This Sikh Activist Has An Important Message For Muslim Americans

Featured in this piece for The Huffington Post

Thousands of Americans have taken a stand against anti-Muslim bigotry in recent months ― participating in protests, signing petitions and pledging to join the alleged “Muslim registry” should it come to pass.

These actions are critical, but Sikh activist and religion professor Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is proposing another key way for allies to stand with their Muslim neighbors.

Singh drafted a template letter of support to Muslim neighbors, and he’s encouraging allies around the country to share it with Muslims in their community.

“My Sikh faith teaches me to always stand with those who are oppressed and marginalized, especially in the most difficult of times,” Singh told The Huffington Post.

True solidarity can only exist when we see attacks on other communities as attacks on us all.”

The idea came to Singh in the wake of an executive order President Donald Trump signed on Friday and which he claimed would keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the country. An earlier leaked draft suggested the order would block refugees from the war-torn Syria and refuse visas to individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“My initial impulse was to resist in whatever way I could, but then I saw a friend’s tweet about the importance of reaching out to those in our communities who feel targeted,” Singh said.

He decided to change his tactic from speaking out in general, to reaching out to Muslim neighbors in particular. “I began reaching out to my friends in the local Muslim community, and as I did so, I realized how much my small gesture meant to them,” he said.

The initiative comes at a time when many Muslim Americans are feeling more vulnerable than ever. Over the past year and a half Trump has helped foment increasing hostility toward Muslims in the United States and abroad. Hate crimes against Muslims reached almost record highs in recent months, and The Huffington Post recorded nearly 400 incidents of Muslims in America being attacked, threatened, scapegoated, and profiled in 2016.

Trump denied that his executive order constituted the “Muslim ban” he once promised, but religious liberty activists noted that the move could enforce a “de facto” ban on Muslims entering the country and further marginalize Muslims communities in the U.S.

Sikhs and other religious minorities in the U.S. have also suffered from anti-immigrant bias and often fall victim to Islamophobia, even though they aren’t Muslim. 

“We have already seen a sharp spike in hate incidents, and I have personally experienced more bigotry and racism over the past week as well,” Singh said.

Rather than fall prey to fear, though, Singh urges people of all faiths and backgrounds to recognize that “true solidarity can only exist when we see attacks on other communities as attacks on us all.”

Singh said he hopes the letter he drafted will go far and wide and remind Muslims that their neighbors and friends stand with them, no matter what the current administration might try to do.

“Having a critical mass of people participating in this effort would be a powerful way of showing Muslims that they are not in this alone – and, rather, that we are all in this together,” Singh said.

Read, copy and share Singh’s template letter below:

Dear Muslim Sisters and Brothers,

We realize that this is a very difficult time for you and your community. We recognize that there are people in this country who have negative feelings about Muslims and about Islam. We also see how these negative feelings are being used to justify the mistreatment of Muslims.

We want you to know that we do not agree with those who mistreat you. We want you to know that we are with you. We want you to know that you are loved and that you are cherished and that you are valued members of this community.

Please remember that you have allies here – people who truly and sincerely care about your well-being. We ask you to please stay strong in these challenging times and to please take care of yourselves and your loved ones. As your allies, we promise to do everything that we can to stand up for your rights and to ensure that you are treated with the dignity and respect that you deserve.

Thank you for being such an important part of our community, and thank you for your enduring willingness to help work for the freedoms that make our country great.

With Sincerity,
Your Neighbors

 

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For Trinity Professor, Activism and Scholarship Go Hand in Hand

Front page feature in the San Antonio Express News

Even before President Donald Trump signed executive orders last week temporarily banning Syrian refugees and visitors from six other Muslim-majority nations from entering the country, Simran Jeet Singh was already advocating against the policies.

On Friday, the Trinity University assistant religion professor posted an open letter in support of Muslim communities, along with a template he hoped others would use to reach out to their own neighbors. Rather than reduce the threat of terrorism, Singh believes policies such as those directed by Trump serve to engender fear in minority communities.

