Rev. Anastassia Zinke — The Dynamics of Interfaith
The third podcast by Rachel Koehler as part of the “Dynamics of Interfaith” series. Rev. Anastassia Zinke leads All Souls Universalist Unitarian Church.
Reverend Anastassia Zinke is the senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church, and she offers a unique perspective as a Unitarian Universalist. Reverend Zinke also discusses female empowerment and how women have shaped the Church.
Headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC), works to create an environment for meaningful engagement and peaceful dialogue between and among a wide variety of faith communities. This podcast seeks to record the stories of CIC Board members representing the Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Pagan, Church of Latter-day Saints, Buddhist, Baha’i, Catholic, and Hindu religious traditions. Each individual brings a unique, enriching story, so tune in to begin “de-othering” unfamiliar faith communities.
Music: LXtronic “Run Away (Stay With Me)”
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- Imam Michael “Mikal” Saahir Interview
- Reverend Bruce Garrison Interview — An episode of The Dynamics of Interfaith
- Dr. Pierre Atlas Interview — An episode of The Dynamics of Interfaith
- Reverend Brian Shivers Interview — Dynamics of Interfaith
Rev. Anastassia Zinke Interview
Rachel: Today, we have Reverend Anastassia Zinke. Welcome!
Zinke: Thank you so glad to be here.
Rachel: Yes, good to have you, and I would love to start by just hearing a little bit about yourself and what got you involved with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.
Zinke: Sure. I grew up in New York City and in my life, I hope to share more about this with you, but I grew up in a household that I would describe as very secular and when I was going through late elementary school, middle school, high school, I went on an interfaith religious pilgrimage with my mother and in the context of New York City which is a very interfaith community. Then when I moved to Indianapolis to serve All Souls Unitarian Church, I was really interested in community partnerships in interfaith spaces, so I googled “interfaith Indianapolis” and found this amazing Center for Interfaith Cooperation and noticed that there was not a Unitarian
Universalist on the board and I thought as a minority faith. we could and as a community that historically has been very committed to interfaith spaces that both I and they could be valued by that partnership.
Rachel: What is your role within the church?
Zinke: I am the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, and we have a wonderful ministerial team but when I first started I was the sole minister for five years.
Rachel: Wow that’s amazing. How has that been?
Zinke: It’s been really great. It’s exciting because I was the first woman called as a minister of that congregation in its first hundred and ten years. So that was a kind of historic event and All Souls has a very strong reputation within our association. It might have been one of the first if not the first liberal religious home for people who are seeking that orientation in Indianapolis, and it was a congregation that contributed a lot to the development of the great community or the great society, so we are on lots of non-profit boards or civic groups, and the ministers here really participated and had a voice on a lot of important issues over the decades from racism to the Vietnam War to abortion, so there’s a lot of topics that we were engaged in, and All Souls was typically a congregation that my predecessors came to culminate their career, and I came to start my ministerial career. It was just a really great honor for me to serve this congregation and to try to help make the Unitarian Universalist part of the multifaceted voices of faith in this city again.
Rachel: Yeah definitely, and can you talk a little bit about your faith journey. You alluded to it with your mom in New York City, but how was that looked over the years?
