The Modern Divines

December 1, 2016
Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv '12
Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv '12

In December 1815, President John T. Kirkland, appealed for support of the “best and noblest cause, which human benevolence is permitted to advance”: the education of ministers at Harvard University. His letter to the School’s alumni described society’s “peculiar” interest in these professionals:

“We want him not to transact our business and to receive a compensation; but to be our friend, our guide, an inmate in our families . . . to receive from him impressions on a subject, which more than all others concerns us, and with which our improvement and tranquility through life and our future peace are most intimately connected.”

In the 200 years since Kirkland’s appeal—and the School’s founding—HDS graduates have shaped religious communities large and small and extended their influence far beyond the pulpit. Now, as the Divinity School embarks on a third century of leadership in religious education, its students and alumni are expanding ministry in ways even their visionary forebears might not have imagined. Both women and men, they serve followers of all of the world’s major traditions—or no tradition at all. Innovative and entrepreneurial, they bring ministry out of the house of worship and into the lives of people who need its touch. Most of all, these new leaders draw on religious resources to build community, work for justice, and help people everywhere lead richer, more meaningful lives.

The harmony sounds good together

Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv ’12The education of progressive Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist ministers is literally embedded in Harvard Divinity School’s DNA. The legendary Rev. William Ellery Channing actually penned the 1815 appeal that went out in Harvard President Kirkland’s name. The list of graduates from the School’s first half century reads like a “who’s who” of UU—and early American— history: the writer and social critic Ralph Waldo Emerson, HDS ’25; the abolitionist Rev. Theodore Parker, HDS ’34; the “Saint of the West,” Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, HDS ’34.

The Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv ’12, represents a new generation of HDS alumni carrying on the progressive UU tradition. As founder of The Sanctuaries, an interfaith arts community in Washington, DC, Martinez Resly ministers to devout Muslims, Hasidic Jews, Evangelical Christians, Humanists, and many others. All come together to experience art as spiritual practice and to place their creative and theological imaginations in service to social justice.

“For the people in our community—particularly folks who didn’t grow up with any particular tradition— making art is an incredibly meaningful, transcendent, spiritual practice,” he explains. “We try to empower people to claim their soulful voice, to express themselves and their stories creatively, and then to collaborate on projects that have a direct impact on the lives of people in our city.”

At The Sanctuaries, Martinez Resly not only brings people together from different traditions, but also connects the devout with the “nones,” the burgeoning group of Americans who identify with no organized religion. The community’s glue is the process of creating art, which Martinez Resly says enables all members to be authentic individuals and, at the same time, have an experience together of something greater than themselves.

The Sanctuaries group photo

“We can never fully grasp the fullness of each other’s differences,” he says. “But when two people compose a song together, there are those moments of being in sync. It’s more than just working side by side. There’s a sense of connection there that, for me, is a moment of divine touch. We really need each other and we feel it in a visceral way. Literally, the harmony sounds good together.”

Martinez Resly’s community puts the power of this experience into practice through social justice work, as it did recently when it partnered with community organizers Empower DC on a public housing campaign. Members of The Sanctuaries visited the Barry Farms project in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood amid pressure to tear the development down and replace it with condominiums. In response to the complaints of residents who said that they felt shut out of the conversation about the future of their community, a singer and a spoken word artist from The Sanctuaries created a poetic history of Barry Farms. Residents were so touched that they urged the composers to record the work. Now The Sanctuaries is partnering with local radio stations to get the work on the air and to offer any proceeds from sales of the recording to Empower DC’s campaign.

The Sanctuaries performance

“It was incredibly meaningful for the residents to have people who were spiritually grounded take the time to listen and amplify their voice,” Martinez Resly says. “What we do is about personal empowerment, but personal empowerment in service of a higher cause.”

Martinez Resly hopes that The Sanctuaries will continue to grow in the years ahead. The challenge is to make the group financially sustainable. Washington is an expensive base of operations, and the artist/members of the community often have few financial resources of their own. Still, Martinez Resly is hopeful that the group’s combination of diversity, creativity, and activism will prosper. There is always the need for sanctuary.

“There is a certain secret sauce to the soulfulness that people experience and embody in our community that is magnetic,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons that we’ve been able to grow the way we have while spending almost no money on any advertising. Just giving people an opportunity to tap into, to discover, and to embody that sanctuary within themselves, within one another, and to live that in their daily lives—I think that can have a tremendous impact.”

Making Space for Muslims in the University—And America

Celene Ibrahim, MDiv ’11
HDS alumna Celene Ibrahim
Celene Ibrahim, MDiv ’11, is one of a growing number of HDS alumni who pursue religious leadership in a tradition other than Christianity—and in a setting other than a house of worship. As Tufts University’s Muslim chaplain, Ibrahim works with students to enhance and improve religious life on campus. During her first two years on the job that meant collaborating with other administrators, architects, and development staff to create a well-located and dignified space where Muslim students could pray and still keep to a tight class schedule. Thanks to her work—and to contributions from students, parents, alumni, and others throughout the university community—the space was recently finished.

