Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with ancestry.com, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.

 

“Get thee to a diverse community of scholars committed to social justice on a global scale!”

OK, the countdown has begun in earnest! In a mere two weeks I’ll start classes at Boston University’s School of Theology.

While I’ve done a lot of “discernment” around this myself, I realized recently that this is a confusing concept for some in my wider circle. Just yesterday I had someone tell me with an incredulous chuckle he’d heard I was “joining a seminary.”

The picture he had was, let’s say: Rabelaisian. Maybe if it were the 15th Century, but with everything going on right now in the Catholic Church I don’t want people to get this twisted. It’s not that.

Nor is this a “get thee to a nunnery” scenario.

I haven’t renounced my… well, anything, really. (Except the eight or nine grand I’m paying in tuition and insurance per academic year and any chance of an off-campus social life for the foreseeable future.)

So. Real talk: 

I chose BU because they gave me a reasonable package and the Global & Community Engagement track offers a number of useful courses and certificates in awesome stuff like Nonprofit Management and opportunities for study abroad as part of my three-year degree. This track offers training in interfaith dialogue and conflict transformation in ecumenical settings, to be sure, but it also offers more broadly applicable work in social and economic justice and nonprofit leadership.

Having worked in higher ed administration and nonprofits and not really finding a happy or stable niche in either, my career sort of took a turn a few years back into areas of social and economic justice, working pretty intensively with food and housing insecurity in a number of contexts, from leading an organization dedicated to urban agriculture to mentoring youth in transitional housing.

One organization I currently work for around these issues is a Community Mental Health Center, the other is a Unitarian Universalist Church. Both gigs put me in touch with extraordinary people from all walks of life who are committed to making their communities more inclusive, more responsive, and more just. (I know it sounds hokey, but there really are incredibly smart people out there doing this work, trust me!)

Anyway, I knew I wanted to go on to get another degree that could help me get better situated to do the organizational work I wanted to do. I didn’t want something as limiting as an MSW or as wonky as an MPA, though either of these could easily have been a next step, careerwise. 

What I did want was a program that had a built-in community component. I had dated a guy for a couple years who was getting his MBA from Harvard and what struck me about his program was how much of it was really geared toward creating a sustainable network of relationships. It struck me that there are Masters programs that are geared almost exclusively toward professional certification, and then there are those, like MBAs and MDivs (as strange as it might seem to compare them), that have this community element that’s so essential to their true purpose and lasting value.

At no point was I required by Admissions to have or state a religious affiliation, which is awesome, because I don’t really have one, and the students I met there when visiting the program were from an extraordinary array of religious (and non-religious) backgrounds. There was not a lot of talk at the community lunch I attended about metaphysics and dogma. I’m sure it goes on, but everyone I spoke to seemed much more concerned with the logistics of making the world a better place. And that’s the kind of community I need right now.  

It all made perfect sense at the time, anyway.

I’ll let you know how I feel about it when I’m cramming for my Hebrew Bible final in a couple months.

“So you’re a divinity student, huh…?”

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I haven’t even started classes yet, but I had my first, “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” conversation last night.

You know the one: where someone says “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” and you say, “uhhh…” and they launch into a forty-minute monologue about life, the universe and everything that inevitably ends with the Ancient Aliens guy.

Because I work in a Church setting (I head the Church Street Ministry of First Parish Unitarian Universalist, which works with home- and food-security in Cambridge, Mass.) this isn’t a totally unexpected  scenario, and because it’s UU, the Ancient Aliens thing is also, um, not totally unexpected. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people about Ancient Aliens. See, I’m particularly interested in the individual and vernacular “deviations” from creeds and practices, their origins in oral traditions, nascent religions and religions like Christianity in their oral, incipient stages. I am always fascinated by how people are interpreting and utilizing the received wisdom of religious traditions, de- and re-contextualizing them, mixing, matching, recycling, re-purposing, and tweaking them for their own ends.

And while I am, in fact, delighted to hear from people about their beliefs, let’s call them, although we don’t really live in an age of belief so much as credulity, I emphatically reject the idea that divinity students have any more “insight on divinity,” as one friend recently put it. You can talk to literally anyone about literally anything and get insight into divinity. That may, in fact, be the main takeaway of divinity school for divinity students (I’ll let you know in three years when I finish my MDiv).

