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Finding Faith

Seeking material for a sociology project, Faith Adiele found herself.

November-December 2004

Fresh from a UNESCO-funded summer of writing at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Faith Adiele '86 sits in her office at the University of Pittsburgh. A low-maintenance, close crop of red curls adorns her head, and her foot, sticking out from behind the cluttered desk, is adorned with red polish and a toe ring, having lost its shoe almost as soon as its owner sat down. The office is a happy mixture of the typical English professor's lair, filled with books and papers, and an eclectic gallery, decorated with Asian and African wall hangings and knickknacks.

Faith Adiele
Photograph by Jordan Buschur

The setting is a far cry from the unadorned room at a temple deep in an Asian forest where, 20 years ago, Adiele changed her life by temporarily joining a Buddhist religious order. That bare room and her once clean-shaven head are among the memorable images in her new book, Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. The narrative's publication is the latest step in Adiele's long journey from Western farm girl to Harvard student to nun in Thailand to award-winning writer and English professor in Pennsylvania. Along the way, she also arrived at a greater sense of self-awareness, a renewed commitment to social activism, and, at last, a sense of being right where she belongs.

 

Adiele (pronounced ah-dee-EL-ay), now 41, is the only child of parents who met as students at Washington State University in the 1960s. Her mother was the first in her Swedish-Finnish immigrant family to attend college. Her father was a graduate student from Nigeria, a place whose political turmoil would lure him home before his daughter's birth. Years later, he would serve as a minister of education there.

As a biracial child raised in a Yakima Valley farming community populated mostly by white farm families and their Mexican employees, Adiele became familiar early on with race and class differences. In high school, as part of cultural-exchange programs, she visited Mexico and Thailand. In both countries, she was appalled by ordinary people's day-to-day struggles, which far exceeded the hardscrabble life she shared with her single mother. The experiences fueled her growing outspokenness on issues of race, poverty, and women's rights.

A résumé filled with those cross-cultural adventures and her top academic grades, combined with scholarship money, paved her way to Harvard. In Cambridge, she poured her energy into such enterprises as co-chairing the refugee committee of the Phillips Brooks House Association. She also received grassroots-development internships with Boston's Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee and worked with the Association of Black Radcliffe Women.

But Adiele was struggling personally. She had quickly realized that her own African-American experience was unlike that of most other black Harvard undergraduates because of her biracial background and rural upbringing. In addition, she was dividing her time between urban Boston, working in social-service programs, and the cloistered Harvard campus, two unfamiliar and, she felt, unforgiving places with little resemblance to her home across the country. "My entire identity was in opposition to what was around me," she says of those days. "I didn't have the tools to dissect what was going on in this very segregated community."

Unmotivated, scared, and exhausted, she found herself on academic probation after her sophomore year. Enrolling in a study-abroad program sponsored by the University of Washington, she returned to Thailand to study Buddhist nuns and perhaps develop a sociology project to salvage her academic career. Once there, she made an almost spur-of-the-moment decision to undergo ordination herself, but for scholarly rather than religious reasons: she wanted to experience the nuns' lifestyle firsthand. Doing so, she hoped, would allow her to "challenge traditional anthropological methodology and understand the women I was presuming to write about."

Adiele, who had never before meditated, would later write: "Only after ordaining did I discover — to my horror — that I'd chosen to reside in an intensive meditation retreat," meaning that she could expect to spend up to 19 hours a day in contemplative activities.

Bald and browless — like many Buddhist nuns, she was required to shave off the trappings of vanity — she spent two months in a forest temple, learning the intricacies of purposeful, mindful, seemingly simple living. She rose at 3:30 each morning, donned a heavy, full-length white robe, spent long hours in silent sitting and walking meditation sessions, and got by on a single daily meal of rice and vegetables.

Above, Adiele immediately after her ordination. In preparation (below), her head and eybrows were shaved.
Photographs courtesy of Faith Adiele

The adjustment was a huge struggle for Adiele's very young and, as she puts it, very Western mind and body. Adapting to her new life meant learning to move slowly and deliberately, rather than at the "gotta-go" pace she had always used. Then there was the Buddhist tenet against harming living creatures, which prohibited her from making threatening moves toward — or even fleeing in terror from — exotic life forms that occasionally invaded her living space, including flying rats and fist-sized spiders.

Despite those perils, Adiele found that her time in Thailand offered a peculiar kind of respite. In a place that, in those days, had limited exposure to African Americans, she was merely "different," rather than the target of preconceptions based on race.

