by Vanessa Oceguera
photography by Annette Paulson
University of La Verne Chaplain Zandra Wagoner sits in her office inside the interfaith chapel, facing her bookshelf of religious literacy books by Stephen Prothero and Susan Thistlethwaite, her spiritual leaders. She sits with a small group of students surrounding her; they are the Interfaith Fellows, her team of student interfaith leaders who join forces to bring religious pluralism to campus. The leaders are engrossed in the plans for an interfaith cooperation lecture they will teach. They lead this lecture every year, but this year is different. The 2016 presidential election votes were just counted. The group is talking about a campus response, following one of the most divisive elections in history. The campus community is deeply affected by the election results, and many look to Zandra to reunite the community and to offer support. This year, the interfaith lecture will act as a reminder of bridge-building, offering insight on engaging with others respectfully, despite differences in beliefs. Another student walks in. He is here to pick up candles for a peaceful protest in the evening. Then the phone rings. This is a typical day for Zandra. She fills multiple roles on campus as a professor, a chaplain, and, most of all, a peacemaker.
Growing up in the La Verne Church of the Brethren, Zandra felt a deep connection to her faith that led her to Bethany Theological Seminary to become an ordained minister in her Christian denomination. Yet, right from her career start, she faced adversity. At Bethany, Zandra developed a liberal feminist theology that contradicted the traditional Church of the Brethren way of thinking. “It was a time to really explore all kinds of theological questions, and it was in seminary school where I discovered things like feminism and multiple lenses of feminist theology, womanist theology and African American theology. There was lesbian feminist theology and mujerista feminist theology—all these wonderful different voices of women doing really important theological work,” Zandra says. Seminary school was a great time of community. She lived and studied together with the other students in graduate housing. Zandra was able to explore theological and faith questions not only in the classroom but amongst friends at dinner. She had a particular group of friends who cooked for one another five days a week. Each day, they would go to the other person’s apartment and share a meal and engage in conversation.
Bethany was connected to nine other seminaries in the Chicago area, so Zandra was able to take classes at other seminaries. She studied with “some amazing rock stars in the feminist theology world” like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Susan Thistlethwaite. “I am most grateful for them opening up a world [where] theology always has a perspective attached to it. They opened me up to theologies that came out of struggle and discrimination, and they helped me understand the dynamics of power and privilege. These were voices of justice and love in a way that was quite hopeful and empowering. They gave me a voice.”
When it came time to receive her ordination and begin to minister in a church, it took her almost two years to finally be approved. “My ordination in the Church of the Brethren was very controversial because of my liberal theology,” Zandra says. “And in part because it was a feminist liberalist theology, there were accusations that I was lesbian. Which I was, but I wasn’t out. But because I was seen as feminist, I was also being accused of that.”
Zandra finally received her ordination in 1994 and first earned a college chaplain position at McPherson College in Kansas, a higher education institution affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Throughout her career, her position as a minister was controversial. The Church of the Brethren, a Christian peace church denomination, was birthed at the start of the 18th century in Schwarzenau, Germany, and has a strong reputation for being on the conservative side of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) rights, says Randy Miller, former editor of the Church of the Brethren Messenger, the Church’s official national magazine. Within the denomination, acceptance on same-sex marriage varies by church, because the denomination does not have a formal creed besides the New Testament. The Bible is open to individual interpretation by each church.
This freedom has led to some conflict and turmoil within the denomination. The La Verne Church of the Brethren falls on the more liberal side of the spectrum. Yet, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity remain in debate among the national Church of the Brethren religious leaders. “Instead of building bridges, they are erecting walls,” Randy says. He is a member of the La Verne Church where Zandra also attends as a member on Sunday mornings. Randy, who left his Church of the Brethren editor position February 2016, says he appreciates the progressive stance the La Verne Church of the Brethren takes on issues of equality.
Zandra continued her work as McPherson College chaplain for three years. Then, she came to a life turning point. She hid her homosexuality in the past to gain the right to lead others in worship, but she no longer wanted to hide a part of her identity—even if that meant losing her ordination. An ordination is similar to a license in the sense that it can be taken away if church leaders see fit. “As I was wanting to become more open about being lesbian, [then] I really couldn’t rely on the Church to hold the keys of my livelihood,” Zandra says. She stopped practicing ministry but kept her ordination. Bringing with her all she had learned about faith and freedom of identity, she went back to school to earn her Ph.D. in religion so that she could teach and not feel so trapped by the Church and the way it controls her ordination. She graduated from Claremont Graduate University in 2005.
