Friday, March 25, 2011

Seat's Taken: When Public Space becomes Private Space

One evening, I went with a group to Times Square to watch a Broadway show. We only had an hour before the start of the show, so we decided to buy food and then find somewhere to sit down and eat. Because it was St. Patrick's Day, Times Square was filled to the brim with people-We couldn't find a place to sit, so we found a nice piece of sidewalk and had a concrete picnic. I was surprised when an employee of the building we were sitting next to came out and told us that it was a residential building and reminded us to leave and pick up our trash when we were done eating. This reminded me of discussions of public and private space in some of my college courses. In an effort to "clean up" urban environments gated communities and parks restrict who can come in, homeless people are cleared from the streets where tourists and business people pass, and benches are increasingly made with dividers so that one can only sit upright to prevent people from sleeping on them. Public areas are now sights of restriction allowing some and denying others access. This was very apparent in Manhattan. I saw very few homeless people on the streets, yet there were many eating at the soup kitchens we served at. These clean up efforts are just moving homeless people to the periphery, they do not actually address the structural problems in society that lead to homelessness. Making signs of poverty "disappear" is a very disingenuous effort to address issues of poverty. In thinking about the ministry of Jesus, he took a much different approach. Jesus spent time with and cared for those who were marginalized in society and spoke out against getting caught up in obtaining earthly possessions. I think this, especially in the US with the "American dream" of success being equated to what you can buy, is a message that we need to hear more often and take seriously. When we focus on what we "need" to enjoy life, we are blinded from the reality of this capitalist world we live in where there are many who struggle every day to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their famililies.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


A day of epiphany: like most other Sundays, I moseyed to my parents’ house after church to have lunch. I exclaimed my frustration that the sermon on Constantine was simplistic, unsubstantiated by history, and overtly conservative. In response, my mother half-joked that I should go to Luther Seminary because it was “cranking out liberal pastors.” At the time, I didn’t think about it further. It wasn’t compatible with my other interests: engineering, climate change, and sustainability—or so I thought.

Maybe it was the experience of serving in New York City with Muslims and engaging in interfaith dialogue. Or maybe it was the realization that I could help people on a personal, meaningful level by engineering climate adaptations and infrastructure improvements. But whatever the reason, the Spirit moved that night as I walked along the Mississippi. I understood that I could be a pastor, an engineer, and an activist simultaneously. I realized that I could merge my servant heart with my intellectual capabilities and interdisciplinary experience. I discerned a missing link, a link that could motivate religious forces in America to demand environmental sustainability and stewardship: ethics.

Ethics is seldom mentioned in climate change circles, but it should be. It is wrong for senators to bicker about short term economic losses resulting from climate policy without pausing to thinking of the burden imposed on undeveloped nations from the status quo. It is wrong to leave future generations with a bankrupt planet because of our delusional concept of perpetual economic growth on limited resources. So why is the religious zeal of this great nation focused on abortion, marriage, taxes, and deregulation when the world is broken and crying out for help? What happened to the servant leader inspired by Christ? I am called. This is my story.

Growing up in with a prominent Lutheran tradition, I have always had a servant heart. I counseled junior high and high school students for nearly seven years. I participated in several mission trips to Mexico to build houses, traveled to New Orleans to help with the Katrina cleanup, and volunteered extensively in the local community throughout high school and college. But these themes took a back seat to my academic ambitions as I became passionate about climate change and environmental sustainability.

Curious by nature, I have always striven to understand the intricate order of natural and socioeconomic systems. I became particularly interested in environmental issues when I read Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. A rational thinker, I was incensed when I realized that society was ignoring the warning signs. I was frustrated because the powerful elite were spreading a massive misinformation campaign to disguise the truth, and the media was complicit in the fraud. How could I bring this complex, convoluted injustice to the foreground of public discourse? How could I make a difference in my religious community? My mission trip to New York helped illuminate the answer: the power of interfaith unity in confronting a challenge.

In New York, I was particularly moved by the interfaith dialogue. The discipline and awareness of my Muslim friends were inspiring. I saw Ground Zero. I saw Park 51, the proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Consequently, I realized how unfounded the pervasive negativity and fear toward Islam truly were and how damaging strident evangelical proselytizing could be. Doug Hostetter, an interfaith Mennonite minister, put it best when he said, "It is an amazing sight to behold when people stop talking about their God and start acting the way their God would act." I am ready to act. This is my song.

I will be a proponent for peace and justice, especially in the realm of environmental sustainability and stewardship. I desire to attend Farm the Land, Grow the Spirit this summer at Stony Point Center with other Christian, Muslim, and Jewish young adults. I will attend Power Shift, an activist rally in Washington DC empowering youth to rise up and take power back from elite corporate interests. After graduation, I hope to intern in Latin America to refine my Spanish skills and nurture my servant heart. I will now consider attending seminary to prepare my soul to work in cooperation with other faiths; I love helping others. The road ahead is long and arduous, but fulfilling and exciting. My plans could change, but where the Spirit leads, I will follow.

I am reminded of the seed planted by Paul Schultz, my youth director growing up, when he said, "Andrew, one day you could be a pastor." I now realize the truth in those words. I can be a pastor. I can be an engineer. I can be an activist. I can be a servant, a father, and a friend. And I can do all these things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me. In the words of the popular Christian hymn, “Blessed Assurance”:

This is my story, this is my song,

praising my Savior, all the day long;

this is my story, this is my song,

praising my Savior, all the day long.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We have seen the strife, hurt and injustice that fear has caused in our world but I was reminded this week that no matter how powerful fear can be, love is stronger. I was reminded how easy it is to love, how natural, how human. All one needs is the opportunity. This week our hearts were opened by the service we did, the people we met, and the very real conversations we had. I am left with the realization that in the end only love can conquer fear, and this gives me hope.

