A 22 hour train ride is no small thing. You have to prepare for it—I purchased peanut butter, crackers, chocolate, three bottles of water, and magazines. I made sure my phone (with music and books) was charged, as was my Nook.

I tried to help everyone else prepare. I said, “The train station will be crazy, crowded, noisy, entire families, no room, hot. We might have to wait for hours. We will try to stay together on the train. Use the toilet a lot early in the trip, because it will get filthier as the hours roll by.”

And even so, even in a group of good-hearted, relatively seasoned travelers, most of us committed to the environment, or animals, or teaching, or human rights (ie, we’re not a bunch of Scrooges), we get cranky. And the hotter it is, the faster we get unhappy.

I’ll speak for myself.

The third class AC cars have compartments, with six beds; three bunks on each side. When you’re with a group of friends or classmates, it’s pretty fun. You can watch a movie, or listen to music, play cards, share food.

For this trip, from Delhi to Jalgaon, we were unable to get tickets all together. In my compartment, there were four of us. In the neighboring compartment, there were only two students from our group.

So of course, I get it into my head that when the final two strangers arrive to our compartment, we should ask them to switch with the two students next door, and then six of us can be together.

When they—a woman and her middle-school aged daughter—arrived, she did not want to switch. I had Sushil, a colleague, ask her in three different ways.

I was so irritated! What did it matter to her? She had two beds, either way. She didn’t know anyone, what difference did it make whether she was with us, or with four others next door. She was ruining my whole plan for a great 22 hours.

I fumed. I occasionally stared at her over my Nook, wondering what her problem was. I told myself that we deserved to be all together. I even wondered if she would move if we gave her money.

I know; awful. How quickly I become selfish (despite all the Jain lectures on Self!) when I don’t get my way.

Of course, we eventually start talking to the woman and her daughter. She holds a PhD in geology, and teachers. Her daughter’s English is very good. We swap Indian fashion magazines. I put on my Hindi-learning tapes, and they laugh, correcting me as I try to say, “Please listen. Do you understand English? I am American.”

If you’ve ever heard me try to speak in another language, you might know that I tend to get really loud, and gesticulate even harder than usual, to make you understand what I’m saying. As if to make up for my mispronunciation. The geology professor laughed and said, “Not so much personality. A little less. Be more quiet.” We were roaring with laughter at her encouraging me to be quieter in my Hindi.


Today we went to a new school, grades 1 through 4 (adding a grade each year since its founding) funded by a local Jain. It was fantastic. Another warm, caring environment, filled with art, color, and adults who care for the children.

Today was the first day back from a three week holiday; to welcome the students back, the teachers had lined every single hallway floor with flowers. Here are some facts we learned from the director:

All of the students come from the slums surrounding Jalgaon. Everything is fully funded. The school day is all day, to provide two meals and because most of the parents—if they have work—need to work all day.

They have more applications than they have open spots; they try to take the most destitute. They visit the homes and interview parents in order to determine who can come.

Usually, siblings do not attend—because each family benefits so much from having a student there (and who will learn English, and prepare for college), they try to spread that around to as many families as possible. They make exceptions: there is a girl currently enrolled with a brother at home. Their parents are both HIV positive. Next year, when he is old enough, he will also come to school.

They believe that each child is his/her own person, and that teachers shouldn’t force children to be people they are not. They believe emotional nourishment is important, especially for these children.

They weigh the students as part of taking care of their health. After a three week holiday like the one that has passed, most of the children have lost weight; there is not enough food at home.

The children sang for us (“The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The 12 Days of Christmas”), and so we sang for them (“Itsy Bitsy Spider,” because it has hand motions, and we ended in three part harmony and a big, slow, flourishy finish.)

They children had made us bookmarks. They lined up, so each child could take a turn giving each of us a bookmark. As one handed my bookmark to me, he said, “Welcome, Madame,” and then kissed his hand, touched my feet, and touched his heart, before running shyly to the back of the line.

Who am I, to be treated so well? Just 24 hours ago, I was thinking dark thoughts on the train, acting spoiled and thinking only of myself. Even though I’ve been treated with care and luxury every single place I’ve been in this country.

Life long learning, right? God willing, I have many years to soften my heart, to think the best before I think the worst of someone—even when I’m uncomfortable. Especially when I’m uncomfortable.

We visited a classroom with little crescent tables. They can be joined together to make a circle; all the students sit on the floor. Also near the floor, around the room, are chalkboards hung at five-year-olds’ level. The director said, “The teacher scribbles on the big board, we’ve found the children like to scribble on the little boards.”

