Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Cadge highlights chaplains building ‘new spiritual infrastructure’

Carrie Legg / staff photographer Wendy Cadge, the Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University, opens the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series theme dedicated to “Faith and Health: Considering the Center of Wellbeing in America” Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Eboo Patel, scheduled to speak Monday, will give his lecture at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy instead. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

James Buckser
Staff writer

The future of faith is in flux. With churches closing and many eschewing traditional religious affiliation, it’s hard to know what’s next for the practice of religion. 

In her lecture Monday, sociology professor Wendy Cadge said that in these uncertain times, we might learn something from chaplains.

Cadge knows faith well. The Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences at Brandeis University, she is the author of three books on religion, two of them on chaplains.

She is also the founder of the Transforming Chaplaincy Project and the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, where she serves as director. Cadge brought her expertise on this area of faith to the Chautauqua Institution at 2 p.m. Monday at the Hall of Philosophy, where she opened the Interfaith Lecture Series week, “Faith and Health: Considering the Center of Wellbeing in America.” Originally scheduled to give her talk today, she stepped in for Eboo Patel Monday instead.

American religion, according to Cadge, is in the middle of a “tectonic shift in its delivery system.”

“Religion isn’t going away,” Cadge said. “But the congregation, local clergy and other traditional institutions through which my parents and grandparents engaged with religion and spirituality and many of life’s eternal questions, are on the decline.”

Cadge says this varies by location, but the decline in traditional practice is present across the country and in most faiths.

“American religion is changing,” Cadge said. “These changes have been happening for some time, and we’re in a transitional — what the sociologist Ann Swidler would call — an ‘unsettled’ time right now.”

The changes, Cadge said, are affecting the “delivery systems through which we engage with life’s eternal questions” more than the answers to those questions. 

However, that doesn’t mean there’s a dearth of religious thought. New systems are being created in the “spiritual infrastructure of the future.”

“These new delivery systems exist and are being built by many of us in sacred and secular places right now,” Cadge said. “I want to help us identify them, to look and see them with new eyes and broader perspectives.”

She gave examples of the “new pieces” of infrastructure that might include yoga classes, potluck groups, or even the many chapters of the Harry Potter alliance.

“These groups don’t necessarily call themselves religious,” Cadge said. “But they certainly fulfill some of the functions that congregations did for my parents and grandparents.”

She said she sees chaplains fitting within this landscape of non-congregational spiritual practice, and is convinced that learning about the way chaplains work can offer a glimpse into the future.

Chaplains, according to Cadge, are clergy or religious guides who serve outside of houses of worship in places such as hospitals, prisons and universities. In the past, they even traveled in the circus.

For example, chaplains like the Rev. Ann Kansfield serve the spiritual needs of the New York City Fire Department. In her work with the FDNY, Kansfield has been called to scenes with grieving parents and prayed with firefighters at “the height of COVID.”

“Anytime firefighters are at a point where they’re really at a loss, when their back is against the wall, it’s a great time to call a chaplain,” Cadge said.

While religion and spirituality may be changing, people still have spiritual needs. Some people continue to attend traditional institutions, but others go to chaplains, she said.

“I think Ann (has) illustrated for us how she has helped tend to many of our spirits in these moments,” Cadge said. “She sits with people, she comes alongside, she offers water, and tissues and sometimes prayer.”

Chaplains became prevalent in news coverage during the COVID pandemic, Cadge said. Major outlets like The New York Times were taking an interest in chaplaincy.

“I reminded them  … chaplains are not new. They’ve always been working in these places,” she said.

The reason, Cadge said, that they were able to “pivot” so quickly during COVID is because they were already prepped and situated for that kind of work.

“It was the media … seeing them for the first time that was different,” Cadge said. “Not their work.”

About 20% of the American public had contact with a chaplain in the last two years, according to a national survey Cadge and her colleagues at Brandeis conducted in March 2019. They confirmed their findings in 2022 when a survey they did with Gallup showed 19% interacted with a chaplain, and most in healthcare settings.

“That’s 52 million people who had contact with a chaplain, 35 million of them in healthcare organizations,” Cadge said. “Interviews we have conducted in research with people who had contact with chaplains, they tell us how chaplains offer social, emotional and functional components of care.”

Chaplains, said Cadge, are there during the difficult decisions, the bad test results, and withdrawing care. In three stories Cadge shared, people found comfort from chaplains in very difficult times: after the death of a loved one, after a near-fatal car accident and when “bring(ing) out meaning” to help find peace.

“Chaplains are central to health and wellness in the United States, in our health care organizations, where we all need nurturing of spirits,” Cadge said. “They talk often about being present, and what that really means is not just being physically present, but making space for people where, and as, they are.”

Cadge offered three points of conclusion. First, religion is always changing, and these new changes may be bigger than others. Second, a “new spiritual infrastructure” is being built, but isn’t always labeled as such. Third, we can learn from chaplains about these “alternative delivery systems.”

Cadge said while working on a book titled Spiritual Care: the Everyday Work of Chaplains in the 2010s, she found that the chaplains she interviewed were all facing similar problems, but didn’t know each other.

Instead of writing her book as planned, Cadge and her colleagues launched the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab in order to bring chaplains, theological educators, clinical educators and social scientists together in conversation about spiritual care.

“We’re trying to pitch a big tent, to figure out how to care for the caregivers as they try to serve our suffering world,” Cadge said.

Currently, the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab has what Cadge believes may be the largest gathering of chaplains in the world, with 4,500 in a private Facebook group that has “incredibly meaningful and respectful conversations helping one another out.” 

One of the challenges Cadge said chaplains face is in finance.

“How do we build business models to support spiritual care outside of traditional churches and other institutions?” Cadge asked. “How do we move from what has been to what is becoming?”

Cadge said her organization completed a gap analysis to seek out the needs for spiritual care. Cadge asked the assembled Chautauquans for support in increasing access to chaplains.

“I’m hoping some of you will join us, with your talents, with your advice, with your volunteer hours,” Cadge said. “It’s going to take all of us to build the spiritual infrastructure that’s going to nurture our own and our children’s spirits.”

Cadge closed with an anecdote about a woman she called Chaplain Meg and “miracle babies.” While researching her book Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine, Cadge spoke to a number of nurses who had seen miraculous recoveries from poor prognoses. Some chalked it up to medical skill, some to divinity and some were unsure.

“When I talked to Chaplain Meg about these things, she asked me bigger questions about what a miracle is,” Cadge said.