Two days later, after chaos erupted at airports nationwide in response to the travel bans, Singh spent his morning writing to his Muslim students, asking how they were feeling.

“When government starts implementing policies that target and mistreat people because of their religious identities, then that sends the message to the American public that you can treat these people however you want,” Singh said.

As both an academic and activist, Singh is uniquely poised to speak out about religious discrimination. Drawing on scholarship and his own experiences, Singh advocates against Islamophobia, discrimination and racial profiling, and in favor of religious expression.

Through his posts to more than 15,000 followers on Twitter and more than 5,000 on Facebook and contributions to national publications, he has made himself highly visible in national conversations on social justice and oppression. Last year, he appeared on a segment of “The Daily Show” about Sikhs being impacted by anti-Muslim sentiment. In November, Auburn Seminary recognized his efforts with the Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award.

Now, Singh considers his work more important than ever.

A unique voice

Personal experience and brushes with discrimination have propelled Singh’s advocacy.

The pivotal moment for Singh came after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a student at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Helotes. He remembers the intense backlash against anyone who looked Muslim. Though Singh grew up Sikh, to some, his appearance was all that mattered.

At the time, there were not many people in this area who looked like him. Singh realized that he had an opportunity, and responsibility, to help lift up his community.

“I grew up in a community that did not have its own voice or platform. People haven’t known who we are, and we haven’t had an opportunity really to tell our own stories,” he said. “I wanted to help give my community a voice.”

As an undergraduate at Trinity, Singh established a club for Sikh students. He also began visiting nearby schools, spreading awareness about his faith’s traditions.

After graduating in 2006 and subsequently completing his master’s at Harvard University and his Ph.D. at Columbia University, Singh was asked to come back to Trinity as an assistant professor of religion. He was excited about returning to his alma mater, but his wife had recently started as an anesthesiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College. They decided to remain in New York City, with Singh commuting each week to work.

Spending an inordinate amount of time on planes, Singh has become intimately familiar with issues surrounding racial profiling. Because of his turban, he is consistently pulled aside for additional screening.

Singh is careful about what he does on planes. Much of the time, he avoids preparing for his classes during flights, lest books with titles such as “Following Muhammad” make his fellow passengers uncomfortable. On his way back to Texas in early January for the first week of classes, Singh flew Southwest Airlines, which allows passengers to select their own seats when they board.

He had an entire row to himself.

The Trump factor

Over the last few months, Singh said he has been on the receiving end of more negative comments than he had been in the past several years.

Two days before Trump was elected, Singh ran in the New York City Marathon. As always, he wore a turban in observance of his faith. Throughout the race, he counted four instances where people directed derogatory comments at him. At a water station, a race volunteer refused to serve him water, calling him a “dirty Muslim.” As he often did, Singh tweeted about the incidents. National media outlets picked up the story.

At times, Singh’s social media activity is met with pushback. In 2015, he had just begun teaching at Trinity when the story of a 14-year-old Irving student being questioned by police after he brought a reassembled clock to school went viral. Singh tweeted a photo of himself with a clock.

“Brought my clock to work today. #IStandWithAhmed #Solidarity,” he wrote.

Calls flooded into the university. Some asked for Singh’s resignation.

“It got ugly very fast,” Singh said.

At the time, President Danny Anderson was also new to Trinity. Anderson saw no problem with Singh using research and his own experiences to shed light on challenging issues.

“His goal is not to make any group look bad,” Anderson said. “He’s trying to build bridges through understanding. That kind of advocacy and activism is a great way to think about the impact that a scholar’s work can have in the world.”

After Trump’s victory, students from all backgrounds steadily streamed into Singh’s office on campus. Some were Muslim. Others were immigrants, women, racial minorities, members of the LGBT community. All were worried about the future. Singh tried to offer them comfort, but he shared many of their concerns.

