Stories of Crossing Borders

In May, I traveled to Tucson, Arizona with a group of seminarians to learn firsthand about the realities of immigration and human rights along the US/Mexico border. We spent 10 days along the border, meeting with undocumented immigrants, Border Patrol agents, immigration lawyers, human rights activists, pastors, and ordinary people whose lives are tied up in the messy and complicated world of migration and survival. In August, I had the pleasure of serving my congregation, Stone Church of the Brethren, as a sabbatical coverage minister, and on August 9, I organized that morning’s worship around these issues. The two scripture lessons were taken from Ruth 1:1-19 and Matthew 2:13-23. My sermon title was “Stories of Crossing Borders,” and I wanted to share it here:

As you can tell, our theme for this worship has been focused on crossing borders, migration, and the issues of peace and justice that are tied up in these realities. Lately the headlines that we read and the rhetoric that we hear insists on the dangers of the so-called “immigration problem.” Groups of people, almost always Latinos and other dark-skinned people, are lumped together under the category of suspicious, foreign, and threatening, protestors hold up signs reading “Go back home!,” and politicians convince hard-working Americans that the Mexicans are out to take our jobs. This morning instead of buying into the fear-based political platform of anti-immigration policies, I want to skip past the generalizations and broad strokes. I want to share true stories about individuals whose lives are right in the thick of this hot button issue. We’ve already read two significant stories of migration found in the pages of our faith’s history, one from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, our shared scriptures with the Jewish people, and another from our own scriptures, the New Testament. This morning I want to share two other true stories of immigration that will hopefully bring to light the complexities and realities along the United States’ southern border. And perhaps we’ll see some parallels between these modern stories and our biblical stories.

First, I want to tell you about a woman named Rosa Robles Loreto. Rosa lives in Tucson, Arizona and has lived there for 16 years. She is a wife and a mother of two young boys. She is active in her community and volunteers at her church, in her son’s school, and with her son’s baseball teams. In 2011 Rosa was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. When the officer discovered she did not have the proper paperwork to live and work in the United States, the Border Patrol was called and she was placed in a detention facility for 53 days. She fought her immigration case through the courts but it did nothing. You see, the thing about Rosa is that in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she is not a high-priority deportation case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, prioritizes undocumented persons with violent crimes, drug offenses, and criminal histories. These are the persons that ICE is told to focus their energy and resources on deporting. But Rosa has no criminal history, is the mother of two minors, and has good standing within her community, therefore the federal government has classified individuals like her as the lowest priority for deportation. But because her lawyer did not file the right paperwork at the right time, Rosa now has an order of deportation hanging over her head and is not safe to move and work freely in her own community of Tucson. In August of 2014 Rosa entered into sanctuary with the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. While in sanctuary, Rosa is safe from being deported and torn apart from her family but she is restricted to live within the walls of the church building. This past Friday, August 7, two days ago, marked the one-year anniversary of Rosa’s sanctuary. Until her deportation order is dropped, Rosa will remain in sanctuary.

Signs like this are seen across Tucson as the community rallies around Rosa and her family

Signs like this are seen across Tucson as the community rallies around Rosa and her family

Rosa’s story reminds me of Ruth and Naomi’s story. Like Naomi, Rosa traveled to a new country with her two sons and husband to find a living. Naomi loses her husband and her sons, the only true safety net for a woman of that time, and especially for a woman in a foreign land. Although Rosa has not lost her husband and sons, she has lost her safety and security when she fears that at any moment she could be forcibly removed from her family and her community. When Ruth declares her intention to remain with Naomi and return with her to Bethlehem, Naomi is blessed by this show of loyalty and commitment that ensures she is not alone in this world. By taking refuge at Southside Presbyterian Church, Rosa is blessed with a network of support, loyalty, and safety that ensures she is not separated from her family.

So in our first biblical story, the the tables are turned: years ago Naomi followed her family to the foreign land of Moab in search of survival, and now Ruth follows the only person who is left of her family to the foreign land of Judah. One border crossing was for survival, the other was for loyalty and commitment. Eventually, we learn that Ruth finds a husband in Bethlehem, and this woman, this stranger in a strange land, gives birth to a son who will become the grandfather of King David himself.

Our second contemporary story this morning is perhaps the most difficult to hear. Just a warning that it does involve violence and the threat of violence. When I traveled to Tucson, Arizona with a cohort of seminary students in June, we took an afternoon to cross the border into Mexico, into a town called Nogales, in the state of Sonora. Just yards from the Port of Entry you can find an organization called the Kino Border Initiative which operates a soup kitchen, or comedor, for migrants. In addition to providing 2 meals a day, this initiative run by Jesuit nuns also provides medical care, clothing, and advice for those travelers. Of the men and women that drop by KBI for food or other needs, about 90% of them have already crossed the border into the US illegally, been caught, detained, and deported back into Nogales, but most of them plan to attempt the journey again.

Kino Border Initiative

Kino Border Initiative

The comedor was literally steps from la frontera (the border)

The comedor was literally steps from la frontera (the border)

That day after helping to scoop second helpings of rice onto plastic plates for the hungry men to eat, I sat down next to some of my classmates who were in deep conversation with a few of the migrants. One of the men was young, hardly a man really. He was an 18 year old boy who shared his story with us. After he was caught illegally smuggling marijuana across the Sonoran desert, he had been arrested by US Border Patrol and deported to Nogales. But this 18 year old was not a drug lord making money from this operation. He had been picked up by mafia in one of the Mexican border towns and threatened into carrying a 40lb bale of weed, held up by straps that rested on his shoulders, into the United States. If he refused, or if he got caught, or if he dropped off the drugs and didn’t get the money back to the drug lords… they would cut off his head. Sadly, his story is not uncommon. Many unsuspecting young men and boys are sought out by drug lords, kidnapped, and coerced into smuggling illegal drugs against their will. Some are told that their hands will be chopped off, or that their families will be killed if they refuse. When asked if he was going to try to do it again, the 18 year old in the comedor in Nogales told us, with his shoulders bleeding from the straps he had carried and with a hint of fear in his voice, “I have no other choice.”

I do not know his name, but I will never forget this young man’s story. Was he doing something illegal? Yes. His actions, illegally smuggling drugs across the US/Mexico border, are exactly the kinds of things that our politicians and pundits roar and rage about… the dangers of illegal immigrants, criminals infiltrating our borders, and infecting our society with drugs and other dangerous substances. But when I sat next to this young man and heard his story, understood his situation, and imagined if I were in his shoes… I didn’t see a threat to our country, I saw a person who was taken advantage of, who lived in fear, and who felt trapped by his circumstances. Perhaps he would cross the border again… and perhaps he would not get caught by the Border Patrol but instead find a way to survive and thrive in a country where his life was not at risk. I hope so.

In this boy’s story, I see Jesus’ story. Before this comparison makes you feel uncomfortable, remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25: we are to see the face of Jesus in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It is not a stretch to see Jesus in the life of this 18 year old.

In our second biblical story, the holy family migrates not to find better living conditions, food, and water, like Noami’s family, but rather to escape real oppression and danger. The members of the holy family are political refugees, fleeing persecution from their government and fearing for their lives. This is so significant yet we often forget that the child Jesus, the one we worship and commit to following, crossed national borders to find freedom and liberation from oppression.

Like the infant Jesus with his family, this young man’s life was threatened by those with power and he was in real danger. Both the holy family and this man crossed borders hoping that the journey would provide safety and ultimately a way out.

However the comparisons do end there…Jesus and his family were eventually able to return home without fear of harm, whereas our 18 year old has no such relief. He must make the dangerous journey again, crossing the border between two worlds where he remains fearful of the Border Patrol on one side, and fearful for his life on the other.

There is so much more that we could say this morning on this theme of immigration and crossing borders. It was challenging enough for me to only share the stories that I did… because during our time in the Arizonan cities of Tucson and Douglass, and the Mexican cities of Nogales and Agua Prieta, we heard so many more stories from undocumented immigrants, church leaders, immigration lawyers, Border Patrol agents, and volunteers that highlighted the complexities and nuances of the realities along our country’s border with Mexico.