Meg told Cadge a story about a girl with a congenital heart defect who lived a relatively normal life for more than 20 years. Meg met the girl while she was waiting for a heart-lung transplant that arrived too late. After she died, Cadge said, her mother felt “it had all been for naught.” Chaplain Meg disagreed. “I think you had a 25-year miracle,” Cadge quoted Meg saying. “This was a child that you didn’t expect to ever come home. You had her for 25 years.”

Meg told Cadge that she felt most miracles were small, and sometimes add up to a big miracle.

“Usually it’s the little things that happen,” Cadge recalled Meg saying, like when a good day gives a non-communicative patient a chance to say goodbye to their family. “That’s what I think of as miracles.”

Narayanan traces 3 games that, taken as whole, share story of life

Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished professor of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, speaks Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Sara Toth

Ask a Hindu a question, and they’ll tell you a story,  Vasudha Narayanan said. Sometimes it’s not just one story, but a story within a story, or stories within stories. 

And so Narayanan began her talk to close Week Two of the Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “A Spirit of Play,” last Friday in the Hall of Philsophy. She told stories, and stories within stories, all centered on a giant, four-sided board game. On each of three sides of the game are smaller games, and the fourth and final side is a broader look at what those stories, and games, tell us.

Narayanan, a distinguished professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and former  president of the American Academy of Religion, is a preeminent scholar of the Hindu faith. Narayanan’s first story — first game — took the audience back to 1500 B.C., and the composition of the holy texts known as the Vedas.

“Obviously, folks in India (dating back this early) knew about dice games, so they played dice,” Narayanan said. “You know, playing with dice, hanging around and gambling and doing stuff that your mama told you not to do.” 

Dating back nearly as early is the poem “The Gambler’s Lament.” Fast forward a few centuries, 500 B.C. or so, Narayanan said, we find the longest epic poem ever composed — seven times longer that The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, called the Mahābhārata, which contains the Bhagavad Ghita. The Mahābhārata, Narayanan said, centers on a dice game among royalty.

“Gambling is still considered to be a royal game. It’s even considered religious,” Narayanan said. “… Now dice games teach us, of course, about probability, about chance — you have outsourced your fortune to that roll of that dice — and about not having control over anything.”

She’d come back to that, Narayanan said, but first she took the audience to the second side of her board game.

“How do we get from where we are right here in this world? To the other side, to liberation, to emancipation, from the cycle of life and death?” she asked, peeling back the education, ethical and religious layers of her next game: Chutes and Ladders. 

The game, invented in India, was a “pedagogical tool for morality.” Five ladders can take players “up” — asceticism, faith, generosity, reliability, and knowledge. 

Far more snakes — later chutes — exist, highlighting the perils of drunkenness, greed, lust, lying, murder, crime, rage, theft, vanity and vulgarity.

The game was born in the virtues of Hinduism, but the applicability to other faiths — Christianity and Islam, for example, Narayanan said — is due to the simplicity of its design and the universality of its message. As the game evolved through different religious practices and cultures (and Milton Bradley got involved), Chutes and Ladders became “playground friendly.”

“The morality issues are all thrown out; instead you have things like ‘mow the lawn,’ and you go up, you know, those kinds of things,” she said. “Bad things, like ‘eating too many cookies, drawing graffiti, not studying,’ (send you down). It’s very educational, in a very explicit way and heavy-handed way.”

Chutes and Ladders continues to evolve, even with a version dedicated to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviors. But like a game of dice, Chutes and Ladders is still a game of chance.

The third side of Narayanan’s imaginary board game pivots — it’s the side of the game focuses of strategy, control and dominance.

“Chess,” Narayanan said. “… Soviet-era books were big in India.” As a child, Narayanan had one of those books, and she still has it. She referenced it for her lecture.

“It’s a very simple story about chess and dominance,” she said.

A king in India loves chess so much, he asks for the game’s inventor to be brought to him. The king offers the inventor anything the man chooses. The man wants one grain of wheat for the first chess square; two for the second chess square; four for the third, and so on, exponentially.

The king, finding his generosity insulted, orders that the man be given what he’s asked for — assuming it would be just a sack full of rice. He asks minister that evening if the man received his rice.

“No, they’re still counting,” the minister answered. The next morning, the answer was still the same. The rice, exponentially increased for every square on a chess board, was still being counted.

In Narayanan’s Soviet-era chess book, the final number amounts to something like “18,446,744,073,709,551,615” grains of rice. 

That number is off by 85 grains of rice, she said. After all, she joked, it was a Soviet-era book. It’s a story that exists, like Chutes and Ladders, in many cultures. But at the story’s heart is the strategic nature of the game of chess.

“It is a game of strategy, control, power. It pushes you to concentrate helps memory skills, anticipate situations,” Narayanan said.

Contrast that with the first two sides of her imaginary board game, and the games of chance that “threw us into arbitrary universe.”

“Somewhere in between chance and control is what we learn as we grow older,” she said.

All taken together, those three sides make up the game of life, Narayanan said. And learning how to play through chance and strategy means that we can learn to live without regret. 

“It’s creation and recreation,” she said, before closing with lines from  the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

“He says the steps he heard in his playroom are the same that are echoing from start to start,” Narayanan said. “And I thank you, my friends, for being here today in the playroom of ideas.”

Lockhart urges play as way to lean into authentic selves

The Rev. Lakisha R. Lockhart, assistant professor of Christian education at Union Presbyterian Seminary, explores the idea of playfulness in life and theology during her interfaith lecture last Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Sara Toth

When was the last time, the Rev. Lakisha R. Lockhart asked, you played?

“I want you to just to take a moment, and I want you to imagine and just really go back to the last time you played — the last time you actually played; not on accident, when you did it on purpose,” Lockhart opened her lecture last Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. 

Take a minute, go back to that place, she said. What were you doing?

Lockhart spoke as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series and the theme “A Spirit of Play.” Lockhart, an assistant professor of Christian education at Union Presbyterian  Seminary, focuses her research on religious education; practical, liberation and Womanist theologies; ethics and society; multiple intelligences; embodied faith and pedagogies; theological aesthetics’ theopoetics; and, perhaps most importantly, creativity, imagination and play. As she put it last Thursday, she believes in the combination of theory and practice. For her lecture, she wore a shirt emblazoned with the words “Stop Rescheduling Joy.”

Lockhart’s thinking on play comes from “a lot of different places,” she said. She cited Johan Huizinga, a Dutch philosopher who wrote about the culture of play in his book, Homo Lundens — literally, humans who play.

“It’s this beautiful space — it is cultural, it can be cultural, because we all play in different ways,” Lockhart said. In those differences, people can learn from each other, because the ways we play aren’t actually different at all. 

