Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Mel Carter

Mel Carter is the Head of Mindfulness Education and Innovation for New York University, a professor at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work in the Multi Faith Leadership Minor program, and the founder of Ignite with Melissa. After a decade long career as a music business executive in a number of roles including artist management, digital marketing, and sales for the number one music company in the world, Mel embarked on a spiritual journey that inspired transformations in both her career and daily life. For the last ten years, Mel has served as a meditation teacher, as well as a holistic wellness and intuitive lifestyle coach. Mel is a certified Reiki Master and Teacher, and doula.

Vennly: You had a lengthy and very successful career in the music industry before a spiritual journey brought you to the wellness and mindfulness space. What was the impetus for the career change?

Mel: I moved to New York back in 2002 with $500 in my pocket with a dream of being a big shot in the music industry. What I was blessed to build with that dream was significant; I got to work for and with Violator Management, Warner Music Group and ended my music career as an Account Executive for the #1 Music Company in the world, Universal Music Group responsible for an $85 million team. I learned from the best and got to be a part of cultivating and supporting some of the biggest artist’s careers in music as well as be a part of the forefront of the physical music business morphing into a digital one. It was a powerful part of my life and I contribute most of the reason I am a successful business woman to that experience. While my resume is quite sparkly and I got to be in the company of celebrities and the who’s who leadership of the industry, I was also 300LBs, walking with a cane at the age of 30 and contemplating suicide daily. I was struggling to reconcile and heal a lot from my past while building my future. While I was great at my job, I was living through unconscious mechanisms to deal with the stress and pressure that came along with it.  

I got let go from Universal in 2010 I believe. At that time it was excruciatingly painful to receive what felt like the ultimate rejection.  This wasn’t just a job. It was my career and I was attached to the idea that it defined who I was. The year before I got let go I had lost 150lbs, left my partner of five years and had fallen in love and then got broken up with.  When the layoff came it really was the final undressing of that chapter in my life. I felt bare boned and looked in the mirror 150lbs lighter and didn’t recognize myself and no longer had the title of “music executive” to define me.  While it was one of the hardest moments of my life I saw the opportunity to redefine myself and how I participated in my life with more authenticity and love. It was a moment I saw as an invitation to get to know myself on a much deeper level and build my life’s next chapter from the inside out.

Vennly: When you reflect on your journey and professional transformation, what advice would you offer to someone who is considering a new profession?

Mel: I would say GO FOR IT even if no one understands why you need to do it.  They will get on board as the path unfolds. My family thought I was nuts not to answer the calls of other music labels calling and offering me work so I could start a whole new freelance career. However, staying true and trusting the mission of my heart and showing them, not just telling them, what I could do with my heart’s motivation and wisdom, they eventually got on board. They are my biggest supporters and continue to be to this day.  

If you are like me and have a deep-rooted entrepreneurial spirit, I would also advise not be afraid to take on smaller side jobs to support you as you build your next chapter. I was very stubborn and didn’t and struggled a lot financially as I built my  “freelance” career over that next ten years. Once I got over my ego and realized a side job was actually supporting the dream and not taking away from it, I was able to make moves and realize results much faster. It took me a long time to learn that lesson and I suffered a lot. I remember when I first started building my coaching business I took on a promo model gig where I had to hand out L’Oreal mascaras during Fashion Week. One day we stood in front of Universal Music Group’s building doing it.  As we pulled up I was mortified and embarrassed. Of course I ran into an old colleague who, right before they walked away, looked at me and said “You look free, Melissa, keep going”.

From that moment on I never questioned the path again or allowed any role to define what success was for me.  To this day, success to me is measured based on how free I feel and the joy that comes along with that freedom.  It is the foundation of how I interact with my career, relationships, and life choices.

I would also offer, remember your WHY.  Now that my career is founded in service rather than what looks good, it is remembering my WHY that keeps me motivated, inspired and reaching higher.  Get to know your WHY (meaning yourself).

Any interview you take, remember you are also interviewing them.  If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it. Do not let a scarcity mindset run your choices.  You are too important to this world to allow that.