I thought about the long journey, in the rain and mud today, from wherever their houses are. How did their smocks stay so clean? How did their hair stay so neat? Did they like dance more, or science? Do they teach their baby siblings at home the counting and letter songs they learn at school?

One of the paradoxes of going to places like schools in India is that even though I am supposed to be the honored guest, I actually receive so much. They are so happy we are there, they give us gifts and mango juice. And really, I should be giving something in return for all I receive.

What do we do with such gratitude? How can I hold on to it, and let it seep into my actions and intentions? Like, I want to be the thick (the thickets, really expensive, heavy-pressed) watercolor paper, and let these experiences saturate me, soak the ridges and pockets of my-self.


stone cross cappa

A cross carved into the outside of a cave church in Cappadocia.

Even though I studied history, I was never interested in dates, battles, kings, economics, politics. I have a terrible mind for dates and facts. Individual lives interested me, saints and their close friends, who became their biographers. Villagers who encountered the holy, and built shrines, documenting their own faiths into history. Grandmothers’ trunks reopened after Communism, the old icons and prayers intact in their hands and memories.

So many places in history are heavy with this kind of weight. What did Faulkner say about history? The past is never dead?

I remember looking at the “maps of the holy land” in the back of my mint green, Precious Moments Bible, during particularly long sermons. The maps were mostly brown and beige, with small bits of river. I couldn’t imagine those places as real.


At Harran, a city that has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. The earliest mention of Harran in records is from 2300 BCE.

Never would I have imagined I’d go to Ephesus, and walk where Paul preached. Or see the kind of cave churches early Christians imprinted with carvings. Stone dining tables remain, as do trenches for wine, and holes in the wall where they might have hung cradles.

The faces of Christ are often rubbed off. Imagine the centuries of pilgrim hands, touching, caressing the stone, bringing prayers and desperate wishes. Imagine the Christians taking over the caves from pagans, and—first thing—carving a cross on the walls.

red last supper cappa

Inside on of the cave churches, an ancient painting of the Last Supper.

For me, the numinous wasn’t a tiger or a mighty spirit in another room, it was red paint on stone, or a damp cave, or a dark place for prayer. I entered Abraham’s cave on the women’s side, full of Muslim women and girls praying, where once Abraham spent ascetic years. I saw Job’s well, where God finally blessed him with holy water to heal his afflictions. I ran my hand over stone carvings from the earliest Christian period. I saw where pre-Christian families worked and lived.

cone house

Recreation of a traditional mud house, interior, in Harran.

Maybe nobody should try to study history until they can picture the food, the sunrise, the dust, and the fireplaces of those who lived it. I think about everything I know about Abraham—from the Bible camp song “Father Abraham,” to the promise illuminated by countless stars in the sky, to his wife laughing outside the tent—and then imagine him, and old man, praying in a cool cave. I prayed in that cave—my mind reels at the connecting point.

abraham's cave

Inside Abraham’s cave.

This might be the biggest blessing and take-away from my trip to Turkey, that I got to be, in all tactile glory and physicality, in places of history and beauty. I should dig up my Bible, find those sterile beige maps, and recolor them. I can collage on photographs, and write in impressions.

red crosses cappa

Paintings of crosses, Christ, and saints at Cappadocia.

Next time I teach Sunday school, I won’t bring out the felt board, I’ll bring in rocks, and sand, wool, cooking ingredients, red paint, terracotta, blankets for the floor, and make a cave. We’ll pretend we’re pilgrims (and aren’t we?), with all our doubts, idiosyncrasies, needs, and desires. We’ll touch, dream, articulate, and pray—and then read about Father Abraham, Prophet Job, and letters from Ephesus. Maybe we can somehow tie knots in our strand of history back into those stories, and realize them better.

job's well

Children peeking into Job’s well.



two girls

Two girls at an after-school tutoring program organized by the movement.

The hizmet movement places education—for all—at the foundation of its philosophy. Early in the movement, Gulen met with students, and the organization grew in places of study, with young activists and thinkers. The hizmet movement supports schooling at every level, and you don’t have to be Turkish, or Muslim, to attend their schools or receive support for education.

Visiting their schools in Turkey, and hearing about the importance of education, I was moved to think about my own education. In my mind, I call the librarians, teachers, and Sunday school teachers who taught me “a golden chain.” I was so often given extra time, extra books and materials, extra places to sit alone, and read and write. Teachers took the time to comment on poems I wasn’t assigned to write, to help me understand books I undertook to read on my own, and to give me used textbooks and class novels to build my own library.

