In January 2014, I walked into a classroom in downtown Budapest. Nervous, I launched straight into my prepared lesson. The topic? Free speech and hate speech. The audience? 17 Roma students from across Europe. The result? 18 beautiful, life-changing adventures were set in motion.
Over the course of one incandescent semester, these students and I journeyed into the depths of spirit, language, identity – how we voice our deepest truths in service to the world. We shared the books, songs, and stories that matter to us. We explored the city together. We sat on the steps of St. Stephen’s Basilica and learned of the Porajmos – the Romani Holocaust that devoured but did not crush a people who continue to rise from the ashes and ghettoes of Europe, with a beauty and strength that humble me.
Now Central European University and its Roma Access Program – which offers a window of hope and advancement to aspiring Roma leaders – are under threat. The Hungarian government, led by the conservative Fidesz party, is voting to close CEU in 2018.
I will not enter the tangle of politics, the illogic of fear that enables such a law to even be considered. If you are interested, you can search the internet and find articles and op-eds galore.
Instead, I am guided and strengthened by our collective spiritual heritage. Holy words, poems, hymns and songs of praise – in every language and culture, an ageless wisdom exists for our benefit. Through it, we learn how to see beneath the bitter, warped surface – to discover the seeds of peaceful civilization within us.
I felt these seeds growing in our classes at CEU, where trust and trueness ran through our conversations like a sap of living gold. This is how the scorched earth becomes a garden again. Heaven-on-earth exists, right now. It exists whenever real, soul-to-soul encounter takes place.
Rather than attempt to describe my semester at CEU, I would like to offer you a gift.
This gift is inspired by one of my CEU students, Ismael.
He shared with me a dream he had one night, of a hooded, cloaked figure. At the time, his English skills were still forming. He meant to say the person turned and “uncovered” her face. Instead he said, much more profoundly:
“The person discovered her face…”
The course I created and taught at CEU was called Voice and World. The goal was to increase English-language proficiency by articulating what’s deepest in our hearts – and how we can give this heart-truth to the world.
At the time, I was increasingly aware that my own voice needed voicing – but I didn’t know how or where to share. With these 17 students, we formed a sacred refuge, a circle of honesty and understanding. It wasn’t always easy to navigate the boundaries of teacher/student/mentor/friend. But with love and respect, we formed lasting bonds.
Cautiously, we emerged from the masks we wear for self-defense. Together, our confidence in speaking and sharing grew. We supported each other, intellectually and emotionally. At the end of the semester, watching my students present their research projects – in English! – to a distinguished audience, my own face glowed with joy.
I hope one day I can meet these 17 souls again, these 17 Roma leaders, philosophers, poets, educators, artists, accountants, mathematicians, social workers, chefs, parents, friends.
I hope CEU continues to welcome students from around the world. I hope and believe that Roma people – and all once-marginalized peoples – will lead the way toward a joyous, open-hearted, global civilization. I pray that we all learn a new listening, so we can hear what has been unheard, including what we have silenced in ourselves.
Thank you, people everywhere.
You are helping the world find her true and radiant face – by uncovering and discovered your own.