So, yeah: the conversation started with that ominous “so you’re in divinity school, huh?” And I knew immediately where it was headed. But it’s the journey, you know?  And this one started with a visit to a Catholic shrine where my fellow pilgrim observed a worshiper in deep thrall to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“Isn’t that idolatry?” He huffed.

I treated this as a sincere inquiry, not a rhetorical question, which I’m guessing is, like, Day 1 of Divinity Student 101, right? (Again, I’ll let you know).

The Cult of the Blessed Virgin is right up my alley, a great example of one of the developments of early Christology so central to the establishing of orthodoxy on the nature of Christ that borrows from ancient archetypes. It took 400 years to sort that out — it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God was finally sanctioned. It was in committee for half a millennium.

My traveling companion was more interested in the general issue of idolatry and pagan influence, as he saw it, as evidence of an inherent and irreconcilable internal contradiction (not to say conspiracy) in the Orthodoxy of the Church. (We’re about 1/5 of the way to Ancient Aliens, for those of you keeping track of our mileage.)

“Worshiping the likeness of the Virgin Mary,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “when, hey, didn’t God say something about ‘graven images’?”

I was like: “I mean, technically it came from the Finger of God rather than His Mouth, but, yeah, something like that.”

And then: “But here’s the thing…”

I’d just been reading about the Hellenization of Christianity in those first crucial years, and suggested nascent Christianity’s break from Judaism, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and its incorporation into the imperialist project of the Roman Empire might have something to do with the more pagan elements of worship that have come down to us today. Early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish roots, partly because their roots were ripped out of the ground. 

He pricked up his ears at the mention of Jerusalem, and, wresting the wheel, he took a sharp turn to the right, pulled into a dark alley, and picked up Louis Farrakhan, whom I had not even seen on the side of the road there! I mean, bowtie and all!

“Why,” he asked, a note of heightened indignation creeping into his voice, “do the Jews think that’s their land?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead repeating Minister Farrakhan’s inflammatory contention that “the State of Israel has ‘no home’ in the Middle East and that the Holy Land does not belong to the ‘white Jew.’”

Now, I suppose I could have said WHOOAA. HEYYY. HEY NOW NO. PULL OVER. LET ME OUT OF THIS CAR.

But this is, as they say, The Work.

And anyway, we were now halfway to Ancient Aliens. I mean, let’s ditch Farrakhan at the next Gas Food Lodging. But I might as well stick it out, right? I could almost make out the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán peeping up over the horizon up ahead, as we raced past a thousand years of Secret History via The History Channel.

“There are written records they don’t want us to see hidden in a room somewhere!” my comrade cried, his eyes bright as a fire worshiper on the twelfth day of Izcalli. “They’ve kept the truth from us!”

Not to be gendered about this, but I feel like the belief that there’s always a windowless room somewhere with the truth hidden away in a desk drawer is a very mansplainy way to look at truth. Because if it’s all stuffed in a file cabinet on Skull Island or whatever, you can always Mission: Impossible that shit, right? Just, like, bust in guns blazing and catch the Illuminati by surprise, steal back the truth and save the day!

I get it. The idea — you might even call it faith — that there is hidden proof is one of our species’ most persistent idées fixes. It may come from our early days digging for tubers and cracking the shells of nuts with stones.

The certainty that a staggering Truth is being hidden and withheld is part of our popular understanding of the forces of oppression at work in our world. It’s also a way we’ve been conditioned, or maybe condition ourselves to deny the power of our own truths. But what if what’s really being hidden on Skull Island is not the Truth that No One Must Know but the Truth That Everyone Knows?

My fellow seeker nodded sagely.

“Yeah,” he said, appreciatively. “You know, how is it that they’ve never found human remains in any of those pyramids in Mexico.”

I was like: “uhhh, I’m not sure that’s… ”

He gave me a significant look that cut me to the quick. We had arrived.

“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…”

 

 

 

Back to The Garden

I am a Candidean in my heart of hearts. The garden is my church. Its lessons and parables make perfect sense to me, its rhythm, hymns, and liturgy are those of life, and are immediately recognizable as such. That’s because gardens (aside from sex and death) are always about returning.

I’ve always been a fan of the great outdoors. In the summers of my youth, my parents flung the screen door open at dawn and did not expect us back until dusk (except maybe for a PB&J around noon). I hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in my twenties and worked in an orchard in New Hampshire on and off for years after college. But I didn’t get into gardening until later, in my thirties.

