Life, Death, and a 'Reservoir of Hope'

In early May, an enthusiastic HDS staff member walked into offices in Divinity Hall to let people know about a community altar that was being constructed on the building's third floor. Those of us who could spare a moment were invited for an informal viewing. This altar was, apparently, unique in some way, worth leaving any email messages we were writing to dangle in mid-sentence.

After a moment of internal debate—Did I really want to leave my desk to go look at an altar?—I walked down one flight of stairs for a glance, although I'd already made up my mind that this unique altar would, in fact, not be unique. At best, I thought, it might be mildly interesting. To my surprise, tucked inside of a small conference room, stood something remarkable.

Sea shells, beads, candles, pictures, flowers, a doll, a set of keys, a wheel used for steering a ship—these were some of the items immersed within the altar, which stretched over 12 feet along the window sill, trickled down to the floor, and extended onto a shelf and then over to a large meeting table. This was an altar like no other I'd ever seen. It was colored with the shades of the sea: foam white, ocean blue, and aquamarine. The typical religious overtones I was familiar with had been mostly replaced by other religious icons, such as a Yoruba goddess and Sedna, the Inuit deity of sea mammals.

The altar was conceived by Maria Cristina Vlassidis, a ThD candidate at HDS, and Cemelli de Aztlan, who recently completed her second year in the master of divinity program, as part of their work for Professor Kimberley Patton's course "The Deep: Purity, Danger, and Metamorphosis." Vlassidis explained that the altar, named "The Deep," was not simply symbolic of the ocean. Rather, the deep also represents the psyche.

"Our wounds and pain, they are also deep," Vlassidis said. "But so is our reservoir of hope. In our spiritual, indigenous tradition, life and death go together; it's a constant cycle."

For years Vlassidis has helped to create community altars, which encourage people to interact with and participate in the altar-building process. Aside from receiving her MDiv from HDS in 2007, Vlassidis has a law degree and worked as an immigration lawyer in New York. She is passionate about lessening human suffering—as is de Aztlan—especially for women who have been victims of abuse and violence. The altars are one way of facilitating the healing process.

The altars represent a way to say "that, within the chaos life or the universe throws at you, there is hope," Vlassidis noted. "Let us not get stuck on why this happened, or if this is a punishment from God as some people would see it, but let's move forward on how we are going to get through this together."

Vlassidis is interested in broadening notions of mourning and loss. Although she has experience in building community altars on a large scale, before coming to HDS she had not yet connected it to her ministerial calling.

"I had not really used it as a healing tool," she explained. "I just thought it was part of me that I was sharing with the community as an individual, or it was part of what I could offer to my job site and to my co-workers who were depleted emotionally."

Vlassidis and de Aztlan continue the tradition of altar building at HDS by offering healing opportunities for the entire community. They emphasize that the altars are not a personal, individual spiritual practice, but are open to everyone.

"You don't need to believe in a particular saint or have a particular religious tradition," Vlassidis said. "At first I thought that some of the students here would feel offended to have certain images portrayed or to have certain rituals enacted, but it wasn't like that. It was respectfully embraced."

Vlassidis has been building altars at least four times a year since 2004, especially for the Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2), for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and also for the people of Central America and in solidarity for the woman of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a city where more than 400 young women have been murdered in the last 10 years.

De Aztlan, who is from El Paso, Texas, has developed a special connection with Vlassidis because of their shared concern for the women of Juárez. During the last two years, Vlassidis has become, in a way, a mentor or elder to de Aztlan.

"I live right across the river from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico," de Aztlan said. "So when I came here and learned that Maria Cristina was building altars for Juárez and the women being murdered there, I felt that she took me under her wing."

De Aztlan's ambition to come to HDS was a direct reaction to the injustices occurring across the river from her in Juárez, and it has been an honor for her to work with Vlassidis on the altars.

"I think I came here with a warrior's spirit," de Aztlan explained. "Now I feel the peace of community and togetherness and the power of healing. I feel connected participating in altars with Maria Cristina and the HDS community."

Vlassidis and de Aztlan identify as women of the borderlands, in which their lives are full of limits, crevices, and deep spaces where it is difficult to imagine hope because there is so much destruction. "But as women of the borderlands, that's our reality," Vlassidis explains. "We are neither totally here, nor totally there. So we wanted to infuse the altar with a sense of hope, even in the face of death."

On May 2, in Andover Hall's Sperry Room, four indigenous cultural leaders, including Vlassidis, spoke on the topic "Native American Perspectives on Spirituality." Among the speakers was Don Barnaby from the Micmac tribe of New England.

Roughly three minutes into his speech, Barnaby, who was given the name "Beaver Who Creates Waves," stopped in mid-sentence and picked up an eagle's feather laid across the lectern in front of him. He stared down at the feather and slowly pulled his fingers up and down its spine. The eagle feather, he claimed, represents truth.

"I need to pick up the eagle feather when I speak and share," he said. "In order for me to share my experience, my strength, and my hope for other people out there, I need to speak the truth."

Barnaby spoke of his experiences on the red road, which represents living by the Creator's rules of truth, friendship, respect, spirituality, and humanitarianism. He says it took him many years to walk the red road and to learn how to open what he called "his third eye" and to develop an open mind and become teachable.

"For so long I had squeezed my third eye shut, and I was a very angry person," he said. "I had a lot of issues, and I didn't have spirituality in my life."

As Vlassidis approached the podium, she placed her grandmother's shawl—her own eagle feather—on the lectern so that each person could see it. The shawl, she explained, keeps her true to her own self and to her ancestors.

She then invited the large audience in the Sperry Room to participate in a ceremony of saying aloud the names of our ancestors who have passed away.

"This is not an everyday thing," she said in a hushed voice. "I want to recognize the presence here of our ancestors. If you are so moved, call out the name of your people. You don't have to wait for the others to finish. In fact, it's better if the names greet each other in the air."

A few moments of silence passed before someone spoke the name of his ancestor. Shortly after, another name was shared. Then another. Most of the audience sat bowed, as if in prayer. Even for members of an academic religious community, this was a ritual that many—including me—had not experienced. It is one that will not soon be forgotten.

As Vlassidis continued her discussion, she told us that this setting was the first time she has indentified as Mapuche, who are indigenous peoples of Central and Southern Chile. For so long she identified as mixed, as Chilean, as Latina, as an immigrant, and as a woman from the borderlands. She has struggled against labels and cringes when she receives government forms requiring her to check a box and, in a sense, boxing in herself and her ancestors' spirit.

"Identity is one of those things that marks us," said Vlassidis. "And so today is a very important day for me in claiming and re-claiming, affirming and re-affirming my heritage. Otherwise, I would not be honoring my ancestors truthfully, completely, and wholly."

Before the panel discussion, de Aztlan sang a native song of healing while playing a traditional drum. For her, one of the most important visions passed down from her ancestors is viewing every inch of the Earth as sacred. "The relationship I have with the Earth is one of responsibility, but not domination," she said. "It's one of respect, but not of slavery or toiling the soil until it is dead. We carry on our backs these altars, but we stand on the shoulders of giants—our ancestors."

People often ask why de Aztlan and Vlassidis build altars, which so often deal with death, pain, and mourning.

"Because it brings hope," Vlassidis said. "We try so hard to be tough. We try so hard to be those warriors who are always stoic and always ready for the next battle. But we get tired, and we need to stop on the road and rest and drink a little water and eat a little bread in communion with others. HDS has offered me the opportunity to build community in a very human way, in an unknown way, and in a very surprising way."