or simply sit in meditation. Small classes and discussion groups convene in the cool quiet of Emerson Chapel for conversation inflected by a sense of our history and feeling of timelessness.

Divinity Hall’s Emerson Chapel has come to serve as a place where members of the HDS community come to find respite from the rush of activity that can sometimes characterize the divinity school experience.

But the chapel in Divinity Hall used to be at the center of our communal life, serving the students of HDS when Divinity Hall wasn’t our oldest building, but our only building. Preaching classes would convene there, visiting eminences would come to preach and proclaim, and a 35-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson would scandalize the community with his Divinity School Address on another hot summer day 176 years before I would find my way to the chapel that now bears his name.

On July 15, 1838, Emerson took to the chapel’s pulpit to encourage that year’s graduating class of divinity students to “acquaint themselves at first hand with deity.” Not quite ready for such a radical message, the community waited some thirty years to invite him back! Of course, Emerson was only participating in that particular brand of theological troublemaking that has characterized the best of us here at HDS for 200 years now. As we celebrate our bicentennial, we look forward to another 200 years of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Thinking with (Com)passion: Exploring the Humanity of Undocumented Immigrants at HDS

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Book shelf. Photo by Chris Alburger

As a former organizer in the immigration movement, I came to Harvard Divinity School to learn more about liberation theology and figure out how I could relate it to my understanding of undocumented immigrants. My overall project was to integrate undocumented immigrants into the political philosophy of the United States. My idea consisted of making an argument based on contribution. In simple terms, I argued that undocumented immigrants had a claim to American citizenship because of their economic contribution to society. My undergraduate training in economics directed me to think in terms of utility, production, benefits and costs. I presupposed that undocumented immigrants deserved to be recognized and granted citizenship by the American polity because of their contributions to the economy and society.

I took Professor Carrasco’s class because I wanted to approach immigration from an academic perspective, bringing to that perspective my background in organizing for immigrants’ rights and experiences an undocumented student.

In my first semester at HDS I took Davíd Carrasco’s “Human Migration and US-Mexico Borderlands: Moral Dilemmas and Sacred Bundles.” The class examined “the immigration crisis of the Mexico-US borderlands within the epic context of human migration in history and global perspective.” I took this class because I wanted to approach immigration from an academic perspective, bringing to that perspective my background in organizing for immigrants’ rights and experiences an undocumented student.

The first book that we read for the class was called Enrique’s Journey, and it immediately challenged my argument based on contribution. How do you incorporate children refugees into the American polity? They cannot contribute to the economy because of their age. Are they then less worth of American citizenship than the rest of undocumented immigrants? I had to rethink the premises of my argument to accommodate those undocumented immigrants whose contribution couldn’t be measured monetarily.

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Photo by Katelynn Carver

Time passed, we read more books, and we discussed Carrasco’s concept of “sacred bundles” in greater depth. He argues that when Mexican immigrants migrate to the United States, they bring with them a sacred bundle full of memories, hopes, beliefs, stories, etc. This bundle, in turn, is constitutive of their identity. That notion opened my eyes to the religious dimension of immigration. Eventually I realized that my contribution-based argument was operating within an economic framework that assigned value to people on the basis of their labor.

By the end of the semester, I had rethought my whole argument. In my final paper I pointed out the moral arbitrariness of American citizenship. I argued for the incorporation of undocumented immigrants into the American polity using philosophical mechanisms that recognized and protected their humanity. In their focus on humanity, these mechanisms valued immigrants’ lives by virtue of their existence, not their economic contribution. Carrasco’s class added much to my understanding of the relationship between Mexico and the United States and the issue of immigration. Most importantly, however, it allowed me to contemplate, recognize, and value the humanity of undocumented immigrants by giving me access to different learning materials.

In addition to discussing the material and our views on immigration with each other during our session, we screened Robert M. Young’s award-winning Alambrista! and different guest speakers came to share their research and experiences in our classes. We read books that varied in their methodological approaches to immigration and thus learned to study the topic from different perspectives.

