Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Deciphering the ‘American experiment’


Robert P. Jones delivered the closing presentation of the Week Nine theme of “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future: In Partnership with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” and the 2022 Interfaith Lecture Series, Friday afternoon in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.

Jones is president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, a leading scholar on religion, culture and politics and the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and The End of White Christian America. His lecture was titled “White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism and the Fragile Future of the American Experiment.”

Jones drew on the imagery of a tapestry to start his lecture. When the United States was founded, Americans “began the project of weaving together a democracy,” he said, but that project was embedded with the logic of white supremacy.

“Now, each generation, including ours, has the brief opportunity to run the shuttle across the loom, adding our weft threads to the whole,” Jones said. “The danger is that we will obliviously simply continue the flawed pattern. The problem is, particularly for those of us who think of ourselves as white and Christian, that the flaw is nearly impossible for us to see. Our cultural position in the country has simply rendered it nearly invisible. And over the last seven years, I’ve been trying to look more closely at that fabric, to see what I’ve been unable to see before, and in some cases, what I’ve been told isn’t there.”

Jones took his Lenna Hall audience through history, trends in public opinion, and many, many data points. It is difficult, and overwhelming, he said, to confront the atrocities of the past. But we have to.

“If we want to root out insidious white supremacy from institutions, religion, and psyches, we’ll have to move beyond the forgetfulness and silence that allowed it to flourish for so long,” he said.

Few white people, even well-meaning white people, realize or believe that they have a stake in racial reconciliation efforts, Jones said.

“The question today is whether we white Christians will also wake up to see what has happened to us and to grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our … ability to be in right relationship with our citizens, ourselves, and even with God,” he said. “Reckoning with white supremacy for us is now an unavoidable moral choice.”

It comes to down to our willingness to do “two basic, Christian things,” Jones said, drawing on James Baldwin and his work The Fire Next Time: to tell the whole truth and to love all our neighbors.

“If we can do this, we just might, in Baldwin’s words, end the racial nightmare, achieve our country, and change the history of the world — but only if we do our part, only if we pull that weft thread through for our generation in a different way. If we do that, generations from now will be able to do that and see the break in the pattern that allowed the promise of our country and our faith to finally be realized.”

Buddhist minister Lama Rod Owens speaks on showing compassion, love


Traditions are often passed down from generation to generation, but not every tradition is one that should be carried on. Through his work, Buddhist minister Lama Rod Owens helps individuals break through histories of trauma. 

“Many of us may descend from lineages and ancestors that have created a lot of suffering for people,” Owens said. “… (Through) the practice of compassion, we can begin to make decisions that our ancestors couldn’t make. We have more information now to make decisions that are based upon liberation.”

Thursday, Aug. 25 in the Hall of Philosophy, Owens gave his lecture, “Compassion as the Way Forward,” continuing Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future.” Owens is one of America’s leading Buddhist voices, and holds a master’s in Buddhist studies from Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger, and the co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.   

Owens started out his lecture by talking about what compassion means.

“So much of compassion is remembrance, but it is especially remembering the things that we don’t want to remember — the pain, the trauma and the suffering. That is the only way to practice compassion,” he said. “It’s remembering, going back and touching the pain — touching the things we have habitually run away — from saying, ‘here you are.’ ” 

Owens believes people must first develop compassion for themselves by taking steps to address their own traumas and histories. He said that many people go through their entire lives without ever acknowledging painful experiences, leading to a life cycle of problems. 

When a person fails to come to terms with their past experiences, it can have negative implications on their present and future lives. A person’s unresolved pain, trauma and suffering can lead them to unintentionally inflict harm on others. 

“The people who have hurt us the most are people themselves who are lost in their own suffering, and this is why they create harm for others — because they don’t know how to deal with it,” Owens said. “… We have been violent people. We have said and done things that have created harm and violence. We have done so because we have not known how to hold and tend to the pain we are experiencing. We have said things because we did not know how to deal with the discomfort, so we reacted to it.” 

Although recognizing trauma is one of the very first steps in coming to terms with it, Owens said that acknowledgment is not enough for a person to heal. In order to recover from trauma, a person must be willing to work through it. 

“We have to go back and begin to embrace the profound path of compassion, which is more than just remembering,” he said. “Compassion is more than just experiencing discomfort; it’s also about developing a wish to disrupt the suffering.”

Owens believes that individuals need to make an effort to free themselves from the pain, which can prove to be challenging and uncomfortable. Confrontation, he said, becomes especially difficult when a person becomes accustomed to living in a state of suffering, as it can become their whole identity. 

“It is so hard to want freedom from suffering when we are so self-identified with it,” Owens said. “We say, ‘This is who I am. I cannot not do anything differently. I cannot transcend the trauma. I cannot transcend this brokenheartedness or sadness. I cannot do anything else. This is who I am.’ ” 

Owens believes that a person does not have to let the past define or inhibit their future. By shifting their mindset, they can overcome past traumas. 

He defines the first stage of compassion as being committed and determined to overcoming one’s suffering. Owens emphasized that acknowledging our own suffering is not enough; we need to think about others’ pain, as well. 

“Compassion means first that I acknowledge that there is suffering,” Owens said. “(And then) that I connect my wish that all beings are free from suffering. I want all beings to be free from suffering because I want to be free from suffering.”

Once an individual transcends their trauma, he said that compassion can further galvanize them to become an “agent of liberation” who can help others around them to break free. 

“What compassion demands of us is to remember that we are not the only ones whose hearts are breaking,” Owens said. “We’re not the only ones who are running away from the pain. We are almost a community of beings trying to be happy, but also trying to do something about the suffering. We are not alone.” 

The second stage of compassion recognizes the notion that suffering is universal, an inevitable occurrence that everyone in the world is fighting.

“The second stage of compassion is actually beginning to understand that others want to be free, too,” he said. “Maybe the people we dislike the most are people that are struggling with suffering, who are making decisions based upon reactivity to their suffering. Maybe they want something different, but they don’t know how to do it yet.” 

Owens’ beliefs and philosophies regarding compassion are deeply inspired by his Buddhist background. In the Buddhist religion, he said that there is a code that calls for every living thing to be free. 

“All beings, humans, animals, spirits and ancestors — everything must be freed,” he said. “… I, and all beings, … must be freed. This is the first stage of compassion. Unfortunately, so many of us stop there. It feels great in our minds to want people to be free, but in Buddhism what we are being called to do is to awaken compassion … to evolve compassion. Not just from aspiration, but into action.”

Owens believes that compassion has to eventually translate into action to attain freedom. When a person starts acting, he said that they are no longer choosing the path of comfort. They are going outside of their comfort to voluntarily put themselves at risk. He listed examples of spiritual leaders who have each shown compassion through not only words, but action. 

“I think of Jesus who gave life so we may be free. I think about Buddha, who achieved awakening and enlightenment, so that we may have a path towards awakening that is transcendence through suffering,” he said. “There have been great beings who have come to show us what it means to be actively engaged in the liberation of all beings.” 

Owens acknowledges that it can be difficult to be compassionate, especially to those who may have hurt us. When we have been emotionally wounded by someone else’s actions, our immediate and instinctive reaction is often to harm them out of spite and retaliation. In addition, it can lead to distrust and skepticism. Owens believes it’s imperative to lead those who have wronged us into the right direction. 

“Some of us are making the opposite decision of freedom,” he said. “… (But) how can (we) look at someone and say … ‘I still love you and I want you to be free and I don’t want you or anyone to suffer as much as I did’? That’s how we begin to transfer attitudes and (come to the realization) that this is not about you hurting as much as you hurt me. This is about all of us trying to get free.” 

Owens believes that love can grow out of compassion. He encouraged Chautauquans to continue to hold space in their hearts for all individuals. By acknowledging each others’ suffering and taking action, people can transition individual traumas and judgements into shared understanding and cooperation. 

“I think one of the most violent things we can do is label anyone ‘evil.’ Once you label someone evil, you just give up on them,” Owens said. “Instead, can people become complex? Can people have histories that may predate your interaction with them? … Can we enter into the world of curiosity and wonder about people?”

Owens believes there is a lot of power in the action of changing. 

“If we begin to change and other people are changing, then the world changes and there is space in the world again,” he said.

Sociologist Laura Limonic discusses Latinx Jews, stories of immigration


Laura Limonic began her lecture with a simple declaration: “Today,” she said, “I’m going to talk about Jews.”

“Specifically, Latino or Latinx Jewish immigrants in the United States,” said Limonic, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY College at Old Westbury. “Before you wonder for too long, there are not that many of them. There’s about 180,000 to 200,000. It’s a tiny fraction of the Jewish population.”

Then again, Limonic said, American Jews themselves constitute a “tiny part” — about 1.9% — of the larger U.S. population.

“Nevertheless, I study them,” she said. “I am one of them. So if their numbers are so small, why do we study them? Why do we, as I did, write a whole book on them? In part, the reason is personal, and I’m going to talk a little bit about my background today. But I’m not a memoirist; I’m a sociologist.”

Limonic said that her studies in sociology revolve around how the social world is connected, how people find community and, ultimately, how culture is built and transmitted through race, ethnicity and religion.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24 in the Hall of Philosophy, Limonic, author of Kugel and Frijoles: Latino Jews in the United States, continued the Chautauqua Interfaith Lecture Series Week Nine theme, “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future,” with her lecture, “Becoming Latinx Jews: An American Immigration Story.”

Dave munch / photo editor Limonic, who is also the author of Kugel and Frijoles: Latino Jews in the United States, gives her lecture, titled “Becoming Latinx Jews: An American Immigration Story.”

“Back to Latino Jews: What can the experiences of this group tell us about the social world?” she said. “In particular, what can they tell us about religion and ethnicity as building blocks for integration among immigrants, here in the United States?”

Limonic said she wanted to begin her lecture by telling a story about her family that she said “illustrates some of the topics I’d like to cover.”

“In 1980, Argentina was in the midst of a brutal dictatorship,” she said. “People were disappeared, thousands of people fled, people went into hiding and exile. My parents said, ‘Maybe this is a good time to leave. Let’s go to the U.S. It’ll be an adventure.’ Many decades later, here we are. They thought it would be an adventure for a few years, but alas, they liked it.”

When Limonic’s family arrived in Boston, none of them spoke English aside from a few choice phrases.

“We employed phrases like ‘I don’t understand,’ or ‘What a pity,’ ” she said. “But my dad used these phrases at every turn: at the grocery store, the pizza place, whenever someone turned up at the door. My father and mother spoke Hebrew and Yiddish fluently, had a few words of Italian and some Arabic, but zero English. Yet somehow, my dad was confident that he would make do.”

Limonic’s father enrolled in a master’s program in Jewish studies at Brandeis University, and had “naively assumed that his lack of English would be compensated by his Hebrew proficiency.”

“It was not,” she said. “It was not because unlike in Argentina, where learning and speaking Hebrew was akin to being a good Zionist, and in Argentine terms, a good Jew. This was not necessarily the case in the United States.”

What made someone a “good Jew” in Argentina just didn’t translate to the U.S., Limonic said.

“While my dad spoke and speaks Hebrew, many of his classmates didn’t,” she said. “He was also amiss in other key Jewish American areas: for example, the Kosher norms of brown bag lunches. On his first day of his internship, he brought his brown bag lunch. He had a little Diet Coke and a sandwich and a piece of fruit, and he was going to his internship.”

When he got there, Limonic said her dad realized he had brought a ham sandwich — something strictly prohibited by Kosher dietary restrictions. 

“After someone called him out on this, he never brought ham again to the internship,” she said. “I tell these stories not only because they’re anecdotes into our lives as immigrants, but also because they point to the micro factors that, along with language, food, behavior, dress, accents, norms and values, defines culture.”

Latinx Jews bring with them a strong sense of cultural and communal Jewish life, and have “redefined what it means to be an American Jew,” Limonic said.

“I think Miami is the perfect example of this,” she said. “Latino Jews are American Jews now, particularly in places like Miami. And this is the story of immigration: to adapt, but to also change the place where you land. It is also the story of religious institutions and religious spaces, to serve as places for immigrants to find a sense of home, community and fellowship, while also allowing immigrants to influence religious life and community.”

Howard Divinity Dean Yolanda Pierce calls for new religious rhetoric


Yolanda Pierce grew up reading Scripture in the pews of a Pentecostal church. And yet, she believes that faith is more than simply reading text on a page — it’s about taking conscious actions and steps to bring those words to life. 

“We have all the resources we already need to solve problems in the world; we lack the will to do so,” Pierce said. “Our divine imagination helps us create, imagine and call forth a different world than the one in which we currently live. The (gifts) that God has given to us are shared, so that all in fact may live.” 

Tuesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy, Pierce gave her lecture on “A Grammar for Racial Justice: How Religious Talk Can Save The World,” continuing Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future.” Pierce is professor and dean of the Howard University School of Divinity, and the founding director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History.  

Pierce began her career as an English teacher but then took a completely different course. After receiving an undergraduate degree in teaching, she attended graduate school at Cornell University, where she studied to be a theologian and earned her doctorate in philosophy. 

Pierce said that in her brief time as an English educator, she learned a valuable lesson. 

“Teaching was not for me; I ended up learning more lessons than the students,” she said. “One of the things that I learned is how important vocabulary is.” 

Pierce turned the Hall of Philosophy into her classroom, introducing Chautauquans to three religious vocabulary words: soteriology, eschatology and ecclesiology.