Thank you so much to everyone from the trip for sharing so much love.

Lastly, I would like to reiterate what Pastor Tom Duke said at an interfaith dialogue series in Minneapolis. “If we don’t know what we have in common our differences can divide us. If we do know what we have in common our differences can enrich us.”

I believe we have all been enriched by our time together this past week. We have not only found commonalities in tradition, scripture, and belief but also in a shared sense and display of compassion, generosity, enthusiasm and love for humanity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On Freedom...

Almost a week ago (last Tuesday), we were at Ground Zero.  This site, full of so much trauma and death and destruction, also holds stories of bravery, compassion and honor.  I’ve always cocked my head a little bit at the word “freedom” when it’s used in a political context.  

Still, as that word made its appearance multiple times on signs, in proposed names of memorials, and in slogans found throughout the World Trade Center site, its use felt particularly profane to me.  The political appropriation seemed to dishonor the stories that were so powerful.  

The national narrative that includes stories of persecution, attack, and revenge (and my own reaction to that particular telling) over-rode stories of firefighters rushing up stairs with 90 pound packs on to rescue workers.  It over-rode stories of Muslims and Christians and Hindis and Jews dying side by side, jumping out of top storied windows.  It overrode stories of pieces of bodies being found within 16 blocks of the World Trade Centers.  This particular national narrative subsumes the particularity of individual stories of suffering and loss, of bravery and loyalty.  And in that, it somehow denies the courage, honor, bravery shown that day – courage that is rooted in another sort of freedom. 

A freedom that comes from knowing who you are, and Whose you are.

Now this is decidedly theistic language, but I am an ELCA pastor, and that is the lens through which I see the world.

Upon reflecting on this experience, it seems as if the political use of the word “freedom” bugs me so much because it has such deep and rich theological connotations. 

As Lutheran Christians, we believe in a God who leads with mercy and love, and that is our starting point.  Because our salvation is secure in Christ, we are freed by this love to love the world.  We are freed to be curious about the world.  We are freed to learn and serve and love alongside people of other faiths.  We are freed to look around us for signs of God in the here and now fleshiness of this world.  And we are freed to acknowledge that we may not know all of the answers to how God might be showing up.  This is freedom, brothers and sisters.  And it is a wonderful thing. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Hopeful Reflection

I’d like to begin this reflection by sharing a little bit about two people that truly touched my heart on this incredible trip.

I, along with my Muslim and Christian friends, volunteered at St. John’s. I was there Wednesday and Friday. Basically all I did was wash dishes, and part of me felt useless at times because there were so many volunteers that we had two people doing a one-person job. Yet, it was all worthwhile because of one man (as intense as that may sound, but I mean it sincerely). On Wednesday, a man coming into St. John’s to eat came dressed in a fedora and a vest with the look of a jazz saxophone player from another era (to me anyway). He immediately caught my attention from the many people in the room having their meals because of this eccentric outfit. But more than that, it was his smile and presence that made my heart melt. Wednesday was a dreary New York day. The clouds were dark and rain was showering the city. People all around seemed grumpy and displeased. Yet, there in Brooklyn was a man who was still smiling at everyone, and continuously thanked us in the kitchen for our work. He said ‘God bless you’ to anyone that crossed his path. I was shocked at this optimistic, bright presence that held on even in the hardships he had to endure. There are moments where I and everyone really lose faith in the good in this world. We see tsunamis wiping away entire cities, we see dictators show no mercy or humanity, and we see everyday people being inconsiderate and rude. Yet, here was a soul so pure and so loving that despite all the reasons he might have to be angry with the world and to be a cynic he held onto this essential part of humanity that we can forget so easily. Friday the day seemed to shine like this man. The city wasn’t bright for us I don’t think. To me, it was lighting up for him.

Doug, a Mennonite Christian now working for the Mennonite Fellowship in the U.N., is the second man I’d like everyone to know a little bit about. He shared stories with us about Vietnam and a little boy who wanted his deceased grandfather’s story to be told - this was forty years ago and to this day Doug still keeps his promise to that child. He shared stories about the genocide in Bosnia – an event so horrible and so black yet so unknown and hidden to the majority of students listening. His stories brought me, and several others, to tears. He was raised to believe that the Mennonite’s were God’s people, and that the rest of us weren’t. Yet somehow, God brought Doug enlightenment through experiences I can only imagine and can only experience through his eloquent words and his striking photographs. Doug found a humanity within himself that has opened his heart and eyes to people of other faiths and of other backgrounds. When he was asked at the end of our meeting if he was still Mennonite he said, “I’m Mennonite Plus.” He has set aside the Heaven/Hell arguments and found a way to do God’s work without having to label the people he served. For that, I truly admire him and can only say this short paragraph with my befuddled thoughts what it meant to me to hear of his stories. He, to me, is the epitome of the hope that this group represents.

I’d like to end with a verse from the Quran that was used in the first devotional of the trip by me and Sara. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).” This is what Doug epitomized and this is what we must all strive for. This is what the group of students on this trip (and the people we have met in New York) have given me great hope for. To the other students, to Kate, to Chris and Hafsa, to Zahra and Yasir, to Lisa, to Marshall, to Doug, and to the rest of the people of New York that gave so much, I want to say thank you for a week of love, of enlightenment, and of hope.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Words of Faith

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) But what is the Word? The Holy Bible? Righteous deeds and service? The embodiment of Christ? As a young Lutheran, I always assumed the latter, but after serving on an interfaith service trip in the diverse megalopolis of New York City, I realize there is more to this passage; these words of faith are not exclusive to Christianity; indeed, I now see the Word in all faiths and all people striving to be more holy and righteous.

