Michael Lees, a religion professor, was adopted at the age of 24 by a Native American family over 22 years ago. He has been teaching at Montclair State University for 10 years and discussed the significance of his family traditions along with the importance of understanding different religions.
Q: Define what religion is in the simplest of terms.
A: Religion is a story, journey, path and ultimately a way of life steeped in spiritual practices. Religion affords a form, format and knowledge for living in the world. Spirituality provides the opportunity to test knowledge through experience while embedding meaning-making into the development of wisdom relative to our personal and worldly actions.
Q: What was your childhood exposure to religion?
A: My parents were very ‘open-door’ about religion. Since I was born and raised in a pluralistic, multireligious and multicultural society my parents supported finding ‘what works for you’ as a means to exploring the world wisdom traditions.
Q: At what age did you become interested in studying religion?
A: I want to say all my life but most earnestly when I was fifteen years old. I became very interested in exploring what everyone believes about the world and how we might seek to be a healthy participant in it. I have been studying, practicing and participating in religious traditions from around the world for the last 32 years.
Q: Do you think being adopted into a Native American family has influenced your view of religion?
A: A major aspect of my way of life consists of being a part of a Native American family and extended family. I have had the extreme honor of being adopted in a traditional ceremony known as Hunka (Making of Relations) by my Cheyenne grandfather Oglala Lakota, grandmother and Yaqui older brother. I have been ceremonial in this way of life for over 25 years and am a singer in our tradition. The teachings my family has shared with me have helped make me who I am. These teachings remind me that I am an integral part of everything that happens here on planet Earth. I should approach and commit my actions in this life to all living beings with love, generosity, kindness, gratitude, humility, respect, compassion, reciprocity and humor. I would not trade any of this life experience for anything in the world.
Q: How has teaching a diverse student population increased your knowledge on the topic?
A: I have a massive enthusiasm for human stories. I cannot emphasize enough how much I enjoy the wealth of experience and stories I have the opportunity to hear and share in with students from one semester to the next. I always start out each class by telling students, ‘you are here to learn from me as much as I am here to learn from you.” I believe this helps all of us to grow together in our efforts towards understanding and respecting one another. I am extremely grateful for the diversity that exists at Montclair State and the openness to sharing in the teachings of world wisdom traditions. The diversity of students helps make me a better person and develop a deeper understanding for the work that I am doing.
Q: What can we all do to bridge the gap between people of all religions or beliefs?
A: We need to authentically respect one another more. Appreciate our differences and agree to disagree. What is right for one person does not have to be right for another. Two of the biggest problems I see with religion right now can be found within identity divisions and cultural appropriation. Without taking the time to foster authentic learning experiences that consist of knowledge, respect and sharing within and between world wisdom traditions. The wisdom required to address animosity, violence and spiritual deprivation will be absent in the establishment of genuine understanding. A lack of genuine understanding and authentic sharing will only deepen what are already large-sized individual, cultural, spiritual and religious divides.
Q: What is the biggest benefit of studying world cultures aside from one’s own?
A: The biggest benefit of studying and participating in world cultures aside from my own is having the opportunity to learn, see and deeply experience life through the head, heart, hands and spirit of others. To learn about celebrating our uniqueness, similarity and difference in a respectful and sharing way. Being alive is an amazing yet brief opportunity to experience our lives in relationship with the cosmos. My only regret is that I will not be alive long enough to learn everything there is to learn from others about what living on a planet we have come to call ‘Earth’ is all about.