I Am Starr King: An Interview with Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé

Watch Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé, Provost and Professor of Cultural and Islamic Studies, speak about his experience at Starr King.

Tell me about your experience at Starr King.

I was just thinking that about this time twenty years ago, I was preparing to move from Washington, DC, to the Bay Area to assume my position here on the faculty.

Starr King, for me, has been a very exciting adventure in what I call, not even progressive theological education, but revolutionary theological education. This great revolution of hearts and minds connected. Something I had written was that some people refer to us as ‘that weird school out in California’ or ‘that school that is not really a school for scholarship’ and what have you. And one of the exciting things for me about Starr King is that it is always inviting us to be out loud and proud about who we are. And we recognize that we do have different ways of conceptualizing things, which does not mean that we are not an intellectually challenging environment. But we are not committed to what I would call academic oppression, in the sense of using a model of teaching that does not also draw on the resources the student might have.

In the time that I have been here, in my position as Provost, I have been responsible for developing what is no longer called the new educational model or emerging educational model. Maybe it is emergent—the emergent educational model. And it will always be emergent, because we will always continue to grow in creativity and also in responding to the challenges in the world. Whether it be living in white supremacist culture, climate change, moving beyond gender binaries, or organic multireligiosity. As these things swirl and change in the world, our work in the world, our presence in the world changes— in the types of courses that we teach and the things that we examine here that are connected to our deep values of being a counter oppressive community of learning. As the world calls for responses from us, we make bold to offer those responses in word and action and ritual and the ways in which we gather as a community.

Why did you decide to teach at Starr King?

I decided to teach at Starr King— and it was not an easy decision for me because I had been a professor at Howard School of Divinity for 10 years. And I loved Howard. And I was very involved in activism in Washington, DC, and in art communities there. So it was a difficult choice, but I felt that Starr King was moving in a direction, or wanted to move in a direction, that was the same direction I was moving in my work as a scholartivist—a scholar, artist, activist and spiritual leader. And I thought this was an opportunity to arrive in a moment of rebirth in a community of learning, and to help this process of birth and growth. And I didn’t really know what to expect. But I had confidence in this community that had called me to be part of it.

And I think the Starr King that we inhabit now is very different from the Starr King to which I arrived. So the reasons I came to Starr King are probably connected to, but also different from, the reasons for which I stay. The primary reason for which I am here is the really, for me, radically important work of training and of witnessing the preparation and formation of religious leaders in a world that desperately needs, I believe, radically progressive, inclusive, complexly-thinking spiritual leaders.

What has been your most memorable or meaningful experience at Starr King?

There have been a lot of meaningful experiences, but I think for me, it is the experience of the annual or bi-annual Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi Immersion that I lead. The experience of being with Starr King, of being Starr King in Turkey, whether it is in Istanbul or Central Anatolia in Konya, where Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi is buried and is the focal point of our Immersion. But to be in community there, to witness our community living and being together 24 hours a day seven days a week during two weeks. Watching people interact with people from different parts of the world. Eating together, singing together and visiting holy sites together. And the people that meet Starr King, who are like, ‘Oh who are you? Where are you from? We are so glad you are here­.’ To just experience the day-to-day of what it is to be a counter oppressive community, day-to-day what it means to be an organically multireligious community in a context that brings together people from all over the world. I think seeing the impact that this has on members of our community, the hospitality that they experience, and the warmth in day-to-day life that they experience and how that shapes them when they come back here.

One year there was a group of students who were really, really touched by the food hospitality. And in a context of food justice, to experience that kind of hospitality was radically transformative for them. So when they came back, they made a practice of every Tuesday, before we gather for our collective ritual time of chapel, providing homemade bread, apples, oranges, cheese and olives. They did this every Tuesday until they graduated. And that built such community here. It were as though the gift of what they experienced in Turkey came here and transformed Starr King at 2441 also.

So I think that is connected to—and maybe I am saying two things and connecting them together—the experience of Starr King students being in different parts of the world, Starr King faculty being in different parts of the world. One of the things that I think is a marvelous, marvelous gift of our educational model is the ability to combine staying in your community and studying and also doing part of the work here in this community— this certain fluidity of modalities of learning, of contexts of learning. I always they say that it is one thing for students to be in a lecture and to hear about the Council of Chalcedon for example, and quite another to be in Istanbul and be able to say, “You see right over there­ (pointing)? That is what was called Chalcedon. That was where that ecumenical council was held.”

And this way of doing education represents a very important value for me, and that is accessibility for people living with disabilities. When I first started teaching online—I was the first core faculty person to teach online—I was recovering from a very serious illness. I would not have been able to teach in the classroom. And the fact that I started teaching online also elicited responses from some of the students, who were living with disabilities but never really talked about it, and how this facilitated learning for them. So there is inclusivity in this way of being. We are not locked into this building. We talk a lot about impermeable walls here. So experiencing Starr King in multiple modalities and multiple locations is part of the richness of my favorite experiences here.

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