July 17, 2015

I am Starr King: An Interview with Kuji Ajani

Kuji Abdul Alim Mah Ajani

1st Year M.Div. Student

Graduate of SKSM M.A.S.C. Program, Class of 2015

Kuji AjaniWhy did you decide to become a religious leader?

Without going too in depth, I think my life experiences and witness of what was happening in my community moved me into the position where, as I was already an activist in my community, I felt that there was a higher calling for my life. I felt at some point broken and unsure of what I was doing in my work in the community—holding up love and speaking to other people. Especially when those who were in higher positions of power, who perceived themselves as or were religious leaders, spoke as though people who were queer or people who were black were not considered loving by God. I wrestled with that for a long time, and I struggled with that in my work with the community.

At some point I realized I needed to go to school to seek more understanding for myself. I wanted to go to school to gain that knowledge so that I could return to my community and help those who had the same burning questions, who had the same struggles.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

I always knew growing up that I was complex. And I knew from the things I experienced in my community— the negative things I heard from religious leaders and communities who say is sinful to do this or to be that—that I could not go to a school that would not accept all of me. And I knew that could not go to a school that would not give me the honest truth I was seeking.

The other schools that I looked at had academic programs and curriculum that were not applicable to my interests and concerns. I wanted to go to Starr King after having conversations with several people. I struggled with deciding to come to Starr King as well, but the school met those needs for me. The more that I read about Starr King, the more that I read about the unfolding of the Master of Arts in Social Change (M.A.S.C.) program, the more I found that it fit with exactly what I was doing and looking for. So that is why I decided to come to Starr King.

Why did you decide to pursue both a M.A.S.C. and a M.Div. degree?

Well, initially I was only going to do the M.A.S.C., because I thought that we had enough religious leaders speaking and sitting at conferences and touring the world. I felt that we needed people who were physically in the community actively doing the work to engage those who are disconnected from religion. So I saw myself taking up that outreach position—the person doing the physical work—as opposed to being the person who just sits around and talks about it. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, but we need more people actually doing the work in communities rather than simply speaking about it. So I had this very one-sided view that I could not be this type of religious leader. I wanted to be the person who set up the stage and waited for others to get there to have the discussion. But I did not see myself as part of the discussion.

After processing and re-examining this for a long time, I realized that, in order for me to sustain multireligious communities, I needed to not only be able to set up the stage but to actually be part of the conversation too. And I realized that is not a bad thing.

Also, a M.Div. opens more doors towards becoming a chaplain, and that is what I feel called to do. I have done a lot of work counseling people all my life, even when I was young. I don’t understand why, but I guess it was a gift from Hashem. I felt that if I wanted to really help people, it was not enough to just be in the community but also able to sit down with them individually and as a group. I think that my voice and what I have to say does matter. And being able to support and minister to people in that way, in the context that we share, and to so from the position of a chaplain would allow me to do the work I feel called to do.

As part of your M.A.S.C. program you did an internship at Urban Adamah, an urban farm. Why were you called to do this work?

There are various places where I have done internships before. I did work around HIV awareness. I did work with youth who were incarcerated, almost like a probation officer. I did work with death and dying for friends and loved ones. I was a case manager and an on-call person. But I had never done work around food justice issues or work that involved dealing with nature. Coming from Washington, DC, there was very little nature that I came in contact with on a daily basis. So I felt deeply disconnected from that. And in order to be an activist, I need to be proficient in issues that are less familiar to me.

Working at Urban Adamah was meaningful, not just from a religious or Jewish traditional values perspective, but also from a place of being submerged in nature and gardening, which was so unfamiliar to me and so easy to take for granted. This was something I wanted to do—to learn how to garden and build and grow. So that is why I chose this internship. It seemed like the one that I was most called to.

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

I think…all of it, all of my experiences at Starr King. There is not one thing that I have encountered at Starr King or with the people here that is not memorable or meaningful. I don’t necessarily remember everything that happened, but there are so many moments to choose from.

But if I had to choose one, I would say the most meaningful one would be the first symposium with Rabbi (Reb) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I think because it was my first symposium after coming to Starr King, and coming into it with the understanding and expectation that I would be submerged in different religious contexts felt right to me. It felt reassuring because Reb Zalman was a well-known Jewish scholar and leader in his community. And to have that mixture along with Islam and Unitarian Universalism reassured me that I was on the right path. And I held dear to that, because I saw 500 or more people there who were supporting this path with love.

What do you hope to do with your Starr King education going forward?

I hope that I will go forward into the world and be a huge contribution to social change and religious change—particularly in the way we view religion and various communities. I have to speak frankly, because often when we dream we dream of going back into communities and being amazing scholars and leaders who will be remembered for lifetimes. And I am okay with the bare minimum, such as getting a job at McDonald’s. That would be the place where I would craft my work. I am okay with being in different environments and small sections of society to help change someone’s life. It does not need to be a big impact, but rather one on the individual level. So I hope to go forward with an open mind and go into the community to do the work that Starr King has prepared me to do, while still being connected to the school.


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