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Student of the Month: Htoi San Lu

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Htoi San Lu (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in Theological Studies and a Theology and Practice Fellow in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. Prior to her doctoral studies, she has earned Masters degrees in theological studies from Union Theological Seminary in New York, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Kachin Theological College in Myitkyina, Burma/Myanmar. Currently working on her dissertation proposal, Htoi’s research interest is guided by a postcolonial feminist liberation theology through which she explores Kachin diasporic life and community in the U.S. and around the globe.

Htoi was born and raised in Burma/Myanmar to a mixed indigenous and ethnic Kachin and Shan family with different religious backgrounds. Her education and ministerial experiences mutually shape her way of doing theology and enhance her awareness of injustice to those who are marginalized at multiple levels.

Why a PhD in theology? What has been most useful for you to learn as PhD student?

For me, a PhD in theology is a form of justice seeking and justice making. In my community, even though Kachin Baptist Church is almost two centuries old, and the Kachin Theological College and Seminary (my alma mater) is about a century old, here we still don't have single Kachin woman theologian who holds a PhD degree in the area of Theology. This current reality of Kachin theology reveals so many things; it’s not just direct gender discrimination, there is not the societal structure to make room for women academics. The lack of representation does not just happen by accident, women are systemically blocked from entering this world. When I was studying for my masters and I wanted to read women’s work, I realized there was none. So I want to bring women’s voices to Kachin theology, and pave the way for future generations to build something. And in a lot of ways that means starting from scratch, and I want to be a part of that. This reality connects me with the birth of feminist theology and the theology of women of color in America, Asia, and around the world.

Since I studied under Dr. Kwok Pui-Lan at Episcopal Divinity School and Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung at Union, I am heavily influenced by these two Asian women’s theological pioneers.

These theologians have helped me realize that women from the third world can think, articulate, speak theology, and make changes in the theological discourse, and by extension, society. Their pedagogy is all about listening to multiple theological voices, particularly those that are undervalued and ignored, rather than paying too much attention to the dominant voice. These experiences have encouraged me to concentrate on the study of theology as a form of resistance against unjust systems, particularly within marginalized communities. For me, my PhD in theology is about joining the revolutionary journey that our ethnic minoritized communities have been struggling with for decades.

The most valuable thing I have learned in my program so far is how to unlearn perfectionism by valuing the process as a source of learning itself. As a nonnative English speaker in the Western academy, imposter syndrome is always there. But two of the ways I have learned to combat it is to focus on my journey of learning and carry my community with me as I navigate this work. I have also learned time-management. Every single phase of the program is time-bound to get things done successfully. Sometimes, it can be very frustrating, but I keep reminding myself it's learning about how to do it to be successful.

How had you been involved in or led activities in your context?

In addition to my doctoral studies work, through the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative program at Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS), I worked with a Kachin refugee immigrant community known as Tennessee Kachin Baptist Church (TNKBC), exploring what racial justice conversations look like in my own community. In doing so, I created a curriculum and recruited some members of the church in racial justice trainings—to promote the awareness of the need for racial justice in the church, translating academic discussions of racial justice to a first-generation church setting. Also, with VDS’s Wendland Cook program in Religion and Justice, I worked with Kachin refugee women to explore how religion intersects women’s labor, listening to their struggles at home, work, and church-community as they moved from Burma to Malaysia, from Malaysia to the U.S.

I enjoyed being involved with the larger theological community through conferences and PANAATWM. I have been involved with organizing Kachin seminary students who are studying in the U.S. We just started forming the group last fall and we meet once a month and stay connected to one another. These meetings are a way to create a space for us where we share our stories, student struggles, resources, joy, laughter, and frustration, and anger. It’s a community to support one another.

How would you describe yourself (professionally, talents, fun)?

Professionally I am deeply passionate about theology, and I love to hear stories, especially neglected stories, as I am also starting to dig into some neglected stories in my own family, specifically that of my mother’s diasporic experiences. I love to think and I’m excited to share my ideas with friends and colleagues. Personally, I love comedy. I love watching stand-up and comedy sketches like SNL and Margaret Cho, Ali Wong, Hasan Minhaj, and Trevor Noah. I also like to take long walks to enjoy nature and connect to my body, my home.

What are you looking forward to most this year?

This year will be very difficult academically, but I am looking forward to getting my dissertation proposal together. Personally, I am trying to develop more self-care practices. With the political climate (both in Burma and the US) and with COVID, I think we all need to work to be a little bit kinder and gentler to ourselves and others.

Anything else you would like to share about yourself?

I had never been or seen the ocean until I left Burma. I have since learned that I love being near the ocean. I like walking along the coast and hearing the sound of waves and the smell of the ocean. I can feel the power and energy of the water.

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