She started with Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The verse centers on what God, in the Christian Bible, asks of humanity. 

“The commandment that God has given his people at Micah 6:8 is not a suggestion,” Pierce said. “… It’s what God requires of you: to act justly, to love mercy. These are verbs and actions, words, things that we each must do.” 

Pierce believes that racial equality must be included in the definition of justice. 

“The words I am going to give you today, you probably already know well,” Pierce said. “For me, at the center of this (pursuit of justice) is what we call racial injustice. All other forms of justice are tied into the confines of how we do racial justice.” 

Racial inequalities are pervasive in U.S. society, yet many people fail to recognize that these injustices exist, because they are solely focused on their own experiences. Pierce described the nation as becoming increasingly racialized. 

Dave munch / photo editor Pierce’s lecture was titled “A Grammar for Racial Justice: How Religious Talk Can Save The World.”

“Whether you have access to clear, clean water or whether or not your water is tainted with lead, that is a racial issue. It is also an environmental issue,” she said. “But environmental  justice issues are racial issues. The air we breathe is a racial justice. Whether or not they will locate the next toxic waste dump in your community … that is a racial justice issue.” 

Beyond environmental issues, Pierce pointed out how maternal mortality disproportionately affects Black women, who are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women are.

Pierce said faith has become a perpetrator and source of inequality. She discussed how religious institutions, many of which were founded on the ideals of unity, communion and acceptance, are further contributing to social tensions and racial divisions.  

Pierce strives to solve these problems. She said the central inquiry that informs her mission and work is, how can she achieve God’s justice on Earth, helping to make it a better place for all of inhabitants?

She asked Chautauquans to consider a list of different questions. One of the main questions Pierce proposed dealt with how society can make faith accessible and welcoming to those at the “undersides of communities,” she said. Pierce encouraged Chautauquans to consider how they can open up their own religious spaces and environments to traditionally excluded, marginalized and disenfranchised communities.

While Pierce firmly believes in the importance of helping others, she acknowledges that not everyone shares that sentiment. The first religious vocabulary word she introduced was soteriology, defined as a doctrine of salvation for people to follow on Earth. Traditional understandings of this concept, Pierce said, are flawed and have potentially problematic implications. 

Through the pursuit of one’s own soteriology, or salvation, an individual can easily become self-centered, leading them to forget about their responsibility as Earthly residents to help and assist others. 

“For the Christian community, soteriology is the very fundamental question that so many Biblical characters (pondered),” Pierce said. “… In the Christian tradition, it is about salvation. But I want to express to you that the ways in which to deploy this are far too individualistic and hierarchical. ‘What must I do to be saved?’ positions the ‘I’ as the object of salvation.” 

Instead of thinking about what they can do to save their souls from Earthly confines, Pierce encouraged Chautauquans to live in the moment and to think about what they can do now to help make the planet a safer place for everyone.  

“A racial grammar can help save the world if we pose a different question,” Pierce said. “I would like individuals to ask the question: ‘What must I do to be safe?’ … (Safety) is not a word that only applies to an individual. Can you imagine if we asked what we must do in order to make entire communities? There is a way in which we employ ancient (religious) vocabulary to do the work of unfortunately being individualistic saviors.” 

Instead of working as individuals, Pierce believes that society needs to work together to make social changes, to transition from being a self-centered circle to one of unity. 

Many groups have not been openly welcomed into sacred environments, causing them to become disillusioned with religion. While sacred spaces have been sources of healing and renewal for some, they have become unsafe environments of exclusion for many, including women, African Americans  and members of the LGBTQ community. 

“For some of us, our religious spaces have been places of safety and salvation. They have literally been saving places,” Pierce said. “But there are so many people who have been wounded in these same spaces. The thing that saved us, that sanctuary for us, for others has been a space of condemnation.” 

Instead of using religion as a weapon, Pierce believes it should be used as a tool to rebuild for people who have become broken into pieces by man-made prejudices like racial inequality, gender discrimination and homophobia. 

Pierce’s second religious vocabulary word was eschatology, which focuses on notions of life beyond death. In Christian theology, it is the question of what happens to a person after they finish their Earthly course — do they go to purgatory, hell or heaven? Traditional understandings of this ideology are incomplete, Pierce said, because they often cause individuals to focus on life after Earth, rather than life on Earth. Eschatology, however, is not merely about waiting for divine salvation — it’s about attempting to make changes in the present moment. 

“I think our eschatological hopes are too narrow,” Pierce said. “The ancient language of our faith eschatology asks, ‘Where do we go when we die?’ I want to provide you with an alternative eschatology. In this, I want you to ask, ‘Can I live?’ …  I want to think about (the question) in terms of racial justice. … What kind of world do we want to see on Earth as we might one day want to see in heaven?” 

Lastly, Pierce discussed ecclesiology, the study of church communities. Pierce finds dissonance in this definition. 

“But ecclesiology, if it is in fact to be connected to this work of racial justice, has also to be the study of how the spaces that are supposed to heal us have harmed us and perpetuated the worst of racial stereotypes,”  Pierce said. “And perhaps even worse than that, our sacred spaces have been places of silence.”

Pierce emphasized the silence that is sometimes condoned by religious institutions. 

“When the questions of life, when the harshness of this nation and this world, when the brutalities and the murders and the wars and the abuse are being committed, sometimes we have been silent. I want an ecclesiology that grapples with our personal histories and our equally (important) history, so that we can interrogate and dismantle the active and passive harm that we sometimes do by being silent.” 

Pierce wants every community to have a voice in religious spaces, and hopes to lead a “resurrection of faith.”  

“The work of taking the grammar of our faith, and sitting with the commandment we have in Micah … is the exciting part of the work that we get to do,” Pierce said. “… But it is only meaningful if, at the end of what we do, people’s lives are being changed, impacted and transformed. We have grammar, we have language, we have Scripture, we have tenets, we have creeds. But they are meaningless unless you are in fact the hands and the feet of God for the work of justice.” 

Interfaith America founder Eboo Patel discusses celebrating, embracing religious diversity with ‘American potluck’


In modern society, many people have become fearful that increasing diversity is threatening their own personal identity. Eboo Patel, however, believes that diversity is not a game of musical chairs; rather, there are enough seats at America’s table for everyone, showing that when different identities work together they can create a circle of unity. 

“Diversity should be fun, but some people don’t want it to be,” he said. “We should enjoy learning about each other … trying each other’s dishes … hearing each other’s stories, … sharing our own heritage — that ought to be a circle of distinctive pride and strengths.” 

Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, Patel opened Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future,” with his lecture “Potluck Nation.” Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America, a leading multi-religious organization in the United States, which works to promote religious diversity and unity. 

He is a staunch advocate for interfaith cooperation. Patel received his doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, previously served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, and has written several books and numerous articles on faith-related themes. His latest book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, discusses how Americans need to join forces as architects of the future to construct a more diverse and inclusive society. 

America is a country that was founded on what Patel refers to as the grounds and rivers of religious diversity. He referenced how in the 1600s, the pilgrims first traveled to the Americas in pursuit of the ideal of religious freedom, and separation from the Roman Catholic Church, eventually leading to the formation of the United States in the late 1700s. He then transitioned into talking about how even though the Founding Fathers of America arguably made questionable decisions, they ultimately sought out ways to protect religious freedom through their actions, providing Americans with something positive to learn from them.

“I want to begin with these names familiar to us all — Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and the other European Founders of the 1776 generation — the men who, as the saying goes, put the furniture in the room,” he said. “In many dimensions of identity, we all know that they made mistakes and even committed sins, but with respect to religious diversity and identity, they came close to getting it right.” 

Patel explained how each early leader, in their own way, sought to protect and promote religious tolerance, offering Chautauquans a more altruistic perspective of the Founding Fathers. 

“George Washington told a Jewish leader that the United States would give bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance — that the children of the stock of Abraham would be free to sit under their own vine and fig, and there should be none to make them afraid,” he said. “… John Adams signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with a Muslim nation. Benjamin Franklin, who made personal donations to every established religious group in his city of Philadelphia, and helped build a hall in the city, declaring that the city should be open to preachers of any persuasion. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote laws that allowed for freedom of religion, and prevented a government-established church, creating the architecture for the world’s first mass-level religious democracy.” 

Patel said America is now entering a new path in its religious geography that is changing the trajectory of its waters of diversity, which he refers to as “a bend in the river.” In recent decades, U.S. religious diversity significantly increased, altering the country’s once-majority Jewish and Christian demographics.

Sean Smith / staff photographer Patel’s lecture was titled “Potluck Nation,” and he used the analogy to urge Chautauquans to welcome everyone to the table, with unique flavors, spices and dishes making up a distinctly American meal.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, at time when anti-Semitsim, anti-Blackness and anti-Catholicism were all prevailing sentiments and percolating attitudes in the world, Patel said a group of multi-religious leaders — made up mainly of Catholics, Protestants and Jews — came together to form The National Conference for Christians and Jews, now known as the National Conference for Community and Justice. At its outset, the organization sought to facilitate dialogue and discussion, mainly between Christians and Jews, and to help combat religious intolerance. 

“The notion (behind the formation of the National Conference) was that this country wasn’t going to exclude the contributions or violate the dignity of its religious minorities anymore,” Patel said. “Back then, the religious minorities with any kind of footing at the time were Jews and Catholics, so that’s where the group focused its attention at the time. They sent dialogues around the country to establish Jewish-Catholic-Protestant roundtables in communities from coast to coast. They gave presentations on the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. … They made up the title to the next great chapter in the story of American religion.” 

Now, in the 21st century, Patel said that America is once again writing a new chapter in its religious history book, a chapter of widespread religious diversity. 

“Every river bends at some point, every page turns,” he said. “Dusk falls on even the most important of moments and eras.” 

Patel went on to explain, with supportive data, just how religiously diverse America is becoming. He said that there are currently about 4 million Lutherans of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and around 4 million U.S. Muslims, which many people don’t realize. Through his work with Interfaith America, Patel is working to raise awareness of this diversification. 

“The job of my organization is to tell the story of Interfaith America to a nation that does not yet know … its future (and current reality),” he said. “We are helping the country live into that possibility. We are proud to have Chautauqua join us on that journey.” 

America has often been referred to as a melting pot of cultures, but Patel believes this term has potentially harmful implications for understanding contemporary diversity. 

“The melting pot is the idea that we don’t have distinctive identities, and that the only way (individuals in) a diverse nation can get along is if people melt their identities — because what else do people with distinctive identities do but fight?” he said. 

In a melting pot society, individuals are forced to compromise their own individual values and personal beliefs to conform with those from more dominant cultures, ultimately discouraging diversity and often leading to assimilation and hegemony. Patel shared a personal story from his own experiences growing up as Muslim-American. 

As a young child, his mother would ask him every year what main Thanksgiving dinner dish he wanted. He was tasked with deciding between turkey, a more American food, and biryani, a traditional Muslim mixed-rice dish. He said that he eventually acquired a palate that preferred turkey, and, for fear of standing out as different, he would often hide the fact that he ever ate biryani with his holiday dinner from his peers at school

“Can you guess how many kids at school I told that we ate biryani? Zero. And that’s the melting pot — you don’t talk about your distinctiveness,” he said. “Do you know what the feast food of the actual first Thanksgiving was? It was deer, it was venison. … As you have a multicultural nation, the feast foods are going to change. That’s the melting pot variety of American diversity.”

Patel described America’s current social climate as a battleground, where people are often self-absorbed and fight over who is the most oppressed group, forgetting to think about what others around them may be feeling and experiencing. 

 “Right now, we’re living in a dangerous situation. The battleground metaphor is where we only talk about our own wounds and we seek to wound other people,” he said. “I just think that with that metaphor … civilization doesn’t go very far.” 

Instead of viewing America as a melting pot, where certain flavors of identity and spices of diversity can overpower others, he encouraged Chautauquans to rather think of diversity as a potluck, where everyone’s uniqueness should be embraced, welcomed and celebrated. Unlike in a melting pot or on a battleground, in a potluck society, everyone is equally valued.  

“Think about this for a second: The only way that you can have a potluck is if people (each) bring a dish and contribute. If everybody is from the same region and ethnoreligious group, you’re going to have a lot of casseroles or a lot of biryani,” Patel said. “As much as I like that — and the occasional casserole — I don’t want an overwhelming amount of either. I want a variety. A potluck is best when you have the distinct contributions of diverse groups of people.” 

Patel used this analogy to show how he believes diversity should be embraced in America, and why he prefers to use potluck imagery.

At a potluck, everyone is expected to bring a dish to pass around, to be an active contributor. He compared this to how everyone’s distinctly unique background, identity and heritage has the potential to enrich American life and society. Divisive forces, however, are currently attempting to threaten diversity; yet Patel believes that these barriers do not have to inhibit an individual’s agency and freedoms. 

“I love the potluck metaphor … because it assumes that everyone is a contributor. It does not label people with terms like ‘oppressed’ and ‘marginalized,’ ” he said. “It recognizes that there are barriers to people’s contributions, and it knows that those barriers — racism, bigotry and homophobia — are stupid (because) they make the potluck less delicious. I mean that in a very concrete way. …. If you are hosting a potluck, you assume that everyone is a contributor. What a wonderful assumption about your community, that everyone is a contributor.” 

The analogy of a potluck recognizes the potential of diversity to facilitate dialogue and curiosity, leading to cultural diffusion and the formation of new cultural identities. Patel said different identities do not have to be in conflict — they can instead complement one another by bringing out each other’s best characteristics and unique qualities. 