Vennly: What would you suggest to someone starting on their spiritual path?

Mel: Stay open, curious, and courageous.  My parents taught me that. My mother was a Russian Jew and my father a Native American Black man who converted to Judaism before I was born.  My mother’s family disowned her for marrying my father. They met in a time when interracial relationships were not safe, wanted, or supported. They dated in secret for a year before love won them over and they made a choice: to be together at all costs, which meant losing family and friends.

I often thought about their courage as I grew up seeking more than what I learned in Hebrew School and at Temple. While my roots are definitely inspired by Judaism, it wasn’t until I found Buddhism and meditation that I began to explore God in a new way.  Soon it wasn’t about about the relationship I was being taught to have with God, it was the relationship I was exploring, challenging, uncovering, and leaning into with God. The more I discovered about myself, the closer I got to what I believe is God. For decades I had guilt about not following the Jewish faith as deeply as my parents did. But then I remember their courage and reverence to stand in what they thought was best for them.  It was their curiosity and courage that inspired me to hold myself to the same standard. I had to find what worked and felt most authentic to my soul and heart. I believe even in their passing, they are proud of my choices and my spiritual lifestyle. They taught me to be steadfast and devoted to love, and it was through my spirituality I was brought home to the divine love within me, with their spirit holding my hand every step of the way.

Vennly: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest health and wellness challenges that young adults are facing today, and how do you think Vennly can help individuals bring their spiritual health back into focus?

Mel: I feel Vennly does a great job bringing spiritual health back into focus by the very warm invitation of exploration the platform offers.  Nowadays young adults are on the constant receiving end of never ending information, commercialism, materialism, and what “influencers” think one should use, be about, and care about. I didn’t grow up in a time where I was constantly being told what was “cool”, or have my brain trained to pay attention to. It just seems exhausting.  I had to explore, I had to use my imagination, and work things through for myself -as well as my community and peers- without the pressures of social media. We had to CONNECT in real time.

I recently read a very interesting fact, and I apologize because I am forgetting the author. In 1997, people took in the same amount of information in one year that we take in a day.  WOW! That is exhausting and makes we want to put my phone down and just go sit in the grass and stare at the sky.

It’s important even in the days where social media is the new norm that we encourage EXPLORATION and gentle discernment in our young adults.  That we encourage them to explore what’s authentic for them and what’s not. It’s okay to not all look, feel, and think the same – we should be encouraging that. This is how we expand, reach higher, and change consciousness together.  This is how we move from a “doer” society to a “thinking” one.

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rev. Katey Zeh

Rev. Katey Zeh is a strategist, author, and speaker who works with nonprofits and faith communities on organizing for social change. She is the interim Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. A highly sought thought leader and speaker, Katey has presented on faith and activism at conferences and universities across the United States. The Center for American Progress named her one of their top justice-seeking faith leaders to watch. She is the co-host of the Kindreds podcast and the author of a Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution (FAR Press, May 2019), a timely take on the tenacious women of the bible.

Vennly: An area of professional emphasis for you is in working with activists and organizations to help them overcome their challenges. What are some of the key obstacles that these groups face?

Katey: People start a project or organization with a lot of passion–and a big vision–but often struggle with how to get started in a practical way that is sustainable over time. What happens is that they dive into the work without clear, achievable goals and then burn out quickly. My work is to help overwhelmed activists break down their vision for change into a series of small steps that contribute to their overall mission.

Vennly: In your experience, what are the most effective ways for individual activists and groups to measure their success in driving social change?

Katey: Most of the transformation I’ve seen has been through relationships I’ve built with people who share a commitment to social change. Capturing stories of those impacted by your work, whether through training or direct service, is one way to measure impact and share it with others in a meaningful. Numbers and data can show scope, but narratives capture depth.

Vennly: What advice would you offer to individuals that are interested in contributing to a justice movement but that don’t aspire to become full-fledged activists?