I argued for the incorporation of undocumented immigrants into the American polity using philosophical mechanisms that recognized and protected their humanity. In their focus on humanity, these mechanisms valued immigrants’ lives by virtue of their existence, not their economic contribution.

My two favorite components of the class were the final paper and the dinners sponsored by Professor Carrasco. First, we had the opportunity to write a final research paper on a topic pertaining to immigration that was of special interest to us. Many wrote about the stories of their families, some interviewed immigrants they knew, and still others wrote proposals for future projects related to immigration. I think most of us enjoyed working on our papers because we had the flexibility to write about something that we were passionate about. Second, I also enjoyed the two dinners for the class: Mexican food was provided and we got to discuss the topics at hand while breaking bread together outside the classroom.

In addition to all this, I was most impacted by Dr. Carrasco himself—his passion for the topic kept me interested during all his classes and animated our class discussions. I’m looking forward to taking more classes like this one here at HDS, where students and professors alike share not only a passion for the topic of study and a compassion for those lives they hope to improve by that study.

Here in This Place

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We’re well into summer here at HDS and there’s a different feel to the campus. Many students have left us for field education internships that have taken them from locations as close as local hospitals and churches to places as far flung as Ireland and Mexico. Other students have remained here to study a language in the Summer Language Program (SLP), our language intensive that packs two semesters’ worth of foreign language study into eight short weeks.

As we prepare to kick off our Bicentennial Celebration with the incoming class’s arrival in August, the signs of “sprucing” abound….

As the heat rises, so too does the green-clad scaffolding around Andover Hall at the heart of our campus. As we prepare to kick off our Bicentennial Celebration with the incoming class’s arrival in August, the signs of “sprucing” abound: bulletin boards are being reconfigured; extra periodical stacks in the library have made way for more collaborative spaces and flexible seating arrangements; Andover Chapel’s iconic wooden chairs huddle beneath blue tarp as the dust of renovation swirls; the distinguished luminaries who usually gaze down on us from the walls of the Braun Room have been whisked away for refurbishment.

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And yet, even amid the bustle of these efforts, a kind of muted calm prevails. Fewer voices are heard in the halls of Divinity, Rockefeller, and Andover; fewer people seen treading the paths of the Green. In the absence of classes, office hours are more leisurely affairs, the murmur of theories and ideas blending with recollections and reminiscences as they spill through half-open doors into the quiet warrens of faculty offices.

This is HDS in the summer: fewer classes, with their attendant readings and sections and papers; fewer lectures and book signings; fewer plays and performances; fewer things to fear missing out on. And in their place? A bit more time. Time for impromptu chats with professors on the quad. Time for drinks and fellowship at a local brewery to celebrate surviving another week of SLP. Time for reconnecting with the friends who’ve remained close at hand and reaching out to those who’ve traveled around the world, reveling in their tales of adventure and service and meaning-making.

This is HDS in the summer: less FOMO, more time.

There’s time too for abiding in this place where we are—for looking around at the signs and symbols that surround us here at HDS and the University of which we’re a part. In the coming weeks I’ll be using this blog to do just that: to explore the tapestry of meaning woven throughout HDS in these spaces suffused with summer before fall’s festivities begin.

Fun as an Academic Strategy

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As we near the end of another semester, I find myself reflecting on my first finals week experience and I realize that it captured well an ethos that I want to live out throughout my time at HDS: having fun is integral to academic survival.

I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it.

As finals week loomed large in early December, I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it. That seemed impossible given that I had eight papers covering about sixty-five pages of writing all due in a two week time period. Yet, I had this hunch that I actually wouldn’t survive if I didn’t enjoy it. So, I set out to figure out how to make finals week, in a sense, fun.