So what then of the Christian notion of exclusivity? Of the acrimonious assertion that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" and that "no one comes to the Father" except by him? (John 14:6) For some Christians, this is it. Jesus leaves no doubt that he is the only way to salvation. And I still believe this to be wholly applicable to my life; faith in Jesus is the only way for me to be saved. But does this apply to my Muslim comrades?

Admittedly, I have struggled with this idea of exclusivity. How can I reconcile this passage with that which I have experienced this week serving hand-in-hand with devout, pure-hearted Muslims. They love God unconditionally. They serve with humility. They worship with sincerity seldom seen in my generation. They are disciplined. They are as much like Christ as I am. Jesus said, "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." (John 14:21) God is merciful and just; judgment is not mine to proclaim.

As my generation begins to tackle increasingly global issues, we as Christians need to work with Muslims, not against them. Indeed, we must embrace all peoples of faith, all who are concerned about poverty, about injustice, about equality, and about sustainability. Why must we bicker and posture with pointless animosity while the world cries out for help?

I will close with a passage particularly illuminated by my experiences this week. Jesus said, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me." My Muslim brothers and sisters love Christ. I love Christ. God the Father, the God of Abraham, is the God of Islam whom my Muslim brothers and sisters worship. Our words of faith may be different in theory, but they are the same in action. We have faith in the Word, and together our faith will move mountains.

Where ever there is an ending there is also a new start

Friday. Most students are always looking forward to Friday because it means the beginning of the weekend, but this week I would say most (if not everyone) wished Friday had not quite yet arrived, because it was our last day in New York--we had to leave our Hostel at 4:30 am the following morning.

Ever since the group got to the MSP airport Monday morning there has been so much positive energy that seemed to carry through the week. That energy got us through long days and short nights. And even though everyone was exhausted by Friday night we didn't want to leave each. We weren't quite ready to go back to school yet either.

Anyways, so Friday began like most of the other days with service projects. I could talk more about them, but I think other posts have covered them pretty well. My group finished early so we went to Little Italy for lunch where we are able to sit and have a relaxing lunch (the first time for me on the trip, as we were usually hurrying to our next destination). We went to a Restaurant called La Buena Notte (I think), and the food was amazing. We also had some great entertainment there because of the man who would stand outside and try to draw people in to the restaurant. He definitely caught us and drew us in, partly because he started singing for us in Italian:) All in all it was a delicious lunch (for me anyways...I know there was a little mix up in ordering...but the endless bread was delicious and everyone for sure enjoyed that).

Friday night we all went to a Masjid in Harlem for Maghrib (evening) prayers. All the girls put in Hijabs, and a few fashioned sweaters into Hijabs as well--everyone totally rocked those Hijabs/Sweater hijabs by the way! After prayers we went to a restaurant that I believe the Sheikh of the Masjid owns, and they serve Senegalese food. It was my first time eating Senegalese food, and I was definitely not disappointed. The people at the Masjid and restaurant were very welcoming, and it seemed like everyone had a great time for our last night in NY.

Our NY trip may be over, but our work together is just beginning. This trip has been an amazing and eye opening experience. Not only has it made we want to learn more about my own religion, but also to be a better person, and really respect others for who they are. I feel blessed to have been able to be a part of this trip and make so many new and amazing friends. I am definitely looking forward to seeing everyone again, and continuing to learn from each other.

I could say more, but because I am quite tired after a super exciting and packed week in NYC my brain isn't entirely functioning. So one that note, I would like to say Thank You to EVERYONE who came on this trip, you guys are absolutely amazing, and I mean that from deep in my heart. I think it's already time for a reunion!

Peace and Love, and may Allah (God) bless everyone!

Oh--and rock your way through the end of the semester, you can do it!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Top Ten Reasons Why I Am Not David Letterman

Throughout this week our coalition of Christians and Muslims have been serving others, seeing the sights of New York, and discussing our interfaith relationships. Because our New York minute soon draws to a close, I decided to reflect upon our experiences and have formed a Letterman-style Top Ten list of facts which I have learned this week, which are as follows:

1. Those without material wealth can and do experience happiness
2. The division of the classes is alarmingly apparent when one sees those who are homeless and those who are camera-ready on the same day
3. The traditions of Islam can make for fascinating table conversation... especially while eating in Chinatown
4. When it comes to Broadway, two really is better than one
5. The best place for spotting redheads is Times Square on St. Patrick's Day
6. The grief felt on 9/11 was not exclusive to one sect of Americans
7. A worship space should never be perceived as a sign of disrespect
8. The best fuel for fires is the media
9. The subway system not only serves as a lifeline for those in Manhattan but is also a beautiful symbol for the interconnectedness we all share as people of faith
10. Meaningful friendships are not at all dependent on religious beliefs

Although our trip must soon end, our time and work together as facilitators of interfaith dialogue is far from being over. This week has not only revealed to us the enlightenment which can be found by learning about each other's faiths, but has also shown us the importance of continuing our work once we return to Minneapolis.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Krista and Zehra's amazing interfaith post!

So... let's start with the most important thing. Daniel Radcliffe. For those of you not in the know, that's Harry Potter. He has an amazing ability to make Christian and Muslim students wait in the cold for a glimpse at his shapely ear. While we could go on extolling the virtues of The-Boy-Who-Live, we would miss our point. We're more alike than we're different.

