Student Profile: Joe Zesski

It's a common question that Harvard Divinity School students learn to endure from friends, family, and even complete strangers: What made you decide to study religion? But of all the answers that can and have been given to that query, the one provided by Joe Zesski, who graduated with an MDiv degree in 2002, is especially compelling.

When Zesski searches for the source of his interest in religious studies, he traces it all the way back to the age of 3 when he was diagnosed with terminal double retinal blastoma, a malignant tumor in both eyes. Devout Roman Catholics, his parents refused to give up. They took him to prayer groups and faith healers (Zesski vaguely remembers visiting an Italian woman in her mid-90s who lived in northern New Jersey), they obtained sacred relics from various places (among them, Lourdes), and they asked for Masses to be said for his healing.

Defying the terminal diagnosis, Joe was healed. He believes that a combination of medical treatment and religious faith saved his life, though, as he puts it, "I lost my sight in the deal."

Zesski doesn't remember much from that time, at least not consciously. "I was so young," he said recently. But he is sure that "if not my exact path, then my personality traits and who I am today were formed in that time." He also believes that growing up blind has contributed to his interests: "When you aren't in control," he said, "you tend to interact and connect differently in the world."

When Zesski was growing up in southern New Jersey, he wasn't thinking he would end up following any kind of religious path. His first interest was in radio, "which became a passion of mine," he said. He was a sportscaster for his high school, and was host for an intraschool morning show. At Cabrini College, a small liberal arts school in Radnor, Pennsylvania, he was a DJ and talk-show host for the campus radio station.

Zesski began college thinking he might go into a career in radio, so he majored in English communications. But in the second semester of his freshman year, he happened to take a class with a professor by the name of Leonard Primiano, an HDS alumni (MTS '80). The course was on the Catholic Church and contemporary issues, and Zesski was intrigued—so much so, he says "I took another course with him, and another, and then decided to make religious studies my second major."

"Leonard Primiano really sparked my interest in pursuing religion academically," Zesski said. Primiano helped Zesski pick out various graduate schools, including HDS, Emory, and Union Theological Seminary, but when he graduated in 1998, he decided to take a year off from academics.

"I needed time away from school to recharge," he said. He spent the year "doing various odd jobs and taking care of family matters at home," including helping his sister through a particularly difficult period. "She was suicidal for a time, and I served as an emotional linchpin for her," he recalled. Their mother had died in 1992, when Zesski was in high school, and he said the family needed time together.

Meanwhile, Zesski was faced with the decision of which graduate school to attend. Although Emory made the best financial offer, when he visited Georgia in October, it was 80 degrees and he realized he had the Northeast in his blood. He chose HDS and began the master of divinity program in fall 1999.

Joe initially thought he would end up doing pastoral counseling and focusing on disabilities and their theological implications, but during his time at HDS, he said, "my academic interests shifted and varied." He took courses especially in ethics and early church history.

He points out that his extracurricular interests have been just as much a part of his education as his courses. His first year, he became involved in the Catholic student organization at HDS and ended up being its co-leader in his second year. He helped organize a memorable forum entitled "Why am I Catholic?" which ended up being one of the best attended events of the year and attracted press coverage. He also helped give meditations at the "Stations of the Cross" event scheduled by the Office of Ministerial Studies, and served as a proctor in Rockefeller Hall. By way of balance, he assisted each Friday in running Ralph's Pub, a purely social event for HDS students.

Perhaps the most important work Zesski did in his three years was not on the HDS campus, but at his field-education site, the Samaritans of Boston, a suicide prevention center and hotline. Zesski began by doing mostly hotline work, as well as assisting training new volunteers and other office work. Then he did a summer placement at Samaritans, and his job evolved to include interviewing prospective volunteers and being a facilitator for a peer support group "to allow people on the phones to discuss their own issues."

After his field placement ended, Zesski continued on as a volunteer and still has a very close relationship with the organization.

He found not only the work but also the philosophy of the Samaritans to be appealing. The core mission of the group, which was begun in England in 1953 by an Anglican priest, is "befriending" people who are suffering. In terms of suicide prevention, this means "a nonjudgmental, passive listening" and "total confidentiality."

Zesski stresses that unlike some other suicide prevention organizations, Samaritans is "not an intervention organization."

"We don't force help on somebody," he explained. "No matter what someone's condition might be, they have anonymity."

After working at Samaritans for a while, Zesski came to see the group's policies and mission as exceptional. The methods used by the group "allow for communications that may be stifled by other groups." He said by that he means that the passive, non-interventionist techniques "allow people to have a voice wherever they are and offer companionship to somebody who is hurting for various reasons." Offering an unhindered, consequence-free environment rather than focusing on problem-solving is as much pragmatic as it is religious—it works.

But, he said, the methods and mission also fit with his own "personality combination of optimistic and fatalistic." While he believes that preventing suicides his possible with this particular type of approach, he also has a sense and understanding that "there's only so much one can do."

"I have a willingness to accept someone's right to refuse help or intervention which is not based on agreeing with that right, but is based on my understanding that what I do is only part of the healing process for that person," he explained. "What I can control is very limited."

Zesski knows a lot about limited control from his experience as a blind person. Yet the other students, faculty, and staff who have gotten to know him during his time at HDS are amazed at his ability to negotiate a sight-centered world.

He explains that he had "mobility training" while he was growing up, including instruction in how to use a cane. When he moved to Boston, the Office of Student Life hooked him up with an organization called the Caroll Center. They helped him learn the geography of the campus and Harvard Square, as well as major routes. "I have expanded piece by piece since then," he said. "I tend to learn things vaguely in a mental map, though I don't conceive in pictures, but rely on all five senses."

He said he tends not to use techniques that other blind people use, including a guide dog. "People always ask me, 'Why don't you have a dog?' " he said. "And the truth is, I'm not really a dog person. Besides, pets are a lot of work and realistically, given my pace of life, I don't think I could offer enough time to a dog."

Instead of the usual methods, Zesski negotiates much more "by feel and intuition." He said that he's fortunate that people in public want to be helpful, and he is always careful to be courteous and polite even when he doesn't need the help being offered to him.

His reliance on intuition carries over into other areas, as well. When he talks about his plans for the future, Zesski is open. He has known for a while that he doesn't want to be an ordained priest, since "the issue of marriage is one for me." But he says he would consider doing diaconate work as a lay person and that he definitely enjoys doing homilies during Catholic worship.

He sometimes thinks he might continue doing suicide prevention work, or some other kind-of pastoral counseling. But, he said, "Because of my religious faith and faith in God, I very much believe in providence." To Zesski, this involves "reading the signs and being led to certain things." It also means "sometimes not doing what might be seen as the most logical thing to do."

"Learning to be adaptable and flexible is something I've had to do in my life, probably because of my disability," he said. "I take a measure of the current, see where it is leading me, and trust."