In her recent post in the blog Informed Comment, Chaplain Saifa Hussain highlights a queer-affirming and sexually-sensitive approach to Islam in her review of Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflections on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims. As pride month closes, the Scott Center hopes to carry over this energy into the upcoming academic year and build resources for queer students of faith. Stay tuned for updates on this closer to the Fall!
The ancient rabbis, whose tradition I endeavor to carry on in some small way, were famous for spending their time in the House of Study. They valued the study of scripture, which they called Torah, and they studied the laws of Judaism that govern how one should live. They engaged in this study almost exclusively through lively debate, sharing arguments and counter arguments, bringing stories and citations as proofs for their claim. The Talmud, in which these debates were collected in written form, records both the majority and the minority opinions. The laws that we follow, and the ones that were not adopted. All of this is studied in the Jewish tradition to this day, indicating an inherent respect for pluralism.
The rabbis used to say that anyone who does not engage in the study of Torah (the five books of Moses), Mishnah (the law), and Derek Eretz (literally “the way of the land,” in other words, the right way to behave) is not part of society.
Debating this statement, the later generation of rabbis asked, “Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered that action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, Study is greater. Everyone then answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.”
In this chamber you are charged with engaging in both study and action. You are asked to learn, to listen, to open yourself to new knowledge with curiosity and consideration. And you are asked to take action. Becoming informed is not the end goal. Once the experience of your constituents is known, you are responsible to act on this knowledge. You have the opportunity to create real, meaningful change. Witnessing is a powerful act in and of itself, but for the ancient rabbis, and for us, it is not enough.
May the decisions you make today be informed by study: by facts, by information and by people’s real experience.
It is then that the actions you take will make a difference in the lives of the people you serve here in Vermont.
And may this study and action always be joined with Derek Eretz, the right way to behave.
“Chaplain” is a funny title. It can conjure up images of a Christian pastor kneeling next to a fallen soldier at war or sitting by a sick person’s bedside in a hospital — something you might see in a movie about a far-off time. Often, these are limited and outdated images.
Who exactly are the campus chaplains at Middlebury, and what do we do? We raise this question now because “College Chaplains” is one of the resources that is listed when tragedy strikes on campus or elsewhere in the world, and we are certainly all dealing with the repercussions of many such tragedies this semester. Yet we worry that the title “chaplain” itself may be a barrier to some people in utilizing us as a resource.
The college chaplains at Middlebury consist of three full-time chaplains who are trained in and practice three different religious traditions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. We also employ part-time affiliate chaplains in different Christian denominations including Congregationalist, Baptist and Catholic, as well as a Zen Buddhist chaplain.
However, we hope that our religious identities will not be another barrier to seeking us out. We are first and foremost very good listeners to anyone who comes our way. We believe that listening — truly listening — is one of the most powerful ways to be with someone who is struggling. And this is no small thing. We are equipped to be there in this listening capacity for anyone who wants it, regardless of their religious or non-religious background. We each work with students from any number of backgrounds. We are also equipped to work with people within the specific religions that we represent if that is desired. The content of our meetings with students is confidential unless there is imminent harm to self or others.
Our office space this interim year, The Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at 46 South Street, is somewhat far from the center of campus. We welcome you there, but we are always willing to meet students closer to where they are. Please email or call to find a time to meet.
Saifa Hussain (she/her/hers), the Muslim Chaplain and Interfaith Advisor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-443-5983. Mark R. Orten (he/him/his), the Dean of Spiritual and Religious life and Chaplain of the College, can be reached at email@example.com or 802-443-5886. Danielle Stillman (she/her/hers), Rabbi and Associate Chaplain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-443-5762. Find the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at go/scottcenter or in person at 46 South St.
May 31, 2020. We at the Scott Center speak in favor of our full humanity. Always. But especially in moments like this. When prejudice or bias denies anyone of their right to fully participate in society and be included in every aspect of their being without fear or shame or shrinking, this is morally wrong and we stand against it. When this happens, we all suffer. When people are physically harmed or murdered because of their identities, we call this evil. We say no. In the name of our common humanity, we say, no more.
People are murdered every day around the globe for their beliefs or non-beliefs, for their identities: geographic, ability, age, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious, racial and others. Trauma and injustice are so much a part of our lives lately that it seems there is always something to say about it.
