“Troublemaker” Women Honored, Receive Ivy

Abigail Disney claimed to be shocked that Auburn Theological Seminary would choose to honor her at its Lives of Commitment Breakfast. “There are lapsed Catholics and then there are run-like-hell Catholics,” she quipped, putting herself in the latter category. Nonetheless, Disney, philanthropist and producer of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, an award-winning documentary about Liberian Muslim and Christian women who unite to oust a dictator and end a civil war, admitted that her work is “powered by faith.”

Auburn Theological Seminary, a multi-faith educational and research center, proclaims that its “faculty and graduates participated in the great social movements of the times, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the struggle against fundamentalism.” At its thirteenth annual Lives of Commitment breakfast, held May 28 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in midtown Manhattan, about 650 people celebrated the central role that women of faith play in healing and repairing the world. Disney and the three other honorees—16-year-old Fatima Haidara, who received the 2009 Young Healer Award presented in partnership with The Sister Fund, Rabbi and Cantor Angela Buchdahl, and environmentalist Wendy Paulson—represent not only diverse backgrounds, but also the diverse ways in which the call to service can be heard and acted upon. Previous honorees have included Faye Wattleton, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Sister Helen Prejean. Although not always overtly religious, these women’s work is informed by spiritual values just the same.

Fatima Haidara arrived in New York City from Mauritania in 2001, three days before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In the tense atmosphere after the attacks, she confronted prejudice and hostility targeted at her and other Muslims. This strengthened her resolve to combat widespread misconceptions about her religion, and to promote the forgiveness and peace that she sees at her faith’s center. As a member of the Lower East Side Girls’ Club and the Power of Peace Coalition, she has been instrumental in organizing young people of all backgrounds to work together for peace, bringing them to City Hall to bear witness to gang violence and violence against women in their communities.

“Religion at its best inspires us to see beyond differences,” said Angela Buchdahl as she received her award. The daughter of a Korean Buddhist mother and American Jewish father, Buchdahl is the first Asian-American woman to be ordained as a rabbi or cantor; she currently serves at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. She spoke movingly of being both an outsider and an insider in the Jewish community and in her hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Using as her text the Book of Ruth, which describes what is believed to be the first conversion to Judaism, she sang a hymn to the appreciative audience.

Wendy Paulson’s work to instill in children and adults an appreciation for nature is built upon two fundamental spiritual values: gratitude and love. A dedicated educator who works to combat widespread “nature deficit disorder,” Paulson is a board member of several conservation groups and is chair of Rare, a conservation-outreach organization that works with local environmentalists in developing countries.

The honorees were welcomed by Rev. Katherine R. Henderson, the current executive vice president of Auburn Seminary who will succeed Barbara Wheeler as the organization’s president in July. Wheeler, who will remain at Auburn as director of the seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, was the first woman to head a seminary when she was appointed in 1979.

Rev. Henderson presented each honoree with a pot of ivy, both a symbol of Auburn’s history and a representation of the tenacity and persistence that characterizes the activist spirit. Praising the women as “troublemakers” who have used religion as a catalyst to bring about a better world, Henderson called the honorees “luminous witnesses to the possibility of healing and the reality of hope.”