“A potluck, when it runs right, is a place that facilitates interesting conversation and creative combinations. It’s when someone’s crusty bread recipe from Eastern Europe goes well with someone else’s spicy dip from the Middle East,” he said. “It’s when the story of a spiritual seeker inspires a Shia Muslim to share something of her story. That’s the space and the architecture. (At a potluck), it’s not just the individual dishes, it’s how they mix and recreate (new dishes).” 

Finally, at a potluck, diversity is often viewed positively.

“I love potlucks, because most of the time we focus on what could go right,” he said. “If you focus on what could go wrong, no one would ever have a potluck. … When you think about diversity, you maximize what is right. Most people want to get along … to learn from others who are different … to share a relevant and useful part of their story … for their identity to be a bridge of cooperation and not of division.” 

Patel closed by saying that a potluck is not possible without a gracious, warm and hospitable host. He encouraged Chautauquans to invite diversity into their own spaces, helping to ensure that every identity has a place at the American table. 

“I want you to keep this metaphor of the potluck nation in mind as you continue your time here at Chautauqua, and as you consider this country — what might be the most rapidly diversifying country in human history … and religiously devout country in the Western hemisphere,” he said. “You can bring a dish to the American potluck, and can invite people to join. … You can help nudge the nation more towards what it might be. Not a melting pot, a battlefield, but a potluck where everyone is invited and valued, where our best dishes are made better by other people’s dishes, where we become more fully ourselves in relationship to others and service to everyone.” 

In closing week, Sr. Joan Chittister details how to live courageous, prophetic life


The world is filled with challenges, obstacles and problems that could lead to the demise of humanity. Yet, instead of rising up against the forces that contribute to the suffering of the Earth and humanity, people are wilting under the pressure and falling silent. 

Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, international lecturer and award-winning author of over 40 books, visited Chautauqua to deliver her message of fighting with courage by living a true prophetic life.

Closing Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series of “New Profiles in Courage,” Chittister delivered her lecture, titled “The Time is Now,” on Friday, Aug. 19 in the Hall of Philosophy. 

“I was with you last week. I got called before Salman Rushdie was off the stage. I cried with you then, too,” Chittister said. “… So I want to talk to you today about the Judeo-Christian place in a violent world.”

Chittister discussed what will save humanity amid its decline into the void of violence. She believes the changes people often avoid end up coming back to bring trouble and doom. Rather than retreating from change, people must learn to embrace and confront it head-on through spiritual renewal and social reform. 

Capitalism leaves most Americans poor and many unable to access basic human necessities, and this is not a natural or just way of life. 

Sean Smith / staff photographer Chittister’s lecture was titled “The Time is Now: A Call for Uncommon Courage.”

“No matter how hard we try, there are forces out there that are working consciously against life-saving cultural change … for the sake of personal profit. And the casual dismissal … for the care of the Earth (is) for the sake of money,” Chittister said. “Under it all lies the increasing concentration of politicians to secure their seats for years, rather than secure the future of the country now.”

Beyond this, Chittister argued that politics have become a battleground of insults and ignominy. She has come to the realization that it’s not about what humanity knows, but what they do to leave the path of destruction that it is speeding along. 

Important Judeo-Christian ideals have been abandoned, Chittister said, as people only see Jesus as Jesus the Healer, which is only half of the story. As people look to feel pure and righteous, the model of Jesus the Prophet is often ignored. 

“(Jesus the Prophet) is the Jesus who spoke justice, as well as mercy,” Chittister said. “… We live in a largely Judeo-Christian culture that accepts half of what it means … to follow Jesus. … The half that makes us feel so upright, so satisfied with ourselves.”

Rather than looking to Jesus to bring healing, people must stand up against injustice as they follow His path. It is Chittister’s belief that humanity has “ignored prophetic spirituality totally.” 

Instead, people are taught to be nice, yet being kind is not the same as being good. Sometimes, being nice can equate to not speaking up in fear of being brash or rude, and this leaves the truth hidden, Chittister said; unasked questions are left unanswered, particularly in the church. 

“Now we have seen (the church) being more intent on hiding church scandals of sexual abuse than being willing to explore new theological questions, … surely all of which would stir the hearts of the church rather than cement it in the past,” Chittister said. 

Pointing out the issues of the church, ranging from homophobia, sexism and protection of pedophile clerics, Chittister said too often Christians do not speak out on these issues. 

“I have heard too many Christians, of multiple denominations, go silent in the face of this moral, ecclesiastical, governmental and social collapse around us,” Chittister said. “While their churches are nice to nice people, (they are) never really good in being outspoken for the speechless in a world with no words for them.”

Chittister believes the choices people make now will not only affect the future of the church or America, but also the world at large and its inhabitability. While people tend to find a way to push off their own accountability to solve these problems, Chittister warns that pushing these issues will not stop them from existing, but rather prolong their damage.

People also tend to accept their defeat and become even quieter than the deafening, roaring silence.

“This second choice is a decision to crawl into a comfortable cave with nice people and become a church, a culture, a society within a society, but without a soul,” Chittister said.

Chittister said people can “refuse to accept the souring status quo.”

While CEOs’ wages have increased 940% between 1978 and 2018, employee wages have only increased 12% during the same time period. Yet, no one seems to be up in arms about this drastic inequality.

“It is a population of serfs left adrift in a declining democracy,” Chittister said. “… Do we realize that every single time we allow another minimum wage to go by instead of a living wage, and we never speak out for our neighbors or the people on the other side of the hill, that we too are part of the violence because we’re supporting the violence?”

Religion has taught people that all they need to do is work harder, but this allows for the dismissal of those who are suffering by believing they aren’t working as hard. 

Straddling the line between universal compassion and national self-centeredness, humanity must put in the work to flip the script. The world is waiting for voices to stand up and bring back spiritual sanity. 

The biblical prophets are just like all humans, as Chittister explained they had their own businesses, families and lives. They too used any argument they could find to sit back and deny the call of action. While these prophets are now gone, the only people left to undo this damage are everyday people.

“Now there’s only you and I who can bring God’s will to these things in the here and now, to warn this world of the poisoning of the land and the pollution of the water and the sinful disinterest of the powerless ones, the ones that we leave behind in nothingness,” Chittister said.

To be a prophet, people need to look out for those who society has forgotten, and they must speak out against the conditions that allow the suffering of the forgotten.

“I don’t mean to sound as if it’s easy. It’s not,” Chittister said. “Withdrawal in the name of religion is so much easier than participating in the public confession of conscience. … The fact is that life without the prophetic spirit in you, will come in this country to be lifelessness without a name.”

Rather than relying on others’ beliefs, Chittister encourages people to speak on their own ideas without fear of being unqualified; everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard.

“The prophet’s willingness to broach topics that institutions do not want to hear is the mark of an honest society. The prophet unmasks what is already here but smoldering,” Chittister said. “And the fact is … what we let go, never goes by. It’s there, and it will work against you.”

Throughout history, “simple people” have reshaped the world through speaking up. But until one’s heart is changed, nothing will be changed. The intentions of true, positive change must hold up, or things will continue to stay as they are. 

But prophets do not aim to be successful in their own right. Rather, as Chittister explained, their goals are to make life better without quitting when the going gets tough. They must sustain themselves and their goals.

Providing four tips on how to be a profound prophet, Chittister first said one must have a serious spiritual life. This does not mean one must go to church every Sunday, but instead, must speak the truth of their hearts 

“Second, the prophet must understand that we are just simply links in the global chain of God’s will for the world,” Chittister said. “We’re not expecting to win, but we are committed to try.”

Cultivating deep prophetic relationships with people that can support them and their mission is Chittister’s third tip, as a prophetic life is filled with challenges. 

“The real prophet needs the time and the distance to live a distinctly other, separate life of love and laughter that is not full of politics and frustration,” she said. “… What you have to do is see that there is a part of your life that you don’t let slip, that you follow the prophetic word (while) you bring joy and good life.”

Lastly, Chittister said a prophet must risk rejection and ridicule as they answer the uncommon, courageous call to raise difficult questions and new ideas. 

“If they stand their ground long enough, they will become the brave and the bold (and) take us beyond yesterday to the horizon,” Chittister said.

Old answers will not save humanity. Instead, people must think toward the development of the future. Time will change nothing, but people’s opinions and voices will.

“The prophets of religion must go on raising their cry to welcome the unfettered exploration of the human mind that will lead to the opening of the human soul to the will of God everywhere,” Chittister said. “… To all of you, who do not realize who you are, you are the prophets of our time. … You are the only sound of the voice of God that anybody might hear. … So speak truth. Please speak justice. Please speak life.”

Robert P. George discusses causes, cures of campus illiberalism


Historically, universities have insulated freedom of thought and expression, allowing new ideas to flourish. But Robert P. George, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program, argues that a dangerous and potent form of illiberalism is on the rise across universities.

On Thursday, Aug. 18 in the Hall of Philosophy, George delivered his lecture, titled “What Causes – And What Might Cure Campus Illiberalism?” His presentation served as a continuation of Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “New Profiles in Courage.”

“I would like to begin by quoting Salman Rushdie, to whom I dedicate my talk and for whose swift recovery I pray. His words are a perfect epigram for my message today,” George said. “He said, and I quote, ‘The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.’ ”

While higher education is meant to facilitate critical thinking and the broadening of perspectives, George spoke on the rise of illiberalism in education. He said universities dedicated to providing a liberal arts education should have three fundamental purposes: the pursuit of truth, preservation of knowledge and transmission of knowledge. 

“Now, a grave threat to the pursuit of these three defining purposes today is posed by the politicization of the academy,” George said. “The problem is most vividly manifest in the phenomenon of campus illiberalism — by that I mean the unwillingness of so many members of university communities, often faculty as well as students, to entertain or even listen to arguments that challenge opinions they hold.”

These arguments can involve a variety of topics, including affirmative action, immigration, climate change and abortion, among others. Yet academics who voice their dissenting views tend to face the threat of cancelation.

Providing an example from 2021, George discussed eminent geophysicist Dorian Abbot from the University of Chicago. Abbot was invited to deliver a distinguished honorific lecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on how scientists research the climates of extrasolar planets. 

Abbot had previously published an article with a Stanford physics colleague that criticized hiring and promotional preferences of some groups in the sciences. The article argued that scientific achievement and promise should be the only criteria involved in the hiring process, which led to public outcry.

“In eight days, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the greatest science and math university in the world, folded and canceled Dorian Abbot’s lecture,” George said.

In response, George invited Abbot to deliver his lecture on the same day and time as it was scheduled at MIT, but instead at Princeton. 

Other incidents prompt worse reactions than event  cancelations, such as interruption of lectures and presentations, and even death threats and violent assaults. 

“Many institutions, colleges and universities throughout the country are subverting the transmission of knowledge … by failing to ensure that their students at every level are confronted with, and have the opportunity to, consider the best that is to be said, on competing sides of all the questions that are in dispute, among reasonable people of goodwill,” George said. 

People live in a pluralistic society with differing beliefs and ideologies, and George believes, in order to learn and grow, they must be prepared to listen to those who think differently. Universities must consider the best arguments of competing ideas. 

“But, so often today in academia, prevailing opinions are permitted to harden into dogmas,” George said. “Dogmas that go largely unchallenged (leave) students with the entirely false belief … that all ‘right thinking people’ think a certain way.”

The phenomenon of groupthink, when a group’s longing for conformity overrides critical reasoning, allows illiberalism to flourish. A liberal arts education, according to George, is supposed to teach students how to counter groupthink through promoting the virtues of open-mindedness, liberty of thought and discussion, intellectual humility and truth-seeking. 

“We have to understand … that we can be wrong because we are fallible, not merely on the trivial, superficial, minor matters in life, but we can be wrong about the big, great, profound, important matters,” George said. “That recognition of our fallibility gives us a conclusive reason to be willing to listen to people who disagree, to be willing to be criticized. … It gives us a conclusive reason to avoid groupthink like the plague, and it’s the task of colleges and universities … to expose students to the competing arguments … and to help students to acquire those virtues.”

Higher education, George said, must provide students with ways to recognize and overcome groupthink, as “their ignorance of the arguments of intelligent dissenters will prevent them from understanding the truth as deeply as they should.”

All people, even great thinkers, have fallen into their fallibility, occasionally finding themselves in the wrong, George said; students must be taught to confront this fallibility through critical thinking, and professors must work to lead a path to truth-seeking.

During Yom Kippur, which means “day of atonement,” a confession of sins is a key part of the ceremony. One of the confessions includes stating when one has been a zealot for bad causes, which is not a deliberate sin. 

“Nobody sets out to be a zealot for bad causes, but the great wisdom of the Jewish tradition there is that we can end up being a zealot for a bad cause, all the while thinking we’re being a zealot for a good cause. Why? Because of our fallibility,” George said. 

When one’s errors are exposed by someone else, people often feel anger or embarrassment. George argued that the exposer should not be seen as an enemy, but rather as a friend.  

“How do you figure out which (beliefs) are untrue … if you put up a wall (and) won’t allow yourself to be challenged?” George asked. “… The person who corrects our mistakes does us the very best service.”

It is easy to slip into groupthink, but it is very difficult to recognize when one is conforming to the ideas of those around them. There are obvious signs at the university level when people of dissenting views are silenced, turned away or attacked, but there are also more subtle signs that are often missed, George said. To avoid this, he believes universities should be intentional about having a variety of opinions present on their campuses.