We feel that some of our similarities are the following:
 ▪    ridiculous behavior:
    ⁃    this may include spontaneously bursting into song
    ⁃    speaking with funny accents
    ⁃    freaking out in the presence of celebrities
    ⁃    over use of the word "yeah"
    ⁃    and loooooong Minnesooooootan Oh's
 ▪    Values:
    ⁃    community
    ⁃    hospitality
    ⁃    friendship
    ⁃    family
    ⁃    being open
    ⁃    charity
    ⁃    GOD
 ▪    Shared History:
    ⁃    Different Prophets
    ⁃    Jesus
    ⁃    Issac
    ⁃    Abraham
    ⁃    Moses
    ⁃    Mary
    ⁃    etc…
 ▪    Belief in the cleanliness of dirt (tayammum - Muslims, ashes at Lent - Christian)
 ▪    Lent/Ramadhan - period of renewal
 ▪    Tasbeeh (Muslim), Rosary (Catholic)
 ▪    Lessons learned from stories: Hadiths or Parables
 ▪    disciples of prophets

Well… this isn't comprehensive but its what we can come up with at midnight after several extremely full days. All these activities have brought us together. We've built relationships walking through Chinatown or Little Italy, getting lost in the subway, accosted by strangers, and rushing Broadway (some rush frats, we rush Broadway). Nicknames, NYC cuisine, serving others and serious emotions have been part of our journey. What we've learned is that while our differences are important, what we share is bigger.

Amanda's Wednesday Report

A day late (or so), but not forgotten; I am here to catch up our avid readers to the goings-on through my perspective on Wednesday.

The morning started off dreary and wet. Breakfast was once again highly satisfying but couldn't ward off the drenching conditions those without an umbrella experienced. Sweatshirts were soaked and shoes were ruined, but my group braved the elements and made it to Trinity Lower East Side. There, Joe was promptly taken to lift heavy boxes while the rest of us donned hairnets, gloves, and aprons and set upon the task of chopping sweet potatoes and bagging onions.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon we were regaled by the upbeat and comical staff at Trinity. Sarcastic humor in both English and Spanish flowed continuously as we prepared, served, and cleaned up lunch and the food shelf supplies.

In case others haven't elaborated, at Trinity two different food-supplies are in place: the first is a lunch and the second is a food hand-out. While anyone can participate in the lunch, only those with state-certified residences can participate in the hand-outs. They can only receive food from the latter once a month.

The most heart-wrenching part of my experience at Trinity arises from this month restriction: A couple of ladies that had stood in line were told that they could not take any food today because they had already been there earlier in the month. Unfortunately, these ladies did not speak enough English to understand why they couldn't get food. The confusion on their faces was heartbreaking. On the opposite side, I was most touched by a gift from one of the men eating lunch. The day before, he had brought in free shampoo samples for everyone working. This day, I brought in two bouquets of flowers. He gave one of them to me. This man was so sweet in his generosity; for him to give to us when he was the one in need was so meaningful to me.

After our time at Trinity (in considerably better weather), we made our way over to the UN building. At the United Nations, we were able to see the General Assembly room since the members were not deliberating. We learned a lot of history and procedure regarding this organization and some general information on topics currently under debate, including Libya and Japan.

Directly following our time at the UN, we headed over to the Interfaith Church Center building and engaged in conversation with Doug Hosotetter. This conversation I found to be the most meaningful and insightful interaction we had aside from our time at Park 51 (which left me in tears). Doug's passion and compassion for his work and the people involved in it was so touching and moving. I cried when I learned about the genocide and persecution that occurred in Bosnia during my lifetime and the fact that I knew nothing about these events beside being told that Yugoslavia had been broken up and there had been a plethora of civil war. Civil War does not begin to describe the horrors and prejudice and persecution experience in this region. I was horrified that my education had been so lacking in regard to these events - events that would have fit in perfectly when we learned about the Holocaust and Rwanda.

It is my belief that many people hide from religion because they fear the conflicts that arise from it. But this hiding leads to ignorance and ignorance leads to greater fear. Debilitating fear. Fear that causes hate and creates the strife between religions. Rather than the school systems ignoring religions or just summarizing the basics, they should instead educate and remove the assumptions that ignorance creates regarding unfamiliar faiths.

After swallowing so many heavy topics and engaging in several heartfelt conversations, we had the remainder of Wednesday night off. A group of us tried our luck with rush tickets on Broadway with stunning success. Chelsea and I found ourselves on the main floor for Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark. The musical was fresh and terribly artistic with terrifying yet breath-taking aerial scenes. I couldn't believe some of the wire stunts they pulled and wasn't surprised to read that several of the creative directors had a history with Cirque'du Soleil. Arachne was stunning and Spiderman had David Tennant-esque hair. It was a light, good ending to a rather heavy (yet fulfilling) day.

As we head off to our remaining time in NYC, I hope to continue this awesome interfaith study and relationship building that has begun. It's surprising how much the work we are doing here and the bonds we are forming are beginning to mean to me.

Peace and Serenity to you all!

A few thoughts on grace...

On grace…

Yesterday, I overslept.  I know.  For those of you who know me, you know how I like to be places on time.  There was grace from the students when I arrived over an hour late, grace when my co-chaperones agreed to go to the chaperone-less service site (another mix-up), and grace from all of the Spanish speaking Puerto Rican elders I was trying to serve at the Senior center as I stumbled and mumbled the few words of Spanish I could remember. 