And, in a place where Thai tongues pronounced her first name "Fate," she learned that spiritual practice, with its conflicts and struggles, means moving toward self-awareness and inner peace. These lessons, she says, strengthened her resolve to work against racism and sexism. "When I read about the Buddhist quest, I realized that it was also the black quest, or the women's quest," she says. "I don't think that you could fight a political battle without a spiritual core."

 

Having rediscovered and reconnected with herself, Adiele returned to Harvard after a year in Thailand. She concentrated in Southeast Asian studies and, ultimately, graduated with honors. After graduation, she remained in Cambridge, working on programs in diversity training and advocacy for immigrants. In 1989, she set out for Nigeria, combining a lengthy study of women's religious movements with a plan to meet her father, and many other relatives, for the first time. Years later, she credits her time in the temple for giving her the courage to take that step. "[Thailand] was not a digression in my life, but a part of my journey," she says. "I wouldn't have been able to go to Nigeria to meet my family if I hadn't taken that trip first."

In 1990, in keeping with her renewed commitment to social activism and community education, she became the first alumna coordinator at Education for Action, a student-run nonprofit social-action center at Radcliffe College that provided funding and training for local and international advocacy projects.

She also began writing in earnest. In 1992, she began work on a novel with college friends Michael Melcher '85, Bennett Singer '86 and Julia Sullivan '86. During the next five years, they created The Student Body, a thriller set at Harvard in which they sought to expose different sides of their alma mater. "We wanted to talk about the Harvard we experienced," Adiele says. "We saw ourselves as the legacy of the 1960s, students who would change the world." To that end, they incorporated their real lives as a close-knit group of friends representing a diverse range of cultures and sexual orientations into their fictional tale of a prostitution ring and other criminal activity on campus.

Written under the collective pseudonym Jane Harvard, The Student Body was published in 1998 to mixed reviews (see "Group Sex," May-June 1998, page 32). Around the same time, prompted by a call for anthology entries, Adiele pulled together her writings from the period of her ordination in Thailand; she later compiled them into the book-length manuscript that became Meeting Faith. By this time, she had left Education for Action and received a master's degree in creative writing from Lesley College. She went on to earn two master's of fine arts degrees, in fiction and nonfiction, from the University of Iowa's acclaimed writing programs.

And she discovered another outlet for her activism: "I realized that my political work could be [done] as a teacher," she says. With that in mind, she joined the University of Pittsburgh's English faculty as an assistant professor of nonfiction writing in 2002. A self-described "creature of history," Adiele embraces the interaction of personal experience and global change. She often assigns her students to construct timelines of transforming events in their lives, matching those moments to world events happening at the same time. She also insists that young people understand the largely imperfect, stumbling process that often precedes success and true self-understanding. As she puts it: "I think it's important that I tell students that I flunked out of Harvard my sophomore year — before I graduated with honors."

 

The past year has been busy for Adiele, due largely to a book tour and her teaching responsibilities. In April, she was featured in the documentary series My Journey Home, produced by filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña '80, which aired on PBS and covered Adiele's return trip to Nigeria in 2002 to revisit the family she had first met more than a decade earlier. She is editing an international anthology of coming-of-age tales and working on a book of nonfiction called Twins: Growing Up Nigerian/ Nordic/American. The latter project blends her family's histories and the political and social changes, from late-nineteenth-century Sweden and Finland to Nigeria and America in the 1960s, that influenced them — much like the assignments she gives her students.

She took a similar multifaceted approach to Meeting Faith, which chronicles her months in the temple and her attempts, failures, and painstaking successes at living the Buddhist life. The main text, culled from journals she kept in Thailand, is a detailed, sometimes emotional narrative of her experiences. A second column, in the margins, includes instructions and admonitions from the temple's head nun, along with excerpts from Adiele's research materials on Asian women, Thai culture, and Buddhism. The resulting story moves between the author's intensely personal voice, the somewhat detached tone of social-science books, the head nun's prodding encouragement, the reverent clarity of Buddhist texts, and the concrete details drawn from other sources. Adiele says the technique allows readers to follow and feel her ordination experience in a far-off, unfamiliar place, and to be "disoriented and overwhelmed" — just as she was.

She also says that her ordination deeply changed her life, even though she didn't remain a practicing Buddhist (she was raised, and remains, a Unitarian.) Consequently, her memoir about her time in Thailand is less about religion than it is about the power of spiritual practice, or any similar commitment, to transform a life — in her case, helping her find the communities where she belongs. "It's not a how-to on meditation, or some New Age treatise on Buddhism," she says of her new book. "It's a story of resistance and transition, in which I recast failures as opportunities for success."

~ Leah Samuel

 

Leah Samuel is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.