Interfaith Lecture Previews

Interfaith America’s Patel, in rescheduled ILS program, to discuss intersection of health, faith


James Buckser
Staff writer

After travel delays and schedule changes, Eboo Patel will speak today at 2 p.m. as a part of the  Chautauqua Institution’s Interfaith Lecture Series and its Week Three theme “Health and Faith: Considering the Center of Wellbeing in America,” held in partnership with Interfaith America.

Patel is the founder of Interfaith America, an organization aiming, according to its website, to “unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity,” and is collaborating with the Institution to host this week’s Interfaith Lecture programming. Patel was set to open the week on Monday; Wendy Cadge delivered that day’s Interfaith Lecture instead.

An author and an educator, Patel is a former member of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council and longtime friend of the Institution. 

Melissa Spas, vice president of religion at Chautauqua, called this relationship “incredibly productive.”

Patel will address public health, mental health and “individual experiences of wellness and illness” as they relate to Interfaith America’s mission, Spas said.

“It’s sort of a broad topic,” she said. “But all focused on that intersection of faith or spirituality with health-related concerns.”

While Spas said this talk will be Patel’s only public event, Chautauqua Institution is playing host to a group of representatives this week from Interfaith America, who are having their own discussions on the intersection of faith and health.

The partnership between the two organizations has been valuable, she said, “not only in programming this week together, but sort of more broadly, in expanding our network and helping us to think creatively about some of the frontiers or edges of faith and health work.”

Braitman to bridge faith, medicine, storytelling in 2 p.m. talk


James Buckser
Staff writer

Laurel Braitman is a storyteller working in the world of medicine. As the founder of Writing Medicine and director of writing and storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine, Braitman works to get doctors writing, not just for patient communication, but also for their own wellness.

Braitman will bring her knowledge to Chautauqua Institution’s Interfaith Lecture Series as a part of this week’s theme “Health and Faith: Considering the Center of Wellbeing in America,” Chautauquans can hear her talk, “Birds of Pray” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, joined by Ulysses Burley III.

In her new book What Looks Like Bravery: An Epic Journey Through Loss and Love, Braitman traces the knowledge she gained on the path to become the person who she is today, which she plans to share.

“I’m going to be talking about my own journey, that I now help other people go on,” Braitman said. “Part of how I started on that journey is because I am the daughter of a physician who was dying my whole life.”

Her father, who suffered from terminal cancer, worked outdoors as a farmer and rancher in addition to his career as a physician.  Aside from his career as a physician, he was also a farmer and rancher, working outdoors. Braitman said the way she made sense of what was happening in her life was “often wrapped up” in her family’s interactions with the natural world, something not often discussed in medicine. When she began teaching at Stanford, she told the university she didn’t want to teach inside of a classroom.

“I only wanted to teach on farms outside. I wanted people’s cell phones not to work; ideally, too, there would be farm animals and there would be healthy food,” Braitman said. “To this day, that is how I continue to teach.”

Braitman is a writer, teacher, and secular clinical chaplain-in-training. She holds a doctoral degree in History and Anthropology of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Author of two books, Braitman’s work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, and National Geographic

She first made connections with the Stanford School of Medicine during the research process for her new book.

“When I started, I thought it would be really different,” Braitman said. “I thought I was going to write a book about how doctors die.”

Braitman said she thought that doctors, frequently dealing with death, might experience it differently than the general public. 

She wanted to report that story in a medical setting, which led her to Stanford and Audrey Shafer, an anesthesiologist and poet, who started the medical humanities and arts program.

“She welcomed me in and she and her team made me a position,” Braitman said.

While she said she initially thought she was there “selfishly” reporting for her book, she soon found more.

“I wanted to do something in exchange,” Braitman said. “I found that most clinical students and most physician faculty weren’t getting much communications training.”

Braitman said she thought it was “unfortunate” that healthcare professionals were lacking in this aspect, because they help people make difficult choices.

“They have to be really good communicators of public health, science, and medicine,” Braitman said. “We expect them to do that, but we don’t always give them skills to do that.”

Braitman is also training to become a secular chaplain, which she said is in demand as more people lead secular lives while still wanting “spiritual companionship” during difficult moments.

“I don’t think you have to be a believer in an organized religion or even consider yourself … ‘a spiritual person’, whatever that means, to want to have someone by your bedside that can help you think through and find meaning in what you’re going through,” Braitman said.

Braitman hopes Chautauquans will leave her talk with a new perspective on difficult situations, finding and making meaning in their “toughest moments,” and seeing their grief as a “superpower.”

“Once you’ve lost something, you are marked,” Braitman said. “Grief makes you see a new color, taste a new taste. It’s like a new sensibility that makes your life more meaningful. It makes you less likely to take things for granted.”

