From a nun who uses Snapchat to connect with believers to a lawyer who fights for Muslims’ constitutional rights, these alums put faith at the center of all they do.
June 11, 2018
Five alums who now work in faith-based roles discuss how their classroom experiences affected their beliefs, and how no matter their faith, their work still centers on the goal of One Day. Also, an alum with social services experience gives advice on how to avoid (or recover) from the dreaded burnout.
What do you do?
Abbas: I am a senior litigation attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations national office in Washington, D.C. I’m responsible for initiating and helping lead our impact litigation across the country.
Noble: I am a Catholic nun, or more accurately a religious sister with the Daughters of St. Paul, where I work for our publishing house, Pauline Books and Media. I am an editor of adult books, but I also work with some of the submissions for children’s books. I also spend time in our chapel for community and individual prayer throughout the day.
Dietz: I am a Christian Science chaplain, serving in the U.S. Army. I help ensure that people can practice their religious traditions faithfully, and that they have access to confidential pastoral counseling and religious rites. And at times, chaplains provide counsel to commanders on matters related to morals and ethics, playing critical roles in facilitating relationships with foreign religious leaders.
Yu: I am an associate pastor at Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where I oversee membership and student ministries for 6th-12th graders. I have the privilege of preaching and teaching the Bible each week, as well as counseling and mentoring church members and youth.
Lesser: I am the senior rabbi at Bet Haverim. I see my role as a spiritual leader for our congregation, which has a deep interest in the creative arts and social justice in our city and beyond. I’m involved in most aspects of our communal life, from the ritual celebrations of weekday services and holidays to the education of adults and children.
What’s something people might be surprised to learn that your job entails?
Noble: Our sisters were founded to spread the Gospel using the most modern forms of media. You can find our sisters on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. My handle on most sites is @pursuedbytruth, and our sisters use the hashtag #medianuns. People send us messages asking for prayer and advice, or challenging us. It's an interesting place to meet people from all over the world.
Lesser: Our community was founded in 1985 by gays and lesbians. Our mission, even though our members are now more than 60 percent straight, is to serve the LGBT community—and it’s not limited to the Jewish LGBT community. I make sure that faithful persons are in the conversations in our legislature in Georgia and in important places around the city. I see that we bring Jewish values and teachings to these issues.
How did faith lead you to your current job?
Abbas: In Islam, there is a ḥadīth [a belief or saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad]: If you oppose something, change it with your hands. If you can’t change it with your hands, oppose it with your tongue. If you can’t oppose it with your tongue, oppose it with your heart, but that’s the weakest sign of faith. There is an activist strain in Islam that encourages and directs Muslims to fight for justice. That’s the tradition I gravitated towards.
Was your faith part of the reason you joined the corps?
Dietz: I have always expected to see equality and freedom and the realization of one's full expression as God's image and likeness materialize practically in the world, and in the individual's experience. The corps seemed to embody those expectations, if perhaps on a less metaphysical level.
Yu: During my time in college, I was very involved in my church and campus ministry, but I wondered if what I had learned made any difference in the lives of those around me. Around that time, someone told me about TFA, and as I learned more about the achievement gap, I realized joining the corps would give me an opportunity live out my faith in a way that would serve others.
How did your time in the classroom impact your faith?
Noble: I entered the corps as an atheist, determined to make the world a better place. But every day in the classroom, I was faced with my many flaws. I wanted to be a better person for my students; they needed me to be a better person. I began to realize that to be any kind of help to anyone else, I needed to become a better person interiorly. This realization started me on my path back to God.
Abbas: I was a teacher in Greenville, Mississippi, and I was the only the Muslim in a 100-mile radius, as far as I could tell. I’ll never forget the day a student came up to me during my planning period and asked me, “Mr. Abbas, do you know Osama bin Laden?” It wasn’t malicious, and the student wasn’t trying to be mean. In this student’s mind, there in Mississippi, she knew two Muslims. One was her history teacher, and the other was a despicable terrorist. It taught me in some cases what appears to be bigotry is innocent ignorance that requires patience and compassion.
How does your teaching experience guide your work now?
Noble: When I read submissions for children’s books in my role as an editor, I read them through the eyes of my third graders, and I think about what they would have liked to read. I also appreciate when our sisters try to show kids from different backgrounds in our illustrations.
Dietz: Many of the young men and women who join the military come out of communities like those that TFA serves, so my classroom experience still informs my work now. I also do a good deal of teaching and training, so on a very practical level, my time in the classroom has continued to benefit my soldiers and the Army.
