When and how did interfaith leadership emerge as a personal calling?
I have been blessed with several extraordinary mentors throughout my life. Four in particular come to mind as I reflect on my path to interfaith leadership: a Roman Catholic priest, a Zen Buddhist monk, a Baptist university chaplain, and a Sufi spiritual healer.
I attended a Catholic middle school and quickly realized that mandatory mass would be more interesting if I became an altar girl. (My stint at the alter was short lived; I converted to Islam in college, but the experience was powerful nonetheless, and was, in a sense, my first religious leadership role) My priest, of blessed memory, was dedicated to a number of social justice causes and preached what I now know to be liberation theology. Father "Mac" as we called him, was Irish-American, but regularly wore Central American robes; he made many trips to the region in the 1980s and felt great pain for the suffering of those affected by U.S.-supported wars in the area and their aftermath. The Central American anti-imperialism posters he passed down to me later hung on my walls at Princeton – "Contra la Violencia!" The posters were a daily reminder of the blessing of living in a mostly violence-free environment, and of the work there was to do to expand that sense of security for others.
I began specializing in Latin American affairs and interning on different projects for socio-economic justice. Father Mac was a true peace advocate and a lover of all peoples. He had an enormous heart – a Purple Heart, in fact; he was the lone survivor when his ship hit an underwater mine off the Normandy Coast on D-Day. Contemplating this traumatic experience led him to the priesthood where he served faithfully and boldly for more than half a century. The man radiated joy, but his mind and heart were with those who were suffering. Father Mac passed away recently at the age of 96 – may he be rewarded for the mercy that he brought into this world. He remains a model for me of congregational leadership and public theology.
As a teenager, I became a Davis Scholar at a United World College and moved to a campus in rural New Mexico. The program was thoroughly infused with social justice principles. There I lived with a diverse cohort of international students. One of my beloved teachers at the United World College was a Zen monk, whose presence was a beacon to me as I tried to figure out how to become an adult. Lawrence was my first meditation teacher, and a wonderful example of what it means to live the dharma of engaged compassion. He founded a non-profit organization called Compassion Beyond Borders that cares for and schools hundreds of girls in India, Guatemala, and Kenya who were previously in very vulnerable situations due to systemic poverty, and in many cases, sexual and domestic violence. While deeply rooted in his Buddhist practice, Lawrence was a brilliant teacher of world religions. I am proud to say that I am currently following in his footsteps, working as a world religions teacher at a boarding school in Massachusetts. Lawrence took us to visit houses of worship, monasteries, retreat centers, and faith communities all over the enchanting Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque areas. These immersive experiences helped me gain a deep respect for many different spiritual paths, including the region's rich Apache and Navajo roots. It might be the altitude change, but every time I return, I get a spiritual "high" from the New Mexico air!
As an undergraduate student, Rev. Paul Rauschenbusch was the Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University, and a model for me of what it means to serve as a public intellectual and community organizer. His own family was Jewish and Baptist, and both sides were deeply committed to education and public service. A decade later, in my doctoral program, I would regularly walk past a statue of Rev. Paul's great grandfather, the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, on the hill of Brandeis University. (I received the University's first earned doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations within the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department.) Rev. Paul did not only have bold ideas, but he knew how to put these ideas into action. One key moment in my development as a public intellectual was reading Rev. Paul's generous endorsement of my first book, an edited collection of essays, poetry, and art celebrating religious pluralism and interreligious collaboration in America.
While studying at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) for a Master of Divinity degree (M.Div.), I met an array of brilliant and kind mentors. One person who helped me develop my own authentic ministerial voice was Carol Zahra Lee, a Shadhiliya Sufi teacher and natural healing practitioner. She kindly served as my field education supervisor at HDS at a time when the school did not yet have an extensive network of Muslim spiritual mentors. Since I was especially interested in women's spiritual leadership, a dear HDS alumna introduced me to Zahra, who combines her Chinese-America background in herbal medicine with techniques for spiritual wellness derived from Islamic practices and various other therapeutic sources. Zahra's ministerial work focuses on healing the physical body, heart, and spirit. She is a community-builder extraordinaire, with a humility that matches her talent. Her leadership style is both profound and subtle, and it transcends boundaries of identity. Zahra's presence is medicine for the soul.
A combination of stimulating life experiences, educational opportunities, and excellent mentorship has widened my horizons and honed my vision as a religious and interfaith leader. I hope to foster such experiences for those who might look to me for guidance and inspiration.
