My Top 10 Stories of 2016

It’s been a busy news year, to say the least, and I’ve reported on everything from primaries in New Hampshire to marijuana in Georgia to terrorism in cyberspace. Here are my top 10 stories of 2016, in no particular order:

A yard shrine in Somerville, Mass. (Joshua Eaton)

Shrine, Jesus, Shrine: Visiting The “Bathtub Marys” Of Somerville

Catherine Piantigini has probably seen most of Somerville’s yard shrines, but there’s one on the Medford line that’s her favorite. Our Lady of Grace stands in a blue-and-white bathtub, her arms open in welcome. The paint is chipped, and Mary’s gaze is cast down as if she’s lost in thought. Someone’s written “MPB 1975” in the concrete at her feet.

Part of the reason Piantigini loves this shrine is personal; she remembers being here in Somerville in 1975. “But it’s also very beautiful,” she says. “It’s understated, but beautiful.”

To Piantigini, the statues scattered throughout the city’s yards are more than just religious objects or lawn kitsch. They tell a story about immigration and home ownership, class and identity, that’s part of the city’s heritage.

Read the rest of this article at Scout Somerville …

Why the World’s Deadliest Terrorist Group Is Training Girls to Be Suicide Bombers

A disturbing report in The New York Times details how the terrorist group Boko Haram, which is active in West Africa, trains women and girls as suicide bombers.

Boko Haram has used at least 101 women and girls as suicide bombers since June 2014, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. The group has abducted some 2,000 women and children since 2012, and The Times reports that its female captives are ideal suicide bombers because they’re less likely to face scrutiny and suspicion. Girls are also able to easily hide heavy machinery or deadly material in their dresses or baskets. The idea of using females as suicide bombers is not a new one — The Times reports that women have been utilized as deadly weapons in other conflicts too, such as in Chechnya and Sri Lanka.

Read the rest of this article at Teen Vogue …

ISIS supporters hold the group's flag aloft (Tauseef Mustafa:AFP:Getty Images)

What Is ISIS? A Primer on the Terrorist Group Behind the Attacks in Paris

Last weekend, French President François Hollande declared war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group that has taken responsibility for the brutal attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad last week. The Paris attack left at least 129 people dead, with another 46 dead in Beirut and 18 in Baghdad. ISIS has also claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner in Egypt earlier this month, killing 224 people.

With that violent track record, ISIS, also known as Daesh, has become on of the world’s most dangerous security threats — and they’re a relatively new organization.

But who and what is ISIS, exactly?

Read the rest of this article at Teen Vogue …

Ashoka Mukpo (Jake Burghart/Vice News)

I Survived Ebola. But the Fight Doesn’t End There.

When Ashoka Mukpo speaks about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, his words carry a compassion and humanity that can only come from firsthand experience. That’s because Mukpo, 33, is one of only a handful of Americans to contract Ebola in West Africa, where he was working as a cameraman with NBC News. It’s an unusual turn in what was already an extraordinary life. Mukpo is the adopted son of the legendary Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who helped establish Tibetan Buddhism in the UK and North America.

With another US healthcare worker possibly infected with the virus and West Africa slipping from the headlines, Mukpo sat down with Tricycle to discuss his work in Liberia, his fight with Ebola, and how spiritual communities can help.

Read the rest of this article at Tricycle Magazine …

Northeastern University students and others hold a meditation vigil in Copley Square on Nov. 22 to raise awareness about climate change. (Joshua Eaton/Tricycle Magazine)

Meditating in Public: Northeastern University Students Sit Down to Protest Rising Carbon Levels

As members of the Northeastern University Buddhist Group settled into their meditation cushions on Saturday, November 22, and found their breath, a biting wind blew through the green in Boston’s Copley Square. A golden, Thai-style Buddha sat in front of them, its jewelled robe catching the light off of John Hancock Tower. But this wasn’t just a street retreat or a public meditation—it was a protest against climate change.

