Tom Beaudoin: speaking a second religious or secular langauge.

thomas-beaudoinAs a team of Buddhist and Christian chaplains at Imperial we were really excited to hear Tom Beaudoin’s key-note talk at the Conference of European University  Chaplains  in the Netherlands last year.

Tom is Associate Professor of Religion at Fordham University. In his talk he was looking at life in a globalized world. He argued that there would be great advantages if we were all to learn to speak a second religious or secular  language.

Language, as a metaphor for our worldview, suggests that we all have a religious or secular ‘first language’ for talking about how we see the world and what we believe, for example Christianity, Islam, Buddhism  or atheism, humanism, agnosticism.

To learn a second ‘religious language’ does not mean  giving up our first language, our ‘mother tongue’. In a world were we are constantly meeting people whose world view is very different from our own it is good to be able speak even a little of another language.

So, while Christianity is my first language, I can ‘speak’ a little Buddhism. I have learned this second language from working with colleagues, sharing silent meditation together and hearing about their traditions. I am not fluent and I am not a native speaker.  But I know enough to be a good ‘house guest’ and (I hope!) to travel courteously  with my second language. This way I learn more, and see a little from the Buddhist perspective.

The other gift of learning a new language is returning to our first language with new eyes, and a better ear for the language itself. I now have a better understanding of my mother tongue for having started learning a second language!


‘we are all one, and if we don’t know it…

…we will learn it the hard way.’

This is a quote from the US Civil Rights and peace activist Bayard Rustin. They were the final words of a documentary film about Rustin’s life and work shown at Imperial  in  Black History Month. Rustin conceived and organised the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.

There is another dimension to this quote –  Rustin was also  openly gay. And the  film night was hosted by ‘Imperial as One’ and ‘Imperial 600’ – the networks for Black and Minority Ethnic staff  and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered staff.

After the film there was a short talk about countering racism and homophobia from Dr Rob Berkely, the director of the Runnymede Trust. Rob described himself as an openly gay black man, adding that as a racial justice campaigner, ‘I have no choice, I live my job’.


To me it’s seems an important moment when these two networks promoting equality for BME and LGBT staff can work together. I know that for some this is not an easy partnership. And religion is one of the reasons for this discomfort.

Yet, under the Equality Act 2010,  it is illegal to discriminate against a person on grounds of their religion, just as it is on grounds of sexual orientation. (The other ‘protected characteristics’ are gender, disability, race, age  and pregnancy).

The UN Declaration on Human Rights argues that human rights are ‘indivisible’  and ‘interdependent’. They should not  be implemented selectively, and an attack on one affects the others. Clearly, more dialogue and trust is needed where these rights appear to clash. This is a dialogue that Chaplaincy is willing to facilitate and support.

The last word – and a repeated warning – on the need to overcome these apparent conflicts between different human rights needs to go to the amazing and inspiring Bayard Rustin – musician, pacifist, civil rights, peace and union rights campaigner.

‘We are all one, and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way’.

perspectives in education – from MoTiv

During their three-day visit ‘MoTiv’ gave a talk for the Imperial’s Education Development Unit. The talk  was part of the regular ‘perspectives in education’ series.

Motiv - teamI had been sharing the plans for the ‘Night of Engineering Philosophy’ at an away day for support staff to look at the new Education Strategy. It seemed a perfect example of how Chaplaincy might be doing work to compliment the curriculum.

This led to an invitation for ‘MoTiv’ to give a lecture about their educational work and practice.

So, Gunther talked about the German idea of ‘Bildung’ – education as a personal, cultural and critical formation. For those of us in the UK this is a different approach to education.

Renske shared their experience of assisting students to develop their leadership skills. And Hans shared the ideas of Richard Sennett about the skills of co-operation. (When we discovered over a year ago that  we had all been reading Richard Sennett to think about chaplaincy we knew we should look to do some work together!)

There is more information about the talk, and links to ‘MoTiv‘s slides at Imperial’s   Educational Development Unit.

A Night of Engineering Philosophy

We just held our first ‘Night of Engineering Philosophy’ at Imperial College. The ‘Night’ is an idea from ‘MoTiv’ – the training consultancy run by my chaplaincy colleagues from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. It was great to work for two days with Renske, Hans, and Gunther from MoTiv.

Engineering Philosophy

In Delft, the first night of philosophy took place when chaplains mediated between a group of students and their lecturers about the way the course was being taught. It gave students and staff a chance to share their deeper motivations for choosing engineering, for wanting to design, build and create.

The Night of Philosophy then became a regular event – a chance to talk outside the confines of the curriculum about the things that really matter for their work  – values, ethics, conflicts, context, politics, relationships at work, personal ambitions and passions for construction. All these things are implicit in the teaching and the learning. The challenge is to find good ways to have open and explicit ways to talk about them.

