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Posts from the ‘Rogal Chapel’ Category

Healing Words

A tangible feeling of nervous excitement fills the room. Around 100 of us – students, faculty, administrators, and guests – file one by one into Robert Morris University’s Rogal Chapel.

To “honor the sun,” as we are told, we each do a clockwise lap around the room before taking a seat in one of the chairs that are situated in a circle around the room. In the center, scented smoke wafts from abalone shell as Francis Burnside walks from the front to the back of the chapel, an eagle’s feather in his hand, chanting to himself quietly.

Burnside, a “medicine man” who helped spark the Native American rights movement by occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969 is RMU’s current Rooney International Visiting Scholar. A hataalii, a practitioner of the sacred rites of the people who prefer to call themselves the Dine (pronounced di-NEH), Burnside lives in the Navajo Nation, a territory of 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. His father was one of the U.S. Marine Corps’s famed “code-talkers” during World War II – members of the Navajo people who transmitted telephone and radio messages in their native language during Pacific operations between 1942 and 1945.

Burnside was first approached about coming to RMU by Edward Karshner, an assistant professor of English studies and communications, who studied with the Navajo people and participated in their rituals during a visit to the Navajo Nation in 2008. Today, he invited the RMU campus community to join him so that he could share with us the ethical system of life known as the “Blessing Way.”

Seated in the 12 o’clock position of the circle, Burnside wears brown cowboy boots, black jeans, and a silky red shirt adorned with two vibrant feathers, one on each arm. Around his neck, a Western bolo tie.

The room is quiet. Electric.

Suddenly, the 67-year-old begins to speak, softly.

We have all come here, he says, in our own “walk of life.” Seated as we are, in a circle, we are one giant living cell, with a fire in the center, and each of us is an atom. “You are all sacred,” he says, “magnificent.” It is upon all of us, he adds, to honor and take care of the earth, from which everything comes.

“I don’t teach,” he says, believing that too often what we call teaching is merely forcing our ideas on others. “I share.” It’s our failure to share and live as one people, he says, that divides us as a species. “There are no enemies on this earth,” he says. We are all related. We are related to the trees. We are related to the stones.

Burnside asks us to pass the feather, or “fan” as he calls it, around the room as we share our names and hometowns. “When you mention your name,” he says, “it is a prayer unto itself, because you all have a sacred tongue, a sacred name.”

As the feather makes its way around the room, it amazes me what a diverse group of people we have here at RMU – people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Iowa, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Nevada, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, and Alaska. Others from Germany, Turkey, Russia, and Finland. We are all different, but together we make one continuous circle. One campus.

As I sit and try to absorb the moment, I appreciate what a beautiful message Burnside has brought to us today. It’s one of sharing the earth and all its resources, of relationships and the ties that bind us all, of peace and calmness in quiet meditation, and of the beautiful differences between us.

He is a humble man, Burnside. “I am not the know-it-all,” he says. But I can’t help but feel great admiration for this healer and his quiet yet powerful wisdom. I leave with a feeling of peace and purpose I’ve not known for some time.

For more: Traditional Navajo healer is RMU’s latest Rooney Visiting Scholar

—Valentine J. Brkich

Enough is Enough

Det. Brian Johnson used to handle only “hot case” homicides. As a result, his hours were erratic and he didn’t get to spend much time with his 10 and 11-year-old sons. Eventually, he switched to “cold” cases so that he could work steady hours and be able to give his sons the kind of guidance they can only get from a male role model. “It’s easier to set kids on the right path when they’re young than trying to turn them back once they’ve become teenagers,” he said.

Johnson was part of a panel discussion held on Oct. 21 in RMU’s Rogal Chapel to discuss the alarming increase in violence among young males today. Called “Masculinity and Violence,” the discussion was organized by Paul Spradley, RMU’s assistant director of student life for multicultural affairs, as part of the national Week Without Violence. Sponsored by the YWCA, the Week Without Violence showcases a series of programs to help reduce violence in our communities.

The “Masculinity and Violence” panel included three members of the City of Pittsburgh Police Department: Cheryl Doubt, commander of investigations and firearms; and Brian Johnson and Sheldon Williams, both homicide and investigations detectives. Throughout the discussion, the panelists – all of whom are parents of young boys and/or men – talked about what they see as the reasons for the increase in violence. They also shared some of the steps that the Pittsburgh Police are taking to help resolve these issues.

Williams, Johnson, and Doubt all agreed that violence is becoming more prevalent and egregious because society is increasingly tolerant to it. Williams said he attributed the increasing violence to changes in societal dynamics, particularly a deviation in the standard of morality throughout the community. They also cited the importance of having a male role model to provide guidance, both in words and in action, which is something that so many young men just don’t have today.

I think Cmdr. Doubt said it best, however, when she said that our own apathy is a main part of the problem. “Criminals are counting on us to turn our heads and look the other way,” she said. “If we want the violence to stop, people have to get to the point where they say, enough is enough.”

I say enough is enough. What do you say?

— Valentine J. Brkich

RMU’s Hidden Symbols

Back in 2003, novelist Dan Brown took the publishing world by storm with his highly controversial book, The Da Vinci Code. Just recently, he released his long-awaited follow-up, The Lost Symbol, which centers around the mysteries surrounding the many Masonic symbols found around our nation’s capital and on our national currency.

At the center of this new thriller is the fresco known as “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” which adorns the ceiling of the Capital Dome. Painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), this Raphael-esque fresco covers an area of 4,664 square feet and took eleven months to paint.

In the center of the fresco, Brumidi depicts George Washington rising to the heavens with classical female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Washington is depicted as a godlike figure here, hence the word “apotheosis” in the title, which literally means “the raising of a person to the rank of a god.”

Six other groups of figures are included in the painting symbolizing American ingenuity in war, science, marine, mechanics, agriculture, and commerce.