“It was a vital development to have a designated space for our basic, everyday religious needs,” Ibrahim says. “That moment was a milestone for the integration of Muslims into the university, but, at a larger level, what it signaled to me was the continued integration of Muslims into the fabric of America.”

The students in Ibrahim’s chaplaincy are as diverse as Islam itself, hailing from China, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, northern Africa, and all across the U.S. Some are deeply devout, waking up in the “wee hours of the morning to memorize the Qu’ran.” Others have a cultural identity shaped by Islamic norms but are not particularly religious. Ibrahim’s job is to balance the needs of all.

“The challenge is to make sure our community is big enough to welcome people who are Muslim in their cultural identity as well as those who are Muslim in their religious identity,” she explains. “So, we try to integrate religion into our social events, and have a social component to our religious programming.”

At the heart of Ibrahim’s pastoral work is spiritual direction. Here, too, there’s an enormous range of needs and concerns. Students who grew up hearing the call to prayer five times a day often come for help upholding their spiritual practice amid the different rhythms of university life. Others have questions common to any young adult forming their own identity: Am I loved? Do I belong? Will I be okay?

“When you’re doing ministry in a tradition that teaches that God is in charge of the universe and means well for you, all you really have to do is help people feel that,” she says. “Once they sink into that sense that a force greater than themselves is supporting and protecting them, the other concerns often work themselves out.”

Ibrahim, who is also the co-director of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) of Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College, says that her ministry extends beyond the Muslim community. Ultimately, it’s about creating spaces where people can encounter diversity and difference in a way that deepens their own commitments.

“When people encounter the religious other, it awakens them to resources that enhance their own religious experience,” she says. “They’re called to explain why and how they do things, and, in the process of explaining, they end up seeking good answers to good questions. They go into an interreligious encounter thinking that it will be decentering to their faith or identity. In fact, it anchors them even more profoundly.”

Radical Dharma

Established with a 2011 gift from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, HDS’s Buddhist Ministry Initiative (BMI) has become a major draw for students from and of that tradition. In fact, there are now more Buddhists at HDS than Unitarian Universalists. According to the Rev. Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, the BMI has had a profound influence on the School’s ministry studies program.

“Studying pastoral care and counseling and studying chaplaincy at HDS now is very highly inflected by Buddhism, and I think that may be a permanent development,” she says. “It’s not just that we’re preparing for Christian ministry and we try to understand other people’s traditions. If you’re going to be a Christian minister, you need to know something about Buddhist practices of death and dying, Buddhist wisdom about mindfulness, Buddhist wisdom about caring, showing compassion to other beings. That, to me, is very exciting.”

Lama Rod owens with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

Although his serene demeanor would indicate otherwise, third-year MDiv candidate Lama Rod Owens is a big part of the excitement. A teacher at the Natural Dharma Fellowship of Cambridge, Owens works with the students there to “connect their own inner wisdom back to them.” This means shifting away from the usual day-to-day focus on the negative behavior of others—and ourselves—and onto the goodness within us all.

“In a teacher-student relationship, my job is actually to cut through the faults that you manifest,” Owens explains. “We get so wrapped up and distracted by the things we struggle with that we don’t know how to celebrate and to nurture the things that are inherently positive about us.”

Owens’s innovative approach to ministry integrates social media platforms to extend the reach and impact of his teaching. He uses Facebook and YouTube in particular to help those who feel isolated find community online. His posts are designed to start conversations with people he might not ordinarily meet and to create new collaborations.

Owens’s use of social media started in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the unrest that followed. At the prompting of Buddhadharma magazine, Owens engaged in dialogue about the violence with the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, an author and Zen priest. They recorded their conversation and posted it on YouTube, where it got thousands of views.

“We were very surprised at the way people gravitated to that video,” he says. “It was shared and viewed all over the place. People felt like we were speaking to something important.”

The conversation that caught fire on social media yielded others between Owens and Williams in different locations around the country. When they were finished, they collected their thoughts in a book released last spring: Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.

“For me, the book was the initial articulation of how I have survived a social context that has been more violent than kind,” says Owens, who grew up African American in the deep South. “Radical dharma is about recognizing the interconnectedness of life— and therefore the part we play in everything that goes on around us. It’s about having conversations that seem impossible to have and to saying the words we have been too afraid to say out loud. And it means transforming ourselves through knowledge into the kinds of people who are capable of changing the world.”

Owens, who will finish his studies at HDS in 2017, plans to pursue studies in social work.

“I will always be a spiritual teacher,” he says. “Being at HDS has taught me to translate that work, to think about it and write about it. Now I want to take that foundation to work with people formally around trauma. We need to examine our feelings, our emotions, our trauma—as well as the ways in which each of us may help create the conditions for violence. That’s the radical dharma approach.”

—by Paul Massari