Modeling Multireligious Community

November 9, 2020
Lesedi Graveline, MTS '21
Lesedi Graveline, MTS '21

Lesedi Graveline, MTS ’21

Lesedi Graveline is an activist on the path to a career in social justice and human rights work. A graduate of the University of Connecticut, she is passionate about expanding her leadership through mentoring and empowering young people.

In order to keep herself grounded in her work, while she is at HDS, Graveline tutors incarcerated young men at Boston’s Judge John J. Connelly Youth Center and is an academic advisor to first-year students at Harvard College. Graveline has also interned at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre in New York City and has worked for MASS Design Group, a nonprofit, social justice architecture firm best known for designing the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, AL.

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At HDS, I’m studying African and African American religions, but I feel as though I am also being trained in ethics. I’ve taken classes such as “Leadership and Womanist Moral Traditions” with Professor (Monique) Moultrie, “Forgiveness” with Professor (Matthew) Potts, and “The Ethical and Religious thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” with Professor (Preston) Williams. 

In those classrooms, we read about history, literature, theory, and narratives, which are all important to my scholarship; however, the learning went beyond that. I was also challenged to critique the world through the lens of morals and ethics and to understand how those concepts are inherently tethered to one another—lessons that I know would be difficult to find elsewhere.

When I think about the critical application of these lessons, I think about how in businesses—and even at nonprofits—I have found that morals and ethics are often neglected as organizations develop best practices, systems, and structures needed to accomplish their missions. Rather than being built into the process of the work, morals serve as a retrospective checklist. What should serve as guiding principles trail behind, losing their ability to effe-tively shape and counsel the operations of these organizations. 

With this in mind, I hope to move through the world and speak with people, to hold conversations with a particular type of tenderness that I don’t believe you can find, or even be explicitly taught, at the Kennedy School, the Law School, or the Business School. I could have gone down a path where I would only be focused on maintaining a lucrative career, but that’s not my ethos; that’s not the way I want to live my life. What’s important to me is finding the connection between personal transformation and social change and embodying ethical leadership. 

I care about people. I care about the way I leave this earth and my legacy. It’s like Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you did and people forget what you said, but people never forget how you made them feel.” And this is how I want to be remembered. At HDS, I have been able to nurture these parts of identity and spirit. It is truly a special place.

Eboni Nash, MTS '21
Eboni Nash, MTS '21
Eboni Nash, MTS ’21

Eboni Nash was only in third grade when her father was murdered in prison. She grew up a young woman  of color—both African American and Native American—in a small, predominantly white town where her excellence in athletics and academics earned her a full scholarship from Hastings College, even as she dealt daily with micro-aggressions and overt racism. Irrepressibly hopeful and optimistic, Nash came to HDS in order to prepare for a career of activism around the issues of racial justice  and mass incarceration.

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I was so afraid of the criminal legal system. I was like, “This is an awful place. They do horrible things. They murder people.” And then my mom, with little options of employment to support our family, actually became a prison officer. Seeing her in her uniform made me internalize the system in a completely different way. I was scared. She had a gun. She had handcuffs. I was scared for her in the system, knowing that the system is what killed my dad.

As I got older, I kept getting drawn back into conversations with people who experienced incarceration: conversations with children who had incarcerated parents; conversations with kids who had deported parents; conversations with kids who were not represented well; conversations with parents who feel guilty about being incarcerated during their kid’s childhood. They revealed a whole new spectrum of people I felt the world was hiding from me.

When I was an undergraduate and also on my own religious journey, I had an Aha! moment. I realized that the people I love, the people I care for, are people who have experienced [incarceration]. I’ve been told that they were bad, but they were jailed for things like survival crimes, for taking care of their family, or for their unfortunate circumstances. I’ve been told that my dad was bad, all while I know him, and I know that he wasn’t bad. In retrospect, the very place that I’m scared of was the place that pretty much saved me and paved the way for my future career.

