Mikaela* here! If you have been perusing our blog at all, you should all know that HDS is full of amazing people doing wonderful things. I was fortunate enough to interview one of these people for you, dear readership. What follows is an interview with HDS student Zachary Davis, whose podcast, Ministry of Ideas, was featured in a BuzzFeed article titled “27 Podcasts You Need To Start Listening to in 2018.” Read on to discover the web connecting Zach, HDS, the Religious Literacy Project (RLP), and his podcast, Ministry of Ideas. Continue reading
Post by: Brittany Landorf, Graduate Assistant (GA)
Hello there! I am a current GA in the Office of Admissions at Harvard Divinity School. When I’m not working in the Office of Admissions, I am pursuing a Masters of Theological Studies degree focusing on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Islam at HDS. Now that the semester is in swing and the air outside is a little chilly, I have been reflecting on my time spent in the (significantly warmer) city of Tunis located in Tunisia over J-Term and wanted to share my experience. This post is particularly helpful for considering the vast array of resources presented by studying at Harvard University and how to continue learning beyond the classroom.
One of the wonderful advantages of studying at Harvard Divinity School are the myriad opportunities offered throughout Harvard University. As a HDS student, not only can you take classes at other graduate schools at Harvard and in the Boston area, but you can participate in organizations, journals, and school sponsored initiatives and programs. This past January, I, along with two other Harvard Divinity School students Abdul Rahman Latif (MTS ‘18) and Lillian McCabe (MTS’18), had the opportunity to partake in a three week long excursion to Tunisia arranged by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. The trip offered a broad cultural, religious, social, historical, and political introduction to Tunisia for graduate students interested in conducting research in the country or Maghreb region.
Abdul Rahman, Lillian, and I all focus on Islamic Studies at HDS, yet have differing interests within the field. While traveling in Tunisia, it was exciting to see how we were all drawn to different aspects of the country while sharing the same exhilaration of learning through lived experience. Abdul Rahman noted that being in Tunisia helped him move past more restrictive area studies paradigms. His firsthand experiences enabled him to transcend academic barriers to expand the purview of his work on Ottoman history and Islamic practices. Lillian, who specializes in North African medieval Islamic literature, was struck by how Tunisians learn the history of their country in school and in the country. In speaking with me, she reflected:
The trip reminded me why I love what I study so much, and I returned to campus this semester with renewed energy and new curiosity. Sometimes our classrooms can feel so far away from what we are studying (literally and figuratively); I think that immersive learning experiences like this are invaluable.
Like Lillian, the trip reaffirmed my passion for what I study. Being able to practice my Arabic and learn first-hand about the expansion of contemporary social movements since the revolution was instrumental for my research. Speaking with Tunisian youth who have been turning to new expressions of identity-making through artistic practices and participate in cultural events has led me to a deeper understanding for my own research.
Besides being introduced to the research offerings of the National Archives and National Library—which boast an impressive collection of Ottoman, French, and Tunisian documents–we loved being able to travel throughout the country. Tunisia is incredibly diverse in terms of geography, culture, history, and architecture. Roman and Byzantine mosaics and ruins abound, interweaving with exquisite examples of North African Islamic architecture. French colonial influence is also evident in the new city of Tunis extending outside the medina walls. Some of our favorite places were the Great Mosque of al-Qayrawan (also known as the Mosque of Uqba) in Qayrawan and the Berber town of Takrouna in southern Tunisia.
Three hours south of Tunis, Al-Qayrawan (670 AD) is considered one of the holiest mosques in the Islamic world and is one of the oldest in North Africa, serving as an architectural model for subsequent mosques. Built during the Muslim expansion into North Africa in the year 50 of the hijra, Al-Qayrawan is both a sacred place as well as an emblem of Islamic architecture and art. In addition to visiting the mosque, we wandered through the Al-Qayrawan medina which is famous for both sweets called makroudh and Berber carpets.
A little over an hour to the southeast of the capital, Takrouna is a Berber village believed to have been founded by a group of Berbers and Moors who had immigrated to Andalusia in the 8th century and returned after being expelled in the early 17th century. The village rests upon a large hill overlooking an arid valley dotted with olive trees. While many of the houses below the cliff are abandoned, the ones leading up the road and atop are still inhabited. The Andalusian influence is evident in the open architectural style of the houses. We spent our morning walking through the old village, drinking espresso, Turkish coffee, and traditional mint tea, and eating warm bread made in a cast iron pot. From our seats outside of the café, we could catch a glimpse of the still mostly intact Roman aqueduct that runs 132 km from its source in the town of Zaghouan to Tunis, making it one of the longest Roman aqueducts.
