Mary Karr, a poet, essayist and memoirist, came to the Divinity School last week to speak at a colloquium hosted by the Institute of Sacred Music about “Art Born of Trauma.” It was a natural choice — Karr often writes about religion and her traumatic childhood in eastern Texas; her memoir, “Liar’s Club,” which addresses the latter, was a New York Times best seller for over a year and was named one of the best books of 1995. Her best-known essay, “Against Decoration,” criticizes modern poetry for its attention to form for the sake of form. For Karr, writing is supposed to be about feelings and moving the reader. Karr has also taken an interest in religion. She has described her spiritual history as a journey “from black-belt sinner to lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” Karr currently teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Syracuse University. WKND sat down with her to talk about God, art, and why and how we write.
Q: Why did the Yale Divinity School reach out to you? You’re an author!
A:I have written about God. I was an atheist my whole life and converted in my thirties. I’m Catholic. Everyone’s surprised I wound up Catholic. I think it’s deep. When my son was little, he asked me to go to church and I said why and he said the only thing he could have said: to see if God’s there. So we did this thing I called God-a-rama: we just went to any church or temple where somebody we knew had a practice. I would sit in the back and grade papers, and then I just got lured in. I think it’s the simple faith of the people, of liberation theology, of working for the poor. All religions are charitable, but I just happened to find myself in the company of this wad of Catholics. They got me.
Q: You’ve written that “poetry is the same as prayer” — can you explain this idea?
A: In both places you’re reaching out from despair, in hope of finding something sacred. I can’t remember who said it first, but I always think art of any kind should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. I think religion should do the same thing. I think I put my hope and despair in poetry, whether I was reading it or writing it. I do both: I write and read poetry, and I pray as well.
Q: What’s the work you’re most proud of?
A: I’m not particularly proud of anything. I’m just not. I mean, I don’t really think an artist can have an opinion about his or her work. I do the best I can do, and whether it succeeds or not is about my detaching from it.
Q: Do you enjoy creating it?
A: No, I don’t.
Q: Why do you do it?
A: It’s just something I’m supposed to do — I don’t know how else to explain it. I’ve been writing since I was five. The best days, you can’t feel your ass in the chair: you lose self-consciousness. It is absorbing to me. It takes all of my intelligence and what little I can muster. I can’t think of any great writer who says they enjoy writing. When I was younger I enjoyed writing, but I think as you get older you don’t enjoy it anymore.
Q: Can you imagine not writing?
A: No. I’ve been doing it for 55 years.
Q: Do you have advice for people who want to be writers?
A:Read. Read, and read, and rewrite. If you can avoid writing, I would suggest you do. I don’t think it’s that healthy of a lifestyle. You’re by yourself all the time, and in your head all the time. It makes you narcissistic and self-conscious and self-involved. I always say my mind is a bad neighborhood, you know — you shouldn’t go there alone. I would recommend doing something else, if you don’t have to do it. But most of us don’t have a choice. I was talking to Louise Glück, and I said if I had a choice between being a writer and being happy I would choose being happy. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have a choice.” We’re not moral titans; we’re not Oprah. I think God wanted me to be a writer. I think a lot of young people have an idea of being a writer that’s really different from the reality of being a writer.
Q: How did you get to where you are?
A: I grew up very poor. Most writers are from upper middle-class families. But I was 40 years old before I could make a living. People who were way dumber than I was were making a lot of money … They try to teach heroin addicts not to disassociate; if you’re a writer, you’re in a constant state of disassociation. If you look at most writers, if you read a lot of writers’ biographies, they’re not nice people. Most writers, we do heroin, we sleep with your daughters. It doesn’t have to be that way — we’re God’s creatures, we’re just odd creatures. I take my husband, who’s a businessman, to a dinner party with other writers and no one even asks him what he does.
Q: Why do you write memoir?
A: For money.
Q: Would you rather be writing something else?
A: I would rather write poetry. If I didn’t have a kid who needed to go to college, I wouldn’t have written a memoir. I was a single mom living in Syracuse, I didn’t have a car, I had to take a bus for an hour and a half to pick him up after school. It’s a good reason to write for money. The poetry and the essays and stuff: that’s labors of love. Nobody cares if I write those except me. They’d probably give me a million dollars to write another memoir, but I’d rather eat a bug.
Q: Who is one of your favorite poets?
A: Christian Wiman, who invited me, is one of my favorite poets. His poetry is really felt — it’s not someone just showing off, it’s genuinely about a struggle. He has a terminal disease, and he writes a lot about God.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a script for a TV show based on my memoir. The script is due — what’s today, Wednesday? The script is due Friday.