To illustrate this, Lockhart asked her audience to think of the nursery rhyme “Miss Mary Mack.” She didn’t even sing it; just asked Chautauquans to think of it.

“We just had a similar experience, because I didn’t even sing the song — even though I saw you singing it in your head,” she said. “We have a similar experience. And even though we might have different ways of understanding it, we were still able to find a commonality. That’s part of what play can do.”

Like Rabbi Michael Shire the day before her, Lockhart drew on Jerome Berryman, the founder of the concept of Godly Play, and coupled him with English psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who conceptualized the idea of a “true” self and a “false” self.

Play, Lockhart argued, brings about that true self. It creates a space that allows people to live authentically, because it creates a world of possibility.

“We can imagine how we want to show up, who we want to be, and then maybe start putting that into practice,” she said. “It’s this beautiful way of trying on things in a more low-stakes way. But then we still get to see how it works. … This often works really, really well especially for young people, because they’re still figuring out, identity-wise, who they are, what they’re trying to be. … But also, I just think as adults, we should always continue to play. It just makes us better people.”

There’s a duality, Lockhart said, especially in theological spaces, that tends to separate the mind and the body. Like bell hooks, Lockhart argues that the two should go together: “Our body needs our mind, and our mind needs our body.” 

Play, Lockhart said, “is an embodied aesthetic experience and cultural expression. It’s part of what makes us human. It is the ontology of being.”

Humans are naturally playful; but taking an epistemological view, “it is the way we come to know the world.” Further, how we play and how we show up in our play “tells us a lot about who we are, and how we have been formed in our lives, in or faith, in what we think of God,” she said.

The space one creates for play, mental wellness, and self-love, Lockhart said, speaks to the commitment to the survival of, and the flourishing of, everyone. Or, as Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

This thinking has been key to Lockhart’s framing of Womanism, in which play is key, and in her Biblical framing.

“I find the Bible to be very playful,” she said. “I literally cackle when I read the Bible, I promise you; this is my blessing.”

From God creating a giraffe — “Who ever would have thought to making a giraffe? I mean, have you ever really thought about a hippo?” — to images like Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, there is a spirit of playfulness deeply embedded in a deeply serious text. 

“As a Black woman, the fact for me as a Christian, knowing that Christ came in bodily form, means something,” she said. “The fact that it was about flesh and body means that my body matters, and that my flesh matters, and that I need to do something. How do I care for it? How do I tend to it?”

Part of that care, that divine intentionally, should be a sense of both play, and of rest. 

Lockhart took the audience through a game of Red Light, Green Light, but centered around questions of their lives — whether you’re at “Green Light” moments, when things are going wonderfully to plan, or “Red Light” moments when you realized something wasn’t quite working the way you’d like Lockhart said the opportunities within the game can be applied to more serious reflection, “so it doesn’t feel so harsh.”

“Hopefully, as we (wrap up our time here), maybe you want to play more,” Lockhart said. “Maybe now you can maybe think of a place or two to start, but that you will do it on purpose and not just by accident — and that you know it’s OK to do it on purpose, even if you have a plan a little bit of it to start with. You’ll get there and it’s wonderful and it’s amazing. … No matter what, invite other people to play with you, My hope is that you will go and play on purpose.”

Shire outlines 3 ways Jewish tradition enables discovering depth through play

Rabbi Michael Shire, academic director of Hebrew College’s Master of Jewish Education program, speaks about the spirit of play in Judaism’s faith tradition Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy, part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “A Spirit of Play.” HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Sara Toth

Any teacher knows that play is an important tool in the toolkit of education — even, or especially, in religious education.

When Christian theologian Jerome Berryman taught Rabbi Michael Shire a new way of playing, Shire knew he had to introduce a new methodology in the teaching of Jewish religious education.

“Godly Play is a method of playing with sacred story from our faith traditions. That’s the heart of faith formation and spiritual developments,” Shire said to open his presentation as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy, speaking to the theme of “A Spirit of Play.” “…. (Torah Godly Play is a way to) enhance the spiritual development of children and adults through the telling, and the exploration, of sacred story.”

Shire, who is the academic director of Hebrew College’s Master of Jewish Education program, outlined Torah Godly Play as an approach centered on storytelling, combined with “natural artifacts carefully and intentionally included for spiritual resonance” — sand, wood, stone, clay. As an example, he brought with him a model of Noah’s Ark, perched on the podium alongside him. 

Centering stories and playfulness allows for a “time of wandering and a creative exploration,” he said. “This encourages the heightened consciousness and enables the learner to make these sacred stories their own.”

It’s not about telling stories of faith to learn them, but to find meaning within, and hear the spiritual call of, those stories. 

“Stories are a natural way to hear God’s call,” he said. “Playing with those stories is an inherently Jewish way to understand and respond. Drawing upon the Hebrew Bible, the Torah Godly Play invites children into the narrative while leaving room for wonder, creativity and imagination, as they build their own religious language, to express the curiosity as well as the conceptions of a divine presence in their lives.”

Play, Maria Montessori once said, is children’s work. But it’s not restricted to just children, Shire cautioned — play should be the work on anyone who is curious, at any age. Judaism, in particular, has a “lively and interpretive tradition of actively interacting with its holy texts. … Judaism loves playing with our texts, and using this play to discern their hidden meanings.”

Playfulness — long a part of religion, with its “make-believe and fancy dress” — is an expression of freedom, of agency, Shire said. Most importantly, play is conducted for its own sake. Rules are structured by the players themselves, and can be changed by those same players. 

“This is very much how Judaism has structured its literary tradition and the work over centuries to play with the language of sacred text,” he said. “… Being curious about the way the world works, and its implications for making meaning is a key ingredient of Jewish life. But in order not to get too speculative, we keep ourselves grounded in the real world.”

For that grounding, Shire shared three ways Judaism uses both the questioning of and playing with stories to find spiritual depth.

The first is through the literary device of the Midrash — “an interpretive and often playful commentary on the Torah. It fills in gaps in the text or extrapolates meaning to extend the biblical characters motivations.”

The second, Shire said, is  “language play,” which encourages close readings of the text to glean implicit meanings. The first time that play is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is when Isaac plays with his half-brother, Ishmael. Isaac’s mother Sarah views the children’s play as inappropriate — Ishmael is, after all, Hagar’s son. Sarah becomes cruel; her husband Abraham obeys; Hagar and Ishmael are banished. 

“But then comes rescue from divine protection in the form of a well of water,  and a promise that Ishmael will father a great people — but a separate people from Abraham, from Isaac,” Shire said. “The very story is a play on itself,” as Yitzchak, Shire reminded his audience, means laughter. Isaac’s name means to laugh. 

