Los Angeles Buddhist Catholic Dialogue

May 4, 2002

St. Andrew’s Church

Present: Fr. Alexei Smith, Rev. Dickson Yagi, Cynthia Shimazu, Sr. Thomas Bernard, Carole Belnek, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Anita Merwin, Dr. David Chappell, Dr. Michael Kerze

We continued to share the stories which brought us to the dialogue.

Sr. Thomas Bernard: I’ve always been Catholic. When I was young it was a tough time, the Depression, but my family got through. As soon as I saw my first grade teacher, a nun, I knew I want to be one. In high school I was interested in drama. To save money for college I got a job driving army trucks for the army. When I saved enough I went to undergraduate college at Holy Name in Oakland. During my junior year I attended a discussion session by a Dominican priest about the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. It was in the course of that I had a shift in my sense of direction. The priest introduced me to the works of Reginald Garrigou- Lagrange, a mystical theologian still living, whom I wrote to. He wrote back. I took it to the president of the college who said: “Most girls write to movie stars. You write to theologians!” Through Garraigou-Lagrange the contemplative part of me started to come into focus. After I graduated I went into the community. The daily practices of prayer and the opportunities to study have contributed so much to my sense of God and my contemplative life. That contemplative dimension is so important to our lives. Our lives in ministry have to be supported by contemplative practice, otherwise, do we really know what we are doing? Msgr. Vadakin asked me to join the dialogue; I really don’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with my sense of the importance of contemplative practice.

I was put in the position of director of the archdiocesan Spirituality Center by a committee on spirituality, a subcommittee of the liturgical committee. They thought it important to have a center. I was already working both full time with the retired sisters and part time with teaching at Mt. St. Mary’s College. I said I simply don’t have time unless something gave. The provincial said I could have two days a week away from the older sisters. Two years later I was full time. Why I was asked I still don’t know, but I think God had something to do with it. I invite Carole Belnek to tell her story.

Carole Belnek:
My mother was a French Catholic who had a Ph.D. in Asian linguistics from the Sorbonne. She emigrated to the US after surviving Auschwitz where she was placed because she was caught smuggling Jewish children out of France. Her husband was killed. My father was from a Russian Orthodox Jewish family; he was an Annapolis grad who was in business. Only in America could something like their marriage take place. By the time I was born neither had much use for religion but we did celebrate the Jewish holidays of my father’s family, and Christmas. My sister and I were raised to be ethical people; one is now a practicing Jew and the other is an Episcopal priest. I had dual citizenship and was raised half in the US and half in Europe. When I was born, my mother was working for the UN and the State Department. I always knew there was more to the story than I had learned. I had my mother’s knack for language. By 12 or 13 I was reading Kabbalah and the Church Fathers. I was very close to my grandmother, a very devout mystically inclined Christian. I went to Boston College and was taught by wonderful theologians, Richard McBrien and Mary Daly and for a few years I became Catholic. I began Zen meditation too. I felt close to Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross but, eventually, realized that Church dogma was not true for me. I was involved with Catholic Jewish dialogue and discovered commonality between seekers in different religions. I kept picking up languages, I was studying Chinese languages. I worked for Health and Human Services, lobbying Congress for them. I eventually resigned, came to California, and found a deep interest in Mahayana Buddhism. I took precepts and Ven. Karuna Dharma invited me to join the dialogue. I’ll be teaching a graduate class on Chinese poetry at the Claremont Colleges this year. I’m studying Pali now. I’m bi-lingual and bi-literate in English and French, studied medieval Japanese, and have studied Mandarin and Cantonese and have picked up a little Vietnamese when I ran a Vietnamese refugee camp for Health Services in Santa Clara. In my family you have to be able to listen to Yiddish, Russian, English and French to listen to the gossip. I’ve also taught Greek. I know my karma has brought me to this place and its all been very rewarding. I invite Fr. Alexei to speak.

