Changed by Faith

Changed by Faith

As a newly ordained Buddhist monk at Plum Village monastery in France, Gary Stuard, along with some other monastics, attended a Good Friday service at an Orthodox Church in 1994 in search of finding a Western way to explain Buddhist practice. Stuard, who had left the Christian religion more than a decade before, realized that his faith had never left him.

“The service was so beautiful – the singing, the chanting,” Stuard said. “As all of this was happening, in mind’s eye, I saw this image of Christ, and I realized I was still a Christian,” he said.

Stuard’s spiritual journey has taken him around the United States as a Christian, to France as a Buddhist monk and finally to the Dallas area as a Christian again, where he has become an environmental activist. Stuard said he has at last found comfort.

Leaving the Church

“I felt like I had a very strong relationship with God,” said Stuard, describing his childhood in Houston.

As he grew up, Stuard said he realized something was different – he was gay. Stuard ventured to four colleges over the course of his academic career in search of answers to fundamental questions in his faith. The third was Baylor University, where he took a course on the PBS documentary “The Ascent of Man,” which examined human intellectual evolution and critiqued the theological ideology that Stuard grew up with in the Evangelical Church.

“That class was like a supernova,” said Stuard, who will speak at Wednesday’s Inclusiveness Conference. “It just blasted everything away. I was free intellectually, and I just couldn’t believe the faith I grew up in.”

Despite the intellectual freedom, he said, loneliness was setting in as he focused all his energy into his studies, and a change in faith was on the horizon.

“What are you doing, God?” Stuard said he remembers thinking. “You haven’t done much for me lately, so goodbye.”

His decision to leave Christianity coincided with his departure from Baylor, and two years later, he found himself at the University of Houston, where he began practicing Zen meditation.

From the Inside Out

“Zen meditation is the practice of sitting in silence, paying attention to each breath and focusing the mind on here and now,” said Ruben Habito, a professor of world religions and spirituality at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. “It allows the practitioner to see how we are all connected in the universe.”

Zen meditation led Stuard to hear Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master from Vietnam. speak. Stuard soon left the United States for Plum Village in May 1992 and became the first western male to be ordained as a monk by Hanh. Stuard’s experience at the Orthodox Good Friday service came 16 months after his ordainment.

“I felt like I was able to reclaim what had been lost,” Stuard said.

So, in March 1996 Stuard left the monastery, learned of Habito and moved to Dallas to practice Zen meditation, which led him to his involvement in environmental activism.

“(Stuard’s) dedication to social ecological work derives from his spiritual practice,” Habito said. “Zen meditation opens your eyes to the wounds of the earth and you see the pain that’s happening around you.”

With his renewed fervor in Zen meditation, Stuard said he felt moved to do something to stop global warming.

“I refuse to stand by and see my planet die,” he said. “And I refuse to be a victim.”

Family Matters

“I was able to stay in the closet for her sake,” Stuard said of his mother who passed away in May 2005. He said he did not come out to her because he didn’t want to further endanger her health.

Stuard said he felt liberated when he could finally come out to everyone because he was able to live truthfully. This comes at the expense of minimal contact with his family because of their intolerance of his homosexuality, he said.

Although the inner comfort is there, he said he still refuses to forgive the religious right or evangelical churches for creating the rift between he and his family.

“I’m holding you people accountable”, he says of the religious right as he pounds his finger on the table. “If there is anything anti-Christ, it is the American Religious Christian Right.” A group Stuard said he thinks, in association with the Republican party, put the U.S. years behind other countries, environmentally when the Reagan administration gutted the alternative energy programs set up by Jimmy Carter.

Hoping for Change

Stuard will be speaking Wednesday at the Inclusiveness Conference, hosted by Intercultural Inclusiveness Services and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Kaufman said he will speak about religious views on climate change and care for the environment.

“Gary is a terrific and tireless worker for peace and justice,” said Virginia Holleman, assistant to the rector at Stuard’s church. Stuard is trying to educate the parishioners at his church about the environment. Last year, the church wouldn’t let him show Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”; this year he is teaching an adult class on climate awareness, something he sees as progress.

“We have what it takes to prevent the worst from happening,” Stuard said. “As a Christian, a Buddhist, a humanist and a human being, my goal is to be as effective as possible in letting people know that this is real, this is so urgent.