“I’m just scared about raising a daughter in this world,” he said.

Striking a balance

Despite his staunch advocacy, Singh strives for balance in the classroom.

Singh frequently incorporates politics and current events into his discussion, something that makes his syllabus and course planning more fluid. He strives to broaden the minds of his students and their understanding of stereotypes. But he is careful not to let his political opinions impact his teaching. Last semester, he said he made sure that students who supported Trump had as much of an opportunity to speak as those who didn’t.

“Even though we read, we focused a lot on relating it to now,” said freshman Arisha Ali, who took Singh’s class on the Qur’an last semester and is now in his Sikhism class, one of three such courses being offered at colleges nationwide this semester.

During the first day of his Qur’an class this semester, Singh walked up to the whiteboard and created headings for two lists. The first included what his students knew about Islam. The second detailed the perceptions they had heard about the religion.

The second column was soon filled with negative words: violent, misogynistic, terrorism, ISIS. In this class, Singh told students, they would constantly question perceptions, both their own and those of others. They would delve into why and how those words became associated with the religion.

Two weeks later, the class would discuss the visibility of Muslim voices at the presidential inauguration and the women’s marches.

“My role in the classroom, I think, is to push for critical thinking and to push for as much open dialogue as we can manage,” Singh said.

 

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A Lesson Learned the Hard Way: Not Every Clean, Late-Model Sedan Is an Uber