I had two strategies to make this happen. First, I wanted finals week to strengthen my newly formed HDS friendships. I know myself well: I go crazy without some sort of social interaction. I get lonely without people. When I am lonely, I am unproductive. So, I made a point to recruit people to study with me. I found that in quiet libraries surrounded by friends, writing was easier. I was inspired when I saw people next to me making diligent progress. We supported one another without distracting one another. When I needed a break, I went on walks with a friend instead of taking a solo “break” via distractions on the internet.

. . . having fun is integral to academic survival.

It worked perfectly. While I usually studied with only one or two friends, at one point we organized a Div School takeover of a block of desks in Lamont Library. In that intense environment, everyone working on their respective papers, working through stress and exhaustion together, and reviewing drafts for one another, it felt like we were all in it together. It was awesome. And, I indeed felt closer to my friends at the end of finals week than I had when we began.

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My next goal was to not only dive into the content of my papers, but to explore the connections between them, to enjoy how they played off one another. As I wrote, I decided to work four of them together to explore a common theme. Pursuing one theme repeatedly — in this case, ritual — helped me deepen my enthusiasm and sense of academic adventure in a way that was, indeed, fun.

For one class, I got to analyze the idea of ritual in an academic context. I examined Professor Amy Hollywood’s thesis that ritual, through referencing an original concept that remains unchanged but repeated in changing contexts, can create a space for self-becoming. For another, I got to look at ritual through the lens of a novel about a rabbi, tracking her spiritual becoming through her relationship to Jewish ritual. I then had the opportunity to look at my own life, reflecting on how Christian ritual has become an important part of my life at HDS, deepening my fragile Christian faith as I continue to wrestle with Christian theology. Lastly, I got to tie all this together looking at how the vessel of ritual has held my own spiritual evolution in a way that mirrors how community ritual holds community change.

Going deeply into a concept, looking at it from different angles, within different frameworks, I was able to follow one long and exciting path, instead of spreading myself thin jumping from one topic to another. I felt like a detective working through different parts of a really tough case, following different leads toward a final resolution. I had fun.

Finals week highlighted how I want to spend the next two-and-a-half years: surrounded by my peers who can push, challenge, and support me as I work hard to enjoy myself on this surprisingly fun academic journey.

Discovering a New Version of Home at HDS

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Being human is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I remember the first time someone told me I was going to hell (apart from the times in elementary school when my teachers were just fed up with my wisecracking in class). I was an undergrad.

“No way! I can’t go to hell. I believe in Jesus.”

But my antagonists were convinced that I didn’t believe in the right Jesus. “You believe in a false god. Not the one that comes through this church.”  By “this church” they meant their particular denomination, and in many ways they were righMemorialChurch2t: I didn’t believe in the Jesus that they interpreted in their weekly Sunday gatherings. I believed in a Jesus and a Christianity that were broader and more nuanced and more inclusive. How could they reduce a whole Jesus movement to their own particular denomination? What do you call this? Some would label it extremism. I might reach that same conclusion, but I typically imagine an extremist tying me to a chair, locking me up in a room, and forcing me to watch their religious propaganda—like Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel were indoctrinated with Disney Films in Addam’s Family Values. Thank god that didn’t happen! Fundamentally, I believe my interlocutors felt an unease with something different. They were uncomfortable.

How to be “comfortable.”

Most of my free-spirited liberal friends would say, “Life is a balance.” I agree, wholeheartedly. However, is the balancing act ever comfortable? Think about it. When the Wild Coyote is chasing the Road Runner down a tightrope, does it ever look pleasant for the Coyote? Does it look easy for a gymnast to perform on a balance beam?

I often found myself in sweaty situations where all I could do was fake a smile, and the only place I was able to decompress was in a small, one-window bedroom. In these moments of decompression, I realized something: I was making a home.