In addition to our introduction to the classical and medieval history in the region, we were able to partake in, and gain a greater understanding, of the lasting effects of French colonial influence and the Tunisian revolution in 2011. We attended several lectures discussing the impact of the Tunisian revolution and witnessed the growing culture and artistic movements in the country. It was especially interesting to hear how education and knowledge surrounding the Ottoman rule and early modern history of Tunisia has changed following the revolution. Now, there is a renewed interested and openness of speech about the early modern history of Tunisia, represented in a new art exhibit of the last Ottoman Beys at the Qasr Al-Said Palace affiliated with the Bardo Museum. There has also been an explosion of culture and investment in Tunisian society. When visiting the medina of Tunis, we met several different organizations that are working to preserve the cultural heritage of Tunisia, including showcasing the former Jewish quarter of the medina called ‘El Hara.’
For Abdul Rahman, Lillian, and I, the trip reaffirmed our passion for what we study and exposed us to new directions of thought and research. I hope to return to Tunisia in the summer to pursue research that explores how Tunisian youth are expressing identity and negotiating their relationship with Islam in new ways, looking particularly at conversations surrounding art, music, and queer movements. Furthermore, I intend to continue pursuing this research in a doctoral program after concluding my studies at MTS degree. Lillian is also hoping to return to Tunisia and thinks that taking advantage of Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ Office in Tunis will be particularly helpful for her work. This semester, she plans on learning more about the Shi’i history of Tunisia under the Fatimid Empire and how memories of the past are intentionally constructed and selectively included or removed from national history. Abdul Rahman plans to combine his study of Ottoman Turkish language and history with research about Ottoman rule in Tunisia. Traveling to and study in Tunisia has directly impacted and enriched our studies at HDS, helping connect our academic courses and theories with lived experience.
Guest Post by Pastor Robin Lutjohann, MDiv 2013
Harvard Divinity School is a place that will change you if you let it. I started by pursuing
the two-year MTS degree with the intention of researching and teaching the history of Christianity. By the time I left, I was well on my way to becoming a Lutheran pastor. During the three years I spent at HDS, I lived in a protest camp in downtown Boston (Occupy!); switched my program; learned how to do ministry from people who lived on the streets of Cambridge and directed a soup kitchen. Also, I learned a couple of languages; wrote many papers; got baptized in the Charles River; fell in and out of love a couple of times; got engaged; met some of my best friends. Through all these and countless other encounters, I experienced at HDS what the Christian tradition calls “conversion” — a “being turned around” from one direction to another. So many of my friends and colleagues from HDS experienced something similar, entering the school with one vision and leaving with a very different one.
I have experienced the Divinity School as a kind of incubator for discernment. The sheer diversity of perspectives, traditions, and practices surrounding us here required us to examine our paths and question our motives at every turn. We took nothing for granted. Which is why, when folks ask me why I went to HDS and not to a Lutheran seminary, my answer is:
“I am not sure I would be a Lutheran pastor today if I had gone to a Lutheran seminary. But in this multi-faith, multi-vocational context, I was forced to give an account for myself, for my story, and for my chosen tradition.” Others’ questions spurred on my learning. It is not too much to say that I learned from my Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, Baptist, Jewish, and other friends about what it means to be a Lutheran.
Despite our diversity of paths, one thing united us: HDS taught us that this institution educates “learned ministers.” All of us — academics, social workers, monks, nonprofit or government leaders, teachers, and students, and, yes, even pastors — were encouraged to think of ourselves as “learned ministers.”
One year into my pastorate at Faith Lutheran Church, back in my old neighborhood close to HDS, I am rediscovering the strength of this core idea. It contains a compelling ethos, holding together academic excellence and responsibility in the world.
Often, I wonder: what do most people think when they hear the phrase “learned minister?” Maybe they picture something like the statue of William Ellery Channing
facing Arlington Street Church in downtown Boston. His eyes and chest raised heroically, 19th-century-windswept-Jane-Austen-novel hair casually blowing in the breeze, one hand clutching an academic robe (as if to shield the man against the onslaught of the world’s moral depravity), the other solidly in possession of that which grounds all of his work: the text. It is the image of the Preacher, the Pulpit Prince, who exercises leadership through his golden-tongued eloquence and moral example.