The long and arid strip of land we live in isn’t what it used to be. Once home to the Puritans, the Pilgrims and two Great Awakenings, New England is now commonly regarded as one of the least religious regions of the United States — according to Gallup polling, it holds the distinction of lowest church attendance. Many of the once-proud Gothic churches and cathedrals stand empty, often struggling to maintain a stable population.
Still, Yellow Pages lists 815 names under “Churches in New Haven, CT.” I had seen dozens of these locations in and around the downtown area my freshman fall, but it wasn’t until I went to Toad’s Place that I felt like a part of a church. As a Christian, I had been floating around among various churches, looking for one that was right. A few months into the semester, I visited the notorious nightclub to attend a service of City Church, a nondenominational congregation which I had heard about from some friends. There, in the place where I had first borne witness to dance floor make outs and the spectacle of collegiate carousing, I saw people being baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A young and growing church was congregating in New Haven’s most garish meeting place. That day, I watched as people clad in Walmart V-necks and synthetic flip-flops professed their faith onstage, before being submerged in a makeshift washbasin in the middle of the dance hall.
I later learned I was just one of 153 Yale students who have passed through City Church’s doors since its opening in 2011. (This number is based on yale.edu email addresses in City Church’s system; there may well be more.) Around 50 of us regular attendees are also members of Yale Faith and Action (YFA), a nondenominational, on-campus ministry that hosts Bible courses and prayer meetings for Christian students.
YFA and City Church of New Haven, both just shy of four years old, have emerged to move the region’s young people, a group statistically known to be irreligious and spiritually detached.
Ketlie Guerrin, 27, has attended Connecticut churches her entire life, but none like City Church. “I’ve visited lots of different churches,” she says. “They’re all really similar — lovely people who love Jesus — but they’re just not growing … the ones that I’ve been to are just dead.”
Guerrin says City Church is on to something different: “I’ve never been to a church like this — [one] that’s growing because of people getting saved. Ever.”
City of God
Justin Kendrick, 31, founder of City Church, grew up in Connecticut as a non-practicing Catholic, which, he says, “for New Englanders makes sense.” He embodied the stereotype of the cultural Christian, going to Mass on Christmas and Easter, but otherwise receiving little in the way of spiritual teaching.
At age 13, Kendrick’s dad took him to New Haven’s Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith. He describes the non-denominational church as “charismatic” — referring to a Christian movement that embraces gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.
I went to Church on the Rock on the first Sunday of my freshman year. There, I saw women dancing around the church with their eyes closed and choristers onstage belting the same words over and over in elation. Everyone was standing up. The preacher bellowed.
“It was at Church on the Rock,” Kendrick recalls, “that I experienced the power of Jesus, his forgiveness and salvation. Until then I didn’t really have any spiritual attentiveness.”
Kendrick’s faith deepened from there. As a teenager, he helped start Frontline Christian Church in Hamden, Conn., which later became the home base of an itinerant music ministry called Holyfire Ministries. The group of young musicians traveled across the country and Europe singing, testifying and evangelizing. Kendrick and his bandmates played all sorts of venues, performing their own music and covering popular Christian songs. They had long hours. They were on the road most of the time. Their lives were a blur of fatigue, worship and sharing the gospel with non-Christians.
While on tour in June of 2007, the band’s RV was acting up. They pulled over at a pit stop and got out of the vehicle. It turned out the engine had caught fire, and soon the band trailer went up in flames. They lost everything — instruments, musical equipment, clothes, personal belongings. Kendrick prayed. He said he heard God tell him that this was a “promotion” to bigger and better things. Within a month, money had come in from donors and their band was able to buy back everything. They acquired Bon Jovi’s old tour bus and got back to work.
But the band’s tenure was to be short-lived. Holyfire Ministries, for all intents and purposes now defunct, only toured for a few more years. By 2010, Kendrick and his crew had their sights set on a different form of evangelism. They wanted to found a church.
The same day there were added to their number about 200
On a summer afternoon I take a cab to City Church’s office in the Amity neighborhood of New Haven, a residential area that is home to parks, waterways and a CVS. The path there is anything but straight and narrow — winding suburban roads clogged with traffic eventually bring me to a house little different from its neighbors.
Inside, the place’s look is more startup than church office. The oldest person working there, Jon Wisecarver, is 31 years old. (Kendrick, also 31, is a close second.) A volunteer sits at a makeshift workspace in the kitchen, while Kendrick kills a wasp by the fridge. The living room upstairs functions as a recording studio and a lounge for composing music.
