HDS celebrated the 2021 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Distinguished Alumni Honors on May 4. This year's alumni honorees are: Joshua Eaton, MDiv ’10; Dr. Omar Sultan Haque, MTS ‘04, MD ’08; Robin Coste Lewis, MTS '97; and Lama Rod Owens, MDiv ’17.
A journalist whose stories have held the powerful accountable and given a voice to the vulnerable, Joshua Eaton is an investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C., who worked on investigations teams at CQ Roll Call and ThinkProgress.
A physician, social scientist, and philosopher who studies questions ranging across social medicine, religion, and bioethics, Omar Sultan Haque is a faculty member at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, the Program in Psychiatry and the Law, and is co-director, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, American Unit.
A 2015 National Book Award winner in poetry for her debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis just completed her tenure as the poet laureate of Los Angeles.
An author, activist, and authorized Lama (Buddhist teacher) in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Rod Owens is considered one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers.
The first part of our annual awards program included a webinar celebration and panel discussion with this year’s alumni honorees. The second part was a Zoom meeting reception that featured breakout rooms with each honoree for more casual conversation.
Be sure to check out the Gomes Honors Friend of the School program, featuring a conversation between Dean David Hempton and Harvard President Emerita Drew Giplin Faust.
KRISTIN PONTE: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the 2021 Gomes Honors Alumni celebration. My name is Kristin Ponte. I'm part of the Alumni Relations team here at Harvard Divinity School and I have the great privilege of getting us started today. And so with that, I'd like to turn it over to this year's chair of the Alumni Council, Bjorn Sorensen. Bjorn, take it away.
BJORN SORENSON: Thanks, Kristin. Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our Gomes Honors celebration. We are so grateful to have this opportunity to gather virtually again this year that we look forward to seeing each other in person and in real life-- IRL-- on campus as soon as it's safe to do so. My name is Bjorn Sorensen, and I'm a 2002 graduate of the MTS program at Harvard Divinity School.
I'm also honored to serve as the chairperson of the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council informally the Alumnes Council for those wishing to be a bit more inclusive and to conjugate less Latin. The Council is a diverse body of 14 alumni and alumnae from cross-class years and programs, as well as members of, HDS staff student body, and representatives of HDS to the Harvard Alumni Association. The goal of the Council is to promote a mutually beneficial relationship between the Divinity School and its graduates between the HDS Alumnex community and the broader Harvard Alumni community.
One of the great pleasures and challenges of the Council each year is to review and select the recipients of the school's alumnex awards. Typically, honorees are selected using a theme to help guide the selection process. This year, the Council chose not to set a theme in advance. During the past year of intersectional pandemics, no one theme could capture the needs of this transformational moment.
At the same time, the global health pandemic highlights our interconnectedness. The spring and summer of 2020 focused our council's attention on the constancy of racial, social, economic, and climate inequities and injustice. This year's honorees are recognized for the salience and impact of their work in the context of these emergent, complex needs. These awards, the Peter J Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honors, celebrate the outstanding contributions that our HDS alumnex make to their fields and to society across the broad spectrum of professions and locations that HDS graduates pursue.
For four decades, Peter Gomes served as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. I had the pleasure of attending HDS during Peter Gomes' tenure. For me, I always experienced Peter-- and he was an experience-- as Harvard gravitas riding on an undercurrent of mischief. Peter passed away in late February 2011-- just over 10 years ago. At his memorial, University Professor Drew Gilpin Faust observed that Peter was an African-American from Plymouth; a Baptist at the Memorial Church; a Republican in Cambridge; out of the closet; and out of the box.
We'll have the opportunity to hear more from President Faust next week as we celebrate her selection as the Gomes Friend of the School honoree. For now, it's my great pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague, Sahar Shahid, who served as the chairperson of our Gomes Honors selection committee, along with committee members Celene Ibrahim, Rebecca Wilson Stein, and Rick Santos. A deep bow of gratitude for the committee's discernment and shepherding of these honors. Over to you, Sahar.
SAHAR SHAHID: Thanks very much, Bjorn. A warm welcome and thanks to all who are virtually here with us today. My name is Sahar Shahid, and I'm a 2017 graduate of the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. I'm joining you today from London, England, and it has been my esteemed honor to serve as the chair of Gomes Honors this year. This award was established in 2013 to celebrate a diverse group of alumnex for their work as it aligns and fosters in the greater world the virtues espoused by Harvard Divinity School.
We are incredibly inspired by our cohort of honorees this year, for as you all know, our present world is waging a war for humanity's survival against an enemy that has united us despite and beyond our many differences and lines of division. COVID-19 has isolated us in a manner and for a length of time that was previously unimaginable for our current civilization. Yet, amidst this crisis, we have been witness to the dawn of new leadership in our nation which breaks ties with centuries-old marginal racism.
