Saturday, December 31, 2016

I need to see what 2017 is going to look like before I determine what it’s feasible for me to accomplish in it...

Rosa Parks says in her book Quiet Strength: “I find that if I am thinking too much of my own problems and the fact that at times things are not just like I want them to be, I do not make any progress at all. But if I look around and see what I can do, and then I do it, I move on” (as quoted by SGI president Daisaku Ikeda in the Buddhist daily inspiration book For Today & Tomorrow).

I find that I don’t achieve the kind of progress Ms. Parks is talking about by making the conventional “New Year’s resolution.” I’ve always viewed theming my year with a hyper-focus on weight loss, a fitness milestone, a particular financial outcome, or other surface-level personal change as diversionary: The marketing and products created to cater to these resolutions seems designed to encourage people to use them as a defense mechanism against doing the hard, often heartbreaking work of developing the courage and skill-sets to confront and resolve the deeper, darker aspects in their lives that need changing.

Most of my 2016 has been focused on eradicating the deeper, darker aspects in my life, which has made the January 1st goal-setting staple of mainstream culture appear even more shallow and escapist. I’m not saying that no one can open their karmic storehouses and do their most important self-work by starting out with, for example, a weight-loss goal; it just seems that most people who try it only end up making themselves feel more discouraged and ashamed (and thus more likely to continue emotionally over-eating) by tapping out soon after January 1st because it’s too draining and bad for their morale to continue a program that feels like punishment and prohibits them from “indulging” in the enjoyment of food and relaxation.

I find that it’s the hardest to address surface-level problems such as excess weight, lack of energy for being productive on any of my own stuff after a long work-week, or financial deficits when the deeper stuff is taking up a lot of my energy; this is why I’ve struggled so much with all three of the above this year, and it is also the real reason why most people “fail” in their New Year’s resolution.

So, regardless of if doing so would be a great way for some people to focus and move their lives forward in the directions they want, I can’t bring myself today to tell myself that in 2017 I’m going to lose # amount of pounds, or be more productive # amount of hours per week, and set a savings goal of $#.

I had no idea how sick I would be this year, how much death and mourning I would experience this year, and how many emotional lows I would experience this year, or how all of this would inhibit my ability to focus enough energy toward achieving financial and freelance goals I had set for myself. I’m not feeling doom-and-gloom about it, but I am viewing 2017 as more of a chaos-factor than something I can clearly envision and control through my goal-setting.

It’s possible I might change my mind and approach later; right now, this is where I’m at.

After saying all that, I can see now I do sort-of have a New Year’s Resolution: Develop more self-compassion to allow me to heal in the ways I need to heal in order for me to be able to accomplish any health, financial, productivity, or relationship changes I want to see in my life in 2017 and beyond.

Daisaku Ikeda reminds us that our human lifetimes on this planet are short, and this is why it is important for us to ask ourselves “what [we] can do for those who are suffering, what [we] can do to resolve the contradictions that plague society and to boldly take on these great challenges.”

This includes having compassion for and taking action to resolve our own suffering as well. It does no good to give all our kosen-rufu efforts to other people while considering our own human revolution only a by-product of the process.

We can’t give to others from an empty storehouse.

Image: “A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker on blendable marker paper. (Note: This drawing is named after one of Nichiren Daishonin's writings)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Who we and our families are now is more important than where our families came from

During my first trip to Lititz, Pennsylvania, nine years ago with Granddaddy Huber and family, I was so excited to see tangible proof of our ancestry, when I didn’t think any such evidence of any of my families of origin existed. My ancestors hail from a few different European nations and one Native American tribe, and I grew up in a nuclear family with minimal exposure to any relatives going farther back than my parents’ generation, all of whom lived in other states.

I almost cried when Granddaddy showed me the house he was born in almost a century before, and his father’s name on a large memorial plaque in the center of town listing him as burgess (mayor) from 1900 to 1901. In 2013, Dad’s cousin Ginnie presented each of us with a binder she’d compiled of the town’s genealogy through the Lititz Moravian Church, which contained essentially a narrative of our family’s tree there going back to the mid-1700s.

Many people grew up taking this sort of thing for granted. While I don’t want people to try and guilt-trip me for having it, in this day and age, I feel it would be too ignorant and heartless to consider it an entitlement. I treasure it as a gift, not as something that history or America owes me just because I am a mostly-white American born into a Christian family.

Many of my current friends don’t even know for sure what countries their ancestors came from or how long their families have been here. For others, their entire historical record is on another continent because they are the first of their families to come here. And still others’ ancestors were brought here in chains, and have little or no chance of ever finding out what nations or tribes they hailed from, and the best they could do would be a genetic test that identifies a general geographic area their DNA originated from.

That being said, I’m not going to waste my energy resenting and labeling people who do feel that having a tangible record of their lineage is their entitlement and that this somehow makes them more deserving of being American. I like the approach that some contemporary social-justice writers and ethicists, such as David Gushee, take instead.

David Gushee, a Read the Spirit contributor, Christian ethicist, and author of the books Changing our Mind and A Letter to my Anxious Christian Friends, is one of the voices of sanity proposing more constructive and humane ways to get the point across to “white Christians” that the changing religious and ethnic makeup of America does not have to be treated as a threat to them and their values.

