Speaking at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago

The altar, with the statue of Amida Buddha and incense holders

This past Sunday, I visited the Buddhist Temple of Chicago as their guest speaker on Islam at their annual Interfaith Sunday event. Rev. Patti Nakai, as she introduced me to her congregants, shared a bit of fascinating Chicago history with us:

hymnalPrior to the 1940s, the Buddhist presence in Chicago was not significant. In the 1940s,  thousands of former concentration camp internees from California relocated to Chicago (possibly seeking to flee the bad memories, as one of the Temple representatives said). When the Buddhist Temple of Chicago was opened, it was met with suspicion. Buddhists (mostly Japanese) were met with suspicion and alarm.

In this climate of war, hate, amd fear, Reverend Preston Bradley (founder of the Peoples Church in the Uptown neighborhood) spoke out boldly and forcefully on his popular radio show to welcome the new Chicago neighbors.

As she introduced me, Rev. Patti reminisced about those times of hymnal1.jpgfear and conflict, and reminded her congregants to welcome and be kind to all. Today, she welcomed me, a Muslim, to her community. In this climate of Islamophobia, her words rang out clear as a bell. She did not hammer the message hard, but allowed it to flutter in the air as listeners found a home for it in their hearts.

This is a temple that is surrounded by soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The community makes a point of welcoming their neighbors and being supportive. The full kitchen is being used by volunteers to feed the hungry in the area. This is a multiracial, multicultural congregation, including White, Black, Japanese, South Asian, European, and mixed-race members. I had lively conversations after the service with them, and would love toshrine.jpgcontinue those conversations again. We discussed the difficulties of changing ways of doing things in congregations, as well as learning to welcome all attendees, especially Black members. Svend and I both just loved Rev. Patti Nakai, a Japanese-American woman who firmly, lovingly, and fearlessly leads her congregation.

Before my short lecture, Rev. Patti and
Candy gave us a tour of the temple, showing us an altar that was painstakingly
constructed, bit by bit, by concentration camp internees in the Heart Mountain, Wyo., Japanese internment camp
, using bits of woodashes.jpg that internees found here and there, and put together.

In the same room, filled with memories, vessels lined the shelves, containing the ashes of former internees and other temple family members.

Afterward, chatting with an elderly, cheerful and irrepressible Japanese-American congregant, I heard of how she had been in a concentration camp, and how her mother died while in that camp. At that time, this woman was 9 years old.

As I spoke to this audience, I felt like the hearts around me were open and present, and ready to connect. It was a powerful and precious experience.

speaking to audience.jpg

The night before this visit I sat, wondering what to say. It had been a busy few weeks, and I hadn’t had the time and energy to prepare as I should have. I sat discontentedly throwingRev Patti and me copy.jpg together Five-Pillars and Islam-Wikipedia factoids. I gave Svend the laptop to look over my talk. He read. He looked up. He stared at me, half-kindly and half-puzzled, as if to say,
“I feel bad for you, because this is trash.”

“Can you make it more personal?”he said gently. “It could get a little boring.”

Tired (it was 10:30pm on Saturday night), I sniffed and said, fine, I’ll see what I can do, thinking to myself, Why don’t you write it for me?

The next morning, just half an hour before heading out, I opened the laptop, stared at the document, thought, this is not speaking my heart at all. I tossed the print-out of the previous version. I inserted some stories, and said, Well, here goes nothing. 

I was anxious that I was far too tired to wing it in any way, but the energy in the temple community was the wind under my wings, and we all flew together.

Svend sat and watched, smiled, moved to the front row, and said afterwards: It was fantastic.

I said, no. I was ready to bomb it. Allah did it for me. Also, thank you, Svend. For telling me that the first version sucked. Sometimes, you’ve got to have someone you trust enough to tell you that you suck, and you need to do something different. Maybe you need to stop trying so hard, and just connect your heart with the hearts around you. Trust the hearts. They do the job.


Is management of the Trump-crisis for everyone?

19112592_401.jpgRecently, I’ve been inspired by the number of people who have decided to stand up against the Trump brand of bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism.

But I’ve also been troubled.

When I see people who have strong, long-standing scholarly agendas, and they say that they must set aside their work to deal with the crisis that besets our nation, I am beginning to be troubled.

I feel rather strongly that not all of us should jump into the fray. Not all  of us should be speaking to lay audiences and offering Islam 101 lectures, or Tolerance and Equality spiels to high school students. Some of us should focus on their long-term work, whether it’s daily service to their constituents or their work on specific knowledge projects. Important work should not be dropped by the wayside to deal with the unending crisis of the Trump presidency. Some of us are better qualified to do the Islam 101. Others are much more valuable pursuing historical research on classical Islamic jurisprudence. Each person needs to appraise her individual expertise and to use her time and effort wisely.