Plus, after a short, but long, 244 years, our countrymen, yet again, find ourselves standing at the preliminary periphery of a new world jostling to find stability of life and liberty redefined. For our part, as the Gomes Honors Committee, we have endeavored to face these developing complexities by illuminating honorees whose work ethic has harmonized to these multifarious humanitarian needs. Robin, Omar, Joshua, and Rod are all exemplary disseminators of love, healing, justice, and equality-- Values that are inextricably interwoven within the legacy of Peter Gomes.
Before I introduce our stellar panel of honorees, I would like to briefly walk you through our meticulous process of choosing them and giving a much deserved recognition to all the players who have made our gathering today possible. The committee's work begins once the nominations come in. The range of this changes year to year, but can go into the hundreds. We spend lengthy weeks and months delving deep into the individuals before us for consideration, giving great care to each nominee's service and striving always to support authenticity, diversity, and inclusion.
As diversity and pluralism are both backbone principles of Harvard Divinity School with a constant gaze on progression of inclusivity, they seamlessly serve as the compass for our work. We, the committee, are indebted with gratitude to our chair, Bjorn Sorensen, for his intuitive and innovative leadership in these transfiguring times. His guidance and confident optimism paved the way for this year's emergent group around voice in the public sphere.
Thank you, also to Anissa Conner, Kristen Ponte, and the rest of the HDS development and communications teams for their devotion to supporting our work and creating continuous avenues of ease. And most profoundly, much, much gratitude to my fellows on the committee-- Celene, Rebecca, and Rick for their dedication of time and alacrity of mind. This year's selection is truly a testament to the reservoirs of wisdom within each of you. Thank you.
Our honorees this year are Robin Coste Lewis, MTS '97. She's an American poet known for her debut poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, the first time a poetry debut by an African-American has ever won the prize in the National Book Foundation's history, and the first time any debut have won the award since 1974. She is also one of the recipients of the 2018 Women of the Year Award. As poet laureate for the city of Los Angeles she delivered poetry to so many people amid fires, COVID, and Trump. Her poetry has been a tonic, prying open the door to love and justice very much a hallmark of the teachings at HDS.
Omar Sultan Haque, MTS '04, MD '08. Omar is the founder and medical director of Dignity Brain Health based in Boston, MA. As a psychiatrist, Omar attends to the well-being of the most vulnerable. As a teacher and scholar, he conveys ideas that matter across avenues. As a mensch, he embodies relentless, openness, engagement, and kindness. Animated by love of God and humanity, and care for human thriving, he's a giant of a man. In countless ways and on a daily basis, Omar bridges disciplines, practices, and communities. His ongoing interest in Holocaust memory fields his focus on prevention of dehumanization in medicine and beyond.
Joshua Eaton, MDiv '10. He's an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in ProPublica, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, The Daily Beast FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo News, Al Jazeera America, and much more. Joshua has raised his voice through investigative and responsible journalism on sensitive and timely issues of data security, freedom of information and expression, racism and white supremacy, Islamophobia, and terrorism. His recent journalistic work made him change his online identity for the sake of the safety. All his work has benefited society in various ways and advanced the cause of justice, equality, and peace.
Lama Rod Owens, MDiv '17. Rod is co-author of Radical Dharma, and the author of his new book, Love and Rage, a work that takes a revolutionary approach to readers metabolizing and harnessing their anger for transformation and change. He's also the co-founder of Bhumisparsha, an online sangha. As a Black queer man he offers dharma generously to those he teaches and encounters so they can be free from suffering and heal those they encounter. I'm honored to have attended HDS alongside Rod, and especially Ministry Studies.
And now, I want to invite all of this year's amazing honorees to turn on their cameras and join us.
Each honoree will share a brief reflection and then engage in conversation together. First, to say a few words is Robin, who was also a friend of Peter Gomes. Thanks for joining us, Robin.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Thank you. I'm so honored to be here. I was always taken by how overcome I get with emotion in moments where I get to be in homes, my homes. And so forgive me. I'm a little bit on the brink of just crying.
So oh my God. Hello, everyone. A special hello to my cohort from the '90s. I want to talk a little bit today about the '90s and what the '90s was like at HDS. But before I do so, I just want to say, thank you for this incredible honor.
Yeah. I think I'll start with the '90s before I get to the honor. Because it will help me to stop crying. So the '90s at Harvard Divinity School, my first professor, my first class, Professor Niebuhr stood up in front of all of us.
I don't remember what the class was. I just remember we read William James. I don't remember what the name of the class, but Niebuhr said something that I will never forget. And I use it every day in my pedagogy.