Kendrick’s office is more traditional — desk, telephone, armchair. Pinned to a bulletin board by his desk is a list of cities, next to each of them a number. “Boston — 539K … New Haven — 126K”: the populations of various New England cities. It serves as a reminder and an exhortation of their mission: to plant a City Church in the 10 most populous cities of New England, so that 50 percent of New Englanders are within a 15-minute drive of a City Church. Guerrin describes this to me as “a 25–year goal to see thriving churches in every city in New England.”
What came to be known as City Church of New Haven grew out of a fledgling network of houses affiliated with Holyfire Ministries. In 2010, a group of 20, led by Justin and his wife Chrisy, decided to open a church proper.
The way Kendrick tells it, God spoke to him, saying, “You want to change the world, but you don’t know your neighbors’ names.” He felt a calling to convene the church “right in the middle of the city, right where students could walk to, [in] the hub of the life of the city.”
The idea for a church in downtown New Haven soon took shape. On Easter Sunday in 2011, City Church held its first official service at Toad’s Place. The venue didn’t faze the launch team, which was used to playing nightclubs and bars back in Europe. Some of the musicians were friends with the sound technician at Toad’s, and its location made it accessible to students and residents alike. Things fell into place.
On that morning a troupe of traveling musicians, short on money and experience, opened the doors of Toad’s to hundreds of people waiting outside. The spectacle might have brought to mind the words of an original City Church worship song, adapted from the Psalms: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates / Open up, ye ancient doors / Yeah.”
Reporters had shown up. The New Haven Register ran a cover story on City Church the next day. Christian Broadcasting Network picked up the story, then CNN, then USA Today. Everyone was spreading the word.
“That was a moment when we realized that God was doing something,” Kendrick says. “God was breathing on our meager efforts, and He was doing something profound, that was far beyond what we could’ve orchestrated or planned.”
City Church, which usually meets at Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School just a few blocks from Old Campus, has seen hundreds of members join since then. Last year, they opened a new location in Bridgeport, Conn. On Oct. 5, they will hold a launch service for City Church of Meriden, a town just 20 minutes away by car. City Church plans to open two new congregations next year. The pace of growth shows no signs of abating.
Kendrick is something of a Christian Johnny Appleseed. “I’m more optimistic than ever,” he says. “I think this region is primed for a real move of God’s Spirit.”
The Spirit moved Sinclair Williams ’17 to be baptized at Toad’s three days after first arriving on campus. He had been putting it off and never got around to it over the summer, which he had been “kind of bummed about.”
That day, Kendrick explained to the congregation that many people were signed up to be baptized, although everyone was invited to take the literal plunge, whether they were prepared to or not.
Williams was unfazed by the baptismal venue. “People feel like God doesn’t belong in certain places,” he says, “But that’s just not true. God doesn’t care where we decide to put Him; He doesn’t care where we decide to keep him out of. He does what He wants. If God’s gonna show up in Toad’s, He’s gonna show up in Toad’s, and He definitely did that day.”
Staying the Course
“What’s up guys! We’re going to stand up and worship God in all of His glory.” Ryan Campbell ’16, dressed in jeans and a tee, begins strumming a guitar and singing into the mic.
Around 100 people rise to their feet inside of LC 101, the pedestrian lecture room transformed into a place of worship. A band plays onstage, backlit by golden Christmas lights. Song lyrics are projected onto a screen with a sunset background: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain / Worthy is the King who conquered the grave.” The music ceases and Campbell says a prayer. People mumble amens as his voice becomes excited; some snap in affirmation. When Campbell closes, the lights come on, and the Yale students who have assembled are invited to stay afterwards for refreshments and schmoozing.
I have come to Rooted, Yale Faith and Action’s weekly prayer meeting. Once held in a seminar room, it’s since moved to a lecture hall to accommodate the growing number of attendees. More people than usual have shown up to their first meeting of the year, many of them freshmen having their first taste of religious life at Yale. The message delivered by YFA ministry fellow Chris Matthews doesn’t beat around the bush.
“Odds are,” he tells the freshmen, “You’ve encountered something in the past few days that was a compromise of what you knew to be right.”
He refers students to the example of Daniel, who never deviated from Jewish custom in spite of Babylonian captivity, extracting seven points from the famous Old Testament story. “Point #6: We must labor to impact the culture around us.”
That may as well be an abbreviated mission statement for YFA. The organization’s tag line is “Developing Christian leaders to transform culture.” The group, one of eight Ivy League iterations of parent organization Christian Union, aims not only to forge Christian community but also to encourage students to impact culture at large.