I’ve given much thought to this idea of comfort, especially as it relates to balance, and I’ve come to believe that comfortableness is not a human quality. We are always susceptible to forces beyond our control and encroached by evil even in places of peace. Our bodies are degenerative. Our families, traditions, and legacies fade or are replaced, and only a few of us are lucky enough to see three generations. Being human is uncomfortable. Being human is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

In my time at Harvard Divinity School, I have often been uncomfortable. In the beginning, I thought I would get used to the different personalities, cultures, customs, views, and people, but that never happened. In fact, I became more uncomfortable as time progressed. I often found myself in sweaty situations where all I could do was fake a smile, and the only place I was able to decompress was in a small, one-window bedroom. In these moments of decompression, I realized something: I was making a home.

Homes take different forms. There are the physical spaces we often think of as home. Some find home in a religious tradition. But for me, home is dynamic and ever changing.

Homes take different forms. There are the physical spaces we often think of as home. Some find home in a religious tradition. But for me, home is dynamic and ever changing. It is an uncomfortable place filled with different views, people, cultures, and traditions. I don’t think of a brick-layered building, but a sculptor carving away at a block of stone. It may be incomplete, but always, in a sense, progressing. Not a progression that requires a triumphant end, but one that astonishes you with every new development.

My home is in others’ homes. It may sound bizarre. It may sound like conformity, compromise, or masquerading. But what would it be like to reimagine home? We often think of home as a refuge—a place like no other. This presumes that we are autonomous individuals, each traveling our own path, each in need of a home that consists of seclusion and apartness. In a complex, yet still divided world, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the value of encounter.

In a complex, yet still divided world, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the value of encounter.

When I first came to HDS, I was tempted to avoid encounters with the different cultures, worldviews, and religions because of unfamiliarity and unease, but after a period of time I grew aware of something happening to me. Disagreements challenged me. Cultures informed me. Traditions awakened me. This development became a consistent reminder that I am a sculpture and the world—my new community—is the sculptor.

I have found that my home is no longer an individual estate or a place of seclusion, but that my home is in others’ homes. It is not the place I retreat to in order to avoid seeing coworkers, tough situations, major events, crisis, and people. It’s the meeting place where the worlds of many become one: everyone unique and yet somehow familiar, collaborating, exchanging, and growing. Home has become a place constantly transformed by the world and life. Not a retreat, but a place of engagement.

A Year Ago Today…

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It’s hard to believe that exactly a year ago I was sitting on the couch in my parent’s living room, having refreshed my application status page for the only the first time that morning, with my cursor hovering over the “Status update” link. When I finally worked up the nerve to click on the link, the letter waiting for me was exactly the one I was hoping for. One year later, I’m halfway through my second semester at HDS and it’s been an amazing journey.

It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to come to HDS, but even then, there were many things that I couldn’t have anticipated in my excitement.

We gather as friends and fellow travelers and we find ourselves enriched and sustained by the journey.

I knew that HDS was a place where many people of diverse backgrounds and religious traditions gathered to study and learn together, but only after I arrived did I discover just how warm and intentional this community really is. I went to my first Wednesday Noon IMG_4524Service after I’d already started working in the Admissions Office. I thought I’d just get a taste of the Service in order to tell prospective students about it. Instead, I made it became a part of my weekly practice. From fall semester’s Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, and Buddhist services to this semester’s Jewish, Religious None’s, and Catholic services, Wednesday Noon Services hve been a fantastic opportunity for HDS students across religious traditions to gather and participate in the faith traditions of others, and others of non-religious traditions. We gather as friends and fellow travelers and we find ourselves enriched and sustained by the journey.

. . . the excitement has come not only from learning from excellent professors, but from being in the classroom with colleagues who are fired by the same curiosity and commitment that I am.