It started with a phone call. My father had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. His prognosis was 6 months to a year. We had been semi-estranged, as they say, for some years, both seething from some unspoken insult, so common in relations between fathers and sons. He had not been The World’s #1 Dad. I had not been The World’s #1 Son. We both bore a ridiculous grudge about it, as you do.

I was living in Boston, and, of course, traveled back to Indiana to do what I could to help. I say of course, but to be 100% honest: I only offered because I fully expected them to say no. I knew there wouldn’t be much I could do. Maybe lend a hand around the house, run errands. I had never faced anything quite like this, and had not an inkling of what was involved, thank God. Because had I known I would have sent thoughts and prayers and missed out on what was one of the most profound, complex, sad, joyous experiences of my life.

It was December, and as bleak a homecoming as you can imagine. My father had just had emergency surgery to have a tumor in his brainstem removed. He had had a round of radiation, and had fallen ill with pneumonia. We spent Christmas with him in the hospital, but it was the first Christmas in memory we had all been together. There was some Christmas Magic in that. It was the first of many such strangely hopeful, happy moments in a seemingly dark and hopeless situation.

We got him home and it was decided I would stick around and help out for as long as necessary. There was a mixture of elation at reunion and anxiety about the reason. But it was a time of gratitude more than trepidation. I took over running the household day-to-day. My father had been retired for years, but my mother, who was much younger, was still working full-time. My brothers and their families pitched in daily as well. As we adjusted over the next few weeks to this odd new normal my attention turned increasingly to a sad, nagging sight outside the breakfast nook.

My father had a small “secret garden” outside the  nook that he had designed in all its details (typically, with my mother in mind, who was simply grateful that in retirement he had found a hobby that kept him out of her hair). There was a hedge around a large round bed with four fussy beds in the corners. It was now as forlorn and haunted as an empty tomb. He had fallen ill in the autumn, and had not had a chance to lay it down for the winter, everything had died but remained there to be seen day after day from the nook.

The ravages of cancer were relentless, and the view of that forlorn, abandoned garden day after day seemed to amplify the despair in the house. The January snow covered it, and for a while it was invisible. By first thaw my father was frail. Mentally and emotionally it seemed as though he was aging in reverse, and he had reached a brief, charming phase of reverse childhood where he said silly things and spoke in ways that were strange, romantic and bright, and because of the way the morning light fell in the nook that time of year, I would often roll him out there and we would have breakfast together overlooking that forlorn, ravaged garden.

He would peer out of the window, squinting, and tell me about the apparitions he saw. My father had not had a poetic imagination, that I could recall, but in these last weeks of life his mind seemed flooded with Blakeian visions.

One day as we sat looking out on his secret ruin I realized it was my time to get my hands dirty. It’s strange how the obvious can so often strike us as a revelation, isn’t it? Had I been waiting for some other gardener to show up and clear away the remains of a wasted harvest? Who had I expected would come and plant flowers in the spring in my father’s infirmity and absence?

I have seldom launched into anything with such a spirit of unabashed hope as I did that garden at the first thaw. I went to the nursery daily and brought home whatever I could find to add a pop of color. I was inept, but if anything didn’t take, I didn’t hesitate to pluck it out and throw something in the ground that would.

Finally my brothers and I pitched in on a fountain, which was the only accoutrement the tiny garden lacked. We ran plumbing out to it, and it trickled and gurgled serenely amid the purple coneflowers and orange and vermilion butterfly weed, the Virginia bluebells and black-eyed susans. The morning of that reveal, just a week or two before his passing, my father’s eyes lit up like a child’s, and I knew that whatever I had given him in that moment, he had already returned to me a hundredfold.

(See what I mean about parables?)

Theologies of Courage

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Independence Day was hard for many Americans to celebrate this year, and Therese Patricia Okoumou, who climbed up to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th, demonstrated succinctly in word and deed exactly why that is.

“In a democracy we do not put children in cages,” she said in remarks after her arraignment.“Period.”

“There is no debating it,” she added emphatically. “Nothing you will say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

That this not only needed to be said, but needed a public act of political protest, a singular act of courage by an individual with a story of her own to tell in her own words to drive it home, reminds us that we are in a moment that requires acts of courage from all of us. That requires us to radically change the course of our own stories.

One reason I’m so interested in Bonhoeffer is that his life story is the search for how we answer a radical evil in word and deed. His is a political theology. There’s a lot that I don’t know that I agree with in the nitty-gritty of his theology, but my agreeing with it or not (and there is literally no agreement among Bonhoeffer scholars about his theology, so no pressure) certainly doesn’t change the fact that Bonhoeffer was a genuine badass, and his theology was absolutely central to his badassery.