Matthews describes YFA’s approach as “strategic.” The placement of the ministry strictly within the Ivy League is strategic. The messages delivered to YFA members are strategic. For example, students in Bible courses divided by class year and gender receive a course packet outlining Christian views of sex and sexuality freshman year and another on vocation senior year to help them adjust to and prepare to leave college, respectively. Tori Campbell ’16, Ryan’s sister and a member of YFA, points out that these more practical studies are “the exception rather than the rule.” The lifeblood of the Bible course program are comprehensive analyses of individual books of the Bible.
YFA’s approach is tailored to the presumed intellectualism and hunger for rigor among Yale students. There’s homework and a hefty amount of theology. “They call them Bible courses,” says Jessica Hernandez ’16, a student leader in YFA. “You’re studying at a high level of intellectual rigor — why not take the same approach to the Bible? You’re no less smart when reading the Bible than when you’re reading your Orgo textbook.”
God and Men at Yale
According to the Yale Chaplain’s Office, roughly 25 percent of incoming Yale freshmen from 2013 to 2017 self-report as Catholic, another 25 percent as Protestant of some sort, and 5 percent as “Other” (including Pentecostal, Charismatic, Orthodox, Mormon, among others). But before YFA arrived on campus, Matthews says, only 5 percent of all students were actively involved in any Christian ministry on campus. Now that number is closer to 7 to 8 percent. He adds that these are rough estimates: To be exact, YFA has grown from eight members in Fall 2010 to over 150 currently.
These numbers can’t capture the full nuance of students’ religious persuasions or track any changes of heart they experience midway through college.
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, after conferring with Senior Associate Chaplain for Protestant Life Ian Oliver, commented on these statistics. “The numbers gathered by the Chaplain’s Office about Yale College include a wide range of students,” she told me over email, “From those who are very active in high school in a religious group to those whose affiliation is purely nominal. It would be interesting to know how many were religiously active through their high school years — it might be much smaller.” She raises a good point: It may not be that so many Christians drop off in college — some of them may never have been all that involved to begin with.
Additional problems beset the gathering of quantified stats. According to Kugler, the current survey of student religious affiliations is completely voluntary, and just 50 percent of incoming students respond.
Raised in a Methodist household, Cathy Brock ’16 is inclined to list her religious affiliation as Methodist. But if you asked her what religion she currently practices, her answer would be “none.” Save for church services she attends back in Cobb County, Ga. — often nicknamed “the buckle of the Bible belt,” she says — Brock is no longer involved with Christian life.
“It’s not like I’m too lazy or too busy or I haven’t found a church. I have made the conscious decision that I do not want to be a part of the church anymore,” she says.
She adds that her case is the exception to the rule. Many students may not necessarily have made a conscious decision like her to stop practicing Christianity, citing the demands of the college environment instead.
Some of them, like Hall Rockefeller ’16, may still be religious without seeking involvement in on-campus ministries. She attends Compline, a brief time of chant, worship and meditation housed in a church near campus. While Rockefeller is actively religious in anyone’s book, she doesn’t fall into the 7 or 8 percent that Matthews talks about.
Outside of YFA, Christian life in general appears to be thriving at Yale. “Currently, there are about 19 Christian ministries on campus, with probably more than 30 full-time (or near full-time) staff,” Kugler says. “Yale probably has more resources in Christian group staff and organizations than most other private non-religiously affiliated colleges or universities of similar size and composition.”
Tori Campbell shares Kugler’s opinion and feels a great deal of excitement. “I’ve looked a little bit at this for a paper I wrote on Christianity at Yale last year,” she says. “This is unprecedented, to have this many Christians at Yale, since the ’30s — people who actively make faith a part of their life.”
But YFA had only a handful of members in its inaugural year. Four years ago, eight Yale freshmen enrolled in the first Bible study taught by YFA ministry fellows. Seminary-trained fellows Chad Warren and Chris Matthews systematically led the eight men (there were no women that year) through weekly Bible courses that tackled everything from theology to relationships.
Matthews believes that YFA’s structure and approach have resonated with Christian students at Yale. “How we grew?” he asks. “We have a different model.” He explains: “The Bible course is a new thing. The fact that you could come and have effectively a seminar with a seminary-trained Bible teacher was a new opportunity for people, [which] many students were drawn to.”
Matthews estimates that around 150 Yalies will enroll in YFA Bible courses this semester. This number has not arisen from a vacuum — there’s precedent.
Before Yale Faith and Action there was Harvard College Faith and Action, before that Princeton Faith and Action. YFA’s parent organization, Christian Union, was started in 2002 by Matt Bennett, who was at the time working at Princeton for Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru. (The Yale chapter is called Yale Students for Christ). Bennett saw the need for a ministry more specifically tailored to the Ivy League atmosphere and student. After pitching the idea to Campus Crusade, Bennett struck out on his own. (The specificity of his ministry did not align with Campus Crusade’s national model, according to Matthews.)