Right now in America, however, the reality of racial injustice especially is on full display. The long-abiding disparities are evident everywhere, from the assurance of employment and access to healthcare during a global pandemic, to treatment by those charged to protect and defend, to the enactment of real change by elected officials. And yes, now, even the disparity of access to justice, simple justice, is in full view. This is a moment when the particular disparities of racial injustice and the plight of being black is right in front of us in plain daylight, even while for many it never went, or goes, away. Trauma and injustice of all kinds are everywhere, but right now racial inequality (again) is looming large in the current upheaval.
Right now in America, we all are witnesses to the horrific murder of George Floyd, one tragic event in an irrefutable pattern of systemic abuse of power enacted along racial lines that has gone unchecked and unaccountable in this country for a long time. We can name Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade among others only recently. This is wrong and it must stop, and we must do more than only say it. Speaking up and speaking out in general terms, therefore, is not enough. We must be specific, and so in recognition of this moment, again as a staff:
We acknowledge our complicity when we are silent and should speak. We commit to saying more.
We acknowledge our advocacy for some while ignoring the plight of others. We commit to wider attention and focused action.
We acknowledge our ignorance of the history and current circumstances of black lives. We commit to education and learning.
We acknowledge our distance from those who are in deep pain right now, especially our black siblings. We commit to listening deeply enough to be changed by what we hear. We commit to observing requested boundaries, even while showing relentless affirmation, solidarity and co-celebration.
May this be a moment of acknowledgment. May it be a time for deep reflection and commitment. May we all together be part of change for the better.
The Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at Middlebury College:
Saifa T. Hussain, associate chaplain
Ellen B. McKay, program coordinator
Mark R. Orten, dean, director and chaplain
Danielle A. Stillman, associate chaplain
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe some more. Take time in your day, at any moment, to take ten deep even breaths. Carve out 5-10 minutes to meditate or practice mindfulness or contemplative prayer. Start here, now, wherever you are.
Ground yourself in the present moment. Focus your awareness on something real, enduring, or beautiful in your surroundings. Look up often. Discover the wonder and awe that is already here.
Acknowledge your fears, anxieties, concerns. Offer them up in prayer, if you pray. Write them in your journal. Share them with others. Feel what you feel, honor it, and know that it is not the final word.
Remember you are not alone. Ever. You are surrounded by care and support. Reach out.
Create and sustain community. Show up for one another. Listen compassionately. Practice empathy. Even while avoiding “close physical contact,” message the people you care about. Stand with those most vulnerable and those who suffer the brunt of prejudice and fear. Check in on folks. Call your mother, father, guardian, mentor, little sibling, long lost friend.
Unplug, judiciously. While staying aware of developments, do not let the Corona-chaos govern you, but forgive yourself when and if it does.
Practice kindness. There is a temptation in health scares to view others as potential threats. Remember we are in this together. While practicing health guidelines and appropriate caution, remember to engage one another. Smile when you can. Bring good deeds and good energy into our world.
Stay healthy through sleep, diet, exercise. See healing and wellness holistically – mind, body, and spirit.
Make art. Discover, imagine, engage your hopes and fears, the beauty and ugliness of our world. Write, paint, sing, dance, soar.
Practice gratitude. In the face of crises, make note of the things for which you are grateful: your breath, the particular shade of the sky at dusk – or dawn. The color blue, the color green, the gifts and strengths you have other people in your life, the ability to laugh. A pet.
Connect with your spiritual, religious, humanist, cultural, or other communities. Find strength and solace and power in traditions, texts, rituals, practices, holy times and seasons.
Pray as you are able, silently, through song, in readings, through ancestors. Remember the long view of history, the rhythms and cycles of nature, the invisible threads that connect us all.
Practice hope. Trust in the future and our power to endure and persist, to live fully into the goodness that awaits.
We at the Scott Center are saddened by yet another fatal attack directed at Jewish people this past Tuesday at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, NJ. Our hearts go out to the families of all the victims who were killed and injured in connection to this act of anti-Semitic violence. Please be in touch with any of us if we can help you process your feelings during these discouraging times.
(This essay by Muslim Advisor Saifa Hussain appeared in the Middlebury Campus newspaper at the beginning of the semester.)