I have read just enough of theology to realize already that there’s really no such thing as Theology. Whether we would like or not, there are only theologies. And these theologies themselves are dynamic, each a living narrative, each a life. Bonhoeffer’s biography was his theology, his theology was biography. I think that’s why he remains such an object of fascination: you simply cannot separate the two, and the implications are positively vexing.

Such is life. And the capital T Truth of all theologies must be lived. But that dynamism shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, it’s what propels us forward, into experience, engagement and encounter. Deeper and further into life in all its vexations.

So there really is no theology outside of experience, in my thinking, and experience is  therefore not merely incidental to our theologies, sola fide (more about which later) be damned.

Bonhoeffer’s theology was as extraordinarily dynamic as his times, because, again, there is no theology outside of living relation and encounter. There is no Truth that does not lead back to encounter.

Our theologies are not really there to give us answers, they’re there to give us courage.

They are not there to provide the certainty of reward in this or a next life. They are there to give us courage to act in this one without any thought of reward.

Here’s where I’m going with this, and I’ll expand on it going forward: the presumption of certainty has brought us manifest evil, and we need dynamic theologies of courage to combat it. And not only that, we need to recognize and acknowledge the sanctity of these living theologies of courage, and challenge ourselves to engage in authentic encounter with them.

To have courage to be transformed by them, and thereby transform the world through them.

 

I & Thou in the Dollhouse

I was careful with my application to divinity school not to misrepresent my beliefs in any way. I mean. Its not like I’m a follower of Baal, but, you know, some people would prefer that to humanism. (I can assure you, aside from eating babies there is absolutely no overlap.)

But I also needed to make a case for why a humanist should be at all interested in Divinity School. There are many good reasons, of course and we’ll talk a lot about them in coming posts. But I tried to tackle it in a different sense in each of three very short essays I was asked to write for my application.

This one asked me to “describe and interpret a favorite book or movie with commentary on why it is meaningful to you.” I almost chose the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse

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… but went with I & Thou instead:

My freshman year at Indiana University was a returning for me. I had struggled over the previous two years with family conflict, the source of which I could not yet comprehend, which had led to a brief stint of homelessness. I had been forced to take a gap year, and while now finally back on track, my transition to life on campus was still pretty bumpy.

The Spring Semester of that year I was lucky enough to get into a 300-level course offered at my dorm (a Living & Learning Community I was also very lucky to get into), by an extraordinary professor, Rabbi Mike Morgan (now Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Jewish Studies there) who introduced me to, among many other wonders, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. The core message of the book — that “all actual life is encounter” — communicated with forceful compassion by Professor Morgan, struck a chord deep within me that gave me courage to go forth, and resonates within me to this day.

In the book, Buber posits two modes of engaging the world of the Other: “experience” — the profane, everyday, objectifying I-It — and the fleeting, sacred, reciprocal I-You of “encounter”, in which we glimpse the “the absolute relationship”, the “eternal You”. Buber offers no prescriptions of chants or mantras, no parables, arcane symbols or secret codes. I and Thou is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in keeping with its author’s matter-of-fact mysticism. Professor Morgan’s lively but focused classroom discussions brought this to vivid life.

The book’s iteration of a relational theology was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even then: it is rooted in the core belief of reciprocity we find in all world religions, that I had heard in countless interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount over the years in my own Mainline Protestant upbringing. But having struggled with the limiting concept of a remote and largely proscriptive God, I found Buber’s insistence that it is through the particular Other that we encounter “the absolute relationship” — a concept clearly informed by the dialogic tradition of Hasidism — electrifying.

In Professor Morgan’s classroom, not only was the moral imperative of attention to the reality of the Other and our vital participation in the unity and totality of encounter clear, it was put into practice. The challenge was presence, and presence the reward. Had we read and discussed I and Thou less attentively it would have been easier to shrug off its insights. Buber’s language could seem obscure at times, but for me, with Professor Morgan’s spirited delivery, it had the ring of uncanny truth of overheard corner-store conversations: “Something happens to man,” Buber says of the “absolute relationship”. “Something happens.” And I knew just what he meant. Isn’t this the essence of revelation? Isn’t this how we talk about love?