For ILS, preeminent Hindu scholar Narayanan to share spiritual imperative of play


The last time Vasudha Narayanan spoke at Chautauqua Institution, it was during the Interfaith Lecture Series week dedicated in 2018 to “The Spirituality of Play.” She spoke to the importance of playfulness in Hinduism, and at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy,  she’ll discuss aging and playing in Indian religions, and take her argument one step further.

It’s not just that people who have reached retirement age are freer than their working counterparts to play; it’s actually their spiritual responsibility to do so. Hinduism calls them to do that.

Narayanan is distinguished professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, former  president of the American Academy of Religion, and a preeminent scholar of the Hindu faith. This will be her sixth appearance at Chautauqua.

The author or editor of seven books and numerous articles, chapters in books, and encyclopedia entries, Narayanan is associate editor of the five-volume Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. 

Throughout her career, her research has been supported by grants and fellowships from organizations like the Centre for Khmer Studies; the American Council of Learned Societies; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, among many others. 

In 2018, Narayanan spoke on “Creation, Recreation and the Joy of Play,” highlighting stories and games to indicate the importance of play in Hinduism.

She shared a story about Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu — a story that “evokes a sense of wonder, a sense of enchantment, enjoyment and engagement with life and creation itself,” Narayanan said then. “All those who participate in the story are drawn to the wonder and playful nature of God.”

Narayanan also used her 2018 lecture to share the evolution of the classic childhood board game, “Chutes and Ladders” — a game that originated in India, where it was called “the ladder to the Supreme.” It’s a game of morals by design, originally with more snakes (chutes) than ladders to indicate “how much easier it is to slip down than it is to go up,” Narayanan said.

Western players made the game more child-friendly and more equitable — snakes became chutes, and there were an equal number of chutes and ladders. But the game still “signified the culture and idea that for every sin a person commits, there is an equal chance of redemption” and remained “aligned with the very life-affirming, happiness-invoking values of Hinduism. The traditional board game actually focused on the passage to salvation (and) how to get there.”

One of Hinduism’s foundational texts describes God’s creation of the universe as a form of divine play. The idea is that God is not motivated by any kind of desire because he is not lacking anything. God, she said, is inherently playful.

“There is nothing you stand to gain for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world; these come by sheer play,” she said.

The ultimate argument, Narayanan said in 2018, is that it is our destiny to reach our own playful and supreme state of bliss — a liberation called “Moksha,” or the separation from the cycle of life and death.

“This comes with surrender or being in alignment with the ultimate power of the universe,” she told her audience then. “When one has grace, one is no longer playing the music for will, for money, but to wind away the time, to play the music for the sheer enjoyment until that release comes.”

Christian education scholar Lockhart to illustrate playfulness’ part in life, theology


From Zumba to double-dutch, the Rev. Lakisha R. Lockhart is on a mission to show the power of play and movement in life and theology.

She sees herself not just as a professor — she’s currently teaching at Union Presbyterian Seminary — but as a “facilitator, rope jumper, game-player, sojourner, advocate, disruptor, and catalyst for critical consciousness, liberation and engagement that leads to action and change,” Lockhart said in a piece published by Presbyterian News Service. “When people embody their belief through practical application, they are more dedicated to their own formation, the formation of others, and to serve Christ and the church.”

Play, movement, aesthetics and creative arts in life and in theology will all be up for discussion as she gives her presentation at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, part of the Week Two Interfaith Lecture Series theme on “A Spirit of Play.”

Lockhart’s research over the years has focused on religious education; practical, liberation and Womanist theologies; ethics and society; multiple intelligences; embodied faith and pedagogies; theological aesthetics’ theopoetics; and creativity, imagination and play. Her doctoral dissertation at Boston College? Doing Double-Dutch: Womanist Modes of Play as a Pedagogical Resource for Theological Education.

She considers herself a playful Womanist scholar-activist, and at Union Presbyterian Seminary she’s an assistant professor of Christian education. In that work, she sees teaching Christian education as a way to strengthen the church; part of her students’ educational experience is actually, actively participating in their congregations and communities.

That way, educators and ministers aren’t just more committed and knowledgeable — their congregants are, too.

Ordained in the non-denominational tradition,Lockhart is executive secretaryfor the Religious Education Association, and has served as director of the STREAM Youth Theology Institute and assistant professor of practical theology at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. 

Lockhart earned her bachelor’s in philosophy and religion from Clafin University; a Master of Divinity with a concentration in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Wesley Theological Seminary; and a master’s degree in ethics and society from Vanderbilt University.

She’s been a Zumba instructor since 2013.

Shire to discuss adopting childlike spirit of play in understanding texts


Religious education typically relies on the grammar of traditional schooling; Rabbi Michael Shire thinks it’s time for a paradigm shift — one of meaning-making; embedded, spiritualized ritual practice; and sensing beyond self toward community and commandment.