Ed Karshner, assistant professor of English studies and communications skills at RMU, pointed out that the commerce grouping actually depicts Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, handing a bag of money to our very own Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. “Mercury was the patron god of alchemy, which sought to transform lead (the body/material) into gold (the soul/spirtiual),” he says. “Mercury represented the swift intellect and was associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods. So, the intellect is handing Robert Morris a spiritual reward of transformation (i.e., what was lead is now gold), which is a pretty cool metaphor for a university.”

Each semester, Karshner has students in his Mythology class look for the hidden symbols around campus. “I also like to look at how groups use symbols, icons, and indexes subconsciously,” he says. “It’s a kind of symbol scavenger hunt and a mind puzzle, but it’s also fun and can be illuminating.”

Karshner points out that at RMU we have a ziggurat: a stepped hill with a temple (Rogal Chapel) on top. “You can look at ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica to see examples of these pyramids,” he says.

We also have a dome and spiral in the Nicholson Center, which Karshner says symbolizes the migration or emergence into the mind or the ascending to heaven. “All of these symbols fit into RMU as a university, since they all reference a migration upward to a higher consciousness and a transformation of self.”

–Valentine J. Brkich

Celebrating Diversity at RMU

When I was growing up, I didn’t give much thought to diversity. Sitting behind my desk in Catholic school, my mind was occupied with doodling elaborate outer-space battle scenes in my loose-leaf notebooks. When I did occasionally pick up my head to scan the classroom, I’d see twenty or so white kids – some of them also drawing, some of them dozing off, and maybe one or two teacher’s pets actually paying attention to Sr. Margaret.


A diverse group, we were not. We were all from the same county, the same state, the same country. We were all Catholic, and we were all Caucasian. During my eight years there, we only had one African American student – a boy named Maurice – who was only there for half of my second-grade year. But again, this was normal to us. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t understand why diversity was important, and frankly, we didn’t care. We just wanted 3 o’clock to come.


When I entered public high school, diversity was suddenly thrust upon me. Now the classroom was filled with kids from various backgrounds. At first it was a little intimidating. In no time at all, however, the strangeness wore off, and I had an entirely new idea of what was normal. Soon, I had African American friends, Asian friends, Hispanic friends, Jewish friends, Protestant friends, Methodist friends…and it was wonderful.


The diversity I encountered in high school opened my eyes to the world and helped me see it in an entirely new way. By the time I reached college, instead of being surprised by diversity, I was surprised if my classes lacked it. Diversity had become the norm rather than the exception.


Here at RMU, we’re lucky to have an incredibly diverse student and faculty population. Just a couple days ago, I attended the first installment of the Diversity Speaker Series, organized by Paul Spradley, assistant director of student life for multicultural affairs. Around 60 people gathered in the Rogal Chapel to hear the first guest speaker, Saleem Ghubril. Ghubril, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, fled to the United States with his family when civil war broke out in his country in the mid-1970s.


Ghubril embodies everything that is good about diversity. In addition to being the executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, this Asian-African-Arab-American is also an ordained minister who is committed to serving the community and bringing people together. “I am the world!” he said.


During his talk, Ghubril spoke of how much the world has changed for the better over the years in terms of racial and ethnic tolerance. He also spoke of the many challenges we still face today. As I listened to him speak of diversity with passion and youthful exuberance, I noticed the diverse audience that had gathered to hear him speak, and it warmed my heart.


RMU’s diversity is something to be celebrated. The many cultures and backgrounds that make up this university help to teach us tolerance and understanding, and it gives us all a global perspective. And in an ever-shrinking world, few things are as valuable.


– Valentine J. Brkich


Farewell, Teacher Man – Frank McCourt (1930-2009)

March 26, 2008 was an exciting day for me. That was the day that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt visited the RMU campus and spoke at Rogal Chapel. He was in town as part of the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speakers Series, and later that evening he would speak to an admiring audience at Heinz Hall. Being a writer, I was overjoyed to have such an accomplished author right here on campus, as were many others who gathered at the chapel to hear him speak. And Mr. McCourt didn’t let us down.

McCourt is best-known for his bestselling Angela’s Ashes (1999), a haunting memoir that recounts McCourt’s unimaginably tragic childhood growing up in abject poverty in Limerick, Ireland. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography in 1997 and was later made into a movie. I had met him once before at a book-signing for Teacher Man (2005) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Although I only spoke to him briefly, I was pleasantly surprised by his candor and sense of humor in regards to the teaching profession, which is something he knew much about.

After serving in Germany during the Korean War, McCourt used the G.I. Bill to enroll in New York University and later received a master’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1967. His teaching career began at McKee High School where he taught English, and finished 30 years later at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. In Teacher Man, he detailed his experiences in the profession, which for him was at times confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying. But the brilliant writer and philosopher that he was, McCourt was able to find humor in nearly everything. And in the whole, his book does much more to emphasize the importance and nobility of teaching rather than belittle it.

When he spoke at RMU last year, McCourt again used his biting humor to entertain and enlighten those in attendance, as he spoke of his years in teaching and the importance of the profession. He shared several stories with us, some of which made many of us blush, and all of which drew hearty laughs and sincere smiles. He also underlined the importance of institutions like RMU that emphasized individual attention, small class sizes, and real-world application of what is learned.

I was deeply saddened to hear of Frank McCourt’s passing on July 19. For a 78-year-old, he had the heart and mind of someone decades younger. When he was here at RMU, I was delighted by his razor-sharp wit and youthful exuberance. It wasn’t what I’d expected from a man of his age who had lived through such a trying childhood. His ability to find humor even in the bleakest of situations was admirable, and I think it’s something we can all learn from and benefit from in our own lives.

–Valentine J. Brkich