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uconn_reads_logo_newThe University of Connecticut’s UConn Reads program has been created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.

We invite you to join us in reading this year’s book of choice and, over the coming year, participating in the conversation through an exciting series of discussion groups and other events and activities hosted by the University. We look forward to what is sure to be a stimulating and fulfilling conversation.


Immigration is the Next UConn Reads Theme (2017-2018)

Cathy Schlund-Vials as a baby, right, with her twin brother and mother. (Courtesy of Cathy Schlund-Vials)

By Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (Chair, UConn Reads Selection Committee)

(Originally published in UConn Today on April 11, 2017. The link to that story is as follows: 

Immigration has been selected as the UConn Reads theme for the upcoming academic year, following on the previous two years’ themes of race and religion. The UConn Reads Committee is now seeking nominations for a book or other form of text on the theme, “The Conundrum and Challenge of Immigration.” You can make a nomination here.

There are currently 41 million first-generation immigrants living in the United States. I am one of them. Although I have held U.S. citizenship since 1979, I am still part of, and affected by, the swirling debate surrounding immigration. Here is the story of how I came to be here.

I was born in Udon Thani, Thailand on Sept. 2, 1974. My biological father was an American G.I. who was stationed at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in the northwest corner of the country near the Thai/Laos border. Although the base is now largely forgotten, it once served as the primary hub for the CIA-owned Air American fleet, which carried out covert campaigns in Southeast Asia. It also included the black helicopters that landed atop various buildings in Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War. On April 29 and 30, 1975, Air America carried 1,373 Americans and 5,595 individuals of other nationalities out of Vietnam as part of the largest evacuation in human history during the chaotic days, weeks, and months after the North Vietnamese overtook the South Vietnam capital.

What follows is a fragmented history of how I and my twin brother came into being. My biological mother was a Cambodian who was married to a Thai pilot. She and her five children had accompanied her husband to Udon Thani, where she met and had an affair with my biological father. I never knew my biological mother, but I can imagine the difficulty of her circumstance. With few resources, enmeshed in familial conflict, and facing the physical reality of two mixed-race children born out of wedlock, she quickly put us up for adoption. At the same time, a mixed-race couple – a third-generation German Scots-Irish American G.I. .and his first-generation Japanese wife – also living at Udon Thani were looking to adopt.

By February 1975, my adoptive parents – the Schlunds – would finally have the family they had spent 13 years of their marriage searching for. Two months later, we left Thailand. Because my father was career military, we moved around: we lived in Florida, England, and Georgia, before we settled in Austin, Texas. In 1979, my brother, my mother, and I became naturalized U.S. citizens. I remember my father telling me I could be anything I wanted to be in the United States, with one notable exception: due to my citizenship status, I could never be president. Aside from that, I was raised with the concept that the United States was first and foremost a nation of immigrants. At a relatively young age, I even thought that my immigrant background made me more American than my native-born peers.

Over time, however, as an immigrant and an Asian American, I have come to realize that while we may consider the United States a “nation of immigrants,” it has also been a country of profound nativism and at times xenophobia. For example, attempts were made to exclude the Chinese in the 19th century, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants were restricted in the early 20th century. In both past and present, the divide between native-born and foreign-born is at the fore in debates as to whether or not we – as a country – should open doors or build walls. On a more personal basis, tensions around immigration have come to the surface in painful exchanges, when strangers have told me to “go back to where I come from,” or assume that English is my second language.

The “immigration question” remains unresolved, despite declarations that as Americans, we are “all,” by way of our families’ past history, immigrants. From restrictions targeting Asian immigrants at the turn-of-the-20th century to contemporary deliberations involving refugee, and from prohibitions involving the undocumented to travel bans against so-called “terrorist” nations, immigration has consistently occupied a vexed place in U.S. politics.

The UConn Reads Selection Committee seeks nominations that represent both sides of the debate and reflect the complexity of the issues. We are open to multiple types of nomination, but are particularly interested in novels, non-fiction, poetry, short story collections, and graphic novels. We will receive and review nominations online this month and next, and will announce the selection in June.

UConn Reads: Seizing the Moment for Humility

A woman deep in thought at the top of a mountain. (PeteWill via Getty Images)

By Alexis Cordone ’14 (CLAS)

(Originally published in UConn Today on March 17, 2017. The link to that story is as follows:

The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.

Since the election, it has become readily apparent that many people at all points on the political spectrum feel uncertain about the future for various reasons. A recent American Psychological Association survey found that two-thirds of Americans including the majority of both Democrats and Republicans polled reported feeling stressed about the future of the country. However, for a few moments, I want to consider one of the beneficial impacts of the 2016 election: during this time of anxiety and uncertainty, many Huskies are seizing the opportunity to devote renewed energy to understanding and supporting the diversity of our community.

