Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Religious Perspectives on Borders and Transnationalism

By Dr. Susanna Snyder

     Keeping up with immigration issues anywhere is like trying to catch an eel with your bare hands. Newspapers run a story about it almost every day, in one form or another, and just when you think you’re getting close to understanding what’s going on, new legislation or procedures are initiated or something happens to an immigrant somewhere you hadn’t imagined was possible.
     Take a look at what’s going on in Massachusetts at the moment. A bill currently under review in the State House—S2061 Act to Enhance Community Safety—is likely to have serious effects on immigrant communities if it is passed. Similar to laws passed in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona, it is designed to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deport undocumented immigrants. Among other things, it would allow law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people arrested for certain offences—such as driving under the influence.
     But what has religion got to do with all of this, though?
     At one level, religious organizations are among the most prominent advocates for (and against) immigration inclusion. For example, Boston New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of interfaith leaders and congregations that supports immigrants, states: “We people of faith support fair and just changes to our immigration system.  People who have worked hard here without documents for years deserve to have legal residency and a path to citizenship.”
     At another level, religion plays a large part in the daily lives of many immigrants. From providing a source of spiritual comfort, meaning, and community to practical support in the form of English language classes, accommodation, or legal advice, faith and faith-based organizations can be invaluable to new arrivals as well as those who have been living in the country for many years.
     The Migration, Theology and Faith Forum, based at Episcopal Divinity School, was set up to bring migrants, activists, and academics from different disciplines together to discuss these important issues. The MTFF will hold a symposium, “Borders and Transnationalism: Religious Perspectives,” on Friday, March 23, from 1pm to 4:30pm, to explore some of the intersections between religion and migration.
     Speakers at the symposium will explore such questions as how migrants are drawing on their faith and negotiating religious identity and practice—both on their journeys and after they arrive in the U.S. and what role faith-based organizations are playing in terms of practical support and advocacy—in support of and against immigrants? It will be multi-faith as well as interdisciplinary—with papers on Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. Some participants will reflect on the root causes of migration while others will discuss what happens at the border or when people have arrived in the United States.
     No matter how you feel about the complex issues related to immigration, it’s important that we come together to learn more, especially as the situation is changing every day.

Dr. Susanna Snyder is Assistant Professor in Contemporary Society and Christian Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Liturgy on the Streets

By Rev. Elizabeth M. Magill 

     In her blog Telling Secrets Elizabeth Kaeton looks at the “Ashes to Go Movement” and asks an important question: What does it mean when we take liturgical actions to the streets?
     Is it worth the risk that the action will be separated from its meaning—not just from its immediate meaning, but from the bigger story that surrounds it? Is it worth the risk that people will accept ashes and yet not understand the meaning behind the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or, even if they do understand, that they will not have heard the bigger story of Christian salvation, will not get a handle on how Ash Wednesday is a small part of the Good News of Kingdom of God. Is it worth the risk that someone will see it is as magic symbol of something trite?
     Elizabeth’s question is one of the right questions. She decides that she will take her ashes “to stay,” that she will be part of the whole liturgy, that she will experience that liturgy with the community where she is an integral part. Shes not getting ashes and moving on, she’s getting ashes and being sent out by a community.
     This leads to another right question: what do we, as active Christians, take with us when we are sent out by our worshiping community?
     Certainly it begins with our love, patience, and kindness. Certainly we take our community organizing knowledge, our passion for justice, and our love of our neighbor.
     But cant we also take our palms and our oil and our ashes? Our bread and our drink and our baptismal waters? Can't we take these out with us into the world?
     I know that these things may communicate less outside the context of the place that we worship. These things are only signs of something bigger, deeper, more powerful, and more wonderful. All of the gifts that we bring to the world are not fully understood in the world, nor, I must add, are the fully understood by any of us. 
     However, in fairness to the conversation, I offer the following experiences I have had working with Worcester Fellowship, an outdoor church offering worship to homeless and at risk adults. We offered a quick Ash Wednesday service followed by an hour hanging out, offering ashes to people walking through Worcester Common.
     First, there was the woman in Worcester Common who turned to me and said “Ashes? I haven't had ashes since I was a kid.” She then shared stories of her life since the last time she’d been to church, how the church had hurt her, and how she was now thinking about God again for the first time in a long time. When I put ashes on her, she understood what was happening in that ritual as well any other person receiving ashes inside or outside.
     Then, there was the young man who said, “No, thanks” when I first offered ashes but then came back and said, “Can I change my mind?” He told the story of the fight he’d had last night and how he was ruminating about that when I offered ashes. He realized that he has to “get right with God” if he thinks he is going to “get right with his girlfriend.” He understood enough to accept ashes without going inside.
     And there was the older woman who said nothing, but cried. Then she asked for a hug.
     And then the people who said yes, and accepted ashes with a quiet amen. And the people who simply took off their hats and said nothing. I dont know what they understood.
     I am glad I accepted the gifts the church community gives to me, and that I took the risk to take those gifts with me, outside. Perhaps the value of taking the gifts of the church outside its walls is the gift the giver receives from the people in the world.

