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My Multifaith Journey Continues

The multifaith journey is not without bumps. When Bernie left Yonkers, energy for the multifaith House of One People dissipated, although we still had our multifaith Zen group at Mt. Manresa.

It was during this time that I met Devorah Lieberman at my desk. It was the year that we opened our first charter school, Lavelle Prep. The NYC DOE had given us incubation space for the first two years. We were able to save not only on rent but on security and housekeeping and operational costs of the school lunch program. (We still had to pay for the food). But they didn’t give us any offices, an extra classroom instead, so our small leadership team, never more than 6 people those first two years, shared that space. Visitors said it reminded them of Mayor Bloomberg’s open-architecture bullpen.

I wouldn’t have planned it this way. It was thrust upon us, and I loved it. It fit my personality, my style. When I was meeting with guests, we sat around my desk. I would say something, and someone would yell from across the room, “That’s not right, Ken,” adding new facts, and perspectives. Everyone was listening to Devorah.

Carin Guarasci brought Devorah to meet us and see our school. Devorah had been recruited as Wagner Provost by Carin’s husband, Richard, when he moved up from Provost to Wagner President. Richard and Carin were becoming good friends of our school. Devorah was telling the story of her first semester at Wagner. She had been recruited from California and was preparing to relocate her family to Staten Island the coming summer when Richard called. He needed her to start right away, in February. So, Devorah came east alone. Her husband stayed behind with their kids so that their school year wouldn’t be disrupted. Wagner gave Devorah a room on campus. She was lonely. She missed her family. As Passover approached, when she found herself feeling worse, she told herself, “Don’t worry, there are Jews on the faculty. You’ll be invited to Seders.”

But no Seder invitations came. Devorah spent the Passover holidays alone in her room. In her sadness and loneliness, she made a vow. No member of the Wagner community, -- students, faculty, staff, -- would ever again endure what she had gone through. She would make the Wagner campus a place where people of any faith would find a home and a sense of welcome and belonging.

I loved Devorah’s story. I told her about Bernie and the House of One People.

By the time it was becoming clear that our Zen group’s sojourn at Mt. Manresa was coming to a close, Devorah had left Wagner, returning to California to become President of the University of La Verne. But the Wagner Assistant Director of Student Life, Grant Bailey, had become a member of our Zen group. As we talked about the Manresa situation and where we might go next, -- I had no idea, -- Grant said, “I can bring you to Wagner.”

I loved the idea. Devorah’s vision for what Bernie might have called a “College of One People” was continuing to flourish, although the college was still without a Buddhist presence. Grant arranged for me to meet with the Wagner Chaplain, a Lutheran Minister. Although now non-sectarian, Wagner maintains a connection to its Lutheran roots.

“Would I be willing to serve as the Buddhist Chaplin for the college?” he asked. A purely pro bono position, I was happy to accept and to give back. Wagner was offering us space for our Tuesday evening sittings and monthly Zazenkai at no cost, just to have us as part of their community.

Then he reflected for a minute. He knew I was President of out charter school network. “The problem is that you need to be ordained in order to be a chaplain at Wagner.” He was surprised and delighted that I was ordained, one of the few times in my life in my Tokudo proved of practical importance.

The Wagner’s demands on its Buddhist Chaplain were minimal: annual participation in a Sunday morning program during Parent Weekend. One year, I was asked to offer a benediction at a great outdoor, graduation event. Very few students took advantage of our Tuesday evening sitting. Maybe it was enough for the few Buddhist students at Wagner to know that we were there. Once a year, one of the nursing professors sent her entire class to join us on a Tuesday evening. It was their introduction to meditation and mindfulness.

But as we say in Zen, everything changes; and in higher education, change is often rapid. Grant left for a job in Florida. Lily McNair, who had succeeded Devorah as Provost and had become a great friend, serving on the board of our charter network, left to become President of Tuskegee University. The chaplain had changed twice. The Annual multifaith morning was dropped from the calendar. Devorah’s vision, having survived her departure, was finally losing momentum. And then Richard announced his retirement. The building which had served exclusively as a multifaith center was being repurposed. As we sat in silence, loud arguments coming from the meeting in the next room reflected the change in atmosphere. It was apparently time again for our Zen group to move on.

“Where do we go now?” I wondered. One step ahead of the eviction notice, we moved our Tuesday evening group to one of our schools. As we began offering meditation for staff at our schools, and adding a second, weekly sitting opportunity to accommodate differing staff schedules, I wondered if Bernie’s vision of explicitly multifaith practice would take root in our schools?

Our schools were committed to embracing diversity, but the ethos of public education rests largely on the denial of religious diversity. In my growing up, we spent most of the Fall music classes learning the songs we would sing at the Christmas Assembly. Channukah songs were always included. There was an electric menorah in the school lobby alongside the Christmas tree.

We had a Christmas vacation and an Easter vacation. In the name of a new political correctness, we now have a Holiday vacation and a Spring vacation. Religious diversity was always uncomfortable, but it was at least visible. Today, while there is more visibility given to racial diversity, religious diversity is barely mentioned.

Barely a year after we moved our sitting group to Zoom from Wagner to ICS, our multifaith experiment ended. The COVID pandemic closed all school buildings, and we moved our sitting group to Zoom. Only two faculty members came with us.

The multifaith journey is not without bumps. Where will it lead next?

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