Friday, October 30, 2015

Tell me about yourself.

      DU's Housing and Residential Education department has been running a photo campaign in the days leading up to Halloween called "My Culture is Not a Costume".  The hope is to raise awareness that dressing up as an individual from a culture not one's own does nothing to promote a culture of inclusivity.  Indeed, it can reduce a rich cultural heritage (i.e., that from which the "costume" is drawn) to a caricature.  And, once caricatured, such a group can easily be dismissed as less important.  The campaign has generated a lot of comment, both verbal and on-line . . . and well it should, I would think.  That said, I would hope the conversations have been positive and productive, but, from what I hear, they are not, always.       As I was thinking about the campaign and the comments, an article came into my inbox titled "What you are really asking when you ask 'Where are you from?'"  The author, Tanvi Misra, notes that the question may indeed be innocuous when people first meet, especially if it is in the context of group introductions.  But in a different context, the person being asked, especially if from a minority group, often finds that they are not being questioned out of genuine interest, but in order to be put into some kind of "box" in the questioner's mind.  In other words, as with the costume, caricatured, and, thus, made "worthy" to be dismissed.  (And, as with the conversations about the "My Culture" campaign, the comments on the article are not always positive or productive).        I may not have responded to the campaign or the article in quite the same knee-jerk fashion as many of the people who have commented on-line -- or at least I trust I would not have reacted the same way.  That said, both the campaign and the article caused me to step back and consider what I REALLY want to know about someone when I meet them.  And "Where are you from?" can often be an easy opening to a conversation; I'm generally fishing for a point of common-ground (I wonder, for example, if I've been there).  What I usually want to know, however, is WHO is this person with whom I'm talking? What makes them tick?  What are their hopes and dreams? What kind of family/families do they have? Are they a dog person, or a cat person (okay, stereotypes . . .)?  In short, I like knowing the complexities of the whole person, not just one aspect -- since none of us can be reduced to only one facet of who we are.       We are whole, complex, contradictory individuals.  I can't think of any creation narrative, regardless of religion or culture, that has human beings emerge as a horde of clones -- nothing to differentiate one from the other.  It is part of our make-up, reflected in those stories, that we ARE different, and that there is glory in that.  We cannot be reduced to a costume, or an ethnicity, or to geography, or a religious group.        I've been convinced.  It's not out of "political correctness" (as some of the nay-saying commentators on the campaign/article above claim), but rather a sincere desire to know the other person that I think I'll ask a new acquaintance: "Tell me about yourself!"  Where they choose to start the answer is up to them.  and where the conversation might lead is more hope-full.



Saturday, October 24, 2015

We ALL Matter!

      Last week, as many of you know, I was in Salt Lake City, attending the Parliament of the World's Religions.  It was an AMAZING experience (more on that in a bit)!  Prior to the beginning of the Parliament, however, I also attended the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA).  This is the yearly gathering of my "peeps" -- those folks around the country who are University Chaplains or Deans of Chapels or Religious Life.  I'm always enriched by this gathering; it's so nice to be surrounded by folks who "get" what it is we all do, and who are willing to share questions/concerns/suggestions.
      A usual feature of our time together is a conversation about what has been going on at our respective institutions -- what are the hot-button issues.  As it happened, in my sub-group of 20 or so folks, the answers to the question began my left and continued in a clockwise direction.  In other words, I was the LAST person to be able to respond.  That not only gave me a lot of time to hear others' voices, but also to consider whether or not I would simply say "Ditto".  While I might have been tempted to do just that, since most of the attendees were from campuses east side of the Mississippi, their concerns were slightly different than mine.
       Given all that has gone on this last year that has made national news, a couple of the most frequently mentioned issues that galvanized campuses were (1) the Israel/Palestine conflict (and divestment debates), and (2) the "Black Lives Matter" movement.  I heard those numerous times as the answers were given around the circle. When it finally came to me, however, I had to say that, while these issues WERE present and discussed at DU, there were a couple of others that I'd seen/heard more often: the debate over our Mascot (or lack thereof) as well as our historical ties to the Sand Creek Massacre.
       As I thought about that discussion in the days following, and especially as I roamed around the Parliament with ALL of its diversity (racial, ethnic, religious, political), it became clear both (1) how intertwined are so many of our debates with our discomfort with difference, as well as (2) how singly we can be focused in one area that we miss how our concern THERE is not reflected elsewhere.  Yes, the "Black Lives Matter" movement was/is present at the University of Denver.  Yes, there IS concern about the Israel/Palestine conflict.  But I find it troubling that some folks who are concerned about the marginalized in those two current issues often do not extend that concern to more immediate parts of OUR history.  For example, some folks who might call for the removal of the Confederate Flag (in the context of "Black Lives Matter") miss the symbolism that clings to DU's former mascot.
        As I attended the various programs and events of the Parliament, I was overwhelmed by the goodness of all that I met.  Whether it was in the program on the "Three Forms of Prayer in Islam", or the one on how to support returning veterans, or the early morning Sikh service, or the exuberant singing and dancing of the devotees of Krishna, I became keenly aware that these people -- similar to, or different from, me -- had the same root qualities:  a desire for peace and fulfillment, an inherent goodness, a commitment to hospitality, and many more.  And I was humbled as I realized that I can easily see the goodness in one group, while missing it in another about which I know less.
        Leaving both ACURA and the Parliament was difficult.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to learn more about all of those groups, all of those people, especially those with whom I had the least in common.  Our ignorance -- my ignorance -- does little but harm us all.  We ALL matter, and we need to live with that as a grounding principle.