At the UConn School of Medicine, where I am a student, we have organized various events to better understand the diversity of our community and what new bills and presidential orders mean for the University and our patients. Topics have included Executive Order 13769 and the future of the Affordable Care Act. What struck me most about these sessions was not the political views, anger, or sense of betrayal that some students expressed, but rather, the willingness of students and faculty to converse about the issues.

Before entering medical school, I graduated from UConn in the Class of 2014 with a bachelor of arts in religion and a bachelor of science in biological sciences. Studying religion and science simultaneously at a public university with such a diverse student body helped me understand why controversies involving both developed. But when it came time to figure out how to cope with those controversies, I realized how faith can be just as helpful as education, because most faiths provide a framework through which to understand and approach the needs of others: humility. For example, humility in a Christian framework can be summarized by Philippians 2:3, which explains that humility is selflessly considering the needs of others before your own.

In other words, humility means thinking less often about ourselves and more often about others. I will readily admit that humility is a virtue with which I struggled on a regular basis, especially as a medical student; it is tempting to sacrifice humility for efficiency when studying or seeing patients. The best physicians are generally able to balance both virtues. Nevertheless, humility is an important virtue that I think should be revisited in America, since it is through humility that we can learn to appreciate the needs and experiences of others, particularly in times of uncertainty.

An important point to emphasize is that humility does not mean that we should put ourselves down or lessen our own sense of dignity. It does not necessarily mean putting others first to the detriment of our own well-being, nor does it ever mean that we should passively submit ourselves in the face of injustice. Rather, humility helps us hold our own sense of self-importance in check, so that we can be aware of and sensitive to the needs of others.

For me, learning about humility has challenged me to understand things that ordinarily do not impact me directly, such as implicit bias and institutional racism. I can only hope to understand how racism impacts others and the nation as a whole if I approach the question openly and honestly, and by listening more than talking.

Likewise, humility has also helped me understand the climate of the election because it invited me to consider the variety of reasons why Americans voted the way they did and why people across the political spectrum have varying views about the future of our nation. On one hand, humility involves trying to understand why people believe what they do or voted the way they did without attacking them. Yet, on the other, humility also involves advocating for justice by supporting marginalized groups, especially when it does not serve your own interests to do so.

Being humble is a lofty charge, but I think our campus is up for the challenge. In 2017, may we all humbly strive to work with and for each other to spread justice and peace.


UConn Reads Author to Speak on Campus: March 1, 2017

UConn Reads 2017 book, Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel on May 16, 2016. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Where?  Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts

When? March 1, 2017 at 7 PM (Signing to Follow Talk)

Sacred Ground Description / Author Bio (from previous post):

Beginning with the increased animosity toward Muslim Americans and situated within the context of post-9/11 public discourse, Patel deconstructs the politics of Islamophobia by insisting that such religious-based discrimination militates against core American ideals and values. From George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr., Patel explores U.S. history and American pluralism through the actions of such “interfaith leaders;” he likewise attends to their lessons of interfaith activism in order to offer a more hopeful way forward in an admittedly complicated and convoluted contemporary moment. As this brief description underscores, Sacred Ground’s contemplation of spiritual pluralism, anti-religious prejudice, and national promise corresponds directly to this year’s theme of “Race in America.”

Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit committed to making interfaith cooperation a social norm by engendering faith-oriented action campaigns and dialogues; most recently, Patel serves as a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. In addition to Sacred Ground, Patel is author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007) and Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action.


UConn Reads: Religion and Inclusion, a UConn Story

A group portrait including six Japanese American students at the University of Connecticut in August 1944. (Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley)

By Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Chair, UConn Reads Selection Committee

(Originally published in UConn Today on February 28, 2017. The link to that story is as follows:

The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.

Sixty years after a Quaker organization advocated for Japanese Americans during World War II, in the aftermath of 9/11 the Japanese American Citizens League voiced its support for Muslim Americans. When asked by UConn Reads author Eboo Patel why the League would engage in such advocacy, its leader John Tateishi responded that it was his turn to protect another community. Patel will discuss his book ‘Sacred Ground,’ which includes his interview with Tateishi, at a public lecture in the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on March 1, beginning at 7 p.m.

Standing on principle may seem, in hindsight, a simple choice. Throughout the nation’s history, many individuals have turned to what President Abraham Lincoln famously termed “the better angels” of their nature to promote the welfare and inclusion of others. But while the decision to be just and judicious may appear commonsensical, such actions are – in the harsh light of crisis – not so much commonplace but rather quite extraordinary, as evidenced by the following wartime account.