We worked with Rachel and Mitesh from the students’ Civil Engineering Society – who prepared and hosted the event.

The room was arranged with 6 tables – each with one member of staff and 6-8 students. Food and drink were provided. The first ‘course’ of conversation was about ‘why did you decide to become an engineer?’  The feed-back revealed a great range of motivations – shaping the world, building something tangible, creating something that lasts, making a difference.

There were also practical reasons, like ‘what can you do with maths and physics (if you do not want to be a doctor)’? and personal ones, like ‘my art teacher was my inspiration for engineering’.

In the second part the staff members shared personal engineering issues and interests. These included; the political decision making process around engineering like, the UK’s High Speed 2 Rail Project; the role of art and science in making iconic buildings; the need for new links between environmental and water engineers;  the different roles that scientists/engineers can play – pure scientist, science advocate, issues arbitrator, or honest broker.

It seemed that everyone – staff and students – enjoyed the conversations. No one needed any encouragement to participate! Everyone talked about things that really matter for their work. It was a conversation across the usual roles of the teacher and learner.

What is the role of chaplaincy here?

I think we have skills to facilitate these kinds of conversations. In our own work we need to listen carefully in order to help others find deeper meanings. To do this we can let a conversation move across different realms – personal experience, technical implications, values, ethics, key texts and their interpretation, ideas and beliefs, as well as the social, the political and cultural context. We are used to conversations that stretch across ideological boundaries and contain conflicting views.

Big thanks to ‘MoTiv’, to Rachel and Mitesh from Civil Eng Soc, and to Alison Ahearn.

‘Into a future unknown’ the Conference of European University Chaplains

Here is my first post about last week’s great conference in Sigtuna, Sweden.

This is just a quick overview of key note speakers. I want to come back to some of these themes in more detail in future posts. But this will give you a sense of what European university chaplains were thinking about.

Image of woman giving at talk - behind her is a projected image of a masked member of the English Defence League burning verses from the Koran.

This image is from the impressive presentation by Lisa Bjurwald, a Swedish journalist, who investigates European racist groups and extreme right wing parties. Highly relevant to UK news this week which was discussing the activities of the English Defence League seen here.

Mattias Gardell is a professor at Uppsala specialising in religious extremism and religious racism and was an expert witness at the trial of Anders Behring Brevik. Gardell looked at the connections between attacks on women’s rights and attacks on Islam.

Ulrika Svalfors, also from Uppsala University, argued for a practice of spiritual leadership that could value diversity rather than retreating into religious conservatism. I enjoyed her review of feminist and ‘indecent theology’.

Jesper Svartvik –  professor of Jewish-Christian relations and Biblical studies in Lund and Jerusalem –  addressed the need for Churches to respond positively to same-sex marriage. He argued that the Biblical texts often quoted by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage refer instead to abuse of hospitality or sexual violence. Other key terms in the debate are either obscure in meaning or do not correspond with our current understandings of sexuality.

Alongside these serious talks about the ‘future unknown’ in Europe there were many workshops on spirituality, education as transformation, and different ways to do chaplaincy. We also meet the Archbishop of Uppsala, attended a Rainbow Gospel Mass, went on a pilgrimage walk, did the usual sharing of food and drink from our own cultures, had a Swedish Midsummer party and, of course, the Abba-Sing-A-Long-Night (with fermented pickled herrings for that essential Swedish Marmite moment). open tin of Swedish fermented herrings, lovely!

Love could not bear that – after Boston

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike many, many others I’ve been reflecting on the bombing of the Boston Marathon and the events that followed.

Last Summer I spent a week in the Boston area visiting Chaplains.  So I could recall the places around Copley Square where the marathon ended.

During my visit I met with Cameron Partridge, Episcopalian Chaplain at Boston University. Lu Lingzi, a graduate student from BU was one of the people killed in the Marathon Bombing.

I also spent a sunny day at MIT with  Kari-Jo Verhulst the Lutheran Chaplain. Sean Collier from the MIT police was shot and killed by  alleged bombers.

One of the issues in any response to violence and terror  is how to regard those who commit violence and atrocity. The acts were horrific and need to be named accurately. However, we have also seen the unwelcome and unacceptable demonising of Muslims and other minority groups.

Thinking about this backlash phenomenon I came across this short blog piece called ‘Love could not bear that’. It draws on an old Christian story that warns against projecting our own inner conflicts and violence onto others. It is from a source of orthodox Christian stories that were new to me.

It has another  contemporary message for Christians who feel they always need  some group to be ‘against’. But I will let you read that for yourselves.

Thanks to Rev Michael K. Marsh, a priest of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of West Texas for his blog ‘Interrupting the Silence’.