The church I went to as a child drove many miles to pick me up every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, so I could come learn, read, and sing with the congregation. All of this has shaped me. When I teach, I try to give extra hours as well—at lunchtime, at recess, sharing extra books and time tutoring. How else can I pass on the wealth I’ve been given?

folk dance

Children doing a Turkish folkdance; the girls are sowing seeds.

We visited one school, the oldest school founded by the hizmet movement. I was so, so struck by the warmth with which the children were treated. As we ate breakfast, we watched a kindergarten group having breakfast as well. They chatted and moved around freely; teachers peeled their hard-boiled eggs and helped them get milk; the kids got as much bread as they wanted. As they finished, they went out to recess, but they could take as much time as they needed to eat. This in contrast to the public schools where I’ve worked, where even the very young students are rushed through meals, sometimes have no time to finish, and are yelled at or made to keep silent.

The students also all participate in arts, dance, sports, and the school day ends at 2PM so they can have after-school activities. And—these students regularly produce the best national test scores of any in Istanbul. Top scores on tests, but the focus is on warmth and a variety of activities.

front of Syrian school

The front of the school for Syrian children.

We also visited an empty school, brand new and waiting for Syrian refugees from across the border. I was frustrated by questions from my colleagues about what kind of textbooks, and how much materials would cost, and where the students would go after this school. In my limited experience in Haiti, and with refugee students in the US—the traumas and needs are so great. We’re beyond talking about the number of materials. It is enough to have them in a safe building, physically intact. In Haiti, we used bits of cloth and chunks of concrete to teach sorting activities. In St. Louis, the students from Somalia often seemed unreachable—they had been through so much, so many unfathomable things—what did our inadequate public school have to offer? I was overwhelmed by the thought of what these Syrian students and teachers would bring, and need, and face.

empty classroom

By now, this classroom is full; the students and Syrian teachers arrived last week.

Almost despairing—why even try, when the odds seem insurmountable? Matt said, “Because you have to at least start.” You have to build the building, get the desks, give the teachers a whiteboard and markers. Get lunches, and some kind of school nurse, and establish a routine. Reading and writing, some sustenance, a semblance of order.

I think I’ve written here before about faith, doubt, and despair. Sr. Carla Mae taught me long ago that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but despair. Doubt still has in it a seed of engagement, the possibility to learn and relate further. But despair is a giving-up, a disengagement, a [false] belief that all is lost.

My experiences in Turkey gave me a great deal of hope—every family, teacher, business person, parent, organizer, scholar—every single one had a commitment to hospitality, to meeting and engaging with the other, and to education and humanitarian work. Most of them said, in some way, “Even if this is all that I can do, in the face of the world’s need, I will do it.” All believed that greater peace is possible, especially through education and relationship-building.

I am writing from Delhi, where I am also daily faced with great poverty, hunger, homelessness, and separation of the classes. Sometimes, driving through slums, I am tempted to think: “No amount of education or peace-building work on my part can ever make a difference, in this life.” And yet, I just came from Turkey, where I saw glimpses of a different kind of possibility. In gratitude to my hosts and new Turkish friends, I will try to keep embodying the possibility of hope.

good morning

This girl, full of energy and spunk, not only took the opportunity of our interrupting her tutoring session to chat and pose for photos, but leaped at the chance to play teacher and teach us “good morning” in Turkish.

Hagia Mary


Mary in splendor, in Hagia Sophia.

Mother Mary was all over this trip. Surprising that after having lived in places like the Bronx, where she is also frequently found—from shrine to garment to tattoo—that I would feel so close to her at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

When I was little, going to a missionary Baptist church out in the country, Mary didn’t come up very frequently, although I often got to play her in Christmas pageants. (Having blonde hair and blue eyes that matched her robes seemed prerequisite.) Even with nativity sets, I was always interested in the tiny baby, and in rearranging the stable crowd in various scenes. Mary wasn’t doing much in those little ceramic sets—kneeling, eyes cast down.

At one point in upper elementary school, I undertook to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. There’s not much Mary in there, either, actually. I loved the book of Esther, which read like a novel, and liked the idea of Eunice and Lois, early members of the church important enough to have names. Besides her magnificat, Mary doesn’t say anything. And Jesus himself is kind of rude to her in the wedding story, acting annoyed that she pressed him into service. And, to be honest, growing up trying to be a good girl, Mary just seemed meek and mild, the opposite kind of woman that a subscriber to Sassy magazine would aspire to be.