Quoted in this piece by The Wall Street Journal

Musical duo Lexie Jay and Jon Fedorsen had pulled over to check driving directions in downtown Toronto, when two well-dressed strangers opened the hatchback of the band’s SUV and started loading their luggage into the trunk.
Ms. Jay turned around to ask what they were doing, “and they said, with confidence, that they would like to go to the airport,” she recalled. Realizing they must have mistaken their vehicle for a ride-hailing service, Ms. Jay laughed.
The would-be passengers were mortified. “They awkwardly began to extract their oversize bags from the trunk, exclaiming, ‘Sorry, We thought you were our Uber!’” Ms. Jay said.
Ride-hailing vehicles have become ubiquitous in cities around the world, increasing the odds of mistaken encounters between prospective passengers and unsuspecting everyday drivers.
Today, Uber counts more than 1.5 million drivers in its global fleet, while Lyft has about 700,000. The drivers, who get connected through a smartphone app to passengers seeking rides, use their personal vehicles to transport those riders.
That means most Uber and Lyft vehicles look like regular cars on the road, so just about anyone can pass for a ride—though drivers in newer-model hatchbacks, sedans and midlevel SUVs appear most at risk.
After emceeing and performing a 15-minute set at Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, comedian Derek Henkels retrieved his black minivan and doubled back to pick up fellow comedian Tracey Ashley, who had headlined the evening.
But when he pulled up to Acme’s crowded entrance, a couple he didn’t know started yanking on the backdoor handles and knocking on the passenger-side window.
Mr. Henkels shook his head politely to shoo them away but they only became more persistent, and he started to wonder why they didn’t recognize him from his appearances several times on stage throughout the night.
“Maybe what I do is not that important,” he said, reflecting on the incident. “I’d probably do better as an Uber driver.”
Eventually he pointed to a similar minivan up the street and the couple moved on.
Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor who lives in New York City, said he was waiting for his wife and daughter outside their building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when an older couple got in the back seat.
“I said, ‘I’m not an Uber driver,’ and they were really confused,” the 32-year-old Mr. Singh recalled. “Then the woman said, ‘Well, we really need to go here, can you take us anyway? We’ll pay you.”
Mr. Singh, who is a Sikh, said it wasn’t the first time he has been mistaken for a ride-hailing driver and he figures it’s at least partly because he wears a turban.
“So many taxi drivers in New York are immigrants and a lot are Sikhs,” said Mr. Singh, who was born and raised in Texas.
He said many of his South Asian and Sikh friends have had the same experience, which has become a running joke.
“At least once a week or so I’ll see a post from a friend on Facebook or Twitter saying, ‘I’ve been confused for an Uber driver again!’” he said, adding that when he mentioned this particular experience to friends, a few joked that he “should have asked how much they were willing to pay.”
For those on the other side of a mistaken ride-hailing connection, the experience can be equally jarring.
Cameron Fox-Revett, a songwriter in Toronto, recalled an early morning last fall when he ordered an Uber to drive him to the recording studio. Wearing noise-canceling headphones, as he often does, Mr. Fox-Revett walked out of his apartment, spotted a Honda Civic parked with headlights on and assumed it was his ride.
It wasn’t until he’d finished loading his heavy recording equipment, including a large microphone and stand into the back seat, that he noticed the agitated driver waving his hands and asking what he was doing.
The driver was “horrified,” he said. “It was a cocktail of emotions.”
Adding to the awkwardness of the moment, after unloading his equipment Mr. Fox-Revett had to wait another four minutes for the ride he’d actually ordered to appear—all while trying to avoid making further eye contact with the Civic driver.
Representatives from Uber and Lyft said riders must remember to check a car’s license-plate number, make and model, and to confirm the driver’s name before getting into any ride-hailing car. Both apps provide that information to the rider as soon as a driver accepts their ride request.
“You technically should be looking at the app before you get into a car,” said Alexandra LaManna, a spokeswoman for Lyft.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Uber, advises passengers that getting into cars with drivers that haven’t been vetted by the company could be dangerous.
She also has advice for non-Uber drivers set upon by would-be customers:  “Just politely let the passenger know that you’re not with Uber.”
In a few cities the services recently started using lighted placards—which drivers attach to their windshields—that change colors to match the display in the passenger’s app, making it easier to identify which ride is theirs on a crowded street. Both companies are providing the devices to drivers free of charge.
Not every unwitting rendezvous ends poorly.
Josh Aldrete, a junior at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, had parked his Toyota Prius in a lot on campus before his macroeconomics class when he heard someone open the back door. He thought it might be a friend playing a joke until he heard a young woman’s voice asking if he was ready to go.
Mr. Aldrete laughed and explained to the freshman student that he wasn’t a ride-hailing driver. But when she started collecting her things to leave, he gave it a second thought and offered to take her wherever she needed to go.
Both companies cautioned riders not to get into a car with anyone they didn’t hail through the app, since doing so negates any safety protections provided by the companies—such as GPS tracking—and leaves them vulnerable to scams.
But Mr. Aldrete said he was OK with doing a favor for a fellow student. He said he drove her about three minutes to the grocery store and dropped her off. The conversation was slightly forced but cordial, he said, and she remained in the back seat.
Mr. Aldrete said he has seen her a few times on campus since the ride, though he still hasn’t talked to her since that day.
“I tried to keep it as Uber-ish as possible,” he said.

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Walking With Muslims: An Interfaith Response to the Murder in Queens

Interfaith response for Odyssey Networks, co-authored with Jasleen Bawa

The tragic killing of Imam Akonjee and Thara Uddin has deeply saddened the Sikh community. Their murder reminds us that the current political and social climate has a direct and detrimental impact on Muslims and other minority communities.

We recognize that violence like this is connected to other structural violence in our society. We also recognize that the rise in hate crimes we have experienced the past several months is tied connected to the divisive rhetoric emerging from our political discourse.

Now, more than ever, it is apparent that we must hold our politicians accountable for hateful rhetoric. We must respond to such tragedies by reaffirming our values and principles. We must stand strong together, united and in solidarity. We must remain vigilant but not be fearful. And most of all, we must respond to such acts of hate with unwavering love.

We are all here, standing with you – as allies, as support systems, as fellow human beings. As Sikhs, we affirm that we are all in this together and that we will stand up for your right to practice religion freely in this country.

