My religious education was in the German Lutheran Missouri Synod, a strict literalist stream of American Lutherans. I had uncles who were ministers, and my grandfather was a theologian. During my childhood, I had a reliable and comforting relationship with God.
In the 1960s, when I was in high school, information on the Nazi Holocaust became widely available. Reading first-hand accounts of the Holocaust had a great impact upon me. In Germany, 50% of the population were Lutherans. I expected my uncles to explain how the Holocaust could happen. They had no answers.
Thus, I became an atheist. I remember standing in front of the altar of Menlo Park’s Bethany Lutheran Church and giving God one last chance. Nothing.
So off I went to UC Berkeley. But despite the interesting things around me, I was depressed. I found life depressing without God.
In my twenties, I read the work of Idries Shah, which led me to the great classics of Sufism, the mystical stream of Islam. At first, I was only interested in improving my quality of mind because some of the Sufi writings were useful in recognizing how one’s mind is conditioned. I became aware of how my automatic patterns of thought were shaped by my experiences and culture.
But when driving from New York back to Boston, I suddenly had a flash of Spirit, and, believe it or not, it was the same God of my childhood. I remember saying aloud, with a smile, “There You are.” Reading the great Sufi writings of Rumi, Shabistari, and Ibn Al Arabi, I was knocked on the head by three ideas. First, all paths lead to the One. Second, practical methods exist to address the barriers of anger, greed, and ego. Third, Sufism provides a model of good and evil I can accept.
At Harvard for an EdD, I studied human development, aggression, and media. I wanted to understand the roots of aggression. After graduation, I worked at Stanford, and then cofounded a small high tech video company. Life was full of interesting work and interesting people.
In 1992, I met a Sufi teacher who had escaped from communist Afghanistan, and I began the serious practice of Sufism. He had no prejudice against women to stop me. I had expected him to teach me patience and beauty, say, maybe through gardening. After all, he had been a professor of agriculture in Afghanistan, and Sufi teachers were known to teach in different ways. But, to my surprise, he taught me Quran, and I became a Muslim.
At that time, it was no big deal. No one really cared. In 1997, my husband and I moved to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest where I taught comparative religion for six years. Teaching gave me the opportunity to explore and compare the history, dogma, and spirituality of many religions.
After the shock of 9/11, I cofounded Educational Solutions, a nonprofit devoted to helping students learn about conflict and its resolution. At that time, the Israeli/Palestinian problem was the major division between Islam and the West. Working with leading Israeli and Palestinian academics, we developed university curricula to help students understand both sides of the conflict and taught approaches to conflict resolution.
In the summer before 9/11, a conflict erupted over the use of water in the Oregon and California Klamath River. Using our approach to the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, we worked with stakeholder leaders to develop high school curricula to teach the four sides of the Klamath Basin water conflict: farmers, Native Americans, fishermen, and conservationists. We also taught students the principles of conflict resolution to help them discuss this contentious issue.
Both dialogue projects emphasized the importance of understanding opposing points of view. To provide information to the wider Klamath Basin community, we made five documentaries. Two covered opposing stakeholder perspectives. Three emphasized the potential of science in resource disputes, describing different scientific approaches to help solve Klamath River problems. These documentaries were distributed to Oregon and California libraries and via cable TV channels, three airing several times on Southern Oregon Public Television.
We at Educational Solutions were disappointed that political and economic developments in both regions precluded further dialogue. I closed the nonprofit just before my husband died. After several years, I realized that my interest now is the roots of religious conflict and promotion of religious understanding. This is my work as Sister Sufi.