It is an image conjured for the sake of public gardens and portrait galleries. But it has little to do with what I have known a “learned minister” to be. Even Will Channing’s actual ministry and character was so much more interesting than it was heroic, much more embattled and conflicted, weak and strong at once, swept along by events, attempting to be witness to the Light he had glimpsed, but ever failing to do so completely, ever the sinner, even while a saint to us.
In 200 years of its history, HDS has expanded the definition of “minister” to include all forms of service to neighbor and world. While both some traditionalists and some secularists may bristle at this identification, it is actually quite faithful to its original intent. “Minister” is a Latin word that simply means “servant.” Its Greek equivalent “diakonos” is used by St. Paul in his letters not to describe an ordained clergyperson, but rather the role of the whole community seeking after the way of life that Jesus showed us — to serve others with compassion and to serve the world in seeking a just society, even in the face of the greatest adversity, even to the point of losing all for the sake of the world’s life.
I see it as a fortuitous turn of events that HDS, in its increasing inclusivity over 200 years (towards other traditions, towards broader vocational directions), was forced to expand its definition of “ministry” and thereby virtually backed itself into a rendering of the term that is ironically more faithful to the biblical tradition at its roots, even while many students today would not claim this tradition as their own.
In fact, as a Lutheran, who is particularly mindful of Martin Luther’s reform movement as the 500th anniversary of its inception approaches in 2017, I am reminded of Luther’s own theology of vocation. Rather than ministry being the exclusive enclave of a few holy experts with lofty titles, who would have the power to dispense enlightenment and forgiveness, Luther wanted the entire people of God to own their ministry in daily life — cobblers, stonemasons, mothers and fathers, students, governors, and, yes, even pastors. “Each has the work and office of [their] trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops. Further, everyone must benefit and serve every other by means of [their] own work or office so that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, just as all the members of the body serve one another [1 Cor 12:14-26].” (Luther’s Works 44:130) All were to be ministers of the Gospel! Luther once remarked that a Christian cobbler was not one who stitched little crosses on their shoes, but rather one who worked ethically, made an honest living, and exuded holiness in their ordinary tasks.
So, there is no divide between the mundane and the theological. There is no barrier separating ministry and “secular” work. There is only the one service offered for the life of the world. The more we embrace this, the more faithful we will be to both the 200-year legacy of HDS and the(almost) 500-year history of the Lutheran reforming movement. I am delighted to think these two strands of tradition together, and I would invite anyone, regardless of affiliation, to join me
Founded in 2014 by Dean David N. Hempton, the Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) Initiative seeks to advance engagement, scholarship, and practice on the roles of religion in fostering sustainable peace. The RPP Initiative brings together a diverse range of faculty from a wide array of disciplines and fields from across Harvard’s Schools, focusing on how the positive role of religion has worked to prevent violence and pursue social change and social justice by nonviolent means. Students at the Divinity School have an opportunity to participate in the initiative in a variety of ways, through the public colloquiums held once a month, a year-long course that is offered, and by working with the RPP as Graduate Assistants.
At the RPP Keynote Address this fall, which featured Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Graduate Assistant Brittany Landorf spoke with current RPP Graduate Assistants Benjamin Crockett (MTS, 2018), Johnna Loreen (MTS, 2018), Alizeh Ahmed (MTS, 2018) and photographer Laura Krueger (MTS, 2017) about their work with the RPP and how it impacts their studies.
What are you studying (focus area/degree program)?
Alizeh Ahmed: I am an MTS with a concentration in Islamic Studies. Broadly speaking, I am interested in the politics of authority surrounding the establishment and application of contemporary Islamic Law in postcolonial societies in Asia, its effects on culture and pluralism in these contexts, and contemporary reform movements.
Benjamin Crockett: I am a first year Master of Theological Studies candidate studying religious conflicts and the role of the media at Harvard University.
Laura Kreuger: MTS, concentrating in Religion, Literature, and Culture
Johnna Loreen: I’m an MTS candidate with a focus in Religion, Ethics, and Politics.
What brought you to HDS?
Johnna: HDS was recommended to me by the head of the Religious Studies department of my undergraduate institution. I was drawn in especially by the focus on religious pluralism unique to HDS, the ability to expand my studies and classes beyond the Divinity School, and the financial aid that HDS can offer their students.
Alizeh: In HDS, I liked both the multi-religious, interdisciplinary context of learning and the opportunity to engage with students interested in academia as well as ministry. I also feel like HDS is an ever-evolving and changing experiment in higher ed–I like that the school continues to ask itself what divinity school means, who it exists for, and what its responsibilities are to its students and the world.
