A Diversity of Divinities

March 20, 2015

Claire Sykes

Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Grinnell Magazine

Think about Grinnell College, and religion may be the last thing that comes to mind. Regarded as a secular campus — the “second-most godless” one in the country, some have said — it attracts a multicultural and progressive student mix that, from a distance, hardly reflects an obvious spiritual devotion.

But go into the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center on Friday nights and you’ll find Jewish students gathered around a dinner table for Shabbat. Stand outside Herrick Chapel and spirituals spill from the Young, Gifted, and Black Gospel Choir. Every Sunday morning before Mass downtown, student Bibles open to dedicated study. Add to this Christian Scientists and Christian Athletes, the Muslim Prayer Group and mindfulness meditation, the Quaker Friends Silent Meeting and the Queer and Christian group, Hindus and secular humanists, and a rich array of religions and philosophies abound here — right in there with atheists, agnostics, and skeptics.

“Grinnell is a welcoming and comfortable place for students who are practicing or exploring religions and other spiritual interests. Religious diversity here is as accepted as cultural diversity. It’s an amazing time to have such a safe, respectful environment in which to ask questions, learn from each other, and build community. Because from here, students all go out to live their lives in global communities,” says the Rev. Deanna Shorb, chaplain and dean of religious life and founder/director of the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice (CRSSJ) at Grinnell.

That clerical title of hers reaches beyond Christian to the multireligious, within a department that serves students of all religions and spiritualities. Whether it’s assistance finding a place on or off campus to worship, or providing transportation for the College’s Korean Baptists to Iowa City or Muslims to Cedar Rapids, the CRSSJ is for all Grinnellians.

It hasn’t always been this way at Grinnell, founded as it was by Congregationalists in 1846, complete with mandatory chapel. By the 1970s the College Board of Trustees voted to sever ties with the United Church of Christ, and in 1996 Shorb arrived as the College’s first female and full-time chaplain.

In fall 2001, the CRSSJ received a $1.47 million Lilly Foundation endowment grant, spread over five years. One of only 88 colleges and universities in the country (most of them with religious affiliations) to receive the grant, Grinnell has spent this generous fiscal gift on curricula and convocation speakers, internships and scholarships, student international travel and language education, and seminary and graduate school. “The foundation was interested in getting more of the nation’s best and brightest in the pulpit,” Shorb says.

Here are five of those best and brightest. Though not all of these Grinnellians received a Lilly grant, their experiences at Grinnell helped shape their faiths in ways that only strengthened their own relationships to the spiritual. They carried this into further education or straight to work in their communities. As innovative thinkers and social changers, boundary-breakers and impact-makers, they’re leading the way, enriching and altering the lives of others.

Building Extensive, Unexpected Relationships

Rabbi Rachel Weiss ’98 has always loved ritual and tradition. “For me, as a rabbi, it’s about finding the place where we can preserve Jewish traditions that connect us to one another and weave us together — emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and fundamentally within the daily aspects of our lives,” she says. “One of the most important things we can do for one another is to show up, be present, and be witnesses to major milestones and celebrations, and at points along the way. One of my primary goals is to enrich the Jewish lens through which we see the world and create a space where all people can come to one place and be welcomed.”

That place is New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Here, where Weiss joined as assistant rabbi in 2010 and now serves as associate rabbi, Jews who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and straight gather in the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue. “The blessing of our congregation is that we’ve got many different demographics,” says Weiss, who lives in Brooklyn with her wife, Julia Tauber ’95, and their two daughters. But she admits that such a variety is also a challenge: “How do we create opportunities for everyone to come together and work on issues that aren’t necessarily in our individual self-interests, but sometimes differ among us and compete, and yet still meet our communal needs and maintain a strong voice of one community? By building extensive and unexpected relationships with each other.”

It’s something Weiss did a lot of at Grinnell. “Many of us came from different places and were on the margins for different reasons. I experienced Grinnell as deeply religious because of the plurality of voices, social justice, and awareness of what it takes to transform community and society. Its core value of progressive education as a mode to change the world is deeply connected to many of us who come from faith traditions.” At Grinnell, Weiss won a Lilly Endowment fellowship for two years of tuition and expenses at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Upon graduation from there, she worked as a social worker with Mexican immigrants outside Chicago. She also knew she always wanted to be a rabbi.

