Monday, July 27, 2009

An "About Me" Essay for Georgetown

Here is an essay I wrote which was included in an application to Georgetown University's Liberal Studies Program. I will begin studying Islam and Muslim/Christian Relations in the fall...

There is a self-consciousness that comes with being asked to explain my last eleven years since graduating from college. One likes to think it’s been a linear journey, with logical turns of events. But life’s more fun than that. I graduated from college feeling as if the world was open to me, but I didn’t know where to start. Maybe I’ve spent the years since just trying to pare it down.

Soon after graduating from Xavier I moved to El Salvador as a volunteer with the Catholic Church. Days were structured around teaching English to kindergarten through high school students and priests of the Diocese of Chalatengo. More than the classes, I simply lived with the Salvadorans recovering from the trauma of a twelve-year war in their own backyards. We shopped at the open market. We sang with children. We celebrated Christmas. We waited for the bus. We sat with the dying. We ate lots of beans. We waited for the bus. We waded streams. They taught me to make tortillas. I taught them to make Thanksgiving dinner. We waited for the bus. It was a time for personal formation and an experience of the effects of war and violence. Since leaving El Salvador I’ve found myself frustrated by light-hearted talk of war, as if it comes down to a lively game of Risk.

Having grown in my worldview, I returned to the United States in early spring of 2000, intending to enroll in graduate school. But culture shock and a desire for more meaningful work brought me to a position with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. I spent two years living in a trailer, keeping a food bank, running Emergency Assistance (distributing FEMA funds) and learning the social service system of Appalachia. I loved it. I learned about drilling wells, septic systems, 4H, fundamentalism, truancy, unions and patriotism. But I was also in my mid-twenties and truly in the middle of nowhere (the town of Genoa had had one restaurant; it closed the year trains stopped running, 25 years before I moved there). On a whim I applied for the Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship. It speaks to the grace, blessing and beauty of my life that I was awarded the scholarship and chosen to spend a year in New Delhi, India.

I was overwhelmed and challenged by India’s extremes. Delhi is full of dusty crevasses holding images of truth at every angle. I studied International Relations with an emphasis on Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). JNU prides itself on its anti-Americanism. This kept me from being admitted as a regular student to the program in the first place. I was a “casual student” meaning my classes were pass or fail, and I have never received transcripts from the school. I was fine with the set up since it meant I could take time off to learn about successful NGO's in India and Pakistan. Rotary took me to Kolkata and Peshawar and small villages in between.

As a student of religion I simply assumed a year in India would strengthen my appreciation of Hinduism. Though I learned and experienced Hindu celebrations and practices, I found myself drawn to the steady poetic rhythm of Muslims living their faith through daily life. I found comfort in the distant call to prayer, full surrender in worship, and soft words from the Qur’an, all of which reminded me of traditional Catholicism with quiet rosaries in times of need. From mothers in burkas in Peshawar to the longing sound of azaan across the slum on the banks of the Yamuna River, the pull of one faith practiced by many reverberated truth to me. My very real and alive Christian faith could only feel enhanced by the witness of another experience and expression.

After six years of learning about the world I felt a heavy responsibility to begin sharing. I had been approached to consider teaching religion or youth/campus ministry a few times along the way. So I took the leap into mainstream (or at least the Midwest) USA. I moved back to Ohio and took a job as a campus minister at a high school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame.

For five years now I’ve been working with upper-middle class young people. What a position to be in: to expose children of privilege to a new understanding of what “opportunity” really is. And who can’t love the Millennials – these kids who don’t shut down in the face of ambiguity? They challenge the rest of us to sit quietly listening to large-scale societal problems when we want resolution to conflict and suffering in succinct overly simplified answers. I love that when working with these young people I can question how the virtues of humility and compassion can permeate not just the individual but society, and young people today are creating a language that can do just that. They are aching for more; and we, their educators, can’t keep up.

In the summer of 2005, I took advantage of the Teachers’ Institute at Dar al Islam in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It was 10 days of learning about Islam and the ways non-Muslims can teach about it. Georgetown was referenced a number of times but I wasn’t ready to leave a job I so appreciate. However, the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza initiates conversations in classroom, church and social settings. Maybe it’s just my social circle, but we don’t know enough. And what we do know, unfortunately, seems to give rise to antisemitism or islamophobia (or both). As a person of faith, and having seen the effects of war on children, I fear that shrugging my shoulders and telling high school students “It’s complicated” probably, in fact, perpetuates the problem. So, I take this turn in history as a moment to consider being a student again. I hope it will make me a better educator.