We can’t fail our ongoing work. A parallel for me is the ongoing scholarly work of the Muslim gender scholar. Her work is often hijacked by the urgency of defensive, more basic gender activism of No, dear White liberal /Islamophobe, we are not oppressed Muslim women, so stop tarring Islam with the brush of misogyny. Not to be elitist, but at some point, you have to leave the perennial lay message to the junior troops, and move on to research classical treatises on gender and jurisprudence so you may contribute to the critical scholarly framework. At some point, you may even be a little out of touch with the day-to-day activist agenda, so it is better for you to leave it to the on-the-ground activists.

The anti-fact, anti-intellectualist program of the Trump presidency pushes us into short-term triage. Triage or crisis-activism is often shallow. We must not allow the Trump presidency to hijack our other agendas – scholarship, research, progressive coalition-building, scientific work, etc.

Now, the understandable difficulty of that situation is that many our agendas seem to be 16806987_597851727077798_7004544249497734638_n.jpgendangered due to funding issues and new policies like the Travel Ban. In those cases, it is understandable to focus one’s attention on short-term activism. But if you’re good at it, please don’t quit that knowledge-building, that service, that parenting, – all that work that is not crisis-management. If you’re devoting yourself to excellent teaching and not to tweeting about the Muslim Ban regularly, you are doing your job.No one else will do your job. Keep doing it. Thank you. If you can inform yourself and others about the crisis of the nation without sacrificing your work and well-being, please do so. But don’t feel guilty if you’re not responding to every single Issue every day.


Guest speaker on Sufism: Prof. Marcia Hermansen

16711623_1237874572926224_4309838275333574660_nThis semester, I’m teaching a class on Islam in America. As an academic with a PhD in Education Policy Studies, I had some trepidation about this class an my expertise. I specialize in Islam in America, but not in terms of Islamic Studies or theology. Therefore I decided at the outset to rely heavily on specialists in various fields that had what I lacked. Guest

We were honored in our Islam in America class to have Prof. Marcia Hermansen, Professor and Director of Islamic World Studies visit us from the Theology Department at  Loyola16729147_1237874576259557_1946183402999001319_n University today to answer student questions and discuss the diverse world of American Sufis. I feel immeasurably blessed and enlightened. (I served as whiteboard-writer, so blame me for the handwriting in the photograph). She offered an amazing analysis and fantastic grasp of both classical Islam and contemporary cultural manifestations, of diverse Sufi orders and their contemporary shaping as well as their classical and scriptural sources.

I was gratified to hear Dr. Hermansen say how enjoyable it was to speak on this subject to our students at American Islamic College. Since they identify as Muslim and are engaged16730432_1237874559592892_4254589778394188156_nat an above-average level with Islamic discourses, scholarly Islamic Studies speakers can go much further with our students than with a ‘mainstream’ undergraduate group.

Come speak at AIC and watch your student listeners’ eyes light up!


Real professors

Photo on 11-16-13 at 5.36 PMMy daughter has been lurking at my blog. Though she shows every sign of being unimpressed with my work, apparently she follows me online whenever she can, and has listed me as a “famous author” in a school assignment. I suspect the latter is primarily because she doesn’t have to do additional research on some other author.

Anyway, the other day, she asked me if I was an “Assistant Professor.” Oh boy, I sighed to myself: I know what’s coming, and the hackles of my professional defensiveness rose. This has happened before, when a babysitter described an employer (a well-regarded scholar of ancient history) as “not a real professor, just an assistant,” and – much as it hurt – I then had to explain that I, too, was “not a real professor, just an assistant.”

I explained to my daughter that an Assistant Professor was just the first rung on the ladder of professional promotions, and that the next one was an Associate Professor (which, really, also sounds like “not a real professor.”) The next one is a Full Professor, which really just sounds extra-defensive. Like, I’m a full person, not a pretend one. Maybe an Assistant Professor is akin to a green card of citizenship, but in my daughter’s world that just means I get kicked to Customs and Border Protection and out of academe.

What I didn’t explain to my daughter was that I should by now be an Associate Professor or even a Full Professor, had I not been hit by a bad market, fiscally non-viable employer institutions, and (let’s say it) the trifecta of racism-Islamophobia-sexism, with a dash of let’s-attack-the-prey-weakened-by-breast-cancer. It sounds awfully whiny to say that, but it is the truth. I started a tenure track job in 2008, and after breast cancer and its aftermath brought out the true colors of my employer, I hopped over to another institution. There – a truly White faculty, where I was one of a few faces of color – just before tenure, the budget crisis hit, and a new job-slasher-president cut my position. According to my Department Head, the Dean knew well that my position would be cut months in advance, but did not bother to inform me, holding his cards close to his chest as he told me how well I was doing and how I could spend more time being visible on campus, in addition to my service and administrative work. When my nationally award-winning book came out, I was already scrambling to find another position, and spent a year in limbo. I was then hired at an institution where I was a valued member, but where tenure wasn’t in place yet.

That longish narrative hangs together well, but it is still a long explanation. I’m well aware that letting my pain and vulnerability hang out there puts me at further risk of being shunned, but let’s not fool ourselves: I’m already marked. After I explained the academic hierarchy and the designations, my daughter smirked at my defensiveness, and said, “I’m so disappointed.” She added, chuckling, “I had such high hopes for you.”

You and me, baby girl. You and me.