He spoke about himself and that he was born at a certain time, where war and violence was the norm. And that because of the reality of violence and war in his life, that his pedagogy was deeply affected by it. Now, this doesn't sound like a really big deal to us now. But even in the '90s, that was a huge space to occupy to not only agree to one's subjectivity but to display it for all of his-- there were hundreds of people in the room-- his students, to not pretend to be in any way or to agree to the myth of objectivity.
He was always open to us. So that we could also bring our own biographies into the room. And it was an extraordinary way to kick off my studies at HDS, because it solidified the notion that we are history. We are embodied histories, each of us.
And no one did that more for me than Peter Gomes. I was not his friend. I wish. I mean, maybe, I don't know.
Could anyone aspire to be Peter Gomes' friends? I love that his title at Harvard was the very Reverend Peter Gomes which I called him every time I saw him. Hello, the very Reverend, and he would laugh.
I just want to say a few words about him. I attended, though I was there to do Sanskrit, I attended every Wednesday tea at his house. And I attended every sermon he ever gave on Sunday mornings.
And I think what Sahar said was so true about the panel but also, about everyone there. Love ruled the day. It just didn't matter what the denomination was. Didn't matter if people were there to get ordained or to study critically, as I was. Love was the rule of the day for so many of the people, my classmates, my professors.
So I just want to say, just quickly, Stephanie Jamison, who was my Sanskrit professor, Gregory [INAUDIBLE] wife. Most people know Greg-- God rest his soul-- but not Stephanie, because she was a linguist. Challenged us by giving us racy, racy [INAUDIBLE] in Sanskrit to translate, challenging and mirroring our Orientalism by experience.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who I was her research assistant for three years. Can you imagine the greatness of my life and understand how that happened? Who taught me about meticulous, rigorous research, towering, quiet brilliance, and philanthropy. I can't tell you how many times, and I was organizing her schedule, and after she'd come from doing some huge speaking event, they would try to pay her.
And she would say, no, no. Donate it to whatever organization. It was that had hosted her a practice that I try to embody as much as possible now in my life.
Or Judge Higginbotham knocking on her door, and late at night, and going, is my wife here? 10:00 PM at night, we're researching. And so in that way, they both taught me about affection past the age of 30, how important it was to keep loving each other with passion.
But most of all, there was the very Reverend Peter Gomes. At orientation, our first orientation, he outright told us, Harvard is a myth. And we were aghast. We were aghast.
And I realized I think this is why I glommed onto him and followed him everywhere that he went. Because I trusted him for that transparency. Through that vulnerability, he taught me and others that all institutions are manufactured, that all histories are manufactured, that we make ourselves up. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
He taught me about the complexity of contradiction. He was a walking contradiction. Once at tea, I was looking at all the pictures of him with the Bushes and Reagan. And he said to me, he goes, not your sort of people, huh? [INAUDIBLE] unbelievably politically courageous in the '90s.
Peter came out in the quad, I mean, in the yard, sorry. No one expected it. There was so much homophobia in the '90s, as there is now. But it was blatant, institutionalized, completely validated by institutions.
And he came out right there at a huge crowd of thousands of people. And shockwaves went throughout the university. I don't know anybody didn't know he wasn't gay, but OK.
It was so brave of him. And I know Edward Said talks about the privilege of post-coloniality, looking back at things from the privilege of post-coloniality. All I can tell you is that the '90s was not a pretty time, you guys. It was not a pretty time.
And so the courage with which he engaged his outing was extraordinary, particularly as the very Reverend Peter Gomes who had just gotten back from having tea with the Pope. For him to come out so vivaciously was extraordinary. But the greatest gift-- I know. I see that I only have a few seconds, a minute.
The greatest gift that I think I learned from Harvard was to take my intellect seriously. I know that doesn't sound like a big deal. But if you come from a history, a manufactured history, that tells you that your people have 3/5 of a brain for centuries, to have professors that took you seriously, took your mind seriously, took intellectual inquiry seriously, took your passion seriously was an extraordinary gift that I carry with me every single day.
I didn't realize it except in this unconscious way that Sanskrit and intellectual inquiry and faith and African American religious history is always with me on the desk at all times. And so to be to receive this award and that it's named after the very Reverend Peter Gomes, it's an award that lands very deeply in my psyche, very, very deeply. And it's language-less, how much it means.
So hello, everyone. I wish I could see your faces. I can't wait till we party at some point soon. I can't wait to be on the lawn with you. I can't wait to hug so many of you.
Thank you for this deep, deep profound honor, and congratulations to the other awardees. I'm honored to be with you on this occasion. Thank you.