In a pre-election article, Gushee is cited as making some excellent points toward “Debunking an imagined past”: Addressing the people whose ideas won the November 2016 election, he points out that their so-called golden era of earlier decades that they want back was only as golden for them as it was oppressive for all others. It’s not that America back then was truly safer and more virtuous—They just chose to ignore and not teach their kids the evidence to the contrary.

“We have all this nostalgia about the Christian values of our past,” Gushee says. “That’s very strong among conservative Christians, but it is usually uninformed by serious reflection on all the evils of American history.” He says that the “white nostalgia for an imaginary Christian past” does not “take seriously the problems of racism” or other forms of institutionalized injustice against anyone outside their privileged majority.

“White Christians” don’t have to suffer and sacrifice something they need in order to allow people of other groups to have more say in how America as a nation evolves into the future.

Let me repeat that David Gushee is Christian, promoting ethics from within the group he’s talking to, not from outside of it. He’s not telling worried Christians to “suck it up, this isn’t your America anymore,” he’s telling them that there is enough America to share, and that we will all benefit by sharing.

This being the case, who we and our families are at present is more important than who our families were in the past.

Image: “Lititz Moravian Church interior” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, colored pencil

Monday, December 26, 2016

Why Rodney Reinhart's founding ideas for the World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation are more timely now than ever

Given our current religious and political climate, the 2017 World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation may be the most significant since the one held after September 2001, which was arguably the last time something happened to our nation that brought out the worst in interfaith relations.

The World Sabbath was founded in 1999 by Reverend Rodney Reinhart, based on his desire to help bring out the best in interfaith relations.

In a 2014 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with Interest in Religion and Cross-Cultural Issues, Reinhart stated that the World Sabbath was his response to the absurd and antithetical notion of God-sanctioned war, which has been declared by many governments and religious movements since time immemorial. Such declarations, he said, have always been merely a front for conquest initiated by greed—for power, money, land, oil, or other resources held by people of a religious or cultural group different from that of the group that wants the resources.

Reinhart was deeply disturbed to realize that a central notion in many people’s personal faith is hate, instead of love. Many people define their personal faith from an adversarial and defensive position, through the lens of how other people are wrong and they are right, rather than through the lens of how their religion’s founder instructed them regarding the right way to live their lives.

Shoghi Effendi of the Bahá’í Faith said, “We each plow our own row.” What he meant by that was we need to live our lives according to the morals and tenets of our belief systems, rather than burn up our energy on fussing about what other people are and aren’t doing right. We should reserve our judgment for ourselves, evaluate our own actions as contributing to or negating from the well-being of society, rather than ignore our own shortcomings and needs for improvement by pointing fingers at others.

Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, said “Glory is not his who loves his own country, but glory is his who loves his kind”—kind meaning the human species, rather than one specific race within it. 

SGI president Daisaku Ikeda points out that “War normalizes insanity,” and that “The key to solving all our problems—whether it be building a secure and lasting peace, protecting our environment, or overcoming economic difficulties—is to cast off apathy and preconceived notions that lead us to view a situation as unsolvable or unavoidable. Problems caused by human beings can be solved by human beings.”

Reverend Reinhart also pointed out that our religions are very exclusive of each other, each with its own holy days that the other religions don’t celebrate. So, he decided to create “a holy day for everybody, an interfaith holy day for peace” that celebrates our differences while also showcasing our commonalities, such as the core belief in peace in each religion’s Scripture.

To demonstrate this central tenet of peace, the World Sabbath showcases children and youth from many different faith traditions saying a prayer of peace from their religion, and also includes traditional song and dance from those religions. Children who participate in the World Sabbath create a peace flag beforehand, and at the end of each World Sabbath those banners are collected and sewn into quilts which are part of a traveling interfaith peace exhibition that can be loaned to congregations in southeastern Michigan. (If you’d like information on how to arrange for the display to come to your house of worship, you can contact World Sabbath Chairperson Gail Katz.)

Nichiren Daishonin, founder of Nichiren Buddhism, said that “If the spirit of many in body but one in mind prevails among the people, they will achieve all their goals, whereas if one in body but different in mind, they can achieve nothing remarkable.”

This spirit of many in body, one in mind does not have to apply only to people who all have the same religious mindset—We can be many in body, one in mind in our shared intentions and actions to create a more peaceful and humane world for people of all religious mindsets to live and thrive in.

The 18th Annual World Sabbath will be held March 5, 2017 at Temple Beth El in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Snowflake illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2013; colored pencil, gel pen, silver gel pen

Friday, December 23, 2016

The most foreign culture to me is the one my family comes from...

When I go to Lititz, I always conduct myself as if visiting another culture, because that’s essentially what I’m doing. I watch closely how the people around me act, and try to identify and abide by their customs of guest conduct.

Coming from southeastern Michigan, where I have the privilege and pleasure of being able to take diversity for granted, a place such as Lititz feels more culturally foreign to me than going to dinner at an Iranian Bahá’í friend’s home, or to a temple where I’m one of only two people who’s not an Asian immigrant, or being an ethnic minority in my friend group.

