Finding Faith in Community

Dr. Reyes talks to Rev. Tuhina Rasche about growing up in an American context as the child of devout Hindus. Her experiences in college and after, forming deep community with friends and then finding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), led her to seminary. She credits foundational mentor experiences as core to her development as a leader who is exploring her vocation through writing and research.

Season 4: Episode 6

The path to seminary

Tuhina is the Senior Research Associate of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. Prior to joining the Religion & Society Program, she served as the Digital Campus Pastor at University African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Palo Alto, CA and as the Young Adult Coordinator for Arts, Religion Culture: A Society for Theopoetics in Boston, MA. Tuhina comes to the Religion & Society Program with the lived experience of being raised in a devout Hindu household and ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


 Patrick Reyes: Welcome back to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. I am your host, Dr. Patrick Reyes. On the Sound of the Genuine we listen to the stories of religious leaders, pastors, scholars, writers, for how they find meaning and purpose in their lives. Today we have one of my dear friends and colleagues, co-inspires, researchers, Reverend Tuhina Rasche - who, as you will learn, has had many turns in her vocational journey.

But before we listen to Tuhina's story, I encourage you to leave us a review of the show. It helps get this show into the world. 

And now our interview with Reverend Tuhina Rasche, as she navigates the multiple cultural and religious inheritances that she has. I can't wait for you to hear this interview. 

All right Tuhina, it is good to have you on the Sound of the Genuine. Now I have known you for, I think, like a decade now and you are doing some cool stuff at the Aspen Institute as a senior research associate, which I really wanna learn about what all of that entails, what the cool work you get to do. And you working for North Carolina Synod but I want to hear, before all of that, your beginnings. Take me back to growing up. Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your family.

Tuhina Rasche: I think one of the things that in reflecting on life is that God has a great sense of humor. Also a very twisted sense of humor and a great sense of humor. So I was born in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. When I was growing up in Denver, it was in the middle of nowhere, Colorado, but now it's been absorbed in this thing called Denver.

And I was born in a Lutheran medical center to two devoutly Hindu parents. And the weird thing about this is Wheat Ridge is nowhere near where my parents lived. And so for some reason, my mom's OBGYN was at this Lutheran medical center in the middle of nowhere so that's where they had to go in order to have me.

And I had no idea that the Lutherans would have such an effect on my life. Reflecting back 43 years later, it's like, wow, if I had known then…but granted, I didn't know anything then cuz when you're an hour old, you're pretty much over stimulated by like being introduced to the world. Which is actually how I feel every day.

But yeah, so like growing up in Denver, Colorado like I said, I had two devout Hindu parents. I have an older brother and there was really no faith community for south Asian Hindus in Denver, in the 1980s. When I was growing up, God lived in a linen closet and we went to the linen closet and prayed constantly.

But I also learned that prayer didn't have to happen at specific times of the day. And that God living in the closet was actually the puja space. And so as I got older, things got translated, but because I didn't have a vocabulary, I didn't have a knowledge base, so if I talked about God as a really little kid, it would be like, God lives in a closet.

And so reflecting on that now, it's like, wow, that's a lot to unpack. But the other thing that I really super appreciate growing up in Denver and not growing up in a huge faith community and just having it be a family faith community was that for me, it was actually super intimate. My mom taught me that you could pray anywhere and everywhere. She specifically asked my brother and me to pray at traffic lights whenever she had to make a left turn. So this habit of praying and driving has actually been a constant with me that God is with you, where you go. 

I was not very well versed in Hindi growing up, which is the language that was common between my parents. And so my mom taught me how to pray phonetically. And when I was older and I asked her to translate these prayers, I learned that the prayers were not you singular, but they were you plural. And I didn't realize that it was instilled in me in such a young age, that prayer was actually not an individual act, that prayer was a communal act. And that faith was something that you shared and that you did together in community, even if it's a small intimate community like your family, or if it's a huge community.

And I think the first time I was actually able to go to a proper puja was when I eight or nine years old. We had gone to India. I went with my mom and my dad, and we went to visit family. And we were there for Durga Puja, which is a two week festival to honor the Godess, not God, Goddess Durga. And Durga is a warrior princess with eight arms and rides a tiger.