I came to HDS with an open mind, hoping that I was going to get some experience with other cultures and ethnicities and practices, and that’s exactly what I got. My language has also gotten a lot better, particularly for the work I want to do. I used to say “prison guard,” for example, and then I realized how damaging that language is. Now I say “prison officer.” I’m being very intentional with what I say. Just one year of HDS has made me more mature, more professional."

Ven. Tien Nguyen, MDiv ’21
Ven. Tien Nguyen, MDiv ’21
Ven. Tien Nguyen, MDiv ’21

Born into a traditional Buddhist family in Vietnam, Ven. Tien Nguyen was 15 years old when his parents agreed to allow him to pursue ordination as a Mahayana Buddhist monk. At temple, he studied dharma practice and teaching under his master for some years but felt as though the training was not enough for him to be an effective Buddhist leader in the modern world. His pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding led him to Thailand, to Naropa University in Colorado, and finally to HDS.

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For me as a monastic, coming to America was a huge transition. There’s a big difference in the way that people understand and practice Buddhism in Vietnam and in the United States.

One thing that I found interesting was that here in the U.S., you can still be a Buddhist teacher even if you are not a monk. At first, I thought “How can a lay person become a spiritual teacher?” That was very weird to me. But I asked many of my friends and they said they would prefer a lay teacher rather than a monastic because lay people have more experience. They live in the “house” their whole life. So, I’ve had to ask myself as a monk, “How can you understand the difficulties of a household life if you don’t live it? How do you teach people about that life to help them overcome the challenges and difficulties?”

Another big difference that I’ve struggled to understand is the teaching of self-compassion. In my monastic training in Vietnam, compassion is always for others, so the first time I heard the term self-compassion I immediately thought, “Maybe this is just, you know, a selfish idea of compassion,” but that’s not true at all. I heard someone in class saying, “If you cannot love yourself, how can you love others?” So, there are so many incidents at HDS that really shocked me and also awakened me to be more open to learning something different from what I was taught in Vietnam.

Lóre Stevens, MDiv ’22
Lóre Stevens, MDiv ’22
Lóre Stevens, MDiv ’22

The Mexican American daughter of “Christmas and Easter Christians” from East Tennessee, Lóre Stevens decided early on that “religion wasn’t for me” and pursued a master’s degree in gender studies at Eastern Michigan University. During a postgraduation trip that ran south through the Texas wilderness, however, Stevens had a deep experience of transcendence that eventually brought her to HDS. A finalist in the School’s annual Billings Preaching Prize Competition, Stevens is now on the path to ordination in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

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I had this spiritual experience and didn’t know what to do with it, so I started going to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville. They helped me find some language for what I experienced, and I started to realize that it was called mysticism and lots of people in lots of different religions experience it, and those folks are often the foundation for the nonviolent movements in different religions. It’s been from that little weird proof of realization, all the way to a really mind-blowing career possibility and to HDS.

It’s been a really lovely first year. In “Theories and Methods” we read a book about a Muslim women’s movement 
in Egypt. Western, secular, liberal feminism sees these women as being oppressed, as being victims, as being without agency, but this book showed us that there is agency in being devout and being pious and being harmonious with your culture even if it doesn’t look like the rebellious kind of agency that we have. It allowed me to see that the folks who at HDS who are more traditional...we’re all working toward similar processes of self-formulation and connecting to however we understand the universe. We’re just doing it in ways that are shaped by our past experiences.

The week before the coronavirus lockdown, I went to the morning Catholic Mass that Professor Clooney holds once a week. I just happened to be in the building. So, I went in and [the Eucharist] was such an embodied experience. I had this perception of Catholicism being so oppressive, but it was just so sweet. Everyone drank from the same cup. Everyone hugged at the end. It was quiet and calm. Everyone was on the same page in a way that was similar to that book about the Muslim women. Everyone in there knew the lines and knew the stories. And having a shared experience and language with a community was really new to me. It was so beautiful, even to just be in the room. I was like, “Oh, I see why this is a thing!”