But the most profound moment of grace for me came when Lina agreed to get some Mexican food (yes Mexican, in a Puerto Rican neighborhood) with me.  Lina was born and raised in Ethiopia and had never had good, non-chipotle/taco bell Mexican food.  And so I ordered a bunch of tacos and encouraged her, repeatedly, to take one of the chorizo tacos (my favorite).  And so, she did.  After taking a bite she asked, “What is chorizo?”   And I replied, it’s sausage with spices…and then my eyes got big and I realized that it was pork sausage.  And as she spit it out, my heart sunk.  I, after all, am the pastor here, an instigator (with the students) of this trip, where we’re supposed to be learning about and respecting each other.  And I know Muslims don’t eat pork.  My lack of mindfulness (and excitement about really great chorizo) was a pretty big foible – in my mind….and in the mind of the Mexican taqueria owner.  In our broken Spanglish, I told him what all the ruckus was about.  As soon as he realized that Lina was a Muslim, he looked at me with a look that was pretty close to, “What did you just do?  Even I know Muslims don’t eat pork – and you’re her friend.” 

And Lina, repeatedly, said.  “It’s okay.  We didn’t know.”  “No, really Kate.  You need to relax.  We didn’t know.”  In that moment, Lina was grace.

Lutherans love to talk about the grace of God.  We love to write dissertations about it and preach about it and know in our hearts and minds that God is a loving and merciful God who forgives all of our sins.

I am one of those Lutherans.  And still, I recognized yesterday, how often I forget about living that grace in my own life; about being grace in the world.  This grace which came so easily, instinctually even, to Lina is something I rarely extend to myself.  I also recognize that in my quest to “live love,” and “be justice,” I’ve forgotten about the power of embodying grace, and understanding that extension as a part of being the body of Christ in this world.  And so, to Lina, and to all of my Muslim brothers and sisters which have so “graciously” shared and risked and loved with us this week, I say thank you….for reminding me about Grace.  

Blessings in small packages

My time in New York has taught me that no matter how much or how little you have, you can be a blessing to others. On Monday, my service group went to a church in Manhattan to prepare and serve breakfast for whoever needed a meal. One of the pastors there estimated that about 75% of the guests coming in were homeless. As I waited towards the end of the meal to hand out bagged lunches for the afternoon, I noticed carts, suitcases, and bags against the wall-these were the possessions of some who have no other earthly possessions but what was in those containers. This was equivalent to what I had brought with me just on the trip here! Even though they had so little, many were a blessing to me that day. As I handed out the lunches, some asked me how my day was, where I am from, and brightened my day with thier hospitality to me as a guest in New York. Through our interfaith service work here, I feel like we have been a blessing to those that we are serving and preparing meals with as well. We are having such a great time working together! Yesterday as we prepared meals and served, we danced and laughed as we joked around while we worked and the atmosphere there was one of energy and enthusiasm. We are only here for 5 days, but God is truly working through us to brighten the day of those we have met at our service sites. A simple smile or taking the time to get to know a stranger and give them the opportunity to tell their story may make all the difference in someone's day. I can't even describe in words how much it has meant to me to form new friendships, discuss tough issues that we all face in our communities, nation, and world, and be in the presence of God together with people of faith. I am convinced that interfaith work is crucial in reconciling the past and working towards a brighter future.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Growing in Faith and Love

Today was another insanely busy, but wonderful day in the Big Apple. This afternoon we went to the United Nations for a tour. One of our tour guides was from Peru and the other was from Latvia. It was inspiring to see the 8 UN development goals. Some examples of the goals were to end extreme poverty and hunger and to achieve universal primary education. However there were also very shocking things I learned from the tour. I learned that it costs between $1 and $3 to make a landmine but that it costs between $300 and $1000 to disarm a landmine. It was heartbreaking to learn how difficult and expensive it is to clean up the landmine filled areas. It was also shocking to see that these landmines resembled childrens toys, such as a yo-yo. Thus, 1/3 of the people who are affected by landmines are children, innocent victims who shouldn't have to suffer. Many other victims are civilians. It made me sick to my stomach just to think about how easy it would be for a child to pick up a landmine resembling a toy and then have it detonate.

After the tour, we went across the street and met one of Kate's friends, Doug. He told a short bit about his life story which was fascinating. He told about his experiences in Vietnam and about his interfaith work as a self-described "Menonite-plus Christian". He shared that once you get to know people on a personal level, you are no longer concerned about your differences but rather you rejoice in your similarities and love for one another. He passed around his photo album from the Vietnam War. One of the pictures that struck me was a picture of a man who appeared to be in his twenties with his arms tied tightly behind his back with rope. When Hafsa asked Doug what the story was behind the picture, Doug told us that the man was taken innocently by the enemy party and then shot only a few minutes after the picture was taken.

We had interfaith dialogue/debriefing about the day after his talk, since the UN tour and Doug's talk provided a great opportunity for such. During the debriefing session, my group talked mostly about our service work and how when one gives their life for others, their life will be filled with riches. This has been a common theme throughout our trip as all of us whose lives are filled with abundance have been giving to others with seemingly less material goods than us. We've shared many stories from both the Bible and the Qur'an that tell us that it is part of being a member of faith to give to others wholeheartedly. In the Bible, I'm reminded of Luke 6:38 which says to give and then we will get in return. We have all been so loved and blessed by our creator that how could we not pour this love out on others?

I've felt blessed throughout this entire trip. On Tuesday, I, along with 10 or so others woke up around 5 am to go prepare breakfast for those who needed the food. Although it was early, it felt wonderful to be up so early giving my time and work to help the greater good. I was also reminded that when you give, you get more in return. Some of the greatest laughs on this trip have been while working at the service sites.

The service work that we've been doing has provided me with so much hope. I've been reminded over and over again that God provides. My eyes have been opened to the need out there, but I have also seen hope in that there are many places for those who may not have the money for food to be nourished.