I didn't realize, like there were like these badass Goddesses people revered for like weeks! Being in my parents' village and being able to partake in Durga Puja and seeing like this communal faith and seeing it on my parents' home soil, that was just really amazing.

And I just remember thinking like, wow, shouldn't faith be a celebration? Shouldn't we be like honoring one another and like partying together all the time? Shouldn't we also be together in the midst of the entire courses of our life, whether that be joyous or sorrowful or everything in between?

And so I think that experience for me of Durga Puja and being in like the entire village, celebrating together, being together, even if language was a barrier for me, because I didn't speak Hindi, there was still this communal celebration. There was still this communal sharing. And I'm actually really grateful for my parents taking us to India when my brother and I were younger and taking us to the places they called home.

And also to the ashram where my grandparents got married. There was things that my parents did every year like on special occasions, like their wedding anniversary, our birthdays, if we got a job, if we did well on a report card - We would go offer our prayers in the puja space where God lived in the closet and that our parents would give us money to put into the Puja space. And so there was a while where we didn't go to India and all of this money just kind of like started to stack up. When we finally went to India, I actually found out what that offering was for - that offering was for the ashram but it wasn't just for the physical building itself. It was for the community. 

And one of the things that we had participated in, in the community was called bhog. And bhog is where folks in the ashram will cook. And everybody who works in the ashram, everybody who is outside the ashram, if they're like running a stall, even if they're just walking by, you are invited into this communal meal and that everybody eats together.

And that they all eat together on the floor of the ashram But I think what was really just amazing was that, communal participation - that I'm eating with folks who are pandits in the ashram, but I'm also eating with a street vendor who has a stall just outside the walls of the ashram. It was kind of amazing to see like the walls of the ashram metaphorically come down and that we are sharing together in meal, we're sharing together in fellowship. And I'm really grateful for those experiences in my childhood to inform me on what faith can be.

Patrick Reyes: As I hear the story, it's so communal oriented, whether it's individual prayer or you're eating together, how does this translate to when you come back to the Denver Metro area, and you're coming up? What did your family, what did that community want for you? What did you want for yourself as you think about what you're gonna be when you grow up, what were your dreams?

Tuhina Rasche: So this is where it's rough about dreams, being the child of immigrants and what our dreams and whose dreams are projected onto you versus the dreams that you have for yourself. So I had a lot of dreams projected onto me. And I oftentimes confuse those with my dreams. But I think because the tapes were so loud from those projected dreams, you are going to be a doctor, you are going to be an engineer…You are going to participate in the capitalist system and make lots of money and be very successful and have your name on whatever. And so these were the dreams that were communicated to me and I remember like somebody asked me what do you wanna be when you grow up?

And I was like four years old. And the first thing that came out of my mouth was like, I wanna ride horses. I didn't know the word for equestrian when I was four. But I just wanted to be on a horse for the rest of my life. But then as I got older, I was told that I wanted to be a doctor. I was told that I wanted to be an engineer. I was told that I wanted to be a lawyer. And I just took those dreams on because I felt a huge sense of duty and a huge sense of responsibility, which are also tenants of the Hindu faith. I felt that with the incredible amount of sacrifices that my parents made to come to a whole new country, I had a duty and a responsibility to them to make their dreams come true.

And spoiler alert, I failed. Their dreams did not come true. Actually, no, I think that's a lie because I think that there were dreams that were projected onto them as well. And I think we learned through culture, we learned through family patterns and I think that family patterns and family culture told us dreams had to be this way. But I'm realizing now that dreams can change. That you don't have to always have the same singular dream and that you can have a multitude of dreams. I think that's actually the beautiful thing about dreams is that sometimes they come to fruition and sometimes they spark the imagination. So the dreams that I had I learned were not actually my dreams.

When I think about like my formation and my formative years, I think dreaming is incredibly important. I think communal dreaming is also incredibly important, but I also think that, at least for me and from my family perspective, I wish I had a better understanding of where my parents' dreams came from. And I wish I knew that earlier.

Patrick Reyes: Where do you go to tangle, or maybe it's tangle up even more, these dreams? Is it in college that you start to think about, these are things I want and I know this is what my community wants? Where did you go to do this discernment about what you were gonna be when you grow up? Where and how did you do that?

