Studying the World and Coming Home to Starr King — Summer 2008


A Rumi Immersion: A Study in Istanbul
Professor Ibrahim Farajajé

Prof. Farajajé at the Starr King threshold

Prof. Farajajé at the Starr King threshold

rumi_immersionWhen Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, the great Sufi theologian, mystic and poet of the 13th century, died in Konya in 1273 CE, so much was he revered that members of all of the diverse religious communities of the city sought to participate in his funeral procession. For over 700 years, lovers of this “Sultan of Love” have gathered from around the world to mark the anniversary of his “Sheb-i arus,” the wedding festival of Rumi’s departure to be with the Beloved.

This year, members of the SKSM community and friends are invited to be part of this international celebration in Konya, on the central Anatolian steppe of Turkey, where concerts, symposia, lectures, sema (ceremony of the whirling dervishes), dhikrs (Sufi ceremony of Divine Remembrance), etc., take place throughout the day and late into the night for most of the month of December, culminating in a memorial ceremony at the moment of his passing. completion of fall semester coursework prior to departure on 6 December.

Come, come whoever you are; wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving; Ours is no caravan of despair: Come, yet again come! (ascribed to Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi)

Rumi immersion students will participate in study sessions focusing on:

  • Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi
  • Islam in Turkey
  • Intersections of Faith Practices in Turkey
  • Turkish Jewish, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim Sufi Community Experiences
  • Turkish tasawwuf (Sufism)
  • Dance and Music in Spiritual Practice

Meetings with members of religious communities in Turkey, as well as with professors and students of theology at the Seljuk University in Konya are anticipated to be part of the program. It is also planned to visit the rock churches and monasteries of Cappadocia, weather permitting. Individuals not enrolled in Starr King courses and student spouses are invited to apply.

Book, Starr King Both Show the Need for Religious Pluralism
Glenn C. Farley
SKSM Student Body President, 2008-09

Reflection on: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel. Published by Beacon Press, 2007.

The book is the story of Eboo Patel’s coming of age in America and his realization of the importance of teaching religious pluralism to young people. The thesis of the book is rather simple: young people can become champions of religious pluralism OR can become foot soldiers of religious totalitarianism. As he states, “Influences matter, programs count, mentors make a difference, institutions leave there mark.”

Eboo Patel grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He describes his struggles with academics and the turnaround he experienced in middle school after being challenged by a teacher. He goes on to be a Rhodes Scholar and receive his Doctorate in Religion from Oxford University.

Poignantly, he describes what it is like growing up with brown skin in a white suburban world. The racism he experienced at the hand of middle class whites is agonizing to read. He articulates the spiritual journey he went on to overcome his internalized racism and claim the faith of his ancestors.

The culmination of Dr. Patel’s spiritual journey is his founding of The Interfaith Youth Core, of which he is now the Executive Director. Interfaith Youth Core is centered around multi-faith engagement of people working together on service projects. Interfaith conferences run by adults are often an exchange of theological systems instead of the sharing of stories. The Interfaith Youth Core focuses on the sharing of stories.

Eboo Patel spoke at the Starr King’s President’s Lecture at General Assembly in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, on June 28th.

The event was recorded and is available on the UUA website at 4045 Starr King School’s President’s Lecture: Dr. Eboo Patel.

The format of the lecture had Eboo Patel and Bill Sinkford each make opening remarks. From there, the discussion was moderated by Starr King President Rebecca Parker. Then three UU youth leaders came up to the stage and asked some questions to both Dr. Patel and Rev. Sinkford.

A memorable moment during the lecture was when Dr. Patel mentioned how influenced he is by some Beacon Press authors, such as Howard Thurman and Geoffrey Canada. In his book, in fact, Eboo speaks poignantly of the influence of another Beacon Press published author, James Baldwin. Our own Rebecca Parker references Baldwin in some of her essays as well.