Her Jewish family wasn’t particularly religious, and the Sunday school she attended at age 8 only made her want to learn more, so she asked to go to Hebrew school. That was 1984, and the family joined a Reconstructionist synagogue, “which really became an anchor in my life,” she says. It was a time when the liberal Jewish world had moved toward egalitarianism and was slowly beginning to include gays and lesbians. There were only a small number of “out” rabbis when Weiss came out as a lesbian at Grinnell. “There, I was learning social values and progressive thoughts that were in line with the religious and family values I grew up with. I consider myself privileged to stand on the shoulders of those who worked so hard before me,” she says.

Weiss’s Judaism grounded her at Grinnell, where the challah dough she braided for weekly campus Shabbat dinners led to meeting Tauber, who wondered who the fabulous bread baker was. “Grinnell teaches you to think critically and act with passion,” says Weiss. “That’s what Judaism is to me. Our religious identity should enhance and promote our social consciousness. We have the remarkable capacity as human beings to experience different things that are deeply beautiful and traumatic at the same time, and be in the presence of community with each other to receive and give support for both. I get to do that in the Jewish and queer community, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.”

Encouraging Christian, Political Reflection

Growing up a Presbyterian “preacher’s kid” in rural Iowa and suburban St. Louis, from an early age the Rev. Chad Herring ’97 was nurtured within loving religious communities that valued the thoughtful exploration of faith — with all its questions and doubts — and the active engagement of working toward a just society. “This enabled me, as a kid, to explore really profound ideas in a safe and comfortable space. Everybody has his or her ‘JFK moment.’ For me that was the space shuttle Challenger disaster and how to make sense of a world where such tragedies could take place. These thoughts led me to conversations at the academic level. Coming from a forgiving and understanding church environment, I went into college thinking there was a very real possibility of doing further work in religion, and maybe even a ministry.” Herring followed in his father’s footsteps and, since 2005, has been a minister, serving for the past two years at the John Knox Kirk Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo.

Grinnell’s religious studies program, with help from a merit-based scholarship, gave Herring the foundation to go on to divinity school “by providing me with a very solid academic and historic background in all the world religions. Harold Kasimow [professor emeritus] taught me what gracious and smart Jewish scholarship was all about. Howard Burkle [the late professor emeritus], who taught existentialism, helped me understand how philosophy and literature provide a theoretical and sometimes unspoken narrative that people live through. The two showed how warmhearted Jewish and Christian scholars can work together.

“People of different faith traditions need to understand each other so they can live well with each other. In this increasingly fragmented time, the human impulse to understand the Divine leads us to work together across our differences, rather than fighting each other. This is what I took from Grinnell, and it’s stayed with me since.”

Today in his ministry, gay and lesbian equal rights, and racial reconciliation after the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., particularly interest Herring. So do the immigrant kids in his community, many who come from Cameroon, El Salvador, and Korea. His church is working with the local schools, exploring tutoring opportunities and offering food-bank support to families.

“We need to ask, ‘What in our community causes God’s heart to ache?’ John Knox Kirk is a religious community that is socially aware and ultimately reflects that in the work that we do. I believe that Jesus was political; the root of that word is polis [city]. He was concerned about the plight of people in the public sphere — the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the imprisoned — and he was teaching others to love and open their hearts to them. What I’m trying to do as pastor is encourage this Christian, political reflection so that people are moved to address the issues that Jesus was concerned about.”

Herring will tell you it’s about relationships and forming bonds of love and friendship. He’s convinced his church community will continue to thrive — and not just because families will come to worship. “But also, there are people living in our area who are looking to impact people’s lives and will join us.”

It’s something that humbles Herring, who says he feels honored to be pastor. “It’s important work. And what a great calling, this intersection of the intellectual, community organizing, and compassion building. It’s a wonderful confluence of possibilities. I get to think about important things and talk about them every week to people who want to listen.”

A Calling to Zen Buddhism

Look at the Rev. Jikyo Bonnie Hazel Shoultz ’63 now and it’s hard to believe she suffered a brief nervous breakdown while she was a Grinnell student. But that was decades ago. Her time here, from 1959–61, changed her life for the better.

