‘World class gardener’
Amy Poppinga brings interfaith dialogue as a Christian historian of Islam at Bethel University.
By Sierra Smith | Journalist
Amy Poppinga woke up by 7 a.m. that morning to get ready for her 9 a.m. class at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. She flipped the TV to the TODAY show on NBC with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer to get the news updates as she continued her routine. Her head turned as the broadcast was interrupted by a report of what was believed to have been a small plane that crashed into one of the Twin Towers. She sat there alone, unsure of whether to wake her roommate, who had just returned from working the night shift as a nurse at the hospital.
Details began to unfold, and at 8:03 a.m. CST Poppinga watched as the second Twin Tower was hit. It was clear at that moment that the events were not accidental. A surreal feeling overcame her and she didn’t know what to do next. Should she just go about life per usual?
She drove to her 9 a.m. class in St. Paul. No texting at this time, and checking email was not a normal impulse yet, so she was surprised when got there to find that class had been canceled. Classmates lingered in the room. A few of them walked around campus together in a daze, unpacking the news.
For the following days she watched the news coverage around the clock habitually to see if anything else would happen. Watching the news kept her busy and distracted. She had to watch in the mornings and evenings to know if everything was still OK.
To this day she checks the National Public Radio app on her phone every morning. This all started on the morning of 9/11.
Amy Poppinga was three weeks into graduate school to earn her master’s degree in Islamic studies in 2001. Christian churches, universities and other circles of Christians did not know how to approach the aftermath. It was a wake up call that there were Muslims living among them, of whom they knew nothing about.
Before beginning her masters program, she had been teaching at Irondale High School in New Brighton since a few months after graduating from Bethel University at age 21. She began to notice the observable differences between students’ religions in her classes, which sparked her interest. She had Muslims students who were Somali, Muslim students who came from a variety of backgrounds, Jewish students and Christian students too.
“I just remember feeling really ill-equipped for how to reach out to those students,” Poppinga said. “I didn’t really know much of anything about Islam. I think as a Christian I had two categories: people who are Christian and people who aren’t. And that was kind of it.”
Osama bin Laden had changed the trajectory of her life.
This is a story about someone who takes the command of loving your neighbor more seriously than the average Christian. It’s about someone who cares about context and culture. About someone on a journey to build a faith that would weather a storm. A faith that would be relevant and meaningful even when placed in a different country, a different context, a different time period.
This is a story about relating to people who are not like her, and building empathy for people with different views than her. About a woman whose faith has weathered a storm, and why she’s still working hard now to help people like her to understand what she’s come to understand.
Poppinga went to Luther Seminary in St. Paul to get her M.A. in Islamic Studies. In the meantime, she worked as a cultural liaison at the high school and planned on going back there to teach when she was done. She wanted to know Muslims specifically, hear their stories and relate to them. Poppinga’s former professor, now colleague and friend, Marion Larson, attributes this urge to her empathetic and selfless personality.
“In her dissertation work she was doing oral histories of various people that she interviewed. She saw them very much as potential friends and wanted to get to know them and learn who they were and what’s important to them,” Larson said.
“If we learn more about people, then we become more empathetic to them.” — Professor Amy Poppinga
September 11th changed everything for Poppinga. It was clear that there was a need for people to learn more about Islam. While she was still in graduate school, some faculty in the history department at Bethel asked Poppinga to revive a course called Introduction to the Muslim World. They realized the need for more education in this area. She enjoyed teaching the class so much as an adjunct that some of the faculty wanted her to stay and teach more. She accepted and has been at Bethel ever since.
“It just totally made my path diverge completely… but [it was] still meeting what I truly felt was a spiritual calling… I like the idea that understanding comes through education,” Poppinga said. “If we learn more about people, then we become more empathetic to them. I feel like I was still doing what I went to graduate school to do. I just ended up doing it in a different place.”
After several years of Poppinga teaching as an adjunct professor at Bethel, one of Bethel’s longest serving faculty in the history department, G.W. Carlson, sat Poppinga down and told her he was going to be retiring in 2012, about four years from then. He had been her mentor and hero throughout her three years as a student at Bethel.
“I know you really like it here,” he said. “I would really like to see you here permanently, but you can’t do that. … The only way that’s going to happen is if you have a Ph.D.”
Poppinga had never seen herself getting an education past her M.A. She says she lacked confidence in herself and also had to keep in mind her husband and newborn son.
“Do me the due diligence of looking and doing the research,” Carlson challenged her.
And so she did.
Poppinga found a program at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, where she could take the credits from her master’s program and continue into her Ph.D.
Three years into the program, exhausted, Poppinga put her life on hold and moved her family to England for a year to do her residency. She approached the end of writing her dissertation and prepared to defend her four years of work to two judges who did not know her or her work.
It had been 45 minutes since the judges sent her away after a three hour back-and-forth of questions and answers. She sat, exhausted, stomach twisted with an anxious feeling that something was not right. Surely she would have a result by now, if the judges were in agreement about her passing or failing, so why hadn’t she heard yet?
An hour had passed, “We have not reached a consensus,” they said to her. One judge wanted to pass her, the other felt more extensive revisions were needed.
Poppinga was confused, had she passed? Had she failed? No. Instead she was put in a state of limbo with no further information other than she had to wait six weeks to hear what revisions she would have to make.
Stunned, she did not know how to face her family, her friends, or her colleagues, who were all waiting for replies to their texts and calls. People who had supported and helped her through the past four years. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even cry. She sat on the living room floor until it was time to pick up her sons from school.