Of course, people in Lititz would never realize this by looking at me. Visually I can pass for 100% German; so, the comments I heard implied everyone assumed I’m Christian, that I identify with European-American values, and that there was no reason to say “Happy holidays” to me instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Rather than come into Lititz, a 260-year-old small town that was founded by the Moravian Christian Church and surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms, with an attitude of condescension for their old-fashioned, mono-culture ways, and resent their apparent lack of interest in diversity and inclusion, and devalue their Germanic Christian traditions and the overall conservative feel of the place, I strove to show the people there the same respect I would show if visiting another country—particularly at our lodgings.

My parents and I stayed in a historic building that was owned in the 1700s by a relative of one of my ancestors, which has long since changed hands and is currently run as a bed and breakfast by a Mennonite couple.

I admit, I felt some discomfort at first due to the sheer unfamiliarity and not knowing how I should act as a guest of such a formal and modest people. I wondered what first impression I made, dressed like I just stepped off an artist commune, and how they’d feel about a Buddhist chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in their home.

When I realized what I was doing, I decided there was no value in assigning negative judgment to how I felt. Instead of trying to talk myself out of how I felt, I simply conducted myself as a courteous guest and left a light imprint of my stay—meaning, I left my room the way I found it and didn’t make it a point to proclaim my differences and make myself an object of attention (especially since I knew nothing about Mennonite conversational etiquette).

One of the aspects of the moral code of ahimsa is that our intentions and actions are motivated by respect and love, rather than by fear of rebuke or punishment. With that mindset informing my actions, I relaxed knowing that I wouldn’t do something blatantly or ignorantly discourteous in violation of my hosts’ sensibilities, nor did I demonstrate any disrespect of their Christianity by chanting in their home.

Instead of interviewing our hosts about their customs and beliefs, I simply observed what they felt inclined to share in the limited interactions I had with them. I bore in mind that not everyone is like me and my friends in wanting to discuss comparative religion and culture almost every time we get together, and I didn’t want to put my hosts on the spot by drawing this sharp Buddhist / Christian distinction between us. I wanted to get acquainted with them as Kathy and Jay, and hear what Kathy and Jay are like and what they want to talk about in their home, rather than expect them to be expert ambassadors for the Mennonite people just because they’re the first Mennonites I’ve ever met.

Yes, first impressions are very important, so we should all strive to give the best first impressions we can to people who’ve never met someone of our religion or culture. That being said, it’s never fair to base our first impressions and any resulting assumptions about an entire religion or culture just from our first interaction with anyone from that group, especially if our prior understanding of that group is zero.

Regardless of how different the people of Lititz are from me and anyone else I usually associate with, I love the place because it’s the closest thing I have to an ancestral hometown. In my third post, I’ll describe why, while I celebrate them, I can’t bring myself to take my roots in this place for granted.

Image: “Lititz in purple” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

We need to really listen to people and do our history homework before we assume the best way to make the case to them for diversity and inclusion

I just got back from a few-day trip with my parents to Pennsylvania Deutsch Country (yes, I spelled that correctly), where we go for our annual “Huber pilgrimage” to my grandfather’s home town of Lititz. We hang out downtown and observe the Christmas festivities at Granddaddy’s home church, and the Fourth of July festivities in the summer. Since 2014 the trip has also included, of course, a visit to Granddaddy’s grave.

I viewed Lititz a little differently this year, in light of how the current political and religious climate has shifted since December 2015. I was hoping a blog post would come out of my observations, and I ended up with what will be three or four, starting with this one.

If they focused on the politics and religion expressed in Lititz, the reaction of many people I know would be extreme discomfort. Nobody outright slandered the idea of diversity and inclusion, but reluctance to these ideas was occasionally implied. Instead of react with judgment and labels, I decided to really listen so I could understand why.

A few years ago a man tried to sue the borough of Lititz for the political-incorrectness of having a Christian nativity display on the median at the intersection of Main and Broad streets. The problem with this was he didn’t bother to find out that the street median—and still almost half the property in the entire town—was owned by the Moravian church that founded Lititz as a Moravian Christian colony. The man’s case was thus thrown out, and instead of his actions garnering acknowledgment or respect for the point he was trying to make, he was disregarded as an asshole who just wanted to be difficult and anti-Christian.

We don’t win any victories for diversity and inclusion by lashing out at any example we see that seems to be (or is) representative of an exclusionary view or practice—especially if we don’t do our homework first to get an accurate understanding of what we’re really seeing.

Another example of why we shouldn’t try to force diversity and inclusion on anyone who is reluctant about “outsiders” is something I heard from another guest at the bed and breakfast we stayed at. The church’s Christmas lovefeast vigil services used to be for members only, who afterward had the opportunity to tour local houses to view their nativity displays, which they call the “Putz.”

When the services became open to everyone, and more people would tour the Putz displays, homeowners noticed each time that items were missing, which had never happened when the open house was limited to church members. As a result, it was decided that the Putz would only be displayed for the public at the church in regulated presentations, since the members had come to equate the inclusion of non-members of the church—“outsiders” to the Moravian tradition—with home robbery.

We need to bear such stories in mind when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion to people who have historically been opposed to the idea. We also need to bear in mind that not all such opposition automatically equates with hate-based prejudice or the intentional desire to suppress and marginalize people who are different from them.

While the outcome is just as unacceptable whether it comes from malicious intent or ignorance, the way we choose to approach and seek correction for the problem should be different depending on which of these two motives we’re dealing with.

