Byline: Anne Underwood
Jan Willis never felt drawn to the Baptist church of her 1950s Alabama childhood--a place where the preacher hadn't done his job unless he whipped parishioners into a spiritual frenzy that left them fainting in the aisles. She avoided the revival tents until her mother forced her to go for the sake of her soul. And though she was eventually baptized at 14--"a wondrous experience," she admits--she quickly fell back into her old suspicion of Christianity as the religion of white oppressors. Who could blame her? So-called Christians in her hometown periodically blinded black children by tossing acid or hot lye at them. The Ku Klux Klan even burned a cross outside Willis's house, as she crouched inside, expecting to die.
Willis had always cherished the ideal of peace and in 1963 marched in Birmingham with Martin Luther King Jr. In college, inspired by the images of monks in Vietnam setting themselves on fire to protest the war, she became interested in Buddhism. But by the time she graduated from Cornell in 1969, Willis was faced with a stark postcollege choice: go to Nepal and study Buddhism or join the Black Panthers and fight for black rights--"peace or a piece," as she puts it. She opted for peace. And everything in her life changed. Buddhism taught her compassion and self-acceptance. It led her to her current job, teaching Buddhism at Wesleyan University. And it even taught her how to make peace with the Baptist church.
Her journey wasn't easy. Arriving at a monastery outside Katmandu in 1969, she was the lone woman among 60 monks; everything around her was strange. She learned to adjust to the sounds of gongs and conch shells, …