Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of Love

The great prophet of love, John Lennon, once had the “hope [that] someday you'll join us,/And the world will be as one.”

To me, today was definitely one of the days that epitomizes this beautiful dream. Before this day, I never would have imagined myself in the midst of a gathering of Stanford students, holding hands, and singing songs of love and peace in solidarity with my friends and my community. It seemed a little too hippyish in my imaginings, yet interestingly, this morning I found myself in this exact situation.

Having never contributed to this blog before or participated in a rally of any real significance before this today, I wonder what it is that inspires me to put my thoughts into words—how does a young Muslim American woman such as myself find herself swaying in a circle of peace, singing “Hiney ma tov,” arm in arm with her Christian and Jewish friend? How does a young man find the courage to play “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipe in front of a crowd of hundreds of people? How do Stanford college students, deprived of sleep and accosted by various obligations, make time to wake up at the crack of dawn (a little bit of poetic license here) and make their way to the Hillel center to stand united in their call for peace?

I believe that the reason was love. It was love of our neighbor and our friend and our love of justice and human rights that got us to the lawn this morning. It was love that helped us drown out the sounds of hate that the WBC yelled in the midst of this gathering, and it was love of religious freedom and respect for sexual freedom that gave us the courage to stand up to those ugly signs displayed by the WBC members. It was love that gave power to our voices as each one of us recited our pledge of “We Stand United,” each phrase gaining strength as more hearts and souls and voices joined in, forming a “brotherhood (and sisterhood) of love”.

As the rally came to a close, I looked out over the crowd, and could not help but feel proud of the grace we showed this morning. We may not have changed the bigoted attitudes of the WBC or others who carry such hate and discrimination in their hearts, but we stood up for ourselves and for our neighbors. Our songs of love continued to reverberate in my heart and allowed me to understand that the fight for peace and justice is just beginning. And from this beginning, each of us can continue to learn and stand up for what is right—because if we don't care, who will?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Today, we stood united.

For those of you who aren't on the FAITH e-mail list, or otherwise associated with Stanford University, today, the campus was put to a test. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church came to Stanford with signs saying "God hates America," "God hates Jews," "You will eat your babies,"and were bent solely on dividing our community and sweeping in hate. From my perspective, Stanford passed the test.
Standing along with the couple hundred students who made their way to the Hillel lawn this morning at 8am, we showed WBC, but most importantly, we showed ourselves that this community did not tolerate hatred; rather, we chose to show support and love. Looking around the crowd this morning, it was so encouraging to see people from every end of the social spectrum singing "We've got the whole world in our hands," and meeting people they never knew while actively discussing the importance of coming out and showing their support this morning. Yes, I seriously heard students saying, "this is the most important thing I've done this school year."
As some members of FAITH were saying at a meeting last night, Westboro Church, itself, is insignificant, but the fact that the hate exists and is willing to travel to promote that message is the broader issue. From some people I've spoken to, I have heard the opinion that it was discouraging that it took outsiders to come to our campus to instigate this feeling of unity. I, personally, disagree. I think, as previously stated, the Westboro was insignificant. However, the fact that the student body is now aware that these types of group exist and we, as a community, have shown that hate-mongering and bigotry will not be tolerated here, shows that these sentiments of support and unity existed before, and now it is up to us, the students, to carry over this feeling into action for the future. Such is one aspect of the mission of FAITH, to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance through action, and I think we've seen that our community is ready and receptive to these types of ventures, and I, for one, am inspired and reinvigorated. In the words of the Iranian philosopher, Baha'u'llah, "So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth." Let us further light this world with our unity and love for one another.

In peace,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon on Multifaith Service, Sunday, Jan. 24th

Why We Can't Wait: The Legacy and Promise of Interfaith Leadership”

gurur brahmā gurur viṣṇuḥ

gurur devo maheśvaraḥ

guruḥ sākṣāt paraṁ brahma

tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ

I bow down to my Teacher, the embodiment of Truth, and to all those gathered here today.