 

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Developing A Religious Diversity Profile Of San Antonio

Included in feature by Trinity University

Rising sophomore Benjamin Collinger ‘19 has been tasked with “Developing a Religious Diversity Profile of San Antonio,” which also is serving as the title of his research funded by the Mellon Initiative. Collinger’s research advisor, religion professor Simran Jeet Singh, said the inspiration for the project formed in collaboration with the city of San Antonio’s Diversity and Inclusion Office (DIO). While policymakers recognize that San Antonio has a great deal of religious diversity, they aren’t familiar with the wide array of communities and their leaders. This project gathered qualitative data on San Antonio’s faith communities and built relationships local leaders. This effort is particularly important because diversity practitioners “can’t address major issues until we understand what San Antonio really looks like,” Singh said.

Benjamin Collinger ’19 attends and interfaith dialogue event at the Oblate School of Theology.
Collinger spent the majority of the summer conducting interviews and attending interfaith gatherings across the city. He began with a small list of contacts compiled by the DIO, and gradually grew the list to reflect a broader swathe of San Antonio’s faith communities and collective efforts. In addition, Collinger read prominent works on diversity and inclusion to incorporate the ideas into the project, which culminates in a paper and public report on how the city can be more proactive in including religious minority groups.

When asked about the importance of this research, Singh and Collinger agreed that it has never been more relevant. They explain that faith communities are often the most active vehicles for their constituents’ civic involvement and impact all sectors of our city. Stronger relationships with local religious leaders and communities help the government to uphold its non-discrimination ordinance and inform its efforts to proactively end institutional discrimination within government and around the city.

Collinger plans on studying anthropology and international studies during his time at Trinity.
The experience allowed Collinger to engage with local leaders at the intersection of his interests in government, religion and diversity and inclusion practices. One series of events that were particularly significant to Collinger were the Iftars that took place at the Raindrop Turkish House and houses of worship across the city. At one of these programs, Collinger interviewed an Imam in Spanish about San Antonio’s inclusion of Turkish Muslims and a variety of topics related to Latin America and Islam.

Collinger was quick to note his appreciation for Trinity’s dedication to research and the Mellon Initiative. He hopes to continue this project and see the city implement its suggestions to proactively further anti-discrimination efforts as well as diversity and inclusion programming.

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Hijabs and Turbans Are Not a Threat to Sports

Co-Authored piece for TIME.com with Zainab Chaudry

Playing competitive sports is hard enough without having to worry about what to wear on the court.

But when stringent uniform regulations conflict with religious beliefs, it creates a frustrating stalemate that no amount of skill or practice alone can resolve. This is the dilemma that thousands of athletes around the world have faced, including American athletes Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and Darsh Preet Singh.

Abdul-Qaadir made history in 2010 as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) first female Muslim basketball player who wears an Islamic headscarf. Singh made history in 2004 as the NCAA’s first Sikh basketball player to wear a turban in collegiate competitions. His jersey now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum.

But neither of these players had the option to continue their basketball careers beyond college. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the overarching association of national organizations governing international basketball competition, has a policy banning any headgear–including religious garments–wider than 5 centimeters. This provision automatically disqualifies Sikh and Muslim athletes who respectively wear turbans and hijabs as mandated by their faith. The federation says in its official rulebook that such items and accessories cannot be worn on the court because “they may cause injury to other players.”

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Both Abdul-Qaadir and Singh have demonstrated the talent and drive to compete professionally. But the ban on headgear prevents them and others from participating in any FIBA-endorsed competition–including international tournaments such as the Olympics and World Cup and most professional leagues. The professional world of basketball is effectively closed to them.

“Playing professionally has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Abdul-Qaadir said in her petition onChange.org urging FIBA to change its regulations. Fellow petitioner Indira Kaljo, who played professionally for two years in Europe before she decided to start wearing hijab, told Bustle in August: “We are trying to show the world that regardless of our ethnicity or religious background, we are women that want to be able to make a decision for ourselves.”