SAHAR SHAHID: Thanks, [INAUDIBLE]. You just said. We're going to have Omar join us today. Go on, Omar.
OMAR SULTAN HAQUE: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for attending. I'd really like to thank the Alumni Council for this wonderful honor and for all of you, as well as the many professors and mentors I've had throughout the years who've taught and inspired me, as well as my family and especially, my wife, the many friends who I met in school at Harvard Divinity School and elsewhere, who have been my intellectual and personal engagements throughout the years that have really helped to guide the questions I've studied.
The Harvard Divinity School's main influence on me I think was to turn me into a philosopher, specifically a philosopher of religion and morality. The main person I think of who had this influence on me was Gordon Kaufman who is deceased and may his memory be a blessing. I believe he might have been the Dean at some point as well.
He really put a flame in my heart for understanding the philosophical foundations of things, of our traditions, and our civilization. And seeing the way that the long sweep of history is in many ways a battle of ideas, and thinking historically about ideas. So I was thinking about what to say here. And I was looking back on my scholarly and practical work in the world, especially as a physician and social scientist.
I thought, here is just-- I've done so many random things. I mean, I'm trying to find threads with all the things I do but sometimes-- trying to connect it to my time at HDS. So here's just some common philosophical threads that I think came to me and why studying at Harvard Divinity School mattered so much to me. And the changes it's had in me and the kind of things I study.
So specifically, I tried to focus my work on dehumanization and stigma in medicine and medical cultures, as well as a recent project I did on why doctors joined the Nazi party, trying to understand what went wrong in Weimar, Germany. So as with many people, I became a sophomore year atheist influenced by a unified and consilient vision of the natural sciences as encompassing all of knowledge itself, similar to maybe Edward Wilson's vision in Consilience, his famous book. I started my professional life as a naturalist, a physicalist, an atheist.
However, as I entered more deeply into the study of philosophy at HDS and later in my doctorate, and especially when confronting existential realities of a practicing physician, I found naturalism to be not only a sophomore year wandering but also a sophomoric worldview, intellectually and morally inadequate for the complexity of human experience and the humane ends we seek. So I'd like to provide two illustrations from those two projects I mentioned. So the first one on dehumanization and stigma, it's kind of an ontological question.
We can ask ourselves, what are we fundamentally? Are we persons, or are we something else? And I found that the naturalism, in some sense, erases our humanity. When I research modern medicine and what makes it so dehumanizing for so many of us, as a naturalist, I had so little to draw on in objecting to biomedicine's objectification of us, its reduction of the human person to an epiphenomena of material processes and machines, a phantasm of molecular motors.
So how could I, as a secular humanist, object to any of this if fundamentally we are wet robots? We are fancy meatballs flying through space determined by physical objects in nature. So to defend our humanity in an age of this kind of biological reductionism creeping all around us, I've found that we need an account of our existence that includes but moves beyond nature's physical description.
We need an account of the uniqueness of human experience that includes these complexities of consciousness, freedom, meaning, transcendence. All of which will thereby necessitate the preeminence of our moral concern for each other, our patients, and ourselves. We also need a description of the vertical dimension of life and not just its horizontal social dimension which can be equally reductive as biological accounts.
So this two dimensional flat stick figure depiction of human experience we get from naturalism, whether in its biological or social dimensions. It doesn't include the fullness of life as we experience it, the 3D cinema we have, the painted walls of our own lives, and the embodied religious and spiritual traditions that represent them more fully. And another analogy, I guess, is we're fully human when we were playing music with all of the octaves on our piano not just those that we can most easily touch.
The second project that I mentioned is relating to how should we live, another fundamental question. And so when I looked at Nazi medicine and how doctors were amongst the earliest joiners of the Nazi party, I really was wondering. How could this have happened? Why would people who devoted their lives to healing, and caring, and taking certain oaths want to do such a thing?
I wanted to understand how they could have come to the point of utterly disregarding human life and valorizing inequality, not just accepting inequality, domination, eugenics, and mass murder, but valorizing such things. So again, an account of human life as a purely naturalistic process seem to make this interpretation more likely, sociologically, for sure, but also, more plausible philosophically amidst this kind of naturalism. I'll be more specific with an example.
So we all know Darwin's most famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. So that's the title you see in your syllabi and elsewhere. But most people truncate, or forget, or deliberately ignore the last part of the title. You can look it up and Google it yourself.
I'll read it here, so On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. I didn't make that up. Look it up yourself. So there is a connection between a naturalistic interpretation of human existence and racism, eugenics, genocide, and even in the title of Darwin's book.