“Viewpoint diversity, having people around a university that have different opinions about things, has its great value as a kind of vaccine against groupthink,” he said. “… Diversity of views, approaches, arguments and the like is the cure for campus illiberalism.”

This diversity is hard to find and implement, however, as humans have a natural positive bias toward beliefs that align with their own. 

To solve these issues of illiberalism at the university level, George believes viewpoint discrimination needs to be exposed and brought to the forefront of the conversation. Peter Singer, George’s Princeton colleague, has defended the moral permissibility of infanticide. Rather than fighting for Singer to be fired for his viewpoints, George believes people should be open to new perspectives and seek to challenge Singer’s beliefs through informed debate. 

“I should be engaging, trying to meet his arguments,” George said. “If there’s something wrong with them, I should be able to figure out and point out what’s wrong with them. If I can’t, maybe there isn’t something wrong with them. Maybe I’m the one who needs to revise his thinking.”

Universities hold the responsibility of challenging their students with new ideas rather than reinforcing their own beliefs, inviting dialogues rather than monologues. 

The James Madison Program at Princeton has a mission of emphasizing viewpoint diversity. George described the impacts of this program as remarkable. 

“The presence on a campus of such an initiative ensures that there are people around who really do represent a range of opinions, and can provide students with the best arguments and the evidence supporting a range of positions,” George said. 

Through joint seminars, George teaches with his colleague, Cornel West, even though they have differences in opinions and beliefs. George calls these seminars “magical,” as the pair exchanges healthy debate that promotes the importance of respectful dialogue.

“We collaborate across the lines of ideological and political difference in the common project of truth-seeking, … engaging with each other and our students in a serious, respectful manner, striving to understand and learn from each other,” George said.

Rather than teaching students what to think, George believes colleges should teach students how to think and address controversial issues through a clear lens. He finds that having competing ideas in the classroom promotes a diversity of viewpoints. 

“I am pleading for attitudes and practices that will cure campus illiberalism without the need to give anybody preferences in hiring and promotion,” George said. “… We would not have departments … with 43 liberals or progressives and one conservative, or more likely one libertarian, nor would we have the embarrassments and in places where violence has occurred, the tragedy of campus illiberalism.”

V. Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Darren Walker challenge white privilege with courage


Telling the truth can be a courageous act in a country built on lies. Discussing the impacts of white privilege and anti-Black narratives on the structural and systematic functioning of American society requires bravery.

The V. Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas engaged in conversation with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, on Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Their lecture, “New Profiles in Courage,” shares its name with the Week Eight Chautauqua Lecture Series and Interfaith Lecture Series theme. 

Douglas, ordained minister, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, is serving Chautauqua as this week’s chaplain-in-residence. Her dialogue with Walker was rooted in familiarity.

“This is going to be a conversation among two people who know each other and can have a real talk,” Walker said.

As a Black gay Christian, Walker has experienced homophobia in the Black church. He asked Douglas why it is so hard for some Black people of faith to accept everyone who wants to engage in faith and fellowship. 

Douglas said Black people have long faced oppression, subjugation and assault for simply existing, and it struck her as odd that they would do the same to another group of people. She wanted to understand why, as one of her son’s godfathers was gay. She professed that even though he loved the church, the church refused to love him back. 

“What I discovered, amongst other things, is that when we talk about sort of the tropes and the stereotypes that have shaped Black reality, we know that one of those stereotypes has been the way in which Black people have been sexualized,” Douglas said.

On the hypersexualization of Black people, Douglas pointed to white supremacist ideologies that have impacted the treatment of LGBTQ people in the Black church.

“(White supremacy) might not have all to do with it, but it has something to do with it,” Douglas said. “It’s compounded this problem.”

In the merge between white supremacy, anti-Black ideologies and hypersexualization alongside Christian faith traditions, homophobia is born. Douglas believes these ideologies have impacted the rights of Black personhood.

“Now, that’s no excuse,” Douglas said. “… For our own well-being, for our own humanity, … we have got to begin to unravel this. … When we understand it, that becomes one of the ways in which we begin to deconstruct it and refuse to allow it to stand.”

Walker began to discuss systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Research has found that now, one out of every three Black boys born can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, and about 40% of the inmate population in the criminal justice system is made up of Black people. He asked Douglas how people of faith can engage in this large, systemic issue.

“Black children are disproportionately trapped in abject poverty. That’s a pipeline to the system of incarceration. The real miracle is when they don’t end up in jail. The real miracle is when they don’t end up dead,” Douglas said. “Our faith communities have to take the lead, calling it out, speaking the truth. … (They must be) accountable, not to the way things are, but to the way they are supposed to be.”

Describing his grandparents’ experiences in the Black church, Walker said Sundays were a day of liberation, as Black people were able to experience dignity and acknowledgment. But now nearly all religions are experiencing a decrease of young populations becoming involved in their faith traditions. 

Douglas believes this is a failure of the church. Her son, Desmond, has said that churches need to make all people feel welcome and allow space for people to be themselves without judgment.

Walker asked how churches can work to regain trust; Douglas said the church needs to be brought to the younger demographics that are experiencing that distrust. 

“One of the roles you play with Black folks (and) white folks is to be a truth-teller,” Walker said. “Bringing us back to this idea of new profiles in courage, it is hard to have the courage to be a truth-teller in an institution that may not really want to internalize it.”

Douglas said it is easier for people to listen to the changes that need to be made rather than acting on those changes, which makes people complicit. People may want reform and equality, but they often find it difficult to sacrifice their own privilege.

“This ‘Make America Great Again’ environment has exacerbated this whole reality of white supremacists, anti-Black racism, because what we’re finding is downward mobility of whiteness,” Douglas said. 

People of color and immigrants have been blamed for white downward mobility, but this distracts from the root of the problem. 

“Blacks and immigrants have been blamed for that,” Douglas said. “… When you blame those already on the bottom … it protects you from looking at the systems and structures that have created this unjust privilege in the first place.”

This phenomenon, according to Douglas, seems to have increased hatred against Black bodies through physical, systematic and structural means.

As a country, Walker asked Douglas, how can America  stop this toxic cycle of hatred? 

“We’ve got to first have the courage, the moral courage, to tell the truth about our history, about who we are as a nation,” Douglas said. “We didn’t just arrive at white supremacy overnight. It’s embedded in the very foundation of this country. Anti-Blackness is embedded in the very foundation of this country.”

Giving a voice to those who have been voiceless in the discussion of history would bring forward new perspectives. The removal of true history in some schools concerns Douglas. 

Building relationships with people who are different from oneself is another way to remedy these issues of hatred, by creating a sense of understanding and connection, she said. 

“Until we begin to become more proximate to people who are different from ourselves,” Douglas said, “(we won’t be able to) see people as the people that they are and not as the stereotypes.”

Douglas presented findings from the Public Religion Research Institute, that 75% of white people do not have a person of color in their intimate social circles. Out of the 25% that do, their social circles were still over 90% white. 

Douglas believes that white people must address their uninterrupted, uninterrogated whiteness by telling the truth, but Walker feels it is a complicated process. 

“We’ve crafted narratives about who we are as a people,” Walker said. “Those narratives have sustained and inspired us. … And those narratives have helped Americans, white Americans, feel good about themselves and feel aspirational for those ideals. … And so to simply say it’s all a lie … is very hard.”

While some white people play by the rules and feel as though their successes were achieved fairly, Walker explained that the system is rigged for them to be winners, which is a tough pill to swallow. Many white people could find this deeply offensive, as they feel as though they worked hard for their earnings. 

Because of their privilege, white people often do not have to feel uncomfortable. 

White people, according to Douglas, need to start to wake up other white people in their communities, to see and speak the truth of privilege. They must be intentionally committed to creating a fair and equal society.

“There has to be an intentional recognition and interrogation of whiteness and intentional realization of privilege,” Douglas said. “… Every day, you have to make a decision that (you are) not going to live passively into whiteness, but going to live over and against it.”

Soul sisters: Atiya Aftab, Sheryl Olitzky on foundations of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom


Atiya Aftab and Sheryl Olitzky are an unlikely duo, but their souls may have been destined to intertwine. Aftab, an American Muslim woman, and Olitzky, an American Jewish woman, met on the premise that they wanted to create a space for women of their respective faiths to connect with and humanize one another.

In 2010, the pair co-founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a nonprofit organization that works to build trust, respect and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women of all ages.

Continuing Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “New Profiles in Courage,” Aftab and Olitzky delivered their joint lecture, “Being the Change – A Leap of Faith” on Tuesday, in the Hall of Philosophy. Olitzky began the presentation, while Aftab spoke during the second half of the lecture. 

“This is sacred ground, and it’s not a coincidence that we are here today after the horrific Friday that we all experienced,” Olitzky said, acknowledging the attack on Salman Rushdie in the Amphitheater. “We are here today to reinforce that love is stronger than hate.”

While extremist ideologies have existed for years, Olitzky said current levels of extremism have surpassed her expectations. Yet, she is not scared; she is concerned.

“I had a choice: I could sit it out or I could dance,” Olitzky said. “I chose to dance, and I’m inviting all of you to dance with me, to dance with Atiya.” 

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom currently has anywhere between 5,000 to 7,000 women, ages 14 to over 90, involved in the organization across the United States, Canada and Berlin.

In 2010, the organization, which Olitzky said was never intended to become an organization, started with 12 people. In 2013, it was decided that the Sisterhood would file for nonprofit status. Their organization soon began to expand, as more Jewish and Muslim women wanted to learn more about each other. Chapters were started across the country. 

By November 2016, the nonprofit had 25 chapters and hosted a conference with 1,000 women that grabbed the attention of The New York Times.

“(The New York Times wanted) to put us on the front page above the centerfold,” Olitzky said. “The second that hit their front page, we had thousands of women asking to join, so around January, February, we had 150 chapters. And it grew and grew.”

Beyond conferences and conversations, the organization leads annual Building Bridges Trips, which bring members to a location of significant interest to both faith groups. 

The women use trips like these to bond. 

“The premise of the Sisterhood is very simple,” Olitzky said. “It’s easy to hate someone you don’t know. When you know them, it’s harder. And when you care and love them, it’s almost impossible.”

Aiming to change hate into love and harmony, Olitzky explained the organization’s efforts are based on bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. The sisters share holidays together and learn about each others’ experiences to change negative perceptions and stereotypes.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was studied by an independent research firm, and the findings offer some insight to how much change is created by the organization. 

“(The research) indicated that on average, every person in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom talks about the impact that the (Sisterhood) has had to 40 others who are not in the Sisterhood,” Olitzky said. “… We are changing the world.” 

Olitzky encouraged the audience to share and listen to the stories of people who are different from them. She said research shows there is no better way to create empathy than through sharing personal anecdotes. 

Olitzky shared one of the “a-ha” moments that first called her to contact Aftab and start the Sisterhood. In 2009, when she was leading a group of 40 people in Poland on a visit to Auschwitz, she noticed the lack of diversity among the tourists. She decided to ask the guide about her observation. 

“He said, as we’re going into Auschwitz, ‘You’re right,’ ” Olitzky said. “He said, ‘Poland is just for the Poles, and you talk about head coverings. We do not have a Muslim problem here. You won’t see head coverings because they’re not welcome.’ That was my final a-ha moment.”

This calling was all-encompassing, and it led her to contact an Imam she knew who provided Olitzky with Aftab’s contact information.

“I call Atiya. I don’t get a call back,” Olitzky said. “Five minutes later, I emailed her.” 

When the pair met, Olitzky described the encounter as electrifying and magical, referring to it as her “hallelujah moment.” She now considers Aftab a sister. 

“The heart of what we do is what we call compassionate listening,” Olitzky said. “It’s celebrating what we share in common, but more importantly, celebrating our differences. Diversity is a blessing.”

As Olitzky concluded her portion of the lecture and stepped down from the podium, Aftab stepped up.

“When Sheryl approached me, my response to her was a leap of faith,” Aftab said. “A leap of faith is acting upon your belief. … It’s an act that acknowledges risk, but understands that there are higher values that make the risk worth it.”

In 2010, when Aftab received the messages from Olitzky, she said she had every intention of saying no to her proposal. But due to Olitzky’s persistence, Aftab agreed to meet with her. 

“It’s faith that made me accept the hand that she extended to me, to take on this new experiment,” Aftab said. “A Jewish woman was asking to get to know me, to stand up against hate, and specifically stand up against Islamophobia. … I had to say yes, but it wasn’t easy.”

In the past, Aftab had less-than stellar experiences with interfaith dialogue. She found it to “lack a deeper meaning,” which was “quite disappointing.”

Aftab, despite all odds, did not want to be paralyzed by fear and inaction, so she took her leap of faith. The pair agreed to work together under the condition that they would create something different guided through sets of rules.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom would not discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as they found research showed groups who discussed the conflict fell apart after a couple of years. 

“Our focus is going to be on faith,” Aftab said. “We’re women of faith, so we’re going to focus our organization, our chapter, on Muslim-Jewish interfaith. … ​​And when we’re ready, then we’ll get to the rough stuff.”

The organization would also not host gatherings inside their respective places of worship, as they felt it would be a barrier of entry. Instead, they would open their homes to promote personal interactions. 

It was also agreed that the Sisterhood would be for women and girls only, as they felt women navigate the world in specific ways. The organization would also only serve Muslim and Jewish women, because they share the commonality of being a minority in the United States. 