From a handful of undergrads at Princeton in 2002, Christian Union has gone on to enroll hundreds of students across the Ivy League in Bible courses. Bennett has dispatched ministry fellows to every Ivy League campus, reaching Yale third in 2010 and culminating with Brown in 2014.
Outside of YFA, there are older student-led ministries on campus, such as Yale Students for Christ, Yale Christian Fellowship, Athletes in Action and Black Church at Yale, among others. Matthews stresses that YFA is not competing with these ministries, but merely enriching spiritual life on campus.
City Church has done much the same thing, reaching a region considered to be irreligious and targeting a specific cohort within it. The plan for a multi-site church is new to the region. Although similar church brands have arisen elsewhere, none has set down roots and flourished in New England the way City Church has. Just like YFA, it has devised a model that is thriving in just the place it shouldn’t be.
Doing It Different
City Church and YFA, one in downtown New Haven and the other at Yale, are tapping into under-reached populations: the modern university and the Northeast. Matthews and Kendrick both stress that they have not come to barren regions, that they are not the first, that there is a vibrant array of spiritual options that long preceded them. They are simply bringing in people who otherwise wouldn’t be brought in.
The groups complement each other. “[The] Sunday morning experience City Church provides is part of the reason it grew so much among students,” Matthews says. “It’s vibrant. They have amazing musicians, a passionate pastor.” City Church provides something like a counterbalance to the intellectual intensity of YFA.
Two ministries show signs of life late in 2010. Since then, both have grown far faster than they had reason to expect. Behind the dimmed lights and dulcet strains of Christian pop rock is a message uniting them both: that a man named Jesus who lived and died 2,000 ago can matter to young people today.
Two ministries diverge. One uses loud music, snappy videos and social media to reach out to the 18–35 year-old cohort. The other offers a dose of rigor and self-discipline; it demands academic investment, encourages fasting, holds morning prayers, promotes the study of theology.
There is much talk of “revival” in and around these two ministries. One month ago, I received an email from Christian Union’s Matt Bennett inviting me to join him in a 40-day fast to promote revivalist efforts across the nation (I will not be joining him.)
I hesitate to use the word; it’s loaded. Tori Campbell rightly tells me that it has “baggage.” Revival means something definitively dead is now coming back to life. A better word might be “awakening” — stripped of any historical connotations, the capital A’s of the First and Second Great Awakenings. These two ministries are part of an effort not to bring back to life what was dead; rather, they are part of a movement that is touching what lay dormant, rousing what was half-asleep. If what has been happening in and around Yale’s campus is not a Great Awakening, perhaps it is a stirring from half-consciousness — a fluttering of just-closed eyes, a crossing of the hands in prayer, a population of students swaying, singing and studying the Bible on the floors of lecture halls and dance clubs.
Bruce Blair ’81, Yale’s former Buddhist Chaplain and leader of the Buddhist nonprofit center Indigo Blue, emailed the center’s program participants Tuesday morning urging students to support one another after the University decided to cut ties with Indigo Blue and himself on Oct. 22 for reasons that were never publicly announced.
“Called to a meeting at the Chaplain’s Office, we were taken by surprise when told the relationship was ended, and I was — in effect — asked to immediately close our shrines, and move off-campus,” said Blair in the email.
According to Blair’s email, Yale’s reasons for ending its relationship with Indigo Blue were “allegations, mainly new, and neither detailed nor substantiated.” Blair also stated that he hopes the relationship can be renewed and is currently seeking advice from experts.
Since the program’s conclusion, students and alumni have formed the group Friends of Indigo Blue to support each other and get answers from administrators. Blair’s email also announced the creation of a new website to provide information about the former program.
Read Blair’s full email here:
Dear students, staff, faculty, family, and friends of Indigo blue:
How we come and go makes all the difference. How we do what we do communicates who we are, as individuals and as community. The opportunity to learn to do new things and to learn how to give our heart, mind, and body to doing them, while often challenging in unexpected ways, is a privilege; it is an opportunity both remarkable and real. The opportunity at hand is one for which I am deeply grateful, to each of the six directions, to Yale University, and to you.
It has been twenty-three years since I was first invited to join the Yale Religious Ministry [YRM] by the then University Chaplain, Reverend Harry B. Adams. Nine years ago, Indigo Blue became the first full-time non-sectarian Buddhist chaplaincy on a college campus in America, and I began to serve as its full-time Buddhist chaplain. As our first activity, we responded to the University’s request to the religious community to host alcohol-free activities for students between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM. Indigo Blue began Stillness & Light, offering open meditation and serving barley tea seven nights each week, every night of the academic year in Battell Chapel, on Yale’s Old Campus. Nine years later, having served well over 10, 000 cups of tea to hundreds of different students, we have “learned this cup of tea is always for you”. We have also learned how we serve tea and give welcome is something each of us can learn how to do.