Read the rest of this article at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review …

Members of One Earth Sangha, a Buddhist environmental group, take part in the People's Climate March on Sept. 21, 2014 in New York City (Joshua Eaton for Tricycle)

Buddhists Take to the Streets for the People’s Climate March

“I know that my path to enlightenment will only come from being connected to the world around me,” Njeri Matheu, a member of Brooklyn Zen Center, explained as she marched through the streets of midtown Manhattan. “It’s not just about being centered inside; it’s about being connected to your world.” Around her, an estimated 700 other Buddhists belonging to over 35 Buddhist organizations held signs and banners with environmental slogans as they walked, keeping rhythm with meditation bells. This Buddhist contingent contributed to the estimated 400,000 protesters who participated People’s Climate March, the largest march of its kind in history, on September 21.

Read the rest of this article at Tricycle …

Buddhist Peace Fellowship Protests Urban Shield, Police Militarization in Oakland

Lifelong Oakland resident Maurice Johnson was leaving Starbucks on Sunday, Aug. 31 when he heard drumming and the sound of Japanese monks chanting the first line of the Lotus Sutra. Johnson then saw nine members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), all in meditation posture, risking arrest by blocking the Oakland Marriott City Center’s main entrance. A banner at their feet read “Evict Urban Shield.” On the other side the hotel’s front driveway, about 25 other BPF members meditated silently with signs that called for an end to police militarization.

The protest’s Buddhist packaging surprised Johnson at first, but he understood its message instantly.

Read the rest of this article at Shambhala Sun …

Monks in Ferguson: Six Tibetan Monks Join Demonstrators to Support Justice for Mike Brown

Tensions continued to escalate in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9. His death set off days of protests and a heavy-handed, militarized police response that has sparked national outrage.

But Ferguson residents got a pleasant surprise on Sunday: A visit from a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks.

Read the rest of this article at Tricycle …

Aaron Alexis

Yes, the Navy Yard Shooter Was a Buddhist

When I heard that Aaron Alexis, the man who killed twelve people and wounded fourteen others in a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, was a Buddhist, I did not worry that someone would blame my religion for his terrible crime. That was ensured by Buddhism’s popular image as a peaceful, non-dogmatic science of the mind—an image bolstered by internationally known figures like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn. Instead, I had the opposite concern: that people would say Alexis was not really a Buddhist.

Continue reading » Yes, the Navy Yard Shooter Was a Buddhist

Bhikkhu Bodhi at the first meeting of the Center for Interfaith Action's Global Initiative for Faith, Health and Development in Washington, D.C. ( Shambhala Sun)

Beyond the Search for Inner Peace: An Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on Buddhism as a Force for Social Justice

When I showed up, the room at Harvard Divinity School was already overflowing. World-renowned professors and undergrads alike were packing the aisles, standing in the doorways, and squeezing in behind furniture. At the front of the room stood Bhikkhu Bodhi—a short, soft-spoken Buddhist monk with a marked Brooklyn accent—who held the audience rapt even as he explained dry, technical details of meditation.

Born Jeffrey Block, Bikkhu Bodhi has a PhD in philosophy and years of monastic training in Sri Lanka. However, it wasn’t his impressive abilities as a translator and scholar that brought me there that day. Since returning to the States Ven. Bodhi has established himself on the forefront of Buddhist social justice movements.

Read the rest of this article at Religion Dispatches …

Marisa Egerstrom, far left, with the other Protest Chaplains at an Occupy Wall Street march in the fall of 2011 (Protest Chaplains)

Marisa Egerstrom: Organizer, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation

There was an infection restlessness in the air as Marisa Egerstrom climbed the bandstand at Boston Common to address the 300-strong crowd at Occupy Boston’s first general assembly. Egerstrom and fellow faith activists from Boston—they called themselves the Protest Chaplains—had just come from the first days of Occupy Wall Street. A week later Occupy Boston would set up its own camp in Dewey Square.

Egerstrom spoke at length with Spare Change News about Occupy Boston, the spread of the Protest Chaplains, and her ongoing work to bridge communities of faith and communities of protest.

