“This I Believe” Narratives
I believe that at our root we are all joyous, compassionate beings with a natural drive to be loving and kind to each other.
My spiritual journey here at Boston University all started with a question. When I was a freshman I was a little lost, and didn’t know what I wanted to do, academically or otherwise. I had lots of big questions about life, such as who am I, what is my passion, how do I help people? So I did what any college freshman would do: I went looking on Facebook.
There was this little club called the BU Zen Group that met every wednesday night, right here in the basement of Marsh Chapel, so I decided to join them for sitting meditation. As I remember, those first fifteen minutes of meditation were the longest I’d ever sat still in my life. But something about the quality of that experience resonated with me and planted a seed, for here I am five years later and I’ve dived right into the practice of Buddhism.
There was no one telling me how to live, no one telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, there was just a sense of, here, come sit down with us and experience your life as it unfolds in this moment. Find your own truth, then use that to help other people. It was astonishingly simple.
I believe in people. I believe that people love to be acknowledged, that we need to be attended to, and that deep down we all recognize that this feeling of being separate from each other, separate from the universe, separate from God, is fundamentally delusion, and that in reality we have a shared existence. We are not separate from each other, and we are certainly not separate from the universe–we’re very much a part of it! And we create suffering for ourselves and others when we forget this point and start wanting something extra out of our lives, or pushing certain things away. Rather, if we can recognize this shared existence, if we practice acceptance of everything that appears in our lives moment to moment, then we can wake up to our true compassionate nature and help this world.
Out on Marsh Plaza in front of this chapel is a statue of doves wrought from iron dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision of peace. On one side is a quote from a sermon Dr. King gave more than a few times. He said, “Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love thy enemy is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.” We have this legend here at BU that when the world finally realizes this vision of peace and brotherhood, those iron doves will be released from their pedestal and fly off into the sky. I am grateful to be at an institution which has given me the opportunity to wake up to that spirit of unconditional love. That’s not just a Christian idea–all the major religious traditions of the world teach the same thing. In Zen we call that Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way.
It’s even as simple as keeping a smile on your face. It’s the kind of smile that, when you are doing your job and helping others, appears all by itself. There’s a contagious quality to smiles and laughter–when we see someone smiling, we can’t help but follow suit, and that gives us a little bit of peace. No matter what I end up doing after graduation, it has become my aspiration in this life to share that joyfulness and peace with as many people as I can. I hope that as you go about your own lives you can, in your own way share a little piece of joy with someone. Wake up, find your own truth, help others.
As a Muslim student, I’m often asked questions about my views on Islam and the role that my faith plays in my own life. Over the past four years at BU, thinking critically about my faith experience and practicing my faith in a college environment, my own answers to these questions have changed considerably.
I came to college with a bias against my own faith community, and an unwillingness to associate myself with Islam. I had accepted a negative narrative about Muslims that framed Islam as something backwards, dogmatic, and incompatible with American ideals. Growing up in a family in the South Asian diaspora, I had developed an understanding of Islam that was culturally specific and didn’t always accord with my situation as an American. I didn’t understand Islam well, and I was both distraught over my misunderstandings about the religion and unsure about where I could find answers to the questions that I had about my faith.
Coming to college afforded the opportunity for me to examine my faith academically and authentically. Studying, living, and interacting in an environment that encouraged me to engage in discussion and dialogues with students of different backgrounds pushed me to think critically about my interpretation of Islam. As I explored religious sources independently, for the first time, I learned to cultivate a faith practice that both respected and celebrated what was culturally normative for me and was also religiously authentic. On a personal level, my faith has helped me cope with challenges, and it has served as the backbone and motivation for everything I do.
Over time, I also came to understand that integrating into a college environment didn’t necessarily mean that I had to keep my religious identity intensely private. Rather, I came to understand integration to mean embracing and appreciating my own faith as something that could offer something positive in a pluralistic environment. It meant reaching out to different faith communities to change negative stereotypes, to foster love and respect, and to replace mutual judgment and uncertainty with compassion and understanding.
Most importantly, my faith has encouraged me to think about what I offer to society, as a college student. My faith keeps me focused on the ultimate goal of using the skills I’ve gained at college to rectify societal injustices, alleviate human suffering, and benefit society. It’s meant never losing sight of the common bond that we share with humanity, and our responsibility to help one another, unconditionally.
Over four years, my faith has become something much more than an individualized experience. Through working to stay involved in my community, by striving to serve others and build bridges between our various traditions and backgrounds, my experience as a part of the BU community has helped me give depth to my religious beliefs and kept my faith practice alive.