Katey: Spend time reflecting on what you would most like to see changed in the world. I guarantee there are wonderful organizations already working to bring about that change that would welcome your time, gifts, or resources. Pick one that you’d like to support, and think about what contribution would be life-giving and joy-filled for you, whether that’s volunteering once a month,  making a monthly donation, or even sending the staff a note of encouragement.

Vennly: Your new book celebrates women of the bible through stories of hope and courage. How can readers best apply the lessons and teachings of these stories to their personal and professional lives?

Katey: One of the bits of wisdom I gained from exploring these stories is, “Resist simple answers to life’s complex questions.” Like us, these biblical characters are fully human, in need of both our critique and compassion. I hope my book inspires us all to create more space for complexity in our conversations about life, faith, and justice.

Vennly: In what ways do you believe that Vennly’s spiritual leaders can help propel social change forward through their Perspectives?

Katey: My hope is that by offering diverse perspectives on issues of faith, we will disrupt many of the commonly held assumptions about religion and create space at the table for more dynamic, nuanced conversations about life’s toughest questions.  

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Frank Fredericks

Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith, a global nonprofit organization he started in 2008, to help end religious violence. Frank has been recognized as a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum and is the founder of Mean Communications, a digital marketing agency. He received his BM from NYU where he currently serves as an Interfaith Chaplain, and his MBA from the University of Oxford Said Business School.

Vennly: World Faith is committed to ending religious violence through local, youth based development projects. What inspired you to start World Faith?

Frank: I grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest, up in the mountains, in a very homogeneous community. After my parents divorce, I turned to religion, becoming very active in an evangelical congregation. When I moved to New York, I was struck by the incredible diversity, and it really challenged my sense of identify as a Christian. This eventually led me to conduct independent research on Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. It was there that I became inspired to engage in interfaith work, and eventually founded World Faith as a result.

Vennly: What are some of your key learnings from working with religiously diverse youth in this endeavor?

Frank: There’s a ton of lessons that come out this work, some for myself, and some for everyone who works in this space, especially religious leaders.  Here’s a few:

  • Religious identity, religiosity, and religious conservatism are three very different things and can intersect in all sorts of surprising ways.
  • There’s a fear among religious leaders that when young people connect with people of different faiths, it will somehow weaken their own identity. I’ve seen as many cases of people becoming more clear and confident in their own identity as any other outcome.
  • Saying “the youth are the future” is fucking patronizing.  Stop it. Young adults are fully capable of creating dynamic social change, or mass destruction, this very day. We ought to treat them with the agency they have, right now.
  • I find myself repeating myself often saying this: Other people’s realities are not limited by your imagination. Whether it’s being moral without religion, attraction to the same gender, or choosing to wear traditional religious clothing, just because you “can’t imagine” doing it, doesn’t mean others are, or should be, limited from doing so.
  • Allow people to self-identify however they’d like. It’s not for us to saying what truly qualifies someone as a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhism, atheist, etc.

Vennly: Hate crimes and instances of mass religious violence are increasing in the United States. What have you learned from World Faith’s international work that can be applied to domestic religious violence?

Frank: The violence we’re addressing does have slight differences to hate crimes in the US.  Communal violence among those of perceived religious violence has the ability to spark contagion in a way we really don’t see in the US. I mean raw, communal violence, where strangers take to the streets to find “the other” and attack them.  Luckily for us, when hate crimes happen, they are one-offs, lone wolves, often outsiders. They are still terrifying, but I appreciate that our communities are more resilient against communal violence, which should be celebrated.

I’d say, though, that to weaken the pipeline toward such extreme acts of hate, Contact Theory could be helpful. Contact Theory is a sociological idea which suggest that positive interaction with someone from another community will likely improve how one sees the entire community (under certain conditions). We could use it better here in the US.

However, I feel like we’ll never fully address hate crimes, or our violence in the US at large, until we make significant changes to our policies toward guns, and mental health. I believe they are all deeply intertwined.

Vennly: In addition to your work at World Faith, you’re also an Interfaith Chaplain at NYU. What spiritual trends are you observing among college aged students?

