I was not the star pupil of my Divinity School class. Those people are off doing their Ph.D.s (drool), enjoying higher discourse with the great minds of our time. No, I was solidly near the upper middle. I got a half-tuition scholarship when I applied, which helped a lot. So much that I'll only be paying off the loans for another ten years! But then, for my third year, I was offered late membership in a very special group: the Turner Scholars. Yes, Dollar General funded my education. And I'm proud. But I shop at Target. Anyway, I'm not actually blogging about the Turner Program today, although it was amazing and I got many free lunches (both literally and figuratively).
I'm actually blogging about another unbelievable opportunity that I was offered. I received a letter in the summer of 2009 that I'd been anonymously nominated by one of my professors to attend the World's Parliament of Religion in Melbourne, Australia, that December. Oh, and did I mention that it was all expenses paid? Flight, meals, registration, lodging - everything except souvenirs and alcoholic beverages. The Henry Luce Foundation (aka the "Time Life" people) wanted to pay thousands and thousands of dollars so I could go listen to delightful lectures. The funniest part was at the bottom of the letter, where they asked if I wanted to go or not. The only thing that would possibly have barred me from going is if I was pregnant and due to deliver during that week. Did I want to go!? Yes!!
All throughout that semester I read up, had meetings, researched, and took a class on Comparative Theology to prepare for this experience. I quickly discovered that the Dalai Lama was to be the keynote speaker of the plenary addresses. This was truly the chance of a lifetime. When else would I be within spitting distance of a man who is arguably the greatest religious leader of our time?
We boarded the plane in Nashville on a cold November morning. The itinerary: Nashville to Raleigh, Raleigh to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Auckland, Auckland to Brisbane, Brisbane to Melbourne. Ouch. My strategy was just to set my watch to the local Mebourne time from the second we stepped on the plane and then take sleeping pills to put my body on their schedule. It actually worked pretty well! I read three books in the twenty hours from Los Angeles to Auckland. I was traveling with three other students and a professor, and we made sure to get up and do stretches regularly.
An aside: we traveled Qantas Air from Los Angeles onward, and it was amazing. Free unlimited Australian wines, excellent food, good movies, kind servicepeople. Loved it.
We stepped off the plane in Melbourne and the heat was astonishing. I had left Nashville dressed in pants, sweater, scarf, moccasins. I quickly realized this would be unsuitable dress for the opposite season! We made our way from the airport to the hostel and started to get our bearings. Hostel is kind of a misleading name for the place we were staying. It was more like a hotel where you share bedrooms and bathrooms with people. Liz, the other gal who had come from Vanderbilt, and I shared a room with two lovelies from Union Theological Seminary. We were really near the city center of Melbourne.
Thus began the dual adventure of attending the Parliament and exploring Melbourne. Melbourne is a fantastic city. It is new (as is most of Australia - younger than the East Coast), having been born of a gold rush in the mid-1800s. Aussies were like the perfect mix of British properness and American entrepreneurialism. There was none of the aloof British snootiness that we had (rightfully) incurred as American visitors there during our honeymoon. Rather, the Melbournians I met had a kind of curious admiration of the American way of doing things, but didn't seem willing to go as far as America had in sprawling suburbs and business ventures. They also had the biggest and best open market I had ever seen, and the largest operational network of trams as public transport.
When I wasn't skipping sessions so I could soak up all of Melbourne's early-summer amazingness, I was inside the convention center listening to people from around the world divulge the essences of their religious experiences. It was mind-blowing. I heard from Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sufis, Sikhs, atheists (who picketed the Parliament, which I found ironic), Buddhists, Hindus, scientologists, Shintos, and so many more that I've already forgotten. I spent a lot of time in a conference of other seminarians, where we helped push one another to think more fully about the possibilities of global religious education and comparative theology in the future. It was a perfect environment for germination of ideas and friendships.
I've been wanting to take Jeff to Melbourne, but the cost of plane fare alone is enough to put me off for another decade. Also, I never quite learned how to order coffee correctly. But I will always be so thankful for this opportunity that dropped onto my lap and into my life. Whenever I see a Time magazine, I pause for a moment of gratitude that the sales from this publication helped send me on one of my finest adventures.