Tour of Border Patrol station in Douglas, AZ

Tour of Border Patrol station in Douglas, AZ

But one thing is clear: our faith’s history as recounted in the pages of the Old and New Testament is filled with accounts of migration. Beyond the stories we read today, we remember Abraham and Sarah leaving the land of Ur to resettle and start their family in the land of Canaan, the Israelites liberation from slavery in Egypt by following God through the wilderness for 40 years, the nation of Judah forced into exile in Babylon and rediscovering and reinventing their faith far from their homeland, the nomadic ministry of Jesus as he traveled throughout Palestine healing and teaching, the early apostles moving throughout the Mediterranean and Near East spreading the Good News of new life and the restoration of all creation…. migration and crossing borders is not a new phenomenon, especially not to those who study the Bible.

Crosses with the names of migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran desert. We participated in a vigil to remember them.

Crosses with the names of just some migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran desert. We participated in a vigil to remember them.

Even more importantly, the theme of hospitality and kindness to strangers accompanies these stories throughout our scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures have many books devoted to complicated laws about every part of life, and as Christians we often skim over books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but throughout these pages one of the most consistent commandments that God gives the people is this: Love the stranger in your midst. Care for the foreigner. Treat the alien like one of your own. And what is God’s reason? Because you were once the foreigner too. We were once the stranger too. In Canaan, in Egypt, in Babylon. In Jerusalem, in Rome. In the United States. Perhaps in Huntingdon, or in Stone Church. Somewhere, sometime, we and our families and our faith communities were strangers, crossing a border into a place, a situation that was unknown.

The current United States policies surrounding immigration are enough to make your head spin. We don’t have the time this morning to go into detail about the trade agreements of the 90s that led to such dire economic conditions in counties like Guatemala and Mexico, how the wait time for proper documentation in the United States can sometimes take decades, how many federal environmental laws were waived in order to build the wall along our southwest border (over 30, by the way), and what daily life is like for those individuals and families who live and work in our country without papers but not without a desire for them.

This morning was just a small piece of this large, complex puzzle. But I believe that retelling biblical stories about migration and crossing borders and hearing other modern-day stories for the first time can be the first step towards compassion and kindness. The next step is to ask questions, to do some research, to pay attention to the topic of immigration when it arises, especially on the national scale. Our shared history and connections with our Jewish neighbors, and our commitment to following Jesus, the Christ who both reached across borders and crossed them, requires us to push back against nationalistic rhetoric that is exclusive, hateful, and xenophobic. As Christians we are called to love the foreigner as ourselves, because we were once strangers, because we are called to see the face of Jesus in the face of the immigrant and the alien, and because the love of God, our Creator, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Sustainer, knows no borders.

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Seminary in the Snow: Spring 2015

The last time I wrote (back in mid-February) there had only been 4 feet of snow on the ground. Yes, only 4 feet. In the weeks that followed, those snow banks would grow and grow until we reached the snowiest February in Boston’s history: 110 inches, or over 9 feet! It was hard to explain to friends and family around the country just what 9 feet of snow did to our city, but when the MBTA (our public transportation including subway, busses, and commuter rail) completely shuts down for days, driving and parking in the city is prohibited, people are unable to get to work, children cannot attend school, the governor declares a national emergency (more than once), and funds are requested from FEMA to help with snow removal… you know it’s bad.

Snow completely covering a bench at the Newton Centre T stop

Snow completely covering a bench at the Newton Centre T stop

So it’s for this reason that I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing since February. It would not be an exaggeration to say that all of this snow threw the rest of the semester out of whack. Andover Newton closed the school on 6 different days (interestingly they were mostly Mondays and Tuesdays, since a lot of our storms arrived early each week) so there were several courses that couldn’t even begin until close to the end of February, weeks after the semester began. Taking the T to and from Memorial Church for field education became an adventure each week. Every week students would gather in our parking lots with shovels in hand to help one another shovel out our cars. As a student worker in our dining hall, I also know that sometimes our weekly food delivery trucks couldn’t even make it up the steep hill to campus, so my boss had to be really creative in what she could serve for meals!

With all of that in mind, it was a busy winter and spring despite the many days of feeling trapped inside an ever-growing igloo. I continued with my field education at the Memorial Church at Harvard, including participating in Sunday morning worship, leading Morning Prayers every Friday, and meeting with the other seminarians and my supervisor weekly. I also added two additional projects this semester at church. First, I connected with and conducted interviews with 3 different Harvard Chaplains to discuss their methods and experiences of pastoral care with students. Since Harvard has over 30 different chaplains from various faith traditions serving the community, I was curious to get a small sample of what pastoral and spiritual care for students looked like. I met with the Episcopal chaplain, the Hindu chaplain, and the Baha’i chaplain, and in each interview I learned more about Harvard culture, the faith traditions of the communities these chaplains serve, and how students are being nurtured and cared for while they are on campus. To sum up these interviews I wrote two different articles highlighting themes that arose during our discussions.

My second new project this semester was supporting a student-initiated discussion series for Harvard first-years. An undergraduate student who is very active at Memorial Church had the idea to begin a weekly discussion called Leading Lives of Joy and Purpose, aimed around ideas of vocation and meaning. In my role as Seminarian I mostly served as a support to her, since she did most of the planning and advertising, as well as guiding our discussions each week. It was a joy to work with this bright student and encourage her and she developed her own skills and confidence.

Another highlight of my time at Memorial Church this year was the opportunity to preach, along with the other Seminarians, during the Seven Last Words of Christ service on Good Friday. This is a service that often takes place in churches on Good Friday and it focuses around the seven last phrases that Jesus uttered on the cross. Along with each “word” there is a hymn, prayer, and several moments of silence before moving on to the next word. This year the word that I preached was John 19:30, “It is finished.” It was a unique challenge and blessing to preach during this service along with the other Seminarians at Memorial Church.

My last day at the Memorial Church for this semester will be this coming Sunday, May 17. However I am going to continue serving there as a Seminarian next fall, so I am looking forward to deepening my experience there and hopefully continuing some of the ministries that I was involved with this year.

In terms of courses this semester I took 3 classes in addition to my credits for field education. First on the docket was the second semester of Systematic Theology, in which we covered soteriology (salvation), ecclesiology (the Church), and eschatology (end times). This semester was also slightly different because we were a pilot course for a new grant that ANTS received called Science for Seminaries. In addition to our regular readings and assignments, we participated in 3 new modules where local scientists would join our course to lead a seminar on scientific material related to that unit’s topic. Specifically we looked at scientific suggestions of the existence of God and the interconnectedness of the universe (during the salvation unit) as well as advances in biology and technology, climate change, and the trajectory of the cosmos that all influence where humanity and our world is headed in the future (during the end times unit). These modules added a unique flavor to our theological discussions. Even though science was never really my favorite subject, the modules were always interesting and I can say that there are probably very few other seminaries where these kinds of topics are discussed alongside Christian doctrine.

I also completed my final scriptural requirement, a course called The River: Latter Prophets and Writings. This is a Hebrew Bible or Old Testament class and as the title suggests we learned about the latter prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Hosea as well as books that fall under the category of “Writings:” Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, to name a few. Many of my classmates found this course and the professor to be challenging but personally I loved it! I thought the material was taught with a blend of poetry and prose, and even though I grew up reading the Bible and even studied the Bible as an undergrad, I learned so much from this semester. One of our assignments was to create a detailed timeline of the prophets and kings of Israel and Judah between 800 and 400 BCE, along with other major events in Israelite history and in the Ancient Near East at that time. This was one of the most practical and useful Biblical assignments I will probably complete during my time in seminary. Now anytime that I preach or lead a Bible study from one of these texts, I’ll have a clear timeline in front of me to better understand the context and setting of the prophets’ words.

My prophets chart for The River

My prophets chart for The River

My last class was an online course on Clergy Ethics. Online courses are always a little tricky because the majority of the work involves completing the reading each week, posting to a discussion forum in response to the reading, and replying to your classmates’ posts. Unlike in-person classes, where you can sometimes get away with just skimming the reading or not participating in class every week, in an online course you must contribute and participate every week in a public way, at least if you want a good grade! This course was a nice mix of reading, assignments such as a vocational autobiography and an interview with a religious leader, and a few case studies. We discussed topics such as character and virtue, trustworthiness, boundaries, and the public nature of ministry (aka the pastor’s life in the fishbowl). Even though it wasn’t always the most engaging material, it was a worthy class and I was glad to have the opportunity to reflect deeper on things like professional boundaries and the character of the minister.