We call that social Darwinism and call it pseudoscience. But there's really something to it for the Nazis and for others today. So you add into that some Nietzsche and flourishes about the death of God and the dismissal of an internal moral law, and include some objections that Nietzsche had to moral equality for the sake of a higher collective flourishing or special community, whether it's the nation, or family, or the Volk. And being a Nazi doctor has a rationale in this world view, in this materialistic, nationalistic worldview however disturbing this is to us today.
So those are two touch points for scholarship and personal study that I thought I'd share. It was hard for me to find an objection to the kind of practices described here without sneaking in some kind of or another theological premise. For example, that humans are sacred.
They're morally equal. They're inviolable. They have dignity and rights. How could you justify-- how can we justify these premises otherwise? Dissect the human body, you won't find any molecule for rights, sacredness, equality, or dignity.
Pick any physical capacity that humans have and try and name it as a basis for our equality, our will, our reason, our intelligence, our consciousness. We will find people who vary in that very capacity, some with more and some with less. Therefore, no physical capacity can stand as a ground and warrant for our human equality. So the logic of the Nazi doctors and researchers is quite consonant with memor-- there's a reason why that logic is also consonant with many contemporary, secular utilitarian arguments.
For example, for discriminating against and killing inconvenient infants, elderly, disabled to serve some greater good of other people or communities. So and I'm working on articulating why this objection works. So this is where I see our great spiritual and religious traditions as being able to offer a reply, a deontological, no. And doing so for not just random reasons but coherent reasons that are grounded in the very nature of things, the very nature of ontology.
So whereas a purely naturalistic or atheistic approach to human life would have a hard time doing so, a maybe logically impossible time doing so. And so in conclusion, I'd say, at Harvard Divinity School, I found this passion for philosophizing about the deepest questions of human life, for seeing the moral stakes underlying our different conceptions of human existence, and the very real ways that ideas have life and death consequences for all of us. Thank you very much.
SAHAR SHAHID: Thanks, Omar. That was so wonderful. I just so enjoyed the depth that you went into about your work. And it feels so much nicer to hear it from your own-- the words come from you.
There's such a lengthy amount of work that you do and the interconnectedness of it. It's nice to hear it from the one who is undertaking it. So thank you for that. Next up, we're going to have Joshua Eaton join us. Joshua, the floor is yours.
JOSHUA EATON: Hi. Thank you so, so much to the Alumni/Alumnae Council. It's incredibly humbling to be here with these other amazing honorees.
I never took a class with the Reverend Peter Gomes. But I was a regular at Wednesday tea at the Sparks House. One particular Wednesday stands out in my mind. A group of us from the Divinity School were talking and didn't notice that the house had emptied out around us.
The tea was coming to a close. Eventually, Professor Gomes ambled over to us and looked over his glasses at us like he did. And all he said was, it's a terrible thing to be the last one to leave. I thought about that a lot in 2019.
The publication I was working for was on the verge of shutting down. It seemed like every other day one of my co-workers would leave for a new job. I got out about a month before the axe fell. Eight months later, the pandemic hit. And my new employer laid off my entire team.
In fact, over my nine years in journalism, two other publications where I was a regular contributor had shut down. It's not just bad luck on my part. Journalism has been in a historic decline over the past decade. Newsroom employment in the US dropped 23% from 2008 to 2019. Last year, 2020, US newsrooms lost over 16,000 jobs.
The crisis in journalism isn't just financial. It's also a crisis of values. A survey released last month found that less than half the public supports, fully supports, ideas of government transparency and holding the powerful accountable, ideals that are a cornerstone of investigative journalism.
Often, at newsrooms what drives traffic and what drives revenue, it's not in-depth investigations. It's opinion writing that takes a contrarian view on the news or stokes partisan outrage. Meanwhile, the first thing to get cut when profit margins are thin, and they're thin everywhere, it's often the hard, boring work of watchdog reporting.
Now, given all that, people sometimes ask why I stay in journalism. I sometimes ask myself. The only answer I have is that it's what I'm meant to do. It's my vocation, my calling.
I learned that at Harvard Divinity School from ministry studies, from meaning making, from theological reflection during my field ed, and from conversations with my classmates. It's also what makes HDS unique and important at a place like Harvard. I don't want to sugarcoat it. The Divinity School can be just as wrapped up in power, privilege, and prestige as the rest of Harvard. And it still has plenty of work to do.
But at its best, HDS is a living sign that money, popularity, and prestige aren't the only or even the most important measures of value. It's a sign that truth, veritas, can be its own reward. That's what the Divinity School left me with. And it's what I want to leave you with today.
I'd like to close by acknowledging some people who aren't here. First is my Harvard Divinity School advisor, Professor Anne Monius, a brilliant scholar of Hinduism and bhakti, and an incredible advisor and mentor, who unfortunately, passed away a couple of years ago. I'd also like to acknowledge my mom and my grandma.
