by Susal Stebbins, SIT Graduate Institute student
The Rev. Chloe Breyer’s experiences with The Experiment in International Living and SIT Study Abroad have inspired her to embrace her own traditions and blaze new paths in international work. She was ordained as Episcopal priest in 2000 and now serves as Director of the Interfaith Center of New York, bridging not only disparate faith communities in the US and the world, but also a wide range of immigrant communities and civic leaders.
Chloe’s connection to World Learning began through her father, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who was an early participant in The Experiment in International Living, traveling to France in the 1950s. Chloe traced her father’s footsteps in the EIL France program more than 20 years later. But her interests drew her to expand her exploration to a vastly different continent and culture through SIT’s Study Abroad program in Tibet in 1990.“I had a lovely time in France,” Chloe notes, “but I didn’t share my father’s passion for French culture and language. My real love is Central Asia.”
In SIT’s Tibet program (based in Nepal with travels to Dharamsala, India, and Tibet), Chloe studied the Tibetan monastic debate tradition at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and met Tibetan leaders in exile, including the Dalai Lama. She took heed of the Dalai Lama’s observation that there are truths in all religions and “one can make the most contribution in the tradition of one’s own culture.” Although her family had not been active in the church, Chloe reflected on the values of her Anglican heritage and was confirmed Anglican in 1992. Five years later she began her studies at General Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “That was an intercultural immersion experience!” says Chloe, so much so that she was moved to write a memoir about it. ‘The Close: A Young Woman’s First Year at Seminary’ was published in 2000, just after Chloe’s ordination. After seminary, Chloe went to work as Chaplain of the Cathedral School at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, founding and directing the Cathedral Forums on Religion and Public Life featuring international scholars and clerics such as author Karen Armstrong and Michael Lapsley, Chaplain of the African National Congress and founder of the Healing and Memory Institute.
Chloe’s life was transformed on September 11, 2001. She was one of hundreds of religious leaders who ministered to victims, survivors, and their families at the site of the World Trade Center, at the morgue, and at memorial services. She quickly became involved with the organization‘9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows’.
Chloe was inspired by the on-going comittment and faith of the 9/11 family members she worked with. She recalls, “There was this sense of awakening, remembering that we are all human beings belonging to the same family, that the blindness of nationalism and religious insularity can be overcome.” When the US launched the war in Afghanistan, the Episcopal Diocese reached out to Muslim communities in New York and joined with the largest Afghan mosque in the state to raise funds to rebuild a mosque in Afghanistan that had been destroyed by US bombs. Chloe became deeply involved in interfaith work around Afghanistan, participating in a “Reality Tour” of the country with Global Exchange in 2003, returning in 2004, 2006, and 2007 to work on the construction of a new mosque, joining the board of Afghans4Tomorrow, and working with Episcopal Relief and Development to raise money for schools and clinics in Afghanistan. Chloe realized, “The qualities I loved about Tibetans were present in Afghanistan: a sense of toughness , honor and humor. The Afghans I met, especially the women, are some of the most inspiring people I’ve met in my life; they’ve survived 25 years of war and drought…”
In a sense, Chloe’s interfaith work grew out of her encounter with Tibetans in her SIT Study Abroad experience. “The idea that religious faith and reason are not incompatible with each other came through clearly in the conversations I had with many Tibetan Buddhists. These conversations inspired me to plumb the depths of the Anglican tradition and find the riches there. Now what I learn through interfaith work motivates prayer and study in my own tradition.”
Chloe’s every day interfaith work is rich indeed. Through the Interfaith Center, she provides civic training for religious leaders and religious diversity training for government leaders, helping build understanding and preventing conflicts before they start. “Whether Hindu or West African Muslim, people realize they don’t have to give up their religious tradition to be engaged citizens,” Chloe observes, “and they often end up working together on issues like hate crime and children’s health care in New York City.” With religiously diverse members of the Interfaith Center’s staff, Chloe is also pleased to support US Muslims who are embracing diversity within and outside their faith. For example, when an Afghan Muslim leader in Flushing, NY becomes a Prison Chaplain in the New York City Prison system, he suddenly takes on a broader identity by being Imam to many Pakistanis, African American, and Arab Muslims, as well as Afghans. Another Muslim leader in the Bronx brings groups of Muslim and Hassidic Jewish youth on tours of the Museum of Jewish Heritage to learn about the holocaust together.
In 2008, Chloe led an Interfaith delegation of Christian, Jewish, Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders to meet with the Chinese Consul on the issue of religious freedom in Tibet. And this year, she began work with major European cities on an interfaith exchange program. “We are interested in learning more about urban immigrants and diverse religious communities who are challenging the notions of what it is to be French, or to have other European identities.” With all her work Chloe Breyer continues to learn, teach and build on her World Learning experiences in profound ways.
For more information about Chloe Breyer’s work at the Interfaith Center of New York, go to www.interfaithcenter.org
Susal Stebbins is a PIM student (Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management degree). She calls Minneapolis, Minnesota and Kathmandu, Nepal home and has had a rich life experience with many strands of writing, photography, social activism, music, and teaching.