Tradition says that after Jesus, as he was dying, charged his dear friend John with caring for Mary, John took her to Ephesus, where she lived out her days. This shrine is on the site of where her house is supposed to have been.

When I did my master’s in Byzantine hagiography, I finally started thinking about Mary in earnest. I saw images of her as God-bearer, as a near-warrior lady, holding the safety of humanity underneath her skirt, looking with intensity at Christ as she begs forgiveness on our behalf. My professor said, of her downcast eyes, “In these [Byzantine] images, she’s not looking down because she’s meek. She’s looking down because she is nobility, and they don’t look commoners in the eye.”

One of the things that’s so exhilarating about Istanbul is that beautiful images are grander than you can imagine, and jaw-dropping beauty is around every corner. I frequently found my eyes filling with tears. I would turn a corner, look up, and see an image of the theotokos, completely not expecting it, and stunned into staring.

Or I’d see something out of the corner of my eye, look up, and see Christ as king, splendid and solemn, staring at me from centuries ago—gold still shining in the dim cave light.


Outside the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, where pilgrims tie prayers on scraps of paper.

I couldn’t help by pray, and be awed (which is also a kind of prayer, I think), along the way.

CS Lewis defined the word “numinous” like this:

“Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind.

It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.

Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”

(When I looked up this story to get the details right for this post, I also found the following quote from Shakespeare that gets at “numinous,” “Under it my genius is rebuked.”)

So I would be walking around Istanbul, thinking about pistachios and how I used to always misspell “Constantinople,” (despite that master’s degree) and would suddenly find the hairs on my neck rising as I see another fresco, another mosaic, another image that stops my voice.

It’s hard to write about the numinous. When you have an experience—in a stand of sugar maple trees, at a child’s baptism, at the bed of a dying grandparent, in a chapel in Prague—that brings goosebumps, tears, a whoosh of energy in the gut and heart, and it feels like all of creation meaning…

It’s like the old writing class edict “show, don’t tell” falls apart. How can I show you? I can only tell you that I was greedy for images of holy and gold, and was blessed with more than I could handle.


Votives lit by pilgrims at Mary’s house.


My reflection with Matt’s on our first morning in Istanbul.

My classmate and our group leader, Abudurrahim, asked us to write a short response about our expectations for the trip (ten days, eight cities, countless sites and people, throughout Turkey), on the very first evening. I have been engaging in inter-religious dialogue and work for eight years; I’ve spent years of academic and professional time wondering about expectations for interfaith engagement.

But this was personal: What did I hope to get?

Matt and I were in the unusual position (for Western, American, Christians) of being in the minority; of the fourteen of us, only four of us were Christians. We often stopped during the day so our friends could worship in a masjid, but we never participated in a Christian service. I was startled to see large pieces of holy calligraphy, in Arabic, throughout Hagia Sophia, and disrupting my view of the central image of Christ.


In Hagia Sophia, Christian images were plastered over both during times when the building was used as a mosque, and destroyed during iconoclastic periods. Our guide noted that the Islamic leader at the time did not want to destroy the images, because Jesus and Mary (Issa and Maryam in the Qu’ran) are sacred to Muslims as well; he just had them plastered over because images are not suitable for a place of worship. Here we can see the plaster being removed from the mosaic, painstakingly.

But this is what I asked for. I often use the word “disequilibrium” when I’m talking about education in general, and IR engagement specifically. It’s a term from Piaget. All children experience disequilibrium every time they encounter something, new in the world, that doesn’t go along with what they previsously knew. It doesn’t feel right. You have to check for other information, and finally incorporate the new worldview into what you know. It happens before you learn anything.

One of our jobs as teachers is to provide safe places for students (or congregation members, or clients) to experience disequilibrium.

For a toddler, it might be: You thought if you pushed this toy, it would light up red. But look! Sometimes it lights up green—what do you think about that? The world can be surprising. Keep pushing, see what happens.

For young adults, it might be: You have been taught that the protagonist of the book is always good, dependable, trustworthy. Guess what? Here’s an anti-hero, an unreliable narrator, a character you don’t like but somehow connect with.

For any of us: Every black person you’ve seen on television has been a criminal; you know only what the media has chosen to show you. Guess what? Your family has a new member, and he’s lovely, the son-in-law for which you’ve always dreamed. You’ll have to feel the disequilibrium, hold on as all the old synapses get sorted and grow, and incorporate these new understandings with how you move through the world.