I knew HDS was a place of academic rigor, but only after I arrived did I discover just how amazing the opportunities to study with world-class faculty would be. Last semester, I had the chance to study with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Albert Raboteau, pioneers in feminist theology and African American religion, respectively. This semester, I’m taking a course with Homi Bhabha that explores genealogies of global imagination, learning from Toni Morrison who is offering a series of Norton Lectures on the literature of belonging, and exploring Caribbean literature, religion, and culture with Mayra Rivera Rivera. In all of these experiences, the excitement has come not only from learning from excellent professors, but from being in the classroom with colleagues who are fired by the same curiosity and commitment that I am.

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Photo by Chris Alburger

I knew HDS was filled with impressive people, but only after I arrived did I discover that not only are my fellow students impressive, they’re also a true pleasure to be around. So often, over the past two semesters, I’ve had stimulating conversations with my fellow students in class, only to continue that conversation in ways unexpected and fruitful after class concludes. At gatherings like Tuesday afternoon Community Tea and in the various groups and organizations, people gather to talk and pass the time—to simply be in each others’ presence and enjoy the pleasures of community. As my friend Nestor says, “When people ask how you’re doing, it’s not just to acknowledge your presence—they really want to know how you are.”

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These are a few of the discoveries I’ve made about HDS in the year since I received my acceptance letter. It’s such a pleasure to congratulate you on your acceptance letter—I hope you’ll join us in April for a chance to experience HDS firsthand!

Sacraments and the Apocalypse: Asking the Big Questions About Scholarship, Ministry, and Relationship

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On paper, Karen King and Matt Potts’ “The Death of Jesus” might sound like a trainwreck of a course: co-taught by two professors with wildly different interests, readings veering wildly back and forth from contemporary fiction to the esoteric texts of the Nag Hammadi library, and intense meditation on disturbing materials like ancient martyrdom accounts, lynching photographs, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  It would be easy to glance at the course description and pass it over in favor of happier materials discussed in a more harmonious classroom environment.  Had I done so, however, I would have missed out on what may be the most interesting and engaging course I’ve ever taken.

Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings?  If everything fades, does anything matter?  Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God?

The highlight of the course, for me, was our discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  For those who haven’t read it, the book is a terse post-apocalyptic story about an unnamed father and son wandering a frozen earth after some unspecified catastrophe.  All plants and animals are extinct, ash falls from the sky like snow, and what few people remain survive by scavenging for canned food or cannibalizing each other.  Needless to say, the story is bleak.  Unlike other stories of apocalypse like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, The Road precludes any hope of a happy ending.  There is no secret farm community or enclave of scientists working on a solution.  The man and the boy will die, almost assuredly gruesomely, and the ragged remnants of life on earth will not be far behind them.

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Matthew Potts, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies

As our class discussed, a story like this raises important theological and philosophical questions.  Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings?  If everything fades, does anything matter?  Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God?  These questions are not idle musings about a hypothetical apocalypse.  As Dr. Potts likes to say, The Road is just the human condition cranked up to 11; all things are stamped with their own expiration date, and if we as scholars, ministers, or anyone just trying to get by are going to affirm goodness and meaning and hope and love, we need to reckon with these expiration dates.

Dr. Potts’ own work draws connections between Cormac McCarthy and Christian sacramental theology, and it was through this lens that our class tackled the book.  To condense a centuries-long tradition of sacramental theology that traces back through Luther, Aquinas, and Augustine into a few lines: In the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, the priest holds up a loaf of bread and says “this is the body of Christ”; the bread is then broken and distributed to the community.  What is important to note is that, for sacramental theology, the priest is not correct in identifying the bread with Christ because she is speaking metaphorically, as if the bread were a signpost pointing to some “more real” body that exists in some heavenly beyond.  Neither is she correct because the bread has ceased to become bread and is now Christ, as if the ritual were some kind of alchemy that sweeps away mundane “breadness” so that the more meaningful “Christness” can take up shop.  Rather, the point of the ritual is that the bread is both bread and Christ, that the mundane can be meaningful and holy in and of itself, without recourse to anything beyond or outside it.  A stale crust of bread can be sacred when the gathered community behaves as if it were sacred, independent of any “more sacred” that might exist outside of the ritual.

