Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Celene Ibrahim

Dr. Celene Ibrahim serves on the faculty of the Groton School in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy. Ibrahim is a public voice on issues of religious pluralism and has authored numerous publications in the field of women’s and gender studies, religion in America, and Islamic studies. Ibrahim’s current book project (forthcoming with Oxford University Press) examines female figures in the Qur’an. She is also the editor of One Nation Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets (2019). Ibrahim holds a bachelor’s degree with highest honors from Princeton University, a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University, and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic civilizations from Brandeis University. She is a frequent public speaker and consultant to educational and civic institutions and is the recipient of several dozen awards and honors, including being named a Mellon Fellow; a Harvard Presidential Scholar; and a fellow in the Program on Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Vennly: You studied in Egypt during your undergraduate studies and shortly thereafter converted to Islam. What inspired you to explore and ultimately convert to Islam?

Celene: In my first weeks in Egypt, I was exposed to the works of Persian Sufis through a class at the American University of Cairo. I gravitated toward the formidable intellectual legacy of Islam and its practices for cultivating the spirit. The wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was vivid; reading through thousands upon thousands of sayings passed down from him and about him awakened my desire to better understand his legacy. Islam was a personally inspiring religious and philosophical framework; the more I studied Qur’anic revelations, the more the Qur’an would seemingly reveal itself. It seemed to contain within many of the insights that I most appreciated from the religious, ethical, and philosophical traditions that I had previously studied. Islamic wisdom was an ocean, and I was thoroughly enjoying the plunge. I had many lovely Muslim friends too. The religion was alive in people’s beings, and it made me alive too. 

Vennly: You speak frequently about the challenges of being Muslim in America. Given the current environment, what are your hopes for future generations of Muslims in this country?

Celene: The rising generation is -in general- the most ethnically diverse America has ever seen, and American Muslims are themselves the most ethnically diverse of America’s faith communities. The majority of us are under forty, so we have a lot of energy and vision for the future. We are also, on the whole, very civically engaged and inclined to tell our authentic stories through whatever mediums that we have available. Yes, we face a lot of bigotry, but I find that on the whole there is a tremendous spirit of resilience and a deep desire for self-definition. Even in the face of severe anti-Muslim bias, our generation, and our children, will help shape an America that is more multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious than ever before. Some may find this to be a rather scary prospect, but I find diversity to be delightful and exciting. Our country may have a dark legacy of racism, and centuries of xenophobia to face, but our history also gives us a deep appreciation for religious freedom and for fundamental liberties for all people. I am confident that American Muslims will build upon and bolster the aspects of the American legacy that we can all celebrate and that we will, collectively, help this country to live up to the most worthy of its core values.

Vennly: As a society, we’re having more productive conversations about gender equality in the workplace. What has it been like being a female religious scholar in a largely male dominated space?

Celene: I have come to accept that I will have to work harder and longer to receive the esteem that is more readily given to male colleagues. But this is still true in many professional fields. I am heartened by many of male colleagues who really do attempt to make space at the table for women’s voices and contributions. And for those who still seek to exclude women from leadership and from contributing their efforts and insights, it is to the wider community’s detriment. We are, I believe, at our best when our value as religious leaders in the eyes of our community is not predetermined by gender, or race, or any other such factor, but that is, perhaps a bit idealistic. For my part, I hope to keep striving in the ways that I feel called, and trust that some good will be created by the striving. In particular, I am committed to mentoring other women who feel called to religious study and leadership and to creating networks of women and other marginalized groups.  

Vennly: How do you balance your work as a distinguished Muslim scholar and a chaplain?

Celene: Scholarship enriches the intellect, spiritual caregiving exercises the heart, and both elevate the spirit. In many ways, theory and praxis inform one another. I bring insights from my work as a spiritual caregiver into my scholarship, and the scholarship enriches and informs the caregiving. In any given day, week, month, or year, I try to balance my time between being in study and being of service. 

Vennly: What are some of the key messages and/or issues you will be discussing on the Vennly app?

Celene: We face many environmental and social pressures in our careers and in our personal lives, and practices of self-care are critical to emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. I hope to share some of the practices and insights that have been meaningful to me in different life circumstances. 