You do not have to have things figured out. Let me say that one more time: you do not have to have things figured out. In fact, college is the best time to bask in the unknowing. Your 18 years of experience is being radically challenged with every person you encounter, every academic article you read, every new relationship or breakup, and every destination you visit. You will encounter paradigm shifts that may rattle you, or you may encounter things that will intensify deeply held parts of you. Either way, you are transforming: molting, budding, and blooming. There will be inevitable growing pains. This process of growth can look messy at times. And that is okay ― it is supposed to happen. That is why one of the best things you can do for yourself is to not only understand these growing pains, but hold space for them. The more you can do that, the more you can find the eye in the storm of these next four years.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
There are countless ways to hold space for the growth and the messiness of the “unknowing” that you will experience. Experiment with tried and true methods of mindfulness and renewal such as meditation, journaling, a yoga class, prayer, or just spending time in nature. Pick something that works best for you, and make it as much as a priority as turning in an assignment or attending team practice. Hold tight to it. This, when done right, will not be at the expense of your academic life, but an anchor, and will make you a better student, professional, friend, and person.
Schedule times of the week when you are away from your phone, computer, and other distractions to be present with yourself. Go inward and check in deeply. When you are not doing well, know that there are resources on campus that are here for you. Too often, we hear students say they wished they had spoken to a counselor, chaplain, or mentor when things were difficult, but felt they had no time. In reality, we make time for things that we think are important. Understand that your well-being is just as much a priority for you as your academic achievement. Reaching out to a counselor or chaplain will never be an inconvenience!
is multidimensional and involves the whole person. It is not enough to ask for
grades, performance, and a great career. True knowledge and success
incorporates your passions, your dreams, your personality, your wisdom, as much
as a skill set or being book smart. Invest in your whole self in these next few
years, and have certainty that the return on that investment will be a wiser,
better, and truer you.
May you befriend the deafening unknown and ride the adventures ahead of you!
Your Friends at The Scott Center
We are grateful to Gary Margolis, Executive Director Emeritus of the Middlebury College Mental Health Services and Associate Professor of English and American Literatures, for sharing his new poem with us.
For As Long As You Need Them To
You say your church is weeding
on your knees in the garden.
Listening to the hummingbird
whir her wings. Burying a bulb
the voles ate, when there was a break
in winter. You say I can pray any time
I want to, inside a mosque,
a synagogue, a church. Or whispering
to myself. I wish the clouds would
unveil the sun. God is dirt
you say. Stones, worms
and rain. Every one syllable
word. And longer ones. Say
sentiment and sentimentality
and then say seed, dig and hole.
And come back in, when it rains
so hard, you have nothing more
to pray to the earth and your
mud gods, you tell me, will stay
caked to your boots, for as long
you need them to.
We at the Scott Center are heartbroken and devastated at the news of the senseless violence perpetrated against innocent people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We long for a world in which acts of hatred, that are founded in ignorance about religious difference, will cease. Toward that end we will continue to educate for a deeper understanding of the ethical foundations of Islam, and to advocate for compassion toward all, as our wisdom traditions teach. Our hearts go out to Muslims everywhere.
Outside the window where I sit each morning for my daily prayers and meditation, the birds have been gradually picking clean the tree that has offered them without fail, through harshest cold and deepest snow, a feast of berries. Little red juicy morsels, held out for them, at the ends of a thousand tiny twigs, like Francis of Assisi himself.
Where would we be without the seasons?
Our gospel lessons cautions us against ostentatious piety, the kind of religious or spiritual practice meant to persuade others or even ourselves of our goodness or our deserving. Rather, it speaks about a kind of simplicity, an observance that plainly sounds our true nature and our true need, and that acknowledges simply that source of our most basic provisions—that of daily bread and right relation, of reconciliation with God, our neighbors and ourselves.
Thus is this season of Lent, a time of refrain and reflection, honed over centuries out of an ever-increasing culture of busy-ness and distraction, of rushing and rending, offered to us like juicy berries, our sustenance in the middle of strife and struggle. In fact, not only our sustenance, but yes, even our salvation.
Let this time of deprivation be for our good. Let this short six-week season of separations save us, ever so slightly, from ourselves, and restore in us the joy of sheer dependence on God’s moment-by-moment provisions.
May we feast on God’s goodness even in the barest of times, so that we may be conditioned to hear and see and smell and taste the news—the good news—of life in death, of light in darkness, of feast in famine as the ever so subtle, gentle, and sure turning of the seasons.