The most American thing you can do is stand up for someone else.— John Tateishi, quoted by Eboo Patel

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. was gripped by fear of a further Japanese attack on the West Coast. Just two months later, an executive order issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to contain the “alien threat” from within, through relocation and imprisonment.

Even though the original order did not carry any specific designations with regard to race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion, it was – with few exceptions – exclusively applied to Japanese Americans living in California, Oregon, and Washington. And in the months that followed, first- and second-generation Japanese Americans were summarily rounded up and detained in isolated inland areas of the country, where they were forced to live in harsh conditions.

A group portrait at the University of Connecticut, August 1944. From left, Yoneo Ono (Poston & Bakersfield, Calif.); Ray Cudler, Tokiyi Furuta (Poston & San Diego, Calif.); Ken Nakuoka (Denson & Torrance, Calif.); Richard Pinkovitch, Edna Sakamoto (Tule and Denson); Jim Nakano (Topaz & Redwood City, Calif.); Jean Wengolin, Barbara H. Perkins, Kei Hori (Heart Mountain & San Francisco, Calif.). (Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley)
A group portrait at the University of Connecticut in August 1944. From left, Yoneo Ono (a former internee at the Poston relocation camp); Ray Cudler, Tokiyi Furuta (Poston); Ken Nakuoka (Denson); Richard Pinkovitch, Edna Sakamoto (Tule and Denson); Jim Nakano (Topaz); Jean Wengolin, Barbara H. Perkins, Kei Hori (Heart Mountain). (Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley)

When some young detainees were given the option of attending college (after filling out a loyalty questionnaire) instead of staying in the camps, many universities refused to enroll them. The University of Connecticut was one of 143 institutions on the East Coast – and the only one in Connecticut – that willingly accepted former internees as students. Between 1943 and 1944, 18 Nisei – or second-generation Japanese Americans – enrolled in Storrs.

UConn’s action represented a principled stand, at a time when such an action was highly unpopular and greatly contested. But it would not have happened without the involvement of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a religious society focused on peace and social justice.

While much of the nation supported the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the AFSC consistently stressed the unconstitutionality of such actions. Their non-governmental “outsider” status proved significant during the internment period. Although the first director of the War Relocation Authority charged with overseeing internment, Milton Eisenhower, was quite critical of internment policy, he was constrained by his connection to the federal government. By contrast, the AFSC – as an external interfaith organization – was able to tirelessly and successfully advocate for Japanese Americans and their constitutional rights. Indeed, the AFSC became the primary entity responsible for the phased release of these individuals from camp during World War II.

Japanese American students were included on the University of Connecticut's baseball team in 1943. (Archives & Special Collections, UConn Library)
Japanese American students were included on the University of Connecticut’s baseball team in 1943. (Archives & Special Collections, UConn Library)

Founded in 1917 and originally envisioned as a Quaker organization that would provide conscientious objectors a viable alternative to military service, the AFSC was above all a humanitarian organization. During “the Great War” (1914-1918), the AFSC provided much-needed relief and assistance to civilians affected by the violence and destruction of war. When that war was over, the organization played an integral role in the post-conflict rehabilitation of Europe and the Soviet Union, and also was active at home in promoting improved race relations and advocating for civil rights.

But while many are aware of the AFSC’s more recent reputation as a social justice organization, it is not always remembered that its mission is grounded in religious tolerance, nor that that mission is inextricably tied to the AFSC’s Quaker origins.

As Eboo Patel points out in this year’s UConn Reads book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (2012), a petition in the 17th century for an exemption to legislation prohibiting Quaker ‘heresy’ is acknowledged as the basis for the Constitution’s “freedom of religion” provision in the Bill of Rights.

In the 1940s, at the same time the AFSC was active nationwide advocating for the Japanese American internees, it worked closely with business leaders in Connecticut to secure jobs for Japanese Americans who were allowed to leave camp. And the AFSC collaborated with the University of Connecticut to find a place to study for those who hoped to further their education. Both organization and institution were able to see beyond what was problematic “commonsense” and “common practice.”

This particular history speaks directly to a specific moment in Sacred Ground, where the author recounts a conversation he had with John Tateishi, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. In the days, weeks, and months that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, the Japanese American Citizens League repeatedly stressed its support of Muslim Americans. When asked by the author why the League would engage in such advocacy, Tateishi responded that when it was his turn to protect another community it was his responsibility to take it: “The most American thing you can do is stand up for someone else.”

Read about one Japanese American alumnus, Satoshi Oishi ’49 (ENG), who was one of those that benefited from the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee in supporting his application to UConn:  



UConn Reads: Growing Up with Two Religions

Selected world religion symbols. (Getty Images)

By Brandon Murray, Office of the Provost

 (Originally published in UConn Today on October 17, 2016. The link to that story is as follows: 

The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.