PS   The photo above is of people at the Parliament standing in line to eat lunch at the "Langar", provided by the Sikhs. All who came were fed, no charge. Everyone covered their head out of humility. Everyone sat on the floor in parallel rows. Everyone was served by someone else. Everyone mattered.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Parliamentary Proceedings

          I have been in Salt Lake City since Wednesday of this week, attending the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religions Affairs, and the Parliament of the World's Religions.
         The ACURA meeting was great, seeing colleagues from around the country.  And it was fun to see Roberts Rules of Order employed (and mis-employed); I do love parliamentary procedure!
         The Parliament of the World's Religions:  amazing so far!  And all that I have seen (and heard) have been the the entry ways, and the Opening Plenary.  And, who knew?  The very first person with whom I spoke at the Parliament was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lives at a monastery in Morrison, CO!   When the peoples of the world, and the religions of the world, come together, wonderful encounters can happen.

        I will not offer a formal reflection/meditation this week, as there simply hasn't been time with all the conferencing (and I'm a bit overwhelmed with ideas/thoughts)!  But I am sending out frequent photos/updates.  You can find them either on Facebook or Twitter (@ChapGary).
        There is also a lifestream available of the Parliament, in case you would like to get a taste of what's going on:


Friday, October 9, 2015

Who are your avatars?

      Just about every time I sign up on-line for a discussion board, I have to create a "profile" -- my name, email address, maybe city/state, interests, type of equipment I use, and, oh, my "username"--that moniker that will be attached to whatever posting I put up on the board. Depending on how much I want to self-disclose, I may use some variant of my real name, or I may choose something quite disconnected from my name, but related to my interests (e.g., I've used "fishoutawatta" in several places).  And, in addition to the "username", there is often an option to add in some little picture that can help signal my posts (as if others can't associate me with my name), i.e., my "avatar."   Like the usernames, I've had several I've used. Multiple discussion boards; multiple identities.       Of course, it's not just on discussion boards that this split-identity phenomenon occurs.  I have two Facebook pages/sites that I maintain -- with a mixture of personal/professional information that goes out on both.  AND I have a Twitter feed.  (And -- shameless self-promotion -- you can link to FB to the right!).  Often I find myself in the predicament of trying to remember WHICH avenue of social media I'm utilizing, which audience I'm targeting.  Or, put another way, which "Gary" I am assuming?  Do I speak as "Chaplain Gary" (icon at the top of this blog-post!), or "Boy Scout Dad", or "Fisher Dude", or "Road Cyclist"?  
      The flip-side, of course, of this multi-faceted self-presentation is that those who read my posts/status updates/tweets only see a portion of who I am.  And they may form their own "avatar" that they associate with me . . . an avatar that may bear little resemblance to my real, whole, self.  Any response some of them might make, therefore, is not to me
 but to a limited version of me.  And I am certain that I do the same!      I recall being part of an on-line bulletin board many years ago (WAY before avatars....I was using a 2400 baud dial-up modem!). It was a pretty active discussion group; we were all involved in religion and the academy in various ways.  Many of us were going to attend a national meeting in Washington DC, and we agreed to meet for dinner.  Despite how well we thought we knew each other from our on-line interactions, seeing each other face-to-face was a wonderful experience.  The added nuances of body language and facial expression simply increased the depth of our conversations.  We began to know each other as real people, not just as characters at the end of a bulletin-board post.       Real conversation, not that mediated by technology, is the subject of a book by Sherry Turkle (at MIT):  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. She argues that real, face-to-face conversations increase empathy and understanding. They also demand that we engage in some deeper self-reflection. Those qualities seem to be in increasingly short supply these days. Yet they are increasingly necessary in our segmented and polarized society.  It's probably time to put down the screens, and the images they project -- usually half-truths both about us and our "friends/followers", or the "other side".  And it's time to take up the hard work of real conversation, as challenging as it may be.        Contact a friend/acquaintance/colleague.  Pick a place.  Converse/connect...without electronics on the table. No avatars. Repeat.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Stealing the Future