“What is more is that this combination of inner, personal meaning-making and outer expression of practice and values has to be formed individually but fostered and sustained communally for Jewish education to be deemed successful,” Shire wrote for the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Enter Torah Godly Play, a pedagogy Shire founded, drawing on a methodology established by Christian theologian Jerome Berryman. Shire will discuss how Torah Godly Play utilizes storytelling to shape religious education for Jewish children at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, part of the Week Two Interfaith Lecture Series theme “A Spirit of Play.”

Widely published in the fields of Jewish education and spiritual education, Shire has published four books of creative liturgy with medieval illuminations in association with the British and Bodleian Libraries (he grew up in Birmingham and attended University College, London). While earning his master’s and doctorate in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College in New York and in Los Angeles, his research focused on a curriculum orientation for spiritual enhancement in Jewish educational settings. 

Years of study, research and practice led to Torah Godly Play — an approach that centers stories of faith; not to tell them, but to know them.

When he encountered Berryman’s Godly Play, Shire realized that it’s “not like anything else that we have witnessed in Jewish education, and in some ways it is countercultural to the norms in our community of ‘struggling’ with or deconstructing the text,” Shire wrote.

Rather, it might be considered a more personal encounter.

“Research into children’s spirituality tells us that religious language is a key to either enhancing or suppressing innate spirituality,” Shire wrote for Jewish Theological Seminary. “Our religious language for God and prayer derives from our adult theologies, but we superimpose it upon children before they are ready to comprehend and own it.”

Take the story of Abram’s call, Shire wrote, and consider the wonder a child must experience: How does this story become true for that child? 

“Torah Godly Play focuses on the wondering language of the child, and the adults take their cue from that language both in their storytelling and in the children’s subsequent ‘work’ of exploration and expression,” Shire wrote. “As such, Torah Godly Play is not merely an educational method but also a means by which to enact the theology and liturgy of Jewish language. The time spent together in Torah Godly Play is a liturgical experience as much as it is a telling of a story.”

For ILS, lacrosse legend Lyons to share story of Creator’s Game

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While Scott Simon takes the Amphitheater stage this morning to talk about touchstone moments in American sports history, this afternoon, Rex Lyons will examine the same — but through a lens accounting for the original American sports and athletes. 

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Lyons will continue the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Two theme of “A Spirit of Play” with a discussion of the Creator’s Game: Lacrosse.

Lyons is a former coach and world class lacrosse player who played on the original Iroquois Nationals (now the Haudenosaunee Nationals) team formed in 1983. He’s played professional lacrosse in the MILL with the Rochester Knighthawks and the Onondaga Athletic Club Senior B team for 19 seasons. He’s a lifelong advocate of growing the game throughout the world.

In an interview with Pete Gallivan of Buffalo’s WGRZ last week in advance of the The Haudenosaunee Nationals’ semifinal game in the World Lacrosse Championship, Lyons shared his bigger hopes for the team: that 2028 sees the return of lacrosse to the Olympics in 2028, and for the Haudenosaunee to be there.

“It’s been a culmination of 40 years that we’ve been working on it, and we’re getting stronger,” he said. “The program is getting stronger. The athletes are getting stronger. It’s just getting better as we’re moving in the right direction.”

As the Creator’s Game, lacrosse is considered a gift to the Haudenosaunee; this is best reflected in the lacrosse stick itself. 

Hickory wood is the gift of the land; the leather is from the animal world. The weave represents family, while the ball represents medicine.

“When you’re dealing with Indigenous nations, everything is tethered to the natural world in some way, shape or form,” Lyons told Gallivan.

Lyons,  born and raised on the Onondaga Nation, capital of Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is a  member of the Eel Clan. He currently sits on the Haudenosaunee Nationals Board of Directors and served as key spokesperson and representative for the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships, hosted by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy on the Onondaga Nation in 2015.

A business consultant and retired Tradesmen of 30 years with Local #677, Lyons is also an accomplished musician, vocalist, and guitarist who founded the award-winning Fabulous Ripcords out of Syracuse, New York, and is president of the New York State Blues Festival, one of the last free existing music festivals in the country. 

Most recently, Lyons co-created a 501(c)(3) for the Haudenosaunee Nationals Lacrosse Organization as president of the Haudenosaunee Nationals Development Group — the nonprofit was created as the fiscal operating arm of the Haudenosaunee Nationals Lacrosse Board of Directors.

History-making basketball coach VanDerveer opens ILS week


One of Chautauqua’s own is set to open Week Two of the Interfaith Lecture Series, dedicated to the theme “A Spirit of Play.”

And no one may be more suited to speak to that theme than the winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball — and the   winningest active coach in men’s and women’s Division 1 basketball — Tara VanDerveer.

A lifelong Chautauquan, VanDerveer is one of the top coaches in the history of sport, both collegiately and internationally. She’s  a member of both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and at Stanford University, where she’s been the head women’s basketball coach at since 1985, she holds the title of the Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women’s Basketball.