Zinke: I think my faith journey started with my grandparents because both of my parents were raised in interfaith households. My father, his fundamentalist, highly conservative Baptist father married his Catholic mother, and they were very devout people who cared so much about the congregations that they were part of, and they were also deeply in love. They met when they were thirteen and seventeen, and they were together for almost seventy years. The one thing they couldn’t reconcile was their faith, so they just agreed never to discuss it which meant that my father wasn’t really raised in either church and so he would identify as an agnostic, a theist, but with an undefined understanding of the divine. Then my mother: her Jewish father married her Catholic mother and both of them were disowned by their families. My grandmother was disowned from her Catholic family for marrying a Jew for the rest of her life, and then, the Jewish side was upset temporarily until they had kids. Anyway, my mother was baptized, confirmed, and bar-mitzvahed, and my grandmother started to go to All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City as a place where both she and her husband could worship, but also where her interfaith marriage would be respected, and she loved that congregation, so she would actually drive from New Jersey to New York City every Sunday to go to church and when my parents were raising kids together, I can’t remember ever celebrating a religious holiday. I cannot remember ever any language of reverence. There was no discussion of God and so I had I’d say a very blank canvas. When my parents separated, my mother naturally leaned on her mother and we began to go with her to All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, and when I was there, I experienced what I call three promises of Unitarian Universalism. One of the things that would happen is the year that I was there, which was fourth grade, I reflect back, and it was clearly a world religions year, so we studied about the life of Siddhartha Buddha. We learned the Hebrew alphabet and played dreidel. We studied mindfulness of Buddhist meditation. I was in a Christmas pageant and so it was a whole gamut of things. In fact, probably my favorite memory was in one basement classroom I got to play the role of Moses parting the red sea and I threw down a pencil and felt extremely powerful in that moment. So that was a really powerful grounding experience for me. Also, there was a woman who ran the children’s programming named Amy Church, who was the wife of the minister there, and there were several hundred kids in the church program, and we would be called out of the sanctuary to go to our children’s programming and we’d go through this little door and up and down the stairs depending on where we are headed and as I would go through, she would smile and greet me by name, which
was just really powerful because I was relatively new. There were so many kids, but I felt really seen. So that was very valuable to me, and then the other thing that happened was my mom and I were economically really poor and struggling then, but one thing that we would do after church
was we would go to the supermarket, and we would buy like a cartload of noodles and pasta sauce and meatballs and mushrooms and bread, and we would take it back to the church the next day because my mom and I would prepare the meal that the church would serve to homeless people. We’d serve the meal, and I would carry around the bread basket and I was also aware that that was probably like the best meal that we would eat all week, but it had the sense that my family was a family who served and we served with our church family. So that church had a conflict and my mom and I ended up leaving, but I remembered back to that time and as an adult and I thought of how any Amy Church welcomed me and I said a church is a place, our Unitarian Universalism, promises to be a place where you can come and know others and be known and that sense of witnessing and intimacy with others felt like the best promise that one human being could make to another human being. Then, the second thing was with that soup kitchen, it made me recognize that I was part of a people who served others, and I really cared about social justice and being compassionate and so I was looking for a church that modeled that commitment. Then the third thing that I recognized that was really valuable to me was after a lot of searching that I did afterward I really wanted to be part of a community where you didn’t have to ascribe to a certain set of faith beliefs in order to belong. The world religion model taught me that even though I had a sense of what I believe today. It would be unlikely that in ten or twelve or fifteen years I would believe exactly the same thing, and I wanted to be able to continue to belong to a faith community as hopefully my faith theology continued to evolve, and I wanted that sense of continuity and belonging and so those are the three promises that really called me back to Unitarian Universalism, but I didn’t know that at the time and so after my mother and I left. The next place that we went was a Xen-Do Temple, and I found that space to be incredibly sacred and also very mysterious because while I felt moved in that space and curious in that space. I also realized that I had no cultural orientation or practical training about how to be religious in a Xen-Do community at that time, so we moved on. The next place we went was an ethical-culture society and that was very enlightening and I remember that I was the only non-adult sitting in this group of like five other people in these padded, but slightly unattractive office chairs, and we went around and we were introducing ourselves, and the facilitator looked to me and said “do you believe in God?” and even though I know for most ethical culture societies now the answer yes would be the wrong answer. When I said I did, and I felt uncomfortable that I guess I’d assumed that I was supposed to answer yes, and I’d also say their coffee hour did not match All Souls coffee hour in any way, shape, or form, and then I ended up going to a mostly Jewish high school, and I lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, so I ended up going to schul and Torah study and I dated a man in high school or a boy in high school for a couple of years who wanted to be a rabbi, so I celebrated the Jewish high holidays a lot, and I felt very welcomed but also it was clear that I myself hadn’t particularly been raised in the Jewish faith even though I had some of that heritage and so it was hard for me to claim I think a theistic Jewish identity, and I felt like particularly in comparison to my rabbi want to be boyfriend that that was a particular sticking point, so I also in high school I took a couple of world religions classes and got really into Taoism and Buddhism and I that non-theistic, mindful-ethical stance of faith and I was really into that. while all this Jewishness is going on around me, and then my mom actually was dating a Muslim man and going to mosque on Friday nights, and he wanted to marry her, and I just thought this is all kinds of interesting. That’s why as a young adult when I had very powerful moments of mystical revelation, and I then strongly identified myself as someone who was faithful and had a personal relationship with God, I thought where have I experienced a place that I felt like aligned with who I am and where I want to be and how I want to live in this world that I think will welcome me and the answer to that when I looked back was Unitarian universalism grounded in those three promises.