Frank: Similar to what I said earlier, there are all sorts of new combinations between how people identify, their relative progressivism/conservatism, and their religiosity, in the sense of activity with their tradition. This is the first generation of young people who can both be out (in the LBGTQ sense), want to be a religious leader, and potentially see those two things as compatible.  It’s not there consistently among all traditions, but as religious and social institutions and leaders have lost moral authority, young people are answering with incredible moral imagination. I see this as a beautiful thing, but it will be hard for older generations of religious people, especially leaders, to accept.

Vennly: Prior to starting World Faith, you worked in the music industry managing artists such as Lady Gaga. Any good stories for us?

Frank: Probably not that I can share here, but I will say this: Stefani (Lady Gaga’s real name) is a courageously accepting person. When we met, I was still quite religious and conservative in my Christianity, and my politics. Many times as I met my fellow students and even staff and faculty, when issues came up in which my conservatism came up, I was treated pretty poorly. I was told off by people who had just met me, literally had people walk away from me mid-sentence. It was isolating, and I think it actually kept me from growing and learning about other people for a number of years.  

Stefani on the other hand knew my identity, my religion, my politics. She disagreed with virtually all of it, and at times she made that abundantly clear. But she was accepting, without hesitation. She just seems to embody the spirit of acceptance, because everyone is human, and damnit, we’re here to make some music. I valued our friendship immensely, as I believe she was one of the most Jesus-like people I know, even over the Christians I met on campus. It’s been amazing to see her thrive as an artist, though I’m not surprised at her success. I do miss her friendship though.

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rev. Peter Friedrichs

Peter Friedrichs is the Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County in Media, PA.  After serving as a lay leader in various capacities and working for nearly twenty years in law and business, Peter entered the ministry in 2006. He is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School.

Vennly: Your career started in real estate law. In your Vennly Perspectives you’ve described this part of your life as, “wearing someone else’s clothes.” Please tell us a bit more about how you came to this realization.

Peter: I spent a lot of my life following a path that was laid out before me – a path of least resistance –  rather than building and following my own path. I went to law school because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. Then, when I graduated I went into private practice because that’s where the jobs were. From the day I started practicing, I felt like a fish out of water. And it took me nearly two decades to figure out why.

I was very successful, by conventional definitions of success. Clients were satisfied with my work, I was making a very good living, and I was on a fast-track to partnership. And I was deeply, clinically depressed. In my late 40’s I finally figured out why: I am basically a trusting person, and I was working in a profession where your primary function is to mistrust the other side, to protect your client from potential breaches of trust. When I finally figured that out, the path forward became clear. I needed to find a profession where trust is highly valued and relationships are more than just transactional.

Vennly: What advice do you have for someone who doesn’t feel fulfilled by their career but is struggling to make a change?

Peter: Something shifted for me when I stopped looking at it as “finding a job” and started thinking of it more as a “quest.” A hero’s journey, to put it in Joseph Campbell’s terms. The hero’s journey was a better fit for what I was experiencing. First, it’s hard to leave the comforts of “home.” Of what was familiar and, to some degree, comfortable. Then the call to take up the journey became too powerful to ignore. Along the way there were all sorts of perils, including facing my own demons of self-doubt and wrestling with expectations of others. There were the Siren’s songs of a cool, new opportunities that would cross my path, trying to distract me.

All this is to say, engage the quest of self-discovery. It’s probably the most important journey you’ll ever take. It isn’t about just finding a more fulfilling career. It’s about discovering and pursuing your calling. There’s a great book I recommend along these lines that helped me look at my career path in this way. “Callings” by Gregg Levoy. It’s a great place to start.

Vennly: How did your friends and family react when you told them that you were leaving your legal career for the ministry?

Peter: For those who knew me best, the reaction was “Of course!” (Or, to use my wife’s response: “Duh!”) Many saw me as a minister long before I saw myself that way. Others, of course, thought I was crazy to leave a successful, lucrative career. My father’s initial reaction were these words: “So, just exactly how poor do you want to be?” To his credit, he came around to the idea and has been very supportive ever since.