In Buber we find the mysterious and awesome Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, The I am that I am, that cannot be inferred or deduced, that “can only be addressed.” And approaching this mystery with the guidance of a great teacher is how presence in the world became home to me. Something happened in that classroom, in the “sphere between things” that has stuck with me, and gives me courage, again and again, to return.

I’ll work Welcome to the Dollhouse into all this somehow later on. Count on it.

In Medias Res, or Welcome to the Jungle!

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In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense
and gnarled…

— Dante’s Inferno Canto I, Translated by Seamus Heaney

Love shouldn’t be serious, should it?
You meet, you kiss, you start
I fancied that I understood it
I forgot my foolish heart

— My Foolish Heart, by Kurt Weill

About a year ago, I sent out a distress call to my network. I had been slogging through a very long, dark Night of the Soul. I was about to turn 48, and my career, such as it was, had stalled. Add to that a rough break-up a few months before the rise of Trump and I was just utterly depleted. So up went the ol’ Bat Signal.

Now, I have some wonderful friends. I have one rule where pursuing friendship is concerned: “Never be the smartest person in the room.” You can substitute “funny,” “compassionate,” or “wise” for “smart,” of course.  Whatever the qualities you love and esteem in others, find friends who exemplify them and who inspire you to reflect them right back.

(Friends who will share their fries are also great, but I think this goes without saying.)

(Also needless to say: I had a lot of incredible input from my little SOS.)

I set about exploring, researching, discerning. One idea that particularly intrigued me came from my friend, Fernando, a brilliant academic whose work in the field of Public Health is staggering, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity at Boston University. He invited me to a community lunch, held at the School of Theology every Wednesday, and on a lark (two words: free food) I hopped on my bike and headed over.

What I found on this and subsequent visits was a truly diverse actualized community committed to equality, justice, diversity and inclusion.

Now, I know that sounds awful, right? What kind of people dedicate themselves to pushing that agenda? Ugh. We all know do-gooders, and let’s be honest: they’re some of the most annoying people on the planet. Either that or total Debbie Downers, right? It’s always “Do you know how they slaughtered the animal you’re eating right now? Do you know how much an hour the people who made your iPhone are paid?” And who wants to hear that when you’re stuffing your mouth full of delicious meat scrolling through your Insta feed? Gah.

But this wasn’t like that. (There was a vegetarian option, but they didn’t make a big thing about it.) No, these folks were looking at the big picture in a different way. I had met people like this all along my journey, and they were always the ones looking for a way forward, not for reasons to turn back. Here were Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Atheists, men, women, black and white, gay, straight, and other, sitting down at that table together, differences aside, in true communion. And I was definitely not even close to the smartest cat in that room.

(In fact, if there had been an actual cat in that room, it might’ve had me beat.)

It was not the first time I had considered this path, but my thoughts and feelings about theology, both my personal beliefs and my sense of the utility of theology as a lens and a tool for social change, had evolved in the 30-odd years since I had last considered it. It’s not that I had suddenly “found religion”. I was raised in a Mainline Protestant Church in a working class neighborhood in the ’70s and ’80s, and that church community had provided me with a pretty solid set of values (which were also perfectly consistent with a secular worldview, and without any recourse to hellfire and brimstone).

I had a mentor back then, who happens to be a warrior for LGBTQ rights as well (a piece of the puzzle unknown to me at the time), who cleared a path to Divinity School for me. But in one of those moments of glorious teenage rebellion, I rejected this path, and ended up at a liberal arts college pursuing a degree in History instead, something I have certainly never regretted.  My interests in literature, art and language were so broad, my curiosity and passions so wild and profligate, I would not have benefited much from Seminary at that time (and any Seminary I ended up at would have felt the same way about me, too, you can bet).

So instead I followed these wild impulses, with decidedly mixed results (I will never understand what prompted me to take that Quantum Mechanics class), through my undergraduate degree program and off to foreign lands for a decade after college, working as an itinerate English teacher, mostly, in places as far-flung as Budapest, Istanbul and Marrakesh. Theology remained an interest, alongside many others, but I honestly didn’t spend much time fussing over the metaphysical, which I realize now, I had always thought of as metaphorical, anyway.

I learned a lot, much of it the hard way, loved and lost and loved and lost again (and three or four more times after that, as you do), and made a decision to return to the States — to Boston — in 2001. But 9/11 and its immediate aftermath had me turning right around, and back to Budapest I went. No one who experienced that day can quantify the sense of loss, the sense of a world out of balance and teetering on the edge of an existential and actual abyss. And religion was the last place to look for refuge from that world-shattering violence. I didn’t even think about it.