“These children are playing. Yitzchak, laughter, and Ishmael, man of God, they just want to play together,” Shire said. “But the tragic circumstances of their parents, of history, … separate them and their legacies. The interactions between Isaac and Ishmael from then on — to this very day — results in division and conflict rather than play and laughter.”

The third way Judaism questions and plays with sacred story, Shire said, is through religious liturgy “that endeavors to lighten the darkness of Jewish history and religious persecution.” That endeavor is particularly pronounced in the festival of Purim, a “festival of merriments” celebrating the victory of Esther and Mordecai over Haman — an Achaemenid official intent on annihilating the Jewish people.

“The first recorded instance of anti-semitism is turned into a raucous play much to the merriment of young children,” Shire said. 

Grown-ups know the darker side of these celebrations; but as children dressed as Cossacks celebrate alongside adults wearing visible signifiers of their Orthodox Jewish faith, Shire asked, “What could demonstrate the power of play more poignantly than dressing up as the very enemy who wanted to kill you?”

The “wonderful and joyous playing with sacred text,wrestling with God’s meaning for us, seeking to understand that our lack of control in our own lives, or the reasons for our pain and suffering, enables us to become authors of our own search for meaning,” Shire said. 

It gives license to a range of reactions to both the good and bad in life, and play — structured but not necessarily goal-oriented, is “ideal for this kind of spiritual knowing,” Shire said. “It is available and accessible from the youngest learner to the very oldest and it is the foundation upon which to build self awareness and self awareness for ourselves and awareness for others on a lifelong journey of playful growth.”

For children, play comes naturally. Their innate curiosity and imagination, guided by Godly Play, lets them “author their own orientation to biblical story, side by side with trusted adults who wonder with the children together,” Shire said. He concluded by asking his audience to  continue to enjoy the spirit of play embedded in our religious faiths, … in our stories, in our fanciful legends, in our texts, and our interpretations of them.”

In doing so, “we can pass on the vitality, the solace, the joy, the memory, the critical voice, and the spiritual sustenance that gives life to religious experience and faith.”

World-class athlete, coach Lyons shares reverence of Creator’s Game

Rex Lyons speaks with lacrosse stick in hand during the interfaith lecture on July 4, 2023, in the Hall of Philosophy. CARRIE LEGG/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Sara Toth

Growing up on a reservation just south of Syracuse, New York, Rex Lyons said he had a great upbringing in a great community. At the foundation of that was the sport of lacrosse.

“It was the foundation; it was fundamental,” Lyons said in opening his lecture Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme on “A Spirit of Play.” “We talk about the spirit of game, the spirit of play, the spirit of sport, and lacrosse is a great platform for that. I had the good fortune — if you’re a male, and you’re born in one of our territories, you’re one of three things. You’re either a speaker of the language, or you conduct the ceremonies, singing the songs that you need for the ceremonies. Or you’re a lacrosse player. That’s how fundamental it is.”

To illustrate just how important the Creator’s Game is to people of the Onondaga Nation and their cultural tapestry, Lyons held his lacrosse stick in hand.

“It’s something we have extreme reverence for, and I want to share some of that reverence with you today,” he said. “… It’s our gift to the world.”

And Lyons — a world-class  player and coach who was on the original Iroquois Nationals team (before they became the Haudenosaunee Nationals) — is feeling pretty good these days. He had just returned from San Diego and the lacrosse World Championships, where last week the Nationals took bronze. “Not bad,” he said, especially considering the team’s humble beginnings.

“We had a mission of putting a team together … so we can have a place for athletes to go and compete on the international stage, and also a vehicle for some of our political needs and necessities that we’re really trying to implement — our sovereignty, our self determination,” Lyons said. “Lacrosse has provided us a great vehicle for that. It’s been an extraordinary journey.”

From a “mom-and-pop” operation to fielding sponsorships from the likes of Nike, every step of the Haudenosaunee Nationals’ journey has involved the athletes’ spirit of and reverence for the game.

As the Nationals were competing in the World Championships last week, they were also honoring Alfie Jacques, a master stick maker from Turtle Clan who passed away in June at the age of 74. He was, Lyons said, “one of the premier stick makers,” and it was proper to mention his name.

“He was really a force to be reckoned with. He was really a great storyteller,” Lyons said. He was passionate about his work, which enabled Lyons and countless others to continue the tradition of the Creator’s Game. 

Lacrosse is, by its origins, a medicine game, Lyons said.  Anyone who picks up a stick, “we have a game for protection of their health. … We ask for the Creator’s blessing so that he protects our athletes, that they have a strong and prosperous season, and that everybody gets to enjoy the Creator’s Game.” 

When a stick maker goes into the forest, they look for certain characteristics in a hickory tree — characteristics that lend themselves to making a good lacrosse stick.

“While he’s doing that, he’s already communing with the natural world. There’s a whole process of thanking all the life-giving forces that brought this tree to maturity, the winds, the thunders that bring the rain,” Lyons said. “…  (In doing this,) you’ve already started a different process where you’re communing now with the natural world, and you’re in concert with it.”

Stick makers don’t just harvest trees; they plant them. Those trees represent all that grows; the leather represents the animal nation, as deer are considered the leaders of all animals. The interlocking weave represents all the clans and families of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy, “all arm in arm, so to speak,” he said.

The ball is an actual medicine ball that hasn’t been used yet in a ceremony.

“You have all that grows all of nature. You have the animal nation, you have the families, the human beings linked together in concert with the medicine, here playing the Creator’s favorite game,” Lyons said. “He loves nothing more than a great contest. Win, lose or draw, it brings a greater joy. We all win. We all get to experience that vitality.” 

Lacrosse is about working together for a common goal and the common good — athletes understand that nothing can be compartmentalized or put in a silo, because “that’s not how life works,” Lyons said. “We’re all connected, whether we understand it or not. We’re all part of this world. … We understand that we have a duty and a responsibility to those life-giving forces as Indigenous people.”

When talking about the overlap of the natural world, individual and communal responsibilities, and the power of tradition, lacrosse exists at that intersection — and it provides an opportunity for an important truth.

“It just brings us closer to connect; it brings us closer together,” Lyons said. “We celebrate our differences, and we celebrate our similarities. We’re a lot more alike than different, no matter where you go. We’re human beings. We’re a family.”