Fast forward to the present: Zandra has been the interfaith chaplain at the University of La Verne for six years, all the while teaching religion classes in the Religion and Philosophy Department. Her total time at the University is 15 years, when counting teaching and general education administrative roles. “When you’re working for the co-curricular side, it’s no longer academic. It’s experiential. I had so much to learn. My academic education hadn’t taught me about interfaith work so I had to learn it on the job.” The University students and the local interfaith community were her teachers. She became a part of the interfaith community by contributing to the local initiatives. She calls it “learning by doing.” Zandra currently is involved in the Inland Valley Interfaith Network, a collaboration between a number of local interfaith initiatives, and the Working Group for Middle East Peace. In October, the interfaith group held its annual Interfaith Peace Walk in Pomona. Included were a local Muslim mosque, a Lutheran church and a Jewish temple.
She is grateful to the students who were here when she became the chaplain in 2011. Firas Arodaki, an alumnus, was one of the students on campus when Zandra first entered the chaplain position. “He had already started this amazing Muslim Student Association. It was one of the most vibrant clubs on campus, and they were educating the campus about Islam and holding events that introduced the campus community to important rituals or cultural celebrations that helped us understand the meaning behind it.” When Zandra and the students began discussing starting an interfaith club, Firas was one of the first ones who said he would like to help. “He left a legacy of truly creating an interfaith community and of what a Muslim community can be here on campus,” she says. Tiffany Kovel, University alumna, was the first president of the interfaith club and Caleb Ulrich, University alumnus, created the first Hilel Jewish Club. “This was super important because in interfaith work, you need to have communities of people who identify with their religious traditions. So [Caleb] helped set up a community for Jewish students, and he then connected that to our interfaith work,” Zandra says.
Tahil Sharma, University alumnus, was also instrumental in the evolving of an interfaith environment on campus. “What Tahil brought was eastern traditions here. Because he himself was religiously multiple, being both Sikh and Hindu, he easily helped build our philosophy of interfaith work, and he helped us with the building blocks of what interfaith work could look like on campus.” These are just some of the students who have inspired Zandra throughout her position as chaplain, and their mark on La Verne’s campus has left a lasting legacy in the interfaith movement.
Zandra’s position at the University calls on her to bring interfaith cooperation to campus. She strives to create an environment inclusive of all religious and nonreligious worldviews. Yet, she goes beyond religious tolerance to promote a culture of acceptance and respect for other people’s beliefs. Interfaith cooperation, in her view, involves both dialogue between people who orient around religion differently, and service contributed to the community by people working together for the common good. “Diversity is a fact of our country; pluralism is an achievement,” Zandra says, quoting Diana Eck, an influential religion scholar. “Interfaith work to some degree is a fact that we are living in an interfaith context. We are interacting with one another seeking to understand one another. It is not a dialogue to convince anyone to change beliefs; it is meant to seek understanding and to find cooperative ways to work together for the good of one’s community. It is an active, very intentional relationship for the sake of the community.” Yes, there are unique differences between the world’s religions. “Interfaith is not a denying of differences. Those differences matter. It is a choice to activate the shared values for our common good.”
When it comes to her religion classes, Zandra is not like the average professor. Instead of starting class with a pop quiz, she begins her lesson with a meditation exercise. “Zandra is most known for her compassion and her sense of being,” Mariela Martinez, senior political science major, says. “Being in her presence gives you peace.” Mariela first took Zandra’s Introduction to Religion class freshman year of college. “My perspective, as a staunch Atheist, was that religion had no place. And it was through her class and the Soul Journs [field trips], and guest speakers in class from different religions, that I learned about the different religions. And I also learned that a lot of them have a lot to do with my own philosophy, my own personal views. So it made me interfaith-y,” Mariela says with a wide smile. Zandra’s class inspired her to be active in the interfaith movement on campus. Mariela is now vice president of Secular Student Alliance, a club meant to provide students with a place to engage in conversation about secularism and Atheism. Mariela also works with Zandra as an Interfaith Fellow doing high-level interfaith organizing.
Years after Tahil Sharma, La Verne alumnus, graduated, he continues to work with Zandra on interfaith collaborations, and Zandra’s influence on him remains a strong part of his own interfaith activism. “Knowing Zandra has strengthened my perspective on interfaith. When I had this understanding of interfaith work, I never really had a sense of how to live it on a daily basis,” Tahil says. Meeting Zandra and observing how she is a chaplain who has learned to love other faith traditions for their different unique values, while being able to live as a strong Christian raised with Brethren roots, influenced Tahil to see interfaith cooperation as a part of his own daily life. “Having a living breathing example of someone like her was what became my encouragement or my precursor to how I not only lived my life as a Hindu and a Sikh, but also, more importantly, how I lived my life being an activist and helping others in need of a similar voice. She’s brought me to dedicate myself to interfaith cooperation,” he says. “Zandra believes in a world filled with peace, a world filled with compassion for humans and animals alike. She shows that energy that people need to make sure that they never give up. She’s always been the role model, that renewing light that people need when they are in their darkest moments,” Tahil says with admiration in his voice.