Yu: As a math teacher, if the topic seemed unimportant or the lesson was unclear, I knew I would be in trouble. I worked hard to gain the students’ interest and attention, and to make each lesson as clear as possible. Remembering those two principles has helped me tremendously as a pastor when I’m teaching and preaching the Bible.
Lesser: I had the benefit of teaching at my placement school in a small classroom for special education students, which allowed me to focus on their individual gifts and making sure that every child was able to be authentic in ways that would support their learning and match their curiosity and sense of wonder in the world. That idea completely frames how I engage with the kids at Bet Haverim and how I support parents when their child is not quite as they imagined their child would be.
What is the most empowering thing your faith has done for your professional life?
Abbas: I’ve really gotten to make a difference for my community. I’ve sued the state of Oklahoma for passing laws discriminating against Islam, filed a couple of lawsuits against Trump’s administration, and fought hate crimes on behalf of individuals and institutions. And I’ve gotten to do this all alongside religious leaders, allies in my community whom I’ve admired and looked up to from before my days as an attorney.
What advice do you have for others considering a similar career path?
Abbas: One’s faith is a basis for a community life. In every religion, that community needs the appropriate infrastructure to exist and to sustain itself and to defend itself from threats. Participating directly in the community as a part of your career and serving the needs of your community is rewarding and critical to the life of any religious community.
Noble: Open yourself to the possibility that God is asking to radically change you as you change the world.
Dietz: First and foremost, be deeply rooted in your own tradition, and embrace the ways other people are deeply rooted in theirs. Then, find a community, even if it only includes one other person, for mentorship, support, and necessary critiques. Finally, keep learning—new skills, new scholarship, and new spiritual practices.
Yu: Seek affirmation from people whom you respect and trust that you should pursue a faith-based career, so on the hard days when you want to quit, their affirmation will encourage you to persevere.
Lesser: Cultivate humility. We live in a society that often thinks that the performative aspect of work should be rewarded best or most. But just like with good teaching, being a good faith leader is about creating space for other people to show up.
How does your work continue the mission of One Day?
Abbas: Over the past several years, there’s been a rash of opposition to Islamic schools, and I’ve been fortunate enough to represent some of those schools. In Michigan, I represented the Michigan Islamic Academy against a municipality that denied them the right to build on land they owed. After five years, the school won. I also continue work in education to address bullying of Muslim students, which has exploded in the last two years.
Noble: On a practical level, we provide educational materials for children. On a supernatural level, I know everything I do is for an intention, and God applies the fruits of my life to the needs of the world, including educational equality.
Dietz: The Army is made up primarily of 17- to 24-year-olds coming out of under-resourced areas in the U.S., so I see this work as an extension of TFA's mission to ensure all children have an opportunity to learn, grow, influence, and lead. For me, that happens when these kids see themselves as worthy and learn to advocate for themselves, their families, and their communities. I try to expand their vision of what is possible, so they become part of the change.
Yu: In the classroom, I learned there are a number of factors that lead to poor student outcomes. While some factors were related to problems inside the school, many others were due to circumstances outside the school. As a pastor, I cannot directly address the problems within the school anymore, but I now have opportunities to address issues outside of school such as substance abuse, lack of positive support networks, juvenile delinquency, and family difficulties.
Lesser: At the heart of good faith traditions is an understanding that equity is about supporting and celebrating the common good. Faith traditions can help us to understand that we are all deeply connected. We’re responsible for one another. And when we all have enough, particularly in education, we’re better off.
Burnout is a real threat for social service providers, and Sam Gress (G.N.O.—LAD ’08) gets it. Since leaving the classroom, she’s worked in a variety of challenging nonprofit roles, like managing a women’s shelter in Boston and finding home placements for families experiencing poverty there. In 2015, she began working for the Southeast Ohio Regional Kitchen and Foodbank running a kitchen and coordinating rural food access sites. In each role, she’s seen colleagues grow weary of the strain of the work. But she’s also seen that recovering and returning to the mission full force is possible.
Q: How can people working in social services practically prepare to avoid burnout?
Burnout can come at you really quickly depending on how many moving parts are in a job, or it can happen subtly over time, like a growing feeling at every turn that you're not making a difference. In some roles, the finish line for your mission can seem so far off, so focusing on the tangible moments will help significantly. In my work to end hunger, I focus on the individual family who I know will be able to eat that food. I can keep working, knowing that they're going to be full.
Also, avoid layering. For me, burnout has happened when I’ve taken on more and more and more, thinking I could make it all fit and work. But then basic needs fell to the wayside. Find a job that allows you to be a healthy person. Before joining a nonprofit—especially if it’s a startup—find out what your true work hour commitment will be.
Illustration by Alexander Mostov