Sometimes I wonder how we dare invoke the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I still tremble when I hear his sermons, the fervor of the Hebrew prophets rippling through his words. King remains perhaps the greatest moral witness in American history. He stood at the vanguard of a nonviolent revolution against white supremacy (both overt and covert), against the U.S. military-industrial complex, and against systemic capitalist exploitation of the poor. He was nourished by the spiritual force of a people who found the strength to sing, even when “strange fruit was hanging from the poplar trees.” Their movement has etched itself in the hearts of those of us who still believe in what Cornel West calls “this precious democratic experiment.” From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Beyond Vietnam, King demonstrated a radical commitment to justice, liberation, and fellow-suffering love. But there is another narrative which strings together these two poles of his activist life: the narrative of interfaith leadership. And that's the theme of my reflection today: the legacy of Dr. King as an interfaith leader, and the urgency of recapturing that story.

As a young, twenty year-old seminary student in Pennsylvania, like many of us still negotiating his own identity, King would hear a great Christian preacher, Mordecai Johnson, give a lecture one night on Christian pacifism. He listened to Dr. Johnson describe his trip to India, where he had found a man who embodied the ethic of Christian love in the 20th century—a Hindu named Mahatma Gandhi. Now King's reaction to this encounter with religious diversity was seminal to his future leadership. He recognized that there was this love in Gandhi's Hinduism which resonated deeply with a love in his own Christian faith. And when he heard that this love was used not only to unite a nation, but even to redeem the oppressor, King knew he had received a blessing from the most unexpected of places. He saw in Gandhi's satyagraha movement a phenomenon of religious diversity coming together in a struggle for the freedom of all people. This ethic would permeate his activist life. In 1965, he marched in Selma, Alabama, with the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He supported the efforts of the United Farm Workers here in California, led by the Catholic activist Cesar Chavez. He disagreed with but nonetheless admired the work of the brilliant Malcolm X, a Muslim minister. And finally, he corresponded with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who convinced King that the fight for civil rights was inseparable from the fight to end the unjust war in Vietnam.

Why is this narrative so forgotten, yet so central to our lives? Too often, in popular media and political culture, the dominant image of strong religious affiliations in close proximity is one of violence and mutual incomprehensibility. Moreover, the face of religious extremism is one of highly motivated young people taking action. But while religious diversity is a fact, the direction it will take—as King's story shows us—depends on specific leaders. And the leaders who have the loudest voice right now are clear on which side of the faith line they stand on. It's not just a side which pits different religious groups against each other, or opposes religion and secularism, but a side which says only my group dominates, and others suffocate. Those voices are clearly a minority. But their message of an inevitable and endless cosmic clash looms heavy overhead, because we have failed to provide a more compelling alternative. Under vague liberal notions of tolerance, our institutions and public spheres maintain a fragile indifference to engaging young people's diverse religious identities. We can no longer afford this expensive façade of neutrality. “There comes a time,” King would thunder, “when silence is betrayal.”

The interfaith youth movement—of which Stanford is a growing part—is about removing that silence. We speak with our hearts and hands; in service and dialogue, in activism and reflection. Today's clothing drive is a symbolic expression of our vision: a world where diverse religious communities engage in common action for the common good, witnessing and learning of each others' commitment to serving others; a world where young people are at the forefront of building bridges instead of bubbles, or barriers, or bombs; and most importantly, a world where interfaith cooperation is not an anomaly, but a social norm. In other words, we want to change the headline from “Religious Clash Erupts Again in Nigeria” to “Interfaith Cooperation Breaks Out Again in Nigeria, as young Christians and Muslims work to eradicate malaria in their communities.” Are we reaching too high, or have our hands been in our pockets all this time?

The interreligious encounter is woven into my spirit. It has been with me since I first set foot on the Stanford campus five years ago, in my senior year of high school. I came to this very church, to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak about nonviolence and compassion. In my freshman and sophomore years, I would spend long hours alone in these pews, Thomas Merton in one hand and Rumi in the other. As a junior, I was blessed to be a part of the Fellowship for Religious Encounter, where I made so many wonderful friends, who took their tradition as seriously as I did my own. And then I met a young Indian-American Muslim, Dr. Eboo Patel, who opened to me a different interfaith narrative: the one of Dorothy Day and Badshah Khan, of Howard Thurman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The following words from Rabbi Heschel encapsulate that shift: “Early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying. And the place where I preferred to live was my study and books and writing and thinking. I've learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man.”

Through all of these encounters, what has stood out to me is how they have strengthened and enriched my own Hindu identity. I grew up very involved in my religious community, with a deep knowledge base of my tradition: its liturgy, music, philosophy, and ritual. Now I know that I was the preacher's kid—or in my case, the priest's kid—which probably explains why I'm up here today. But that identity didn't take root in me until I came here, and met those completely different from me. To me, the very measure of that identity is the extent to which I can connect with the suffering of a people beyond my borders, and outside my tribe. So when extremists attack others on the basis of their identity—like they may do outside Hillel this upcoming Friday—my faith calls me to stand up, and respond to hate with solidarity and love.

