Posted on May 1st, 2012 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Featured, Interfaith, Leadership, Learning, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology, Topic of the Week, Uncategorized
Tagged with America, Belief, consumer culture, Death, ethics, Faith, Formation, God, Judaism, love, morality, Peace, pluralism, politics, questioning, Religion, seminary, tolerance, transformation, war
Every once in a while, maybe even once in a lifetime, someone comes into your life, unexpectedly, and changes it forever. That happened to me in the Fall of 2001.
By this time, I had already gone back to school with my ultimate destination being theological school. A friend of mine was already in school at Boston University School of Theology and was taking a class with Elie Wiesel. When she told me this I simply asked if I could come and sit in on class with her as a guest. Surprisingly enough, I could, and I ended up sitting in on the last class of the semester.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. When Professor Wiesel walked in the room, it went silent. The respect was tangible. This last class was a wrap-up of the whole semester, but, it was also a time to ask any questions at all. So, people did. People asked about Simon Wiesenthal. People asked about going back to Auschwitz. People asked about what the future of the Middle East looked like. I particularly remember the story of one of his first return trips to Auschwitz. He was walking around the outside of the camp and came upon a neighborhood. He realized that this neighborhood was there when the camp was there. After a while, he came across a priest and the priest’s brother. They chatted, explained who they were to each other, and what they were all doing there. The priest, without saying in so many words, explained that because of what he witnessed as a child with the camp right in his backyard, that is what drove him to be a priest. As Professor Wiesel remembered this encounter, I noted his pain. I noted his interest. I noted his reverence of God.
This was in my very early formation as a student and theologian. I had not been accepted in to Wellesley College yet and my theology was based loosely on what I learned in Sunday school classes. I had a very long way to go. Yet, as Professor Wiesel told this story, I was struck by so many things. I was struck by his decency. I was struck by his honesty. I was struck that he had so many questions. I was struck by his grace. I was struck by his humor. In all that, I thought, Everything I believe as a Christian tells me this man is not going to heaven. Yet, if God had to choose between myself and Elie Wiesel, God would surely choose him. Yes, yes, I know, the Jewish religion has a different concept of Heaven than Christians do. The point is though, is that this was an epiphany for me—this was the moment I started to become the pluralistic Christian I am today.
After class I introduced myself and then when I got home, I wrote Professor Wiesel a thank you note. To my surprise, he wrote back. In my note, I asked a lot of questions, I told him where I was going with my education and that I hoped I could study with him some day. In my questioning, there was confusion. His response to that confusion has been my mantra since receiving his response: “It’s the questions that are important. Sometimes there are no answers.”
Professor Wiesel and I kept in touch and he invited me to come to take a class with him at Boston University, even though I was at Wellesley at the time. I petitioned the committee at Wellesley and they approved, so in the Fall of 2003, I found myself in class with Professor Wiesel. What a privilege. A full semester of questions, few answers, challenges, and thought provoking laughter filled my soul and gave me a sense of hope for the world. I had never imagined one person could pass along so much creative wisdom in three short months. It was almost as if receiving all of Professor Wiesel’s most prominent, meaningful lessons of his lifetime, all in one semester.
While studying at Andover Newton Theological School, I studied with Professor Wiesel again in the Fall of 2006, and then I had the amazing opportunity to study with him for the last semester he ever taught at Boston University, in the Fall of 2010. Both classes were once again enlightening, encouraging, grappled with deep questions, and filled my soul even more. I was officially a Professor Wiesel groupie.
All three courses broke down certain pieces of literature that dealt with faith and heresy, and in the last course, we read only Professor Wiesel’s non-fiction works. What an amazing experience to sit in the room with the person who wrote and lived Night. That day, Professor Wiesel showed us his number tattooed on his arm. That day I will never forget. That day left me adrift in this cruel world of ours, always aware that humans can turn on a dime and hurt another human with no care whatsoever, as long as it benefits them. Yet, I also walked away from that day amazed that anyone could live through such an ordeal that the majority of us will never fathom, and live a life that is Grace Personified. Professor Wiesel’s knowledge is a gift; his understanding, a lesson.
In these years of studying with Professor Wiesel, the knowledge gained and the lessons learned are too numerous to name here, but, the most important resonate with me literally, on an everyday basis…
Be kind. Love as much as you can, even when you feel hatred. Do not ever, if at all possible, be a bystander. Do not forget the Holocaust. Do not forget Professor Wiesel’s story, or his father’s story, or his sister’s story, or his mother’s story, or the stories of the millions of others. There are Holocaust deniers—never let their lies supersede the truth. It is okay to be contradictory—it is okay to stand up for what you believe in, even if not everyone agrees. It is okay to understand Israel’s plight, but also care about, and stand up for, Palestinian’s rights. Be creative. Read. Do not forget that eight words can change your life forever: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” Live and never stop seeking understanding. Have faith. Never do any harm, to anyone, for any reason. I am responsible for the passing of knowledge, truth and understanding. Question everything, even God. Listen.
Professor Wiesel is known to most in the world as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, humanitarian, and amazing author, but quite frankly, this is not what I find most important or take away from my studies with Professor Wiesel. For me, he simply deserves respect and honor for being an amazing person and teacher, who illustrates the epitome of what it means to be a forgiving human being. In his forgiveness, his gift to his fellow human beings is an inherent voice for the voiceless. In his teaching, there’s such wisdom that I will teach and pass on as well. I will pass these lessons to all whom are willing to listen, and also to my daughter, Katy, who has actually sat in on his class with me before, so she will also carry on that understanding as well.
Going back to my first encounter with Professor Wiesel in class that day eleven years ago literally changed my life in many unexpected ways. His gift of teaching, not only to me, but to the countless others whom he has touched with his wisdom, leaves myself and so many more, forever grateful. What an amazing legacy and gift to receive from a simple boy from Romania, who grew up too fast, lost so much, regained his life, and changed the world with his voice and his love of humanity.
This is what I learned from Elie Wiesel.
Image courtesy of wikimedia.org and can be found at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elie_Wiesel.jpg
I am a Theologian with a focus on Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism. I write, teach and lecture on Islam, Christian-Muslim relations worldwide (past and present), Jesus in the Qur'an, Al Qaeda, Islamophobia, and theological responses to terrorism. I have a Master of Sacred Theology in Religion and Conflict Transformation from Boston University School of Theology, '11; a Master of Theological Research in Christian-Muslim Understanding from Andover Newton Theological School, '07; and a BA in Peace and Justice Studies with a concentration in Islam from Wellesley College, '05. I've published with the Women's United Nations Report Network, Onislam, The American Muslim, and The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Along with Palestine/Israel, Turkey, and Spain, my experiential/research work includes traveling to and living in India three times looking at Christian-Muslim-Hindu relations, as well as Muslim women's lives in the slums of Mumbai. I also had the privilege to serve on three panels at the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia in 2009. From what I can tell, I am the only Theologian that is a woman, a Latina, and a Catholic/United Methodist, doing this type of work in the United States. In my spare time, I spend time with my daughter when she is home from college, practice yoga, read, love the theatre, and run with scissors whenever possible. I am also Associate Director of Communications with State of Formation.