Tuhina Rasche: I think a lot of it actually came in college. So I did my undergrad at Clemson and it was in French and agricultural economics. So yeah, I'm totally in the field that I'm supposed to be in. And I think that was my first introduction to like community away from my family. I was actually really shocked that my parents are like, yeah, you should live in the dorms.

Because I think like overprotective immigrant parents there's like this dire need to build a bubble around your child so your child is not experienced like anything negative in the world. For my parents, I think it was more like they didn't want harm to come to me. And I think because the world was a big fearful place. But in retrospect look, if you move to a whole new country and the cultures are different and you don't have your family and you don't have your village, yeah, things are gonna be scary. And so when my parents were like, yeah, you can, you can go live in the dorms, I was just kind of shell shocked.

And so in the dorms, I got to know all these people I would not have known otherwise, had I been a commuter student at Clemson. Like I'm still friends with my college roommate, even though we have incredibly huge disagreements on like things in life. Like somehow we are still friends. But I think like part of it was that we had to live together and that we had an understanding that we wanted to live together as peaceably as we could. And so those multiple truths living in the same space at the same time. As an 18 year old I didn't realize how hard that would be because I wanna be the center of the universe.

And then when you have a roommate, you can't be the most important person in the room because there's somebody in this really tiny cinder block room who's right next to you. And they just happen to be taking up the same amount of space as you in this room.

I think we figured out somehow how to be together. We formed our own sorority that was just her and me. It was very exclusive. It was Yoga Marga. So it was also a, a Hindu name. so I was actually like really thrilled because she's white and I'm like, yeah, let's like brown the place up!

So I just really loved that. And I loved that folks in the dorm, it wasn't just a freshman dorm. I think that was also the other incredible part, like I got to meet folks who were further along in their college careers. 

 I got to live in this really, really lovely community my first year. And I got to experience so much of that community. Getting to give and receive in the midst of that community, I think was really incredibly important for me. It wasn't just being like this passive role, going to college and being part of that experience, especially from such a protected childhood it really also taught me about like reciprocity and the importance of relationship.

Patrick Reyes: So for our listeners, I'm gonna take probably the hardest turn ever. Given your whole story, where does Lutheran come in? Like you becoming Lutheran is a thing. You're a pastor like… 

Tuhina Rasche: Yeah.

Patrick Reyes: How does that even come up? Like I'm hearing this whole formation story and not even a hint of it has been…how did you get there? How'd you think about ministry as a potential pathway for you?

Tuhina Rasche: Oh, my God, I didn't, for the longest time. I was actually really scared of Lutheranism. It's just really wild because like my friend invited me to a Lutheran campus ministry meal. She's like, do you wanna go to church with me? And my visceral response as a Hindu in South Carolina in rural south is like, hell no!

And then she's like, I got your back. And like, she's somebody who could whoop somebody. And so when she had offered it's like, okay, I'll go. I've told this story so many times, but it never gets old, how many times I tell it. Like the pastor who was at the door you know, not many brown folk come through the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's doors in Clemson, South Carolina.

And so I just remembered like the first words out of his mouth, not out to convert you. Just come hang with us and I'm like okay. This is new because like other Christians I've met in South Carolina, sometimes I wonder about y'all's as God and like saving, because I feel like sometimes I need to be saved from you because I don't think you understand who God is.

And if your God is like punitive and like fire and brimstone, it's like, uh, uh, no. So I walk into this Lutheran church, Pastor's like, ‘I'm not out to convert you just hang out with us.’ And so I hung out with them. I hung out with them from like my sophomore year till I graduated. And it was great. And there was really no pressure to convert. There was no like slipping of tracts in my textbooks or like, wouldn't it be great if you…no!

It was just come hang with us. There were some instances where they really changed my perception of what following Jesus is. I always thought if folks follow Jesus, there were like, you're out to convert people. You're out to make people feel bad about themselves. You are leading the most serious, strict, stringent life that you could. And I went to a white elephant gift exchange during one of these gatherings of Lutheran campus ministry students, and seeing like the most popular item at this white elephant gift exchange, be a pair of like enormous granny panties.