The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life.  How are we to love when we know the other will die?  Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually?  Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust?

Bringing things back to The Road, what makes the father and son’s journey down the road meaningful is not that they are heading towards anywhere better than where they’ve been.  When the man bathes the boy or the two share a meal, these acts of love don’t represent a meaningfulness or a holiness outside of themselves; they actively manifest that meaningfulness and that holiness.  Like the sacramental bread that is holy unto itself without recourse to an outside, the characters in The Road can find meaning and hope and love without pretending that the world through which they wander is anything other than bleak and terrifying.

The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life.  How are we to love when we know the other will die?  Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually?  Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust?  What our discussion of The Road (informed by a particular brand of sacramental theology) emphasized is that acts of love and meaningful work can be good and sacred in and of themselves, in all their brokenness and finitude.  That Thursday afternoon, to me, represented the core of what HDS offers: intense classroom discussion that leads to insights that can be taken and applied to ministry, academic work, and especially our relationships to others.

Where the Classroom Meets the World: Discovering Vocation in Field Education

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As I prepare to begin my last semester of the Master of Divinity Program at HDS I can’t help but think back to what has made the last two and a half years so significant. My time at HDS has been truly transformative. Although it has been special because of professors, courses, and other students, the part that has been most important for my vocation have been my field education experiences. A major component of the MDiv program is completing at least two field education placements in non-profits, hospitals, churches, community organizations, government agencies—or anywhere where ministry happens. Through field education placements and other volunteer experiences I have been able to discover my passion for prison ministry and particularly for teaching in prisons. I first began to think seriously about prison ministry through a course called “Ethics, Punishment and Race,” taught by Professor Kaia Stern. This course allowed to me discover the ways society has deemed a caste of people guilty and punishable and that justice in this country does not look the same for everyone. As Lawyer Bryan Stevenson says, “in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.” After that course, I realized that incarcerated people had been invisible to me—not only because prisons and people who are incarcerated are made invisible, but also because I had not considered their suffering and experiences worthy of empathy.

Through field education placements and other volunteer experiences I have been able to discover my passion for prison ministry and particularly for teaching in prisons.

After that semester, I decided to work with people who had been incarcerated and were transitioning out of incarceration. My first field education experience was during the summer of 2014 at Span, Inc., a Boston-based non-profit organization founded in 1976. Span works with returning citizens to provide them with assistance finding housing, employment and provides them with counseling and support. I collaborated with the Director of Operations in projects of data and planning in preparation for grants.  I also worked with their Training to Work program where I taught two cycles of an intensive computer skills class. My experiences at Span, envision myself working in the non-profit sector in the future. I gained skills in both direct-service work and the management side of non-profit work.

The following academic year I decided to work with Renewal House, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. As part of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry this shelter engages residents in restorative justice circles, art therapy groups and other innovative work, which was incredibly formative for my work. During my time at Renewal House I worked teaching an English as a Learning Language class and collaborated with the leadership of Renewal House to design and facilitate domestic violence training for clergy and faith leaders. We facilitated one of these trainings at HDS in March 2015 and received positive feedback from students. The connection between domestic violence and the American punishment system motivated me to do this placement. Nearly all women who end up incarcerated have been survivors of domestic violence. Interrupting this cycle of abuse in shelters may keep many people from incarceration and further traumatization.

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Photo by Caroline Matas

During the Fall of 2014, I had the opportunity to co-teach an English course in a Massachusetts prison through the Boston University Prison Education Program. It was a rewarding experience and taught me about the challenges of teaching in a carceral environment and whether my ministry should be more focused on people currently incarcerated or returning citizens as they resettle back into their lives.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had during my time at HDS. My vocation as I see it now will be to continue this work.  How can those outside of prison work for people to recognize the dignity and humanity of those in prison?  I hope to work in collaboration with community organizations, especially those that are faith-based, in order to change perspectives and advocate for prison reform, to make liberation a reality.