I grew up in a household with two religions. My mother, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, raised my brother and me in the Jewish tradition, celebrating Jewish holidays with family and sending us to Hebrew school to prepare to be bar mitzvahs. My father, the son of two Roman Catholics and the product of a brief stint in Catholic school, supported my mother in raising us Jewish. The rare occasions we went to church were for weddings and funerals – my father did not belong to a church or attend any regular services. His Sundays were spent working in the yard, visiting family, or watching Yankees games. We spent Catholic holidays with my father’s family, and those are happy, secular, memories.

Still, I struggled for many years to reconcile a Jewish faith with a father, whom I loved and respected deeply, who did not share these beliefs. How, then, could I take these teachings as truth? How could I find guiding principles? These feelings of self-doubt and confusion were tested early.

The summer before my junior year in high school, a close friend died of leukemia, and I was wracked with guilt and shame – if I had only been a better friend, I thought, maybe he would have lived.

In time, I worked through those feelings, and I studied philosophy, hoping to learn where I had erred and how to form my own foundational beliefs. I began to explore the teachings and philosophies of Eastern religions as an undergraduate at UConn. While George Harrison and the Beatles initially introduced me to Hinduism, I took courses with philosophy professor Robert Luyster to read The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, looking for inklings of truth in the poetry: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be” (Bhagavad Gita, 12.2). I found comfort in these words, and in the words and teachings of Buddhism and Taoism.

Later, Abraham Lincoln’s use of scripture in his “Second Inaugural Address” (“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”) provided moments of direction. With a patchwork of ideas and philosophies serving as a personal, spiritual foundation, I found relative peace.

When my father died suddenly just over two years ago, we held a service in my parents’ backyard, because we knew no church nor priest. A Jewish funeral home made the arrangements. We held no wake nor sat shiva – prayers were offered by well-wishers, but none were uttered. Instead, we offered the words of Bob Dylan (1997): “I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will,” which some Dylan scholars believe he borrowed from Ethics of the Fathers, a Jewish text: “For against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die” (4.22).

For weeks after my father’s death, I went back to the Eastern philosophies I studied at UConn. In particular, I reread the Taoist story following the death of Chuang Tzu’s wife. When a friend comes to offer condolences to the Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu is singing and banging on a drum. As the friend asks why Chuang Tzu does not mourn and instead disrespects his wife’s passing by playing and singing, Chuang Tzu replies:

When first she died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter … If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped. (Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press 1996)

While rereading these stories, I thought of and read others; and in this gathering of philosophies and parables, I found temporary relief. I was glad I had studied philosophy in college, and I was glad I had had the opportunity to share these ideas with my father on occasion.

I often recall a conversation with my father as we drove back one summer night from Yankee Stadium. I shared the four noble of truths of Buddhism and the “Way” of Taoism, and he shared his perspectives on life, religion, kindness, and inevitable death. We talked about raising children (and being a child) in a home with multiple religions, sharing our experiences, difficulties, and perspectives. We explored our philosophies in an honest and open way, and we left with a new understanding and appreciation for one another.

And so, when moments of despair arrive, I look to many faiths and philosophies for guidance – from East to West, from Dylan to Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God” (Aeschylus, Chorus in Agamemnon). Against our will, we may know joy, plenty, and good fortune, but we may also know sadness, defeat, and loss. If we’re fortunate, we can look to our faith – or the faith of others – to find comfort, if only briefly.



UConn Reads: Interfaith in America

A group of people reading. (Getty Images)

By Frederick Roden, Department of English, UConn Stamford

(Originally published in UConn Today on October 17, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America  as the book.

Growing up in a family where there were multiple Christian and Jewish elements, I knew what “interfaith” meant, at least within the “Judaeo-Christian tradition.” Coming out as a gay man didn’t interfere with this perspective. My sexual orientation was not only compatible with my interest in religion; it seemed central to it.

I began graduate school expecting to pursue gay studies and queer theory, but writing a master’s thesis on Oscar Wilde and Christianity took me by surprise. By the time I reached my doctoral dissertation on 19th-century religion’s role in shaping modern homosexuality (which developed into my first book), I realized that the relationship between spiritual experience and individual identity would define my specialization in the study of culture, past and present.

When I arrived at UConn, I began mentoring a Bosnian Muslim student who was revising her refugee memoir. I continued engagement in my work on Christianity and gay history. I also wrote a generalist book concerning the medieval theologian Julian of Norwich for an Episcopal religious community I was affiliated with at the time.

