I was born in New England in the mid-1960s and adopted by my parents several months later. I lived in Amherst, Massachusetts throughout my childhood, attending Amherst Regional High School where I studied French, Latin, Greek and Russian, was on the debate team and played varsity tennis. I decided to attend Amherst College, where my father had taught Art History since 1962. Primarily because I was planning to attend college in my hometown, I decided to defer my matriculation for a year and serve as a volunteer for Glenmary Home Missions, a Catholic religious order that serves communities in the rural South where Catholics are a small minority. Living in the parish rectory in Idabel, Oklahoma, I taught in the local junior high school, and volunteered as a carpenter's assistant for the Little Dixie Community Action Agency, an organization that weatherized homes and distributed food to families in Idabel and other surrounding communities. I also studied Choctaw, a Native American language, and tutored Choctaw students in English and Mathematics. I also coached a Special Olympics basketball team that played in the Oklahoma State Finals. My year in Idabel was formative not only because it exposed me to aspects of life seemingly far removed from my experiences in New England but also because it allowed me to explore aspects of myself outside the classroom.
At Amherst College, I had originally intended to major in Philosophy but I soon decided that Religious Studies was more suited to my interests. In my sophomore year, at the encouragement of my advisor, I enrolled in an anthropology course that was a broad survey of Indian religiosity. This was my first exposure to issues concerning cross-cultural understanding and I was fascinated. India had such a cultural and religious depth and diversity that I knew I had to explore it more fully. And so I decided to study in India during my junior year abroad. I was accepted into a program sponsored by the University of Wisconsin in Varanasi, a city in Northern India that is regarded as one of Hinduism's most sacred places. Central to the program was an intensive study of Hindu and Urdu, two of the most important languages in North India society. I studied both Hindi and Urdu intensively at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and then went to India that fall. In Varanasi, I lived with a Hindu family who belonged to the Brahmin caste and we became very close. I also continued to study Hindi and Urdu, took lessons in an Indian form of dance called "Kathak" and pursued an independent research project discussing Roman Catholicism in North India. I also was fortunate to serve as a volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and worked in one of their hostels in Varanasi. Suffice it to say here that my first year in India was magical for it was my first experience in a culture different from my own. To surrender oneself to another culture and to immerse oneself in it is inevitably a transformative experience and the intellectual and spiritual implications of such cross-cultural experience and contact stand at the center of my deepest professional and personal concerns.
When I returned to Amherst College, I was able to revise and expand my research project about North Indian Catholicism and transform it into my senior honors thesis. I was also fortunate to be awarded a Watson Fellowship for independent research in India and Pakistan and so I traveled to South Asia for another year of study after my graduation from Amherst. Upon my return from India and Pakistan in 1988, I decided to volunteer as a house manager for a homeless shelter in New York City. This transitional home served as a residence for homeless young men who were seeking refuge from abusive families or from the sex trade or were struggling with various forms of addiction or health problems ranging from malnutrition to HIV. In many ways, I found that that my experience in New York distantly echoed my experiences in Oklahoma and in India, since I was challenged to learn and adapt to a radically different social and cultural environment. In all these experiences, I found that listening to others was crucial and that I learned far more than I taught.
After my year in New York, I went to the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I studied History of Religions and continued my study of Hinduism and Catholicism and the Hindi language and also began to learn Bengali. In the summer of 1992, I returned to India and studied Bengali in Calcutta. At the University of Chicago, I was particularly fortunate to have Wendy Doniger as my advisor, known internationally for her study of mythology and translations of ancient Hindu texts. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I decided to return to the Catholic community that I originally studied during my first year in India in 1985-86. My dissertation, "A Space for Redemption: Catholic Tactics in Hindu North India" examines Hindu/Catholic interaction in the charismatic healing movement and in a small village inhabited by a community of Catholic converts from Untouchability. For my research, I spent 16 months in India from December 1994 to May of 1996. I was awarded my Ph.D. in History of Religions from the University of Chicago in 1998. It was also in 1998 that I began teaching at Holy Cross. I was awarded tenure in 2005. Presently, I am director of the College Honors Program in addition to my regular teaching responsibilities. My research and teaching includes Global Catholicism, South Asian Studies, and Modern Religious Movements. I have also written more personal pieces on Catholic spirituality and my experiences in India and Pakistan. I am a regular contributor to the Washington Post website On Faith.