I often pray that God will give me a posture of openness. By this, part of what I mean is that God will keep me curious, open to disequilibrium, and hold me safely through it. In my reflection for Abdurrahim, I said I hoped that I would experience things that I did not expect, and make new relationships and encounters that expanded my understandings.

This is easy for me to say, in America. In my home, with the pillow that smells like me, my favorite coffee cup, a closet full of clothes that suit the weather, and classes in which I excel. Surrounded by English language, and an endless (truly) assortment of food and drink that are tasty and nutritious.

Swimming like a faithful fish in a Christian environment, at a school of theology marked by a central chapel, and images and languages from the Bible throughout the literal landscape. Where I can wear a cross around my neck, say “Merry Christmas,” or “God bless you,” two dozen times of day, and never feel uncomfortable. Where I can seek out interfaith seder meals, or interfaith iftar, or read about Buddhism…if I want to. And no one will stop me or question my intentions; I am privileged that way.

The other hope I had was to really encounter history. I’ve learned and read so many Byzantine hymns, prayers, songs, stories. There was a time in my life where Gregory and Basil, Constantine and Helena—they were in my daily thoughts and writing.

This trip exceeded both of these expectation—boy, did I feel disequilibrium. Mostly in small ways—but they add up!—and in some delightful, serendipitous ways as well. And the history—well, I got goosebumps every day. I’m still working out what it all means to me. At the moment, my mind still reels slightly, dizzy from new geography, new tastes, and a crazy array of beauty and holy.


The interior of the Blue Mosque. So, so breathtaking. One can’t help but pray.

Advent Credo


My friend Jonathan posted this on Facebook, and it was a bell-clear call to me this morning. I’m listening to one of my mentors talk about identity, the state, and faith. How is it important for me to be my-self, from my own place of faith, as I move through the world? And, it’s the first week of Advent–I find this Credo beautiful and powerful. Thanks, Jonathan.

“It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—

This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life; 

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—

This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—

This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—

This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world. 

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—

This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—

This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

[From Daniel Berrigan S.J., Testimony: The Word Made Flesh (S.J. Orbis Books, 2004).]

The image is from part of a mural at Youth Speak Collective, an incredible organization that empowers young people to change their own world.

Oh, October

I love October. My birthday month, cooler weather, and (at least in the Midwest), blue, blue skies. I have many memories of riding my bike and noticing those skies, and feeling they were particular to my month.

I keep thinking it’s the first week of October, because we’ve been so busy, but really, we’re nearly half-way through. I also keep thinking it’s the beginning of the school semester, but really, I’ve already turned in multiple assignments. I had a great visit with my mom and sister, and I have a new nephew. The world is full.

In the past two weeks, our school had an Ahimsa Day, in which I was in a play/dramatic sharing, and participated in a panel on forgiveness–I was representing the Christian perspective. (Tough to do, in one single-spaced page!) I published my brief remarks here.

Last weekend, I was the on-site events coordinator for a dialogue conference. Big ideas, great professors and leaders, me running around making sure catering, welcoming, materials…everything in order. Thank goodness for Matt, who takes some of my load with grace and aplomb. Dinner parties and a bridal shower thrown in for good measure.

I’m also finishing work on a project for the Jains, it looks like I’ll be going back to India this summer, and helping shepherd the Journal into more growth. AAR next month, plus Thanksgiving/Christmas with family.  We’re re-booting the community garden.

So many good things. I find myself in a lot of “spontaneous thankful” prayers– just walking around thanking God for everything I have. As fall comes on, though, I am thinking about Advent, and the need to be a little more intentional about my prayer life.

Other notes: I’ve started reading the Game of Thrones series. Not great, but pretty good. I started using an app on my iPhone that tracks how deeply you are asleep, and only starts the alarm when you’re coming up out of a deep sleep. You have to keep the phone on the bed near you. It’s working, and kind of cool to see my “sleep statistics” every morning–the graph of when I was in deep sleep, dreaming, and when I was not. I’ve been driving more, with the manual transmission; it’s okay. Serving as a Teaching Assistant is going well, as is my work in the Writing Center. We’ve had Remy for a year, and I can’t imagine our life without him.

We housesit for two friends and they came back from a mini-vacation with so many beach stones. While we caught up, I played with the stones, organizing them by color and shape. Pleasing.

Some amazing Chihuly glass I saw while visiting my sister. Oh, the color. Oh, the abundance.

Cool old bricks in “Bricktown,” in Oklahoma City. I love how each one is stamped with the maker’s name. Again, pleasing texture.