My name is Stephanie Varnon-Hughes**. I'm a PhD student at Claremont Lincoln University, where I'm studying Inter-Religious Education.
I begin my dissertation hopefully later this spring.
I'm also working for Claremont Lincoln University on their interfaith programs, and on telling the story of the university.
I'm also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, so professionally and personally, interfaith dialog is a huge part of my life.
I'm inspired by the Hizmet Movement.
I didn't realize that until I came in contact with the Movement, but all of my life, education and service and dialog have been transformative to me.
So when I encountered the Movement, first in classmates, and then professionally, seeing dialog institutes, at professional conferences, and reading academic papers written by people who reference the Movement, and the work of Mr. Gülen, I began to see, oh, there is an entire Movement of people that are studiously and earnestly involved in things that I'm involved in.
And when I had the chance to travel to Turkey and meet people working in schools, in relief organizations, in neighborhoods, again, I thought, this is human work.
This is the work that all of our hearts should be doing. So it remains a source of inspiration for me in my work.
Mr. Gülen is to me simultaneously both incredibly modest and a visionary.
And I see that anyone who has studied his words or has come in contact with him, or has become part of the education projects that he began long ago has also had the transforming power of service, education, peacemaking, and dialog.
And so, it's strange to think that one person with a deep heart and a commitment to living so that others may live can really change the world.
And yet, I see this person, Mr. Gülen, as someone who's not interested in personal power, or personal acclaim, or making speeches about himself. It's really about letting others live.
One of the things that always strikes me about Mr. Gülen is his appreciation for poetry, and I myself when I was a child would sit in a tree and write poems. And I felt very close to God in those moments. And I had good teachers, who would comment on my poetry every single time, and I know that Mr. Gülen has said that poetry and the imagination gives us access to the infinite, and I'm thankful for the teachers who have helped me foster that skill.
And I just think it's another fruit that someone who does so much for education and service also wants to nourish the souls of people.
Not just give them a desk, not just give them books, not just give them aid, but make sure that the imagination and the soul are not luxury items. They're for each person.
When I was a little girl, I lived in a very rural town, a coal-mining town. My father was a coal miner. My grandparents were farmers, and not many people went to college.
And so the idea that I could go to college and become a writer or a thinker was very far to me. And when I traveled to Turkey, I saw students that I recognized myself in them.
And I saw students for whom just an education changes their lives, and generations after them.
And so I think that one of the major contributions of the Movement is to make a good life accessible. And it doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter if you're Muslim or Christian or male or female or you have money or you don't have money, you can have access to education. And not only education, but sometimes food, and aid, and medicine, and the things that you need…
There are people in the community through the Hizmet Movement who can make that happen.
And so I recognize that the things that happened to me, that allowed me to flourish, and do this interfaith work, is happening for others through the Movement.
There is a verse, I believe—forgive my ignorance—in the Koran, that God made us many nations and people so that we might get to know one another. And that has a scholarly impetus, that is, each of our scholarships and our brains and our knowledge. If we only study ourselves, and we only study the small world around us, our knowledge will never be enriched.
But if we get to know one another, and get to know more about science, and more about the world, and more about other things, our knowledge is enriched.
So from a scholarly perspective, that idea is profound. And from a personal perspective, we all are enriched by relationship, by friendship, by trying new foods, by hearing new music, by being exposed to art. So that religious verse really plays out in the choices that I've made as a scholar and as a professional.
One of the really remarkable things about the Hizmet Movement is that there is no hierarchy.
There is no person to tell me if I'm doing it right or wrong, or to say “Stephanie, you have to jump through this hoop or that hoop.”
It really is; if your heart is a service heart, then that's what it is. And so I make light of it, I say, “oh, I'm an American Christian, but I'm part of the Movement.”
Because my work is with education, it's with interfaith dialog, and it's with seeing justice done with the world. And so I can't think of any other organization that is so broad and so non-hierarchical, and so inclusive.
My position here at Claremont Lincoln University really is a dream come true.
The motto of this university is “Putting wisdom to work in the world.”
And that idea of wisdom means opening oneself up to hear the wisdom that might be revealed in other people's traditions, faiths, or practices.
As a teacher, I know that whenever a student is about to learn something new, we experience disequilibrium. And that's a developmental, psychological term for the shakiness that comes before we learn something new.
So it is the role of teachers and pastors and leaders to help people experience that, and then learn something.
I think that all of us, if you think about a tree with roots, and the nutrients that come from the soil, all of us are more enriched when we have access to wisdom from different traditions.
And that's our work here, and it's clearly the work of Mr. Gülen and the Movement. I can't speak for Muslims, but non-Muslims, I've seen in my classmates, in the classes that I've assisted with, in projects that I've done; all of our hearts and our minds and our practices are enriched from fruitful encounter with the other.
The schools of the Hizmet Movement, supports and fosters, are such engaging places. The children are clearly so cared for, they are so warm, there is music and sound, and just writing; they were really inspiring.
Honestly, I taught in cities here in the United States, and sometimes the teaching was very hard, and there were students coming from really disadvantaged places, and my heart sometimes was breaking, because I didn't have resources. And visiting schools in Turkey, really, I felt myself rejuvenated by seeing the possibilities that these schools were giving students.
It really, I can't say enough how profound it is, to give this gift to every child, no matter his or her background, or how much money their parents have. It's essential, and it's life-giving.
If you take that away from a child, you're taking away from her family, and the generations after her. You really are taking away the most important thing, which is a chance at life.
Last summer, here in the United States, there were tornadoes that happened in the state of Oklahoma, and my little sister and her husband lost their house. And she is not a believer, she's not Christian, but she said that all of the aid that helped them get their lives back came from religious organizations, and she was thankful for that.
So when I visited Kimse Yok Mu, I felt that connection, again, of an organization who was giving so much aid to thousands of people, no matter what country, no matter what they looked like, no matter who they worshiped, just giving the aid where it was most needed.
And I thought, this is what my family experienced. And I think in the face of devastation, when people have no hope; our role as children of God is to give hope.
Is to use our traditions and our wisdom and the resources we've been blessed with to give back. I cannot think of a reason to criticize any organization that meets people where their need is in the world. I think that's, I think the work speaks for itself.
**Profile: Stephanie Varnon-Hughes is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies™ . She completed her Master's in Church History in 2008 and her STM in 2009 at the Union Theological Seminary. She is completing her doctoral studies at Claremont Lincoln University, focusing on inter-religious curriculum and engagement.
*Produced by Spectra Media exclusively for Irmak TV, Atlas of Thoughts (Fikir Atlasi) connects the scholars, politicians, jurists, religious figures, journalists, and academics reflecting on Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement with the audience. Each episode features a person from a different segment of the society with diverse experiences regarding the Hizmet activities and its volunteers. If you are interested to hear about the Hizmet and Mr. Gulen from these people’s perspectives, do not miss this show!