I’ve been living New York City for the last week in a mini-residency to focus on some more substantial writing projects, and I’ll be here for the next three weeks. Vanessa Gomez Brake, interviewed below, will be NonProphet Status’s guest editor while I’m gone!
Gomez Brake’s interfaith credentials are impressive. She oversees campus programming at the Stanford University Office for Religious Life. She graduated from Arizona State University with degrees in Religious Studies and Psychology, and she received a Master’s degree from the School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution at George Mason University, where she was a research assistant at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, & Conflict Resolution. She’s the Co-President of the San Francisco Bay Area Humanists and a board member of the North American Interfaith Network. I’m really excited to see what she does with the blog while I’m gone!
Gomez Brake and I spoke about interfaith, her background, and dogs. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Please give Gomez Brake a warm welcome.
Vlad Chituc: What kind of religious background did you have growing up?
Vanessa Gomez Break: More than 80% of Filipinos ascribe to the Roman Catholic tradition. It is basically the unofficial official religion of the Philippines. We have Spanish colonialism to thank for that. As such, I was baptized and raised Catholic, and consider myself culturally Catholic to this day. I stopped attending Mass regularly around the age of 18 or 20, but I periodically find myself in the church for special occasions: weddings, memorials, etc. I can recite many prayers from memory, such as “Hail Mary” and “Our Father.” I have 5 god children, and anticipate accruing another half dozen in my lifetime.
In addition to institutionalized religion, Filipinos have a rich history of folk medicine / healing traditions, as well as an abundance of superstitions that inform daily activities. When I was younger, my family would periodically consult a healer when one of us was sick. Typically, the ailment was due to someone having wished something bad upon us, or we’d be informed that a dead relative was upset with us. A ritual remedy would be prescribed by the healer, and then observed until our illness went away. Though, it was probably much more common that my Mom would consult our cousin, the pharmacist, for his perspective. He also provided prescriptions :).
On the day to day, family members were ever mindful of spirits, such as those which lived in the river where we washed our clothes. Similarly, while living on Guam, I recall stories of the “taotao mona” – spirits inhabiting secluded parts of the island. Stories instructed us to respect the jungle, so as not to offend the ancestral spirits. When I think about these cautionary tales, it seems most of them revolved around the idea of respecting our earth, its resources, and the memory of those who came before us.
Lastly, I’ll mention the popular superstition of astrology. Although I do not believe in it, (having been an atheist since the age of 15), the reading of horoscopes was somewhat of a daily ritual in my household. I enjoyed reading my parents their horoscope from the newspaper. I even liked the powerful symbolism of fire that is associated with my sign, Aries. There was/is something nice about sharing in this future telling exercise with my family. Typically, we got a laugh out of it as we interpreted what it could mean for us in context of that day’s activities. Every now and then, I’ll still read my horoscope. It is a family tradition that is hard to let go of.
VC: Why did you become so interested in interfaith work?
VGB: In college, I was studying religion out of my own genuine interest in other people’s belief systems. One professor offered extra credit for taking part in an “interworldview dialogue” program. I enrolled and spent the next several weeks exploring issues of identity, and examining commonalities and differences with classmates. The group included several Christians, Jews, and Muslims—then there was me, the only atheist. It was a remarkable experience sharing this piece of my identity amongst a large group of peers. Before this time I had only ever shared this information with a few close friends or relatives. It was one of those moments where I literally felt a weight lift off my shoulders.
The professor had created a safe space where I could freely be myself, and that was significant to my personal growth. Since then, I have been committed to offering similar opportunities for people to be themselves without fear. Spaces where people can respectfully engage in honest conversations on difficult topics and connect with people they may otherwise never have the chance to. My interfaith work continues to provide me with similar moments of ‘wow,’ so it is no wonder why I have wanted to make a career of it.