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StoriesFaith Adiele ’96

A life like nun other

Saying ‘yes’ takes writer Faith Adiele on unforeseen journeys

A group of women in traditional outfits in Nigeria
Above: Faith Adiele pictured with her aunts in Nigeria.

Faith Adiele’s life is not like your life. She’s flunked out of Harvard, been ordained as a Buddhist nun in Thailand, journeyed to Nigeria to meet her long-lost father and made a documentary about it, and had both Idris Elba and Kate Winslet read her works to thousands.

Plus, in a pinch, she can write a sermon on a scrap of toilet paper.

These things have made great fodder for the Lesley creative writing alumna, author and professor, who has learned that it’s best to just say yes.

“Anytime I'm terrified, I'm just, like, there's a reason someone's asking me to do something,” says Faith.

In 1985, that ask was to take a vow of silence, eat one meal a day and meditate. A lot. At the end of it, she would be an ordained Buddhist nun — the only Black Buddhist nun in Thailand at the time.

Faith, a Nigerian-Nordic American, found herself embedded in a monastery to learn the truth about Buddhist nuns. While Thailand lauded monks, the phrase “broken home, broken heart” was used to describe nuns.

“I was like, okay, something about this has got to change,” says Faith, who wanted to present a more accurate picture of these faithful women.

The daughter of a civil-rights activist, Faith had been taught to be on the hunt for any social justice infraction, even on the jungle gym.

“I was always out there on the playground monitoring for oppression,” she says.

Early days

A multiracial child, Faith’s light brown skin and tight curls stood out in the Washington farm community where she grew up. When she got into Harvard, she assumed it would be different. She arrived on campus, sight unseen, and found that the Boston area wasn’t as culturally inclusive as she’d imagined it would be.

“Boston certainly has a very good publicist,” she says.

Sepia-toned photo of Faith Adiele with her mother in a photobooth.
A young Faith Adiele with her mother.

In the classroom, “some instructors (were) treating us as if we were affirmative action monkeys who had learned how to talk. They were shocked.”

So was she, and by her senior year, Faith had become so depressed that she failed her finals, forcing a yearlong break from Harvard.

As often happens in Faith’s life, another opportunity opened up.

“I was just kind of wandering around campus trying to figure out what I was going to do, and I ran into a student who said that he had seen an ad for a study abroad program in Thailand and he thought of me,” she recalls.

Faith had studied there in high school, applied to the program and soon, on a whim found herself in preparation to be a nun, a temporary status that she felt was important to her research.

“I have to risk something and myself and learn to speak this language,” she says, referring to the spiritual language of the nuns. She kept a journal, which brought her back to writing after a disastrous course at Harvard had shaken her confidence. These entries became the basis for her 2005 memoir, “Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun.”

Back at school, Faith finished her undergraduate degree, and worked in community education and nonprofits but found herself drawn to writing. This time, wanting to learn how to articulate the story of her father.

Faith’s father left America when she was an infant and returned to Nigeria during the civil war. Several times throughout the years, including 14 years of silence, she and her mother thought he must be dead.

Book cover for Meeting Faith
In her debut, Faith Adiele shared her experience of becoming a Buddhist nun in Thailand.

They reconnected when Faith was 26, and though he didn’t want her to visit, she was determined. A yearlong fellowship at the University of Nigeria opened up, and she was at last introduced to her Nigerian family, even named a princess of her father’s clan.

Wanting to return years later, but with no clear path, Faith received a call from PBS about participating in the documentary “My Journey Home.”

Writing was entwined with all these experiences.

Faith was born into a family of storytellers, and her mother bought as many books with Black characters and African culture as she could afford. For Faith, writing was a natural response to these influences.

Saying yes

After dabbling in one-off courses, Faith matriculated to Lesley University, earning a master’s in creative writing through an independent study in the days before the MFA program was established.

Her mentors encouraged her to pursue a formal MFA after her stint at Lesley. She applied to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Nonfiction Writing Program, not realizing they were separate. Both programs wanted her. The prospect of studying nonfiction, her primary genre, but learning how to harness the storytelling of fiction, was too good to pass up.

“It just feels like each thing I do then opens the door for something else,” says Faith.

She went on to write “Meeting Faith,” which won the PEN Open Book Award and is often taught in universities. The book was also how she ended up preaching an impromptu sermon scribbled on toilet paper in the bathroom stall of a Unitarian Church when she thought she’d said “yes” to a church book club appearance.

Advertisement with Idris Elba for Faith Adiele's story in the Calm App, "Kingdom of the Sky
After her essay "Kingdom of the Sky" was selected as a "sleep story" for the Calm App, Faith Adiele was selected to write for two episodes of the HBO Max-Calm series "A World of Calm."

Faith is also the author of “The Nigerian-Nordic Girl's Guide to Lady Problems;” a contributor to O: The Oprah Magazine, Yes!, Essence, and Transition, and co-editor of “Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology.”

Her most recent writing project also came about after saying yes to a workshop she was scared to take. Not long after, the facilitator recommended Faith’s writing to the company behind the popular Calm App. That led not only to Idris Elba reading her “sleep story” “Kingdom of the Sky” for the app, but also collaborating on two episodes of the HBO Max-Calm series “A World of Calm,” with pieces read by Mahershala Ali and Kate Winslet.

One thing Faith hasn’t written yet is the full story of her family — both her Nigerian and Nordic sides. Yet, opportunities have a way of finding her, and she keeps a lesson from the nun she studied under in Thailand.

“Every time you do something that terrifies you, you lose a shackle and you free yourself a little bit more, so the whole practice is to kind of look at what you fear and face that head on.”