“We have similar challenges in this country,” Aftab said. “Whether it’s issues of dress, whether it’s issues of dietary restrictions (or) challenges … (of) calendar issues, … we have a lot in common.”

While Aftab is proud that their organization has been in The New York Times, on the “Today Show” and has its own documentary, “Stranger/Sister,” she finds other facets of the Sisterhood more valuable.

“One of the most meaningful aspects of the Sisterhood are the Building Bridges Trips, because there’s something about when you travel with somebody (that builds a connection),” Aftab said.

In 2016, a group traveled to Bosnia, where they visited a site of genocide, and Albania, where they met with families who had taken in Jewish people during the Holocaust. 

Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country just north of Iran, was the site of their second trip, as there were two Jewish communities that lived within the Muslim community there.

“What started happening is this goal of just building bridges was now shifting. (It was) shifting from a perspective of getting to know one another across differences to standing up for each other,” Aftab said. “(It shifted to) this idea of justice, this idea of fighting hate and understanding what institutional oppression is.”

While the educational trips continued to Baku, Germany and Poland, members of the Sisterhood began to see themselves as a group fighting hate. Their next destination was Arizona, and the U.S.-Mexico border.

“At this point now, the Sisterhood is issuing … anti-hate statements about what’s going on in China with the Uyghur Muslims, what’s going on in India with Muslims, what’s happening with forced sterilization of women at the border,” Aftab said. “… When we went on the Arizona trip to the to the Mexican border, we met with those who are helping refugees, those who are undocumented.”

When the group learned about a young Mexican boy who tried to cross the wall and was shot and killed by a U.S. border guard, Aftab said “it became very clear that we could not not talk about Palestine and Israel anymore.”

As some sisters attended a board retreat with two days of “intensive facilitated conversation” on Israel and Palestine, the COVID-19 pandemic was imminent. The Sisterhood was able to issue an official statement on Israel-Palestine on Feb. 14, 2020, which Aftab said is “the only statement of its kind of a Muslim-Jewish organization.” 

As preparations were being made to embark on a trip to Israel and Palestine, the pandemic hit. The group continued to work with one another online and take virtual field trips. 

“But what I wanted to focus on again is this power of travel, this power of standing together and witnessing, and what comes of that,” Aftab said. “I don’t think that we would be able to speak about the issue of Palestine and Israel unless we had that journey together, those steps (from our) first trip to Bosnia and Albania all the way to our trip to the Mexican border.”

Their next in-person journey will hopefully be to Morocco, as these trips bring out deep and sometimes difficult conversations that are necessary for growth.

“These kinds of conversations (develop) meaningful relationships and friendships. … This is all humanizing each other, and we know what happens when there’s dehumanization,” Aftab said. “History recognizes that when we dehumanize one another, it is very easy to engage in violence against the Other. … So to change one person’s mind … is to change the world, and we all have the courage to do that.”

Congressman Jamie Raskin shares work of keeping son’s memory alive


Bearing the loss of a loved one can feel like a nearly impossible task. Losing his son, Tommy Raskin, to suicide on the last day of 2020, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md) learned to move forward by treating others with the love and dignity his son would have. Instilling Tommy’s moral values into his everyday life allows Raskin to reconnect with Tommy, keeping his memory and legacy alive. 

It has carried him through the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, for which Raskin was manager, and now as a member of the Jan. 6 Select Committee. 

Opening Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series of “New Profiles in Courage,” Raskin delivered his lecture, “It’s Hard to Be Human: The Political, Philosophical and Mental Health Struggles of Tommy Raskin,” at 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15 in the packed 1,200-seat venue of Norton Hall. 

Sean Smith / staff photographer Raskin’s lecture, titled “It’s Hard to Be Human: The Political, Philosophical and Mental Health Struggles of Tommy Raskin,” explored the the philosophical and moral courage of Raskin’s son, who he called “a young man of extraordinary gifts.”

The lecture’s location was switched from the traditional space of the Hall of Philosophy for security purposes. This decision was made several weeks prior to the attack on Salman Rushdie last Friday in the Amphitheater. 

Calling Chautauqua “one of the freest and most beautiful places” in the country, Raskin said the grounds are “a space of reasoned, passionate and nonviolent dialogue” in a world that feeds off of violent fanaticism. 

Emphasizing the spirit of Chautauqua and its focus on freedom and progress, Raskin reflected on Rushdie’s definition of freedom. In 2006, Rushdie said that the ability to argue and debate the meaning of all stories allows for the growth of societies. By stories, Rushdie was speaking on the narratives of families, communities, and religions, among others.

“The bloody assault on Salman Rushdie on Friday is not just an assault on one writer of exquisite imagination and moral power. It is not just an effort to silence one man and break one pen,” Raskin said. “It is an assault on everyone’s freedom to think, to write, to create, to argue and to grow. It is an attack on not just this community, but on the worldwide project of democratic community.”

Raskin dedicated his opening remarks to both Rushdie and his son, Tommy, who he called “another unyielding champion of human freedom and dignity.” Although the two never met, Raskin said Tommy admired Rushdie and his work.

“We wish Salman Rushdie a speedy and complete and total recovery, because we love him and we need him,” Raskin said. “… We send Salman the strength and love of a resilient democratic America that knows how to think and read and write and feel without committing violence against other human beings.”

Even though the present moment is one of struggle, violence and trauma, there are people who defy these problems through their very existence. Raskin said his son was one of these people. 

“My son Tommy, a young man of extraordinary gifts, a born moral philosopher, a comedian, a playwright, a prankster, a champion of human rights, an anti-war activist, a vegan, a visionary, a second year student at Harvard Law School when we lost him, a jazz musician,” Raskin said, “was born into this world of violence, trauma, plague and unreason.” 

Tommy grappled with a lifelong battle against depression, which Raskin said ultimately broke him. 

“On Dec. 31, 2020, the last day of that fateful, wretched year, Tommy took his life,” Raskin said. “He left us a note that said, ‘Please forgive me. My illness won today. Look after each other, the animals and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.’ ”

Tommy died at 25, but Raskin said his short life was infinitely valuable. In his time, Tommy wrestled with several dilemmas — moral, ethical, philosophical, political and social — in hopes of finding a path to a more just world. 

“I won’t be able to give you today any kind of complete account of Tommy’s philosophy, his worldview, but the key thing to understand is that none of the problems he faced were abstract to him, or academic,” Raskin said. “They were concrete. They were urgent. They were practical challenges for living a decent life, and he tried to live every moment of every day with deliberate ethical consciousness and integrity.”

When Tommy shared his moral propositions, Raskin said they were nearly the truest propositions one would encounter, as they were filled with conviction and courage to bring them to fruition in the world.

Focusing on one of the lingering ethical problems that lived inside Tommy’s mind before he passed, Raskin said the last thing he wrote about was the trolley problem. This philisophical thought experiment is focused on a fictional scenario in which an onlooker must choose to save a group of people about to be hit by a trolley by diverting its path and subsequently killing only one person; or not act at all and letting fate proceed without human influence. The trolley problem is widely considered an academic favorite, as it is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle that handles several ethical issues. 

“Tommy said that the moral significance of the hypothetical derives from the nervous energy and moral ambivalence that we feel in trying to decide between passively allowing 99 people to die, and actively choosing to kill one person,” Raskin said. “Whereas most philosophers writing about the problem go from there to argue on one side of the equation or the other, Tommy argued that the importance of the problem is in understanding the fundamental equivalency of these two actions.”

Every day, humans passively allow 99 people or more to die of hunger, disease and a lack of basic human necessities, most of them children, Raskin said. Because humans do not feel directly responsible for these deaths, they allow themselves to deny their responsibility and act as onlookers. 

“But the trolley problem forces us to confront, Tommy said, the deep moral intuition that passively allowing 99 people to die is a lot like deliberately choosing to kill one person,” Raskin said. “… (When) we’re just living our lives, we must remember that working to save children from death by war in Yemen, or starvation in Haiti, or from malaria in Nigeria, or from gun violence in Texas or in Buffalo, is an urgent moral imperative.”

It was Tommy’s belief that humans must do whatever they can to save others from unnecessary violence and injury. Acknowledging that this is a nearly impossible task, Raskin went back to something Tommy always said: It is hard to be human. 

“He lived with a tremendous sense of responsibility, an all-consuming obligation to make the world a better place and to assist anyone he could in any circumstance where he could help,” Raskin said. 

Tommy would work part-time jobs that did not pay a lot of money, but he would always donate a portion of his earnings to organizations he believed in. 

“He had very few material desires himself, but intensely passionate, spiritual yearnings for the world,” Raskin said.

A vegan, Tommy thought that humanity would one day view the consumption of animals as barbaric. He also argued that children are natural vegetarians.

While some vegan philosophers and advocates argue that vegans should not eat Impossible burgers or other plant-based foods that simulate animal meat, Tommy found this argument to be ridiculous, as it portrayed “puritanical snobbery.” 

“(Tommy) regarded Beyond burgers and Impossible burgers as a major scientific, culinary, political and moral breakthrough for humanity,” Raskin said. “For Tommy, the ethical question was settled by whether the fake meat protein substitutes reduced animal meat consumption, making vegetarianism a more attractive and robust option.”

It was Tommy’s goal to maximize the happiness and wellbeing of others. And in this debate on plant-based foods that imitated meat, he professed that he does not want to be a part of a vegan club, but rather a vegan world. 

“I could spend all day telling you about the moral and political problems and solutions of Tommy Raskin,” Raskin said. “Even to enter into a few of them just for 10 minutes is to glimpse the enormity and the magnitude of our loss.”

While Tommy lived with depression and anxiety, he was committed to the dignity and autonomy of all people. He kept his illness mostly secret from nearly everyone, but in some of his papers, Tommy expressed the importance of recognizing the reality of mental illness. 

“(Tommy) struggled with (mental illness). He took his medicine, he saw his doctors, but in the end, it was too much for him. And we lost him,” Raskin said. “And that’s just a catastrophe for us that we have to live with.”

There will be a time, Raskin told Chautauqua, when people who have lost a loved one, even those at a young age, will be able to speak their names “without dissolving completely.” He said this time will restore the coherence of one’s life, mind and heart. 

“You will be able to begin to see their life in its entirety, not just the final days, or the ways of their going,” Raskin said. “… (And that will leave us) with beautiful, imperishable memories, specific lessons and injunctions … to look after each other, the animals and the global poor with all our love.”

While Mother Jones once said to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” Raskin believes this statement would carry more impact if it was changed slightly to “pray for the dead by fighting like hell for the living.” It is Raskin’s belief that one can show their love and devotion to the people they have lost by serving causes they believed in.

Raskin ended with a quote from Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, revising the gender-based language to fit modern sensibilities, which he acknowledged Paine would appreciate.

“These are the times that try men and women’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will shrink at this moment from the service of their cause in their country,” Raskin said. “But everyone that stands with us now will win the love and the favor and the affection of every man and every woman for all time. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, but we have this saving consolation: The more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory.”

Building home through healing: Alia Bilal fights against perpetual homesickness


While many people have the ability to pinpoint where they feel the most at home, Alia Bilal wanted to call attention to other lost souls who do not hold the same privilege. 

As the deputy executive director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Bilal’s work focuses on building physical and spiritual homes for those who have often been displaced in one form or another in American society. 

Bilal delivered her lecture, “Homesick in Wakanda: Living, Longing and Fighting” on Thursday, Aug. 11 in the Hall of Philosophy. Her lecture continued Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Home: A  Place for Human Thriving.”

Serving IMAN for over 13 years, Bilal and the rest of the organization aim to foster community health, wellness and healing. From starting community initiatives, to creating public spaces for healing through art, to building homes, IMAN works to enhance Muslim lives.

Martin Luther King Jr. came to Bilal’s hometown of Chicago in August 1966 because he was protesting housing segregation.

“At the time, people were being whipped into the same kind of race frenzy that we’re seeing across the country today,” Bilal said. “And as usual, businessmen were capitalizing on it.” 

These businessmen would convince white families to sell their homes, enforcing the fear that the value of their home would plummet due to people of other ethnicities moving into the area. 

“Those same real estate agents would divide the house up, turn it into tiny little apartments and sell them to the next Black family that came looking for three times the rate,” Bilal said. “Black families at the time were desperate to get out of the tenements and slums that they’ve been corralled into.”

Because of this double standard and overt racism, marches were held in Marquette Park. Even though the park was set in a predominantly white community, on Aug. 5, 1966, King and the Chicago Freedom Movement led a group of less than 1,000 peaceful marchers.

“They were met with 5,000 angry men, women, children and grandparents, holding nasty signs, throwing rocks, bottles and bags of feces,” Bilal said. “And if you can recall the famous image of Dr. King as he’s kneeling in the ground after just having been hit in the head with a brick, that happens right there in Marquette Park in Chicago.”

Despite his injury, King said the march in Marquette Park was worth it because it brought the evil out in the open. Decades later, Bilal does her work in the same neighborhood. 

IMAN was established as a nonprofit in 1997, at a time when the area had a majority Black population, a growing Latino population and a sizable Arab community. 

The organization is now celebrating its 25-year milestone of working to bring together diverse communities.

“On Aug. 5, 2016, exactly 50 years after this historic march, IMAN led the movement to erect the first permanent memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement in the state of Illinois,” Bilal said. “… They had come into Marquette Park to fight for housing rights, and so we felt it was only appropriate to model the memorial off of the theme of home.”