Transferring to the Stamford campus opened new possibilities. The Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies, led by founding director Nehama Aschkenasy, provided an opportunity to pursue interfaith work in the community by presenting to and participating in campus outreach programs. The Interdisciplinary Honors Seminar run by Richard Watnick offered dialogue with colleagues benefiting our Stamford undergraduates.

When Serkan Gorkemli joined the UConn English faculty, we began a collaboration that continues to evolve. We partnered in the Honors Seminar, comparing Michel Foucault’s western history of sexuality with equally pioneering scholarship on same-sex desire in the nonwestern world. In 2007, I developed a literature course on spiritual autobiography, for which Gorkemli regularly facilitates a discussion of Parvez Sharma’s “A Jihad for Love,” a documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims. Gorkemli recently published a prize-winning book, Grassroots Literacies: Lesbian and Gay Activism and the Internet in Turkey (SUNY Press 2015). In coordinating English at the Stamford campus, it is my curricular priority to ensure that Gorkemli teaches LGBT literature courses, providing our students with perspectives as diverse as those he has brought to classes in Turkey.

Our Muslim Student Association has grown at the campus. In 2015, its leaders organized a memorial gathering for the University of North Carolina youths murdered because of their identity. When one of my advisees invited me to speak at the event, I read from George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jewish community at Newport. He wrote that the government can give “bigotry no sanction” in creating a nation where “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” For the subsequent semester’s Honors Seminar, I assigned Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press 2007). Patel has built the Interfaith Youth Core, which empowers a younger generation to partner in promoting peaceful coexistence.

After eight years of regularly teaching a course on Holocaust literature at Stamford, I am keenly aware of how important it is to respect individual differences even as students look beyond particulars toward universals. We learn the principles of ethical citizenship in relation to the “other.” Religion matters at UConn and in our national culture. Whether struggling to balance a communal and familial faith with a secular American identity or reductively presuming that religious discourse is always divisive and oppressive, the challenge is our collective experience. It is the educational responsibility of the university to create respectful intellectual spaces for learning with and from the “other.”

I edited a volume of essays on Jewish/Christian intersections as “queer”; what do the margins of mutually exclusive identities tell us? This kind of scholarship underscores my commitment to interfaith partnership both inside and outside of academia. I have just published a monograph on modern Jewish identity focusing on borders: interfaith and multifaith families, converts to Judaism, the “mixed.” I serve on boards outside the University that advocate for awareness of religious diversity, just as I continue to provide pro bono support for organizations supporting and addressing LGBTQ people of faith. At UConn, I champion universalism in building an ethical culture, whether secular or religious.

In June of this year, Serkan Gorkemli and I stood together in the sanctuary of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, the largest house of Jewish worship in the world. Gorkemli joined me to attend a Muslim interfaith service and take part in an iftar, breaking the daytime abstention during the fast month of Ramadan. When I began teaching at UConn, my colleague Margaret Breen invited me to share in her scholarly activities on lesbian/gay studies and the Bible as literature.

Today, whether on campus with our students at Stamford, through outreach work in Connecticut communities, or at the different spaces we call home, I celebrate UConn partnerships that allow us to explore religious diversity in American culture. This is an ethical responsibility of the university. Some religious people might even call it a blessing: the work of repairing the world.

UConn Reads: The Power of ‘Amazing Grace’

Flowers spring up around a pile of coal. (iStock)

(Originally published in UConn Today on August 30, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.

On April 5, 2010, there was an explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine, near the little community of Montcoal, W.Va. Officials identified 25 miners who had been killed, but said there was a chance that four men were still alive inside the mine, in specially designed safety chambers.

A desperate four-day rescue effort commenced, in which people all over the state kept their porch lights burning day and night, and hung signs on front gates that said things like, “We Need Four Miracles.” Late on the night of April 9, then-Gov. Joe Manchin announced, in a small elementary school that served as a media base, that the four men’s bodies had been located. They had not been able to reach the shelters in time. It was the worst coal mine disaster in the United States in 40 years.

At the time, I was a reporter for the Associated Press. Although I had been transferred to the Raleigh bureau the month before the blast, I had spent the previous four years working in the news service’s Charleston, W.Va. office, about 30 miles north of Montcoal. Accordingly, my bosses dispatched me, along with many other reporters, photographers, and editors from the region, to cover the unfolding disaster.

When Manchin announced that Friday night that the four miners had been found dead, I filed an alert to the wire, added to the story as it developed, and then, when there was nothing more to do, I went outside and cried.

Saturday passed in a daze of grief, and when Sunday dawned I went to Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, the Catholic parish I attended when I lived in Charleston, hoping for some kind of comfort after the week’s awful events.

When Mass had ended and the congregation filed outside, I saw the precise opposite of comfort: a flying picket from the Westboro Baptist Church.