Drawing on life experiences, VanDerveer shares what makes for team excellence in sports

Tara VanDerveer, the Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women’s Basketball at Stanford University and winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball, opens a week on “The Spirit of Play” for the Interfaith Lecture Series Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. VanDerveer drew on her professional career and her experiences at Chautauqua to impart lessons of play and sportsmanship to her audience. Jess Kszos/staff photographer

Sara Toth

Why, Tara VanDerveer wondered Monday afternoon, would a basketball coach deliver the opening talk of a week for the Interfaith Lecture Series?

Part of being a basketball coach is praying a lot, she admitted. But there was a broader reason.

“ ‘The Spirit of Play’ describes me,” VanDerveer said as she opened her lecture Monday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. “I love to play sports and games, and my career is coaching the game of basketball. My story is a love story.”

VanDerveer is the Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women’s Basketball at Stanford University, where she’s been the head women’s basketball coach since 1985. An inductee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, VanDerveer is the winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball and the winningest active coach in men’s and women’s Division 1 basketball.

It’s a long list of bona fides that includes five-time national coach of the year, 17-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, 14 NCAA Final Four appearances, 25 Pac-12 regular-season titles, 15 Pac-12 Tournament crowns and 34 trips to the NCAA Tournament. 

But before the accolades and titles, VanDerveer was a Chautauquan, and it was here, in her youth, that she developed that love for, and  spirit of, play.

Football, baseball, tennis, ping-pong — all were for the taking as a kid growing up outside of Schenectady, New York. Her childhood wasn’t just one of sports, but games, Scrabble and Bridge every Friday.

“My parents set the tone,” VanDerveer said. “… The favorite thing, for my dad, was going to the lake. The last day of school, he’d have the car parked facing out. You could come home, change your clothes, use the bathroom, and get in the car. We would eat on the way to the lake. In 1962, this was the first time our car took us to Chautauqua.”

The first thing her parents did at Chautauqua? Sign VanDerveer up for Boys’ and Girls’ Club. She made lasting memories; more importantly, she made lasting friends — Chautauquans she called by name from the podium, remembering the hours of canoing, sailing, playing capture-the-flag.

Bridging the Week One themes dedicated to friendship, to the Week Two themes on games and play, VanDerveer said that “sports is such a connector. You love to play with the people that you’re close to. And so teams that are really bonded, play better.”

VanDerveer would know, and over the course of her lecture she took her fellow Chautauquans on a journey through the moments in her professional career — from the 37 words of Title IX that “changed the trajectory of (her) life” to her gold medal turn as coach of USA Basketball at the 1996 Olympic Games — and what those moments (and Chautauqua) have taught her.

“Do you know what the number one thing is on recruit lists? If they’re looking at Stanford and they’re looking at other schools, what is the number one thing that they want?” VanDerveer prompted the audience. “Take a guess at what they will say is number one. Winning? No. Volunteering? No. Friends. They want relationships.”

In an age of rampant technological growth and the rise of social media, people want friends; sports and games are “a big part of helping develop that teamwork, learning to trust  in more than ourselves, (in something) bigger than ourselves.”

The first year VanDerveer came to Chautauqua — 1962 — happened to be the first year that she played basketball in gym class at her school. She was hooked. But a girls’ basketball team didn’t exist. She had to play alone.

“I’d imagine I was taking the winning shot or winning free throw. … It was pure fiction because that was not happening,” she said. “My parents would call me into the house and say ‘Tara, basketball is never going to take you anywhere. Do your algebra homework.’ (But) I knew algebra wasn’t taking me anywhere (either).”

VanDerveer, itching to get near the court in any way possible, became the team mascot instead. She was fired in two weeks; she wouldn’t stop taking the bear head off her mascot costume.

She became a “sponge,” she said, soaking up all she could from watching the boys’ practice, and in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, she finally had a team to join. 

Summer basketball camps and coaching clinics prepped VanDerveer for her career. Over the years, she’s seen what hard work and deep relationships can do for a team.

“The teams that I coach that demonstrate great spirit of the game have certain characteristics,” VanDerveer said. “I think they’re hardworking. They’re dedicated. They’re disciplined. They’re unselfish. They’re team-first players. They’re resilient. Their losses build resolve and determination. They show gratitude. They have fun. And they have a sisterhood.”

Sandel presents philosophical case for friendship in ‘good life’

Adam Sandel, author of Happiness in Action: A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life, taught as a Lecturer at Harvard University, Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York, and former Genesis World Record holder for most pull-ups in one minute, presents his lecture on friendship closing out week one of the 2023 Interfaith Lecture Series at 2:00 p.m. Friday, June 30, 2023, at Hall of Philosophy. BRETT PHELPS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Sara Toth

Some years ago, at the end of the semester, Adam Sandel’s students asked him a question: How has philosophy changed the way you live? 

He paused, thought about it, and gave a textbook answer: Philosophy can help someone develop an independent mind. It can help challenge conventional wisdom. It can help someone assess what they might have taken for granted. Then he thought a little bit more.

“I came to an answer that I think it’s better actually because it’s a little bit more concrete,” he said. “And that’s that philosophy has taught me the significance of friendship.”

That confused his students, who had spent much of their studies reading philosophy texts that spoke to issues of justice, and little about friendship. But Aristotle, Sandel told them, did write about friendship; it’s a virtue, the great philosopher posited, and one of the most necessary aspects of life.

This was Sandel’s springboard for his presentation at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of — appropriately — Philosophy as he closed the Interfaith Lecture Series Week One theme: “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge.” With his lecture, “What Friendship Really Means,” Sandel drew a distinction: The meaning of friendship lies in the difference between a friend and an ally.

“Allies are good. They’re important. They keep our lives moving the world moving. But they’re not friends necessarily not friends in the genuine sense,” said Sandel, who is the author of Happiness in Action: A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life and an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York. “Friendship in the genuine sense, I think, is friendship that has to do with more than just a goal. More than just an accomplishment. A friend is someone who helps you put your goals in perspective. When you fail, who helps you see the bigger picture? Who helps you see that?”

Amidst the incoherence and messiness of life, a friend can help interpret your story, return you to a sense of self. A friendship has a shared history of mutual commitment; allies, on the other hand, can materialize with the shake of a hand, and dissolve with the accomplishment of a goal.

“Friendship, by contrast, has a very different temporal structure. We all know it takes a while to make real friends. You can’t just make your friend instantly,” he said. “There really is no such thing as love at first sight when it comes to friendship.”

But once a friendship — a true friendship — develops, it reaches out “almost infinitely into the future.”

Sandel made another distinction, essential for understanding happiness and a good life: there’s activities to do for the sake of a goal, and there’s activities to do for the sake of the activities themselves. 