I've also really enjoyed getting to grow in my friendships with the people on the trip. It has been so much fun getting to work and play with each other and be laughing constantly. After the UN tour and debriefing today, we all split up into smaller groups. My group which included Luke, Joe, Andrew, and Sara went to see Mary Poppins on Broadway and then got huge bowls of ice cream afterwards. Although I feel like I'm running low on sleep, I'm feeling energized to be here in New York City with a group of people that I can't wait to get to know better and grow in faith with. I'm praying that the rest of our time here in New York City is just as fruitful as the first couple days have been.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Day One

We hit the ground running the first day. We grabbed breakfast and headed off to help out at West Side Campaign Against Hunger. This is one of the largest food pantries in New York, feeding over 110,000 families a year. On Tuesdays they are closed to organize the deliveries that are coming in. We helped shelve hundreds of cans and joined lines to pass along sacks of flour, rice and beans. There was a third delivery from Goya, a company that makes Hispanic products. The company had also brought a bunch of volunteers to help unload the food. They weren't really doing a whole lot, but had a photographer for PR purposes, which was a little bothersome, that they weren't there to volunteer, but just seemed to flaunt the fact that they were volunteering.

We finished earlier than expected, around 11:00 and set out exploring. We ate street food, stopped in some shops, went by the Empire State Building, went to Times Square, and got ice cream. We had to get to St. Paul's Chapel to start our Faith Walk around the World Trade Centers. It was interesting to learn some more history of the tragedy, and was good to be reminded about the many lives that were lost on 9/11. The walk finished at Park 51 where we had a great discussion with the organizers of Park 51, who debunked the myths of their planned center. We were also there during their prayer time which was very interesting to observe. Afterwards, we (the Christians) asked lots of questions, which was a really interesting chance to learn more about Islam. It was a fun day and nice to get to know each other better.

Seventeen Hours and Still Kicking

Seventeen hours seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye as our group prepares to get rested for tomorrow. I had the opportunity to set out with the St. Peter breakfast crew at 6:00 AM, which is the earliest I have had to get up since the 5:00 AM marching band practices. After a couple cups of coffee and a spectacular New York bagel, I managed to drag myself to the subway and enter the tunnel toward uptown. After Stephanie's comic display of what not to do at the New York subway station and an encounter with the NYPD, we were on our way.

As soon as the breakfast crew arrived at St. Peter, we were immediately welcomed with open arms and a list of duties. I started out with Luke, Ellen, Tianna, Lina, Andrew and Pastor Kate putting out donated clothes for people to grab. After a lot of folding and organizing, we were called down to the basement to help with the food production. The whole process began to lock in and flow nice and smoothly. All in all, we were told that we served breakfast to over a hundred people! After the breakfast, it was nice having people come up to us and thank us for the meal. Between the breakfast and the clothes, felt glad to have served so many people, knowing that I made a positive impact on their day.

The breakfast group was able to wrap things up by ten thirty in the morning, and the group unanimously decided to use the extra time to explore the city of New York. We started our exploration at Central Park. Although I was not thoroughly impressed with the "nature" of NYC, I realized that you have to take it for what it was. Without Central Park, there would be nothing but buildings in New York. We proceeded to split into two smaller groups, both heading to Rockefeller Plaza to see the 30 Rock building. After seeing the cast of 30 Rock (including Tina Fey!), we went to an Irish pub to grab some lunch. After making a quick pit stop at Times Square, the breakfast crew headed back to Seafarer's to join up with the rest of the group.

The most emotional, thought provoking portion of the trip thus far came with our tour of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site. We were led on a Faith Walk by our wonderful guide, Lisa, and we learned many specific details and ideas that none of us had thought about the attack that occurred on September 11th, 2001. Regardless of where we came from or what religion we believed, we all agreed that God was at work in all the men and women who died trying to rescue the lives of innocent people. We should not come away from this event with the ideas of revenge or anger at one another, but rather see how we can come away from this with an even closer sense of community and strength.

Park 51 was a very unique experience to see, since we were finally able to get behind the rumors and figure out what the controversy was all about. Despite popular opinion in other parts of the country, Park 51 was not some "mega-Mosque" built on the site of the World Trade Center. Rather, it turned out to be a proposed nonprofit community center similar to a YMCA, except that it would have ties to Islam and host many Muslim community events. This community center would be open to anyone regardless of their faith, and the building would be used for a variety of interfaith events. I saw this proposal as an inspiring opportunity for the Muslim community to reach out, and gain a greater sense of belonging in the city that they call home.

After such a long day filled with so much action and adventure, I will be very glad to finally catch a break. I certainly look forward to the new opportunities to have fun and to serve that will arrive tomorrow. As of now, "Peace NYC!"

A beautiful day...

Today in the hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan, something beautiful happened. It wasn't a large display. Barely anyone even knew it was going to happen.

After a stressful arrival at St. Paul's Chapel (my part of the group was late by at least 25 min) we quietly snuck in to listen to our tour guide Lisa tell us about the building. St Paul's Chapel was build in 1766 and is currently the oldest public building still in continuous use in the city. St. Paul's also sits directly across the street from the former site of the World Trade Center. When the two towers fell on 9/11, the force of the buildings collapsing sent debris flying, moved whole buildings, and blew out windows more than a block away. In all of this, St Paul's was not touched, not even a single window. The sole damage came in the form of an uprooting of a sycamore tree on the front of the property.

During the cleanup after that day, St Paul's served as a place for people to sleep, to pray, to have their feet mended, and as a beacon of hope. It still serves as that today. People all over the world have sent prayers and tokens of their hope to St Paul's and some of those are still on display. Groups come to meditate, to take pictures, to be told a story, and to share in hardship. Which brings me to the beauty-

As we were given time to explore the Chapel, I noticed a group of students gathered by the alter. In a circle, they began singing, and slowly everyone in the church grew silent and turned to listen. Whether out of spirituality, awe, interest, or just plain respect, everyone in the small Chapel gave their most sincere attention. I turned on my camera and managed to catch the ending of their song. While listening, I was caught up in the moment. It really did feel like a completely together experience. These students made this offering, asking no recognition. They managed to provide everyone there with a moment of togetherness, regardless of religious affiliation.