If we treat ignorant people as intentional bigots, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to practice enough restraint and patience to identify what mindset we’re dealing with before we act, because we’ve seen far too many examples of our good intentions backfiring and creating bigger problems. We need to set the best example we can for why it would benefit them to let us in, rather than barge in and tell them they are wrong and they have to change.

Even if, after all this, some people still refuse to acknowledge the validity of our argument, this doesn’t mean we have to sink to their level. We fail in our mission if we allow their negative karma to prompt us to destroy our own good karma.

Image: “Lititz Moravian Church steeple” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Cultural and religious competency starts by looking beyond the news and Google searches

Cultural and religious competency start with being able to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources of information about specific groups of people. The concept of cultural competency goes hand-in-hand with religious competency, since so many of our cultural differences stem from religious differences.

It sounds obvious that the most reliable sources of information about a particular cultural or religious group are people within that group; regardless of this, most mainstream information we have about them is compiled by outsiders to those groups, or by aggregator software programs which sometimes target credible sources, and sometimes not.

As a former Baha’i and a current Nichiren Buddhist, I know firsthand how exasperating it is to find gross misconceptions, inaccuracies, and even misspellings about one’s religion in resources—such as college textbooks and encyclopedias of world religions, let alone the mainstream news—that are assumed to be authoritative and well-researched.

It’s one thing to make occasional honest mistakes based on available information; far too often, however, I’ve found that many of the authors of these resources are downright careless—such as when, for example, they don’t even take the time to correctly spell the name of a religion, or find out if it is correct to say it’s a denomination of something else or an independent religion entirely. I wanted to scream every time I would pick up yet another religious encyclopedia and flip to the “B”s to see an article that reads something like “Bahollah founded the B’hai Faith, a sect of Islam...” (The founder’s name is Baha’u’llah, and the Baha’i faith is an independent religion, not a sect of anything.)

Overall, I’ve found such reference material to be absolutely useless beyond giving only a vague idea of generalizations that practitioners might use to describe their religions.

So instead, my two main portals for accurate intercultural and interreligious information over the past half-decade have been the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC), and Read the Spirit.

An October 2014 post on its Web site, which briefly described how the organization was formed, stated that the IFLC grew out of a response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “As the world watched the twin towers of the world trade center collapse,” it stated, “a number of our local leaders were already planning a coordinated interfaith response to the anticipated backlash against the Muslim community. The Interfaith Leadership Council grew out of that response.”

If separated from the historical reference preceding it, those last two sentences could easily have been assumed to be a response to events that took place last month, rather than 15 years ago. Good thing the Interfaith Leadership Council already exists, and hit the ground running over a year ago in anticipation of what would happen if the November 2016 election turned out the way it did. I found two great Detroit Free Press articles here and here which describe the IFLC’s efforts starting in late 2015 to help counteract the misinformation-based prejudice and violence that have for too long characterized intercultural and interfaith relations in America (particularly regarding Islam).

I re-introduced my readers to Read the Spirit in my first post in this series, via the efforts of the MSU School of Journalism to create aseries of easy-to-read cultural competency guide books, and I will describe more of the groundbreaking work represented in Read the Spirit’s catalogue as I read the books in it. I also encourage you to check out Read the Spirit’s online magazine regularly for the news that’s left out of the mainstream headlines.

“Cultural competency” has become a buzzword for continuing education in business; it’s even the name of a category in the files of human resources departments seeking to meet the needs of an increasingly more diversified workforce. Educational institutions as well are beginning to step up to the challenge of helping to foster true pluralism in the U.S., particularly in southeastern Michigan.

Hopefully this will prompt them, when it comes to revising their reference material, to reach out to actual religious communities and interfaith organizations rather than continue to rely on and so-called news sources that are long overdue for fact-checking.

Image: “Riverview Library” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker

Monday, December 5, 2016

American society needs to stop telling people to “go home” to a place and a culture they may not even be from (or which may not even be home at all anymore)

In 2014, I attended an interfaith and intercultural networking meeting held at St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church in West Bloomfield Township, and got to learn some basics about what makes Chaldeans distinctive from other Middle-Eastern groups. Such distinctions are very important, especially now when many people think it’s easier to assume all people from a particular geographic region are the same (and equally as foreign and therefore threatening)—regardless of the fact they represent not just different ethnicities, but different religions.

Here, of course, I’m referring to the misconception that all Middle-Eastern people are Arabic, and all of them are Muslim. Father Andrew Seba, one of the priests at St. Thomas, explained to us that Chaldeans not only are a different ethnic group than Arabs, they are Catholic.

Chaldeans did not originate as Arabs or Persians—they are Semitic. Prophet Abraham, the forefather that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace back to, was from “Ur of the Chaldees—Chaldees means he was Chaldean,” as Father Seba pointed out. When the Chaldean nation of Mesopotamia was conquered by Islam several hundred years ago, it became the Arab nation now known as Iraq. Another interesting fact is that Chaldean is a sister language of both Aramaic and Hebrew. While these different types of people are related, they are not the same.

Chaldeans in Iraq currently face the same kind of tyranny, marginalization, and violence from the larger community that Jews experienced all over the world prior to the founding of Israel. I also couldn’t help but see the similarities between how Chaldeans are treated in Iraq and how Bahá’ís are being treated in Iran.