The memorial was made out of brick as a homage to the bungalows Chicago is known for, and three pillars made up the memorial with the addition of slanted roofs. The word “home” was carved into each pillar in eight different languages to symbolize each ethnic group that had called the area home throughout history. 

IMAN’s goal is to bring people together in the community and cultivate a sense of home, but this was suddenly ripped away from those who needed it the most in March 2020. 

“Three of our young men were killed in the summer of 2020 while attempting to make a virtual program a safe haven,” Bilal said. “How can this be home? When people like those three guys, kids, born into the wrong zip code, living on the wrong side of town with the wrong skin color — statistically, (they) never had a fighting chance to begin with.”

Questioning the state of home in America, Bilal presented more examples: Breonna Taylor, who was killed in the bed of her home, George Floyd, murdered on his way back to his home, and the recent mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. 

Speaking on her own upbringing and childhood, Bilal said she lived in a loving home in a welcoming community. She attended an Islamic day school from the age of 8 to 18. Most of her friends and classmates were the sons and daughters of Syrian, Palestinian, Indian and Pakistani immigrants. 

“I also grew up constantly hearing my friends talk about this fantastical place called ‘back home.’ Back home was where their parents and grandparents were from,” Bilal said. “… It sounded like a magical place to me, like home.”

Despite the growing Arab Muslim population with generations-deep roots, they were always reminded that they were outsiders that didn’t belong.

“The day after 9/11, the local chapter of the KKK came out of their cubby holes and marched guns and Confederate flags around our school and the local mosque,” Bilal said. “They had to close our school down for a week because of bomb threats, and we learned active shooter drills a decade before they became all the rage in American schools.”

While in college, Bilal studied abroad in Egypt, and she recalled how incredible it felt to live in a Muslim-majority country. For once, Bilal did not seem to stick out among the crowd. 

But when her Arabic would get tangled in on itself, she would be asked the dreaded question: Where are you from?

She would tell the truth and say she is from America, and the question would persist. They would ask, “No, but where are you really from?”

“I’ve learned that if you are African American, there is no good way to answer this question in many places on the planet. If I were white, this would not be a thing,” Bilal said. “… In most other places in the world, in my experience, a Black person in America just doesn’t make sense to them.”

People would assume she was lying about her true birthplace because she was either ashamed or “too uppity.” Often, she would receive looks as if she had just told a bald-faced lie. 

In Egypt, Bilal stayed at a woman’s house whom she referred to as “Auntie,” who was well-educated and traveled abroad for nearly 30 years. 

“I remember very naively asking her, ‘Haven’t these people ever heard of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade?’ And I will never forget the way Auntie looked at me with a face that was half disbelief, and half pity,” Bilal said. “She said, ‘No, beloved, they haven’t. Most of the people you’re interacting with are lucky if they’ve done a few years of primary school. … Have mercy on them.’ ”

Even in America, people are taught that slavery happened, but the true impacts and devastation it has left on the African American population have been wiped away. Personal histories were also stolen, as many Black Americans don’t know where exactly their ancestors came from.

The Marvel movie “Black Panther” touches on these issues of rootlessness as it centers around a country called Wakanda. While outsiders are under the impression that this country is poor and destitute, Bilal explained it is actually the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world. Wakandans keep the country’s triumphs hidden to protect their people.

The movie is highly regarded as an empowering portrayal of Black people and the richness of their diverse customs, and Bilal herself feels it represents a homeland that Black Americans have always longed for.

“Despite the love that I have for it, there is still something so devastatingly bittersweet about that movie, and it haunts me to this day,” Bilal said. 

Black Panther is the hero of the movie, while Killmonger is his foe. Killmonger is a Black American who has been searching for Wakanda for his entire life.

“He’s angry that this rich, bountiful nation has the tools and the means for centuries to lift the oppression of the Black people on this planet, but has chosen to keep to themselves out of fear of losing everything,” Bilal said. “Killmonger is essentially the externalization of all of the anger, the rage, the longing, the loneliness, the heartbrokenness of those who have been ripped away from their homes, that have lived with generations upon generations of systemic oppression, subjugation, violence and cruelty.”

The people of Wakanda reject Killmonger and scoff at the idea that a Black man from inner city America would dare to come to tell the people that they should be ashamed for hiding this land from their Black counterparts. 

“Even as you rejoice for the triumph of the hero, you feel Killmonger’s sorrow, this lost soul searching desperately for a home echoing the same longing that … every Black American feels at some point,” Bilal said. “And you ache with your own loneliness knowing that even a place as beautiful as Wakanda could never truly be meant for you.”

While in reality, Bilal believes that most people who feel lost are homesick, as no one belongs to their town, state or country, but rather, they belong from the Source. 

“We are from the Source, and we will return to the Source. I don’t care what you call the Source — the One, the Creator, God, Allah,” Bilal said. “But I believe that most of us believe that we’re going back to a source and that there will be a final home.”

Despite the trials and tribulations of being a human on Earth, Bilal accepts that it is not worth it to live comfortably when others are suffering. She believes the Wakanda she longs for is real, and she will enter its gates after this life due to the work she strives to do during her time on Earth.

“I can only build (my Wakanda) by rebuilding what has been broken here on Earth. Creating the Beloved Community on Earth is not about sitting back and shaking my head at the evening news,” Bilal said. “It’s about pushing myself, mind and body, through the crowd of angry people that are more powerful than me, but not more angry. It’s about bringing the evil out into the open.”

Sharing stories, wisdom of human thriving, Isay discusses StoryCorps’ mission


Often, those in positions of power and select historians are the few people chosen to record history for all of humanity. But David Isay, former radio producer and StoryCorps founder, believes history should be written by the masses.

Delivering his lecture, “StoryCorps: A Celebration of Human Thriving,” Isay spoke on Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy about the nonprofit organization, and played recordings of everyday people telling their stories for Chautauquans. 

Isay’s lecture was titled “StoryCorps: A Celebration of Human Thriving.” Georgia Pressley/Staff Photographer

Continuing Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Home: A Place for Human Thriving,” Isay’s lecture focused on how his organization brings people together through deep conversations. Isay, who has won six Peabodys for his work, shared StoryCorps’ mission: “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” 

Prior to founding StoryCorps 18 years ago, Isay found himself more interested in public service than entertaining people as a radio personality. 

“The purpose of StoryCorps is for as many people as possible to be listened to, to be interviewed by a loved one,” Isay said, “… where you can bring anyone who you want to honor by listening to their story — a parent or grandparent or friend … and for 40 minutes you ask questions and you listen.”

After these interviews are recorded, the participants receive a copy and have an option to have their recording filed at the Library of Congress, ensuring it is a part of history. 

“Essentially, because of what happens at the booth, I think what we’re doing is collecting the wisdom of humanity,” Isay said. 

A small percentage of interviews are also selected to be broadcast on NPR and presented around the country at Isay’s talks. 

Studs Terkel, the great oral historian from Chicago, cut the ceremonial opening ribbon on StoryCorps’ first booth at 93 years old. 

“He used to talk about bottom-up history — history through our voices and our stories, as opposed to the top-down history we hear so often,” Isay said.

The first interview Isay presented to Chautauquans featured a fourth grader from Mississippi and his father. The father began to talk about what he was feeling when his son was first born.

“It was like looking at a blank canvas and just imagining what you wanted the painting to look like at the end, but also knowing you can’t control the paint strokes,” the father said. “You know, the fear was just bringing up a Black boy in Mississippi, which is a tough place to bring up kids, period.”

The father began to explain there were statistics that said Black boys born after the year 2002 have a one in three chance of going to prison. This is why the father brought his son to several civil rights protests — to show him what it looks like to bring people from all backgrounds together to create a better world.

Isay clicked play on the next recording, which featured another parent-child conversation, this one from Texas. This conversation was centered around a fifth grader’s experience with active shooter drills, and his mother’s reaction to his powerful bravery — which frightened her.

During one of the drills, the young boy helped his teacher move the desk in front of the door because it was difficult for her to move it on her own.

“The class is supposed to stand on the back wall, but I decided to stand in front of the class because I want to take the bullet and save my friends,” the boy said.

While the teacher did not ask him to stand in the front, the 10-year-old boy felt a calling to step forward as a young martyr. No matter how much the mother pleaded for her son to be selfish if that moment ever occurred, he was adamant that this was not her choice to make.

“Something about this makes me feel sad,” the boy said. “But you raised a good person.”

With the recent overruling of Roe v. Wade, Isay shared an interview from a woman who worked as a counselor at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi by 2004, and the clinic at the heart of Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs. StoryCorps released the recording the day the clinic was forced to close in July following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling. The interview with the counselor was recorded more than 10 years ago. 

The counselor was influenced to work there after her own experience being pregnant at 16 and giving birth to a child as a teenager. 

“(After finding out I was pregnant, my mom) sat me down in a chair to comb my hair, but she never combed my hair,” the woman said. “She couldn’t say it was OK, but a touch can mean so much sometimes. … She forgave me at that moment she touched me.”

While the counselor was able to raise her son while finishing high school and college, she wishes she had the option to choose her destiny. Her experience with her mother and raising her son allowed her to relate to several patients at the clinic she worked at. 

“I try to reach that teenager to let them know that it’s going to be OK. And I’ll make sure I encourage the mom or the dad that’s with that teenager,” the woman said. “… Sometimes I can see the mother look over at the daughter, almost as if for the first time. It takes me back to that moment when my mom was doing my hair.”

Out of the 700,000 people who have participated in StoryCorps, Isay said everyone talks about love, their families, their homes and their childhoods, all relating to the themes of human existence. 

Thinking of one of his own StoryCorps interviews Isay did with his father, he called himself a proud son of a gay father. His father was a psychiatrist, and about 10 years ago, was diagnosed with cancer; he died four days after the diagnosis. 

“I never thought about it or listened to it. But at 3 a.m. on the night he died, I listened to (our conversation),” Isay said. “… I have young kids who are not going to remember him, and … that night, I knew that this was how my kids were going to get to know this monumental figure in my life.”

With this, Isay encouraged the audience to record interviews with their loved ones on StoryCorps sooner rather than later, because the future is unpredictable. 

One of StoryCorps’ first initiatives worked with families who lost a loved one on 9/11, aiming to have each family leave a spoken record of their story. But even 20 years after the tragedy, some families have not come forward, and Isay said it is entirely their choice to decide when and if they want to record an interview. 

“There have been … so many surprises with StoryCorps. It’s changed my life in so many ways and taught me so much about humanity and human thriving,” Isay said. “We have facilitators who travel the country, recording StoryCorps interviews for a year or two in these mobile booths, and every single one of them, when they come off the road, … (comes away with some sort of realization) that people are basically good.”

The next story Isay presented was of a man who was raised by a gay father in the 1980s, speaking on the early days of the AIDS crisis and his experience with loss during that tumultuous time.

“My family were mostly gay guys (who) were my babysitters and the guys who took the pictures at my birthday parties. I felt like I had this amazing family. I called them my aunties,” the man said. “It was a really wonderful, amazing world that came crashing down.”

In ’82, when the interviewee was 10, the first person he knew died of AIDS. His name was Steve, and he died two months after his diagnosis.

“It was pretty much a succession of deaths of my family throughout the next decade,” he said. “My stepdad Bill died in ’87. My dad died in ’91 after a really grueling six months of me taking care of him. I was 19, and at that point, everyone had died except for a handful of stragglers who I now hold near and dear to my heart.”

He knew his aunties held so much love and joy in their hearts, and he said this experience modeled “how to survive an epidemic even if you were dying while doing it.”

StoryCorps’ new initiative, One Small Step, works on building human connection across political divides. The last recording Isay shared was one of the interviews that inspired this initiative. The conversation was between a Muslim college student and a sheet metal worker who both attended Trump rally for different reasons — he for, she against. 

The Muslim woman said the man was being harassed by some ralliers because he was wearing a Trump hat, which led to them snatching the hat off of his head. 

“That’s the point where something snapped inside me, because I wear a hijab, and I’ve been in situations where people have tried to snatch it off my head,” the woman said. 

After she approached the ralliers to tell them to stop harassing the man, the two realized that they shared commonalities. 

“I’d like for this to encourage other people to engage in more conversations with people that you don’t agree with,” the woman said. 

While statistics show toxic polarization is skyrocketing in America, Isay said 90% of people want a way out, and are ready to find a way to fix this polarization. 

“There is a multibillion dollar … industrial complex out there in media and social media that gets rich teaching us and telling us to hate each other. But we’ve got to figure out a way to fight back,” Isay said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to stop what’s going on in our country, where we think that our neighbors are our most dangerous enemies.”

When home is a person who has passed: Kelly Corrigan reflects on relationship with father


While the comforting feeling of being at home can come from visiting a quaint house, a familiar town or experiencing a nostalgic, tingling feeling, home can also be a person. 

Kelly Corrigan, best-selling author, successful journalist and host of the PBS series “Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan,” spoke on Tuesday, Aug. 9 in the Hall of Philosophy. Her lecture, “Homes: Places that Come to Inhabit Us,” served as a continuation of Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Home: A Place for Human Thriving.”

Corrigan was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2004, and three months later, her father was diagnosed with late stage cancer. This led her to write her first memoir, The Middle Place, which focused on her being both a daughter and a mother during this time.

“My background is as a storyteller, but I’ve also been interviewing people for PBS and my podcast for two years now, which involves an enormous amount of reading and highlighting and synthesizing,” Corrigan said. “For each guest, I have become a student for a few weeks.”