On Discovering a Hermeneutic of Generosity

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440px-Friedrich_Daniel_Ernst_SchleiermacherThree months ago: It’s my first semester at HDS and I’m completing an assignment for Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion, the one required class for all incoming HDS students. Each week before lecture we have to submit an online response to that week’s reading, which for this week is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion. Schleiermacher was an 18th century theologian sometimes seen as the father of liberal Protestant Christianity. On Religion is his apology for religion, which he seeks to dissociate from doctrine, ritual, practice, traditions or mythology. For Schleiermacher, religion is defined in experiential terms, as something that a believer feels or “intuits.” I thought this was a bunch of baloney. Here’s an excerpt from my online response:

My main issue with Schleiermacher is that his first two chapters are mostly vague, repetitive and rambling descriptions of his amorphous concept of religion, but as soon as he tries to ground his perspective in a particular example–for example when he says that Judaism is defunct and Christianity’s original intuition is “more glorious, more sublime…and extending farther over the whole universe” (113)–he reveals his giant bias: that his own, liberal, protestant Christianity is conveniently the best for intuiting religion. His arguments then lose all credit as any kind of lens for understanding religion from anything but a Christian, liberal, European perspective.

I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.

By the time I got to lecture the next day, I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.

In a nutshell, the hermeneutic of suspicion calls scholars to interrogate the authors and texts they encounter. Questioning an author’s bias, historical time period, cultural background, or the validity of their arguments all fall into this category. It’s an important paradigm and one that I was fully entrenched in during my undergraduate years. In fact, my undergraduate studies were conducted almost entirely through this critical prism. I was trained to think that my job as a scholar was to deconstruct every text presented to me. My work was done only after I had determined the author’s agenda, come up with counter examples–no matter how obscure–disproving their points, and deconstructed their points to pieces. I could then dismiss the entirety of their work as merely their personal bias.

 

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But Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them. As the term implies, we ought to be charitable with the text we read, try as best we can to embody the author’s place, and occasionally look past certain biases, or at least temporarily sideline them, in order to fully grasp the arguments in play. Often it’s only from this generous standpoint that we’re able to fully appreciate what a text or author has to offer.

Deconstructing a text with the hermeneutic of suspicion is a critical component of a scholar’s work. But as I realized that day in Hollywood’s class, employing it without tempering it with generosity is ultimately futile. First, despite the insistence by some that true scholarship is objective, everyone has a bias. If we were to dismiss every biased work, there would be nothing to read. But more importantly, if scholarship is solely about deconstructing a text, then we never truly appreciate what a particular author has to offer, the implications of their arguments, or how their theories map onto our own experiences of the world.

Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them.

When it came to Schleiermacher, my eagerness to pinpoint his bias and then dismiss him meant that I didn’t give his theories any credence. I soon realized my folly during Professor Hollywood’s lecture. She pointed out that not only is Schleiermacher’s work critical in understanding the development of liberal Christianity in Europe and the US, but, even more importantly, it is readily applicable to our contemporary world. In the modern West, many people call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning they maintain some personal, typically felt, experience of the divine, but don’t subscribe to particular rituals, doctrines, hierarchies, texts, or other structures that the modern West associates with religion. Few realize that, far from a modern take on spirituality, this thread has been running through Protestant Christianity for centuries, and that way back in 1799 Schleiermacher was already making this distinction and prioritizing one’s personal, felt, divine encounters as the really real. I was ready to throw Schleiermacher away without realizing that his work offers an important critique of how religion and spirituality are understood in the contemporary world.

This has been perhaps the greatest lesson from my first semester at HDS because it has changed how I read texts in all of my classes. Now I try to keep a balance between these two hermeneutics, always challenging myself to not only read against but with an author. In this way I’m already getting more out of these amazing texts than I ever did before.

