Harvard Honors Varun Soni with Prestigious Gomes Memorial Award

2019 Gomes Honors Emphasize Spiritual Innovation

By Paul Massari

In 1815, the Reverend William Ellery Channing laid out a vision for the graduates of the institution that would become Harvard Divinity School. In a fundraising circular written over the signature of Harvard President John T. Kirkland, Channing wrote that the new school’s alumni would be not only religious leaders who “speak to the conscience and heart with power,” but also scholars who “address our understandings with clearness” and “throw light over the obscurities of the sacred volume.”

Embedded in the nation’s first non-sectarian divinity school, this hybrid model of intellectual/devotional leadership also implied another role for HDS graduates—that of innovators who, in a variety of settings, would “exhibit religion in an interesting form.”

Over 200 years later, the recipients of the 2019 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honors carry this vision into the eclectic, pluralistic world of the 21st century. Passionate and entrepreneurial, they shape religious and spiritual life both inside and outside of the house of worship and draw on religious resources to build community, work for justice, and help people everywhere lead richer, more meaningful lives.

“The 2019 Gomes Honorees stand at the nexus of centuries-old religious knowledge and of modernity, with boldness and creativity at the center of all that they do,” says Dean David N. Hempton. “They are the spiritual innovators that shape communities of meaning, the vibrancy and diversity of which will be critical to human flourishing in the years to come. I’m delighted to welcome them into the ranks of Harvard Divinity School’s honored graduates.”

Chosen each year by the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council (AAC), the Gomes Honorees represent the wide range of human experience—both personal and professional—on which HDS graduates have an impact. This year, the council recognizes:

  • Erik Martínez Resly, MDiv ’12, founder and co-director of The Sanctuaries in Washington D.C., a multicultural and interfaith arts community that “activates artists to build power, shift culture, and heal spirits for the wellness of the people”
  • Salma Kazmi, MTS ’09, founding executive director of the Boston Islamic Seminary, former associate director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, and co-founder of the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations
  • Varun Soni, MTS ’99, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California (USC) and the first Hindu to serve as the chief religious or spiritual leader of an American university. Dean Soni is also vice provost of campus wellness and crisis intervention, adjunct professor of religion, and a university fellow at the Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy
  • Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv ’15, a humanist chaplain, and CEO and founder of the feminist production company Not Sorry Productions, who with collaborator Casper ter Kuile, created “Harry Potter and Sacred Text”, a weekly podcast that engages in traditional forms of sacred reading to explore broad themes like vulnerability, betrayal, and friendship.

As they have in year’s past, the AAC also honors a non-alumna/us member of the HDS community. This year, the council recognizes Kerry Maloney, the School’s chaplain, director of the HDS Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and an instructor in ministry studies.


AAC Chairperson Quardricos B. Driskell, MTS ’08, says that, while this year’s honorees come from different traditions, they all share a genius for creating new spaces that foster spiritual transformation.

“At this moment in time, people search for communities of meaning and creativity, whether within traditional houses of worship or outside,” he says. “This year’s honorees demonstrate the ways in which HDS prepares graduates to think inclusively and to offer new spaces for spiritual life.”

The chair of the Gomes Honors selection committee, Celene Ibrahim, MDiv ’11, says that, while each of the honorees is an innovator, the group as a whole represents a diversity of approaches to spirituality and ministry—a nod to the diversity of the HDS alumni community as a whole.

“Some honorees take traditional religious practices and work within institutions to bring them to a wider audience,” she says. “In so doing, they bring a renewed sense of community and of polity. Others innovate by bringing religious resources to new settings—for instance, by applying reading practices that are usually used with scriptural texts to literature that doesn’t come out of a faith tradition but does deal with ultimate questions. The innovation is both in the technique and the audience to which it’s brought.”

The 2019 honorees expressed surprise and gratitude when they found out they had been recognized by their fellow alumni/ae and say that HDS helped prepare them for the work they do today. Salma Kazmi says that the School enabled her to connect traditional and community-based training in Islam to wider theological, social, and political trends.

“My time at HDS gave me the language to convey religious ideas and experiences beyond the familiar boundaries of the Muslim community,” she says. “It also helped me think about how religious principles can be brought into more meaningful and engaged conversation with contemporary issues. To be recognized by the School and its alumni in this way is an unexpected blessing, the fruit of working with good people towards a meaningful goal. I feel truly honored.”

Erik Martinez Resly says he “felt a bit overwhelmed” when he heard that he was a 2019 Gomes Honoree and realized that he would now be part of a larger legacy.

“It was a reminder that this work is only possible because of those who came before and those who will come after, God willing,” he says. “Spiritual entrepreneurship is as much about the process as it is about the product. It’s being with the questions long enough to notice and embrace the answers when they manifest. HDS taught me how to think in this way, and The Sanctuaries has challenged me to live in this way.”

USC’s Varun Soni says that HDS taught him how to unite the spiritual and the scholarly and that no one better exemplified this convergence than Peter Gomes.

“Rev. Gomes’ life example remains an inspiration for me in the way that I try and act and move through the world,” he says. “As Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, my work is really defined by bringing together the spiritual and scholarly resources on campus and in Los Angeles, and that work emerges directly from my training and experiences at HDS. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being recognized by one’s alma mater, but I know that I will always cherish this honor.”

Alumna Vanessa Zoltan says that she learned at HDS to walk through discomfort and reckon with the implications of her failures—skills critical for any successful entrepreneur. Although it was a little intimidating to be named a Gomes Honoree so recently after graduation, Zoltan says that she will try to be worthy of the honor in the years to come.

“HDS taught me that it is ok to say things that you know to be true and to say them boldly,” she says. “And it gave me the gift of my colleagues and mentors. I’m very humbled to be recognized by them and I will endeavor throughout my career to deserve this honor.”

Non-alumna/us honoree Kerry Maloney says it is a privilege to be recognized by the School’s graduates and to work with HDS students at the intersection of intellectual and spiritual life.

“My work at HDS is entirely governed and led by our remarkable students, whose spiritual paths are uniquely diverse and whose inner lives are profoundly deep,” she says. “They teach me every day by their example as they unite the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of their lives. They hunger to deepen that union and to offer it to others. To be recognized for this immense honor by these extraordinary former students—our alumni/ae, who are international leaders in integrating the work for justice with the intellectual and spiritual life—is deeply humbling.”

The Alumni/Alumnae Council will officially present the 2019 Gomes Honors on Thursday, May 2. The honorees will be presented with their awards at noon in a ceremony in Andover Chapel on the HDS campus. Following its conclusion, there will be a celebratory luncheon in the Braun Room, along with the final installment of the year’s Divinity Dialogues series, featuring the honorees as panelists.