The tiny, Kansas-based group has become, over the years, something of a folk devil for people who want to invoke the presumed intolerance of Christians in a political argument. With their gleefully profane expressions of hatred, their desire to exploit any tragedy to publicize their loathsome message, and (let’s face it) their genuine media savvy, they’ve attracted far more attention than any group with a few dozen members should expect.

And there they were, three adults and about as many small children, waving placards that said “Thank God for Dead Miners,” “Miners in Hell” and, since they were outside a Catholic church, “Priests Rape Boys” and “The Pope is a Whore.” The leader of the small band, Shirley Phelps-Roper, was wearing the American and Vatican flags as a skirt, with both spattered in fake blood. She was chanting to the tune of “Country Roads,” the unofficial anthem of the state, replacing the original’s “Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water,” with “Miners’ bodies, blown to little pieces,” and the like.

About eight times as many counter-protesters had gathered across the street, which tends to happen when the Westboro Baptist Church comes to town. There were teenagers wearing homemade shirts with messages ranging from lofty (“Your god is false; Jesus loves”) to earthy (“Go home, douchebags”). Joining them were some punk rockers, members of Charleston’s gay community in camouflage baseball caps that said “PRIDE,” and, because no protest is complete without this, a shirtless hippie playing a didgeridoo.

Soon, worshipers from the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church came out from their service, with the priest and altar servers still in their cassocks, to stand alongside the people coming out of Sacred Heart, including the choir, which was singing “Ave Maria.” Coming down the street from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church were some well-dressed worshipers holding signs that said, “West Virginia is no place for hate.”

It was at that point that three or four miners arrived, spoiling for a fight. One of them leaned over a terrified-looking little boy in the Westboro group and bellowed in a voice that carried several blocks, “Hey! You’re going to hell, you know that? Hell-bound!” Police officers shifted their weight nervously, and Mayor Danny Jones, still in his track suit from a morning run along the Kanawha River, stood between the miners and the Westboro group, trying to prevent anyone from throwing a punch.

And then, someone began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Written in the 18th century by the English slave trader turned abolitionist John Newton, the hymn has long become something of a cliché, its title adorning everything from ad campaigns to a DC Comics super villain. But it’s also a song that, in a place like West Virginia, just about everyone knows, regardless of how long it’s been since they’ve sat in a pew, or whether they’ve ever been to church at all.

And so, before long, maybe 60 or 70 people – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, as the old saying goes; gay men in camouflage hats and miners in their work clothes; punk rockers and a church choir; the mayor in his track suit, the hippie with the didgeridoo, and even the police officers – were singing, loud enough to drown out the hateful chants of the Westboro group:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

The mistake here would be deciding that the people singing “Amazing Grace” represented “real” religion, with the Westboro church a counterfeit version. The truth is more complicated: there are real theological differences between the people that came together and sang that morning, which assuredly included atheists and agnostics as well as different varieties of Christian, that in some ways are just as profound and insurmountable as their differences with the Westboro group who, after all, are just as entitled to their version of faith as anyone else.

But to see people who normally have so little in common, whose differences would in many cases keep them from even acknowledging each other on the sidewalk during a regular day, stand together in the street and sing John Newton’s old hymn, was to understand, at once, the concept that underlies so much religious faith: transcendence.

For a few minutes on Quarrier Street in Charleston, W.Va., in 2010, on the Sunday of a week that spilled grief and sorrow all across that little state, that transcendence was real. As long as I live, I hope I never forget what it felt like.

UConn Reads: Religion and the Promise of the United States

 George Washington from the National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans, Vol. I, 1862. (iStock Image)

(Originally published in UConn Today on August 30, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

On July 28, at the Democratic National Convention, Khzir and Ghazala Khan delivered a speech about their middle son, Humayan, who was killed in the line of duty in 2004. As his father eloquently recounted, Capt. Khan was stationed at a guard post in Baqubah, Iraq; spotting a suspicious vehicle, he ordered his subordinates to stay back as he moved to investigate. His suspicions were tragically confirmed: the truck contained 200 pounds of explosives; when it detonated, he along with its two drivers were killed immediately.

Mr. Khan – in recollecting his son’s passing – was quite pointed in his critique of Donald Trump, who just a week earlier had accepted the Republic nomination for president. Immediately following the retelling of his son’s sacrifice, Mr. Khan noted that heroes like his son would never have had the opportunity to serve their country had the presumptive candidate’s policies concerning the wholesale banning of Muslim immigration to the United States already been in place.

The bereaved father then delivered the following admonition: “Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of the law’ …. Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.”