The Rev. Elizabeth M. Magill (EDS ’02) is called “Pastor Liz” on the streets of Worcester where she offers lunch, worship, and pastoral care every Sunday at 1pm. Her blog is

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Gift of Myanmar: Balancing Motherhood and Scholarship

By Grace Ji-Sun Kim

     Yangon, Myanmar is a city of contrasts—beauty mixed with pollution, breathtaking pagodas alongside broken down homes, fancy malls beside street vendor and open markets, and sidewalk restaurants along with air-conditioned westernized ones. Everything is a sharp contrast. My recent visit provided the opportunity to see the contrasts within my own life in new ways. 
     When I accepted the invitation to speak at Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, Myanmar, my friends and family criticized me. They were uneasy about my decision to travel to a developing country and warned me about the political unrest and danger I might face. They were especially critical of my decision to take my ten-year-old daughter along with me.  Why should a mother of three who is already busy with teaching, writing, household chores, and mothering spend eleven days away from home in a volatile country?
     I have often felt torn between being a good mother and being a reputable scholar. I’ve felt criticized by other mothers because teaching or research took so much of my time away from my children.  For over a decade, I lived with constant guilt of trying to establish myself as a scholar and trying to be the best mom I can be. 
     On the other side, the scholarly world often criticized me for bringing a child to a scholarly event, as I looked more maternal than scholarly. Up until two years ago I travelled to every American Academy of Religion annual meeting since 1996 giving numerous papers and participating in committee meetings with at least one child at my side.
     I tried to rationalize that I was not such a terrible mom by remembering how much I was trying to do. I gave birth to two children during my PhD studies and one while searching for a job.  I nursed all three kids until they were one and I speak in Korean to them as part of sharing as much of my cultural heritage as possible. I drive my kids to Korean school, ballet, soccer, basketball, and school events.  I even serve home cooked meals as often as I can. Surely that showed that I was not such a terrible mom, but doubt still lingered.
     In Yangon, I gave three lectures and preached two sermons.  At my first lecture, my daughter listened for about forty-five minutes before a local woman came to take her shopping.  It was a prearranged shopping event, as I thought she might be bored listening to my three-hour lecture.
     Later my daughter said that once she left the room she kept thinking, “I want to be with my mom.  I want to listen to my mom’s lecture.”  She said that she was thoroughly enjoying listening to my lecture.  She said that I was saying so many important things and was disappointed that she had to leave.
     It was at that moment that I realized that my daughter might have her own ideas about my mothering. She thought I was a great and wonderful mom.  In my daughter’s eyes, I was the greatest mom in the world, who took her out of school to visit Yangon.  I was a fascinating mom whom people found interesting enough to come out to hear on a day that the seminary was closed for entrance exams. It was in that moment in Myanmar that I—for the first time—felt whole as a mother and as a scholar. To her, I was not a “terrible” mom.  That made all the difference.
     I didn’t have to live with the internal tension of trying to please my Asian culture, which expects a good mother to stay home, and the competitive world of theological scholarship, which expects me to continuously contribute to theological discourse.  I can be who I am.  I traveled half way across the world to realize that I can be both mother and scholar. It doesn’t have to be either/or.  All the guilt lifted during that precious moment with my daughter.
     I have my daughter to thank for this affirmation after struggling trying to please both sides. She showed me how I can be both scholar and mother at the same time. And Myanmar helped me embrace both the beauty and the struggle inherent in each.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women's Christology (Pilgrim Press). 

Friday, February 10, 2012

What Would It Take to Move the Map?

By Dr. Lawrence Wills
Maps, whether real or mental, omit as much as they show.
In our universities and seminaries, the early history of Christians and Jews in the West is studied in exacting detail, but it is often a one-sided process: the movement of Christians and Jews—and Muslims—to the East is largely ignored.
There is increasing evidence of a rich history of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who moved eastward all the way to China, at a time much earlier than was previously believed. There is, in fact, an entire “lost history” of these groups in the East, not because the evidence is not available or accessible, but simply because our universities and seminaries choose to ignore it.
The “What Would It Take to Move the Map?” conference is organized to address the simple yet fundamental question: What would it take to move the map to include a more inclusive history by introducing eastern narratives into this early history?
It is partly a matter of reintroducing some of the new findings about these groups in ancient Armenia, Syria, India, Inner Asia, East Asia—which some of the experts at this conference will do. But this conference will also encourage participants to reflect on the challenges and benefits of integrating an eastern history into the bigger picture. For instance, how can this realignment of the map and expansion of historical themes teach us about movements of religious groups in other areas, say, in Africa or South America—or the United States?
Modern global issues demand that we think anew about the interconnections and take measures to integrate the history of the East and West. It is natural for people in the West to have been more interested in “their” history, but from the beginning there have been non-Europeans present whose history was simply ignored. Is European and American history “their” history? What happens when more and more people in the West are from Africa, the Middle East, or South or East Asia? What happens when more of the West’s relations are with the East? The broadening of the historical map goes hand-in-hand with the broadening of the modern map, which is becoming increasingly complex. This conference will provide a forum for essential conversations on integrating new historical knowledge with our common maps, laying the foundation for a more thorough and complicated understanding of modern global concerns.

Dr. Lawrence Wills is the Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School and author of Not God’s People: Insiders and Outsiders in the Biblical World.

“What Would It Take to Move the Map? Abrahamic Religions on the Silk Road” is a one-day conference that will take place at Episcopal Divinity School on Saturday, March 3rd from 9am to 6pm. The conference will explore the overlooked histories of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the Middle East, India, and East Asia. This conference is part of EDS’s interfaith initiative funded by a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation of New York. For more information visit