Corrigan is often curious about what her subjects’ first homes were like and how the people who made up those homes exist in her subjects’ minds. 

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett was a recent guest on Corrigan’s show. She said Barrett taught her that humans are contextual beings and develop in response to their environment. 

“Our brains receive all of this sensory data in singular ways particular to our physiology, like what we see is defined by the width of the set of our eyes; what we hear is defined by the particular curve of our ears,” Corrigan said. “… Then our brains make predictions which determine our actions, which we then categorize into great, terrible, dumb, brilliant, hysterical, drab. The brain decides what the sensory data means.”

While one’s environment has an innate impact on one’s being, so does the media one consumes. Books, music, social media posts, advertisements — all of these impact a person’s reality. 

As a child, Corrigan read Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards, which tells a story of an orphaned girl. Edwards is one of many creatives who has written about the struggles of being in an orphanage, as the idea of being lost and alone is palpable and easy to empathize with. 

“What we feel, at least until we decide to unfeel it, is effectively what is,” Corrigan said. “There are so many coming-of-age stories, so many odysseys, that you might start to wonder if … each of us will, or does, or has had our own memoir-worthy version of a coming-of-age story.”

Corrigan began to read a short chapter of her memoir, The Middle Place. The chapter described her childhood home and fond memories with her father. It began with depicting the very beginning of Corrigan’s life. After her older brother, Booker, was born via cesarean section, the hospital advised her parents against having another baby. 

“But the lore goes, my dad wanted a girl so much, they snuck me in,” Corrigan read. “I suppose it’s possible they could have had another boy, but it never seems like that when my dad tells the story.”

Corrigan then read about her childhood memories. While her brothers and their friends would play sports in the backyard, her dad would often return home with armfuls of supplies for his tomato garden. The young boys would offer her dad help, but he would refuse; he would never interrupt a game. 

As Corrigan continued to read, she emulated her father’s voice with a raspy, Southern twang. George Corrigan would often refer to himself in the third person as ‘Greenie’ or ‘the green man,’ which was a nickname he was given by his brothers long before Corrigan was born. 

“(He was given the name) after a long, cramped car ride when a case of gas reputedly turned the air around my dad green,” Corrigan read. “My mom hates (the nickname).” 

Corrigan then shared a story about a dentist trip she took with her dad. After neglecting to get a partial plate on a front tooth, the tooth flew out of George’s mouth, requiring the visit to the dentist. When he was told it would be an hour wait, George and his daughter ventured into the farmer’s market, as George didn’t seem to care if he was missing a tooth in front of others. 

“My dad’s relationship with the world (showed) that he paid more attention to the good stuff than the bad stuff, and effortlessly forgave almost all,” Corrigan read.

When her father would get her and her siblings ready for school, Corrigan felt a shift of attitude toward the morning. 

“Cupping his hands around his mouth, he would call out, ‘Hello world!’ And then, playing back to himself in a one-man show, he would flip to the role of the world, ‘Hello, Georgie,’ ” Corrigan read. “ ‘I’m coming out there to get you, world.’ To which world would respond, as of course the world would, ‘I’m waiting for you, Georgie.’ ”

With this morning routine, Corrigan began to understand that not only was the world a safe place, but it had a sense of humor.

“(The world) knew your name, and it was waiting for you,” Corrigan read. “Hell, it was even rooting for you.”

Corrigan shared that while her childhood home made her feel at home, her father made her feel the most at home. 

She also felt at home at her maternal grandmother Libby’s house, but not as much at her paternal grandmother’s house. At Libby’s, Corrigan felt special, as if her presence was yearned for, as if it was needed.

“Looking back at these early homes and homes away from home,” she said, “there are stages I’m starting to think about: You are allowed here, you are welcome here, you belong here, this is yours.”

This is how America should feel to all who live here, but Corrigan explained why it doesn’t feel that way for everyone.

“I think about taking their country away from the people who already lived here, saying, ‘This is not yours,’ ” Corrigan said. “I think about slavery here and around the world for thousands of years, pulling people from their homes and forcing them to live in other homes.”

Since Corrigan left her first home, she has traveled to 29 places where she had a bed to claim as her own — from various college dorms, apartments and friends’ homes.

“I travel about 50 or 60 nights a year, for 15 to 20 years now,” she said. “I feel anxious and lonely in hotel rooms, so I stay with friends who say, ‘Make yourself at home.’ But that is a skill, that is a privilege, that is a progression.”

After reflecting on times when she felt at home, Corrigan came to her final conclusion, her eyes filling with tears: Sometimes, home is a person.

“My home was my dad,” Corrigan said. “And for a long time … he was the nurturer that shaped my nature.”

Corrigan then began to read a letter she wrote to her father five years after his death, with the first words being “Dear Greenie.” She began by updating her father about her children, but eventually admitted her struggles with surviving after his passing.

“My future is blank, and it scares me,” Corrigan read. “I have no ideas and no energy, and grief has made me a pessimist.”

Corrigan wrote about a trip she took back home, during the first year without her father, to visit her mother and her childhood home on a street called Wooded Lane.

“I was staying in my old room, the room where you finished your 48-year run at Wooded Lane,” Corrigan read. “… Somehow, there in the dark, pushing around to get comfortable, I got a whiff of you. I did not like it.”

While Corrigan and her mother both handled George’s death differently, they agreed not to judge each other. She recognized how strong her mother is, as she kept to-do lists of tasks that her husband would normally take care of for her.

The two attempted to play a round of Rummikub, as the family used to do prior to George’s death, with drinks and a platter of Triscuits nearby. 

“With just the two of us, we ended up going to the boneyard over and over again,” Corrigan read. “… I turned on some music, but it was poor compensation for your wide-mouthed frog joy. … Your absence was so glaring, I had to leave (for a walk).”

When Corrigan returned home to California, she brought back George’s coaching jacket and wore it proudly to her daughter’s practice. Her daughter’s coach assumed Corrigan had coached as her father had, and even after finding out that she didn’t, asked if Corrigan would like to volunteer with the junior varsity team. She accepted the proposal.

“I get it, Greenie, I get it. The only way to keep you is to be you,” Corrigan read. “… A couple times a year, someone will stop and ask me my favorite question: ‘Are you George Corrigan’s daughter?’ I am.”

Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar explains psychological, emotional effects on heart


In the United States, one in five deaths are caused by heart disease, and one person dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease, according to the CDC. While these complications with the heart are normally blamed on physical, biological factors, cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argues one’s mental state affects the heart more than one would imagine.

Jauhar, a practicing cardiologist and the author of Heart: A History, introduced Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Home: A Place for Human Thriving” on Monday, Aug. 8 in the Hall of Philosophy. In his lecture, “The Emotional Heart,” Jauhar used his expertise and research in the field of cardiology to explain how emotions not only affect heart health, but how they have the power to actually shape the heart.

Drawing on a study conducted in the small town of Framingham, Massachusetts, in the 1940s, Jauhar said much of what is known about heart disease was born from this study.

At that time, cardiovascular heart disease accounted for nearly half of all deaths in the United States, and the Framingham study aimed to discover why. Even though the study originally considered emotional and mental states as potential risk factors, it shifted focus toward biological risk factors rather than psychological. 

“Questions about sexual dysfunction, psychiatric problems, emotional stress, income and social class were discarded. As one researcher put it, the Framingham study as it emerged in the 1950s had ‘little interest in investigating psychosomatic, constitutional or sociological determinants of heart disease,’ ” Jauhar said. “This would turn out to be a major flaw.”

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer Sandeep Jauhar, cardiologist and author of Heart: A History, speaks Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jauhar’s lecture, titled “The Emotional Heart,” opened the Interfaith Lecture Series theme on “Home: A Place for Human Thriving,” and explored how emotional heart health can affect physical heart health.

Key findings of this study, and others around the 1960s, found that high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking were all risk factors of cardiovascular heart disease. Later, a 12-year study of approximately 20,000 Swedish men found that four out of five heart attacks could be prevented through Framingham-inspired lifestyle changes.

“But as important as the Framingham Heart Study has been in advancing our understanding of coronary heart disease, it does not tell the whole story,” Jauhar said. “My talk today will focus on these (psychological) factors, on what one might call the emotional heart.”

Throughout history, the heart has been used as a symbol of romantic love and other intense emotional states. In the past, people believed the heart served as the home for love.

“Today, we know that the heart is not the source of love or the other emotions, per se. … Yet more and more, we’ve come to understand that the connection between the heart and the emotions is a highly intimate one,” Jauhar said. “The heart does not originate our feelings, but it is highly responsive to them.”

Strong, negative emotions, such as fear and grief, have the potential to cause profound cardiac injury. Intense stress, Jauhar said, can change the speed of a heartbeat due to a maladaptive fight or flight response. These signals tell the blood vessels to constrict and blood pressure to rise, which can cause damage.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, is another example of how intrinsically linked the heart is to emotional distress. This syndrome is caused by extreme stress or grief, which acutely damages the heart. 

The shape of the left ventricle actually changes, taking the shape of the takotsubo octopus trap, from which the name of the disease is derived. Often, this syndrome resolves within a few weeks, but during its peak, it can result in heart failure.

Causes of broken heart syndrome vary beyond cases of extreme grief and stress, as Jauhar explained that public speaking, gambling losses, domestic disputes and even surprise birthday parties have caused this syndrome to develop.

There are also examples of widespread outbreaks of this syndrome, which have occurred after shared traumatizing situations like natural disasters. 

“In 2004, a major earthquake devastated the district on the largest island in Japan. Thirty-nine people were killed and more than 3,000 were injured,” Jauhar said. “… Researchers found that there was a 24-fold increase in the number of broken heart syndrome cases in the district one month after the earthquake, compared with a similar period the year before.”

Finding that most of these patients lived near the epicenter of the catastrophe, Jauhar said this gives new meaning to the phrase “home is where the heart is.”

While other natural disasters have caused an uptick of takotsubo cardiomyopathy cases, research has found that populations less prepared to handle disasters experienced a higher risk of developing broken heart syndrome. 

“We can acknowledge that even if our emotions are not located inside our hearts, the biological part overlaps its metaphorical counterpart in surprising and mysterious ways,” Jauhar said.

Jauhar detailed an incident of a prisoner who was made to believe he was being put to death by exsanguination. Jauhar said the prisoner was blindfolded and scratched, which made him believe he was truly bleeding. The study of this incident, from an Indian medical journal, explained that large vases filled with water were even set up to mimic the sound of dripping blood. 

“Finally, the silence was absolute, as the dripping of water ceased. Although the prisoner was a healthy young man, at the completion of the experiment when the water flow stopped, he appeared to have fainted,” Jauhar said. “On examination, however, he was found to be dead, despite not having lost a single drop of blood.”

Describing this as an “emotional death,” Jauhar pointed to other similar incidents of fatality. The commonality of these deaths, according to Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, is that the victims all believed they were defenseless against an external force that would cause their demise. 

“This perceived lack of control, Cannon postulated, resulted in an unmitigated physiological response in which blood vessels constrict to such a degree that blood volume acutely dropped, blood pressure plummeted, the heart acutely weakened and massive organ damage resulted from a lack of transported oxygen,” Jauhar said.

Reinforcing the idea that broken hearts are literally and figuratively intertwined, Jauhar said that even animals experience this relationship. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science conducted a study published in their journal Science, in which researchers fed caged rabbits a high cholesterol diet. Half of the rabbits were given love and attention and were petted, and the study showed these rabbits had 60% less aortic disease than the rabbits that received no attention, even though both groups shared similar cholesterol levels, heart rate and blood pressure.

Japanese immigrants to America were the subject of another study, as coronary artery disease is relatively rare in Japan. However, Japanese immigrants’ rate of the disease doubled when they resettled in Hawaii and tripled when they relocated to the mainland. A study in the 1970s by Sir Michael Marmot and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health found Japanese immigrants who continued to practice Japanese traditions had a much lower prevalence of heart disease, even when their levels of cholesterol and blood pressure matched Americans’ levels.

“The authors concluded that ‘retention of Japanese group relationships is associated with a lower rate of coronary heart disease,’ ” Jauhar said. “… Again, we see the importance of feeling at home in preventing heart disease. If cutting traditional cultural ties increases the risk of heart disease, then psychosocial factors must play a role in cardiovascular health.”

In American society, these factors present themselves in marginalized groups. Black Americans in poor urban areas have a much higher prevalence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease than other groups. While some have pointed to genetics, people in West Africa do not experience these high rates of heart issues. 

Chronic arousal, or stress, appears to be the main cause, as prolonged periods with this stress cause hormonal releases of adrenaline and cortisol, which tighten blood vessels. 

“These, in turn, lead to long-term changes, like arterial wall thickening and stiffening, that increase the blood pressure that the body tries to maintain,” Jauhar said.

Recent research has established a connection between negative affectivity traits, such as depression, anxiety and anger, to heart disease. The Lifestyle Heart Trial published in The Lancet in 1990, Jauhar said, found that “stress management was more strongly correlated with reversal of coronary artery disease than exercise.”

With these studies and others, Jauhar is confident that although these correlations do not prove causation, there are so many findings that exhibit the same patterns: Psychological health plays an important role in heart health. But he is concerned that modern scientific medicine may be at its limits when attempting to solve cardiovascular health issues. 