Everybody is clamoring for the granny panties and I'm like I don't understand what is happening because normally, like you know, this is underwear, like on the outside, in the outside world. I don't understand what is happening! And then the next popular item was a bar of soap shaped like a sperm.

And the campus pastor ended up with that. And he is like, “yeah, the campus pastors gathering is gonna be fun with this!” And I'm just like, y'all know how to laugh? Y'all know how to have fun? You are in community together and you're enjoying one another's company and you're not like explicitly out to convert people. Who are you people? The preconceived notions that I had of Christianity were just completely obliterated when I started meeting with the Lutheran campus ministry group at Clemson. 

And then I graduated from college. I got this thing called a job. I worked as an economic analyst and I didn't think about Lutherans for a couple years. Then I met a really cute boy at a keg party. We were both the designated drivers. And so it was just like, Hey, he's cute. He's fun to talk to. 21 years later, we're married. When we got engaged, we thought that we were gonna have a little, kind of, just justice of the peace ceremony. Like I think we just wanted to be married. That was it. We didn't care about all the stuff that comes with a wedding ceremony or like planning for a wedding. Both of us have very opinionated parents who were like, no. My dad, I remember he distinctly said, “When you have children, you can have your wedding. This is my wedding.” 

And so my parents wanted a Hindu ceremony, not a traditional Hindu ceremony, because that would take days and his parents wanted us to get married in the church and I was like, oh, what church? I guess we should have this conversation now, if we're talking about actually getting married. And he was like, oh, I grew up Lutheran. 

I'm like, I got us! This is great. I know a campus pastor. I know where the Lutheran church is in Clemson, like, let's go! Not to get married, but just to meet the pastor. Yeah. And so it was like, during that time, when we were doing like premarital counseling, that the pastor's like, I'm not just gonna marry you for the sake of marrying you.

Like when you get married in this church, this church comes with a community and I want you to know the community and I want the community to know you. You know, when you get married in this church, they want to love you and support you and encourage you in your life and in your life together. And so that was also kind of mind blowing, of like, I actually have to participate in life together with this community. So I would actually sit in the back with a legal pad and write down all of my observations and all of my questions before we got married. And would meet with the pastor.

I would ask him questions, he would ask me questions. Yet again, he had said, I'm not out to convert you. And if you are gonna get married in the church, the church is not just a building. The church is a community of people. This is about love and care and support and accountability.

And I was like, oh, okay. So then I got to know the people actually in the pews., And it was like that reinforcement of community, of relationship and of reciprocity that just really stuck with me. And I think it is in worship in the Lutheran church is where I heard the voice of God.

I realized like growing up in a Hindu household, I had not heard the voice of the divine. Yet when I'm worshiping in church, I was finally open to it and I heard the voice of God. And it wasn't like the fire and brimstone that I had heard earlier. It was, you are the most precious thing and you are the most loved thing. Not thing, I shouldn't say thing, but I felt like the smallest tiniest thing in the world and at the same time, I felt like the most precious, loved being in the world. And that scared me. That scared me so much because I'd never felt that before.

And I'd never felt it like to a point where I thought the roof was gonna blow off the church. Because I love to tell the story about meeting God in a Sunday worship. Cuz people are like, what? No, it's actually not this regular routine thing. Like this is one of the multitude of places where we encounter God. And oddly enough, for me, the triune God of God, the holy spirit and then Jesus. Like, I think for me, I was more terrified that the reality that I had known, the foundations that I had known had completely shifted, and I didn't know how to live with those completely shifted foundations. To be entirely honest, I actually, I still don't know how. I'm still learning.

 Patrick Reyes: So when do you get the idea or call to lead a congregation? If you're finding the voice of the divine in worship, and you have this sense that you are the most precious being in the world, both the smallest and the biggest thing - at this moment, when do you say, oh, there might be a leadership role for me in the church? When does that come up?

Tuhina Rasche: So from the first time I set foot in a Lutheran church to when I was a baptized follower of Jesus, that took several years. It wasn't just like this instantaneous, like I'm this now. It was having to reform my life and reengage in different ways that I didn't know, existed in the world and in my life and in my being and in my spirit. And so a week after I was baptized the pastor who presided over my baptism is like, you should go to seminary. And I was like, you should take that and shove it up your beep. But it was weird because I couldn't let that go. And I think part of it was like curiosity, because I think I just wanted to know more. I wanted to learn more. I had just been baptized and I just wanted to figure out how do I grow? How do I be, how do I do? After he had said I should go to seminary and I had my choice words for him, I did actually end up going to seminary.