On your way into church this morning, you may have noticed Marsh Chapel’s ornate doors, appreciated its statue of John Wesley, or noted the beautiful stones that create this strong Chapel. On your way into church this morning, you may not have noticed Marsh Chapel’s “Fallout Shelter” signs. Now, I’ve never been too worried about needing a nuclear fallout shelter on campus, but with a best friend obsessed with zombie apocalypses, it’s nice to know I have one just in case.
As one might expect, as a bright-eyed youngin’ from South Carolina in my first semester, I needed some shelter- and not only from the bad weather Boston is wont to provide. I made my first group of friends at Marsh Chapel. I joined Servant Team. And then one fateful day, I managed to land a job at Marsh Chapel. What sealed the deal was the bummy tee-shirt I was wearing, depicting a rock opera by “The Who.” Ray Bouchard instantly became my boss and mentor for classic rock theology.
Again, as one might expect, a youngin’ from South Carolina in my first semester, I did a lot of painful growing and changing. At times, I felt decimated by a natural disaster: College. The hail of homework, the debris of dating, and the floods of friendship. And where did I find myself? Here, in your friendly local fallout shelter.
I remember one particular day, I stormed into Brother Larry’s office, distraught and demanding answers. “Brother Larry, Brother Larry,” I exclaimed throwing myself in his office chair, “I don’t think I believe in hell!” I expected some comforting words, a shelter from that storm, and a “You’ll come around, pray about it.” But no, that’s not how shelter works at Marsh Chapel. No, Brother Larry just looked up and said, “So?” See, here, shelter is not a place to hide from the scary parts of life and growth, shelter is the place that gives you safe space to prepare for those scary parts. Shelter is that calm and gentle question that invites you to sit with your questions. “So?”
Over the past four years, I have come to Marsh Chapel for work, worship, guidance, food, theological exploration, and nap time. This has been my home at Boston University; my shelter. This safe space has made my spirit strong. A young man, whose initials are Dean Robert Alan Hill, once said that “We must remain faithful to the growth.” The patience and gentle questions at Marsh have remained faithful to my growth. I have grown within these walls in ways that will support me outside of these walls. This I believe: Religion and faith at their best, offer not only a shelter from the world, but a place to prepare to better be a part of the world. This I believe: Wherever I am called to serve God’s world, I can go with strength, knowing that I will always carry a safe space with me.
The first time I entered the British Library during my semester abroad in London, I knew I had found my academic temple. Replete with literary treasures—two of the four surviving Magna Cartas, the original Gutenberg Bible, and scribbled first drafts of The Beetles most famous songs among them—and abounding with resolute scholars, vested with pencils and laptops, I felt connected to the whole history of humanity in the pursuit for something higher. The British Library gets 8000 new publications a day, so it naturally became the base from which I wrote my term paper, and in that setting I felt as though there was nothing I couldn’t learn. In that space, with hundreds of years of scholarship behind me, and hours of reading before me, I felt close to God.
I believe that all parts of life can be, well, life giving, and I came to BU (a year later than most of my graduating class because I transferred as a sophomore) knowing I wanted such an experience from my new university. I believe things that are life giving push you to be your best self, achieve what you can, and accept who you are. I wanted invigorating classes with professors as invested as myself. I wanted to be surrounded with refreshingly broadminded people. And, I wanted a connection to a church family, where I might talk about the joys, doubts, and beauty of my faith with people who wanted to do the same. Since the moment I arrived at BU I have been hearing the echo of Howard Thurman, asking me to look for the sound of the genuine and urging I find the things that make me come alive. I didn’t only experience these awe-inspiring suggestions in gothic chapels or studious classrooms, but also in casual settings like Outlook, Marsh’s LGBTQ ministry or around the table of my cooperative house’s nightly dinners.
Occasionally, when I tell people I study Christian Theology and plan to go to seminary, they ask if knowledge of Christian history and teaching is incompatible with my faith in God. To them I say, not at all. Reading and analyzing the legacy of believers behind me has deepened my sense of the divine in everything, and further I tell them for me, knowledge and faith must be fused together. People tell me the Bible condemns homosexuality, and I say proudly my denomination and community affirm the sanctity of human love, connection, and commitment found in all human relationships. And when people tell me they’ve left the church because of its hypocrisy, I can confidently offer my experience at Marsh Chapel as a counter example. In the classroom as in the church, I believe my faith in God’s presence has infused everything I’ve done at BU. This I believe: settings where you feel pushed to find the genuine in yourself and search for the things that make you come alive, academically, personally, and spiritually, must not be restricted to lofty libraries, but invigorate and animate the core of human life everywhere.