How did you come to be involved with the Miller Center and Hebrew College?
I have been involved with the Miller Center since it was in gestation! I distinctly remember an early conversation over breakfast with Rabbi Or Rose, Dr. Jennifer Howe Peace, and Dan Miller – whose generous first gift allowed the center to flourish. Dan kindly allowed Hebrew College (HC) to name the center after his beloved spouse, Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller, of blessed memory (MAJS'05). Betty Ann was a pioneering interreligious student leader at Hebrew College. At that breakfast, the four of us chatted about the transformative potential of such a center. Remarkably, in just a few short years, Rabbi Or has built extensively upon the years of creative teaching and learning he, Jenny Peace, and others at HC and Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) pioneered through their joint Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE).
It was, in fact, through CIRCLE that I initially became involved with interreligious engagement at Hebrew College. With the support of their respective intuitions, and with a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, Rabbi Or and Jenny brought me on as co-director of CIRCLE. We worked together for three very productive and wonderful years. When ANTS left Newton to join forces with the Yale Divinity School, the time was ripe for Hebrew College to develop an independent center, continuing to steward the valuable work of CIRCLE, while creating new local and national interreligious initiatives, including programs for teens, young adults, new religious professionals, and in the emerging scholarly field of Interreligious Studies. The Miller Center has actualized several ideas that were once the "what if . . ." and "what would it take . . ." sentiments of a small group of passionate interreligious educators at the two schools. Today, I am a proud advisor to and occasional lecturer and teacher for the Miller Center.
Can you speak to a memorable moment working in the field of interfaith engagement?
As luck would have it, a few weeks ago I was seated next to a priest on a plane. Given all of my previous work in interreligious dialogue with very chummy colleagues, I was looking forward to some enriching conversation. More pragmatically, my self-designated task for the plane ride was to prepare a talk I had that week at the Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts. The presentation was part of an annual interfaith lecture series called "Listening to Other Voices" that this hospitable Benedictine monastery has offered for two decades. Who better to have as a seatmate in that moment than a priest?
After settling into our seats, we exchanged pleasantries and I showed the priest the series flyer, including my talk on Muslim "Pathways to the Sacred." He laughed and shook his head from side to side. I picked up a tinge of anger, even disgust, in the gesture. "Well, that's not going to work," he said. Confused, and admittedly taken aback, I asked for clarification: "What won't work?" He spoke in a stern manner, "You'll never convert us from our true faith in Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit." I explained that the point of the encounter was not to try to convert anyone but to deepen mutual understanding and respect. "How can I respect you when the Qur'an commands Muslims to chop Christians into pieces?" (I will forever remember his choice of words). I remember immediately thinking to myself, "I am wearing one of my signature multi-colored hijabs, smiling broadly, and sharing my excitement about speaking to a group of deeply committed Catholics in the coming days—what about me suggests I want to chop anyone into pieces?" (And for the record, the Qur'an most certainly does not command Muslims to chop Christians into pieces!)
After taking a deep breath, I realized that I was not going to get much feedback on my presentation from this man, but perhaps I could still have some enriching conversation. And so, we began a long theological discussion. The two of us must have stood out among our fellow passengers—me in my bright, flowery hijab and he in his black flowing robe and collar – passionately discussing theology while most everyone else snoozed! The subsequent two-hour conversation was, in fact, quite interesting, even if I still do not pray to Jesus as God, and he still thinks I am ultimately damned. As a parting gesture, the priest gave me a small metal charm with a likeness of the Virgin Mary that I put in an honored place in my world religions classroom (right next to the turmeric-covered coconuts from a puja ceremony that the Hindu priest in my town had given me a few weeks prior). With patience and perseverance, we moved quite a distance interpersonally from where we were at the beginning of the flight.
What advice might you offer to other religious or cultural leaders about engagement across lines of difference?
As the interfaith activist and scholar Eboo Patel has so aptly articulated it, we are building a movement based on mutual respect. We are galvanizing hearts and dispelling hate through education and relationships. We are transcending ignorance and bigotry and offering ourselves in service of our shared world. We are cogently and tirelessly articulating why an embrace of pluralism – and not mere toleration – is good for all of us. We are championing collaboration in a world that often favors zero-sum competition. We have to stay humble enough to keep learning. We must choose love, even when it's not reciprocated. We are developing patience. Be steadfast, friends. Persevere.