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This ban does not exist in all professional sports. Another American Muslim athlete, Team USA Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history in August by becoming the first U.S. Olympian to compete wearing hijab. Interestingly, her journey into fencing was a direct result of her struggle to find a sport that would not force her to compromise her mandatory dress code. (Besides basketball, boxing and judo also have similar clothing restrictions). Muhammad has said that she chose fencing because she wouldn’t have to alter her fencing gear to meet religious requirements. Wearing a hijab while competing clearly did not hinder her ability to compete in Rio, as proved by her bronze medal.

No one should ever have to weigh uniform requirements over personal preference and talent when making the decision of which sport to play, especially not when they have dedicated their life to excelling at it—defeating competitors, smashing records and making history. It adds insult to injury to be on track to fulfill your dream to compete professionally at the highest level, only to be told you’re out unless you trade off your faith.

In 2014, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations both pressured FIBA on behalf of Abdul-Qaadir and other female Muslim athletes to modify their policy and allow them to compete.That same year, at the request of the Sikh Coalition, members of Congress wrote a letter to FIBA’s president explaining that turbans are an important article of faith for Sikh players, and urged the federation to end its discriminatory policy.

Read more: Olympic Athletes Put Up With a Lot of Sexist Nonsense

These collective efforts persuaded FIBA to approve a two-year provisional period permitting athletes to wear religious headgear while it weighed whether to revise its policies. This temporary allowance has only been applicable to competitions at the national level, and only after the national federation submits a formal, written request to FIBA. FIBA is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks on whether it will permanently lift its ban to allow religious head-coverings at national, international and Olympic competitions.

FIBA, the world is looking at you. It is unethical and unconscionable to force any qualified, dedicated athlete to choose between their faith and their passion and gift for the sport. Your stated mission is to “develop and promote the game of basketball, uniting the wider basketball community.” The impending decision is an opportunity to demonstrate that this mission is substantive and relevant. It is your chance to foster goodwill, embrace inclusion, promote unity and exemplify true leadership.

We urge FIBA to do the right thing: To block bigotry, defend religious freedom and lift the ban on religious headgear. Pulling these principled, gifted basketball stars from the bench into the game is guaranteed to be a slam dunk move.

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Promoting Religious Literacy in a Digital Age

Originally published in this piece by Harvard Divinity School

 

The Pamphlet is a new podcast devoted to the surprising history of Unitarian Universalism, including its connections to pirates in the colonial era and to Communist spies in the 1950s. HDS alumnus Sean Neil-Barron, MDiv ’15, who cocreated the podcast, says its title points back to the cheaply printed tracts that helped spread religious viewpoints to the masses, often generating spirited rebuttals in the process.

Today, paper tracts can still be found on the occasional street corner, but they have largely been replaced by podcasts, tweets, and Facebook status updates, which can be just as contentious as the old pamphlets. Rapidly evolving technologies, especially social media, have forced religious leaders and scholars of religion to consider the advantages and drawbacks of these powerful tools in communicating with people around the world.

HDS students, alumni, and professors are helping to pioneer the use of new technology in the realms of religion and religious scholarship. Take, for example, the growing number of podcasts; viral videos of debates about religion; the construction of online Sikh communities; the taking of “Tech Sabbaths;” and a book about how best to be a Christian minister in a digital age.

To introduce students to the possibilities and pitfalls of this emerging world, HDS professor Dudley Rose offered a class this spring called “Ministry in a Digital Age.” Students learned the debates around the use of technology by faith leaders and worked on digital projects of their own.

Rose said the majority of students focused on building websites integrated with social media. Some of these web presences served conventional ministries, such as a student advertising his services as a traveling preacher. Others were less traditional: a foundation for the preservation of historic buildings or a therapy business based on spiritual principles.

Engaging discussions

Some of the digital projects took different forms.