For starters, she loved the comparative religion course she took. “The two I studied the most were Hinduism and Buddhism. But life then didn’t turn out that I would practice either of them. Instead, my interest went dormant,” says Shoultz. At the same time, she got involved with the most politically radical students on campus, picketing the ROTC Military Ball and marching in the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, protesting nuclear armament.

Fast-forward to 1996. Shoultz was 55, working at Syracuse University as associate director for research and training in the Center on Human Policy, which advocates nationally for people with disabilities. That’s when she decided to learn how to meditate. At the Zen Center of Syracuse, she only wanted to further her practice. “I realized fairly soon that people could actually be transformed in really positive ways, and that attracted me a lot,” says Shoultz, who found that meditation helped her give up her video-game habit. “Also, there was no doctrine or dogma required.” Three years later, she moved into the Zen Center. Before retiring from Syracuse in 2005, she became an ordained Zen Buddhist priest; she has served as head monastic since 2006 and in 2014 was named a dharma teacher.

Of her Zen Buddhist life, Shoultz, who was raised Christian, says, “It feels like not a choice, but a calling or a requirement that I must do this. Certainly, I’ve had many times where I’ve had doubts and resistance, and each time I just resolve it and keep going.”

Meanwhile, she helps others. She volunteers as Buddhist chaplain at Syracuse, teaching (non-Buddhist) mindfulness-based stress-reduction meditation to students and faculty, through a donor-funded wellness initiative. Shoultz also manages this philanthropic gift that pays for library materials, speakers, faculty training, and research — on meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other contemplative arts — and is working on the sustainability of the initiative. She’s also an adviser to the Syracuse University Student Buddhist Association, recruiting meditation teachers and leading one of six weekly sittings herself. As chaplain since 2005 for the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse, N.Y., she organizes and teaches mindfulness meditation twice a week to inmates there.

“I see myself as a connector and a servant. I’m 73 now and I need to wind down. It wouldn’t make sense for me to have an ambition to be a more prominent leader. The best way I can provide service is by building things that can last after I’m not very involved in them anymore. I don’t know how long that might be.”

While Shoultz continues to give, she receives something she never had when she was younger — equanimity. “I used to be much more at the mercy of my passions, of getting swept up into one side of a polarized situation. Through my practice, I’ve been able to distinguish between reactivity and responsiveness. When you throw yourself into a social movement so that it replaces self-reflective work, you’re less effective. Equanimity doesn’t mean don’t act, but to calmly take action that is meant to make things right or call attention to things in a different way.”

For Shoultz, it’s no longer about marching in the streets and trying to change the system. It’s about the people in that oppressed system — about building personal relationships with them. When that happens, it betters everyone’s lives.

Strengthening Cross-cultural and Interfaith Connections

The Rev. Cynthia Barnes Johnson ’64 knows she doesn’t have to travel halfway around the world to arrive at the deeply spiritual. But that’s exactly what this retired Unitarian Universalist minister will be doing in October 2015 when she steps off the plane in the Yunnan Province of China. In a place with 25 different ethnic groups (the greatest number for any province in the country), for 13 days she’ll lead “The Spirit of Travel” cultural tour exploring the spiritual traditions of Yunnan in its Buddhist grottos, Taoist shrines, ancient mosques, and sacred mountains. Sponsored by the owners of Linden Gallery in Door County, Wis., where Johnson and her husband Al live, the tour rightly embodies her own philosophy of how to live in our contemporary world, she says.

“We live within multiple stories of ethnicity, religion, class, and race. People’s individual perceptions are pieces of the truth, often within a specific religious community of believers. But being committed only to your own ideas, thinking you’re right and everybody else is wrong, is a very unuseful and disassociative way to live. Strengthening cross-cultural and interfaith connections will help us understand each other better and can open us to a more life-affirming sense of other people with other perspectives. I’m interested in what binds us together, how all our stories fit within a larger story,” Johnson says.