So that was all for coursework and field ed! As you might remember, I also had a CIRCLE Fellowship this year, in which I partnered with a person of a different faith to complete a year-long project. My partner, a Muslim PhD student named Basma, and I quickly became friends and deeply enjoyed working together this year. Our project was a monthly interfaith peer group called “Portrayal of the Religious Other in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures.” During these meetings we looked at one or more than one passage of scripture that portrayed a person or community that would be considered a religious outsider to that faith tradition. Basma brought several passages from the Qur’an that instruct Muslims on how to interact with the “People of the Book,” (aka Jews and Christians) as well as a passage that mentions the Christian prophet Jesus, and she facilitated discussion around those passages. I provided several passages from the New Testament, one story of Jesus interacting with a Gentile woman (in Mark 7) and one parable of Jesus that portrays a Religious Other (Luke 10), and led discussion of those texts. We also invited another CIRCLE Fellow from Hebrew College to join us one month with a Jewish text to discuss, and he brought a passage from midrash that includes commentary on Jews going to non-Jews for medical care. From month to month our attendance varied, but we averaged around 3 or 4 people, not including us, during each of our discussions. The small groups were a nice way to really explore the texts together, and there is something special about studying scripture with those who are not your own faith. I gained some insights from my Muslim neighbors when they read stories from the New Testament that I might never had thought about before!

Basma and I after leading two workshops on Community Day

Basma and I after leading two workshops on Community Day

Another opportunity that I was given this semester came as a result of my role as a Contributing Scholar on the interfaith blog, State of Formation. SoF is also a program of CIRCLE, and they have an ongoing relationship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I was invited to join other State of Formation writers on a personalized tour of the museum as well as conversations on religion, genocide, and the implications for our own interfaith work. So at the end of March, I flew to DC for this opportunity to meet other 10 other SoF Contributing Scholars and editors, tour the museum, and participate in these frank but important discussions. Even though the museum is a heavy and heart-wrenching experience, I was encouraged by the thoughtfulness and intentionality of my Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and humanist peers as we wrestled with this material together. As a result of our trip, we each paired up to write a collaborative piece for State of Formation about our experience and what we learned. The piece I wrote with Wendy Webber of the Yale Humanist Community can be found here.

Wall showing tattoos of concentration camp prisoners

Wall showing tattoos of concentration camp prisoners

Dr. Victoria Barnett leading our tour

Dr. Victoria Barnett leading our tour

A handful of other things that kept me busy this semester: organizing and leading an ANTS chapel service with my classmates about our border-crossing experience in Myanmar this past January, serving on a Tenure and Promotion Review committee for two ANTS faculty members, continuing to work as a student cashier in our campus dining hall, leading two workshops with Basma during the Andover Newton/Hebrew College Joint Community Day, meeting once a week with my prayer group to support and hold one another in prayer, traveling to New York City for a family girls’ weekend in March to celebrate my aunt’s birthday (the Thomas gals… so much fun!), and spending a long weekend with my parents when they visited in April!

There are so many other things I could write about, including some exciting plans for the summer, but I think I’ll leave that for a future post (that I won’t wait 3 months to write)! The good news is I’ve officially finished my second year of seminary, and because of the credits I transferred from Bethany Theological Seminary, I only have one more semester and then I’ll be finished in December 2015. Looking back, this was one of my busiest years yet. But I know that busy doesn’t equal successful or faithful. (I need to remind myself of this, more often than I’d like to admit).

I’ll leave you with something that I wrote in my final evaluation for field education, and I think this is a good summary of one of my most important theological lessons this year:

“Perhaps my most profound discovery this year has been the role of the minister to see every moment or interaction as an act of worship or an opportunity for transformation. This is obviously easier said than done. But many times when I have reflected back on a certain conversation or on an internal struggle, it has been my personal challenge to find God’s presence, somehow, in the middle of it. This phenomenon has been called the intersection of the secular and the sacred. There is a kind of pastoral imagination that is required to do ministry well, and I believe that while that the soil of the imagination can always be cultivated and enriched through theological reflection, the initial seed was planted inside of me by God.”

When Snow Cancels Church

It’s amazing what 4 feet of snow can do.

It can drastically change the scenery outside your window. It can dictate your daily routine, adding an extra 30-60 minutes to shovel out your front door, sidewalks, driveway, and car. It can cause major holdups or terrible traffic on your morning commute. It can delay or cancel schools and businesses for days at a time. It can take city employees away from their families for days in order to plow highways, city streets, and back roads. It can cause the state’s largest mass transit system to literally shut down.

Four feet of snow can unite communities in common frustration and helplessness. It can give everyone something to complain about, together. Or it can ignite communities to work together to shovel out the homes of the elderly and shut-ins, to build snow people on the streets, or to donate items for the homeless who are especially vulnerable during this time.

For my community, it prompted a rare opportunity for Sunday morning worship, together.

In case you haven’t heard (i.e. you’ve been living under a rock), we have had some snow in Boston. It’s been a historic winter, with close to 4 feet of snow piling up just in the past three weeks. School cancellations have been the norm, it takes twice as long to travel anywhere both locally and statewide, and there is literally nowhere to put it all. The plow trucks can only pile the snow so high. Our streets and especially our sidewalks have become more and more narrow, almost disappearing altogether.

That’s why this past Sunday’s blizzard, during which we were only supposed to get a foot of snow (yeah, you read that right, ONLY a foot of snow. It’s all relative up here), caused most churches in the Boston area to defer to Mother Nature and cancel their services. The Memorial Church was one of these places, and many of my classmates’ churches and field education sites did the same.

So would you expect a bunch of seminarians with a rare Sunday morning off to use that time to sleep in or catch up on schoolwork? Heck, no! Instead we used it as an opportunity to gather in our student lounge for an informal time of worship and fellowship. We trekked to the lounge from our residence halls (literally trekked, the campus hadn’t been plowed yet) to sing, share poems and scripture, lift up prayers of joy and prayers of concern, and simply be together.

I was so refreshed and fed by this simple gathering. Each Sunday I have the privilege of helping to lead worship in the beautiful and historical Memorial Church, a community that takes pride in its legacy of intellectual Christianity and its high standard of excellence in music, preaching, and worship. Every week I don a black ministers’ robe and once a month serve Eucharist from the polished Harvard china. But there was something deeply satisfying and moving in Sunday’s change of scenery: sitting on a couch in my wool socks, holding the hands of my Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, and pluralist classmates, singing (by request, “In the Bleak Midwinter”) to a guitar instead of an organ, hearing the Word of God through slam poetry, the Mourner’s Kaddish, Mary Oliver, and Henri Nouwen, and cradling the many prayers around the circle in our hearts.

As we worshipped together, through the windows we could see the slow swirling and blowing around outside. Despite the many ways that this winter has been challenging, there have also been many blessings to find. Like I said, it’s amazing what 4 feet of snow can do.

Myanmar Reflections, Part 3 of 3: Take Off Your Shoes

Take Off Your Shoes: The Beautiful and the Not-So-Beautiful

In my entire life so far, I have never taken off my shoes in public as much as I did during our two weeks in Myanmar.

In the Bible, removing one’s shoes is a sign of respect, an indicator of a sacred encounter, a movement into a holy place. The most prominent example is found in Exodus 3, when Moses encounters a bush that is on fire, yet not burning up. The Lord called to Moses and spoke his name, and Moses replied, “Here I am.” The Lord then commanded Moses to remove the sandals from his feet, for the place on which he stood was holy ground. With his bare feet in the dirt and sand, Moses received the instructions of a lifetime, the call to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into a new land of promise and freedom, and into new relationship with God.

Like the wilderness of at the foot of Mount Horeb, Myanmar is a land filled with holy places and sacred spaces. Deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism, it is hard to walk a few blocks without finding a temple, pagoda, monastery, a Buddha monument, or another house of religious practice. During our two weeks in this country, we visited these many of places and before crossing the thresholds we always removed our flip-flops and stepped onto dirt, cool marble, or a wooden floor alongside other seekers, visitors, or pilgrims. At first it seemed strange or even unsafe, but soon I realized that not only was everyone else also in their bare feet, but the floors and the ground where were walked were usually very clean, because no one ever tread upon them with dirty shoes.

