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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Dearest Friends,

            Each day is so full of potential. Life and Death entice us with each moment. Are you living and loving as thoroughly as you can? The largest storm to ever hit land in recorded history has reaped grave disaster throughout the Philippines, and our hearts and hands must go toward this island nation with assistance. Haiyan was unlike any storm before it, and the devastation is horrific. All actions have consequences, and decades of unchecked consumption have altered our weather patterns inextricably. You can’t blow up most of a mountain range to extract coal, release all the carbon into the atmosphere burning it, and hope nothing bad will come of it, for example. These times are hard, and raw, and provide an opportunity like never before for us to come together to create new patterns for living and for supporting one another.

            While Superstorm Haiyan was crushing the Philippine Coastline, my Divinity Professor from Naropa University, a dear friend and mentor, Roger Dorris, passed away.

            Roger was a force to behold, although you wouldn’t know it at first. His voice was soft but words powerful. He founded the Master of Divinity program at Naropa University, as well as the Master of Engaged Buddhism. Roger taught us about Facilitation, Active Listening, Mediation skills, Systems Theory, Community Dynamics, designing and holding Ritual and Ceremony, Restorative Justice, and more. The way of a chaplain demands a great deal of emotional flexibility, and above all, the ability to hold Presence. How do you teach people to hold Presence? How do you even talk about it, much less mentor the skills necessary? A pedagogical challenge to be sure. And Roger rose to the task with the glimmer of trickery and delight known to dance in the eyes of Bodhisattvas, those beings who are willing to live their lives fully for the benefit of others.

Every week as a graduate student, our cohort sat with Roger in a circle for a class he developed called “Process Lab.” There were no rules, no expectations, just open space for us to do with as we chose. We created our own ground rules and co-created an incredibly intimate experience designed to help us “hold space,” and “maintain presence.” Well, five years into wearing the M.Div. title, I will tell you, these hard-to-define-terms are the most vital skills in the chaplains’ toolbelt, and not skills anyone can learn from a book.

I remember when I learned about mountaintop removal coal mining and felt the inexorable call to Appalachia, Roger would come over to my house with ideas for the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, and his support meant everything.  I have witnessed his mentoring move through me time and again. The thing with being a Chaplain is that the work is much like Process Lab – always changing, hard to define, yet contained within ground rules of integrity, trust, confidentiality, and spiritual grounding. His classes, and others at Naropa, taught us how to be comfortable with not-knowing and able to enter any space with a humble fearlessness; to design a community ritual on the spot, to pull out grief from praise and vice versa, and go to the places that scare most with eyes and heart wide open. Without those lessons I could still be a strong activist, organizer and Zen Practitioner, like I was going in to Naropa, but not an Eco-Chaplain. The training meant something, and Roger Dorris had a huge role to play in it.

Roger will be missed. His legacy will live on through the work he has helped shape in all his students, and in the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative.

Losing a loved one in the midst of this immense natural disaster in the Philippines helps me put back on my ‘life-is-precious’ glasses. These glasses have been foggy while being sick most of a year. But Life really is amazing, and I can see that clearly right now. We can die just like that, so let’s live to our fullest, love as much as we can, and exude intention-in-motion in our lives. For me, the only way that makes sense is to be of benefit towards our self, our Earth, and all beings as much as possible. Does this make sense?


Much love to all of you,