During the lecture, Dr. Patel expanded on his struggle with identity. He grew up thinking that he couldn’t be Indian and American at the same time. He was embarrassed to eat samosas at the lunch table at school, because the other youth would make fun of him. He was embarrassed to fast during Ramadan, because he couldn’t explain it to his peers. In reflecting on these experiences, he describes his spiritual journey as, “a search for coherence.”

The Starr King community is taking to heart Dr. Patel’s arguments.

Starr King new educational model recommits to being a Unitarian Universalist Seminary while widening the space to be a multi-faith institution. Starr King has been instrumental in the support of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) for many years, which opened in 2007.

Starr King offers numerous classes on a diversity of religious faiths and inter-religious dialogue. For example, this past spring, Starr King graduate and practicing Muslim Amir Kia, taught Experiencing Islam. Courses offered this fall include Founding Islam: Her Story, taught by Shakina Reinhertz. The class will trace the role of women in the founding of Islam. Online and intensive classes taught by the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie speak of the historic interactions between Unitarianism and Ottoman Islam. A Rumi Immersion in Turkey is planned for December 7-21, 2008.

Starr King is doing and will continue to do the interfaith work that the world needs. Acts of Faithis an inspiring and important book; the reader will gain insight into the importance of religious pluralism in our polarized world.

Studying the World, Coming Home to Starr King
By Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie
SKSM Visiting Professor

Is truth well represented by large, catch-all abstractions? Or is truth local — embodied and articulated in, through, and because of the context of community? Postmoderns and Unitarian Universalists tend to go with the latter. My interests as a minister and a scholar are best described by referring to the communities in which those interests were possible, and those thoughts thinkable.

I was born to Unitarian Universalism, but we moved frequently when I was young, and the differences between the congregations we attended were enormous. We experienced everything from and between the staunchly humanist fellowship in Wisconsin to the church in Southern California, where the barefoot minister was concerned to know if I had yet discovered my animal guide. Each had the same name — Unitarian Universalism — outside the building (except for one, they thought signs crass). Yet one could easily imagine doubting that they all belonged to the same faith tradition.

Somehow, I never doubted — and thus began my engagement with history a way of understanding both the diversity of our local expressions but also our shared identity. After a degree in Poetry Writing, I headed off to graduate school in Cultural Studies, which would form my base community for a good while. The premise of Cultural Studies was inspiring: can’t we use the sophisticated methods of interpretation that have been developed for reading literary texts to not only explain but transform the social text?

The University of Pittsburg had Gayatri Spivak, the brilliant postcolonial critic and evangelist for deconstruction, so I went there. Eventually, though, Pittsburg grew small to me, so I transferred to the Ohio State University — a huge world where I was able to pursue Cultural Studies wherever I found it — in Islamic Studies, where Victoria Holbrook was doing postmodern readings of Ottoman spiritual literature; in Folklore and Jewish Studies, where Amy Shuman was asking deep questions about who has the right to not only to stories but to empathy itself; in Women’s Studies, where Judith Mayne was teaching French feminism and Queer Studies; and in Modern Greek, where Vassilis Lambropoulos was doing a radical recounting of Eurocentrism.

My first publications were in the new field of bodylore. Our goal was to show how even the body is socially constructed by the discourses used to invoke and even control. When it came time to write my dissertation, I had become interested in how interpretive reading both reflects and engineers different social, cultural, and even theological allegiances.

Later, I expanded on this notion, linking reading as a social and ideological practice more closely to our liberal Protestant tradition. Reading was crucial to the Reformation, where divine intention was revealed not through the church, but through an individual relationship to the Biblical text. Unitarians kept radicalizing this notion — eventually, it mattered less what one read than how one performed the reading. This paved the way for revelation beyond the bible, and eventually even other books, as nature and culture alike become scripturalized.

Eventually I decided to go seminary. The academic part of me wanted to deeply understand and learn to name the secrets of collective identities — but the ministerial side of me was also eager to deploy our transforming agency more directly in the world.