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Denise Fournier

Dr. Denise Fournier is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist. Her practice, Evergreen Therapy, aims to help individuals heal and transform through a deeper connection with themselves, and a greater understanding of the many relationships they hold in their lives. Denise also teaches graduate students in Nova Southeastern University’s Family Therapy department and writes a mindfulness-based blog for Psychology Today.  She is trained to operate within traditional models of psychology, but she also regularly incorporates concepts from Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and indigenous healing traditions to address the psychological, emotional, spiritual, communal, and ancestral dimensions of the human experience.

Vennly: How did you first develop a practice that combines traditional psychological approaches with Eastern religious philosophies?

Denise: The first time I was ever introduced to therapy also happened to be the first time I was introduced to Buddhism. At the beginning of my first year in college, I had a crippling bout of anxiety that landed me in the student counseling center; and the therapist who was assigned to me was a practicing Buddhist who wove certain aspects of it into our work together. Because of that experience, I started studying both Buddhism and psychology. And then over the years of my training to become a therapist, I was lucky to find other mentors who combined traditional psychotherapy with ancient Eastern philosophies and practices, which helped me shape my own presence and voice as a mindfulness-based therapist. 

Vennly: Much of your work places an emphasis on relationships. How do you define “relationships” and why is it such a critical piece of emotional and spiritual health?

Denise: The way I see it, to have a human experience is to have a relational experience, because everything we go through as human beings takes place in the context of relationship. When you really think about it, we’re in relationship with everything: our thoughts, our emotions, our past, our future, our beliefs, our ancestors, our coworkers, our friends, our lovers, our children, our culture, our sense of life in general. When we look at life this way, we get to see that each of us is part of a larger whole. And I think there’s critical spiritual significance in taking that perspective and recognizing that everything we experience has bigger implications and a bigger impact. 

Vennly: In a Perspective you created for Vennly you speak about the moment in your life that you hit rock bottom. What was transformative about that experience? 

Denise: That rock bottom I referenced was a span of a few months back in 2015 when every part of my life radically changed: I finished my Ph.D., got divorced, found myself broke and in need of a place to live, went through some major changes in my family of origin, got diagnosed with cancer, and had surgery to remove the cancer. But those experiences weren’t actually my bottom; they were just agents in facilitating my fall to the bottom. Because each one of those things forced me to release old beliefs and shed old layers and old attachments that weren’t serving my highest good. That was a time of incredible loss for me, but in a wonderfully strange and paradoxical way, it was also the most beautiful and transformative time of my life. It gave me the chance to become a much more aware and intentional version of myself, which has changed everything.

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

Denise: One of the biggest issues I see young adults facing is what I think boils down to a crisis of meaning. On the one hand, I think young people today are, generally speaking, pretty tuned in to the problems in the world, and a lot of them are already starting to come up with highly insightful and intelligent solutions that will be transformative for all of us. But on the other hand, they’re plugged in to a powerful system that’s trying to sell them on a spiritually bankrupt vision of what life is supposed to be. And this is just the existential blanket on top of the general life stuff they’re dealing with as they try to figure out how to be grown in this world. 

I think It’s really important for young people today to recognize that their attention is truly their biggest superpower, and if they direct it toward things that are spiritually and emotionally nourishing, they’ll create a sense of purpose and meaning that will support them in navigating their challenges and creating fulfilling lives. Vennly can offer them (and all of us) an opportunity to direct their attention to things that matter. Since it’s diverse in its content and shares voices from many perspectives and faith traditions, young people can actively navigate it and be spiritually expanded in self-determined ways. It’s exactly the kind of thing this world needs more of, and I think young people stand a chance of utilizing it to its fullest potential. 

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rev. Jeremy Nickel

Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel is a thought leader, a lifelong spiritual adventurer and an entrepreneur. Following Seminary and multiple jobs in the tech world, Rev. Jeremy served for seven years as the Minister of Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, CA.  He left in 2017 to launch the SacredVR Project and later its secular cousin EvolVR (pronounced “Evolver”). Both projects host live spiritual and personal growth events like Yoga and Meditation sessions, in Virtual Reality spaces attended by people from around the world. These events have been attended by over 3,000 people from twenty-two different countries in the last year!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Read more