Over the years, VanDerveer has made several appearances on Chautauqua’s program platforms. She’s spoken to Groupers at Boys’ and Girls’ Club about the history of basketball; she’s been in conversation with three-time LPGA champion Nancy Lopez for a Coalition of Chautauqua County Women and Girls event about “Women and Girls in Sports”; and she’s actively supported Chautauqua’s arts pillar. In 2017, she endowed the Rita and Dunbar VanDerveer Symphony Principal Chair for Flute in honor of her parents (Richard Sherman currently holds that chair for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra).

Most recently, VanDerveer spoke at Chautauqua in 2022, during a panel focusing on the intersection of human rights and athletics; for her part in the multi-generational panel that took place last July in Smith Wilkes Hall, VanDerveer shared her memories of the time before Title IX — part of the 1972 Educational Amendments that banned discrimination based on sex and gender in educational settings. 

Before Title IX, before those protections, VanDerveer didn’t have a team to play on, despite how much she loved basketball. She urged Chautauquans last year to remember that it’s not just up to women to advocate for gender equality.

“So much of equality is not just women fighting for it,” VanDerveer said last July. “It is men fighting for it, too.”

At Stanford, VanDerveer has led her teams to three NCAA Championships (1990, 1992, 2021) — one of four coaches in the history of the sport to win three titles — she’s advanced the Cardinals to 14 NCAA Final Four appearances, 25 Pac-12 regular-season titles, 15 Pac-12 Tournament crowns and 34 trips to the NCAA Tournament. 

A five-time national coach of the year (1988, 1989, 1990, 2011, 2021) and 17-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, VanDerveer has a 1,186-265 (.817) record in her 44 years as a collegiate head coach and a 1,034-214 (.829) record over 37 seasons. On top of that, she’s a gold medalist as  the coach of USA Basketball at the 1996 Olympic Games. 

Duke Divinity’s White to illustrate how holy friendships can challenge people, faith institutions for ILS


As storytelling has always been a part of human relationships and flourishing, it’s no wonder that storytelling is just as vital to the concept of holy friendship.

“Stories are how holy friends can speak hard truths in love,” the Rev. Victoria White wrote for Faith and Leadership. “This holds not just for individuals but also for institutions — especially, I believe, for Christian institutions and those who lead them. Whether for individuals or institutions, holy friendship is a tall order.”

White would know — she literally wrote the book on holy friendship: Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships that Sustain Pastors and Leaders, published this March by Fortress Press. She’ll be giving her presentation on the topic as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series Week One theme, “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

White is a writer, pastor, designer, coach, facilitator, teacher, and the managing director of grants at Duke Divinity School’s Leadership Education. There, her work focuses on cultivating and supporting innovative Christian institutions and their leaders. 

As scholar L. Gregory Jones — who wrote the forward to White’s book — noted, “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”

That honesty is important, White wrote. It opens people — and institutions — to growth, though it may be uncomfortable.

“Having others name our sins is painful, of course. So too, for some, is having them affirm our gifts and give voice to our hidden dreams — especially when that highlights how short we have fallen,” she wrote for Faith and Leadership. “Even so, we need to hear difficult truths about ourselves in order to grow into the people God created us to be. When holy friends couch these truths in stories, they make them easier to hear and our need to change easier to accept.”

Stories and holy friendships are plentiful in both the Old and New Testaments, but it’s really just one story, White wrote: God’s story of love for the world. 

Holy friends help to re-narrate old stories.

“Holy friends can help locate these stories within God’s larger ongoing story, opening our eyes to see where we have, in fact, grown and changed. Similarly, they can help us write new stories for the future, of what and who, with God’s help, we can become,” White wrote. “The same is true for institutions. A church or other Christian institution can cling to old stories and become stuck in tragic events, moments of human brokenness that happened generations ago.”

But naming sins and facing them allows for repentance and forgiveness.

“Holy friends, whether for individuals or institutions, use storytelling to speak difficult truths we might otherwise not be able to hear,” White wrote in Faith and Leadership. “In so doing, they help us grow and flourish in our unique individual and corporate roles in God’s ongoing story.”

Peace activist Al-Samawi to share story of life-saving friendships


Mohammed Al-Samawi has long been involved in interfaith peace work. When, in 2015, that work drew death threats from extremists in Yemen and civil war erupted in the streets, Al-Samawi hid in his small apartment bathroom, thinking he was about to die.

He prayed, but food dwindled and his cell phone battery was dying. He opened Facebook and typed out an appeal for help.

What happened next is a story of strangers who became friends, all with the goal of helping Al-Samawi escape. 

“In that bathroom, as I worshiped Allah, I prayed he would save me,” Al-Samawi told People magazine. 

At 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Al-Samawi will give his presentation in the Week One Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge,” talking about his ongoing interfaith work, and the friends who saved his life.