Poppinga was at her lowest of lows. Her mind raced with fears of letting down her family, not providing the income they needed, not being able to send her two boys to Bethel with tuition benefit. Then she thought of her colleagues, the way she was going to disappoint them, how she would lose the job that she loved so much.
That night as she tucked in her 10-year-old son, he said his nightly prayer. When he got to the part where he said, “and please help mom finish her dissertation,” she felt the weight on her. He had been praying this for four years. This time, the words crushed her. How could she tell him she had still not finished and didn’t know what was going to happen now?
She didn’t sleep well for months. She didn’t enjoy doing much of anything. She felt like a failure. She would miss being a part of a team of colleagues and friends at Bethel. She loved the rhythm of a school year and watching her students grow and change. She walked into every classroom feeling insecure — don’t these students deserve better than me?. She hadn’t felt this way about teaching since 1999. In the past it had always brought her confidence and security and joy. Losing that was the worst part.
Three years into earning her Ph.D., her schedule consisted of an entire year waking up each morning to take care of her two boys, both under two years old, teaching five classes throughout the year at Bethel as an adjunct professor, running to the airport every Monday night to catch a flight to Connecticut to go to class at Hartford University (partnered with the University of Exeter) every Tuesday morning for her Ph.D., catching a flight back to MN Tuesday night, and getting back to Bethel in time to teach her CWC small group on Wednesdays. A whole year of that, for what?
She was devastated, all of her hard work so easily deflated by one person. The ruling to deny her thesis had taken a whole two-year process as the two judges fought about whether it should go through.
Once she got some answers, she spent two years rewriting her dissertation.
Finally, after 10 years, Amy Poppinga had a Ph.D. She healed slowly from the fears of letting people down and losing her job. Colleagues and friends were inspired by her perseverance. Through all of that, she had never let her own problems affect the way she treated others.
“She has to start every class she teaches on Islam knowing that there’s going to be at least some group of students that are upset that they’re even in this class, talking about Islam, in any terms other than how do we convert people.” — Professor at Bethel University, Christopher Gehrz
Years of teaching and studying about Islam have both challenged Poppinga’s concept of theology, and deepened her faith in God. Her goal is to create a faith that would withstand any hardship, and that would still line up no matter what context, culture or time or place.
To her, that means living her life compassionately. She says she strives to find better ways to love her neighbors, to see things from other people’s perspectives. This is visible to everyone around her in the way that she fights against injustice and cultural disparities. Any time something good happens to her, she wonders why me and not someone else?
Colleague and friend in the history department, Christopher Gehrz, said Poppinga is someone who does not get locked into the Bethel Bubble mindset or language. She’s always looking to close the gap between Bethel and the real world by bringing in people to speak on different religions and world views, and by pushing back in conversations that are based heavily on what the majority of people inside of Bethel think or have experienced. She’s willing to question the norms at Bethel and push back on things a little bit. This applies to the classroom as well because many of the classes she teaches are not about Christianity, but about Islam. This can be seen as controversial to some people.
“She has to start every class she teaches on Islam knowing that there’s going to be at least some group of students that are upset that they’re even in this class, talking about Islam, in any terms other than how do we convert people,” Gehrz said.
Two young Muslim men from the University of Minnesota entered the History of Islam class. Any initial uncertainty vanished as soon as the young men began to speak. They were eloquent, dynamic and outgoing. The classroom was loud with laughter and students asked questions that were relatable and compared daily experiences. Poppinga glowed at how well the interaction was going.
The next class period, two young Muslim women from the U of M came in to speak about their experiences. Poppinga remembers, “It was as if the class had had some sort of conversation outside of the classroom about whether they had been too inviting and relatable to the young men that came in and if that was a bad thing.”
This time the classroom was rigid and quiet as the women spoke, tension standing between the students wearing hijab and students who didn’t. The women were a little more quiet and reserved than the men had been, but still spoke eloquently about their lives and their Muslim faiths. A student asked what Muslims believe about the Old Testament, and one of the women responded that they see the Old Testament as very relevant to Islam and that Jesus was a very important prophet to Allah.
“Well if you all believe in the Old Testament, and you believe in the 10 commandments, why do you think it’s OK to murder?” the Bethel student responded.
She smiled and responded out of curiosity,
“I’m not that familiar with the ten commandments, could you remind me what they are?”
And he couldn’t.
Poppinga said the whole class realized it had made a mistake. Students had placed judgment on people for not knowing the entirety of their religion. They had judged an entire religion based on extremist acts of terrorism committed by two percent of all Muslims. They themselves could not remember one of the most fundamental parts of their own faith. The classroom sat in uncomfortable silence, and Poppinga let them.
Professor of psychology at Bethel and friend of Poppinga’s, Joel Frederickson, argues that demonstrating empathy toward people with different religions does not mean that one has to endorse their faith or agree with it.
“We could learn a lot about our faith by looking at Muslims and how they practice faith,” he said. “Christians have moved away from spiritual disciplines at Bethel because it can be seen as legalistic, whereas Muslims are much more engaged in their spiritual disciplines. It’s not meant to be legalistic, it’s meant to be an act of faith and belief. It’s meant to nourish us by going through it.
A student of Poppinga’s, Logan Lasley, looks up to her as one of the most brilliant professors he’s had in his four years.
“I see Amy Poppinga as a world class gardener,” he said. “Because she can see when students are rooted in one way of thinking. And they’re in their decaying soil and what not and she can move them to a position where they can see the broader forest, epistemologically speaking, and the student can then choose where to grow and how to grow.”