During the spring of 2005, we began to address a need for more traditional forms of Buddhist worship and practice, for students and staff from throughout the Buddhist world, creating a Buddha shrine in Branford Chapel, accessible and secure inside Harkness Tower. Here, we learned to nurture and sustain Buddhist life with daily ritual, in a place where Buddhist devotional practices could be safely honored and Buddhist ceremonies performed with reverence, according to traditional practice forms from different parts of the Buddhist world, starting with daily Memorial Chanting provided by the Buddhist chaplain year round. As a space considered sacred, this Buddha shrine became a refuge where students could come and go without hindrance throughout the day, find Buddha-dharma honored, offer incense, bow, or quietly attend to aspects of their inner world, each in their own way, without making a spectacle of their faith, protected from public view.
Now, just as monks after creating a sand mandala learn to return the sands to the sea after completing a dissolution ceremony, having had opportunity to learn how to nurture and sustain sacred spaces on campus, we too, now in our turn, will learn how to let go.
Lest my silence be mistaken or misunderstood, it is with both an awkward sense of grief and an abiding sense of gratitude that I write to tell you the University unexpectedly ended its relationship with this Buddhist chaplaincy, a week ago, Monday. Called to a meeting at the Chaplain’s Office, we were taken by surprise when told the relationship was ended, and I was—in effect—asked to immediately close our shrines, and move off-campus.
The reasons Yale gave for annulling its relationship with Indigo Blue were allegations, mainly new, and neither detailed nor substantiated. With the initial shock having given way to sadness, I still feel I have done nothing wrong and hope misunderstanding can be addressed and the relationship renewed. I am not alone in saying we remain deeply grateful to the University, and to each of you, for affording us the opportunity to serve these last nine years and more, having given us space to birth a still nascent non-sectarian Buddhist chaplaincy.
I am now seeking expert advice, and for the moment it is not appropriate to discuss in detail the issues Yale raised last Monday. I do hope that the administration will honor the concern voiced then, that Buddhist students continue to be treated with respect and cared for in ways that honor the Buddhist faith, and that Yale continues to provide meaningful options for students and staff addressing the full range and diversity of needs presented at Yale by students and staff from throughout the Buddhist world.
The practice of letting go, while never easy, is our practice. When letting go, we endeavor to be mindful of what we are holding—with body, heart, and mind—how we regard what we have, and how we put it down without doing harm. Remembering also, often it is only in putting things down that we can perceive and address new opportunities as they appear in real time.
When told it was time to leave campus, please be assured we set out to do so with reverence and respect, comporting ourselves accordingly, formally closing and clearing the shrines of sacred objects, and working alongside University personnel to transport these and the contents of our offices quietly and peacefully to their new home, creating a temporary shine in our parsonage on the edge of campus. After completing the move of sacred objects, Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka came and performed a pirith and merit offering ceremony. Doing so, and with daily chanting, we endeavor to honor those whose names have been entrusted to our care. Having completed the move, we now turn to consider how best to address the needs of students, staff, and alumni.
“Sometimes ‘why’ is not so interesting” I recall a student saying after the Great Tsunami struck her homeland. Not ‘why’ but ‘how’ is the more important question we agreed. “How can we help?” This is what we had both been taught, she at an all-girls Buddhist parochial school in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I by a Korean monk in America. We laughed aloud. “Always for you, not me” described our common ground. What matters is how we treat each other, how we regard the world and ourselves, in the present, here and now. Asking “for whom?” can provide an opening, allowing each of us room to reach beyond ourselves, to ask those here with us, “how?”
As human beings, we are afforded an opportunity to regard each moment as a gift. Each is unique, and each ours to open. We can ask, “What is this?” allowing ourselves to let go of what we already understand, and not knowing, perceive opportunities at hand anew. Or not asking, we can choose to ignore what is ours to share. Out of habit or felt need for expedience we can choose to push the present away, or grasp what we think we have as ours alone and not let go. What is this? Don’t know, opens. So, too, when addressing our neighbors, and our own hearts. Who is this? Don’t know. The unknown appears, and this can be quite frightening. Or, it can be seen as an opportunity hidden inside colorful wrapping, and secured with a decorative bow. But even so regarded, Buddha- dharma would remind us to be ever mindful, who is this present for, “For you, or for me?”