Continue reading » Marisa Egerstrom: Organizer, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama speaks at Syracus University on Dalai Lama at Syracuse University on Oct. 8, 2012 (VOA)

Self-Immolators and the Dalai Lama: What They Don’t Have in Common

On Nov. 7, 2012, the Dalai Lama sent President Barack Obama a note of congratulations on his reelection. It was, in most respects, an unremarkable form letter. For careful observers of Tibetan politics, however, the last paragraph jumped out:

As you know, it is over a year since I handed over all my political authority to the elected Tibetan leadership … I am very appreciative of your support for our Middle Way Approach, which I continue to believe is the best way for us to ensure a solution that is beneficial for both Tibetans and Chinese.

The Middle Way Approach has dominated international dialog over Tibet since 1979, when it was adopted by Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)—Tibet’s government-in-exile, of which the Dalai Lama was then head of state. Now His Holiness’ letter to Obama reaffirmed the Middle Way Approach amid growing frustration with it from Tibetans in and outside of Tibet — including some who have self-immolated.

Read the rest of this article at Global Post …

Northeastern University students and others hold a meditation vigil in Copley Square on Nov. 22 to raise awareness about climate change. (Joshua Eaton/Tricycle Magazine)

Let’s Talk: It’s Time to Open Our Doors

I spent the year after college in an AmeriCorps program that placed me in the Task Force for the Homeless in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. During my time there I served at several different transitional homes, emergency shelters, and soup kitchens. It was the end of a string of social-service work for me, which started several years earlier with volunteering at a Latino community center next to my college campus. I spent the summer before my senior year living in an intentional community that provides homeless services in Boston. Then I went to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, on my last spring break to prepare meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

During this time I was struck by the fact that all of the social-service groups I served with were dependent on organized religion for support. Many of the soup kitchens were housed in church basements, and almost all of the emergency shelters relied on various church groups to come in and cook a meal once or twice a month. A Hindu group took over two whole shifts a month at the soup kitchen where I lived and served in Boston.

Continue reading » Let’s Talk: It’s Time to Open Our Doors

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama speaks at Syracus University on Dalai Lama at Syracuse University on Oct. 8, 2012 (VOA)

The Dalai Lama Comes to Cambridge

It was an unusual scene, to say the least. Scientists and academics stood in line next to young Tibetan monks. Aging spiritual seekers mingled with ambitious young Cambridge undergraduates. And they all filed, one by one, through checkpoints watched by hawk-eyed Secret Service agents with crew cuts and discreet earpieces.

This unlikely group was gathered to see Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international human rights icon, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, address a packed crowd at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium—all part of MIT’s Global Systems 2.0 conference, held on Monday, Oct. 15. The event, which was sponsored by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, featured His Holiness responding to presentations from environmental scientists, systems theorists, and management experts on the problems of “degraded environment, declining economies and soaring consumerism.”

Continue reading » The Dalai Lama Comes to Cambridge

Invisible Children staff pose with weapons and personnel of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army

Why Are Evangelicals So into Uganda?

Anyone who hasn’t been under a social media rock for the past week is aware of the Kony 2012 video and viral marketing campaign started by Invisible Children. The goal is to convince US policymakers to intervene in the ongoing crisis in Central Africa by providing more US military advisers, more military aid to the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and more diplomatic pressure on Central African heads of state.

Continue reading » Why Are Evangelicals So into Uganda?

Revolutionary Love: On Hooking Up, Waiting, and the Buddha’s Middle Way

[Note: I would not frame this article around Janie Fredell and Lena Chen if I could rewrite it . My apologies to them.]

To avoid all evil, to cultivate good,
and to cleanse one’s mind—
this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

—Buddha, Dhammapada 14: 183

Last March, The New York Times Magazine published an article about Harvard’s abstinence group—True Love Revolution—showing two extremes of sexuality at Harvard. On one end was Janie Fredell, former president of True Love Revolution and a vocal advocate for abstinence. On the other was Lena Chen, author of the infamous Sex and the Ivy blog and an equally vocal advocate for—well, certainly not abstinence. The two faced off on October 25, 2007, in a debate The Harvard Crimson Magazine called, in a rather sexist and immature article, “chock-full of mutual respect” and “BORING!”

Continue reading » Revolutionary Love: On Hooking Up, Waiting, and the Buddha’s Middle Way