His Holiness Radhanath Swami – the Guru comes to town

It was a great pleasure to welcome His Holiness Radhanath Swami to Imperial just before Easter. Around 150 students came to hear him speak at an event hosted by Sachi Kishore the Chaplaincy’s Hindu Chaplain. Sachi was  working with

Rahdanath and me

the students who come to his regular  Bhagavad Gita study group. The event  also had great support from Imperial’s Hindu Society. They have impressive skills and experience at putting on large events.

So the event was also a satisfying moment to look back on three years work developing Chaplaincy provision for the Hindu communities at Imperial. Thanks to the students for making the event happen. And also to Professor Debra Humphris,  the Pro-Rector – Education, who kindly offered an official welcome to Radhanath on behalf of the College.

This was my second meeting with Radhanath. For me as a Christian it was inspiring to hear this great Hindu teacher talk about finding ways to allow ourselves to be motivated and prompted by love of God and by God’s love for us. Radhanath  used stories from his own life alongside stories and sayings from Hindu and Christian scriptures. He grasped the issues facing this generation of students – pressures to get jobs, repaying their student debts, starting a career in a time of austerity, and coping with the anxiety and hopes of parents.

I felt honoured  as a  Christian to sit  in the presence of a great itinerant spiritual teacher. Especially then during the next week when I listened again to all the Easter stories of Jesus the wandering  teacher going up to Jerusalem with his disciples.

Interfaith encounters can take us deeper into another person’s faith and at the same time deeper into our own – in surprising ways.

Here is a link to Radhanath’s website

Holy Week with the Medics

Charing Cross 2It has been an unusual Holy Week. The option for 4th year medical students on ‘Death, Autopsy and Law’ has given me two great days of reflection during the week Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life.

On Monday I acted as an extra small group facilitator for a session on ‘Personhood and Suffering’ led by Prof Tom Sensky. The session invited reflection on the overlooked question of ‘what or rather who is a person?’ There were various exercises in which students considered the important people and aspects of their own lives and identity. They were then asked to choose the two most important ones. It was an experience of imagining ‘loss’. Obviously, it was hard to choose – ‘boyfriend or parents? Which parent? Which sibling? What about my love of doing…?’ This was preparation for considering the aspects of the self that are ‘lost’ during illness.

As a Christian priest it seemed a good thing that would be doctors had to imagine themselves loosing key elements of thier own identity or personhood.  They were putting themselves in the picture of loss and suffering.They did this before looking at the case studies of patients  and thier responses to serious illness.

It was also interesting to think in this way during a week when as a  Christian I am  remember ing Jesus consciously choosing to go up to Jerusalem to offer himself into the violent social mix of religion, Empire, military occupation and oppressive taxation. Jesus gives away his life (personhood) and suffers. He does this to show us the ways we human beings use violence and conflict to avoid facing our own wounds and limitations.

The next day I had arranged for the same group to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our guide took us on a tour of funeral and burial objects from different times, cultures and religions. This led to more discussion in which we considered our own approach to death and funerals.

So I spent two days with people who are looking at all aspects of death, end of life care and autopsy. It vividly reminded me that in the Christian story there is new life after Jesus’ suffering and death. And yet it also made me very aware that the risen Christ still has carries the wounds of his own death. This can not be explored through thinking – it needs a physical, bodily meditation practice.

Stillmotion – artist in residence in the monastery

Small stainless steel container hangingI wanted to share this blog by artist Rachel Sherwood. It records her recent role as ‘artist in residence’ at the monastery of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. The blog shows how her work developed in response to staying with the monks.

I love the conversation that goes on between the artist and the community. The artist looks at the familiar with new eyes. The community then start to see their life through her eyes. The blog reminded me of when Kate Pelen was artist in residence at the Chaplaincy.

Rachel Sherwood offers a good inside view of the workings of  a Christian monastery.

on Sabbatical

This term I am on sabbatical – study leave away from the Chaplaincy. After 21 years since ordination it’s a time for refreshment and study. And after ten years as a Chaplain I am having time to reflect on some key experiences of the work.

The idea of sabbatical originates from Judaism and it’s weekly ‘Shabbat’ – day of rest. Theoretically sabbaticals come every seven years but that seems rarely to be the case. Anyway, it’s a time for taking stock, for getting re-energised and hopefully spending some time being reminded of the key reasons why I got into this way of life in the first place.

It will not be a surprise to some readers that I am reading about conversation and dialogue between people from different cultures, religions and world views! These are the recurring themes of my work as a university chaplain.

So, in straight forward style, I started exploring ‘conversation’ with a seven-day silent retreat in France. But more about that and the links between ‘silence’ and ‘conversation’ another time.

A bientot!