One of the critical factors for successfully pursuing your passion or your calling is the support network you’ve built around you. Naysayers aren’t welcome. I needed people to help me dream and I needed people to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. It takes both, and I needed to listen to both perspectives. I’ve always said that “leaps of faith are easy, it’s the landings you need to prepare for.” It’s much easier to jump off a cliff if you know you’ve got a good parachute, soft ground and trusted friends waiting to receive you.

Vennly: You recently traveled to San Diego to observe the migrant crisis at the Southern border. What were your reactions to what you saw?

Peter: I could preach a whole sermon around this (and I have; more than one, in fact!). My main takeaways were feelings of anger and shame. I was enraged that our nation’s policies were putting so many vulnerable people at risk for no reason. And I was ashamed to face those people on a daily basis because of it. I found myself apologizing for my country, which was a new experience for me. The only crisis at the southern border is a humanitarian crisis of our own making. And it’s one we could fix with the stroke of a pen if we but had the will to do so. I can’t tell you how many destitute and defenseless women and children fleeing violence in their home countries that I met in Tijuana who were being put at further risk of harm because of our policies that are creating a bottleneck and a barrier to their legal claims for asylum.

Vennly: What do you hope to convey through the Vennly app once it’s live?

Peter: So many of us put “religion” and “faith” into these small, confining boxes that many of us grew up in. Through the app, I’d love for users to experience the expansiveness and spaciousness of spirituality and faith. For me, faith is all about finding our way in the world. About discovering how we’re intimately connected to all that is. About learning what unique gifts we have to offer. It may sound grandiose, but I hope the Vennly app helps people find their purpose and encourages them – literally gives them courage – to go out and pursue their callings.

Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Chaplain Julia Khan

A community chaplain, worship curator and dedicated martial artist, Julia devotes her life to living into her authentic self. Her journey began more than thirty years ago when she first stepped foot onto the dojang (martial arts training hall) floor. Being one of only a handful of children didn’t dissuade her from the allure of the painted plywood floors and endless reps of bodyweight exercises. The development of the mind, body and spirit became her passion. Julia shares the lessons she learned through countless hours of practice and reflection the arts of Hapkido, Taekwondo and Kumdo. Earning an undergraduate degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Julia’s academic pursuits center on connecting individuals to their true selves and to one another. Julia has served as the Minister to Youth & Families at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, as a worship leader at Common Ground, a farm-to-table dinner church, and as a Chaplain at Soldier On, a non-profit serving struggling and homeless military veterans.  Julia is a co-founder of the Athena Initiative, a social impact organization and incubator, and the Master Instructor at Do Shim Martial Arts.

Vennly: Something that you’ve spoken about is the need for individuals to “cultivate openness.” What exactly does this mean to you and what steps can individuals take to become more open? (or open-minded?)

Julia: Cultivating openness is an idea I have been chewing on for some time. It seems to me most people would like to think they are open: open minded, open to new experiences, open to difference and open to change. I would include myself in that category. Often, we describe ourselves as open even when we know deep down there are places in us that are not as open as we hope. We may think we have the diversity and inclusion thing down, but there is always room for growth. So, I like the notion that being open isn’t a once and done thing. It is a way of being in the world. I liken it to meditation. You don’t meditate once and then find everlasting peace; you have to keep returning to the practice to receive the benefits. Openness is the same. It must be cultivated. It can be cultivated through the letting go of one’s ego and attachments as well as by embracing continuous learning.

In my own life, this notion has called me to begin to do some deep work on the use of pronouns. As a lesbian cisgendered woman of color, I felt I was an open person, capable of making room for new ideas and new ways of being in the world without hesitation. I was wrong. I had some real hang-ups about using non-binary language such as they/them/theirs. Those hang ups were rooted in semantic tradition and a lack of openness to change in an area I previously viewed as static. Someone I care about in my life was hurt by this, and I was shown I have more work to do to cultivate openness. As a result, I’ve been exposing myself more and more to the stories and the lives of people who can open me up to a different viewpoint. In the end, my trans and gender non-conforming siblings are more important than my need to classify things within the grammatical framework I learned in elementary school.