I love parish ministry. I’m twelve years now at the North Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Lewis Center, Ohio. Throughout, I have been committed to a long-lasting covenant between minister and congregation. I have performed three funerals for people for whom I had officiated at their weddings — that taught me about the potential depth of ministry in a way no other experiences could.

My academic interests continued at the intersections of history, liberal religious communities, and the making of meaning. I wrote on issues of personal belief in the study of religion, and on secularism as the specifically religious outcome of liberal Protestant history, and on the relationships between Unitarian Universalism and postmodernism. Ottoman Studies merged with European Unitarian history in an article demonstrating the direct Moslim influence on the articulation of religious toleration by Unitarians in 16th century Translyvania.

I am currently working on documenting the interactions between Muslims, Jews, and Unitarians in many different instances throughout our European history. To continue this work at Starr King with its pioneering approach to Andaulsian education feels appropriate.

I’m happy to be coming to Starr King — there are so many thoughts that can and will be only thinkable in the context of this community, and experiences that can only be lived together.


Elizabeth Marsh in Berkeley

Starr King Honors the ‘Glorious Messiness’ of Our Religious Heritage
“We have largely imagined that the boundary between East and West has been impermeable, a border crossed once in a while, by a few spectacular individuals or ideas. Yet the border between Europe and its Others has always been more impenetrable in theory than it ever has in cultural fact, lived geography, or in the lives of citizens of border states.”

When I read these sentences from Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, I was amazed at myself for not having realized this concept before. Of course religions and cultures influence each other. It’s not like the national dividing lines on the atlas were drawn on the ground in sticky tar, preventing people from traveling to and fro. Religions and cultures are like the colors of a rainbow: there is no clean division between the orange and the yellow, and between the yellow and the green.

This idea of “mixity” — the idea that faith traditions and practices influence each other’s developments — is exactly what has happened in my own life, though I’ve realized it only since I’ve been in seminary at Starr King and at the Graduate Theological Union.

For most of my life, I’ve been naming the religious tradition of my formative years as Catholicism. I attended Catholic Mass regularly, went to religious education classes from kindergarten to 11th grade, found important social connections with my church’s youth group — and loved every minute of it. My devotion to Catholicism was actually the beginning of my calling to religious leadership now as a Unitarian Universalist.

But as I launched my studies at Starr King and the GTU three years ago, I began to recognize that some of the deeply-set ideas that I was now struggling to release were not from Catholicism at all, but more closely resembled the values of past and present Fundamentalist Christian movements. I realized that identifying my beliefs as emerging only from the Catholic tradition was inaccurate.

In fact, I began to recall those summers in my elementary school years when my brother, our neighbors and I attended the week-long Vacation Bible School offered every August by the Baptist church in our neighborhood. Surely I picked up some specifically Baptist theology there.

I also remembered my eager involvement with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes while I was in high school, and the prayer groups I organized, and concerts I cheered at with my many close friends of various Charismatic and non-denominational Christian stripes. These experiences were just as influential upon me as my Catholic ones. But I hadn’t identified the mixity, the glorious messiness, of my particular conglomeration of a religious heritage until I was made aware of the possibility of religious enmeshment while in seminary at Starr King.

Now as a happy Unitarian Universalist, I am becoming aware that Unitarian Universalism affects and is affected by its neighbors, historically and today. The constant stream of influence is always in, around and through us. Indeed, we are not isolated beings or institutions. And I emphatically believe that we are the richer for it.

Starr King’s place as part of the Graduate Theological Union is an example of these institutions’ willingness to engage this reality of human existence: that we influence and are influenced by each other. The nine member schools of the GTU consortium, the six affiliate organizations, and the five academic centers are saying a wild yes! to the realities of shaping each others’ students.

Starr King’s explicit embrace of multi-religious, multimodal education continues the school’s tradition of teaching with the lived truths of its communities in mind. The religious leadership that Starr King students will carry into the world is strong and vibrant because their education reveals and reflects the multi-hued, blurry-edged realities of the people and institutions they serve.