Chaldean Catholicism differs in some ways from, and has other religious influences than, Roman Catholicism. The differences in practice arose because, while Roman Catholicism was developing under the Roman Empire, the Chaldeans were the only Christian denomination in the Persian Empire. The two faith groups maintained ties, and Chaldeans do answer to the Roman Catholic pope, but in a sort of roundabout way, through their own dioceses and a religious leader called the Patriarch, whom Father Seba described as a sort of “sub-pope” (or pope with a lowercase p).

The members of St. Thomas parish have adopted some aspects of mainstream Catholicism that weren’t traditionally part of their faith, such as praying the rosary. To people who say “That’s not our prayer,” Father Seba says, “It is now.” As he showed us St. Thomas’s sanctuary, in which several hundred people worship every week, Father Seba described an upcoming prayer service in which it is St. Thomas’s custom to say prayers in several different languages, not just Chaldean and English.

Chaldeans are in asylum all over the United States and Europe, with the largest concentration outside of Iraq being right here in Michigan—with a population of close to 200,000. The draw to this area was originally the automotive industry; Chaldeans have since branched out into other business, and a gradually increasing percentage of their young people are graduating from college and getting into various professions.

Something I found particularly interesting was that many Chaldean refugees, Father Seba explained, actually had no interest in leaving their homeland—they did so because they had to, and are waiting to see if the situation for their people improves enough for them to return home.

Understanding this about immigrants and refugees can go a long way toward helping us develop compassion for them, rather than see them as an imposition or a threat to our ways of life. Many of them truly have no other choice—They came here to survive destruction in their homeland, only to be treated like invaders and discriminated against when they try to re-settle.

The heartbreaking truth is, a lot of immigrants and refugees would go home if they had a home they could survive going back to. Regardless of the hardships they take on by coming to the U.S., where they are unwanted by a large percentage of the population, considering their alternatives, I think they made the best choice they could for themselves and their families, and they deserve credit for that.

Image: “Sanctuary Window” (at the Detroit Baha'i Center) by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white colored pencil, silver Sharpie

Saturday, December 3, 2016

We all need some help with cultural competency these days, so here you go...

In one of my older blog posts, I came across an intercultural and interreligious resource that is now more timely than ever. The cultural competency guides, produced by Joe Grimm and the Michigan State University School of Journalism, are a series of informative books that each answer 100 common questions about a particular ethnic, cultural, or religious group.

The guides are each about 60 to 100 pages. Most Read the Spirit books are short, averaging between 80 and 200 pages. One benefit of this is it enables Read the Spirit writers and their publishing teams to get books out in a short time, and more of them—the cultural guides are each produced in a single semester by MSU School of Journalism students as their semester-long project assigned by their instructor Grimm. 

This quick response is very valuable in an era where people get inundated with new information and cultural changes at such a rapid rate that they need rapid-response educational commentary from credible sources to help them determine what these media and changes mean to them culturally, spiritually, socially, and morally.

There are four ethics Grimm’s students adhere to when writing and producing the guides, he said. The first is respect, for both the subject matter and the needs of readers seeking to understand how to live in a community with cultural groups different from their own.

The second ethic is accuracy: The student writers conduct interviews, refer to census records, published studies, and polls, and have their work vetted for accuracy by credible sources from the cultures they write about to assure their guides are accurate, concise, and practical.

The third ethic is authority, which is fulfilled by the vetting process each guide goes through, in the form of evaluation by experts from the culture or religion the guide is about.

The fourth ethic is accessibility: “Thanks to the digital stylings of [Read the Spirit co-founder] John Hile,” Grimm said, “these guides are made to come out simultaneously on paperback, on Nooks, Kindles, for iPads and as e-books.”

The focus is on distribution, not just selling. As Grimm pointed out, there’s no point writing a great guide if your distribution pool is too narrow to make much of a difference in society’s education. Since funding is critical for this, “if you can line up sponsors for a guide early, you’re guaranteed some kind of success,” he said. Grimm approached credit unions and cultural organizations, for example, to sponsor a few hundred copies of a guide each. Grimm also stated that audio editions of the guides are in the works.

The cultural competency series, which started in 2013, currently includes seven books, starting with 100 Questions & Answers about Indian Americans. The other books in the series cover Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, East Asian Cultures, and Hispanics & Latinos as immigrant groups. Even though Native Americans aren’t an immigrant group, they are as misunderstood as immigrant groups, so the team covered them too with 100 Questions & Answers About 50 Nations.

In 2014, one of Grimm’s colleagues persuaded him to produce a guide that was the reverse of the previous six. Whereas the audience for those is Americans who want to learn about people (particularly immigrants) from other cultures and religions in America, 100 Questions and Answers about Americans is written for immigrants to learn about us. Answered questions include what Americans mean when they say “How’s it going?,” how much do Americans study, how do you make American friends if you don’t know sports or popular culture, what is included in a date, and so on.

Deciding to branch out even further with their cultural competency series, in 2015 the MSU team tackled the task of creating a guide with answers to common questions about military veterans.

The cultural competency series books are available for purchase in paperback and digital formats on, and through Bulk and custom editions are available by contacting Joe Grimm.