I spent another two years abroad, finally returning to the States for good in 2003 to help care for my ailing father, back in Indiana, where I’d grown up. This was a profound homecoming for me. I had occasion to really reflect on my personal beliefs, while reflecting on his and on the beliefs of other members of my family, whom I loved and respected but did not always ever agree with. This was nothing new, though. It had been the case since at least college, when I had declared rather dramatically to my mother that I was no longer a believer. (“Are you on drugs?” she had asked over breakfast at Denny’s. “Not at the moment, unfortunately,” I remember answering.)

But it didn’t matter. Not as we came together as a family (and an extended family and community) to care for dad and, as importantly, for each other in this important chapter of all our lives. I helped care for him in home hospice for the last 4-5 months of his life, and we all managed to set our differences aside. There was something much more powerful, more enduring and authentic than our differences that we were taking part in, that we had opened our hearts and minds to: our shared humanity.

But it was hard some days to keep our hearts and minds open, I’m not going to deny it. Outside, in the time I had been off conquering the globe, a lot had changed in Indiana. My family had been in a turbo-powered new wave of white flight, fueled by demographic change and twenty-plus years of “Culture War” propaganda. Exurbs were popping up by the day to the West of Indy along the Route 36 corridor, complete with big box stores and mega-churches all along the way.

The old, rather boring Mainline Protestant Churches of my youth had been relegated to a slow death while Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches were popping up in white enclaves outside the city limits, with gleaming new structures that included top-of-the-line sports, education and social services (for tithing members). They were also aggressively, often radically political, and brooked no dissent from their Culture War dogma.

My father, in his mid-70s, and a lapsed Catholic from way back who had embraced the life of our little Church in Speedway, had no patience for the overlong over-the-top services of the local megachurch or its impersonal pastor, Steve — Dad derisively called it “The Church of Steve” — whose preaching was “too preachy” for him. When I asked him why he never went to church anymore, without missing a beat he said: “I’m always afraid Tammy Faye Bakker is going to leap out from behind a rubber plant!” He had also gotten spoiled by the old church’s strict Order of Worship that had literally never, in all the years we had attended services there, run over an hour, whereas Steve could bang on for God knows how long. And then your whole Sunday is screwed. Nobody wants to have to rush through brunch because Steve got a bug up his ass about abortion. Let’s be honest.

Dad was careful not to criticize The Church of Steve in front of my mother, of course. She had evolved from a lapsed Lutheran with a wild streak to someone deeply concerned about the salvation of all those around her and constantly anxious about the Second Coming. Minutes after my dad passed, she wondered aloud if we should honor his wish to be cremated, since she wasn’t quite sure how this would impact his being raised from the dead when the time came. My brothers and I convinced her that if God was capable of raising the dead, he could probably raise them from ashes as well.

I mean.

But her obsession with the metaphysical was not purely coincidental. It’s obviously a big part of how the Church of Steve legitimizes itself as a moral authority. There is a relentless focus on eschatology and decoding batshit prophecies in “Churches of Steve” (I’ll just call them that from now on) that is coupled with a liturgy that emphasizes the divine hierarchy, judgement and punishment, over radical equality, love and forgiveness. One of the foundations of this brand of indoctrination is dredged from Galatians 2:16: “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. Often breezily summed up as: “The Gospel is founded upon faith, not works.” This is how the metaphysical has eclipsed the moral in the modern Evangelical movement. And I have some, uhh, problems with that.

It’s obviously a gobsmacking distortion of the original message and meaning. And it gets to why, after a great deal of discernment over many months, I’m pursuing a Master of Divinity at Boston University. While the number of people regularly attending church is in steady decline, the power of these institutions is still formidable. If, as many of the good-hearted and fiercely intelligent people I’ve already encountered in this field believe, these traditions and institutions can be leveraged to effectively redress some of the great wrongs in society, many of which they have historically been used to justify, it’s worth understanding how this can be achieved, and working together toward those better outcomes.

This second part — working together — is very important to me. The element of community in so-called communities of faith, the element of affiliation and belonging — both the tribalism it can engender at its worst, and its power to organize for greater good at its best — is something I want to know more about. BU offers an opportunity to study and participate in a diverse and vibrant community that seeks the greatest good that welcomes people of all faiths and no faith to the table.

(OK. Two words: free food.)