“One student, Emmanuel Escamilla, started an organization that teaches high school kids in less advantaged areas how to code, so his project was to build a sophisticated platform for students to remotely ask questions of the teachers, who were often located elsewhere,” Rose said.

Another student, Ariana Nedelman, MDiv ’18, worked on producing a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Though this was her first podcast, Nedelman is no stranger to the world of tech. Before coming to HDS, she worked as social media manager at PBS Digital Studios and helped produce a vlog (video blog) series based on Jane Austen novels. This summer, she was an intern at On Being, a public radio program about faith and ethics.

The Harry Potter podcast is an outgrowth of an unorthodox book club started by Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv ’15, and Casper ter Kuile, MDiv ’16, based at Harvard’s Humanist Hub where Zoltan is an assistant chaplain. There, people who mostly did not identify with existing spiritual traditions gathered to read the Harry Potter series deeply and mindfully, as if it were an ancient sacred text.

“I attended the meetings at the Humanist Hub and immediately saw the potential in how well everyone talked together. So with the podcast, we wanted not just to proselytize but to make it a conversation, like the group was,” Nedelman said.

Each episode of the podcast is a discussion between co-hosts Zoltan and ter Kuile about a single Harry Potter chapter. With a lively, bantering style, they delve into the text by speculating on characters’ motivations, drawing ethical lessons, bringing their own biography to bear on the story, choosing specific characters to bless, and applying spiritual reading techniques, such as the Christian practice of imagining oneself into a Scriptural narrative. In order to widen the conversation beyond the two co-hosts, a voicemail from a listener is played, offering a new perspective on the last week’s chapter.

The conversational format creates a sense of intimacy, which for Nedelman is one of the great advantages of mediums like podcasting and video-blogging.

“You don’t have to be extraordinary or good enough for TV in a vlog, and that’s what people are attracted to. For instance, there’s an emerging genre of illness diaries where people vlog about their cancer treatments or record diaries of their gender transition. It has the ability to open up these experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” she said.

Even as these new media can feel more personal, they invite unlimited participation from around the globe, a power Nedelman finds inspiring.

“One reason I’m in [divinity] school is because of the spaces created by fandom to come together and love something together and discover themselves in dialogue. The general advantage of any Internet project is that you have so many people talking to each other who would never come together otherwise.”

Zoltan was excited to broaden the reach of the Harry Potter discussions, which are aimed at a religiously unaffiliated audience usually defined more by a lack of belonging than by a sense of community.

“People would write to us and say, ‘I wish I lived nearby,’ so a podcast felt like a natural next step,” she said.

The series has already generated an impressive response.

“We get such sweet emails from people about what the podcast means to them,” Zoltan said. “We’re already averaging about 1,000 listens a day, which was our goal for six months from now; so that’s fun. People are responding to how sincere we are in our approach, which is what we were hoping for. We’re trying to model sincerity and love.”

Communicating context

Technology’s ability to unite widely dispersed people according to shared interests or identities is also important to Simran Singh, MTS ’08. He is a professor of religion at Trinity University in Texas, a senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, and a member of the Sikh faith.

Sikhs are a religious minority in the United States who are little understood by the general population and are sometimes confused with Muslims. For Singh, Twitter is a tool with which to educate people about Sikhs and the issues they face, as well as to network with others of his faith.

“When I was growing up in Texas, I had very little idea what was happening with the Sikh community in other parts of the U.S. Now, we are connected in a way that it is almost impossible for me not to know when something is being reported about Sikh Americans, whether it occurs in Seattle, Washington, Texas, or Cambridge,” he said.

Singh also pointed to social media’s potential as a platform for advocacy.

“We are now seeing incredible leaps in social progress—from education to political legislation—being facilitated through social media. For the first time in more than a century since arriving in the U.S., Americans are beginning to recognize Sikhs within the national milieu—and I believe that social media has played an important role in that development.”