In my next few posts, I’m embarking on a cultural literacy series of my own, so stay tuned for other highlights from my interfaith and intercultural encounters over the years, in the context of using what we can learn from such encounters to help combat the currently growing culture of misunderstandings and discrimination.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; marker, colored pencil, watercolor, metallic gel pen, flower petal

Monday, November 28, 2016

We have two choices: We can succumb to what journalists call "mean world syndrome," or we can seek out and share the truth

Several days ago, as I worked through my post-election feelings by writing this blog series, I was spooked by the idea that the clock was being dialed back on half a century worth of progress in civil rights and other social reforms. It felt like a darkness was descending, and all these rioters, hate-criminals, and people who twist scripture to justify not serving or working with people they don’t like soon would be fighting in the dark, and they’d just start lashing out at everybody in the chaos, and every side would lose, and nothing coherent would be left to work with. 

Then I woke up. Literally and figuratively. 

The next morning, after the first few seconds of feeling like I was in a bad movie after what I saw on the news and Facebook the night before, I realized, Wait a minute! I just fell for exactly what my journalism professor warned us about! 

Yes these terrible things are happening, but seeing and focusing solely on them will only cloud our perception of the true size of the problem, negate whatever positives and opportunities do exist, and thus prevent us from finding any courage or motivation to strive to turn our civilization’s clock forward again. 

The news has stopped informing us and is only adding to the confusion, by promoting what scholars of journalism call “mean world syndrome.” A news commentator once pointed out, for example, that the news only covers the few planes that crash each year, not the thousands that take off and land safely in the same time period. Because of this, it appears that plane crashes are more common than they really are. 

The same is true of the crime rate: A journalism study revealed that people tend to think the crime rate is much higher than it actually is because of how crime is disproportionately represented in the news. While this doesn’t mean no corrective action is needed regarding the crime we do have, it implies that in order to come up with effective means to counteract this negativity, we need to have an accurate perception of the true scope of the problem instead of just react in despair and paranoia. 

I decided that, regardless of if what I choose to do instead makes much difference in the bigger picture—blog about a more balanced perspective, promote dialogue, and refuse to participate in online slander or assign disparaging labels to people who see things differently than I do—at least it’s something, which is more than I could do if I gave in to the kind of despair and anger that’s causing people to reenact the Cold War in their families and think moving to Canada is their only reasonable option. 

At the same time, I’m not going to waste my time condemning such people as they struggle to work through their feelings. Part of creating an environment where civil, empowering dialogue can thrive is not assuming we know better than other people the best way for them to handle their feelings. A hilarious “meme” one of my coworkers found online a few months ago is as true as it is funny: “No one in the history of calming down has ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” 

I’ll conclude this six-post series of election-reflections with some words from Nichiren Daishonin, from his gosho On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land: “If you care anything about your personal security, you should first and foremost pray for order and tranquility throughout the four quarters of the land, should you not?” (WND-1, pg. 24) 

For me, this isn’t a passive prayer for other people to make my world safe. It’s a challenge to all of us to each do our part to create peace in our land, and offer compassion and encouragement to all those people who think it can’t be done. 

Image: Detail from “Priestesses of Earth” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Colored pencil, Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker, metallic gel pen 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Instead of fighting fire with fire, doesn’t it make more sense to fight fire with water?

Anger is, for some people, a great motivating force for working toward positive change. For the rest of us, however, staying in our anger is corrosive, making us feel stuck and clouding our ability to think clearly about how we can make a difference. 

There are times in American history when drastic and disruptive measures were effective: Civil Rights era sit-ins, mass boycotts, and the activities of people who fought to create labor laws that protect us from being treated like overused company property instead of as human beings. 

Currently, though, we’re not unified enough as a people for such movements to be able to grow strong enough, fast enough, for rapid results. The fact that individuals who propose such actions have been dismissed as whiny alarmists is evidence of this; what they propose does not sound feasible or sustainable to people who already feel overwhelmed, alienated, and discouraged enough. 

So what can we do? What small, cumulative steps can we take to help gradually make our society unified enough for large-scale revolutionary change when it is needed? 

One thing is to acknowledge our own responsibility as individuals for the undesirable social, political, and religious outcomes we are seeing now. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda cites a Russian proverb about the foolishness of blaming a mirror if we don’t like what we see in it. “One’s happiness or unhappiness is entirely the reflection of the balance of good and bad causes accumulated in one’s life,” Ikeda says; “No one can blame others for his misfortunes.” Society is our mirror, and what we see in it is what we project into it. 

While this doesn’t excuse people who have more of the blame, it does imply that nothing will change if we see ourselves as their victims and expect them to save us by changing their behavior, rather than seeing that we all need to work together for collective change. 

On that note, while I don’t agree with everything comedian Tom Walker says (nor the course language he uses) as his newscaster character Jonathan Pie, he makes some excellent points in his YouTube video about how “liberals” have fed the flames of fear and hate in “conservatives” who have become overtly discriminatory and violent this month. 

He reminds us that no one wants to be labeled as outdated, ignorant, and evil. People who feel they are being treated that way are going to lash out in defense. They feel they’re right, and no one will convince them otherwise by talking down to them and ignoring their fears about no longer being the privileged majority they were raised believing it’s their birthright to be [see explanation of "White Nationalism" here].