Of this, there is no doubt. Nothing will be the same. Nothing ever is. Nonetheless, the present always remains ours to give. What I have learned from you, the opportunity you have afforded me as a Buddhist chaplain at Yale, has allowed me to learn how to practice giving. “This cup of tea, for you, not me” is now an unspoken practice that we have come to share even while taking our turns noticing each other’s empty cup, filling it without a word. Thankful.
In order to be grateful, we must first feel welcome. But welcome is something we must give each other. It is not something we can give ourselves, not really. This too we have learned these last nine years serving you on campus. In days and weeks to come we will continue to work together, each in our own way, to create bonds of mutual trust that allow this quality of gratitude to nurture and sustain our life together, whether we be near or far. Our first chapter is now complete. We now turn to you as we begin the second chapter, listening. Asking, “How can we now be of help?”
During this time of transition, each and every one of us can join in extending welcome to another, noticing the empty cups of those around us, giving others space to be who they are, for real. As a practice gentle and clear, a practice without words, this is something each of us can learn to do with fidelity and care.
This said, I would invite you to join us in thanking all those who have made this moment possible—even now, even in the midst of the hurricane now howling outside the window—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, teachers, parents, friends, all those who will come after us, and to the University. Yale is a most precious ground. As a place of learning where the liberal arts and scientific inquiry are practiced in ways that seek to honor pluralism and celebrate diversity of creed and conduct, it is a place where we have the opportunity to learn what we don’t know. The Lord Buddha described this world as one wherein we have the unusual and blessed opportunity to perceive the origin of suffering, and to each in turn, ask what we can do and how we can help, each of us in our own unique way.
While Indigo Blue and this Buddhist chaplain have moved off campus, we remain committed to fulfilling our religious and secular responsibilities, most especially here in New Haven during this critical time of transition and unexpected change. Please feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your kind and generous words are heartening, so too are your questions and your concerns, even when we may not always be able to answer them as swiftly as we would like. Very soon, we will also have a new website: www.indigoblue.org.
Be patient, and persistent, but please, while there is much work to be done, there is no need for worry or concern. Be sure to keep us posted about where you are and what matters to you, too; and be sure to let us know if you’d like us to keep you updated as we move through the current situation and begin our next chapter.
The Yale Muslim Students Association hosted a “Hoodies and Hijabs” day Thursday afternoon in protest of the murders of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was shot on Feb. 26, and Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi Muslim who was found murdered in her home last month.
Organizers urged students to wear either a hoodie or hijab — a Muslim headscarf — or both to protest discrimination based on an individual’s clothing. According to the organizers’ announcement about the campaign, Martin’s hoodie and Alawadi’s hijab had factored into their murders.
“Being discriminated against for wearing certain types of clothing, or coming from certain religious or racial backgrounds is unacceptable,” the announcement read. “We want to help spread the word on campus to both honor Trayvon and Shaima’s lives, and to send a loud and clear message.”
Participants were also asked to assemble on Cross Campus to take a group photo. In addition, supporters were encouraged to post their individual pictures on the event’s Facebook page.
The campaign urges supporters to call Mayor Bloomberg’s office tomorrow at any time from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“Hundreds of calls regarding the same message are hard to ignore, and are infinitely more powerful than an email,” according to the group’s official release about the campaign.
The Yale MSA has written a script for its callers to use when contacting Mayor Bloomberg’s office. It’s reprinted below:
Hi, I’d like to leave a comment for Mayor Bloomberg. Would it be possible for you to forward my thoughts to his office?
[Wait for the operator to agree, then give the following statement:]
My name is , and I am a concerned student/citizen from __ (insert town or university here).
I am calling to express my sincere disappointment regarding Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the recent NYPD surveillances of Muslim Student Associations without probable cause in a complete reversible of his commitment to religious freedom.
I call on him to issue a formal apology to affected communities, and to assure that religious profiling by the NYPD, on any level, ceases immediately.
The Persian New Year has come to Yale’s dining halls.
The holiday, known as “norouz” in Farsi, takes place each year on the spring equinox — this year, 1:11 a.m. Tuesday on the East Coast. The Iranian Student Association at Yale teamed up with Yale Dining to set up a haftsin (pronounced “haft-seen”) in Commons and each residential college dining hall. A Haftsin, the traditional New Year display in a Persian home, is a table covered with an assortment of seven symbolic food items.
The origins of the tradition are unknown, though it is theorized that they originate from the Zoroastrian religion. Today, Norouz is a largely secular holiday. It is celebrated in Iran as well as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
The following items are included in a Haftsin:
Sabzeh – wheat, barley, or lentil sprouts growing in a dish – symbolizing rebirth
Samanu – a sweet pudding made from wheat germ – symbolizing prosperity
Senjed – dried fruit of the oleaster tree – symbolizing love
Sīr – garlic – symbolizing medicine
Sīb – apples – symbolizing beauty and health
Somaq – sumac berries – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
In a Thursday morning email to the Divinity School community, University President Richard Levin announced that Gregory Sterling will be the school’s next dean.