And I think for me, I ended up going to seminary out of curiosity, and that seminary was going to like, be that place where I could be curious and I could learn and I can grow. Actually taking on that mantle of leadership came with accompaniment and mentorship. I think people were able to see something in me that I yet was not able to see in myself and to have people reflect that to me. Because I think there's one thing of if folks can recognize something in you, but I think there's a place of both bravery and vulnerability when you share that reflection.

I'm really grateful that there were folks who were willing to be brave and vulnerable with me in saying, I see you as not being set in front but being set apart.

I think for me, that's actually something that's really, that we really need to talk about in at least the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in ordained leadership is that folks are set apart. They're set aside for accompaniment. And I think that accompaniment comes with a particular mode of leadership. 

When my mentors had said I see something in you and I'm going to tell you what I recognize in you and I pray that one day you can recognize that in yourself - Getting to hear that and getting to ponder that and getting to embody that I think meant the world to me. And there was a long time where like, I did not wanna take on a role of leadership, especially in the whitest denomination in the United States. But I had such incredible mentors who I think were able to help me hold multitude I think a big part of it was that I had to hold the multitudes of who I am created to be, cuz I'm not just created to be one sole thing. I don't just have one sole identity, but I also think that leadership or accompaniment comes with a multitude of feelings that we also don't do a great job in discussing spiritually and emotionally.

And so being able to be with people who could hold those multitudes and help me learn to hold those multitudes for myself, but then also model for me in turn, how do I participate in this, in the communion of saints and recognize this in other folks - help hold this multitude for other folks? And so I think for me, there's a trajectory of ancestry that also participates in this.

Patrick Reyes: So as you hold all these multitudes now you go and get ordained in the ELCA and are now leading research, how do you hold all this in your leadership now? You mentioned mentors, who were the mentors who helped you hold these multitudes and what were those conversations like?

Tuhina Rasche: Oh gosh. The pastor who had said you should go to seminary a week after I was baptized, I actually went to go visit him a couple of days before he died. And I actually asked him, why did you tell me this? And he said I didn't tell you, the holy spirit compelled me to tell you. And I think for me, he was my personal John the Baptist, that he's the person who would cry out in the wilderness.

I think about him a lot and what does it mean to actually like tell somebody, even though you're terrified, even if your voice shakes but to actually say the thing and to let people know. His name was Marcus, Marcus Hess. And I think about Marcus a lot. I actually wonder a lot, I wonder what Marcus would think about what I'm doing now? I wonder that often with folks that Marcus knew along his life as well, that I've come to know. 

I have a mentor, but I put the words in parenthesis, "T O R" in front of it as a joke. So a Tor-mentor. And so my tormentor he's like one of my most favorite people on the planet. His name is Ross Merkel, and I think he's the person who taught me how to hold the multitudes. And when I didn't know how to hold the multitudes, he would hold some of it for me until I could figure my stuff out and learn how to hold it. And I think, for me, he's also the person who modeled that for me. So he was my internship supervisor and I served with him as a co-pastor. During my internship, like the first day, he was like, “I want you to have a valuable experience. But part of that is I need you to tell me what you need in order to have that valuable experience.” And so with Ross and me, it was about being open in that relationship. And I think like also that first day, like we put everything on the table. I'm like, I have anger issues. I am passive aggressive. I am super angry at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And he was like, okay. He's like, all right. I am very particular. I have things that they have to be done a certain way. I don't know why it's just how I am. And so I think, like we had laid all that out on the table, the very first meeting we had for my internship. I don't think I'd actually ever been that starkly honest with somebody like going into a relationship when I've hardly known them. I moved recently and one of the hardest things about moving was no longer getting to regularly spend physical space and time with Ross.