Regardless of how erroneous their beliefs actually are, this approach simply never works. 

So what does? We can find out by actually talking with them, as Jonathan Pie points out. Let’s face it: We all have relatives and friends who see things very differently than we do on serious issues. Such people are a great test of our composure, of our ability to not allow such differences to goad us into bringing out our worst. It's so easy to get sucked into what Cindy Dillon calls “right-fighting,” that we forget to prioritize our relationships and reconciliation over our need to be right. 

It also completely ignores the fact that people can always change their minds. What’s more likely to make them change their minds—Treating them as an enemy to defeat, or rational dialogue followed by compassionate action that demonstrates the correctness of our beliefs? 

The idea of “fighting fire with fire” is probably valid in some circumstances that don’t apply here (such as actual fire-fighting, maybe?), and it is unfortunate that it has become a common maxim applied so broadly. If we’re fighting erroneous views or outright injustice—meaning, if the point is to eliminate these problems—then the idea of fighting fire with fire is absurd. When such fire flairs up, fighting it with more fire just makes the fire bigger, right? Fighting fire with fire is simply more of the same. 

So, what puts out fire? 

Water. If we must have a cliché for this, let’s use “fight fire with water.” 

Image: “Elemental Earth” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

There’s the American dream, and there’s the American reality...

The freedoms our country wears as a badge of honor have a serious dark side, and we’re seeing that dark side now more than ever. Our staunch emphasis on individualism, and our rejection of the need to ever make our own wants secondary to what’s best for the community as a whole, have assured that we will never become a truly unified people if we don’t make a dramatic change to our culture and our politics. 

We have individual freedoms based on our heavily-amended Constitution (which is long overdue for a 21st century update), such as the freedom to assemble and protest, freedom to carry deadly weapons, and freedom to pursue happiness; our satisfaction with the Constitutional freedoms has lulled us into the delusion that our American brand of freedom is complete and flawless. 

But are we free in the ways that matter most? I’m far less concerned about protecting people’s freedom to carry guns than I am about people’s freedom to not be mistreated based on their race, gender, or religious affiliation. I’m far less concerned about protecting people’s rights to picket and harass outside of legitimate businesses than I am about people’s freedom to be Muslim, black, or female in communities and industries that are historically run by white men. 

We can’t truly call ourselves free when people of color, Muslims, and women can’t walk down any street alone without having to worry if they made a mistake by walking down that particular street, or by walking alone at all. We aren’t truly free as long as there is any justification for admonishing independent women that it’s foolish for them to walk alone at night, or travel alone. We can’t call ourselves free as long as one group’s exercise of what their religion calls their rights robs anyone else of theirs. We can’t truly call ourselves free as long as people who worship in anything other than a Christian church have to worry about someone barging in and harming them during prayers or defacing their building overnight. 

I don’t deny that the freedoms in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights are important, but as a nation we have made the mistakes of assuming that these are the only freedoms that matter, and of taking for granted that they are inviolable. The truth is they are violated all the time, by being protected for some and not for others. 

What we have is the illusion of freedom—or a partial, underdeveloped freedom at best. We are more free than some people around the world in some ways, but less free than those same people in other ways. I have the freedom to write such comments on my blog without thought-police knocking on my door two hours from now and making me disappear, but I don’t have freedom from the threat of someone else’s prejudiced, fear-based, outdated moral code being imposed upon me in laws that don’t make me any safer to walk down the street alone, assure I’ll be paid as much as a man doing the same work, or assure that my prayers for my Muslim and black and transgender friends don’t have to include their protection from harassment and assault by bigots.

The American experiment is incomplete—It’s as if the Bill of Rights, the Constitution itself, were never finished, like a partially-written term paper that was never submitted to the professor and then edited and revised for a passing grade. 

So, how do we want to finish it? What grade are we striving for? It’s time to ask ourselves what actions are the most likely to get us a passing grade on our karmic score-cards for civil rights, religious rights, gender equity, racial equity, and every other right and freedom that’s been up for debate these past two weeks. Will hurling insults at conservatives and wallowing in our hurt over the 2016 presidential election results change our nation’s karma for the better? Will living in fear and suspicion of anyone who voted Republican promote understanding and beneficial compromise between our political extremes? 

It’s time to stop perpetuating the American nightmare and start creating a new American dream that we can make into a sustainable reality. 

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

We can see this as a setback or as the ultimate test we must pass

After the initial shock and surreal horror wore off after checking the news this morning, I cycled through some anger, and then throughout the day I've gotten to the point of thinking, this is the ultimate test of overcoming our fears. As Nichiren Buddhists we chant for courage, and we just saw the rise to power of one of the most frightening types of rulers we could possibly imagine for our nation, who has endorsed all the anti-values that kosen-rufu is meant to counteract and replace.

On the October 27 page of his daily inspiration book For Today and Tomorrow, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says:
"Whether we regard difficulties in life as misfortunes or whether we view them as good fortune depends entirely on how much we have forged our inner determination. It all depends on our attitude or inner state of life. With a dauntless spirit, we can lead a cheerful and thoroughly enjoyable life. We can develop a "self" of such fortitude that we can look forward to life's trials and tribulations with a sense of profound elation and joy: "Come on obstacles! I've been expecting you! This is the chance that I've been waiting for!""

