Protecting the vulnerable

December 2016

Last night at a Religions and the Practice of Peace Colloquium, I listened to a panel on protecting children, specifically Syrian refugees. I heard from a respondent who has been working in refugee camps for many years as a child trauma therapist. I heard statistics and eye-witness reports about the state of Syria and also camps in Greece and in other countries. There is a gross deficit in political commitment to protect children in refugee camps, who are prostituting themselves in the open (in daylight) to earn money for food; forming gangs; going out to work in fields as young as four years old; being sold into slavery; and being forced into child marriage. One specialist told us: “We’re in this situation because we haven’t been politically committed to meeting standards already established” for child protection. The world knows better. Yet here we are.

Of course this is not just a Syrian problem. In the world there are 31 million children living outside their country of birth and 11 million of those are refugees. That’s a 1 to 3 ratio. The ratio for adults is 1 in 20. 45% of child refugees at this moment come from Syria or Afghanistan. Yet internally displaced children are even more at risk than those who managed to flee their country. This is a massive issue not only in Syria but also across Africa and Central America (I’m ashamed of the U.S.’s treatment of the refugees at our door).

One speaker reminded us that “the obligation to generate hope rests with all of us.” She spoke of the “hope that comes from religious faith and a sense of viable future.”

This panel got me thinking about what I can do to work smarter and to be better. What can I do to make the best use of the resources God has given me? How can I alleviate suffering in my sphere of influence? Am I willing, and am I preparing myself, to go where God will ask me to go? These are questions worth coming back to again and again.

election night

November 2016

Ironically, I was with the HDS Muslims (and some other Muslims from around the community) on the night of the election, and it was painful. The past week at school has been even more painful. We’ve been going through stages of grieving. Shock turned to rage turned to deep sadness. I cried in two of my classes—not just a few tears, like, streaming-down-my-face kind of tears. Professors cried. For days, I couldn’t sleep at night…crashed around 4 a.m. to sleep for a few hours.

I’m surprised that the results of this election have been so visceral, raw, and—well, bodily. Post-election discussions at Harvard have addressed the election as a traumatic event, and I really do feel that there’s a lot of community trauma right now.

One of my Muslim friends, who is a first-year student at HDS, has family members in Michigan who have been threatened; as she kept getting phone calls from her mom about these threats last week, she asked her mom what to do. My friend was wondering if she should go home and be with family. Her mom chastised her, told her to get up off the ground (figuratively), and get to work. This response was heartening, full of energy and life. She told her daughter, “Your father and I didn’t immigrate to America for you to quit…”

And so, a fire has been lit—or rekindled—in many of us.

Chaplaincy for LDS Women

November 2016

Since I’ve been in survival mode, I’m slowing down and reevaluating my life’s direction. Rather than move forward with a summer internship in air force chaplaincy, I’m going to take this upcoming summer off. This was a hard decision to make because I love to work and I want to get all the experience I can, but I need to do this. Maybe pain is the only thing that could slow me down because I was pushing too hard and wouldn’t listen otherwise. I don’t know. I try not to make meaning of the pain—to figure out why—but I can’t help wonder what I’m supposed to learn from this. I want to wisely listen to the Spirit and to my body. Throughout my life I’ve ignored pain signals and other issues in my body and have just had a lot of anxiety held in there. So I’m working on looking into that and listening on a different level. This requires a mindful slowing-down process.

However, over the last few months I’ve been in touch with some people in Salt Lake about my request for the LDS Church to endorse female chaplains in the military. A few weeks ago I had a second phone conversation with the director of military relations and chaplaincy for the LDS Church, and also his colleague. These men were kind and we were on the phone for over an hour. I could tell they care, which means a lot to me. They did, in their September committee meeting, bring up my question of endorsing women for military chaplaincy. The committee still recommended “no” in their report to Elder Holland (because of the issue of a non-priesthood holder chaplain getting deployed). However, the director told me that things may change in the future, and that this is a historic moment because I’m the first LDS woman enrolled in divinity school, officially qualified to do chaplaincy, who has made the request. A woman requested it before but she wasn’t in divinity school so it wasn’t a possibility. It might seem hard to imagine it taking this long for a female Latter-day Saint pursuing chaplaincy to make this request—but then again, there are not many female LDS chaplains and the Church only started endorsing women for other chaplaincy roles a few years ago.