They didn't have college degrees and spent most of their lives working in jobs they hated for not a lot of money. But they always pushed me to get an education. They did everything they could to support me, when I applied to HDS. They were over the moon, when I got in.
My grandma bought like 100 of those Harvard grandma coffee mugs that you can get at the Coop and put them all over the house. They were so, so excited. I would not be here without their love, and support, and sacrifice.
So thank you again to the Alumni/Alumnae Council. Thank you to everyone who's watching. This is so, so humbling, and I'm very grateful. Thank you.
SAHAR SHAHID: Joshua, that was so sweet. And we're so happy to have been giving that kind of space for you. And your work is incredibly inspirational. We're just in awe of the undertaking that you've taken, and the places that you've been, and the brave way that you've encountered these different forms of almost calamities in our world. So we are incredibly inspired by you.
And we're so happy to have you. And we're honored that you're honored by us giving you this award. So thank you so much for joining us. I'm going to now give space to Lama Rod Owens who is definitely incredibly inspirational himself. Rod, all over to you.
ROD OWENS: Thank you so much, Sahar. Thank you to all my panelists and honorees, to Robin, Omar, Joshua, for your incredible presence and work in the world, representing not just what you're passionate about, but also, representing I think what HDS has offered us as well. I feel so overwhelmed.
I like to prepare for things like this by imagining that I'm receiving the Best Actor in a Musical Tony which has always been a dream of mine. But I'm not an actor. So I don't know. I'm just gay, so.
I'm just really gay, and I love musicals. And so I always think I'm going to get a Tony at some point in my life. But anyhow, I first actually want to acknowledge the land I'm living and speaking on. This is the ancestral Indigenous land of the Muskogee, Creek, and Cherokee people, on a land that was renamed Atlanta. So I come to you from my ancestral land of my Indigenous ancestors, as well as my African and Black ancestors.
I'm really so appreciative of all the support that I've been offered to do the work that I do now. I've chosen a path that's been quite unorthodox. I've always been considered a little off growing up as this queer Black boy who grew up in the deep South who became really interested in Black, political, radical thought, and ended up an activist, and after activism, ended up in Buddhism, and becoming a Lama right afterwards.
I've always known that I've had to make the choices to be my most authentic self regardless of the examples that maybe were lacking around me. But one important example that I wanted to offer is the example of my mother, a United Methodist minister, who from the age of 13, offered me an example of what spiritual leadership looked like as a Black woman in the South taking her seat as a spiritual leader in such antagonism. And that deeply impacted me, because I wanted, as I grew older, I wanted to understand where that antagonism came from towards someone who was only being led down the path God was showing her.
And so I decided to convert to Buddhism in my mid-20s, actually, with the help of Joshua, who we knew each other, lived together in an activist community well before both of us knew that we would end up as alumni honorees from the Harvard Divinity School. But Joshua actually gave me a book called Cave in the Snow by [INAUDIBLE] And that book about this [INAUDIBLE] who spent 12 years in solitary retreat actually gave me the vision finally and for the first time in my life to become a teacher in my own right, to take the path into spiritual leadership that I knew would be of best and most benefit to all others around me.
So I went into this traditional training in Tibetan Buddhism, becoming a monk, spending about 3 and 1/2 years in cloister away from the world, away from technology, missing the election of Obama, but most importantly, missing the premiere of Single Ladies from Beyonce. That was really actually the thing that I grieved the most, missing the emergence of Bey. But coming out of that experience in 2011, I was really looking for something to ground my experience.
And I met two-- well, I met one important person. But I came back into a relationship with someone really important, Lama Willa Miller, who at the time, was just completing her PhD at the university and who was an adjunct professor during my time at HDS. But she had been a teacher of mine well before retreat at the beginning of her PhD studies.
I remember talking to her and saying, I really need an experience to ground everything that I've gone through in this really orthodox, ancient tradition of practice and study. And she was like, well, you should come to HDS. And I said, oh, no. I can't possibly get into Harvard.
And then she said, well, you should meet my colleague and friend, Dr. Cheryl Giles at HDS. And so I ended up meeting Dr. Giles. And really, from the very first meeting, I knew that she was my elder. And she encouraged me to apply to HDS and to have her support as I moved into the community after acceptance, to be held by another Black queer person, a teacher at this prestigious program meant everything to me.
So I want to thank her for her support, and for her guidance, and her continued guidance. If she's watching, I owe you a text. You're going to get it.
And so I never knew Reverend Peter Gomes, actually. I came to campus for the first time a couple of months after he passed. But what I felt was a community in grieving. And so I really began to understand how important he was for this community.