Concern for the world is something this Grinnellian has experienced since the age of 9, when her mother first took the family to the Unitarian church in Rockford, Ill. “She wanted to be in a congregation that emphasized social justice,” Johnson says. She came to Grinnell after being turned down by several East Coast women’s colleges, not because of her political or social interests. “But I ended up in a place that was just right.”

At Grinnell, she was struck by the fact that the world was big and complicated, and that she knew very little; so she set out to learn as much as she could. While most students focused on their academic work, Johnson attended every College-sponsored lecture, panel discussion, theatrical production, and concert. Meanwhile, she read almost one book a week on her own. Within the 1960s era of social change, she marched and fasted against nuclear testing and especially appreciated Ed Gilmore’s Program in Practical Political Education. “I was a mediocre student, but I was becoming educated about the world.”

After graduating, Johnson taught fifth and sixth grades until motherhood took over. There in Appleton, Wis., she twice served as president of the League of Women Voters. Her family moved to Dallas in 1985 and six years later she earned her master’s of divinity from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. For 11 years, she chose the Unitarian Universalist minister’s life, retiring in 2000. In Bailey’s Harbor, Wis., Johnson continues to preach, teach, and volunteer. She’s one of 10 local clergy who contribute to the “Faith Perspectives” column in the Door County Advocate; she serves on a committee of northern Door County ministers who work together on community issues.

“What binds us together is a belief that the work of the world is worth doing and that we can be enriched by doing it together,” she says.

Embodying His Sufi Name

When a Sufi sheik gives a Sufi name to an initiate, it’s the latter’s responsibility to do all he or she can to embody that name. For Imam Tarell “Ahmed” Rodgers ’93, the name of Ahmed he received in 2006 meant living up to something he had been trying for all his life — “one who is worthy of praise.”

But for many years he thought he was unworthy, as he drank and partied heavily at Grinnell. “There were so many different cultures, politically and religiously, which totally challenged my belief systems. I was faced with ‘Who am I?’ But I hid behind a façade of bravado,” he says. The inner turmoil he felt eroded his social life and grades. “People at school and in my family were trying to help me, but I didn’t know how to reach out or, in some cases, receive the help. So I began a pattern of running from life.”

Now his life is one of service — as an imam since 2010 in the Shadduli Sufi Order in New York City — extending a hand to those devoted to, or just curious about, Sufism. Rodgers leads prayer and healing circles and two-day mindfulness-based stress-reduction retreats around Brooklyn and Manhattan (also for prisoners and former inmates living in halfway houses). He also gives talks at universities and interfaith organizations in the area. With a master’s in education from Aurora University, he writes job-skills curricula directed toward former inmates and drug addicts wanting to work in retail or as home-health aides and customer-service interns.

“Doing this allows me to express my inner light, by teaching others that you can leave your past behind and let your light shine on all the beauty that’s within you. Everyone has something of value to contribute, whether they’re homeless or have broken the law, and regardless of their creed or belief system. I believe the Divine God lives through all beings; we all are a reflection of God and there is no separation. Let’s celebrate the Divine together.”

Rodgers first embraced the teachings of Islam in 1990 at the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, while visiting Queens, N.Y., where he grew up, during a summer off from Grinnell. “I was seeking an answer and latched onto its message of black empowerment and self-development.”

After that summer, Rodgers called himself Tarell X and adopted a fresh attitude toward his studies and his life. “I felt a sense of self-love and worth; however, I still isolated myself from many.” He sees now how being at Grinnell led to his Sufism. “Grinnell is a place of unity that’s inclusive of everything. There’s not just one way. There’s a diversity of people and the freedom to express that diversity. In such a small community, I deeply connected with students of all types and the differences fell away.”

In 1999 Rodgers went on The Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and met people from all over the world who embraced him. He also saw poverty and the Saudi government refusing to allow tribal Africans to participate in hajj rites. Instead of experiencing an epiphany and deepening of faith, as he initially thought he would, he felt disillusioned — and found himself still seeking. When he returned to the States, he sought out books about healing and self-love from a Sufi perspective.

It’s still not always an easy road for Rodgers. “In order for me to maintain my inner light and self-love, I have to give it away. Every time I’m helping someone who’s suffering or marginalized, and every time they are empowered, that keeps my own light shining.”

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