“We will need to shift to a new paradigm, one focused on prevention (of heart disease) to continue to make the kind of progress to which we have become accustomed,” Jauhar said. “In this paradigm, psychosocial factors will need to be front and center in how we think about health problems.”

Calling for the realization that one’s home, family, job and mental state are deeply rooted in the heart, Jauhar believes psychosocial repair is necessary to treat the heart with love. 

Posing the ideas of community-led initiatives to increase walking and biking rather than supporting sedentary lifestyles, or enhancing public life through conversation, Jauhar said there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. These problems should be addressed on individual or community levels.

“It is increasingly clear that the biological heart is inextricably linked to its metaphorical counterparts,” Jauhar said. “Our mindset, our coping strategies, how we navigate challenging circumstances, our capacity to transcend distress — these things, I have learned, are also a matter of life and death.”

Katherine May speaks on engaging ritual practices to appreciate darkest of times


On a hot, humid August afternoon, Katherine May reminded Chautauquans that a frigid winter is quickly approaching — not just the season, but phases of isolating darkness that are always making their way to the forefront. And humans have no choice but to bear it. 

The internationally best-selling author of Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, May closed Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Embracing the Dark: Fertile Soul Time” on Friday, Aug. 5 in the Hall of Philosophy. She gave a lecture titled “Baking Bread in the Dark: Why Our Winters Replenish Us,” highlighting the importance of rest. 

“By the time summer is at its height, the days are already shortening,” May said. “It sometimes feels as though summer slips away before we’ve begun to get the hang of it.”

Several cultures and religions have celebrations throughout the summer, including Lammas and feast days in August, among others. These holidays during the summer signify a celebration of Earth’s natural cycles. 

But May believes people can grow their understanding of all seasons so they can treasure the darkness of the winter as much as the warmth of the summer. 

“(A better understanding of these cycles) rejects the bland indictment that we must be happy at all times and nothing else, and which instead sees the value of the full spectrum of human emotion, sadness and despair included,” she said. 

To illustrate this idea, May began to explain the process of baking a Lammas loaf. The hard dough is made with a dash of butter and kneaded far beyond when one’s hands would begin to feel the toughness of the bread. 

The baker weaves the dough into an intricate design, and May said the product is glorious and almost too beautiful to eat. Her point was not about the delectable bread, but rather what it represents.

“A Lammas loaf is the work of hours. … It’s slow, involved and skilled,” May said. “It’s not a casual endeavor. It’s a process demanding the whole of your attention. … It is effortlessly embedded with meaning.”

Referring to the baking of bread as a ritual, May said this process can provide one with clarity and a renewed sense of meaning. It gives the baker the opportunity to slow down and be truly present with the rising of the dough. 

“Maybe we (would) have some big questions to ask of the world,” May said. “Maybe we (would) have some concerns. Maybe we’ve been avoiding slowing down for a long time, because we fear what thoughts might well up in that lull. Making bread would invite them in.”

Rituals from myriad cultures and historical periods have long provided humans with purpose and reminded them to take a break, she said.

“We need the pauses that ritual gives us. So much of contemporary life is about the denial of personal darkness,” May said. “We’re supposed to be always upbeat, always available, always bursting with energy and optimism. There’s simply no time for negative feelings. … Ritual invites those things in.”

Baking bread, chanting, singing, dancing, drumming and other practices allow one to tune into the cycles of life and release tension. Engaging in these rituals encourages people to appreciate even the darkest and most difficult parts of the process.

“(Ritual) might draw attention to cyclical time, to the way that things come around again and again,” May said. “That helps us to think about change, about how far we’ve come, about what we’ve lost.”  

When May was in the midst of a dark time, she partook in the ritual of baking bagels to occupy both her hands and her mind. But the toughness of the dough broke her mixer, and the dough refused to rise. She still attempted to bake the “sad specimens,” but they exited the oven as if they were two-weeks stale. She realized the yeast she had used was at least five years out of date. 

“This is how winters arrive,” May said. “It seems like they swooped down on us suddenly, but often in the empty space they open up in our lives. We can trace back their lineage through years of slow unraveling.”

These disasters, May said, are not the fault of one’s unraveling; they are rather a natural part of the cycle. However, they often show when one has not been tending to their needs. 

“We live in a system that never quite seems to find balance,” she said. “… Our own requirements — social, emotional, psychological, spiritual — get perpetually deferred in a life in which everything seems urgent all the time.”

While people try to manage their needs through strict regimens and work schedules, leisure and activity, true balance never seems to present itself.

Pushing away from the fear of failure and thoughts of not being good enough, people add to their load of responsibilities, hoping one day, their perfection will come to fruition. 

“Still, it all comes crashing down around our ears, and we find ourselves sitting in the wreckage completely baffled at how this could have happened,” May said. “We tried so hard to get it right.”

May said the process of wintering is painful and isolating, and described it as a time of great helplessness. 

“Wintering is a process of change, and quite often, that change is negative,” she said. “… (But) wintering might be seen as a process of reckoning with the new facts before us.”

May finds the time of wintering as a beautiful season of realization. It allows people to feel the full spectrum of their feelings, if they allow them in.

May spoke on the process of writing Wintering, published in fall of 2020, sharing that the final draft of her book was due that previous March. May began trying to write the summer prior, but she found herself in the midst of writer’s block, in a season too hot to write about winter. She planned to begin writing in September instead.

But that fall, May began to deal with crisis after crisis, and her plan began to crumble.

“I tried to stick to the plan I had outlined in my book proposal, but that just seemed absurd,” May said. “What on Earth did I know about wintering if I couldn’t avoid all this? It was a joke to think that anyone would listen to me.”

Rather than writing the draft of her book, she detailed the helplessness she felt in journals, which was the opposite of what Wintering was supposed to be. The original plan of the book meant to offer comfort, not show despair. 

“Christmas passed and my manuscript stubbornly remained the same length it had when I wrote the proposal a whole year before,” May said. “With nine weeks left until I was due to submit my book, something broke in me. I had to write something, so it might as well be my own story.”

Although May thought this draft was terrible, this story allowed the reader to walk alongside her struggles. 

“The work we do in darkness is different,” May said. “… It’s urgent, necessary, propelled forward by a different kind of energy. … What pulls out of us in moments of existential threat and suffering can feel external to us, as if handed down by another consciousness entirely. To me, that is evidence of the profound transmission that takes place in these seemingly empty and useless parts of our lives.”

Comparing these times of darkness and wintering as a caterpillar’s chrysalis phase of becoming a butterfly, May said the destruction of one’s old self can reveal a more beautiful and powerful existence.

“The caterpillar digests itself. It dissolves all its tissues until all that is left is liquid and some clusters of cells called imaginal discs, which is the seed for the next stage in its life,” May said. 

We also must undergo transformations of this type in a different sense, May said. People must be open to growth, despite how painful and uncomfortable it can be. 

“If we become permeable, we not only expand our wisdom, but we also merge a little more with the other humanities around us,” May said. “Wintering is always a communal experience. If we let it, it deepens our compassion and wisdom, and draws us a little closer to that beautiful community of all of us across all time.”

She touched on the poem “Dark Night of the Soul,” by St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic and priest, and recognized Cross’ interpretation of the dark night as an ecstatic place. 

“It seems to me that John captures the exact moment after the crisis,” May said. “The moment when we … stop resisting the changes that are already being made (and) can ride in their slipstream instead.”

May is confident that humanity understands darkness better than they might think, no matter how much people may push it away. Humans have always faced darkness, she said, and they will continue to enter dizzying spirals of darkness and light.

“Winter is (not) easy or terrible, but it is a fundamental part of our psyche,” May said. “(Wintering is) an element of a cycle that is, in itself, whole, in which promises to make us whole, too.”

Rabbi Rami Shapiro illuminates power of compassion during dark times


Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series is known for its powerful messages, but it is rare that these messages are shared through the power of collaborative song. Rabbi Rami Shapiro brought nearly every Chautauquan into harmony during his lecture.

Shapiro, an award-winning author or co-author of over 36 books and co-director of One River Foundation, delivered his lecture, “Seeing the Face of God in the Shadow of Our Dark Night,” on Thursday, Aug. 4 in the Hall of Philosophy. 

Expanding on Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Embracing the Dark: Fertile Soul Time,” Shapiro spoke on how to find the divine through compassion in the midst of the wilting world.

“We are in a very dark, terrible time. Don’t worry — it’s going to get more dark and more terrible,” Shapiro said. “There is a way to navigate it, but no way to avoid it. I’m going to teach you how to navigate it.”

Most forms of spirituality bring forth difficult and painful practices for people to connect to the divine; some argue the best practice is through singing, chanting and creating music. So, Shapiro invited Chautauquans to sing a song by Menachem Nachum Twersky, an 18th-century Hasidic mystic from Chernobyl, Ukraine.

This song repeats the lyrics “I am alive” four times to delight in the notion of being alive.  

“It’s just this amazing thing that you exist,” Shapiro said. “… We’re each a unique part of oneness, and that uniqueness has to be celebrated.” 

The next few verses include the lyrics, “And who is this aliveness I am?” Twersky and other mystics believed it was important to recognize that there lies more within a living being than what one may perceive. 

“Who is this aliveness that is me at the moment?” Shapiro asked. “His answer is the holy blessed one, the Divine.”

This idea continues into the last section of the lyrics with the line, “if not the holy blessed one,” reminding everyone that they are an extension of the divine. 

“Every religion has this understanding of this greater divine reality,” Shapiro said. “But this divine reality is not separate from you. It’s not ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’ It’s this reality that is everything.”

It is Shapiro’s belief that everyone is comprised of parts of God, but no one person is entirely God. He used the metaphor of waves in an ocean to illustrate this idea.

“Every wave is an expression of the ocean, but not the full expression of the ocean,” Shapiro said. “No wave is all of the ocean, but the ocean is all of every wave. That’s what we need to remember when we engage with life.”

Describing the current moment as a “global crucifixion of humankind,” Shapiro believes the dark night that humans are enduring impacts all Earth’s life forms. Although it ebbs and flows, this particular darkness may smother the world if humans do not act. 

“Praying for light in the middle of the dark isn’t going to do any good, because the dark time is inevitable. … It’s part of the evolution of the universe,” Shapiro said. “It’s not the first time we’ve been through it. But it may be the one that is most fraught, in the sense that (humans) could do so much more damage than we’ve ever done before.”

Even though the divine is vested within all beings, Shapiro said religious denominations throughout history have engaged in a multitude of power struggles.

“We’re in this dark time, and our religions feed it. They don’t liberate us from it. They thicken the darkness with their teachings,” he said. “The religions I’m talking about are parochial, and parochial religions are always about themselves.”

Some religious myths written by humans have caused anger, Shapiro said, and more division than unity. Shapiro called for these practices, which fuel the destruction of the Earth, to end through the transition into a new understanding.

“Perennial Wisdom is a completely different understanding of what religion is about, and supports a very different myth from the Bible,” he said. “Perennial Wisdom is global. Every religion has its version of Perennial Wisdom.”

Understanding that humans were placed on Earth to serve rather than rule is the core of this wisdom. Humans are supposed to be “the midwives of divine creativity,” Shapiro said. 

He provided the four points of Perennial Wisdom, with the first being that everything is a manifestation of the divine. Most people wonder if God exists, but Shapiro said God is existence itself. 

Point two is the principle that human beings have an intrinsic capacity to awaken their true nature of God through spiritual practices. 

When one understands that the divine envelops everything — other beings and oneself — point three says they must engage with others using the teachings of the golden rule. 

“The fourth point is awakening to your own divinity and the divinity of everything else, and living life according to the golden rule so that every encounter is a blessing to the one you’re encountering,” Shapiro said. “Those two things comprise the highest calling of every human being. That’s your mission.”

These facets of Perennial Wisdom can work like a telescope during the night, finding the smallest of light granules in the depths of the darkness.

“How we manage the dark night (presents) two choices,” Shapiro said. “… You can go down with the ship, angry and aggressive and violent, which is what we’re doing now, or you can go down with compassion, with an expanded sense of consciousness that realizes going down is just part of coming back up.”

He said working through catastrophe with compassion and empathy strengthens the possibility that “the collapse yields to another rebirth.” 

Teaching a simple practice of Perennial Wisdom, Shapiro explained the implementation of the “philosophy of the face.” He guided Chautauquans to see every face — of humans and all beings — as their divinity. 

“If you truly see the face of another … then you’ll awaken to your own,” Shapiro said. “Then you can only treat that person as a blessing. You can only make that meaning when guided by the golden rule.”

To practice seeing the light of the divine aliveness, Shapiro instructed the audience to look to their neighbor and say, “I place the divine before me always,” while turning to another neighbor to say, “You are God.” 

This exercise honors the uniqueness and the divinity vested in every being, but not the separateness. The individuality of each being contributes to the whole of existence and therefore God, he said.

While the darkness of the moment continues to ravage reality, Shapiro said it is not a matter of escaping, but living through it with compassion.

“(The dark night) is the fierce burning love of the Divine Mother who is burning away all the dross in human civilization, all the dross in your life,” Shapiro said. “Everything you cling to is going to melt away to nothing. … You’re going to cling to it, and you’re going to fight it all the way, but ultimately you will lose.”

Closing with Twersky’s song, Shapiro reminded the audience that their holiness and oneness is a powerful force during trying times. 

“It’s about living through the darkness with compassion, with love, with the divine consciousness and seeing that the collapse is part of the process,” he said. “This is what it is to be reality.”

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