A beautiful day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

One Bite of the Big Apple

First, I'd like to comment on a few stereotypes of New York that have been broken down for me by the adventures of today.

  1. New Yorkers are mean. No, they're really not. Like the ultimate tourists we are, we asked a woman walking by to take a picture of us in front of a cute ice cream shop called Sundaes and Cones. She went out of her way to take it at the right angle and with proper lighting.

  2. New York is loud. Maybe it's because it's on a Monday night, but New York really isn't that loud. Sure, there are a few more ambulance noises than in Minneapolis, but overall not too much noise. In fact, I'd say when we went out to explore the city later in the night we were the most noisy, obnoxious people (perhaps I shouldn't drag innocent people along with me here. I was the most noisy, obnoxious person singing an off-tune rendition of "Spiderman Spiderman. Does whatever a spider can.")

So that was just a note of the culture I've observed.

New York has been interesting so far. We took time to explore the city with a scavenger hunt after landing and getting a bit settled. It was definitely fun walking around the city in the fast-paced ways of regular New Yorkers - or my stereotypical image of them. I wasn't in too big of a culture shock. It's basically a blend of Minneapolis and Cairo. More ethnic - with lots of halal food - and populated than Minneapolis, but less of both than Cairo. There's definitely a feeling of "epic-ness" about it though. It's really like the lyrics of Empire State of Mind (which we sang shamelessly). A city that seems full of dreams, and we're here to make one of those dreams come to life.

The day began on a high and ended with a positive yet nervous energy about the next day's activities. First, we'll be volunteering at various food-related volunteer organizations. In the afternoon, we will be revisiting the day that changed the U.S. forever. Tomorrow will be the day we visit Ground Zero. We'll learn about how the events unfolded and we'll hear stories of how it impacted people of all faiths and of all walks of life. We will then head off to Park 51, the mosque full of controversy over its location. Perhaps this step we're taking in reevaluating events together will be a small step in the U.S's and the world's reevaluation of its biased opinions. Stay tuned.

NYC!!! Reflections on our First Day in the Big Apple

It is near the end of our first day in New York City and I can hardly believe the experiences we have already had! I am just going to take this time to reflect on some of the events that stick out in my mind from today, and how I have seen God at work!


When we were all boarding the plane, we were super excited and ready for NYC! So of course we were laughing, chatting and bursting with energy. I happened to be sitting in the back of our group on the plane, and a woman sitting behind me, in a lighthearted joking manner said "Of course we are right behind all of the giggly girls!" She then proceeded to ask us where we were going, so we started to explain our Spring Break trip to her. It turns out, she had seen us earlier sitting in a circle at the airport gate when we had gathered for a quick discussion, and had told her husband "We need to see more of this in the world" (She was referring to the fact that it was quite obvious that we were a group of Christian and Muslim students together). I was taken back by this, and really started to understand the magnitude of this trip. Simply sitting together in a airport had caused a woman to notice, I can't even imagine the impact we might have over the entire week here in NYC.


Since today was our travel day, our main activity with our limited time left in the day was a photo scavenger hunt! This was a great time to just experience and explore the city while also getting to know others on the trip better. My awesome group included Imen, Samara, Kate and Andrew. From figuring out the subway system, to finding a food that none of us had ever eaten before, we had a blast working together! Even with such limited time together I already know that this week is going to exceed every expectation that I could have.


After everyone returned from the scavenger hunt, we had a great discussion and reflection time. I was very humbled by the honesty and willingness to share stories within our group. I am continually amazed by our conversations and am learning new things about Christianity and Islam. We read passages from the Bible and the Quran that were about loving thy neighbor. It was beautiful to hear the similarities in the teachings. I also even learned simple things about the Quran. For example I never knew how it was organized. Even just learning these small facts allows me to be more knowledgeable, and I am grateful for the openness and patience of all of the people on this trip to take the time to answer and explain any questions we have.


It's getting late and we some great service projects planned for the morning! I hope you all have a blessed week!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Musings of a Fatal Optimist

Since I was young, I've been instilled with the belief that you must accept everyone for who they are - including religious differences. There's a quote in the Quran that says, "You have your religion and I have mine" (109). This has always been essential in my practice of my faith. While for a long time this to me meant to avoid the topic of religion, I've more recently realized that accepting one another does not come from ignoring our differences. In fact, often times ignoring the topic leads to ignorant stereotyping that misrepresents an entire group of people. Discussions of faith are essential because of the lack of knowledge on the topic world-wide. Ignoring an issue really does lead to ignorance. Religion is one topic that we cannot afford to ignore anymore as it is constantly at the forefront of societal issues.

I've never had a homogeneous group of friends. A majority have been a form of Christian due to its predominance in the U.S., but I've been in association with friends of a wide spectrum - Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, etc. Today my best friends are of the following beliefs: Nondenominational Christian, Catholic, Lutheran, Agnostic, and Atheist.

I've been asked time and again how we can sustain such friendships with varying beliefs. For the majority of our friendship, my group of friends largely ignored religion, perhaps reflecting our fear of the issues that would be brought up or perhaps reflecting religion's small role in our lives. However, as we've grown together and apart we've begun to discuss religion more frequently as it has become a more central force in each of our separate lives. One of my best friends joked only last week that our conversations now revolved around three subjects - school, boys, and religion. A short year ago, that list would have excluded the last subject.