Vennly: You are in the process of realizing a childhood dream of yours – opening a martial arts studio where you will be the Master Instructor. What led you down this path and how does it feel to see a lifelong goal come to fruition?

I pretty much decided when I was an eight-year-old yellow belt, I wanted to grow up and run my own school. Over the years, I have taught at a number of schools and martial arts programs. While all of them were meaningful to me, there is something to be said for being able to build a school rooted in the values that I hold most dear: community, spiritual development, mental fortitude, wellness, empowerment through self-defense and physical fitness grounded in scientific research. As I get closer to making this dream a reality, it isn’t lost on me that now more than ever the most vulnerable in our society (women, children, LGBTQ folks, people of color) need a space where they can develop the skills they need to feel safe, to feel empowered and to cultivate peace in this chaotic world. Thinking about how Do Shim Martial Arts can provide that space, alongside providing men a space to develop themselves outside of hypermasculinity, brings me a lot of joy and a deep sense that this is a significant part of what the Creator is calling me to do.

Vennly: In your Vennly Perspectives, you speak about overcoming gender biases in the martial arts. As a female master instructor, what is your advice to other girls and women who may have interest in exploring this sport?

Never give up. Tenacity leads to success. Martial arts are a personal journey done in community. How much your skills develop depends primarily on how committed you are to achieving your goals. Even if you don’t feel fully supported by the school or the gym you’re in, you can support yourself. Keep reading. Keep practicing. Keep moving forward because you are so much more than the obstacles in your way.

Vennly: For you, what is the connection between martial arts and spirituality?

I truly believe martial arts are an active form of spiritual practice. To me, spirituality is any method used to find a deeper understanding of the self, to seek a higher understanding of truth, and to connect with something greater than oneself. Martial arts are an active method for achieving these goals. They use physical techniques to quiet the mind and to still the spirit. In addition, martial arts are the ultimate mindfulness practice. Staying fully present in the moment requires the total harmonization of one’s body, mind and spirit. You experience in real time how to stay present and the joys of doing so. In martial arts, as in life, we must stay mindful (aware and present) in peaceful moments but also (and more importantly) in moments of discomfort.

This brief explanation just begins to scratch the surface of how spirituality connects to the martial arts. I could go on and on about the various principles and their connection to spiritual practice. I look forward to writing more and to creating more podcasts on this very important topic. For now, the place to get started using martial arts as a spiritual practice is with mindfulness/awareness. For those of us who have active minds or a high level of physical energy, active mindfulness helps to balance our energy and allows for the fertile ground needed to develop higher levels of consciousness.

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Ross Murray

Ross Murray is the Senior Director of Education & Training at The GLAAD Media Institute, which provides activist, spokesperson, and media engagement training and education for LGBTQ and allied community members and organizations desiring to deepen their media impact. Ross is also a founder and director of The Naming Project, a faith-based camp for LGBTQ youth and their allies. Ross is a consecrated Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with a specific calling to advocate for LGBTQ people and to bridge the LGBTQ and faith communities.

Vennly: From your experience, how do people typically use media platforms to engage with their spirituality?

Ross: I find a couple ways people use media platforms. One is to share evidence of their practices: selfies with Ash Wednesday crosses, offering of שנה טובה during Rosh Hashanah or عيد مبارك during Eid.

The other is to post questions and comments that help them to either wrestle with questions about their faith, or to make declarative statements about what the believe and value.

And I think both CAN be helpful in spiritual practice. Just remember, these are tools. They are not the fulfillment of your spiritual practice. If they don’t work for you, change it up.

Vennly: How has your work at GLAAD intersected with your spiritual life?

Ross: My work is a calling, and I don’t just mean that in a metaphorical way. As a Lutheran Deacon, my ministry is considered “Word and Service.” I have a call that comes through my denomination to do LGBTQ advocacy through my daily work at GLAAD. It also means that my faith life has been held up as one possible example of a life that intersects faith and LGBTQ identity. GLAAD has amplified me proclaiming the Word, as well as my faith practices.