Rachel: That’s amazing. You had an interfaith life. Have you kept that up here in Indianapolis? I know that we have the CIC to plug into, but have there been other ways that you’ve been plugged into the interfaith community?
Zinke: Yeah I would say I really adore the CIC in part because they are the community here. The people with whom I feel like I’m most belong. Not only are they interfaith, but they come from diverse nationalities and ethnic backgrounds and cultural orientations. They are comfortable in understanding themselves and how to communicate their orientation to others and hold an openness and curiosity about others and that ability to have a particular identity within a connective community is what makes me feel like I really belong. In addition, I have really been active in Faith in Indiana, which is an interfaith organizing group around justice issues here in the state. They’re the people who I probably have done the most work with and the other place where I have developed long-standing relationships with people beyond Unitarian universalism.
Rachel: What are some justice issues that you find important regarding your faith and others, maybe, that you’re fighting for?
Zinke: Unitarian Universalists have a legacy of working on a certain set of justice issues. Perhaps the first one we got involved with was advocating for religious tolerance and religious inclusion. The very first encyclopedia of world religions that was published in the United States was written by a Unitarian woman, and we have worked to invite interfaith speakers from abroad. In the early years when there weren’t very many people from India bringing Hinduism indirectly or things like that so we have kind of helped create those spaces and I think the CIC is my opportunity not just to do that work for myself but also to honor my legacy as a Unitarian Universalist. The next thing that we became involved in was abolitionism, so a disproportionate number of Unitarian Universalists were abolitionists or showed up at Soma or participated primarily as white people in trying to bring around racial equity. That has been really important, and today I kind of do that work. I’m particularly trying to change our patterns around mass incarceration and really I’d say that we need another abolitionist movement, so I honor that. When Unitarian Universalist women were part of that first abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War, what they heard was if women are taking political stances in the streets that they would be physically threatened and that began to lead to the first wave of feminism of recognizing that women’s voices were unwelcomed and that women’s rights were actually a really important thing to advocate for. Susan B Anthony was a Unitarian woman and many other feminists were either Unitarians or universalists, so Unitarian universalism was active in advocating for women’s rights in the twentieth century and particularly for reproductive choice and justice, so I continue that today by partnering with Planned Parenthood of Indianapolis and Kentucky and just advocating for women to have experiences that have a greater safety and where they can be fully valued and I would say equal pay as well. Then the fourth one that we’ve been historically part of is environmentalism. This last fall in particular I was really spiritually devastated and politically concerned about the reports coming from the UN and other bodies about how dire the threat of climate crisis is and so I continue to do that work and try to help do my small part in my community do their small part to help save our planet and life on it.
Rachel: Have you found that the religious voice advocating for these concerns is taken seriously and invoking change? Have you seen that over the years?
Zinke: What I would say is that in my experience most religious communities are culture takers, so all the issues that exist in society are also perpetuated within our institutions, and when we’re at our best, houses of faith move from culture takers to culture makers and bring our values grounded in our faith traditions out to shape the world. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Doris Day, you could see great examples of people of faith exemplifying that culture maker, so I try to remind people in my congregation what it means to be a culture maker both aligned with our values, but also with an ethical responsibility towards others. I like to live by what I call the platinum rule, and the platinum rule is you don’t treat people how you want to be treated which is the golden rule. You treat other people how they want to be treated which requires you to understand how they would be honored and what they’re seeking, so it’s a little bit more work, but as we go out to bring our culture to the greater world, we also have to understand how that might be received by others and consider that as well.
Rachel: I like that revision. I think that’s really important for sure. One of the reasons why I’ve been called to more pursue my faith is with all these big questions regarding it and my role specifically as a woman, so when you brought that up that was really fascinating because I consider myself a feminist and a Christian, but some people see that at odds with one another because of some things that they interpret within scripture, so how have you been able to reconcile that in your role right now as one of the first females within your own congregation, but also within your studies of the Christian faith?