How would you define the RPP?
Johnna: I would describe RPP as a people-based initiative that strives to employ cross-cultural dialogue and self-reflection to promote peace among different groups of people. The organization is small but brings in people from across Harvard University who see that the practice of peace is not solely the job of HDS to bring about, but an opportunity to connect across campus and differences for the sake of laying the groundwork for cooperative relationships and peace-building.
Ben: A group of like-minded individuals from all over the university and beyond actively engaging in the practice of peace with a firm commitment to exploring the spiritual resources available to us within our different communities and faith traditions.
What motivated you to apply to the RPP and what do you do there?
Alizeh: I am interested in conflicts or political contestations charged by religious identity politics or issues of interpretative authority. I wanted to apply to the RPP because I hope to learn more about the contributive power of language or behavior steeped in religious tradition, as well as interfaith communication, in mending these types of conflicts.
In what ways does working for the RPP enrich/complement your studies? How does it enhance your study of religion?
Johnna: I plan to focus my studies on religious pluralism in the United States with the hopes of one day contributing to community-based problem solving in religiously diverse environments. Being a part of RPP, I’m able to see some of these ideals in practice and gain further exposure and experience in what it means to employ religious pluralism and community dialogue as a practice of peace in a diverse world.
Ben: RPP is a wonderfully practical and necessary supplement to my academic studies. I love the Colloquium course because it is discussion based and we are so fortunate to have some incredible speakers come and share their wisdom and experiences with us. As someone who is interested in studying conflict and the different ways communities have been able to find peace, this course is an absolute must!
What Practice of Peace topic has been of particular interest to you?
Laura: I am interested in the larger, underlying discussion that permeates RPP events: peace is an action, peace is a practice and a distinct way of operating and existing in the world as a whole.
Johnna: I have been fascinated by the idea of art and the sharing of art to be a contributing factor to peace-building and cross-cultural dialogue. At our first public colloquium of the year, we got to experience how visual and performance art can be a part of this dialogue and lead to a deep sense of empathy for others.
Ben: I am interested in how we can use social media and emerging mobile technology to mobilize social movements while holding on to our humanity and keeping a firm spiritual commitment.
What has been your favorite part of the experience so far?
Laura: As a photographer, I often make an attempt to be as invisible as possible at these events. That’s not always practical (people often want photos together, which is great), but it means that I get to step back and observe what’s happening, watch people’s reactions and responses, and experience the event in a way that’s not necessarily typical. That’s to say, I enjoy photographing events for RPP for many of the same reasons that I enjoy photography in general, but I also get to learn something about the world and the people in it when I photograph for RPP.
Johnna: In my short time thus far at RPP, I have enjoyed being part of a group that is passionate about the intersection of religion and practices of peace. It’s a small working group, and the opportunity to work closely with and learn from them has been inspiring. We each have different skills and ideas to bring to the table, but we’re connected by the larger theme of why we came to work for RPP in the first place.
As I prepare to begin my last semester of the Master of Divinity Program at HDS I can’t help but think back to what has made the last two and a half years so significant. My time at HDS has been truly transformative. Although it has been special because of professors, courses, and other students, the part that has been most important for my vocation have been my field education experiences. A major component of the MDiv program is completing at least two field education placements in non-profits, hospitals, churches, community organizations, government agencies—or anywhere where ministry happens. Through field education placements and other volunteer experiences I have been able to discover my passion for prison ministry and particularly for teaching in prisons. I first began to think seriously about prison ministry through a course called “Ethics, Punishment and Race,” taught by Professor Kaia Stern. This course allowed to me discover the ways society has deemed a caste of people guilty and punishable and that justice in this country does not look the same for everyone. As Lawyer Bryan Stevenson says, “in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.” After that course, I realized that incarcerated people had been invisible to me—not only because prisons and people who are incarcerated are made invisible, but also because I had not considered their suffering and experiences worthy of empathy.
Through field education placements and other volunteer experiences I have been able to discover my passion for prison ministry and particularly for teaching in prisons.
After that semester, I decided to work with people who had been incarcerated and were transitioning out of incarceration. My first field education experience was during the summer of 2014 at Span, Inc., a Boston-based non-profit organization founded in 1976. Span works with returning citizens to provide them with assistance finding housing, employment and provides them with counseling and support. I collaborated with the Director of Operations in projects of data and planning in preparation for grants. I also worked with their Training to Work program where I taught two cycles of an intensive computer skills class. My experiences at Span, envision myself working in the non-profit sector in the future. I gained skills in both direct-service work and the management side of non-profit work.
