The Group

I led a discussion with 20 college students who have become interfaith leadership fellows. There were several faith traditions represented as well as several regions of the country.

The Program

We discussed two poems—Rabindranath Tagore's "Gitanjali 50" and Mary Oliver's "The Buddha's Last Instruction." The discussion took place toward the end of a three-day conference on interfaith leadership and service.

Overview

We began by talking in small groups about the following question: think of a time when you felt yourself being led. How did this happen? Was it a good or a bad thing? 

After about 7 minutes, we came back as a whole group and read the Tagore poem aloud. Participants spent a lot of time discussing the beggar's hopes, and then we shifted our focus to the giver—what was he providing to the beggar, exactly? was he a leader? was he a familiar figure, and if so, what could be said about him? With this last question especially, we turned more explicitly to divine figures in different religious traditions and how it is that they teach or give. 

We then read the Oliver poem and considered what it means to "make of yourself a light." Our conversation touched on the narrator's sense that she was of no value and then on the "frightened crowd" surrounding the Buddha. We concluded by turning to the question of whether these Fellows were trying to make of themselves a light, and if so, what that would mean, in concrete terms... but we adjourned too quickly due to the conference's time constraints.

Next Time

I would use both texts again, singly and in combination. I do think that the Oliver poem can lend itself to very general and reassuring comments on leadership, so I think it would pay to push participants to get specific.

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