Vennly: What was the inspiration for The Naming Project?

Ross: It started with a gay boy in the suburbs of Minneapolis, who I never met. He came out to his family, and they were accepting, but wanted to find a church-based LGBTQ youth group, since they didn’t know best how to support him. They couldn’t find anything, and asked around for help, which eventually reached me and a friend. We researched, and after finding no faith-based LGBTQ youth ministries, decided that we needed to create one.

Vennly: What are your future aspirations for The Naming Project and how can people get involved in this endeavor?

Ross: A long-time dream has been to expand the offerings of The Naming Project. Some ideas that are in the works is an adult version of The Naming Project summer camp. We get so many adults saying they wish they had this experience, that it would be good to provide that summer church camp experience. I’d also like to launch a family camp, with LGBTQ parents, parents of LGBTQ kids, and any mix thereof!
If people want to support us, we constantly need help reaching young people. Please share information about The Naming Project summer camp with LGBTQ and allied youth. You can connect them to our web site or our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Vennly: What is the best way for allies to best support the LGBTQ community?

Ross: First, I think “ally” is something we strive for, rather than a title we give ourselves. I also think that allyship is for more than just the LGBTQ community. If someone wants to be an ally (to any community), try these best practices:

  1. Believe what people tell you about themselves and their experience.
  2. Ask what you can do to be helpful in a given situation, and take the directive seriously (even if it is “do nothing”)
  3. Recognize that an attack on one community is often an attack on several communities, and that the impact is disproportionately felt by those further marginalized.
  4. Don’t tell us you are an ally, but rather, demonstrate it in your actions.
  5. Do tell other non-LGBTQ people why you are an ally.

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The Naming Project camp

Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Chanda Rule

Vocalist, writer and sacred community curator Chanda Rule brings the energy and discipline of a performer to the leading of music and story in ways that encourage all people to use their voices powerfully, peacefully and bathed in Spirit. An interfaith minister and graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Chanda has shared music, story and community song with groups, audiences and communities around the world. Her integration of music with sacred text, liturgy, and story-telling opens up new vistas for congregations and communities.


Vennly: For those that aren’t familiar with the term, how is an “interfaith minister” different from a denominational minister?

Chanda: Interfaith ministry respects and honors all religious and spiritual paths, from traditional to non-traditional practices. Denominational ministers typically minister to folks within specific religious traditions — although these lines are blurry these days with many religious communities including more and more practices that are not specific to their own religious heritage into their liturgies as teaching tools and to extend welcome and hospitality.


Vennly: What role has music played in your life and do you see any overlap between music and faith/spirituality?

Chanda: Music has always been a holy language for me. It’s how I pray, how I have solved conflict, how I’ve made friends, and is the foundation for many of my closest relationships. The most sacred thing about music to me is that it’s an expression that goes beyond language or culture or background or affiliation. It’s something that brings people together, makes us feel, and also allows us to heal.


Vennly: You’ve created a series for Vennly called, “In Search of Tiny Miracles.” Why are tiny miracles important?

Chanda: I am often searching for that big…Thing. That special moment that will perfect my life…or that huge awakening that will change the world. But I was recently encouraged to pay attention to the small steps that lead to these changes; and I began to notice that there were so many little blessings around me that I regularly overlooked, that were downright miraculous and brought simple and life-changing joy.


Vennly: You grew in the US but you now live with your husband and son in Vienna, Austria. Has living outside of the US changed your spiritual worldview?  

Chanda: Austria is pretty religiously conservative which has given me the opportunity to experience sacred community in a new way. I am finding value in being a part of traditional sacred communities with others who have completely different spiritual values than my own — some which I find soul crushing and not so divine. It is a frustrating, joyful, confusing, and yet love-filled time — a life-test to my interfaith call, and a constant reminder that I can deeply love folks who value that which I oppose. And I wrestle with it continuously. Part of me wants to give it up and the other part feels that it’s a necessary part of living together as an evolving species. If we can’t deal with conflict in our sacred spaces where can we? This is where music sets an example. The beauty comes with the harmony and dissonance, the clashing movement and the serene pause.