Those friends — a bioengineer in New York City, an entrepreneur in San Francisco, and two Israel-based humanitarian activists — each, on their own, replied to Al-Samawi’s Facebook post in 2015, and sprang into action. Daniel Pincus, Justin Hefter, Megan Hallahan and Natasha Westheimer took to their own networks of friends, colleagues and acquaintances in their international peace work, reaching out to friends-of-friends, calling in favors. It worked.

“They are like family,” Al-Samawi told People. “These four people came, like angels — an answer from God.”

They were able to get Al-Samawi on a boat to Djibouti, then to Ethiopia and Germany, and finally to San Francisco. He was granted political asylum in the United States in 2016.

Since then, Al-Samawi has spoken across the country; one of his first audiences was at Moishe House, an international non-profit made up of a collection of homes and programs that serve as hubs for the young adult Jewish community, according to its website. Al-Samawi found it revelatory.

“Why don’t I create something like (Moishe House) but also for Muslims, Christians, Jews and other faiths?” he told Jewish Journal. Abrahamic House was born.

A multifaith co-living and co-creating space, the organization works to challenge assumptions, prejudices and inequities — and then inspire others to do so, as well.

“… Everyone is ‘othering’ and in the Abrahamic House, there’s no ‘others,’” he told Jewish Journal. “It’s ‘we,’ and we need to know more about each other.”

Al-Samawi is the author of The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming To America, which traces his journey out of Yemen, and his journey as an interfaith activist. That part of the journey continues through Abrahamic House, where the focus is on “gathering, not othering.” Communities represented at Abrahamic House include Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Baha’i, working to foster an environment of learning, respect, and social change. 

“Hate isn’t something you’re born with,” he told Jewish Journal. “People educate you to hate.”

Harges, Mather to share power of connecting neighbors with each other

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De’Amon Harges and the Rev. Michael Mather have been friends for 23 years. They’ve also been friends of Melissa Spas for years, and so when the vice president of religion at Chautauqua started to conceive of a week on “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge,” she knew who to call.

“Something I’ve heard De’Amon say again and again is that he helps people fall in love with each other,” Spas said. “Mike was my pastor for five years in Indianapolis, and he leads congregations with more authenticity and truth-telling than any other pastor I’ve ever had.”

At the heart of their friendship and respective ministries is the church’s call to be good neighbors.

Harges is  a community organizer and creator of The Learning Tree, while Mather is the pastor of the First United Church of Boulder. Both men are faculty members at the Asset Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University, and they’ll join the Interfaith Lecture Series with a conversation on their friendship and their work at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

Harges is a layperson at Broadway UMC, where Mather used to serve as pastor.  At Broadway  UMC, leadership and congregants undertook a radical shift to connect and serve its community. 

“The church, and me in particular,” Mather told Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”

The church’s food pantry, clothing ministry, and other more traditional forms of outreach were replaced by other, more organic ways of enriching neighborhoods.

“The church decided its call was to be good neighbors. And that we should listen and see people as children of God,” Harges said in the same Faith & Leadership story. He became a “roving listener,” going block by block to spend time in the community, asking people what they wanted and needed from the church.

But more than that, “I really started paying attention to what they really cared about,” he told Duke Divinity School. 

He started to gauge what talents and passions lay in the neighborhood, and started making connections. Monthly gardening meetings sprouted up, and Sunday school classrooms were filled by gamers, artists, small businesses — and from these connections, people network, collaborate, and make friends.

Tapping into talents that already exist, rather than identifying needs and trying to fulfill them, is foundational to both Mather’s and Harges’ approach to neighborhood rejuvenation.

“Everything is based around scarcity,” Mather told UM News. “With De’Amon, everything is based around abundance. Everybody is looking for what things are lacking, and he goes looking for where the cup overflows.”

Jackowski opens series on spiritual friendships with personal journey


Sara Toth

When Karol Jackowski entered the Catholic Sisterhood in 1964, nuns were prescribed a litany of rules to follow — even ones related to friendship.


“They shall carefully avoid any friendship contrary to community spirit, such a close union with one person being a formal separation from the rest,” read one.

But another: “They shall love one another sincerely, never entertaining feelings of aversion. They shall pray for one another; they shall help and serve one another. They shall strive to banish from their minds every thought of jealously and to rejoice in the success of their sisters as their own.”

Jackowski — who has since left the Sisters of the Holy Cross — is now part of the Sisters for Christian Community, an independent, self-governing sisterhood. She opens the 2023 Interfaith Lecture Series, and its Week One theme of “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Her lecture title is “Friends: The Holy Family That We Choose.”

In her memoir, Forever and Ever, Amen: Becoming a Nun in the Sixties, Jackowski details how she first came to her religious vocation; the idea of becoming a nun grew serious in the middle of her senior year, “the proverbial eleventh hour,” she wrote.

“I loved high school because of the friends and fun I found there; it was my first taste of what I now know as sisterhood,” she wrote in Forever and Ever, Amen.