While much attention has been paid to the Khan family’s critique of Donald Trump, and much of the discussion has rightly involved the politics of xenophobia alongside the polemics of Islamophobia, it is Khan’s engagement with religious freedom that has the most relevance to this year’s UConn Reads theme – “Religion in America” – and the committee’s selection, Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

Khan’s invocation of “liberty” in conjunction with “all faiths, genders, and ethnicities” potently and provocatively attests to both the nation’s past and present.

Although it is widely known that Puritans came to the colonies seeking freedom from religious persecution, and despite the oft-accessed First Amendment clause that stresses “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” what is less apparent is how religious freedom played a key role in the administration of the nation’s first president.

In 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, R.I., and met with representatives from many religious denominations. Among those was Moses Seixas, who led one of the first Jewish congregations in Newport. At issue was the question of religious freedom at the federal level. At the time, requirements for citizenship varied greatly. In Rhode Island, Jewish subjects were protected from discrimination, yet were unable to vote or become naturalized citizens.

Soon after that fateful meeting, the first president composed a “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport.” In it, Washington stressed, “The citizens of the United States of America … All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship …. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as it were the indulgence of one class of people.”

Washington’s insistence on spiritual freedom as the basis of American selfhood would take legislative form in the passage of the first federal naturalization law that year, which – despite carrying the problematic proviso of “free white persons” – established access to U.S. citizenship regardless of religion or creed. This particular account figures keenly in Patel’s Sacred Ground, which contemplates through religious freedom, interfaith coalition, and pluralistic affiliation the broad-minded promise of the United States.

UConn Reads: An Act of Kindness

(Originally published in UConn Today on July 20, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

Painting of an attic view drawn by a Jewish teenager while in hiding during the Holocaust. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eva Schloss)

Throughout my youth, my maternal grandfather bestowed his personal philosophies on me through tales of his experiences in Europe. A survivor of the Holocaust, he often recounted life as a Jewish partisan in Eastern Europe, and the kind gestures of gentile friends and strangers who saved his life by offering him food or shelter.

One of his stories in particular stands out in my memory, a story that began before the breakout of World War II when, as he would recall, God gave him the medicine he needed before he was sick.

As a young man in the Ukraine, my grandfather was the director of a petroleum wholesaler, rationing out gas and oil. Once, a woman came to him asking for more than her ration allowed. At first he turned her down, but then – not knowing why – he changed his mind and gave the woman a barrel of oil.

When war came, he was hidden in attics and basements and given food by former employees and friends, and he moved in and out of the ghetto, planning and hiding in the surrounding forests. One day with almost a year left before Soviet liberation, as he and another man moved from house to house looking for safe haven they arrived at a home with a familiar face: the gentile woman once in need of oil.

While she asked my grandfather’s companion to check on her cow in the barn, she quickly told my grandfather that she remembered him and his past generosity. She then hid him in her home among her two daughters and grandson for the remaining nine months of the war.

Of the few thousand Jews who lived in the area before the war, only a hundred or so survived. My grandfather attributed his survival to luck and the reciprocated kindness of friends and strangers.

After the war, he met and married my grandmother, who survived the Holocaust with her mother and sisters in Poland, and began a new family, immigrating to the United States in 1949.

Once their children and grandchildren were old enough to understand, my grandparents told us their personal stories of the Holocaust, hoping that we would understand the power of hate and kindness to do evil or good. My grandfather was not a religious man, and he had not been allowed to attend Hebrew School before the war in the Soviet Union, but he believed in a living God – one who gave him the sense to offer kindness that would save him in his eventual time of need.

Two decades after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech in South Africa at the University of Cape Town, warning the students in attendance against the “danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” Kennedy continued, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

He pointed out that thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” he said, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Near the end of the first chapter of Sacred Ground, the 2016-17 UConn Reads selection, Eboo Patel recalls the actions of John Tateishi, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, who worked to protect American Muslims following the attacks of 9/11 by recalling a sense of gratitude towards the people who had stood up for Japanese Americans during World War II.

“The most American thing you can do,” Patel concludes, “is stand up for someone else.”

The philosophy of kindness and courage exhibited by my grandfather and his protector, by Robert F. Kennedy, and by John Tateishi can be the legacy of America, a nation of immigrants, refugees, and the once- and now-marginalized peoples of the world, dedicated to improving the lives of others, resisting the waves of hate and ignorance and fear, and striving always for a more perfect union.

Brandon Murray is on the staff of the Provost’s Office and is a member of the UConn Reads Steering Committee.