Faith was, in the final analysis, at the heart of King's identity. He was unapologetic about his inspiration from Jesus Christ, from the prophets of Israel, and as a Southern Baptist preacher. Yet it was precisely this commitment that urged him to build bridges of cooperation across racial, economic, and religious lines. King knew that building such bridges was never an equal-opportunity affair. But he also understood that a painful embrace of our tortured histories was necessary; and what I'd like to close with is that same invitation: that we, as James Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, “we...the relatively conscious...must like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others.”

May His grace and blessings flow through us to the world around us. Thank you.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stanford F.A.I.T.H: From Conflict to Cooperation

The new year has marked F.A.I.T.H's return to campus with a flurry of activity, though we are only holding our first official meeting next Wednesday, Jan.13th, at 7:30 PM in the Common Room (CIRCLE). In a couple of weeks, we will be presenting the annual Multifaith Service in Memorial Church, held in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We're already busy with preparations for this and several other interfaith events over the course of this quarter. Briefly, these include:

-Winter Movie Screenings (4)
  • "A Jihad for Love" with LGBT-CRC
  • "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"
  • "Had-Anhad: Bounded-Boundless"
  • "Divided We Fall"
-Days of Interfaith Youth Service (2)
  • Environmental restoration in the Baylands
  • Challah for Hunger
-Leadership Training with IFYC Staff

-Bloodsuckers Ball with I-AM

The following is an op-ed Ansaf and I are submitting to the Stanford Daily in anticipation of these fresh projects. Please join us on Wednesday for a preview of these events, and how to get directly involved. This is a crucial meeting, so please come out in numbers!


So often I wonder if interfaith work can really have the voice I hear. I wonder if it can shed its pathetic refrain of vague, self-congratulatory liberal notions of tolerance. I wonder if, amid the noise and haste of talk-show evangelism and televised extremism, we can discern the more powerful alternative stories: of Mahatma Gandhi and Badshah Khan, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I wonder if our silence, our inability to tell these stories as they affect us, cedes the terrain to agents of destruction, who would have only their group dominate and others suffocate.

In truth, I don't know. Our public discourse on religion is too frequently filled with violence and virulence, endowing the so-called clash of civilizations with the sheen of inevitability. It's this very uncertainty, however, that urges me to change the conversation from conflict to cooperation. So I'd like to tell you how I spent the last days of my winter break. The Hindu community in which I was raised bought a new property some two years ago--an old church in the foothills of San Jose. The final day of our New Year's Retreat involved a special Vedic fire ceremony to pray for, among other things, spiritual maturity and mutual cooperation with our neighbors: a Polish church which has been particularly warm and welcoming. I love these rarefied rituals: the smells of smoke and mystery and tradition, the joyful liturgical harmony of the priests, the deep sense of the height and glory of this sacrifice. But my favorite part of the day was to hear the following from several attendees, my mother included: "There's something about this place, this church. People have really prayed here. It's those blessings that are coming to us."

For her, the dialogue of religious experience did not simply override cultural boxes; it drew on their deep wells, and breathed their spirit across space and time. I don't think we require some mystical assertion to recognize that, as Gwendolyn Brooks says: We are each other's magnitude and bond. Like the faith heroes I mentioned, I believe my religious tradition calls me to build mutually enriching relationships with those different from me, by working together to serve others. Religious particularity is not only about domination, or persecution, or political intransigence; it gives us the ability to interrogate ourselves, to take learning seriously, to be surprised and humbled by the fact of existence. I am not interested in apologetics, but in fellowship; not merely in hearing another's story, but in writing a new chapter together.

This is what I hope Stanford F.A.I.T.H will begin here: countering violence by confronting the triple threats of racism, economic exploitation, and war; countering hatred by advocating for feminist and LGBT rights; countering mistrust by preventing deaths due to malaria. These are concerns which call on the best of our traditions--religious and secular alike--and require us to engage our deepest identities in common action. Please join our weekly meetings: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM in the Common Room in the CIRCLE (3rd Floor Old Union). Help us transform interfaith cooperation from an anomaly to a social norm. Every student is a potential interfaith leader. We need only have the words and the heart to act.