I was persistent in the conversation. The director encouraged me to write a letter to Elder Holland requesting a policy change that would endorse women for service in military chaplaincy. I haven’t had time to write that letter yet, and now because of my health, military chaplaincy isn’t looking like an option (at least not immediately), but I still plan to write the letter because I think it will benefit my sisters in the Church.

Pain

November 2016

I’ve had chronic neck pain the past five years. In 2014, I canceled a summer internship to Mexico because of my neck pain, got an MRI, and found out I have a herniated disc and my neck is straight rather than having a healthy curve. I was supposed to get a cortisone injection to alleviate pain, but the doctor didn’t go through with it, because he said my blood vessels blocked the way. I started physical therapy, met Waldir, got married, moved to Boston for grad school. In the past two years, though, my neck has been in intense pain. Even though I’ve done PT, it hasn’t gotten better. A few weeks ago, before midterms, my neck muscles seized up and I immediately lost movement—I couldn’t look to the right or to the left. Muscle spasms continued for days, I had to stop PT, and I met with a spine specialist and got another MRI. The results are the same: herniated disc w/ straight neck.

This time, however, I went in for a cortisone shot at Massachusetts General Hospital and the doctor did a great job, and my pain immediately went away and my muscles relaxed. That was 9 days ago. The left side of my neck felt so good afterward that I requested another injection on the right side, which I had 2 days ago. I’m grateful to have some relief! It’s a miracle! I can only have 3 injections per year, though, and I definitely don’t want to come dependent upon those. Unfortunately the left side of my neck is already having tension again, so I’m diligently applying ice and then heat and doing gentle stretches every day. I also began seeing a chiropractor here who works on Harvard athletes.

Constant, intense pain wears on a person so much, and it’s required me to depend on the Lord. He has carried me. Even with all this pain, before I had any relief, He helped me focus and study for midterm exams. I got As, and that was because of Him. I studied hard and fasted and prayed for help and attended the temple. I have seen and felt Him work through me and carry me. Waldir has also been a constant rock of support, giving me blessings in the night when I can’t sleep and when I cry in pain, asking about my pain, listening to me, praying for me, taking me to doctor’s appointments for not only the neck issue but also other things (if I didn’t know myself, I’d think I were a hypochondriac).

Leymah Gbowee

leymahOctober 2016

This week I had the incredible privilege to attend workshops and hear speeches at HDS by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women to demand peace during Liberia’s long and devastating civil war. After Gbowee heard a voice tell her in a dream to bring women together to pray for peace, she went on to play a major role in helping end her country’s conflict in 2003. I can’t do justice to Gbowee’s powerful presence. Leymah’s influence lit a passion inside me to stand for sisterhood. This may sound strange, but in the past I didn’t spend much time thinking specifically about the power of sisterhood. And I hadn’t considered the power of uniting women to demand men to stop torturing, massacring, and raping fellow women and children. Leymah planted seeds in my mind and she buoyed me up and empowered me as she led me to further consider my identity and influence as a woman. She reminds me of President Nelson’s October 2015 General Conference Address, A Plea to My Sisters: “We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God!” Nelson then quoted President Packer: “We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out…We need women with the gift of discernment who can view the trends in the world and detect those that, however popular, are shallow or dangerous.” Then Nelson adds that we need “women who know how to call upon the powers of heaven to protect and strengthen children and families; women who teach fearlessly.” Leymah is one of those women. She risked her life to protect children and families; she taught and today continues to teach fearlessly and to boldly testify of God.

As I prepared for Leymah’s visit, I watched a short documentary about her movement (Pray the Devil Back to Hell) and also read her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers. (I highly recommend both of these, especially her memoir. Heads up, though: the book is full of war descriptions, including explicit language and sexual violence.) While I was preparing for Leymah’s visit by learning about her life, at some point I felt like I should give her a Book of Mormon. I decided to bring the book with me to school and write a message in it for Leymah. I started praying to have the chance to hand her the book as a gift. When someone famous comes to campus, it’s a high demand event with lots of people, and I anticipated it might be difficult for me to have a chance to interact with Leymah. On Wednesday when she came and gave a special workshop for students in the Religions and Practice of Peace course, I just so happened to get a seat in the front, as close as possible to Leymah. She even came up and put her hand on my shoulder and asked me a question during her workshop (“What keeps you up at night?” she asked. She was teaching us the importance of doing what we are passionately called to do—the thing that keeps us up at night). Immediately after the workshop, though, before I had a chance to approach her, she was whisked away. By then I was even more excited about Leymah’s work than when I went into the workshop, because she was such a thrilling speaker and gifted story-teller, and so passionate and bold.