Inhabiting the Questions of Religion: Seasons of Light at Harvard Divinity School

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What does it mean to pursue the study of religion at a place that isn’t aligned with a particular religious tradition? What does it look like when you engage in this study with students from six continents and more than 35 different religious traditions—plus some who have no particular religious affiliation at all? Seasons of Light, our annual multireligious celebration, is part of the answer. The order of celebration for Seasons of Light situates the celebration in the context of our community:

As the nights lengthen and the darkness grows in the Northern Hemisphere, the Great Wheel of the calendar turns once again, catching us up in its low descent. Together we inhabit the promise of holy darkness and anticipate the light’s return. Many religious traditions honor this sacred interplay of day and night in their respective holy days and seasons; most also observe periods of fasting and feasting, often coinciding with a region’s agricultural rhythms of seedtime and harvest. Tonight, we gather to honor the mystery of the swelling darkness around us by kindling the flames of several traditions represented in the HDS community.

Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.

I’d been looking forward to this celebration for weeks. One of my favorite parts of studying at HDS has been the infusion of that study with a sense of sacred purpose. I came to HDS from a small school in southern Maryland where I was awakened to some of the deeper questions that we attempt to answer with the study of literature. Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.

Doing all this in a space that’s at once deeply concerned with religion and religious practice, yet not itself religious, means asking a whole series of fascinating questions—questions that echo throughout the field of religious studies. Can we study religion from within a religious practice or identity? Must we attempt to get “outside” of religion to view it objectively? Is that objectivity even possible? If we feel passionately about religion, how do we express that passion?

Walking into Andover Chapel last week provided some of those answers. Students, staff, and faculty had been gathered in Rockefeller Café before the ceremony for our last Community Tea. Mixing and mingling around tables filled with all kinds of delectable treats, we took a moment from the hustle and bustle of the end of the semester to simply be with each other. To catch up, trade stories, commiserate over the interminable stream of papers, and to share in that measure of comfort that comes from knowing that we’re in it together.

It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with.

Afterward, in the Chapel, the warmth we felt in the Café was manifest in the candles flickering at the entrance. In the middle of the chapel stood a simple altar with the symbols of the many faith traditions represented here at HDS: a seated Buddha, a hanukkiya, the Ikh Omkar of the Sikh tradition, Unitarian Universalism’s flaming chalice, an Advent wreath, and many more. As we gathered, students from each of these traditions made their way to the table to light the candles of their respective faiths. As I watched my fellow students light their candles, I turned to my order of celebration to read about the signs and symbols that I didn’t recognize. It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with. In this moment, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Johrei tradition were not abstractions or exotic “others,” but the embodied faiths of people with whom I share a common community. There was the Advent wreath of my Christian faith alongside the Yule Log of Paganism, the Villakku/Diya of Hinduism, and the Arabic Plaque of Islam.

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As the evening proceeded, we sang songs, listened to readings from different traditions, and students and faculty from different traditions performed anthems, chants, and music from their respective faiths. Singing the Hebrew of “Hineh mah tov” in the round brought tears to my eyes: “Hineh mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad!” Behold what a good and joyful thing it is, when people live together in unity.

We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not.

Here’s the thing about HDS, the study of religion, and our nonsectarian space: One of the things we understand here is that there’s no “outside” space from which we can observe and report on religion “objectively.” We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not. In her address “Where We Do Stand,” Janet Gyatso, our Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, invites us to consider “Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s insistence that we must be friends with the people whose religions we study, we must come to know, as he says, ‘those qualities of the believer’s life that can only be known in that personal two-way relationship known as friendship.’” This leads us toward the “ability to abide with other people’s religion—not just to study it but also to inculcate ourselves in a common space so as to inhabit the questions of religion together.”

This is what we do here at HDS. This is the beauty and the magic of Seasons of Light: that it allows us to inhabit the questions of religion together, as friends.

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