Sterling, who will take office August 1, has served as dean of the Graduate School of the University of Notre Dame since 2008. Levin wrote that applications to Notre Dame’s graduate school increased dramatically during Sterling’s tenure, adding that Sterling oversaw the formation of a professional development program at the school. Sterling’s academic work focuses on the maintenance of Jewish and Christian identity within the larger Greco-Roman culture, and he specializes in Hellenistic Judaism, according to Levin’s email.
The email thanked Harold Attridge, the current dean, for the 10 years he spent leading the Divinity School, adding that Attridge’s tenure brought the school to new prominence “both in its field and within the University.”
“He has been a steady hand at the tiller, a complete master of the school’s finances, and a leader in shaping and recruiting its exceptional faculty,” Levin wrote. “Harry and Jan [Attridge’s wife] have been a constant and welcoming presence on the campus, and we look forward to their return after they enjoy a well-deserved leave of absence next year.”
Levin and Attridge will make a formal announcement at 2 p.m. today in the Divinity School common room.
On Monday, University President Richard Levin issued a statement calling the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Mulsim students at Yale “antithetical” to the values of the University.
But at a press conference on Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sharply criticized Levin’s comments, saying the New York Police Department’s surveillance helped “keep the country safe,” Capital New York reported.
“If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don’t know,” Bloomberg said at a Tuesday press conference. “It’s the freedom of information … Of course we’re gonna look at anything that’s publicly available and in the public domain. We have an obligation to do so. And it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive.”
Over the weekend, an Associated Press report revealed that the NYPD routinely trawled the websites, blogs and forums of Muslim student associations at Yale, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, recording in reports sent to the police commissioner the names of students and professors involved in Muslim student associations.
Reporters at Brooklyn Public Library pushed Bloomberg on his defense of the surveillance, pointing to a case documented by the AP in which an undercover NYPD officer accompanied students on a rafting trip.
Bloomberg denied that such a move was a step too far, saying that the job of law enforcement is to “make sure that they prevent things,” a job that requires them not to stay away from “anything that smacks of intelligence gathering.”
When reporters asked him whether he was aware of the rafting trip, Bloomberg demurred and talked about his daughter.
“I’ve been on a white rafting trip,” he said. “I went down the Rogue River [in Oregon] with my daughter years ago. It’s the last time I went whitewater rafting or probably ever talked about it.”
The NYPD also monitored Muslim students associations at New York University, Rutgers University and Syracuse University.
Construction stopped at the site when workers found a “long bone” during excavation. State archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni came in with a team of students and, after more searching, the team found the skeletal remains of four individuals — two females and two males — as well as screws and nails arranged in a coffin-like pattern. In an interview with the Register, retired police sergeant Anthony Griego and retired state trooper Howard Eckels said the construction site once housed a Catholic cemetery and church. The New Haven Historical Society has a list of the 608 people buried in the cemetery.
Eckels said the church, founded in 1833 as “Christ Church,” was the first Catholic church in New Haven and second in Connecticut. The church was located at the intersection of Davenport Avenue and South Street, which no longer exists.
After about a decade, priests sought to change the church’s appearance, fighting to remove headstones from the church’s property to keep the land from looking “unkempt.” While the first two priests were unsuccessful, the third managed to move the gravestones to the edge of land. Eventually, the tombstones disappeared. Eckels said he has only recovered three of those headstones — the rest are still missing.
So far, experts believe that one of the women found buried in the cemetery suffered from spinal compressions, while the other, who was in her 70s, had a hip problem. One of the men had strong teeth and muscles and was in his 30s when he died; the other man was in his 70s, with an unusual fracture in his first vertebrae.
The church survives, but under a new name and at a new location — it is now known as St. Mary’s Church, and is located at 5 Hillhouse Ave.
The Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale has indirectly fallen victim to Bernard Madoff, forcing the center to launch a fundraising campaign in an effort to save two positions from elimination.
When the Madoff scandal erupted this winter, Yale officials said that the University had no money invested with the disgraced financier. But two positions at the Slifka Center that were funded by a nonprofit organization that had invested money with Madoff may now have to be eliminated, the center said this week.
Slifka’s Orthodox rabbinic educators, Rabbi Jason and Meira Rappoport, had been funded by the New York-based Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which had invested money with Madoff. As a result of its losses, the organization informed the Slifka Center earlier this spring that as of mid-August, it would no longer be able to support the Rappoports’ positions at Yale.