In addition, I soon recognized that the sensation of walking around a temple or another public place with no shoes actually made me even more fully present and aware of how special and auspicious these religious sites were. When we were walking around the market or eating at a restaurant we could keep our shoes on, but when we arrived at a place where we were asked to remove those sandals, we knew we were entering a place that was different and holy.

One of the most important places that we visited barefoot was the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Completely covered in gold, this is one of the most significant places of Buddhist reverence in the country. Legend has it that this 2,500 year old monument contains relics of 4 previous Buddhas who attained Enlightenment. We arrived at Shwedagon after sunset, because we wanted to see how beautiful the gold shines in the nighttime. We left our shoes in the vans, walked barefoot across the gravel parking lot, into the lobby, and up the elevator to the walkway at the South entrance of the pagoda. We turned the corner and were met with an explosion of sights, sounds, and smells.

Panorama of Shwedagon Pagoda

Panorama of Shwedagon Pagoda

The air was warm and dense with the aroma of incense and flowers. Shwedagon towered 326 feet above our heads and at the base of the pagoda we saw row after row of smaller Buddha images with golden coverings. We slowly made our way around the circumference of the pagoda. All around us we could see people of all ages and experiences: monks walking slowly in their saffron robes, parents chasing giggling children, teenagers huddled in small groups and taking pictures, elderly men and women kneeling on the ground in front of the Buddhas. Lining the walkway shone rows of flickering candles, and behind the candles we saw families pouring cups of water over Buddha images, symbolizing their reverence and respect. As we passed a pavilion we heard a group of women chanting prayers in Pali, only to be drowned out by the deep echo of a gong and the twinkling of tiny chimes high above our heads. It was as if each of my senses had been heightened to take in as much of this experience as possible. And all the while, my bare feet padded along the cool, marble floor. Even though I am not Buddhist, I knew that something holy was happening here, for these families and the monks around me. In case I momentarily forgot, my bare feet reminded me.

The pagoda, unfortunately covered up for repairs

The pagoda was unfortunately covered up for repairs but the experience was still remarkable

As the days passed, we visited more sacred sites: a gargantuan marble Buddha measuring 37 feet tall and weighing over 600 tons; a massive reclining Buddha that was more than half the length of a football field from head to toe; the Sule Pagoda near city hall in Yangon, neighboring a mosque and a church. At each of these places we left our flip-flops at the entrance. And this was just in Yangon. During our three days in the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center, we removed our shoes to enter the building where we meditated, as well as outside of the dining hall along with the other monks and nuns.

At the meditation center, outside of the dining hall

At the meditation center, outside of the dining hall

Following our meditation retreat, we had a little less than a week left in the country, and we spent our remaining days in two remarkable yet distinct places: beautiful Inle Lake and the ancient city of Bagan. At each place we marveled at both places of worship and the beauty of nature. We removed our shoes at a temple on Inle Lake with four small Buddha statues that have been covered with so much gold over the years that they now resemble four round balls (seriously!). In Bagan, we left our flip-flops at the bottom of the ancient grey and white Shwe San Daw Pagoda and proceeded to climb a series of tiny, steep steps. When our toes reached the top of the pagoda, we were rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of ancient brick pagodas lining the horizon, a view that hasn’t changed much since the height of Bagan’s Pyu Empire in the 9th-13th centuries. In the days that followed, w left our shoes behind as we visited beautiful and architecturally brilliant temples, temples that were believed to be cursed and left to ruin, and pagodas shining along the bank of the Irawaddy River.

Shwe San Daw Pagoda

Shwe San Daw Pagoda

While it is true that our feet tread on many holy and mysterious grounds, and while I found many of these experiences to be deeply spiritual and wonder-filled, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I left out one sole-full story. (See what I did there?)

It was our second to last day in Myanmar. That morning it was raining as we drove about an hour away from Bagan to an inactive volcano called Mount Popa. To the southwest of Mount Popa lies Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug that formed from the flowing lava of Popa’s most recent eruption, around 2,500 years ago. Believed to be a place of great spiritual power, a monastery was built at the top of Taung Kalat. The summit has also been an important site for nat, or spirit, worship. It has become a popular pilgrimage site and there are 777 steps that one must climb to reach the top. So despite the fact that it was raining that day, we decided to climb it. When in Myanmar, right?

View of Taung Kalat from Mount Popa

View of Taung Kalat from Mount Popa

Our bus traveled to the foot of Taung Kalat and stopped at the bottom of the covered stairway that would take us to the summit. “Just a few things to keep in mind,” our guide told us before we exited the bus. “On your way to the top you will see some monkeys. They hang around this mountain, so just be aware. Don’t get too close to them since they will try to take your cell phone or reach into your purse. Also, just be careful as you walk that you don’t step in monkey urine or poop.” Noted.

The stairs were covered with a tin roof, but because of the rain the steps had still become wet. About a quarter of the way up we were, as usual, asked to remove our shoes, and we continued on our way. However it soon became apparent that this would be no ordinary climb.

Our guide had told us to keep a look out for monkeys. Well, there was not a monkey here and a monkey there. There were monkeys…. everywhere. Hanging from the rafters to our left and our right. Sitting in groups on the stairs watching us. Running along the top of the tin roof above our heads. Climbing down the handrails, sometimes running directly over our hands. And yes, there were cute little babies. But there were also huge, intimidating, heavyset mothers staring at me with such intensity that I purposely avoided making eye contact. We didn’t need to be told to keep a distance, because we instinctively knew that we wanted to. But they were still everywhere.

The only picture that I took of the monkeys. These were very far away.

The only picture that I took of the monkeys. These were very far away.

And there weren’t a few monkey droppings here and there. There was poop…. everywhere. There was urine… everywhere. And add in the rain and the mud… it was hard to tell for sure what was what. Let it suffice to say that it wasn’t a matter of whether you would step in monkey poop, it was more a matter of how much poop were you going to step in. And just in case you forgot…may I remind you that we were all in our bare feet?

At the age of 26 years old, I have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel and experience the world, both in the United States and internationally. I have parasailed in Mexico, I have gotten lost on the streets of Rome, I have survived an attempted burglary in my apartment in Athens, I have eaten alligator in New Orleans, I have drank potent liquor for breakfast in Hungary, I have hitch-hiked for rides on the Greek islands. During this trip alone, I spent 3 days in a Buddhist monastery on silent retreat, I used toilets that were literally holes in the ground with no toilet paper in sight, and I ate some kind of meat during a meal in a poor remote village without knowing exactly what it was. In short, I have done a lot of things that were strange, out of my comfort zone, and made me a little (or very) nervous. But climbing these slippery, feces-filled steps to the top of Taung Kalat in my bare feet with monkeys staring at my every move…this was the most uncomfortable experience I can remember! Cringing with each step, I kept thinking, “The view at the top better be worth it!”

When we reached the temples at the summit, and finally got a good look at the panorama through the rain, I admit that it was a nice view. However, the thought that was the most prominent in my mind was, “But now we have to go back down!”

Remember how I started this post, describing the beauty of walking barefoot in holy places? Remember my last post about Vipassana and mindfulness, recounting the intentionality of walking meditation? …yyeeaahh. I was not very mindful as I climbed up and then back down that monkey mountain. I couldn’t wait for the experience to be over and to have the opportunity to wash off my feet and my legs and my hands… and really just my whole body for good measure.

Or, maybe you could say I was actually being super-mindful, super aware of my surroundings… “lifting, pushing, dropping into poop… lifting, pushing, dropping into poop…”

Either way, this was definitely an experience that pushed me out of my box, way out of my comfort zone. And since then, my personal challenge has become this: in my bare feet, could I still, somehow, find holiness in this adventure? All around us were Myanmar tourists and pilgrims, who were not afraid of the monkeys, who didn’t seem to mind the poop, and who traveled to the summit for a religious experience. Couldn’t I find God in this place too?