Reza Aslan, MTS ’99, is another scholar of religion and HDS alumnus with a lively social media presence. The author of books like the bestselling Zealot, about the historical Jesus, and No God But God, on the history of Islam, Aslan comments on religious topics and current events through his Twitter account, which has 182,000 followers.

“I think what Twitter allows is for public thinkers to build a kind of brand, so that whenever events take place around the world that fall into one’s wheelhouse, people can come to you for perspective on those events. This is part of what it means to be a scholar in the world, which is what I think we’re all called to be,” he said.

For Aslan, this calling has led to multiple viral videos of him debating news anchors. In one interview, he rebuts generalizations about Islam by pointing out the religion’s diversity of practices around the globe. In another YouTube clip, which has been viewed 1.6 million times, Aslan explains repeatedly to a disbelieving anchor why being Muslim does not disqualify him from writing a scholarly book on Jesus.

Aslan said HDS is where he decided he wanted to aim for a wider audience as a scholar.

“Social media is like expanding the classroom, except you have huge numbers of students who are looking for precisely the kind of nuance that is so often missing from these conversations, particularly in the 140-character world of Twitter.”

Though Aslan has embraced the platform, he also acknowledged its drawbacks.

“When you only have this limited space to make some grand statement on religion and politics, two big subjects, you can easily be misconstrued, and that has happened to me on numerous occasions. I have a better filter now, where I’ll write a tweet and then say, There’s no way for me to communicate what I really want to in a nuanced way in 140 characters, so perhaps it’s better left unsaid.”

Singh, too, wrestles with this problem.

“One of the most important ideas I learned at HDS was the need to recognize the complexities underlying everything that we encounter. When communicating with the public, I try to simplify the ideas so that they are comprehensible, yet at the same time, I try not to oversimplify to the point of distortion or misrepresentation.”

Ministry in the digital age

Still, the need to engage with the evolving technological landscape usually outweighs the risks, for clergy as well as scholars. Rev. Keith Anderson, MDiv ’00, wrote a book on how Christian pastors can best use the new resources available to them, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

Anderson found that his digital ministry enriched aspects of his traditional ministry.

“I started putting these two-minute Bible study videos on YouTube, where I’d reflect on different passages, and I realized it became part of my sermon preparation because I was doing it early in the week, thinking about the text, and boiling it down to a couple of minutes.” He then laughed, “Which is often the hardest thing for preachers!”

More generally, Anderson said time spent on social media can be a form of pastoral care.

“For me, it’s just become an extension of the ministry I already do, because so many parts of our lives are now digitally mediated. This is a way my parishioners choose to engage with me, and I’m happy to engage with them in whatever ways they feel most comfortable.”

Dudley Rose, however, voiced concern about how social media can blur lines between a pastor’s personal and professional roles. Facebook, for instance, only allows one account per person.

“This is something that works pretty well when everything is going well. What happens if a pastor gets into a messy divorce and he’s conflated those lives?”

Many people also mentioned technology’s tendency to split our attention. Casper ter Kuile, co-creator of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, deals with this problem by taking weekly “Tech Sabbaths,” during which he completely disengages from his phone and computer for 24 hours.

“For me, what matters is being choiceful [sic] about my use of technology. It empowers and allows so much connection, but can be very addictive! A weekly tech Sabbath has been such a helpful practice for me—I notice how much I depend on constant connection. And I finally get some reading done.”

While acknowledging the downsides, Anderson remains optimistic about digital technology’s potential for pastors and other religious leaders, especially as membership declines in traditional Protestant churches in America.

“We need to be willing to fail forward and find our way into what works and what resonates, which is something the church struggles with. Being trained as a pastor, I feel like I was told everything needed to be a finished product, whether it was a sermon or a newsletter article. But I think we need vulnerability, to learn along the way and to share what we’re learning through social media.

“No one would have expected Pokémon Go to be the next big thing, but now churches are hosting Pokémon gyms, inviting people onto their grounds. It’s hard to anticipate where the next thing is going to come from, so we just have to be really responsive.”

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