UConn Reads 2016-2017: Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground

UConn Reads 2017 book, Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel on May 16, 2016. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

(Story was published on May 18, 2016 in UConn Today. See

One year ago, in May 2015, the Pew Research Center published a series of reports, “America’s Changing Landscape,” focused on Americans’ shifting religious affiliations. At the time, the Center’s findings drew scrutiny and surprise: an unprecedented number of U.S. adults averred that they “do not identify with any religion, while a shrinking majority describe themselves as Christians.”

Subsequent reports issued by the Pew Center laid bare changing attitudes about religious observance and secularization, alongside the growth of an identifiable “religiously unaffiliated population.”

While many news outlets contemplated and decried a seemingly unprecedented loss of American religiosity, perhaps most telling was a series of facts that accentuate demographic shifts and a largely under-examined spiritual diversity. For example, according to a previous Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, more than half of U.S. adults – 51.3 percent – identified as Protestants in 2007; seven years later, in 2014, that figure had dropped to 46.5 percent, or fewer than half of Americans who considered themselves Protestant, a significant first for this previously-held “majority Protestant nation.”

More and more Americans are “religious switching” between traditions and faiths; and, just as important, while Christians continue to comprise a firm majority of members in Congress, U.S. religious groups and denominations exhibit a wide range of racial and ethnic diversity, consistent with the “changing face of America.”

Despite such diversification – evident in the multiplicity of ethnic, racial, and religious identities that substantiate characterizations of the United States as a multicultural nation – the United States has yet to fully live up to its potential as an unequivocal “promised land.” In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported that roughly 60 percent of reported anti-religious hate crimes involved Jewish Americans; and anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently five times more common than before the Sept. 11 attacks.

As church shootings (e.g., Charleston, S.C. in 2015), mosque vandalisms (nationwide), and Wisconsin Sikh temple attacks (such as in 2012) bring to light, anti-religious bias is often intermingled with profound racism and unfettered xenophobia. Such unsettling religious politics are by no means limited to isolated neighborhoods and seemingly faraway ethnic enclaves: indeed, presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s call to ban the Muslims traveling to the United States has entered the mainstream political debate.

Given the current state of America’s “religious landscape,” it is fitting that this year’s UConn Reads selection is Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (2012). After the initial call for nominations was issued in March, the committee received a number of very strong recommendations from the UConn community; Sacred Ground was chosen after much discussion and deliberation.

Beginning with the increased animosity toward Muslim Americans and situated within the context of post-9/11 public discourse, Patel deconstructs the politics of Islamophobia by insisting that such religious-based discrimination militates against core American ideals and values. From George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr., Patel explores U.S. history and American pluralism through the actions of such “interfaith leaders;” he likewise attends to their lessons of interfaith activism in order to offer a more hopeful way forward in an admittedly complicated and convoluted contemporary moment. As this brief description underscores, Sacred Ground’s contemplation of spiritual pluralism, anti-religious prejudice, and national promise corresponds directly to this year’s theme of “Race in America.”

Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit committed to making interfaith cooperation a social norm by engendering faith-oriented action campaigns and dialogues; most recently, Patel serves as a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. In addition to Sacred Ground, Patel is author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007) and Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action.

The UConn Reads program was created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.

To give your suggestions for UConn Reads programming or for more information on starting your own UConn Reads reading group, contact the 2015-2016 UConn Reads Selection Committee Chair Cathy Schlund-Vials at


UConn Reads Announces 2016-2017 Theme: Religion in America

Launched by President Susan Herbst in 2011 and envisioned as a means of engendering campus-wide discussion and dialogue, the UConn Reads initiative has consistently featured books that both engage the diverse viewpoints of our university community and refract contemporary issues and debates. From Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, UConn Reads has unfailingly reflected present-day concerns over human rights, class inequalities, gender disparities, and environmental catastrophes. Continuing in the provocative vein of its predecessors, this year’s selection – Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow – prompted much needed conversation and reflective dialogue about race, racial oppression, and systemic racism.

Building on the success of this year’s “Race in America” focus, the UConn Reads Steering Committee has selected next year’s theme: “Religion in America.” Founded as a haven from religious persecution and envisioned as an asylum of spiritual tolerance, the United States is not surprisingly home to a number of different faiths and diverse denominations; nevertheless, as the increase in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic crimes makes clear, religion remains a contested and central issue in contemporary American life. The UConn Reads Selection Committee seeks nominations that reflect this upcoming year’s “church and state” focus; while remaining open to multiple types of nominations, the Committee will not consider specific religious texts (e.g., the Bible or the Quran).  Instead, the Committee will consider novels, non-fiction, poetry, and graphic novels.

In the interest of expanding the purview and reach of the UConn Reads program, this year’s nomination process will take place over the remaining spring semester (2016).  The final decision will be publicized the first week of May (2016). Please submit your nominations at the link below:

Please direct any and all questions to Cathy Schlund-Vials (