And as I became a student and learned more about his life and legacy, what I began to understand was like, oh, he represented the skillful, profound complexity that he just allowed himself to be. And I think one of the lessons that we learned from his example was that you don't have to make everything tie together. Everything doesn't have to be reconciled in a nice, neat package. Things can be presented in this contradiction.
And I think so much of our wisdom and our learning emerges from the ways in which we're willing to be in relationship to contradiction. I think Reverend Gomes taught us how to be complex and perfect but also how to live, and how to be happy, and how to do the best that you knew how to do to help people be themselves. And so I think that I'm a recipient of that spirit, that energy.
So I just want to honor him and remember him. And just like all of our panelists, applaud the example that he's offered to all of us. And I continue to pray that his influence, his impact, continues to be felt from now on.
And so finally, just to close up, I just want to thank so many folks at HDS during my time there as the most recent graduate. So many people have been so beneficial. So [? Har ?] being one of those people in my cohort, who I loved and admired so much.
I want to thank Mark Jordan, Dr. Mark Jordan, who was my academic advisor. I used to call him Sassy Mark Jordan. But he offered me such confidence to be in the world right now. I thought that I needed a PhD to be important.
And as I was going through the process of discernment, he looked at me one day and said, you have what you need. Just go out into the world and teach. And I also want to thank Dean Hempton for his support. I also want to thank Dean Hempton for all the times that I publicly criticized him and the school publicly.
And how he held that tension sometimes that came, arose, in our relationship. And I want to thank him for also his encouragement for me to continue doing this work. So I dedicate this work, I dedicate this time, to all of you, to all of our descendants, to all our ancestors. That we continue to do this profound work of surviving, and thriving, and grieving, and being grateful, but also, being clear and fierce about the work that we need to do in order for us to continue to move through this really profound period. So thank you, everyone.
SAHAR SHAHID: Rob, thanks so much. You definitely took me back to ministry studies. That was so amazing. I'm so glad you're here.
I definitely want to use the rest of the time that we have to get you guys into conversation. And I think it'd be really interesting for all of us to hear from each of you how you keep yourself restored and resilient to do the work that you do. If you could share just a little bit with us, that would be so amazing. We can go back into the order that [AUDIO OUT].
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: I don't know if you all can hear me but-- you guys can hear me? We broke up for a little bit. Sahar, did you call on me?
I heard you say the order back, and then it was just glitching. I think it's my turn. I'm just going to go, and hopefully, I'm not speaking over--
SAHAR SHAHID: Yeah. Go on.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: But Sahar, I didn't hear your question well. I'm really glitchy. I don't know what's going on, you guys. I didn't hear your question, Sahar.
SAHAR SHAHID: I'll repeat the question, no worries. I hope you get-- are you able to hear me now? We just wanted to ask and find out--
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yeah. I hear you now fine.
SAHAR SHAHID: Perfect, how you guys keep yourself restored and resilient to do the work that you do?
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Oh, that's a great question. I sleep. I call it the methodology of sleep. I sleep a great deal when I can.
I don't sleep much. I sleep about five, six hours a night. But I'm sincere about that practice. I also meditate, of course, and all of those things. But I think the thing that I do most of all is I try to stay honest and on my feet when I'm awake with people.
I try to stay transparent. I hate the word authentic. Authentic has so many colonial, vestigial problems. So I don't want to use that word. But I just try to stay as honest as possible and not put on a lot of airs.
It's exhausting not to be oneself. It just tears the psyche up, and it gets in the way. And it's a waste of time, and it's boring. So I think the thing I do most of all is just to try to be honest about the work I'm doing and what I'm thinking.
In terms of patriarchy, and racism, and colonialism, that's really-- that's not that's not a safe thing to do. So inevitably, I was very taken by your research, Omar. Inevitably, if you're going to magnify hate, and magnify xenophobia, and magnify war and genocide, you're going to take in a lot of-- you're going to attract, unfortunately, a lot of hate. And that's the thing that I struggle with most.
And I'm trying to learn how to navigate. Mostly, I meet it with love. A gentleman came to one of my readings with the Uzi in an open carry state.
And he stood in the back stroking his Uzi very threateningly. And I remember the moment I got offstage, I went straight to him. I walked through the audience, and I went straight up to him.
And I just put my hand on his shoulder. And I said, hi, sweetheart. Can I get you some wine? Thank you for coming. And I think that that's something I learned from my cohort and my colleagues at HDS.
And from the different philosophies and religions that we all studied, there was love, love no matter what. And so it sounds so-- and especially when you're a woman, patriarchy's so screwed up that if you're a woman, and you say the word love, people see rainbows and unicorns as opposed to spears and bows and arrows. I'm talking about love as a weapon not love as a cupcake. Right?