I firmly believe that God shows up in the places that we love and inhabit frequently and with familiarity, but that God also arrives in the places we least expect, where we are the most vulnerable and uncomfortable. What we are first asked to do is take off our shoes, feel our toes against the dirt (or the marble, or the wooden floor, or…whatever else happens to be on the ground), maybe get a little uncomfortable, and notice that we are in a special place, and that something holy is happening. All I know is, I will never think of the instructions, “Take off your shoes,” in the same way again.

Myanmar Reflections, Part 2 of 3: Return To Your Breath

Return to Your Breath: Immersion into Vipassana Meditation

On January 10-12, our cohort spent 3 days quietly immersed in the practice of Vipassana meditation. We were guests at Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center in Yangon. Vipassana, mindfulness or insight, meditation is a practice of Theravada Buddhism. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had spent about 6 weeks of the fall semester practicing this mediation as part of my Spiritual Practices class. Furthermore while we were in Myanmar, during the week leading up to our retreat, every morning one of our classmates would lead us through about 20-30 minutes of insight meditation. It was helpful to have had this background and not start with a completely blank slate, however the retreat was still challenging!

At the entrance to the meditation center

At the entrance to the meditation center

Before I get into details, I should explain the practice of Vipassana meditation itself. Overall, there is a pretty clear reason why Vipassana is also called insight or mindfulness mediation. According to a small booklet of guidelines we were each given at the center:

“Vipassana or insight meditation is, above all, an experiential practice, based on the systematic and balanced development of a precise and focused awareness. By observing one’s moment-to-moment mind/body processes from a place of investigative attention, insight arises into the true nature of life and experiences. Through the wisdom acquired by using insight meditation one is able to live more freely and relate to the world around with less clinging, fear, and confusion. Thus one’s life becomes increasingly directed by consideration, compassion, and clarity.”

The way to develop this clarity, mindfulness, or awareness is to pay attention to your breath. Specifically, this could mean noticing your abdomen rising and falling with each in breath and out breath, or noticing the air going in and out through your nostrils. The breath is perhaps one of the most important concepts in meditation, and from what I understand, many people who use this practice would say that’s because the breath is the one thing that you always have throughout your life. Breath is, in fact, life. (Actually, this concept is deeply embedded in Christian theology as well. In the creation account of Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of first human being. Our breath is the life and breath of our Creator.) So to boil your attention down to just your breath, the source of life, is a simple yet profound act.

Now obviously, just paying attention to your breath is a lot harder than it sounds. The mind wanders, you begin to day dream or to get distracted. “Rising… falling… rising… falling… rising… I wonder how everybody else is doing with their meditating… has it been 10 minutes so far or only 5?… I think I’m getting hungry…” It’s really not that hard to realize that you’re no longer focusing on your breath. But here’s the beauty of Vipassana: that’s okay. The mind starts to wander, starts to think, because that’s in fact what it was designed to do! The mind is just doing its thing. So when that happens, the key is not to scold yourself about it or feel guilty or frustrated, but rather just to notice it, to become aware of it. Notice that you are thinking. Notice any object of awareness that might arise, like feeling hungry, or becoming cold or warm, or hearing a sound. Label those: “thinking,” “hearing,” “imagining,” etc. Then return to your breath.

This is a very basic understanding of sitting meditation. There is also a practice of walking meditation, which is similar in its intent but slightly different because walking involves movement. In short, the focus of walking meditation is to notice the process of walking through every movement of the feet and legs. You stand up (“standing, standing”), you lift your right leg (“lifting”), you push your right leg forward (“pushing”), you drop your right leg to the ground (“dropping”). Repeat for the other leg. Obviously this is done very slowly in order to notice each of the steps. Also, I want to note that both my descriptions for sitting and walking meditation are for beginners. There are deeper ways to sharpen your focus and become more aware as things arise during your practice, however most of us were beginners at this practice and were not expected to reach the next levels. (I should also add that this has been my humble attempt to briefly explain a practice that is deeply rooted in a cosmology and a community of which I am not a part. For anything that is incorrect or simply unclear, I apologize and suggest one book that was helpful at least for my rudimentary understanding: Larry Rosenberg’s Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life.)

So Vipassana became our practice, at least for those three intense days. You might be wondering, well what exactly did those days look like? Did you just sit on a cushion for 12 hours a day or walk very slowly and mindfully without doing anything else? Well…here is what a typical day looked like.

A bell would ring to wake us up, 4 descending chimes, around ten minutes ‘til 4 in the morning. Yes, you read that correctly: around 3:50am. At that time, we had about 40 minutes to take an ice cold shower (or find some other effective way to wake up, but that usually did it for me!) and then make our way to the building that had been arranged for us to practice. We began our practice at 4:30am, and it was suggested to us that as beginners we alternate between 30 minutes of walking meditation and 30 minutes of sitting meditation. At 6:00am, the bell would ring again, and we would (mindfully) walk to the dining hall for breakfast, along with the other monks and nuns who were also on silent retreat. We sat on the floor, about 5 persons at each round table, and ate in silence (oh, did I mention that this retreat also included eating and drinking mindfully? To reach for your glass of water to take a drink: “moving, moving…taking, taking, taking…drinking, drinking…moving, moving.”) After breakfast, we resumed our practice of either sitting or walking meditation until a bell rang again at 10:30am: lunchtime. Again we ate our meals in silence, and very slowly. Personally, I made sure to fill up, because lunch was our last meal of the day. According to the precepts that we committed to observe during our time at the center, it was considered improper to eat between noon and dawn. So that 10:30am meal was pretty important. Following lunch we returned to our breath again through walking or sitting meditation. Around 4:30 in the afternoon we were allowed to have what our guide called “soft drinks,” which really meant some sort of fruit juice, usually papaya or lime. (We were also allowed to drink water at any time throughout the day.) Finally, our day would end around 8:30 or 9 at night. We would go straight to bed, because the first bell would be ringing in just a few hours to wake us up!

The building where our group practiced sitting meditation every day. We could practice walking meditation either inside or outside.

The building where our group practiced sitting meditation every day. We could practice walking meditation either inside or outside.

The meditation center's dining hall

The meditation center’s dining hall

That was a basic outline of our daily routine at the meditation center, however there are two other things I should add that were actually very important to our routine and our experience there. The first is that we received permission for our group to practice yoga in silence for half an hour, twice a day. This allowance was truly a gift, because after many hours of sitting quite still or moving quite slowly, the body can become stiff and sore! The yoga was so beneficial for us both physically and mentally. One of our classmates, Liz, has practiced yoga for over a decade and offered to lead us, so twice a day (at 4:30am and at 3:00pm) we moved and stretched our bodies in ways that helped us loosen up and recalibrate. The fact that we practiced yoga in silence was actually quite remarkable, and while it wasn’t strenuous exercise, it was definitely the most unique yoga I’ve ever done.

The second piece I should mention is that we were also gifted with daily meetings with the meditation center’s assistant abbot, a monk named U Nyana Ramsi. A typical expectation for participating in retreats such as ours is that meditators will meet with a teacher once a day for an “interview,” in which meditators report on their practice and raise any questions they have. The teacher will give suggestions or instructions in response. So each day around 5:30pm, our bhanti (a Pali word of reverence or respect, similar to “sir”) would slowly enter the room in his saffron robes, often with a junior monk or nun at his side, sit in a chair in front of us, and ask softly, “How is your practice going today?”

At first I think we were all a little nervous to speak up. But slowly we began to ask questions or bring up challenges and things we noticed about our sitting or walking meditation. Bhanti was patient and kind and so very wise. We were amazed at the wealth of knowledge that he drew from as he answered our questions. The way he spoke, softly yet confidently, and the way he moved his hands when he talked, gently touching his fingertips to list the eight kinds of suffering, or the three kinds of awareness…it was mesmerizing. Looking back I know we were very fortunate, as a group of mostly Christian seminarians from the United States, to have the opportunity to sit at the feet of this teacher and be treated like any other meditator in Buddhist Myanmar. I’m not sure how many Westerners can say that.

Our bhanti, assistant abbot U Nyana Ramsi

Our bhanti, assistant abbot U Nyana Ramsi

So at this point you may be wondering something important. What does it mean for seminarians or for Christians in general to practice Buddhist meditation? A few thoughts here.