       Yesterday . . . not the Beatles, but 10/1/15.
       Last night I was sitting in a room with a group of remarkable students, the DU Interfaith Advocates.  Part of our time together was spent discussing the Syrian refugee crisis.  And one of the students in attendance was at DU partly because of that crisis.  His family had fled Syria because of the violence there.  In the course of the conversation, he commented that what was happening there for many young people was that those furthering the conflict were "stealing our future".  They young men and women growing up in Syria had a vision for their future and their country's future; what the conflict was doing was robbing them of those dreams.
       Last night we also talked about the news of the day:  the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR.*  Details of the shooting are still coming out, but last night we knew enough to know that a young man decided, for whatever reason, to start shooting folks based on their religion (the news this morning confirms that he was asking victims if they were Christian before shooting them).  The school year had just started at Umpqua; the shooter not only destroyed the future for his victims (and himself), but stole much of the future for the survivors.
       Earlier in the day, before I had heard about the shootings, and long before the evening's discussion, I was listening to a podcast of the Brian Lehrer show (out of WNYC in New York). The particular episode was from September 11, 2015 (yes, I'm behind), and featured an interview with Farah Pandith, the first ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US Department of State.  She no longer works for the State Department but is researching the reasons WHY some young folks (in her case, Muslims) are so readily radicalized.  She asserted that for much of their lives (i.e., since September 11, 2001), the front pages (paper and virtual) have been filled with negative news about Islam/Muslims.  This has created, she claims, a crisis of identity for these folks.  And it is that crisis that leaves these young people searching for meaning -- and groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc. promise meaning.
        Front-page news about religion in general, It occured to me, is rarely good (some of the coverage of Pope Francis' recent US visit to the contrary) despite the good that most religious traditions do as a matter of course.  I look at the statistics of "millennials" fleeing their religious roots and claiming, when asked about their religious affiliation, to be either "spiritual but not religious" or "None of the above", and Ms. Pandith's conclusions seem to extend well-beyond radicalization-prone young Muslims.  We have, unfortunately, produced (by many of our religious actions, non-actions, and subsequent reportage) a generation that wants little to do with the institutions that sustained their parents and grand-parents.  Yet, many of those young people yearn for something that might provide meaning and identity.  And the substitutes that often arise don't produce.  In a way, their future has been stolen -- perhaps not intentionally, but they are bereft nonetheless.
      In response to yesterday's shootings, 
President Obama challenged Americans by saying "our thoughts and prayers are not enough".  The time for action has come.  The president suggested some concrete ideas.  But it seems that there are some other ones, not necessarily related to gun-control or mental health needs (as important as those issues are).  I believe that it is incumbent on all of us, people of good faith, to speak out about the moorings our convictions provide. We must give up attacking others--by word or deed--using religious rhetoric to justify or bolster our bigotry and ignorance. We, who know better, must speak out; we must band together to speak in common.  In fierce contradiction to those voices that would drive us apart, that would steal our future, we must declare:  "We are better together! And, together, we will build a better, and less violent, world for those who come after us."


*As a native Oregonian, and someone who's been in Roseburg numerous times, this is particularly sad for me.