Zinke: I am blessed with the fact that the very first woman ordained in America was a Universalist minister and Unitarians were not that far behind, so there have been women clergy in my faith traditions for over a hundred and fifty years and that is not to deny the fact that power and oppression haven’t also shaped my faith and opportunities for women within my faith. What’s interesting actually is there’s what is loosely called the Iowa sisterhood and when the frontier was expanding to the Midwest many particularly Unitarian ministers at that time the male ministers were trained at Harvard and served very historic New England pulpits or major pulpits in New York City or Baltimore or DC, and the idea of going out to the hinterlands was not appealing to them and so in the late eighteen hundreds many of our congregations were either founded or led by women ministers who emphasize that religious communities are like a family and that the home was a really valuable place of faith making and modeled faith communities on kind of concepts of home and family. When those pulpits did particularly well, sometimes they were replaced by male ministers, and when religious life went through a process of masculinization in the early part of the twentieth century that the legacy of female ministers vanished and then re-emerged, again much earlier than our Christian protestant counterparts, but there weren’t that many female ministers in the fifties or sixties or seventies in our faith either. That said that the majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers today are women, but again still not in our largest pulpits. Probably what I would say is denominationally, now that I’m reflecting on it, I probably have to be a better minister than some of my male clergy counterparts, many of whom
are very wonderful, but I don’t have equal access to opportunity and sometimes still face examples of patriarchy just in the course of doing things. Here in Indianapolis, it’s interesting how there’s just a very subtle resistance to putting Reverend before my name here. I sometimes go to interfaith gatherings, for instance, the police and sheriffs here in town. wanted to engage with clergy members to help change the dynamic around community policing here in Indianapolis which I really appreciated their outreach and how they called us to that work, and it was just really interesting because there were very few female clergy members in that room and almost everyone assumed that I must be a spouse of someone else, and they had a lot of trouble processing that I could be a minister as a woman and so I think that I encounter things like that here in Indianapolis pretty regularly. I would say there has been a wonderful scholarship to pull
out the historic presence of women, particularly in the early Jesus followers and very powerful prophetic women theologians, activists, community leaders, denominational founders in the Christian tradition, so I’m not going to pretend that I’m the best voice for that, but if you don’t know what that voice is, then you have not looked very hard because that scholarship is there and is actually really quite amazing.
Rachel: That’s good to hear because that is a constant struggle that I sometimes face, too.
Zinke: I mean it’s just interesting how rarely were invited to consider that. Last year I preached a sermon where I talked a little bit about Saint Teresa of Avila. I really got curious about her because when I was in Rome one day, I saw the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa which is in this beautiful little Catholic chapel, and it’s one of the most beautiful art pieces that I’ve ever seen, and I was reflecting on that I thought well “who was Saint Theresa?” and “what is this moment of ecstasy?” And oh my goodness is she amazing. She was able to found orders for women where there were women at the head of her group, and they didn’t have to be overseen by a male authority even in the Catholic Church. She was a highly impressive theologian. She wrote music. She did all this work. She’s just extremely exciting and powerful and mostly what we know about her is that she’s like fainting from this religious mystical moment. So I just think again it really doesn’t take very much to uncover that history we just have to be curious. The other thing is that I went to the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto this past November, and there’s a project day I forget the exact numbers, but they realize that in religious spaces in particular women are significantly underrepresented in Wikipedia and so they’re having a project to add a thousand pages of powerful and interesting historic and contemporary religious women to Wikipedia, and there’s a process by which you can volunteer to research and write a page and so if you know someone that you’re like “yeah this woman deserves a page on Wikipedia!” I suggest you got to look into this project, and we should all do it because it would be so great to have four or five thousand such pages.
Rachel: It sounds like an important undertaking for sure. We need that representation! As we come up on the end here just to conclude I would love to hear your definition of interfaith and why you find it so important.
Zinke: So what I think about interfaith is the ability to know one’s faith. To be curious and exploratory about other faiths with the goal of being able to articulate that faith to a third party in a way that the party whose faith you’re describing would also say you described my faith accurately, respectfully, and well. It’s about gaining that interfaith literacy or competency, and then it’s also about taking those discoveries that you have encountered and bringing that back to yourself and saying “how does this ask me to question explore, deepen, rearticulate my faith. I really think about it as an interactive, a live process of mutuality.
Rachel: Thank you so much for being here!