In 2007, Jackowski told Reuters that she decided to write her memoir — her fourth book as a full-time writer — because she found that the life of a nun is largely a mystery to many outside the faith. The lives of the nuns themselves, she said, were shrouded in mystery, and she wanted to lift the veil.

“Writing or any of the arts were never encouraged or supported in religious life. The sense of individuality or the idea of expressing your own experiences was sort of suppressed. I think there are only a handful of nuns writing anything,” she told Belinda Goldsmith of Reuters Life! “Lots of parts of convent life were very difficult and people don’t want to reveal that side. It’s like a dysfunctional family.”

That family, she told Goldsmith, taught her “how to live with people you don’t like, you disagree with, and you would never anticipate being your friend.”

In the years since, Jacowski has earned a PhD from New York University, become a full-time writer (her most recent book is 2021’s Sister Karol’s Book of Spells, Blessings, and Folk Magic), a self-taught painter of religious folk art, and a faculty member in Bay Path University’s MFA in creative nonfiction. 

Since Jackowski’s been considering this concept since she was a young nun, she brings a spiritual creativity to open the week that Melissa Spas, vice president of religion, finds exciting.

“Sister Karol has a breadth of experience in thinking and sharing with others the power and limits of friendship as part of spiritual practice,” Spas said. “It sets the tone and creates space for others to talk more particularly about their own friendships and the nurturing of friendship as a spiritual value.”

PRRI founder Robert P.Jones to close season with discussion of ethics, faith


Robert P. Jones grew up as a Southern Baptist in a white evangelical church in Mississippi. 

Now, as president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, Jones wants to fulfill his own — and help others to fulfill their — Christian duties with an emphasis on ethics in faith communities.

Jones will give his lecture on “White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism and the Fragile Future of the American Experiment,” at 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall — not the traditional venue of the Hall of Philosophy — to end Week Nine, its theme of “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future,” and the 2022 Summer Assembly Season’s Interfaith Lecture Series.

“I’m going to be talking about the ways in which white supremacy and American Christianity have had this symbiotic relationship throughout American history,” Jones said. “This is a history that is largely unnoticed, and in some cases deliberately buried, because it’s a fairly unflattering history.”

A leading scholar on religion, culture and politics, Jones, is the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (winner of the 2021 American Book Award) and The End of White Christian America (winner of the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion). 

He said he wants white Christians in his audience to have a better sense of the truth about their identity, both in the past and the present. 

“I think that’s going to require some serious soul searching … some repentance and hopefully commitment to repairing the damage,” Jones said.

Americans are barely waking up to the realities of white Christian nationalism, Jones said, because they are just now realizing it’s a problem.

“The choice in front of us today is whether we’re going to face it, work for healing and repair or whether we’re going to deny it,” Jones said. “James Baldwin put it so unnervingly, whether we’re going to continue our national racial nightmare.”

Jones founded PRRI in 2009 to use data to examine the intersection of religion, culture and politics.

“There was still a need for solid, independent, nonpartisan public opinion research,” Jones said, “and to get a deeper understanding of what the public thought of, not only about issues, (but) what in their worldview, including their cultural and religious views, led them to those beliefs.”

Jones said religion and politics always overlap, because they’re part of human culture. Intertwined, these two facets of American culture can lead to significant ramifications.

“I’m actually quite alarmed at the current state of things, particularly the most recent Supreme Court decisions that (rely) on a particular view of history and tradition, rather than on legal principles of separation of church and state,” Jones said.

Jones said historically, Christian churches have supported white supremacy, which forces the opposition of the democratic principles America was founded on.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that if we can’t honestly deal with this history and choose a different path, not only is the American experiment in democracy in peril,” Jones said, “the future of the church itself is in peril.”

His life in Mississippi was surrounded by people who thought as long as they weren’t personally racist, they were doing their job. Jones said this is not, and should not be, the case; Christians have a responsibility to combat injustices around them.

“The dilemma for white Christians is to really face the ways that Christianity has justified not just a personal sense of racism, but the setting up of institutions,” Jones said. “That is the habit of systemically perpetuated white supremacy, and limited Black equality.”

Buddhist Lama Rod Owens to map path forward via compassion


As a leader in the Buddhist tradition, Lama Rod Owens helps people come to terms with their trauma and cope with loss, so they can help others work through their own trauma. Through helping people help themselves and then others, his hope is to create a better world built on compassion.

He will give his lecture, titled “Compassion as the Way Forward,” at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25 in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Nine of the Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future.”

“I’m hoping that people really get a clear understanding of what Buddhism is,” Owens said. “Once we connect to our suffering and the suffering of others, we start actually generating this deep wish for all of us to be free from the suffering.”

Owens said he became interested in Buddhism and compassion when he left the Christian Church. He started meditating, studying philosophy, and making friends with Buddhists, and attended a three-year silent retreat at the Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery, outside of New York City, from 2008 to 2011.