That last part in quotes really spoke to me today. Obviously great danger can come from the changes in power in the U.S. government that will take effect next January, including a likely increase in our risk of starting or being subjected to more war. However, as Buddhists -- Heck, as any human-rights-respecting human beings of any faith tradition -- we need to face this with courage, see it as an opportunity to bring out our best while the collective shift during this election season has gone toward bringing out everyone's worst.

Now is our chance to make ourselves stand out, in a good way, even more, an even sharper and more obvious opportunity than ever before in our personal lifetimes to make the case for kosen-rufu, over all the other options out there that are being presented, most of which lack in originality, and have already been tried before at least once and failed, or which our nation currently lacks enough unity to even really try at all right now.

Looking at it from the worst perspective, we can say that the election results reflect the corruption that exists at all levels of our society; we could be bitter about the fact that we could even allow this to happen at all, and waste our time wondering how we could have done it differently. Such thinking will get us nowhere -- Deepening our resentment toward anyone we know who voted for any of these new members of our government, and feeling the guilt and despair of regret, will add absolutely no value to our situation, and can only further drain our energy and our hope that things will ever change.

What we need instead is to look at what we can do NOW, to assure that every "next time" we have -- four years from now, eight years from now, twelve years from now -- will have a better outcome for everyone.

So rather than look at this as anyone’s fault, it’s the responsibility of all of us to make the best of it. If it sticks to the themes and methods it’s displayed throughout the campaign, the new regime will be so divisive that it may just destroy itself – Contrary to undoing our nation, this new development in our government may be the final blow toward ripping apart the corrupt system, showcasing to the entire world why we need to unite not just as a nation, but as a world people, to finally bring it down once and for all, and replace it with something that truly is reflective of the kind of leadership that is appropriate for the changing, increasingly more diverse face of America.

We have the opportunity to make America great -- in the ways that matter -- for the first time.

Illustration (SGI lotus) by Karla Joy Huber, 2015; Prismacolor marker, white-out pen, Decopage on fabric

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Let’s expand our prayers for our nation’s future beyond election day

Regardless of our duty to speak the truth and challenge threats to the unity of the human race, there are always going to be people whom we can’t change. With such people, there comes a point when we must recognize and accept that if we continue to bombard them with all the evidence and justifications for why they are wrong, our efforts may have the opposite effect and sink them even more into their defensiveness and erroneous beliefs. 

So, what is the alternative? Rather than continue “beating the dead horse,” a more productive approach may be to focus our energies on teaching and dialoguing with their potential successors before they have the chance to, to help assure the next generation is on the right path by the time it’s their turn to take over. 

It’s like the difference between an antibiotic that functions by killing off bacteria instead of stopping them from reproducing. If the focus is only on killing something, two negative consequences that can result are the breeding by the few remaining bacteria into a stronger version of the same germ, and the systemic imbalance by the sudden killing off of something without replacing it. A medication that stops microorganisms from reproducing, on the other hand, doesn’t kill the live microorganisms; they die naturally, and that’s it—There are no successors to take over and continue the damage, and the whole system isn’t as shocked by the sudden elimination of a whole bunch of something at once. 

Our prayer needs to be much deeper than simply praying to vanquish this person or that group that is misleading and hurting people. We can devote some of our prayer energy to praying that there will be no more like them, praying that their power and influence will atrophy and die off. Then, their threat will be rendered sterile and unable to reproduce the same bigotry, belligerent patriotism, fear-based decision-making, greed, and ignorance. 

Tyrants and bigots weren’t created overnight; there’s a long history leading up to them, so it’s not likely that more than an exceptional few will simply be inspired by our words and our petitions to spontaneously convert to more humane and inclusive ways of leading people. 

Even the appearance of suddenness in such conversions is more likely an illusion, masking the long, difficult, and dedicated struggles of reformers who may never get any credit for having had a hand in the changes of heart of such leaders. 

“Anything that is accomplished quickly and easily will not long endure,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says. “Now is the time to concentrate on the construction of a solid foundation. I hope you will complete this work slowly but surely, filled with hope and joy.” (For Today and Tomorrow, October 15) 

The American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement didn’t all happen just from one event, in one year; thus, the outcome of one election, major and cataclysmic though it may be, will not alone save or destroy our nation.

Just think, as hard as it may be to imagine now, that whatever candidate we don’t want to win in this Tuesdays’ election could someday have such a conversion. Instead of basing our decisions—our votes—on our prejudices and condemnations of them for their prejudices and condemnations, we need to vote with what we do want in mind. Instead of drawing more attention—and thus influence—to what we believe would not be in our nation’s best interests by shouting “NO [candidate’s name]!,” we need to take action for the best outcome, not simply preach about avoiding the worst outcome. 

Also remember that, regardless of who wins Tuesday, there’s bound to be bitter backlash for weeks, months, maybe even years to come, from all the people who didn’t get what they want. We need to be prepared for that. 

So, instead of narrowly focusing our hopes and our actions on the victory and influence of one particular person in one particular election, let’s expand our prayer to include what is best for our nation, for our people—both our blood citizens and our adopted citizens—well beyond November 8, 2016. 

Image: Detail from “Inner World of the Heart” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, gold gel pen