Responding to God’s call, I came to Candler seeking formation as a Christian leader. However, it wasn’t until I flew 7,700 miles away and lived with a Buddhist community that my seminary formation was complete.

The Emory Tibetan Studies program was an immediate “yes” for me. When, if not now, would I ever have the chance to live in India for five months? When, if not now, would I be able to form relationships with an exiled community and deeply learn about a pressing global justice issue  while it unfolded? 

When, if not now, would I ever have a private audience with the Dalai Lama?

The “yes” was immediate for this opportunity, and by the grace of God (along with Candler’s registrar and of the folks at Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad), I made it to Dharamsala, India for my last semester of seminary.

Imagine: Your classroom lies at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Immaculate temples and shrines of various traditions pepper the road. Monkeys are common as squirrels and cows freely roam the street. Daily, you see Buddhist monks debating some of the most intellectually intricate arguments you will ever hear. Everywhere there are brilliant colors, spiced smells and completely different cultures.

Unlike many abroad opportunities at Candler, this program is not explicitly Christian. It is up to you, the seminarian, to learn about the ancient tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, about the language that has shaped a people, about culture and ritual, and connect it to your own faith.

And it was because the program was not in a seminary that my Christian identity deepened so much. You see, over the previous five semesters at Candler I held certain theological assumptions that, I quickly realized, were not universal.

For example, the existence of the soul. Many of my Buddhist neighbors found no reason to believe in a soul, which means they asked me, the Christian, plenty of very good questions. And it was here that I engaged in the truest form of multicultural dialogue that I had ever encountered because we always had to start from scratch. The conversations revealed how much I assumed—not only as a Christian but also as a native English-speaker, as someone with a Western education and as an American.

Furthermore, I will remember some of the conversations I had with my fellow American students for the rest of my life. The other participants in the program were Emory undergraduate students from various disciplines, so there was a flurry of very good questions from philosophers, poets and political analysts alike. Although I was the only graduate student who participated in the program, I met friends and colleagues of all ages. Living in India to study Buddhism attracts old souls, and their spiritual and intellectual maturity surpass expectations.

Imagine facing questions of Christian belief without a smartphone and without notes from seminary. Imagine no mentors or pastors to send messages to, no fast internet to consult with your favorite theologians. 

It’s just you, God and the Bible that you have in your backpack.

The spiritual hunger was deep enough that at the beginning of the semester I read the entire New Testament in a month. In such a shifting landscape, I learned that God responds in two ways to times when your religious beliefs are put under heat: Sometimes Jesus is the Rock, and you abandon yourself to the firm foundation of God. Other times, though, God wants us to develop our own stabilizing muscles. In those times, God blesses us with people of greatly varying beliefs so that we come to understand our own beliefs more deeply.

Eventually, those cross-cultural and cross-discipline conversations turned into interviews, and I started to compile data for my capstone independent research project. By grace, my program director was extremely flexible with the form of my independent research. Instead of writing a traditional research paper, I created a Community Action Plan for my future church. Guided by the question, “What would it look like for Tibetans and Methodists to work together?” I wrote sermons (for the church) and speeches (for the Buddhists) to navigate this partnership. It was entirely applied to my career, so that by the end of the semester I had a very realistic sense of what it would mean to return to the United States and start work with a church.

In retrospect, I realize that God said “yes” to this program long before I did. “Put Tyler with the Buddhists,” I imagine God saying. “It will prepare him for his ministry ahead.”

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