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A Godsend. A delight. A surprise. Humbling. These are Lewis Rambo’s words, describing his feelings as the 2009 recipient of the Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award. The award recognizes the values of interreligious sensitivity and commitment, interdisciplinary approach and content in teaching, sensitivity to ethnic and cultural diversity, and creative classroom pedagogical methods and performance.
Why humbling? “Because,” Rambo says, “at this stage in the 30th year of my career at the GTU, I know how much I don’t know.”
By that and any other measure, Rambo knows a lot. What he conveys in conversation is an immense and joyful curiosity that seems to keep him always accumulating knowledge, and paradoxically never getting enough.
As Rambo describes the areas of study he’s most passionate about, paradox, humility, and compassion come up a lot.
Take multicultural issues: “I’m a white guy from Texas,” he says. “What do I know?” But then: “One of the reasons I’m passionate about this issue is I have many friends of different backgrounds, including my wife, who is Chinese. I have profound sadness and outrage about how the U.S. has treated people of color and people from different parts of the world. The most intensive ‘reeducation’ I’ve received is from racial/ethnic friends and international students. Culture shapes everything, and yet, each person within a culture or context brings to the world his or her own very special set of experiences. Rambo knows a lot. And yet, “Humility is absolutely mandatory,” he says. “We may think we know, but we don’t know anything, really about a person until we ask and genuinely listen.”
Take film, another of Rambo’s passions, which he translates into a course called Cinema: Society, Self, and the Sacred. He tells of growing up in Comanche, Texas, a town of 4,000, named for the Native American Comanche tribe. Not being into sports as a kid, Rambo says Comanche’s Pearl Street Church of Christ -- which offered a robust Sunday school, folk preaching, and a capella singing -- and the Majestic Theater, where he could take in a film, newsreels, and popcorn for 15 cents “were havens that opened up my world and fired my imagination.” The film Smoke Signals, about two Native American young men sparked Rambo’s drive to know where he came from: “Farmers in my town had hundreds of arrowheads on their walls, yet there were no indigenous Americans in Comanche. There was a visible, yet invisible history, and I wanted to find out who was there, who wasn’t, and why.”
Take religious conversion, another topic of fascination for Rambo: “My father grew up in the Baptist Church, but he was not active as an adult. My mother’s side of the family was constantly trying to convert him to the Church of Christ. So as a child I was aware of conflicts about who is a “real Christian.” Rambo, who wrote Understanding Religious Conversion (Yale University Press, 1993), is working on the Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion with co-editor Charles E. Farhadian. The project embraces many religions and disciplines in a quest to understand the complexity and diversity of religious and spiritual transformation around the world.
On teaching, Rambo says, “When a student has the courage to give voice to an idea that may be completely contradictory to my own, that’s a precious moment. What I most want for my students is that they learn what their discipline has to teach, respect their own experience, and find a new creative synthesis.” On this, Rambo practices what he teaches.
About the GTU, Rambo says, “Coming of age in a homogeneous small town, it’s a miracle for me to be at the GTU.” Perhaps. But therein again lies a paradox. Sarlo Award and all, Rambo is vintage GTU.
“Many of us know Lewis Rambo as a trusted mentor deeply committed to students’ scholarly development and success. I am especially grateful for the personal attention Lewis gives to each of his students.”
-- Steven Bauman, PhD student, Religion and Psychology
George Sarlo, motivated by his family’s experience in the Holocaust during World War II, supports the GTU’s work to educate leaders who will promote justice and peace among people of diverse religions and cultures. Each year, students and faculty honor a faculty member for his/her creativity in guiding students to this end -- with the Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award.