The following academic year I decided to work with Renewal House, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. As part of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry this shelter engages residents in restorative justice circles, art therapy groups and other innovative work, which was incredibly formative for my work. During my time at Renewal House I worked teaching an English as a Learning Language class and collaborated with the leadership of Renewal House to design and facilitate domestic violence training for clergy and faith leaders. We facilitated one of these trainings at HDS in March 2015 and received positive feedback from students. The connection between domestic violence and the American punishment system motivated me to do this placement. Nearly all women who end up incarcerated have been survivors of domestic violence. Interrupting this cycle of abuse in shelters may keep many people from incarceration and further traumatization.
During the Fall of 2014, I had the opportunity to co-teach an English course in a Massachusetts prison through the Boston University Prison Education Program. It was a rewarding experience and taught me about the challenges of teaching in a carceral environment and whether my ministry should be more focused on people currently incarcerated or returning citizens as they resettle back into their lives.
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had during my time at HDS. My vocation as I see it now will be to continue this work. How can those outside of prison work for people to recognize the dignity and humanity of those in prison? I hope to work in collaboration with community organizations, especially those that are faith-based, in order to change perspectives and advocate for prison reform, to make liberation a reality.
Diving Into the Wreck (Photo by Caroline Matas)
This semester I began working as a Graduate Assistant in the HDS Office of Admissions. Since I’ve started working here, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and articulating why I love HDS, and how I’ve changed since coming here. This blog post arose from a discussion I had with my fellow Graduate Assistant here, Carly, about how my academic explorations have influenced my personal life.
Last year, during my first semester at Harvard Divinity School, I took a class called Piety and Protest: Women and Religion in Contemporary America with Ann Braude. In this class, we examined case studies of women’s protests within, and against, their religious faiths. Through the various books we read, I became very interested in the ways that women used their bodies to register and enact protest. I was intrigued by the ways that women’s clothing and bodies have been re-signified and re-marked to critique and fight back against various forms of gender discrimination. This interest led to my final paper, which was about the potentiality of tattoos to interrupt patriarchal body projects. This line of inquiry has informed much of the work I’ve done since, which has focused on what bodies mean, how bodies move through space, and how bodies and subjects are discursively produced in different contexts.
My path to Harvard Divinity School was circuitous at best. Waylaid from my eager graduate school plans after college, I found myself falling in love and getting married, spending several years taking care of my terminally ill mother, and getting further entrenched in Buddhist practice. While I loved my job working with college students at my alma mater, I knew that somewhere between Buddhism and counseling there was another career path waiting for me. Continue reading
It was not even half past two in the morning when my alarm went off. I had barely enough time to get ready to attend the 3:30 a.m. vigil at St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery located in Spencer, MA. I was there with a group of students from HDS on a 2-day silent retreat. This was part of a weeklong immersive Buddhist-Christian retreat offered by the divinity school as a J-term course, “Comparative Monasticisms.” Earlier in the week, we had spent some time at the New England Buddhist Vihara (a Sanskrit word that means “monastery”) and at the Empty Bell, a Buddhist-Christian retreat center in Northampton.
“All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—‘You are the Beloved.’ ” —Henri J. M. Nouwen
If someone had told me a year ago that I was going to be a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, with the opportunity to directly experience monastic life from the perspective of two different religions in the middle of January, I would have probably laughed in their face in complete disbelief. Continue reading
“January term at HDS is an opportunity for the HDS community to engage in studies and specially designed programs that offer enrichment, knowledge, service to the community, or experiences outside HDS’s normal offerings…HDS faculty and students traveled to Latin America for “Spirit of Resistance,” a course that provided a firsthand look at the legacy of faith, solidarity, and social action in Nicaragua. The group talked about liberation theology and social justice with Nicaraguan environmental activists, Jesuit priests, advocates for women’s health, and rural peasants.”
In order to paint the most vibrant portrait about my experience in Nicaragua, I feel a quick stop in my past texturizes my sentiments and passions about the trip. I grew up in the 80s in New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans is popular, famous or infamous for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are rooted in folklore around voodoo, great cuisine, Mardi Gras, vampires, and most recently all the negative and horrible truths (some fabricated) revealed during and following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.