“I was cloistered with three other men at their home at the monastery,” Owens said. “We spent over three years practicing together, meditating, chanting, studying and so forth.”

He is the author of, with Jasmine Syedullah and the Rev. angel Kyodo williams — herself a previous speaker for the Interfaith Lecture Series — Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation. After becoming an authorized Lama, or Buddhist teacher, in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, Owens also completed his Master of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.

He wants people to understand they cannot help reduce harm and violence from others without first helping themselves.

“I believe compassion is one of the strongest, if not the most important, thing that we can practice right now,” Owens said. “Compassion helps us to do really deep emotional labor for ourselves that helps us to take care of our despair, grief, anxiety, fear, anger.”

It was during his three-year silent retreat that Owens worked through his own pain and trauma, arriving at a place of forgiveness and compassion. Many people don’t know how to take care of themselves during, and after, traumatic experiences, and Owens said that creates tension in the world.

“I think this is why so many of us are feeling overwhelmed and depleted and shut down, as well,” Owens said. “Compassion essentially keeps our hearts open. It helps us stay connected to how we’re feeling, it helps us to understand how other people are feeling.”

Laura Limonic to examine historical struggles of assimilation


Immigration has been a part of society for centuries, and there’s always a sense of assimilation to navigate. Laura Limonic, author and professor of sociology at SUNY College at Old Westbury, addresses the struggles of Latin American Jewish immigration in the United States.

She will give her lecture, titled “Becoming Latinx Jews: An American Immigration Story,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24 in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Nine of the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future,” which is in partnership with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Limonic, the author of Kugel and Frijoles: Latino Jews in the United States, which won the 2020 Best Book in Latin American Jewish Studies, is going to focus on Latin American Jewish immigrants and their stories of assimilation through reconstructing ethnic religion. 

“I hope that people take away the idea that religion is in many ways bound,” Limonic said. “While it’s global, it’s very much bound to the location in which the people are found in. It’s influenced by the social and political and economic systems of the countries where religious groups are found.”

Her studies examine what happens to Latin American Jewish immigrants when they come to the United States and how they acclimate via religion.

“New immigrants participate in religious life and are both influenced by existing structures and also contribute to changing the nature of religious identity and religious organizations,” Limonic said. 

Originally from Argentina, Limonic said she also looks at the stories of her own family and thinks about how they navigated their way as Latin American Jews — and the identity struggle that it involved.

“I think that one of the outcomes that we are beginning to see is a return to religiosity, to high levels of religiosity as people become sort of disillusioned with the current state of the social and political system here in the United States — it’s also a way of belonging,” she said.

Historically, religious organizations have given immigrants a way to be a part of a community and retain, or regain, a sense of self.

“One of the reasons we have religious pluralism here in the United States, and so many religious groups have been able to thrive, is in many ways because of the separation of church and state,” Limonic said. “Nonetheless, we continue to be a highly racialized country.”

She said as religion is racialized, certain religions are part of a larger civil religion: the idea of one nation under God, but it isn’t always the same God. 

“I think that our racial history, our current racial system, and racist system, contributes to what is allowed under the separation of church and state and what’s allowed to be part of a larger civil religion,” Limonic said.

Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom founders Olitzky, Aftab to share interfaith work


Most, if not all, religions have some sort of scripture that says to treat others with kindness, or to welcome others with loving arms. This is also the case for people of different religions when engaging in interfaith dialogue.

Aftab and Olitzky

Atiya Aftab and Sheryl Olitzky co-founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in 2010 to build trust, respect and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women.

They will give their joint lecture, titled “Being the Change – A Leap of Faith,” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy to continue Week Eight of the Interfaith Lecture Series, “New Profiles in Courage.”

“There’s total confidence that by sharing my story, and Atiya sharing her story, and the many stories of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, we will be changing the level of ignorance,” Olitzky said. “We will be shedding new light on understanding and through that we will be changing the course.”

Their original mission is reflected in the work Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom currently does: “Having these conversations that are often difficult conversations about how people who seemingly may look or believe differently. … We have much more in common as the cliche goes,” Aftab said. “Despite whatever differences there are, we could work together for good.”

Olitzky, a Jewish woman, started her journey to interfaith discussion and support in what she calls an “a-ha” moment. She led a group of about 40 people to visit Auschwitz in Poland, and she asked the tour guide why everyone there looked the same — no people of color, no one wearing a headcovering and no one looking like they might be of a different race.

As they were about to park the bus, the guide said to her, “You’re right my dear. Poland is for the Poles. And by the way, you talked about a headcovering. If you’re referring to a headscarf, we don’t have a Muslim problem here because they’re not welcome.”

This was her “a-ha” moment, she said. She realized, while sitting at one of the “worst places on Earth,” that she could try to overcome these feelings of hate and ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Aftab, a Muslim woman, said her moment was different. Olitzky had reached out to her several times, wanting to discuss her desire to join forces through their respective faiths.