Zandra has also taught Tahil that people’s other identities play a role in their religious or nonreligious orientations. “When Zandra first told me that she had a female partner, it was stupid of me to assume that those who are ordained were almost unanimously straight people. One of the biggest things I got to discover was learning about other people who are religious, but happen to be LGBTQ. It was something I never really got to discuss because my circles of religion and interfaith work didn’t really discuss that openly. She was the catalyst for understanding how a lot of different things that we may consider as antithetical to faith and spirituality actually play a much larger role in strengthening those identities,” Tahil says.
When the Orlando nightclub shooting took place in June 2016, Tahil and Zandra agreed they needed to get the community together to show solidarity. However, Tahil noticed that her usual sense of bubbliness was really low that day. “What had taken place in Orlando, where the LGBTQ community was openly attacked by a man misled for whatever reasons, put her intersection as an interfaith activist and as a lesbian at a weird crossroads.
“It was something she lived as an interfaith leader. And being a member of the LGBTQ community, [these were] now neck and neck at each other because of confusion, ignorance and misconception. That kind of vulnerability is rare for her, but it shows why she does the work that she does with students. It’s because she doesn’t want to see students in pain, to suffer, or to go through anything that would make them deterred from pursuing their dreams. Make no mistake that she is the backbone to a lot of students because she understands what it means to go through injustice,” Tahil says.
Zandra’s ideal campus setting includes an interfaith presence that is so visible that a person immediately knows she belongs, regardless of how she orients around religion. She wants students to know that it is OK to bring this part of their identity inside and outside the classroom. “Bring your full self,” Zandra says, passionately. She also strives toward a campus that provides plenty of opportunities to learn about each other’s traditions experientially. Says Zandra, “It’s not just book learning, but getting to experience a Jewish Passover or having the opportunity to do a Buddhist meditation or going to visit different communities—that we are learning together, that we are sharing these different worldviews together.”
She is excited to be bringing together the multicultural services and the interfaith services in the upcoming remodeling of Brandt Hall. “It will be an amazing place to explore identities. We never want to explore religious identity in a vacuum. We need to look at religious identities in relation with other identities.” Zandra hopes to see some vibrant student-led clubs. Her philosophy of interfaith work includes both faith-specific clubs for people who want to explore their own traditions and interfaith work, like Common Ground, an interfaith organization. “So we need a vibrant Hillel, an MSA [Muslim Student Association], a secular student club, Christian clubs because those are the communities that we have a critical mass of on campus,” she says. Zandra believes that some campus clubs should house specific religions so that people are practicing spiritual traditions. Then, when these groups do interfaith work together, they can talk about their different identity locations. Out of this dialogue, they can begin to work together to solve and address community issues. Zandra says college is a learning laboratory for how to do good interfaith work, and it is a relatively safe environment for students to practice this work so that when they get out in their careers, students who have had these experiences on campus might feel comfortable knowing how to navigate complicated identities around religion. The newly developed University of La Verne interfaith minor is available to students who want to study spiritual cooperation on a much deeper level. Zandra expects the minor to provide a broader appreciative knowledge of traditions and practical classes like conflict resolution and non-violent communication. The minor will also give students the skills to cultivate shared values and to find ways to use those shared values as community assets for the sake of seeking peace. “Values like compassion, love and kindness are often seen as shallow in our society, but what would it mean if our communities lived out of a place of compassion?” Zandra says. “That word means ‘suffering with.’ So [when you recognize] that there is suffering, then you act with compassion given that suffering. These concepts can be understood in a shallow way, but they have deep meanings within our philosophical and religious traditions. I think if we are doing this interfaith work well, we become a collective voice demanding that these shared values have real meaning.”
Years have passed since Zandra’s initial struggles in her career, and she is open to sharing her painful experiences because they were a time of learning for her. Zandra has dealt with deep struggles within the Church, but she is still connected to the Church of the Brethren, and it remains a part of her. She is a leader in a LGBTQ rights organization within the Church called the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. She travels frequently for conferences and activism in the interfaith realm as a national leader.
“I talk about my struggles obtaining my ordination due to deep theological differences in the Church of the Brethren because it is a part of my story, and it did alter my path and perspective in this world. It’s something far in the past that does not hurt me today. Rather, it stands as a very important part of my education about things related to power, privilege and control.” This wound is no longer open, but has healed, and now empowers her and gives her the courage to advocate for change. “This experience has propelled me to have strength and clarity with a deep commitment to compassion, empathy and justice. And it’s what reminds me to always take risks on behalf of others—to be advocates for one another because we need one another in the struggles for change and justice.”