It's really important to talk about how gendered our language can be and our responses can be, when there's a woman speaking as opposed to a man. So when I say the word love, I'm talking about war. And love is an invaluable weapon, if not the ultimate weapon, and it's hard.
It's hard. It's hard to love people. It's hard. So I think love is the answer for me, my answer to your question.
OMAR SULTAN HAQUE: Thank you for that. Yeah, I'm happy to go next. And I think connecting the ontological to the clinical, I think of forgiveness, both as an obligation, a virtue, a practice. But also, it's been extensively studied in the clinical realm for treatment of depression.
My clinic call it dignity brain health. It's inspired by the idea of human dignity and from our spiritual traditions. But forgiveness has this ontological dimension in the biblical tradition. But also, it changes gene expression. And there's ways to do it that are more therapeutic than others.
But the key idea is that it's often unmerited. It's not saying something is OK or that it should-- it's OK that it happened. It's a gift one gives to another for the purposes of moving through suffering. And it's a great source of practical living as well. So it's nice when your ontological and practical needs overlap.
SAHAR SHAHID: Onto you, Joshua.
JOSHUA EATON: I don't know if I do keep myself resilient and grounded. I think, journalism in general, has been bad about this. Reporters in general are often bad about this.
A friend once joked to me that she'd just watched The Post and All the President's Men. She said, she was full of journalism juice for her next story. And we said, OK, well, what journalism juice? What would that be?
Cold black coffee, desk whiskey, printer toner, and then you start with a red pen. That's what journalism juice would be. And that's true. That's true in most newsrooms.
But to the extent that I do, I think humor. I think trying to laugh at things, trying to make the dumb jokes on Twitter and not just doom scroll constantly, trying to hold things lightly, and see the light side of things. To the extent that I'm capable of self care, I think that's what does it.
ROD OWENS: Yeah. I think Robin has reminded me of the wisdom of Mother Audre Lloyd, where she says that self care isn't self indulgence. It's self preservation. And self preservation, it's warfare. It's political warfare.
And so when I think about taking care of myself, it's about surviving and thriving and that thriving disrupting the mechanisms of systems and institutions which were created to annihilate me. And in many ways, Harvard was one of those institutions that I felt was trying to annihilate me in certain ways. And so one of the things that I had to really learn, as a student at Harvard, I knew this actually before Harvard. I know it now was that I have to actually learn how to set the boundaries that I need in order to be well.
I say, no. I say, no, this isn't my work. No. And taking that time to rest, to engage in things, to help me to reconnect to gratitude, to joy, to celebration, to laughter.
And I'm really grateful to Buddhism for helping me to understand that there is a greater truth here that I can take refuge in, not just the truth of materialism, but the truth of expansion, the truth of ultimate reality, the truth of wisdom, the truth of joy. And that has all come together to create this care for me. And even more recently, one of the things that I protect fiercely is my personal practice of grieving, to grieve openly, to grieve privately, to grieve for my ancestors, to grieve for my descendants, to grieve for the world, to grieve for everyone I'm connected to, to touch into that sadness, to recognize it, and to allow that sadness just to simply move through my experience without apology.
I don't apologize for being in relationship to the sadness. And this is the emotional labor that I do for myself and the emotional labor I do for my collective. I have to do this willingly, consensually, and consciously. That's how I take care of myself.
SAHAR SHAHID: Thank you to all of you. That was actually really amazing to hear. And you know what? It's so profound, because we get lost, we don't realize that the work that needs to be done, first, has to do with us doing the work of taking care of ourselves, and making sure that we're at peace, and at peace with ourselves to actually go out to the world, and create a difference, and create change that's going to help humanity in so many different ways.
So thank you so much, all of you. Everyone who has joined us, we're so grateful to have had you here to participate, and to listen in, and to help us on our friends here today. Well, our time has run out. So however, we do have reception planned.
So for those of you that have registered, please look out for the link in the chat. So you can just click the link and head over to the reception room. And you will be segued into one of the four rooms with one of our speakers today. And that's a greater place to have space to have conversation and get further information on their work, and who they are, and how you can interact with that kind of work as well.
Please also note that this has been the first part of our Gomes Honor Series. And the second part is the HDS Gomes Honors Friend of the School Celebration. It's coming up on May 11. So if you haven't already registered, please do.
They have been-- emails that have been sent out, and I'm sure there'll be another one that will go out as well. So please do that. We really look forward to having you there as well. Spread the word.
Thank you so much for joining us here today. It's been such a pleasure to host these really amazing and wonderful people. And we hope to stay inspired not only by them but by [INAUDIBLE] from what we've heard. So thank you.