This course, “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Buddhist and Christian Approaches,” by its very nature was an interfaith experience. In our curriculum, this course is designated as a Border Crossing Immersion. At Andover Newton, all Master of Divinity candidates are required to complete 3 credit hours of a Border Crossing immersion that engages students with communities and persons of different social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, national, and/or faith identities other than their own. So in this particular class, not only were we crossing an international and cultural border, we were also intentionally crossing a religious border.

Furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, Buddhism is not just the majority religion in Myanmar, it is also the state religion. It would be impossible to begin to understand the culture, society, and politics of this country without learning about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. And we can learn and read all we want about Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in a book or online, but we won’t really understand it until we’ve lived it. This concept of personal experience is also deeply embedded in Theravada Buddhism. The monks say, “You can only learn from your teacher up to a point. You cannot benefit from another’s practice. It must be your own practice that transforms you.” Likewise, we can only learn about the Buddhist practice of vipassana mediation by practicing it ourselves.

From my perspective, the practice of Vipassana meditation is not antithetical to my identity as a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus, who modeled a Kingdom of God-oriented life of nonviolence and compassion. Vipassana meditation is a practice that, alongside regular prayer, worship, and service to others, can only serve to increase a Christian’s compassion toward themselves and others. Furthermore, meditation itself does have its own place in Christian history. Also described as contemplative prayer, this ancient spiritual practice has been reclaimed in recent decades by Benedictine monks such as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault describes how these monks have reintroduced meditation as a Christian practice and how the gospel of Jesus aligns with the goals of meditation, inner awakening, insight, or mindfulness. “Wake up!” John the Baptist proclaimed. “The Kingdom of God is near!” Might meditation help Christians awaken to the ways in which the Kingdom has arrived, and the ways in which it has not yet arrived? Might meditation help us live a little more attentively to the ways in which we might usher in the always new, in-breaking Kingdom of God?

Return to your breath. This is a common instruction and reminder in insight meditation. As a Christian, this is also a reminder to me: return to one who gave you breath. In my mind I hear the old haunting hymn:

“Breathe on me, Breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what Thou dost love
And do what Thou wouldst do.”

As I meditate, may this also be my prayer. With each in breath and out breath, may I be reminded of my Creator and Sustainer who gave me life and continues to give me life each day. With each thought that crosses my mind and takes my attention away, may that be one more opportunity to return to my breath and return to my breath giver.

IMG_2253

After this intense, 3-day immersion, and now after returning to the United States and continuing a practice of daily meditation, I am curious about what role, if any, meditation plays in your life. A secular version of mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity over the past 1-2 years, and researchers have praised its psychological, physical, and emotional benefits. People of faith, and especially clergy, emphasize the importance of individual spiritual practices such as prayer, journaling, reading scripture, or yoga, and meditation certainly falls into that category. So, do you have a daily meditation practice? If so, what kind of meditation do you practice? I am especially wondering about my clergy friends and if meditation aligns with your theology and your personal spiritual practices.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned for my final Myanmar reflection, coming soon!

Myanmar Reflections, Part 1 of 3: The Church in Myanmar

Mingalaba! (Hello!) It has been a little over a week since we returned from Myanmar and I am so excited to share my experiences. Our two weeks in Southeast Asia were intense, filled with beauty, hospitality, and intentionality. There is no way that I can adequately describe the fullness of our trip in a few blog posts, and I am positive that some experiences can never be completely recounted, even though I will try my best. For the purposes of this blog, I have decided to write three separate posts around different themes that I found to be important and recurring. These posts are in no way comprehensive. I have so many more stories and I have learned so much beyond what I can share here. If you’d love to hear more, I would love to talk to you personally! Let’s find a time to talk on the phone or in person.

Before I begin, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank each person who prayed for our group while we were traveling. Your prayers were felt! And I especially want to thank each person who made a donation to my fundraiser to afford the cost of this course. I am so deeply grateful and humbled by your generosity, and I quite honestly wouldn’t have had this unique opportunity without you. Thank you!

So…we begin.

Part 1: The Myanmar Church

A mere twelve hours after arriving in Myanmar, our group of 13 Andover Newton students, faculty, and friends began our educational journey with a first hand look at what the Church looks like in Myanmar.

We first checked into our hotel around midnight on Saturday, and after a grateful night’s sleep we were warmly welcomed into Sunday morning worship at Ywama Baptist Church in Yangon. As we hopped out of the vans that transported us from the hotel to the church, we were ushered into a small room filled with medicine cabinets, chairs, and a desk. “This is the Charity Healthcare Clinic of the Ywama Baptist Church,” one of the church elders explained, who introduced herself as Dr. Mary. This congregation has been running a free health clinic for their community since 2003. There are several doctors and nurses in the congregation, and there is not adequate health care available in Myanmar, so anyone who walks through the doors of the clinic receives treatment, regardless of religion or ethnic group. According to a brochure about the clinic, about 9,000 patients are treated every year, and the congregation provides this outreach out of a deep conviction about the importance of Jesus’ healing ministry. If Jesus was a healer, why shouldn’t his church be in the healing business as well?

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

After a short tour of the clinic, we began to hear organ music, and I realized I was hearing old familiar hymns, such as How Great Thou Art. I immediately felt a connection to this community that I was visiting for the first time. Isn’t it amazing what music has the power to do? We were guided into a few rows toward the front of the sanctuary and I snuck a look behind me. The church was packed! There were hundreds of people filling the rows, and that was just the center room. To the left and the right of the main worship area I saw side porches with pews that were also filled to the edges. At the front of the church sat the choir, a pianist, an organist, and a small band comprised of a few teenagers playing flutes and violins. The service was conducted mainly in Burmese. One of the pastors of this church, Rev. Dr. Maung Maung Yin, is dear friend of one of the ANTS professors on the trip, Dr. Brita Gill-Austern. He introduced his guests from Andover Newton Theological School, adding in a few English sentences here and there so that we guests knew what was going on. We sang hymns such as Spirit of the Living God and All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, the congregation singing in Burmese and us singing along in English. And boy, can that congregation sing! I kept thinking of churches in the United States where you can hardly hear any folks in the pews. Not here! The joyful bellows from this congregation made my heart swell.

Ywama Baptist Church

Ywama Baptist Church

Our two ANTS professors, Dr. Brita and Dr. Mark Heim, gave words of greeting from Andover Newton and from the American Baptist Churches. During the sermon, a few church elders sitting next to us passed us notes (in English) describing the main points of the message so we wouldn’t feel too lost. Finally, to conclude the service, Holy Communion was served, Baptist-style (also, I would add, Brethren style!). It was a beautiful moment to partake in the bread and the cup, the symbols of Christ’s love and passion, across languages and across cultures, while still sitting at the same table of fellowship and faith.

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Following worship a few members of the church led us to another building where we could hear the echoes of children chattering before we even reached the door. In addition to their free health clinic, another outreach of the Ywama Baptist Church is the Sharing Love Program, which serves children from the lowest and poorest neighborhoods in the area. We stepped inside the building to see a group of 60-70 children sitting on the floor listening to a story that a teacher was reading to them. Chatting with one of the younger female teachers beside me, I learned that the children of the Sharing Love program hear Bible stories, are taught lessons about health, hygiene, and moral values, learn songs and play games, and receive a meal. That morning, we had brought a suitcase full of children’s books that we had collected from the States, and when the teachers announced in Burmese that each of them could select a book to take home, they murmured excitedly and snuck us curious glances and shy smiles. Suddenly the teachers began singing a song, and the children all stood up and began to sing loudly, adding hand gestures and movements to the music. One of the songs they sang was one that we Americans immediately recognized: the Hokey Pokey! We began to join in, singing along in English and putting our left foot in, putting our left foot out, until they started to giggle at their silly guests! We couldn’t speak the same language but we could still shake their tiny hands and give each other great big smiles.

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Ywama Baptist Church is just one example of the incredible witness of the church in Myanmar. Throughout that first week we also spent time at two different seminaries in Yangon: Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT for short) and Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary. In Myanmar, Buddhism is not just the majority religion; it is also the state religion. Furthermore Christians in Myanmar are not only religious minorities, but they are also usually ethnic minorities as well. One of the most important identity markers in Myanmar is your ethnic group: Chen, Kachin, Karen, Lisu, etc. The Burmese comprise about 45% of the population and are the largest ethnic group in the country. Most Burmese people also identify as Buddhist. Therefore, if you are a Christian in Myanmar, you are likely to be a member of both a minority religion and a minority ethnic group.