Sara, one of the best friends I described earlier, came to me at the beginning of the year asking if I would be interested in an interfaith Muslim-Christian trip to NY. I didn't hesitate before agreeing. This was a chance to further explore the topic of religion with both those of my own faith as well as our Christian brothers and sisters - how people of my faith view Christianity as our faith has similar roots. This seemed to me a great opportunity for a number of reasons.

  1. I can get to know more Muslim students. I've never truly been involved in the Muslim community on the University campus nor outside of it. As Islam has become a more central part of my life, I want to get connected with those of my faith.

  2. I can get to know more people of faith in general. I've always felt comfortable with those of the Christian faith. We can discuss the differences as well as the similarities and learn from one another.

  3. Above all else, to me this is a symbol to the world at large. We've seen the media hype up extremist religious groups' actions. We've seen it try to divide people further. I, however, am a fatal optimist. This trip is a symbol of how we, as people of faith and as people in general, can work together. This is a symbol of hope and of peace in a world that seems to often times forget its essential humanity.

Tomorrow I will be leaving to New York with one best friend and a slew of potential future friends. The road is unclear and I don't know what will come of this trip, but the fatal optimist within me is giddy with excitement to take this step closer to having a more open, accepting, and loving world. A world with a tad less ignorance and a dash more love.

T - 11 to Take Off

We never talked much about our faith in high school. Among my five closest friends, one is Catholic, one is a Nondenominational Christian, one is Muslim, one is Agnostic, one is an Atheist, and I am Lutheran. Needless to say, talking about religion tended to spark controversies. As we got older we realized it was ok to have different religions, and that we were never going to convert one another. While I have different beliefs from them, I still love my friends dearly, and get defensive if anyone insults anything about them, including their religion. When the controversy of the "Mosque at Ground Zero" came up, I was surprised that anyone could consider this an issue. The Islam I know from my Muslim friend, Dina, had nothing to do with the events of 9/11.

When the idea to have a trip to New York with Muslims students was brought up, I was really excited to get an opportunity to learn more about Islam. My friends and I had begun talking more about our respective religions, and this seemed like a great chance to get to know Dina's traditions better. As we have counted down to this trip (we're down to 11 hours until we meet at the airport!), I have learned so much through the conversations that we have had across faiths. I'm very much looking forward to this trip because we are all curious about each others' beliefs, and open about our own.

While I've been learning a lot about my Muslim counterparts, I've also been challenged to examine and articulate my own faith as our conversations continue to delve deeper into our beliefs. I've also gotten the chance to discuss the tough questions with other Christians as we try to explain our religion to our curious new friends. I can't wait for all of the new friendships that we will develop in New York, and I look forward to seeing how we bring our interfaith work back to campus.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Reflection on Particularity

I am a pastor in the Lutheran, Christian tradition.  I am called to be pastor, disciple developer, kingdom builder and ministry grower to, within, and through the campus of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.  Our spring break trips have been important in finding leaders, building commitment among them, and growing our little community.

So why, when I’ve been tasked with growing our Lutheran, Christian ministry on this campus, when we’re in the middle of multiple fundraising campaigns due to shrinking budgets and new buildings, and in my first year of my first call, would I decide (with the student leaders I should add) to take one of the most complicated (and expensive) domestic trip we could imagine?  Why would we choose to travel to a big city, with students whose culture and religion is different from “ours?” 

How are we deepening our own sense of discipleship on campus, our own relationship with Jesus, while standing side by side with students connected to mosques and Islamic centers?  Can our Christian faith, and our growing community, actually be strengthened by being in relationship with Muslim students?

I deeply believe that the answer is yes. 

For three reasons:

1.        I was raised in a family where we were given two fundamental beliefs about God; 
a.       God loves you, and so you can/should love the world (especially your little piece of it), and
b.      God created this world as good, and so you should be curious about it.

As I got older, and started exploring the world, I also began to take the incarnation, the Immanuel, God-with-us reality of Christianity very seriously.  The more I came to understand the fight that it was to claim, over and over and over again, that God could exist right alongside this beautiful broken fleshy vulnerability we call our body, the more I wanted to claim Christianity as my own, and came to understand that God had claimed me a long time ago.  

God exists all over in this world, inhabits so many little corners and broad expanses, why wouldn’t we sit down with people who have a different world view and ask, “Where did you see God today?”

We discover our own particularity, its beauty and its brokenness, when we put it into conversation with other particular traditions.  By having these conversations, in our own little way, we preserve some of the diversity created by God.  We don’t end up with some watered down “I believe in the golden rule,” sort of moral deism.  We root ourselves deeply in common values of each of our ancient traditions, discover what is most important to us about our own beliefs and practices, and in that affirmation realize that what is most important to us doesn’t, perhaps, have to be most important to everyone.

2.        In the freedom, love and mercy we know in Christ, we are called to participate in the healing and redemption of this world God loves so much. 

There is a deep division in our society, only heightened by the media frenzy which seems magnetized to hatred and ignorance.  Though extremists do plot bombings in the far reaches and city centers of our world (and neighborhoods), all Muslims pay the price for this extremism in a way that isn’t warranted.  We want to stand with those who share our values of compassion, love, hospitality, justice and service to the neighbor.  We want to be a sign of who we might be able to be as a community, and as a world.

3.         These conversations happen anyway.  Both Muslim and Christian students are asking questions of pluralism in their dorm rooms, across cafeteria tables, and in classrooms.  If we are afraid to address them, in relationship, we risk losing the beauty of particularity.  We also risk the opportunity to be in conversation about our similarities and our differences, making it okay to be passionate about one’s own faith while still curious about another’s. 

We are better together.  Our students are energized, passionate, and proud of what they are doing.  The University is re-imagining what a religious community can be on campus.  God is, indeed, active in this process, enlivening our planning, and guiding our conversations.