Patrick Reyes: Tuhina, I'm curious now that you're in this new role and you've had these mentors tell me a little bit about what is it like to go from when you're growing up, with that prayer closet, to praying at left hand turns, to having these communal awakenings with the church - the ELCA - and these foundational mentor experiences, how does all that impact you now and your vocation now?

Tuhina Rasche: In my vocation, I feel like I've been able to learn that we are capable of so much more and we are capable of so much learning. We are capable of so much good. We are capable of so much life-affirming and life-giving relationships.

I think one of the other things is that I also spent four years serving the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Palo Alto, California. One of the things that they really taught me about vocation and particularly about my vocation is voice. The importance of voice. I come from a denomination where like folks run for positions and they're like, “I wanna be a voice for the voiceless.”

And then I'm kind of like, excuse me? Let's have a conversation about that because I am perfectly capable of using my own voice. It is just the question of if you want to hear me or not. How do we shift these conversations? And my time with the folks at University AME Zion also really taught me a lot about vocation and a lot about why I think a big part of my vocation is my writing, and is my voice, and is actually like how I read. And actually what I do now as a senior research associate is how I research. One of the things that I think I found really super valuable when I was in graduate school for professional communication is a term called terministic screens. And it is all of the information that we have gathered in our lived experiences and that everybody has their own unique terministic screen.

And our terministic screen is how we experience the world. How we live in the world. And also like part of that terministic screen, at least in a rhetorical sense is like, what are the words that have contributed? I think about that as very powerful as somebody who follows Jesus as the word made flesh, what are the words that have formed and shaped our lived experiences? Because those go together. Like they really go together. So I think about that a lot, particularly as a researcher. What are the words that are potentially going to become flesh in lived out projects? It's not like I'm researching just for the sake of research. I am researching because I believe in a world, even if I am a follower of Jesus and I was brought up in a Hindu household, I believe in a world where religious pluralism needs to flourish. The research that I do is to ensure that there is programming that is created, that folks can live fully into their faith traditions or not live into a faith tradition, and that they're able to do this completely freely and without harm and without harming others.

Patrick Reyes: Wow. So I got just one last question for you. I ask everyone who comes on this and I don't wanna assume anything because the narrative has been so communally oriented. You've had family members, the broader community, the church, mentors, but everyone who comes on the Sound of the Genuine I ask this question about how much of your own vocation, how much of what you're living to now comes from that community: the people who form you and raise you and love you, and how much comes from that moment that you have with the divine in worship, that still small voice or the connection where you're the most precious thing to God? How much of it’s community, how much of it is your relationship with God or yourself?

Tuhina Rasche: Oh gosh, so this is where I really love being Lutheran, where we say that we are 100% simultaneously saint and sinner. And I will say that it is 100% the community that has surrounded me, held me accountable, upheld me, girded me, formed me. It is 100% myself. It is 100% the influence of the divine. And so it's just kind of like, wow, that's really bad math.

And it's like, yeah, isn't it great?

Patrick Reyes: Tuhina, that's an awesome response. And thank you so much for being on the Sound of the Genuine and keeping it 100 all the time. A hundred percent, a hundred percent in every bucket. We love and appreciate the ministry you do in the world. If they wanted to find out more about what you're up to at the Aspen Institute, where would listeners go to find you?

Tuhina Rasche: Okay. This is a little wild. I don't know the website off the top of my head and our comms person's gonna be like, Tuhina come on! But you can google Aspen Institute, Religion and Society Program. And you can see a lot of the amazing work that we're doing. So it's not just like research and publications. We have in person convenings. It's a participatory model of like, how do we work together to make the world a better place? Also I'm working with a digital community in the North Carolina Synod and so the Anam Cara community yet again, googling that, cuz not knowing that off the top of my head. Cuz some of these things are so new. And it's so good. 

Patrick Reyes: Well, Tuhina, thank you for sharing your story and all love and appreciation to you. Grateful.

Tuhina Rasche: Thank you for the invitation.

Patrick Reyes: I want to thank you again for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Reverend Tuhina Rasche's story. Now, one of the things that we want to know is how you are finding the Sound of the Genuine in you, so do us a favor and leave us a comment in the review section of this podcast. I want to thank my team, our executive producer Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks, and @siryalibeats for his music. We hope this podcast is helping inspire you to find the Sound of the Genuine in you.