These ethnic and religious factors pose unique challenges and opportunities for the mission and work of the Church in this country. I admit that prior to meeting and getting to know the Christians of the Ywama Baptist Church, as well as the students and administration at MIT and at Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary, I expected to meet very conservative Christians with negative attitudes towards their Buddhist neighbors. After all, it was the work and mission of individuals like Andover Newton graduate and Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson that brought the gospel to the “heathen” peoples of South Asia in the early 19th century, so I anticipated finding a similar mindset among the 21st century descendants of those first Christian converts.

Yet it was quite the opposite. The Christians of these churches and theological schools were thoughtful, open-minded, justice-oriented, and committed to engaging critically with their neighbors and their society. When we talked with church elders and seminary students about mission and evangelism, we didn’t hear talk of conversion, sacrificial atonement, and the need to save their Buddhist neighbors from eternal damnation. (Now I’m sure there are Christians in Myanmar who would talk of those things, but I’m just sharing my interactions.) Instead, we heard talk of both interfaith dialogue and evangelism as storytelling. To evangelize and to witness meant sharing stories of the ways in which being a follower of Jesus has changed your life, and to engage in interfaith dialogue meant asking your Buddhist or Muslim neighbor to share their stories of the ways in which being a Buddhist or a Muslim has changed their life. At Ywama Baptist Church we saw outreach and mission take the form of providing basic human needs like education, health care, and childcare for all, without an expectation that those benefiting from those services accept Jesus as their personal savior. In the classrooms at MIT we heard talk of “God’s preferential option for the poor” and Gustavo Gutierrez’s liberation theology, which takes on a whole new meaning in one of the poorest South Asian countries.

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Overall, I was inspired and deeply moved by the witness and mission of the Church in Myanmar. And if I’m honest, I can’t help but notice how Christianity in Myanmar is different from Christianity in the United States. It is clear that being a religious minority in a country will change your approach to doing and being the Church in the world. (Here are my Anabaptist, anti-Constantinian, post-Christendom roots shining through…I recommend reading Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.) Even though the United States does not have an official religion like Myanmar, Christianity is still pervasive and is still the dominant religious framework in our culture. Has our majority status and our privilege affected our ability to be faithful disciples of Christ, healing the sick and feeding the hungry? Have we become more about self-preservation than about turning the world upside-down with the radical and counter-cultural love of Jesus?

I propose the Church in the United States has much to give thanks for and much to learn from the Church in Myanmar. Our sanctuaries may be bigger but their pews are fuller. Our organs may be louder but their songs are sung with fuller hearts. Our churches and theological schools may have more committees about “mission” and “evangelism,” but their churches and seminaries are out there in the trenches, living out their mission. May we be inspired and encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Yangon and in every small Christian village and town. Christ is alive, present, and at work through the busy hands and feet of the Christians in Myanmar.

Looking Back at Fall 2014

It’s December 20. Already. How did that happen? This semester flew by so quickly. I feel like I say that with every blog post, and each time it remains just as true. Finals are over and I actually have a minute to breathe and reflect on the past few months. I am currently in Huntingdon, spending time with Jason and feeling so thankful for winter break with him and our families for Christmas.

As you might have gathered from my post in early October, it was gearing up to be my busiest semester yet. I wasn’t wrong, and I must admit that it was my most difficult semester as well. More often than not, at the end of each week I felt as if I was barely keeping my head above the quickly moving water that was made up of classes, field education, work, my fellowship, preparing for my January course in Myanmar, and oh yeah, maintaining long distance relationships with loved ones and my friendships on campus. Looking back I feel exhausted and relieved to have made it through, while simultaneously feeling grateful and overwhelmingly fortunate.

First: classes. My courses this semester included New Testament Foundations, Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness, and Systematic Theology Part I. In all honestly, my New Testament class probably took up the least amount of time. It was the basic, required Intro to NT, and after all of my undergraduate courses in Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and my upper level NT class that I took last spring, I felt very prepared. To boot, the class was graded 10% for attendance and participation and 90% for the final exegesis, which is an in-depth analysis of a specific biblical passage. So other than writing the final paper during the last two weeks of the semester, I really had very minimal work for the class. The material itself was not very challenging for me, but what did made the class slightly difficult was the extremely varied makeup of the students in the class itself. Because it was an introductory course, the backgrounds, assumptions, and knowledge of my classmates varied greatly. So this diversity within the class made each week both exciting and challenging.

Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness was probably the most unique class I will ever take in seminary. In addition to reading about and trying various types of spiritual practices in the Christian tradition in class, such as centering prayer, lectio divina, lament, keeping the Sabbath, play, forgiveness, and walking the labyrinth, we each chose a spiritual practice to try outside of class and we met with a partner (a spiritual companion) once a week to talk about bow our personal spiritual practices were going. After discussing it with the professor I chose to practice insight or Vipassana meditation for 20-30 minutes a day. The reasons why I chose this practice is because this is the type of meditation that we will be practicing at a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar (more about my trip below). So we thought it would be a good way to familiarize myself with the practice before becoming completely immersed in it for several full days. It has been a challenge, for sure. As I wrote in my final reflection, one of the hardest parts of the practice has been to actually remember to do it each day! But I believe that maintaining a regular practice of meditation was good for me this semester. To sit for 20-30 minutes in silence is so counter-cultural and against every urge in my body to be productive, to get things done, to check things off my To-Do list. This is part of the “magic” of meditation. Just the act of resisting those impulses is good for the brain and for the body.

My third class this semester was by far my favorite and also my most time-intensive: Systematic Theology. This is a course that is mandatory for MDiv candidates, and it is broken into two parts, one in the fall and one in the spring. In the fall we look at 4 major topics in Christian theology and how theologians have understood these topics and what has been written about them (both historically and today): revelation and authority, human nature, Christology (theology about Jesus), and God. For three of these topics (humanity, Christology, and God) we wrote 3000-word essays explaining what the Christian theologial tradition has believed and then explaining what we believe. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is, and not because it is hard to write 3000 words. Rather, the opposite is true: try fitting the major strands of the Christian tradition regarding Christ and your own theology and beliefs about Christ into just about 10 pages. Trust me, these were not easy tasks, however I loved the reading, the class material, the professor, and (if I really admit it) the challenge of articulating my own theological tradition in light of what the church has professed over the years. I have been pretty proud of my papers this semester, and I’ll actually look forward to going back, years from now, to re-read them and see how my understandings have changed and evolved. I’m looking forward to taking Part II in the spring.

In addition to those 3 fall courses, I also had several meetings and assignments in preparation for my upcoming January course in Myanmar, so it was almost like having a fourth course. In case you haven’t heard, in January I will be traveling with 10 other students and 2 professors for a two-week course in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This course is called “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Christian and Buddhist Approaches.” As the title suggests, we will be meeting and learning from Buddhists (who are the religious majority in this country) and Christians (the minority) and their actions and responses to what has, until recently, been one of the most repressive governments in the world. We will primarily be focused in the capital, Yangon, at the Myanmar Theological Institute and their Peace Study Center and Judson Center for interfaith relations. We will also spend time at the Pwo Kayin Seminary, which is the seminary of one of the most persecuted groups in Myanmar, the Karen people. In addition, we will, as I mentioned earlier, be spending three days in a Theravada Buddhist monastery sharing in the life and practices of the monks who live there.

In preparation for this immersion, the students and professors of this course have been meeting once a month. We have been reading books and articles about the different elements of this course: Theravada Buddhism; Aung San Suu Syi, the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner who lived under house arrest for most of the 1990s; Vipassana meditation; and Adoniram Judson, the Baptist missionary who was a graduate of Andover Newton in the early 1800s (then called Andover Theological Seminary) and who first brought Christianity to Burma. In addition to the academic preparation for this trip, there has been logistical planning as well, including applying for visas and acquiring various vaccinations.

Throughout this entire semester I have been fundraising in order to afford both the $3300 course fee as well as the fees for the visa and vaccinations (which were not inexpensive). I am so pleased and grateful that I received over 20 donations that totaled over $2000, from friends, family, my congregation Stone Church of the Brethren, mentors, classmates, and even a few anonymous gifts. I can honestly say that I would not be completing this course without this amazing display of generosity, and I am so very grateful.