Vennly: What excites you about working with Vennly?

Chanda: I’m excited to share stories with Vennly! It’s awesome that Vennly is so committed to inclusiveness and is open to different perspectives and ways of sharing them. How amazing is it to be able to build and curate sacred community online – to get inspired and give inspiration — worldwide! I completely dig the diversity of spiritual leaders – and the mission to meet people where they are in their journey to Love.


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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, PhD

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.  


Vennly: In your opinion, what does the future of interfaith relations look like in the US? What are some of the biggest challenges?

Stephanie: It’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter different viewpoints. But we can’t stay in that uncertain place—we have to keep going, so that we can learn and be good neighbors and civic participants. This is the work of interfaith.

Religious and ethical leaders should be teaching their communities how to engage with difference. Any of us can read our sacred texts, or Google what we should believe. What we need help doing is engaging with people who don’t believe like us.


Vennly: As the director of the Claremont Core you are helping your students become the next generation of change-makers and leaders. What is your advice for individuals who are thinking about getting into interfaith work?

Stephanie: True dialogue means relationship, and dialogue done well leads to change. If we can’t listen to one another, we will never see other points of view. We’ll remain entrenched in our current patterns. Being open to other ideas is important. Being open to changing your view is revolutionary. Dialogue is an invitation to do this—and the more we participate, the more likely we are to find ways to solve conflict.


Vennly: In what ways have your personal experiences informed your professional endeavors?

Stephanie: I want to know people. I love people. I love talking to people. I wonder: Who do you love? Where do your children play? What’s your dream job? What are you worried about? Who looks after your health and long-term security? Who will come help you in an emergency? I think if you made a list of all of the people who connect to all of those answers, you will find that your beautiful life is already surrounded by diversity. My invitation to you is to go ahead and embrace it. Get to know those people. They need you. Your life will be enriched—or at least made a little more joyful, a little more bearable, a little more secure—when you meet others just where they are, and when you’re okay with the fact that they’re not exactly like you. I don’t call this “interfaith” work necessarily, but as it turns out, that’s been the framework for all of my professional work.


Vennly: As the host of a podcast on religion and culture, what are the benefits of audio as a vehicle to discuss and explore issues of faith and spirituality?

Stephanie: Stories are ancient. There is something powerful about needing to tell someone something. Our experiences make us unique, and tie us to others. Audio allows me to hear your voice, and to share my own. We find ourselves in relationship more immediately (and more immersively) than with text. These are fraught issues, we fail and share our fears–audio allows you to hear how I’m making sense of the world, beyond just the words I’m saying.


Follow Stephanie:


Podcast: In Times Like These


Apple podcasts:


Twitter: @SVarnonHughes

Instagram: @panoramicgreen, #InTimesLikeThese, #InterfaithGrit

What is pastoral care and why does it matter?

At Vennly, one thing we talk a lot about is the importance of pastoral care. Definitions of what pastoral care covers can vary, but to us it means counsel, support, and guidance provided by spiritual and community leaders related to life topics. For many of our contributors, providing pastoral care is among their most important responsibilities.

Yet, our research indicates that many people don’t seek out pastoral care because they view it strictly as a forum for asking religious questions, or they fear getting judged by spiritual leaders. At Vennly, we want to change that. We view the content our leaders are creating as a form of pastoral care, which we like to call spiritual care. And our hope is that Vennly will provide the opportunity to access this much-needed life guidance on-demand.

To better understand spiritual care and what motivates people to seek it out, we surveyed our Vennly leaders and you can check out their responses below. We’re looking forward to sharing the Vennly version of spiritual care in the coming months!

Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety

Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety is a Lecturer in Youth, Church, and Culture in the area of Education Formation in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her MDiv from Princeton Seminary and her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Princeton University. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. Her interests include culture, family, disability studies, ethnography, and theology.

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