Anthropologist aims to transform lives in Kenya, classroom

| August 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

Kieran McNulty

Professor, University of Minnesota

Age: 44
Parish: St. Michael, Stillwater
Spouse: Kathleen
Volunteer activities: Cubmaster, Pack No. 9132 (St. Michael’s parish); St. Michael’s adult choir; regular ad hoc volunteer and consultant, St. Croix Catholic School; Classroom demonstrations and lectures for K-12 students; co-director, CAITHS Community-based organization, Rusinga Island, Kenya; associate editor, American Journal of Physical Anthropology; associate editor, Palaeontologia Africana.
Education: Dartmouth College, A.B., 1995; Hunter College, M.A., 1998; City University of New York, M.Phil., 2000; City University of New York, Ph.D., 2003

Q: What does leading with faith mean to you?

A: To me, leading with faith means trusting that the teachings of Jesus Christ are the best guide for every aspect of my life. In the context of my job, it means that doing good work and doing right by my colleagues, collaborators and students is more important than getting ahead or making a name for myself. It means putting others’ needs in front of my own and making sacrifices in my own life when it will better the lives of others.

Q: How do you concretely apply your faith and Catholic values at work?

A: St. John Paul II said that faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth. This principle, plus hundreds of years of Catholic scholarship, fundamentally shape the way I approach and teach anthropology and the origin of humans. As a university professor, I regularly interact with students who struggle to reconcile their beliefs with the vast body of knowledge they encounter in college. Often such students are told that they can believe whatever they want, so long as they learn the material presented in the course. This attitude is not only dismissive, but it denies students the opportunity to explore the rich interaction between faith and reason. My approach to teaching presents students with the most rigorous, up-to-date scientific knowledge without forcing on them the false dichotomy of belief vs. science. I invite students to explore what modern science can teach us about the universe in a way that can deepen their faith in God rather than contest it.

Q: Describe a time when applying your faith at work really made a difference.

A: I recall students who have really struggled with anthropology because they have been taught that evolution is wrong, and that a literal interpretation of the Bible is the only explanation for the human condition. By explaining to them that I am not only a scientist but also a practicing Christian, by outlining the Catholic Church’s stance on evolution and creation, by retelling St. Augustine’s account of the seeds of God’s creation unfolding over time, I have shown to these students how science can work hand-in-hand with faith to enrich our understanding of God’s creation.

Q: Who or what has been most inspirational to you in bringing your faith to the marketplace?

A: By far, my wife, Katie, has been most inspirational in helping me to bring my faith to the workplace. Katie practices faith the way the rest of us practice breathing: It is woven, consciously and subconsciously, into every aspect of her life. Working in an environment that is often not welcoming of personal beliefs, I have struggled to integrate my faith completely in my work. Katie’s example has given me the strength and courage to do so.

Q: What achievement at work are you most proud of?

A: I am most proud of the work I have done to help the people of western Kenya. My research depends on the support and assistance of the local Kenyan communities in which I work. That I can use my research trips to also give back to those communities has brought me closer to the Kenyan people and closer to God. Most of the time this involves raising extra money for projects in the communities (building a medical clinic, opening a primary school for orphans), but in one case my work and charity aligned. A small village important to my research could only be accessed from an old, treacherous rope bridge. Because I was planning an excavation in that village, I was able to raise funds from the university to build a new, safe pedestrian bridge — both advancing my work but also providing an important link between that village and the closest local markets.

Q: In what specific ways have you experienced God’s presence in your workplace?

A: Several years ago, I had a crisis of conscience about my career: Should I not find a more impactful job that betters the lives of God’s people? At the same time, my friend and collaborator in Kenya was explaining to me the many hardships facing the people of western Kenya, and he outlined a vision for how he could enact change in his community to help the suffering population. Much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I realized suddenly that Christ had always been walking beside me in my career but I had not recognized him. It was not a new job that I needed, but rather I was called to use the position I had to help further God’s work on earth. Through my work, I have been given a unique opportunity to aid and transform the lives of the poor and suffering in western Kenya.

Q: What advice do you have for others who want to lead with faith?

A: My advice to others is to follow where God is leading you in your life, and from there discover how you can best serve him. I see many young people who spend years trying to find exactly the right career path to follow, rather than following their hearts. I believe that God puts desires in our hearts to help lead us toward our calling. Only when we prayerfully follow where he leads us can we discover our role in his plan.

Tags: ,

Category: Leading With Faith