So! If all that doesn’t seem like enough, no worries, because there were plenty more things to keep me excited and busy this semester! My largest and most exciting endeavor was my field education internship at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is such an honor to serve at such a historic and significant church. I still have to pinch myself sometimes to remember that I am indeed working at Harvard and helping to lead worship where so many outstanding leaders have before. In early December I had to write a mid-year evaluation (mid-year… already…?!) about my experience so far and how I am reaching my learning goals that we set at the beginning of the semester. In this evaluation, I wrote about how much I love leading Morning Prayers every Friday: “Morning Prayers has quickly become one of my favorite and most challenging parts of my week. I love the routine of preparing Appleton Chapel, the rhythm and flow of the Morning Prayers liturgy, the diversity of speakers and topics, and the music of the Choral Fellows. The regular attendees of Morning Prayers are a loyal and passionate group of people, which has proven to be both a blessing and an opportunity for ministerial growth. Many of our seminarian seminars, as well as one-on-one supervisor meetings, have involved discussion about ministerial presence, ethics, and boundaries in regards to Morning Prayers attendees. I look forward to the gifts and opportunities that leading this service will continue to offer in the spring semester.”

Other opportunities I have had through Memorial Church include attending Graduate Student Day at the church during the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA) conference on October 28. This was a unique opportunity for networking and hearing from religious professionals about the changing face of ministry and religious life on college campuses around the country, and I was very pleased to be part of the day.

A beautiful shot of the Memorial Church sanctuary from the balcony. You can also see Appleton Chapel behind the sanctuary, where Morning Prayers takes place

A beautiful shot of the Memorial Church sanctuary from the balcony. You can also see Appleton Chapel behind the sanctuary, where Morning Prayers takes place

In addition to other regular responsibilities each week or each month, arguably my biggest project as a Seminarian has been a collaboration with Memorial Church’s Multi-Faith Engagement Intern, a Muslim Harvard Divinity School student named Usra. This semester I have helped Usra plan a new program for Harvard students, and this program takes the form of a monthly interfaith storytelling series called “This One Time…” Imagined with NPR’s The Moth in mind, these interfaith storytelling hours are designed with a theme, an open mic, and topics for discussion and response following the shared stories. Usra and I have been working together to come up with themes and dates, to contact and meet with a variety of host and partnering organizations, and to recruit Harvard students to serve as discussion facilitators. We kicked off our first interfaith storytelling hour at Memorial Church on November 13th, with the theme, “Food, Faith and Justice.” On December 11th we had our second event at the Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS and the theme was “Home Sweet Home: Stories of Inherited and Adopted Family.” Storytelling is a huge element of interfaith work, and it is so fun to plan these events with Usra and to listen to the stories and lived experiences of students from a variety of faith and cultural backgrounds.

My interfaith encounters this semester have not been limited to Harvard and the Memorial Church though. A highlight of my second year so far has been my CIRCLE Fellowship. Just a reminder, CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education) is a joint initiative of Andover Newton and Hebrew College & Rabbinical School, with whom we share a campus. As it states on the CIRCLE webpage: “Each year CIRCLE welcomes a cohort of 12 new fellows who are knowledgeable and articulate about their own religious tradition, increasingly adept at organizing and facilitating religious educational programming, and committed to working collaboratively with a team of students and faculty from Andover Newton, Hebrew College, and Muslim community partners.” This year I am partnering with a Muslim community member named Basma, who is an Egyptian mother and PhD student. Our shared project is a peer group that meets once a month for an inter-religious text study. We invite students from HC, ANTS, and the community to join as we look at scripture together, and our theme as we study scripture is the “Portrayal of the Religious Other in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures.” So far we have had 3 meetings (October, November, and December) and we have averaged between 4 and 8 participants each month. Most recently, at Basma’s leading, we have examined passages in the Qur’an that talk about the “People of the Book,” aka Jews and Christians. Members of our group have been surprised to learn how positively the Qur’an portrays Jewish and Christian scriptures, prophets (such as Moses and Jesus), and how Muslims are instructed to interact peacefully with practitioners of those faiths. It has been such a joy to both study scripture in an interfaith context and to work with Basma as my partner. She is bright, articulate, and always willing to learn and ask questions. We have been working well together and are quickly becoming friends in addition to partners. This, in fact, is one of the main goals of the CIRCLE Fellowships, to create relationships between leaders of different faiths, and I would say that Basma and I are meeting that goal already!

Finally, in between courses, field ed, and CIRCLE, I have still been working part-time as a cashier at our campus dining hall, between 15-25 hours a week depending on whether we have special events or unusual circumstances. I am grateful to have this job and for the friendships that I am gaining as a result. I am also still blessed to meet with a small group of friends for a weekly prayer group. Trying to coordinate six women’s class and work schedules was challenging, and the best time for everyone ended up being Thursday nights from 9pm until around 11 or 12pm. Even though this wasn’t an ideal time, each week was still life giving and provided the spiritual support that we each needed.

This has already been way too long of a post, however I want to quickly point out just a few other opportunities I had this semester. In early September, I traveled to Woodstock, Vermont for a kick-off retreat with the other Seminarians at Memorial Church. Our supervisor, Rev. Lucy, and our Ministry Fellow, Alanna, organized a great 24 hours of sharing and learning from one another. It was an important way to start off our year of field ed. On September 21st, I organized a small gathering in honor of International Day of Prayer for Peace, in which several students met in our interfaith garden to read prayers, sing songs, and share statements about building peace in our world. In early October I flew to Baltimore to attend a wedding with Jason, and later that month I traveled to New Hampshire for another retreat, but this time it was for CIRCLE, with the co-directors and other Fellows. Jason also came to visit for a few days in October. In early November I again flew to Baltimore, but this time it was for celebrations with Jason’s family: one of his grandmothers turned 90 and another grandmother turned 100! I was very thankful that his parents offered to fly me down that weekend so that I could attend those parties. Oh!…I also turned 26 in November. 🙂 In December CIRCLE sponsored an event on campus with Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and one of the persons who first inspired me to care about interfaith work. I was so pleased to hear him speak and attend the event with Basma as a CIRCLE Fellow.

Me with Eboo Patel at Andover Newton

Me with Eboo Patel at Andover Newton

Looking back, it was obviously a full semester, but I know that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Each opportunity and responsibility was something that I deeply love, and that is making me a better human, a more equipped minister, and a deeper person of faith. Right now, I am soaking up the start of my two-week break until I return to Boston to catch our flight to Myanmar on January 2. Don’t worry: I will be sure to write (probably more than one) post about my experiences in Myanmar, as I am positive that I will have beautiful things to share, as well as many hardships and challenges. Until then, I thank you so much for taking the time to read about and pray for my theological education. Your love and support really does make a difference.

I want to leave you with a story about a powerful moment that I had this semester. It happened on a Friday morning. I had just finished leading Morning Prayers at Memorial Church and I was walking back through Harvard Yard to catch the T back home. It had been an especially busy week, Morning Prayers had been my last major responsibility, and I was exhausted. As I walked through the Yard I was thinking to myself, “Alright! You did it. You made it through the week. And you did a pretty good job this week, with everything you did. Great job!” Suddenly in the middle of my little mental pep talk, I suddenly realized something, and I heard myself thinking, “Yes, you did it. But that’s not why you have worth. That’s not why you are loved.” I realized, in that moment, that it wasn’t my busy schedule, my grades, my feedback from my field ed supervisor, or the approval of anyone that gave me dignity and made me matter. In God’s eyes, I have worth because I exist. I am loved because God loves me. Nothing that I can do makes me earn that worth. Rather, I am worthy simply because I am.

Likewise, during this busy holiday season, you might be patting yourself on the back for staying on top of your To Do List, or you might be beating yourself up because you don’t feel accomplished, or wealthy, or smart enough. Let me assure you: your grades, your performance, your Christmas gifts, or your productivity do not make you worthy of love. You are worthy of love simply because you are. Because you exist, and because you are created in the image of God, you are worthy, you have dignity, and you are loved. May this be an encouragement to you, this season, and always.