“Friendship is one of the most very powerful forms of activity for the sake of itself. Think of a moment when you were fully immersed in what you were doing intensely joyfully,” Sandel said. “Chances are you were with friends or family; for the purposes here, it’s the same idea.”

Sandel suggests that friendship for the sake of itself is a “way of being together that involves understanding,” he said. That’s an important point, since one of the “philosophical knocks against friendship is that friendship is actually a kind of sentimental, emotional relationship only, and that we make friends (only to) become habituated to sharing the sorrows and pains and pleasures of the people who are closest to us.”

Sandel cited philosopher-economist Adam Smith, who criticized friendship as antithetical to reason, and then pushed back against the 18th-century thinker.

“Friendship involves each understanding and dialogue,” he said. “Friendship is a form of understanding  — understanding each other and understanding something, some activity or some situation. Those … are always at play in friendship, and friendship in the most genuine sense and the friendship that is conducive to happiness.”

Much of philosophy considers the nature of self-possession, and it’s often thought that “being strong and powerful or self-possessed individual is different from being a good friend,” Sandel said. “But I think the two go together, and I think it’s important to consider friendship as a way in which we come to understand ourselves.”

Even when we consider solitary acts — bold ones of  self-possession, self-confidence,” friendships are “lurking in the background,” Sandel said. Think about pep talks, and the imagination of talking to yourself as you would have a friend talk to you. 

“Actually the friend is there; at least, the potential friend is there. You just don’t see him,” Sandel said. “It’s very important to look at that to understand the depth of friendship in our lives. One can be a friend himself or herself. … Friendship and self-possession can go together.”

There’s a reason that Enlightenment philosophy says comparatively little about friendship — that school of thought tended to view how history developed, and was developing. 

“The world is moving in a direction that is absolutely more prosperous, more just more technologically advanced than in past times. The very term ‘enlightenment’ captures that self-understanding,” he said. “If you ascribe to that worldview, a kind of linear understanding of progress, … friendship tends to take a backseat to alliances.”

This stands in contrast to the Greek thinking of friendship, which existed in a world “written with tragedy rather than progress,” Sandel said. Thus, “friendship rises to immense significance because friendship is what allows us to keep going to redeem ourselves to redeem life when things go terribly wrong.”

What previous schools of philosophy missed, Sandel argued, is the ability of friendship to help us understand ourselves and understand each other; reason and justice can’t be learned in the abstract, which is why friendship is so important.

Finally, Sandel said, friendship helps us understand our experience of time, and the passage of time. The future is “the moment lying ahead,” the goal to be accomplished; the present is us “working feverishly” to accomplish that goal; maybe the past is an accomplishment, already “fading into oblivion.” Or maybe it’s a failure.

“We have no moment that lasts,” Sandel said. “Everything that approaches fades away.” Here is where friendship comes in.

“Think back to that basic expression of commitment: No matter what happens, I’ll stand by your side,” he said. 

To say that with conviction, one must have a strong sense of the past; that past animates the “here and now, a past that’s very much active.” Friends can be that grounding for each other, and help each other navigate a “future that’s utterly unknowable, unforeseeable, unfathomable, mysterious.”

“The meaning and weight of the commitment (between friends) surely depends on a future that’s radically open ended,” Sandel said. “And not just the future of goal-oriented striving to achieve this kind of fullness to time and possibility in every moment — this what friendship in the highest sense does for us. Coming to that understanding of time and living in the spirit of such an understanding, I think is essential to finding a happiness that lasts.”

White calls for revolution of telling friends: ‘I love you’

The Rev. Victoria Atkinson White, managing director of grants for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, delivers her presentation as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jess Kszos / Staff Photographer

Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff writer

Even the holiest of people need a break. Not just a vacation or sabbatical — a break. Pastors and faith-rooted leaders alike have their own families, communities and lives. They have to forge onward without losing their minds.

The Rev. Victoria Atkinson White delivered her lecture on holy friendship at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy to continue Week One of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge.”

White is a writer, pastor, designer, coach, facilitator and teacher. She hones these skills through her work at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School to cultivate and support Christian institutions and its leaders.

White spends her time with pastors and faith-rooted leaders in their 20s to 40s who are figuring out what it’s like to live life in and alongside their communities. These people often have many questions about what their lives are supposed to look like, how to do their job or how to move forward in what may be seen as impossible times.

“I’m guessing that maybe these questions are not unique to 20-, 30- and 40-something-year-old pastors and faith-rooted leaders,” White said. “If we are living as thinking human beings in the world, we are less likely (to be) asking these questions our whole life long.”

Admittedly, she has more questions than answers, and White said she considers it a privilege to work with faith leaders.

“They’re wanting to do good in the world, some through traditional structures because they grew up with them,” White said. “Some are suspicious of institutions and they’re putting their energy into starting new ones. They all want to do good work in the world through the lens of their faith.”

Along with their career-focused questions, White said she often gets asked how to sustain work, energy, budgets, family, faith and sanity. 

She likes to turn those questions back on them with her own: “What are you doing to sustain yourself?” and ”What are you doing to keep yourself healthy, whole, focused and faithful?”

“If you aren’t keeping yourself healthy, your organization organized, (then) your family, your budget, your community — they don’t stand a chance,” she said. 

Typically, the person retorts that they have resources in place, or are taking vacations, sabbaticals or date nights. Those aren’t unnecessary, she said, and she highly encourages “all of those things collectively and individually, especially date nights.”

However, “there is one thing I believe that is absolutely critical to the sustainability and flourishing of faith-rooted leaders that is far too often overlooked and undervalued,” White said. “That is holy friendship; holy friends.”

This doesn’t mean casual friends and surface-level conversations, but friends who know each other holistically.

“So many of our clergy and faith-rooted leaders are lonely, isolated and feel as if they are living and leading in a vacuum, even when they’re surrounded by people every day,” she said. 

She cited a report from the Surgeon General about the loneliness epidemic, which has been mentioned multiple times by the week’s speakers in both the morning and afternoon.

“Social isolation is not just a problem. It’s an epidemic,” White said. “That means our friendships can literally mean life and death. Research shows that social isolation, or a lack of friends, weakens our immune system.”

It also makes people more susceptible to things like Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disruption, diabetes and cancer, she said. According to the report, the only thing more detrimental to someone’s health than social isolation is smoking.

“When I went to seminary, I was taught to be very careful about the friends I developed, especially in my congregation or my organization,” White said. “Some of this, I’m sure, is because I was a woman. However, my male counterparts were taught the exact same thing.”

