The following reflection was written by Father Pishoy Salama, priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church and resident fellow at Harvard Divinity School during the 2019 fall semester.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”—Howard Thurman
Studying at HDS has been a lifelong dream, which I was finally able to fulfill this academic year.
For many international students, studying at Harvard is an ultimate goal, but very few have attained it. After all, to qualify for any of its programs, one must demonstrate superior achievements as well as a bit of divine intervention.
My family immigrated from Egypt to Canada in 1984, where I completed my high school and undergraduate studies. In 1999, I was ordained into full-time ministry as a priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In the years that followed, I completed my master of divinity as well as doctor of ministry degrees in Toronto to enhance my ministerial skills and gain insight into the ever-changing needs of the ministry. This year, as I was about to celebrate my twentieth ordination anniversary, I had the desire to go back to school and continue my learning journey.
The thought of studying at Harvard was reignited in my heart. Studying at HDS meant that I would be exposed to a world-renowned, non-sectarian School with a focus on pluralist and diverse religious and theological studies. After finding an outstanding program at HDS that would accommodate my four-month sabbatical, I applied and was accepted to study there as a resident fellow in the fall semester of 2019.
My experience at HDS has been exceptional, particularly in four main areas: the school’s pluralist vision, informative seminars, world-class faculty, and embracing student body.
First, I was genuinely impressed with the effort the School makes to ensure that every faith from across the globe is revered and heard. The School offers every person respect and dignity, free from all harassment, in an environment of cultural and religious diversity.
Second, I really enjoyed the seminars and guest speakers who came during the semester to enhance the students’ learning experiences. My first encounter came at the beginning of the term at the HDS Convocation, where Professor David Carrasco spoke on “Toni Morrison Stories: Goodness and Mercy and Mexico.” The entire presentation was outstanding and truly honored this exceptional author and thinker. Of special mention also was the lecture of K. Healan Gaston, HDS Lecturer in American Religious History and Ethics, who discussed her recent publication, Imagining Judeo-Christian America—Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy.
Third, the faculty, as well as the TFs, were extremely knowledgeable and respectful to students. Faculty members treated all students with the utmost kindness and esteem. They created an egalitarian environment, which was ripe for learning and discussion. Students were greeted with smiles and were always able to meet faculty with ease.
Fourth, the diverse student body enhanced my experience at HDS. I felt that everyone was friendly, willing to engage in conversations, and encouraged one another. I was invited by one of my classmates for a Shabbat dinner she hosted for many of her peers. This act of kindness showed the willingness of students to support one another in an environment of collaboration and hospitality. My semester was truly enriched with many out-of-classroom conversations with classmates at Rock Café and throughout the campus. All these encounters collectively made my experience at HDS one to be remembered for many decades to come.
As a Coptic Orthodox priest, I was joyful to see that Coptic was being taught at HDS as an ancient biblical language. Nevertheless, in a space where global religions are being explored, I found that Orthodoxy was underrepresented. Orthodox Christians form a significant religious body and their view of spirituality and mysticism is important for understanding the encounter of the divine. As a School that embraces a pluralist religious worldview, further effort could be made to incorporate the Orthodox voice.
Although there is an Orthodox theological school in the Boston area, HDS offers a unique perspective on the study of religion. An Orthodox program at HDS may encourage more students to pursue their studies in this world-renowned divinity school. I believe that this would benefit both Orthodox students and the diverse HDS student body as a whole. The introduction of Orthodox Christian spirituality and mysticism could start in the form of seminars then blossom into full courses and possible future degrees.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to study at HDS and hope to use this experience to inspire others to pursue their dreams as well.
—by Fr. Pishoy Salama