“I agreed to meet her and, to me, this shows the power of personality and the power of human relationships, that when we met for the first time, there was an instantaneous connection,” Aftab said.

Olitzky said she knew she had to do something to make sure hate directed at the Jews did not also happen to Muslims. She didn’t know very many Muslims in her community, and the few she did know, she did not have relationships with.

“Imagine what we could do with a small group of Muslim and Jewish women,” Olitzky said, “to really get to know each other and to work at changing that course of hate?”

Neither of them anticipated the size their organization would become. They started with 12 women; in 2022, they’re more than 1,000 strong.

Aftab said she didn’t initially feel the need for interfaith dialogue. She was on the board of her mosque for many years and felt the conversations were only surface-level effective.

“Leaders of the different religions would come in and talk about religion in a very academic, theological or generic fashion,” Aftab said. “I didn’t see the connection to the people who are in the room listening.”

Atfab and Olitzky wanted to regularly create experiences for people to join together, and cultivate a safe place to do so.

“They can have conversations that are meaningful to interfaith, asking difficult and awkward questions,” Aftab said. “Those are not necessarily things that can take place in an institutional setting.”

Olitzky said there are three things that can change the way people view each other. First: Bring people who are different together in order to create a shared objective.

“Everyone has some difference, even if you call yourself within the same religion,” Aftab said. “These are opportunities to have conversations that are challenging, and people can if they want to engage in that.”

Second, Aftab said, is to meet in safe places and meet in each other’s homes. Third, the work must  be consistent. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapters have met every month or every six weeks, for almost 13 years.

“If you do all three of those things, those two groups will view each other with trust and respect and (care),” Olitzky said. “The way they view each other is how they will view each other’s groups that they’re a part of.”

When people commit to creating relationships with those of different faiths, it helps create positive change. For Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, Olitzksy said that commitment can affect a Jewish woman’s view of a Muslim woman’s view, and vice versa.

“It’s not hard to be involved in this work,” Olitzky said. “It takes, in our case, one Muslim woman and one Jewish woman to change the entire world.”

Jewish studies scholar Rabbi Shaul Magid to examine tension of separating religion, politics


The relationship between culture, religion and spirituality are the cornerstones in Rabbi Shaul Magid’s belief of manifesting in the fullness of life. Magid, a distinguished fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, works to exemplify the advances and critiques made by the New Age Movement in the 1970s. He will be giving his lecture, titled “Can Religion Survive Spirituality? A View from Jewish Mysticism after the New Age,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, in the Hall of Philosophy.

He takes note from Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual, but not Religious as a guideline to how American counterculture was trying to criticize religion. The New Age Movement drove people in the latter part of the 20th century into the idea of being spiritual, but not religious.

“You can see this in unchurched Christians, the challenges of Jewish denominations and synagogue, the way it was moving away from religion, but not toward the secular as it was conventionally understood,” Magid said. 

Next, he wants to speculate how the last 20 to 25 years have been a sort of “return to religion,” in the mixing of politics and religion within Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

“I want to talk about a kind of trajectory of modernity from the kind of disenchantment of the world that’s called the sociologist maximum to kind of reinvent the world through the New Age,” Magid said. 

Magid said that while he doesn’t have any solutions to these trajectories he thinks are chipping away at religions, he hopes people begin to think creatively and carefully about culture, religion and spirituality.

“Hopefully, they come away feeling a sense of context and understanding a little bit about what these chips (in religion) are and where they come from,” Magid said. “Nothing is created from a plot, so the return to religion, the way we see it, in the rise of religious fundamentalism, it doesn’t come from nowhere. It has its own history.”

Religion has never been separate from politics, contrary to what some may think. Magid cited Islam spreading through the Islamic Conquest as an example. 

Magid said the modern world is trying to create more of a separation between church and state, which is breaking down American society.

“The danger’s really when religion starts to dominate the political sphere and curtails different kinds of movements or different kinds of progress within the society, and then begins to discriminate against those people who don’t hold those religious beliefs,” Magid said.

The tension that holds America together is the political sphere not wanting to erase religion, but to dominate it, Magid said, to be able to implement itself into society. He grew up as a secular Jew, but said Judaism really began to speak to him in his early 20s. 

Magid lived in Israel for a while and became a rabbi, then came back to America and decided to focus on an academic career tied to Judaism. His favorite thing is to watch younger students become open to the world and its ideas of humanity and religion, which he also hopes to do in his lecture. 

“The second thing would be really to unsettle the way that people think about these kinds of stories of meaning, because that’s really about the culture and religion,” Magid said. 

He said the job of a scholar is to unsettle some of the conventional notions of how people live their lives and the value systems they adopt.

“Part of what I find rewarding is created from the unsettling of those notions that … it’s very easy to be a pessimist about the world today for a variety of reasons, and there are very good reasons,” Magid said. “It’s those moments of watching people rethink what they thought or watching students become open to a world that they didn’t know existed.”

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