White was told to always make sure her words and actions could never be used against her, and that relationships were messy. She was taught the way of ministry should be her top priority, so she was “literally set up to be lonely.”

“If we spend years investing in educating a young pastoral leader and then we send them to an isolated congregation, and they have been taught to not be friends with them,” White said, “why on Earth are we acting surprised when they’re lonely, burnt out and making bad decisions?” 

Whatever they may be called — best friends, soulmates, family, BFFs, ride-or-dies, besties or “bruh” as her 13-year-old son so eloquently puts it — people need people.

“You can call these people whatever you want,” White said. “I call them holy friends. Holy friends are mutual and sacred relationships deeply formed in God’s love.”

To break it down more, she described these friendships as mutual, vital contributors to each other’s thriving. 

“Let me introduce you to my holy friend, Amy,” White said. “We FaceTime regularly and we rarely end a call without saying some form of ‘I love you and I couldn’t do this without you.’”

This helps Amy and White remember that they’re stronger, more creative, more resilient, braver and “definitely more loving because of each other than we ever would be apart.”

She then recalled a “fantastic meme” that goes, “Tell your friends you love them. Tell them a lot. Make it weird.” 

“I love that meme because of the truth of it,” White said. “We don’t tell our friends enough. We don’t tell anyone enough because it can feel weird. There’s intimacy involved. There’s a fear of rejection there.”

White said she wants people to reevaluate and enter the revolution with her — the revolution of telling their friends they love them, a lot. 

“Tell them a lot,” she said. “Tell them until it’s no longer weird. Tell your friends you love them so you can both revel in the mutuality of your friendship.”

Nathan, another of White’s holy friends, is “most definitely one of the ways that God is using me to form me into being the person God would have me to be.”

A holy friendship is what White said is the “antithesis” of a traditional, even transactional friendship shaped by consumerism and capitalism.

“A lot of the time, friendships are made and chosen based on having things in common,” she said. “Casual friendships are often the currency by which the world operates. They are formed through our jobs, our churches, our neighborhoods (or) our favorite sports teams.”

Holy friendships, on the other hand, are formed based on contribution. 

“I’m certain that I could not have the life I lead right now without my holy friends beside me,” White said. “I don’t think I’m alone. I think you need them to flourish, too.”

White said she invites people to listen and see if they recognize similar traits in their friendships. Holy friendships tend to have three things in common.

“One, they validate our past,” she said. “Two, they hold space for us in the present, and three, they help us midwife a vision for the future.”

In pursuit of validation, holy friends come and listen and decide what they need at that moment. 

During a time when White was “painfully betrayed” by an organization in which she had invested a lot, she started to only see the bad. She told her friend Dave that her new organization was great, but she was ”waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Dave told her: “Victoria, you have done this research in this new organization. Everything I’ve heard you say is positive and healthy and hopeful. And I think you should trust that the shoe is going to drop. It always does. Shoes are manageable.”

He then went on to say that what happened to her, the betrayal she felt, wasn’t a shoe. It was “the rug being ripped out from underneath you.”

White said Dave gave her a gift at that moment.

“In those few sentences, he validated my painful experience,” she said. “He affirmed my instincts that the work I did to find a place of health and hope was important. He reminded me that no organization is perfect.”

This validation led White to help her holy friends “call out the demons of negative self-talk.” She compared holy friends to the “story editors” of life.

“We share our fears and our failures, our hopes and dreams, and we reveal parts of ourselves few people will ever see,” White said.

She and her friend Jean use the phrase “holding each other’s baskets.” It means one person can share whatever they’d like with the other person; that person will hold onto it; and then they’ll ask what the first person wants out of the conversation.

“I begin to feel lighter and lighter and less burdened because Jean is holding all my thoughts and feelings and frustrations in the moment,” White said. “As I feel lighter, I gain clarity and discern solutions to some of my problems.”

White said her main goal is to advocate for and support holy friendships. 

“While you’re at it, nurture your own holy friendships, the mutual and sacred relationships that are deeply formed in God’s love,” she said. “… Love your holy friends. Be a holy friend and share your stories so that others will follow in your beautiful and holy example.”

Al-Samawi shares story of life-saving interfaith friends

Mohammed Al-Samawi, founder of Abrahamic House, takes a selfie with the crowd after his lecture Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff writer

Friendship looks different for everyone. It can be a long-lasting relationship, or quickly born of the kind acts of strangers. For Yemeni refugee Mohammed Al-Samawi, it’s both. His story of friendship and activism is the defining one of  his life.

Al-Samawi, author of The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America, delivered his lecture at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Two of the Interfaith Lecture Series themed, “Holy Friendship: Source of Strength and Challenge.”

To lighten the mood ­— his story included, after all, death threats, and safety officers lined the perimeter during his talk — Al-Samawi warned the audience he has an accent, and would try to speak slowly while explaining his main points: friendship, the power of interfaith engagement and the power for change.

Due to a disability, he was not able to do most things young boys enjoy, like ride a bike or play football. 

“Even though I had a disability, I have amazing parents; both of them are medical doctors,” Al-Samawi said. “Actually, all my siblings and my parents are medical doctors. I’m the only one who is not a doctor in the family.”

His family taught him that, even with the disability, God had a mission for him. Sometimes it isn’t seen right away, but one day it would become clear.

“Because of my disability, I was having a difficult time having friends,” Al-Samawi said. “Other kids my age were making fun of the way I walk (and) the way my hand looks. But I was always trying to show them that even if I have a disability in my body, I don’t have a disability in my mind.”

This is why he learned English, “to show them that I can do things they cannot do.” 

As a person who loves love, Al-Samawi said he’s always felt connected to God and could always talk to God — then, “something amazing” happened.

“When I was 23 years old, I met a Christian teacher named Luke,” he said. “Luke was working in Yemen. For me, I had the chance to practice my English, finally, with someone and we were talking a lot and he became a father figure for me.”

Not to be confused with the love for his own father — Al-Samawi said his father is “an amazing human being.” But with Luke, he could talk about girls and other things “that I’m not able to talk with my dad about.”

One day, Luke told Al-Samawi he had to leave Yemen in three months. 

“I felt sad that a friend that, finally I know, will go away from me,” he said. “I wanted to get him a gift. A gift, so when he got back to his country (that) he would remember me always.”

He searched for various tangible gifts, ranging from a watch to perfume to a ring. Then, on a Friday in the mosque, the Imam started praying for what Al-Samawi described as “religious extremism” against Christians and Jews.

“The first thing that came to my mind is that ‘Oh my God, Luke is going to be in hell and I need to save his soul,’ ” Al-Samawi said. “So that was my gift for him. I wanted to save his soul from hell … by converting him to Islam.”