Fr. Alexei: I was born in downtown Los Angeles and have lived here all my life except four years in Boston. I was raised as a Roman Catholic in a Catholic neighborhood and attended Catholic schools. I always wanted to be a priest but not seriously. In high school I visited a seminary in San Diego but did not like it at all. I went to USC and studied International Relations. In my senior year in order to pay bills, I answered an ad in the classifieds for part time work — at Pierce Brothers Mortuary. Every other weekend and nights for year I answered the phone and the door. When I graduated the mortuary offered to make me a director and I worked for them for 15 years. I went from a night attendant to a vice president of the firm; by that time it was a big corporation.

I met lots of other faith traditions in the business. I was in charge of Eastern Christian Rite funerals and met and worked with a lot of clergy with whom I had great theological discussions. They kept giving things for me to read and we’d talk about them. I became friends with Fr. Venetos at Saint Sophia. I almost became Greek Orthodox but it was a little too ethnic for me. On his suggestion, I checked out Greek Catholics and came here to St. Andrew’s. I was a parishioner here for ten years and I kept thinking about the priesthood. I made a deal with God: if such and such happens, you are telling me I should do it. Two days later what I asked about happened. I attended the seminary of St. Gregory in Boston. I knew when I walked in that it was right. I used to suffer migraines; since I entered I’ve only had two or three. In 1987 I was ordained here and made administrator and then pastor. Sr. Thomas Bernard knew a seminarian who was attending seminary with me and she just happened to be visiting with him the day I was ordained a deacon. We’ve known each other ever since.

Msgr. Vadakin invited me to the Catholic Orthodox dialogue. I worked with Fr. Romero on several things and eventually, after his stroke, I was appointed to be the Ecumenical Officer. I was the vice-chair of the Priest Council and at a meeting a priest made what I thought was a hilarious remark and I laughed and laughed and then saw no one did. The cardinal looked at me and asked to see me at the break and I thought to myself, I’m dead — there goes my political career. During the break the cardinal and I took a walk and he said to me: “As you know, we’re looking for a new director for Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs, and everyone is telling me it should be you.” I immediately responded: “How do you define ‘everybody’?” Rather than go into names, he replied, I just want you to know that if you want it, the job is yours. I thought it better not to say anything right then so I told him I’d like to think about it and pray about it. Go ahead, he said. Two days later his secretary called and said that the cardinal had a message for me. What’s that, I asked. “He wants to know if you are done praying yet,” he replied. I said: “Yes. I’ve prayerfully considered this and I want to talk about it.” The plan was to have me start in February when Fr. Gil would retire; it was summer now. Then the Vatican issued “Dominus Iesus” in September and the diocese needed someone to respond to the uproar about it. Around Oct. 15 I got another call from the cardinal’s secretary who said, “The cardinal has changed his mind about your coming to work here.” I thought I was off the hook, but he continued: “Instead of starting Feb. 1, his eminence would like you to start Nov. 1.” I started and I’ve been doing it now for two years and I love it and love everyone here and all the groups I work with. I think its vital for the Church to do this dialoguing and relationship.

There are many interfaith councils and groups in Los Angeles, for example, the Interreligious Council of Southern California. Much more interfaith council cooperation is needed. Since 9-11 my focus has been much more on interreligious work, lots of interfaith services. I’ve met lots of Muslims, including Dr. Abdul Rahman, head of the Shura, the Muslim council in Southern California. I told Pres. Bush on Monday when I met him that Los Angeles is diverse not just ethnically but religiously and its imperative we all work together for the greater good. The only way we’re going to do this is getting to know each other. And that’s why I’m here today.

Bush visited the First AME Church Monday and Chip Murray invited the cardinal but he was already booked so I went there. There was about 20 of us at the table and each of us had 2 minutes to say what we wanted. As my time was ending, I grew bold and said: “And I expect you, Mr. President, to encourage this kind of dialogue and cooperation in every city in the United States.” And of course he replied, “Yes Fr. Alexei I will.” (We all laughed)

Sr. Thomas Bernard: I was invited to his ordination. The bishop said something about Alexei and then he turned to the congregation and said I’m appointing him to be your pastor. The congregation clapped and clapped.

Fr. Alexei: The previous pastor had died two years before and they had a number of interim people. Things were sort of meandering. I’m not so sure they would clap today if the same thing happened. (We all laughed again.)