After hearing her story in person, and having her as a teacher for a few hours, I loved her even more than I thought I would! She is a true soul sister; I even said to myself and wrote in my journal, “I think I knew her before this life.” I felt like she is a soul very close to my soul. The Lord answered my prayers; after the second (and final) workshop of the day, I managed to get a quick photo with Leymah before she was called for a group photo. Then as she quickly made her way to exit the room with an escort (before people could grab her for individual photos), I ran up behind her and handed her the Book of Mormon. Definitely not the most graceful moment of my life—I practically shoved the book into her hands (just kidding, but it was definitely a quick move!). I hope she opens it and reads the note I wrote. Most importantly, I hope she reads the book! In my note, I thanked her for her life and for testifying of Christ. I told her that the book teaches about peace.

Rise Up

September 2016

rise

Last week at noon service (a weekly interfaith worship gathering at HDS), I sobbed through the sermon and “die-in,” where black students lay on the floor to symbolize and protest the killings of our black brothers and sisters across the nation. The weight of violence crushed on me, and I poured out tears. I thought about Christ taking the pain of the world. Although that is HIS role—not mine!—I couldn’t help but grieve for the hatred, strife, thoughtlessness, and ignorance of humans. Then Debbie sang Rise Up and I will never forget the feeling in that room as the “dead” rose (symbolic on multiple levels!).

Rise2.png

 

Year 2

September 2016

The semester began just a few weeks ago and already summer is a world away. Today one of my friend’s mom, visiting Harvard for the first time, said, “Time moves faster here.” It’s true. I’m learning so much so quickly that it’s a blur. Every week—every day, even—feels like a new world. I love that excitement with all of its newness and change. Of course, there are ups and downs. There have been many emotional dips, especially as we as individuals and as a school community struggle to process recent national shootings, international wars, and evil political rhetoric (I declined watching the presidential debate).

I loved my summer internship as a hospital chaplain but my attention has now shifted from that as I’m intensely focused on my classes and on my growing interest in the field of peace practices. I’m taking a rich combination of classes: Intro to Ministry Studies, Hebrew Bible, History of Western Christianity, “Meaning Making: Thinking Theologically about Field Education” (a class required for my internship), and a Religions and the Practice of Peace Colloquium. I’m immersed in the Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) initiative at HDS, which Dean Hempton founded in 2014. I’m co-facilitating RPP’s first “Transformative Leadership and Spiritual Development” class, which brings together graduate students from Harvard schools to learn from peace practitioners across sectors. We learn from leaders in conflict resolution and peace studies who come to mentor us on Monday evenings. I facilitate interfaith and interschool conversations during workshops with these mentors.

As a part of the RPP Colloquium (a separate course), I meet and learn from leaders who have witnessed great devastation of modern warfare and genocide. As they describe seeing their people massacred, and describe what they did and are doing now to create and plead for peace, I keep thinking about what it means to promote peace in an interfaith setting. I’m also asking how humanitarian organizations can effectively provide basic resources—food, water, shelter—for people who desperately need basic needs met before peace negotiations can begin.

Along with classes and RPP, I’m also focused on my role as chaplain intern in the Office of the Chaplain and Religious and Spiritual Life at Harvard Divinity, where I’m supervised by HDS chaplain Kerry Maloney. I support student religious organizations, facilitate and lead meetings for religious student organizations, attend worship events, and provide pastoral care.

As a chaplain at the hospital, no one knew me outside of that role. Now as a chaplain at HDS, people see all of me—the good, the bad—all the time (not just in professional settings but in casual settings); and no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m still branded as an official representative of HDS. I don’t want to misrepresent. I’m constantly asking Heavenly Father, “Help!” I just pray each day to listen and see. My offering is meager, but that’s why we’ve got grace. 😉

God knows we’re going to stumble all over the place, and He provides for that.