But how? He bought Luke a copy of the Quran in English.

“I told him, ‘If you care about our friendship, I want you to read it,’ ” Al-Samawi said. “He’s amazing — he didn’t tell me at that time that he had already read it.”

Luke told Al-Samawi he would take the book on one condition, and he agreed. The condition was Al-Samawi had to read the Bible, and Luke gave it to him hidden in a green plastic bag. Hidden, because if anyone found out Luke had gifted the Bible, or Al-Samawi had received it, they would both be persecuted. 

Nonetheless, Al-Samawi brought the Bible home, started reading and was instantly intrigued by Christianity. Through reading the Bible, he came to better understand Luke, as well as the Christian Ethiopians in Yemen. 

Al-Samawi decided he wanted to reach out and hear more from both Christians and Jews, so he searched “Israeli” on Facebook.

“The truth is, they have a lot of pretty girls,” he said. “I didn’t know how to use Facebook so I started adding them as friends — as you can imagine, nobody accepted my request.”

He then sent a message along the lines of, “Greetings from Yemen, I know that you’re a Jew. I know that you are from Israel. What do you think of Yemen? What do you think of Muslims? Yours sincerely, Mohammed.”

Looking back, Al-Samawi said he could see how the message would have been seen by those on the receiving end.

“It’s like a Nigerian prince asking for a million dollars,” he said. “But the amazing thing (was) that people responded to my message, and I started having my own (interfaith) journey.”

Through these conversations, Al-Samawi learned more and more about Christianity and Judaism from those he corresponded with. He also traveled to meet these people in different countries and ended up meeting a gay Jewish breakdancer, and a stand-up comedian named Justin Hefter at a conference in Jordan.

After returning to Yemen, he shared his stories with friends and family. His friend’s father accused him of being an agent for Mossad.

“It was a really hard time, because I wasn’t only afraid (for) myself — I was afraid (for) my family,” Al-Samawi said. 

He decided he needed to leave his family. He moved to another city, but was trapped by an extremist group raiding his house at the outset of the civil war in Yemen, which is still ongoing.

He hid out in his apartment and prayed while al-Qaeda ramsacked the neighborhood. Al-Samawi’s prayer led him to post on Facebook, asking if anyone could help him. 

Daniel Pincus, the previously mentioned breakdancer, reached out and “opened a window of hope for me.” Four people — who had never met, had no connection, nor any military evacuation skills — called in every favor they had to help Al-Samawi get out of Yemen. 

Megan Hallahan, a Christian, sent a message out to her friends asking if anyone could help her friend in Yemen escape from his apartment. She didn’t mention Al-Samawi by name, but Hefter knew him and offered Al-Samawi’s help to the man — not realizing he was the man in need of help.

News of Al-Samawi’s situation reached Jewish woman Natasha Westheimer. The four of them reached out to senators, embassies and governments around the world asking them for help.

“A lot of people didn’t even respond to that request,” Al-Samawi said. “But there is one country that responded, which is India. India, at that time, did an evacuation for the Indians who live in Yemen.”

The four individuals reached out to former Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who had a disability similar to Al-Samawi’s. When Kirk heard his story, he reached out to the Indian government.

Hefter saw a tweet about the evacuation and asked Al-Samawi if he saw a military boat, and told him that was where he needed to go. He found himself among 100 Yemenis trying to get to the vessel, but couldn’t get there without a small fishing boat. 

“(The boat owners) were taking advantage of us, of course,” he said, requiring the refugees to give them money, or their phones, “in order for them to let us actually go through to the military ship.”

Someone on the ship called out Al-Samawi’s name over a megaphone, and as he raised his hand, they said they would take all the Yemenis in search of refuge. The Indian government was only expecting one refugee, but took and fed all 100 of them. 

Al-Samawi received seven invitations to come to the United States, but he never expected the American embassy to grant him a visa. They did. 

Pincus’ friend surprised him by buying Al-Samawi a business class ticket from Djibouti to San Francisco. While grateful, this raised two problems.

One, he had no luggage nor taken a shower. Next, as a Yemeni, he wasn’t permitted  a one-way ticket to the United States; it had to be a two-way ticket.

“When I was in Frankfurt, the police stopped me and they said ‘You cannot go to the United States,’ ” Al-Samawi said. “I don’t know what changed their minds, but I think maybe they were afraid that I would apply for asylum in Germany.”

The police changed their minds and said “the Americans gave him the visa, let them handle it,” and he arrived in San Francisco.

“A lot of Americans, I don’t think they realize how much this country is beautiful,” Al-Samawi said. “I wish they knew that we are so lucky to be in this land, having this freedom that we have right now.”

When he came to the United States, he didn’t want to continue his interfaith work. He wanted to work at Starbucks.

“I wanted to start fresh and forget about what happened to me,” Al-Samawi said. “But because I started talking more about my story, my story became popular in a lot of ways.”

A movie offer was the last thing on his mind when he arrived in the United States, but Al-Samawi was approached by producer Marc Platt, wanting to turn his story into a film. 

Next came a book deal, with about 12 different offers from various publishers. While he was glad to tell his story, when he watched the events of Jan. 6, 2021, unfold, it gave him flashbacks to Yemen in 2015. 

“I decided that I wanted to do something because I love the United States,” Al-Samawi said. “I want to give back a little bit of what freedom I am having here. So, with the help of the four individuals who helped me out, I created an organization called the Abrahamic House.”

The Abrahamic House is a multifaith co-living and co-creating space to learn, share, pray, celebrate, connect and serve. The organization has a fellowship allowing young professionals to stay in the house for free, as long as they are of Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Bahá’i faith.

“They need to live in the house, go to their work (and) go to their universities,” Al-Samawi said. “But every weekend, they need to do events that speak against hate and speak more about the peaceful things in our own religions.”

Through this work, Al-Samawi spends his time advocating for interfaith peace. Now living in Washington D.C., he spent the last month in Jordan reuniting with his family. While not in total support of his work, they want him to be happy. He hopes one day they can join him in the United States.

“I’m still, by the way, not an American,” Al-Samawi said. “I’ve been held in this country for seven years. But, by the end of this year, I will finally be able to apply for the nationality.”

He is still grateful, and said the love of God created people from different nations, times and religions. 

“Imagine this: We are in this beautiful land that only has one tree from the same type. You will never appreciate the beautiful things around it,” Al-Samawi said. “But, because we have different trees (and) different types, you can really appreciate the beautiful things about it. And I think that’s what America is for me today.”

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.”

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