The Unification Theological Seminary (UTS) alumni are a diverse group; they span many generations and spring from nations all across the globe. Their common ground is the desire to serve and to transcend barriers, hence the motto of UTS: “Bridging religious and cultural divides.” This article features Bento Leal – a graduate from the first class of UTS.
First Class All the Way
Initially, after graduating from UTS, Bento’s journey was filled church related activities and missions, but he emphasizes that being part of the first class to graduate from UTS had an impact on his future in ways that continue to reverberate to the present day. Says Bento, “My time at UTS helped solidify my faith and who I am in a variety of ways.”
The founders of UTS, Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, were frequent visitors at the seminary during those early years. Rev. and Mrs. Moon are viewed as spiritual parents to Unificationists, and frequently addressed as Father and Mother.
With fondness Leal recalls, “I was able to see them up close and in person… feel their warmth, their laughter and their tears, and sense their urgency to create a better world. I really connected with them and all of us together as a spiritual family.”
Leal remembers spending many days, side by side, with Father, and with fellow students, making fishing nets and then going fishing for carp in the lagoon by the Hudson River. Bento laughs, “Those were great, cold, extreme, and unforgettable times together! It was such a remarkable period in my life; sometimes when Father arrived at UTS the students would run out of their classrooms to join him on a walk or whatever he was doing. It was probably a little challenging for our professors!”
I owe much of who I am as a person and what I’ve been able to do in the church and professionally to my formative years of faith at UTS. They fueled me to higher ground. I appreciate that special time in every conceivable way."Bento Leal (UTS'77), Amazon Best-selling Author and Teacher
Another aspect of those first two years at UTS was the interfaith nature of the UTS faculty. Recalls Leal, “The professors from Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish faiths inspired me, especially at a time of heavy public persecution of Father and our movement – these faculty members weathered the storms and came and taught their courses with warmth and sincerity. I don’t know of any faith who would have invited me into their school to teach their students without being worried that I might want to convert them. The professors teaching at UTS were really “heavy hitters” within their own faith circles. But there they were at our seminary. That really showed me the power of our Unification community.”
Another benefit of being at UTS, was the opportunity to work closely with and share ideas everyday with the same group of people for two years. This allowed Bento to develop many close-knit friendships. Despite a span of decades, Bento has maintained these friendships to the present day. “All of these factors settled me in my life of faith and gave me a profound sense that I was (and am) in a spiritual family—with the warmth, opportunities, and even the challenges that sometimes entails. That strong personal faith foundation developed and strengthened during my time at UTS and it carried me through my many subsequent missions; it continues in my life today.”
In 1993, Leal returned to his hometown of San Leandro, California where he had been raised with seven siblings in an Irish/Portuguese Catholic family. It was there in Northern California that he had attended California State University, East Bay in Hayward and received his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. He had also spent six years as a reservist in the US Naval Reserve so it was truly a case of coming full circle.
Leal became an active member of the local church community in the San Francisco Bay area. He and his wife, Kimiko, had received their Marriage Blessing in 1982 and they now found themselves busy with family life, raising their two daughters and a son, and developing strong ties with the local community. Leal worked as a sales representative for a commercial carpet cleaning and wood refinishing company before moving into the realm of non-profits.
In 2003, an opportunity arose that gave Leal the chance to work with a local non-profit organization that served low-income people in the Oakland area. States Leal, “We had federal grants to do our work. In 2007, I joined another non-sectarian, non-profit organization and have been a full-time staff member with them for the past 10 years. My main role has been to organize and teach classes on relationship and parenting skills. I’ve taught these classes to thousands of individuals and couples in a variety of locations – churches, community centers, family resource centers, county jails, and even federal prison. This is where my heart of “we are all part of one family under God” has influenced how I relate to people. I love what I do. I believe every person is my brother or sister.”
Bento’s passion for people and concretely supporting them to improve their relationships by teaching communication skills led him to write a book through which he could share the knowledge he had accumulated over many years. Leal says, “A couple of years ago, I started writing my own book which I published in April of this year. It became a best-seller on Amazon in several categories. The book is titled “4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work—Anywhere!” The book is a honed down version of the key communication and relationship skills I’ve learned over the past years, interspersed with very interesting anecdotal stories.”
Leal points out that everyone wants healthy relationships, but often lack the skills needed to create the relationships they desire. “You need to speak and listen with care; communication is the fabric with which we create our families and communities; just because you may share a common faith is no guarantee of your marriage working out. Everyone needs to develop skills to operationalize their beliefs. These skills will truly enable you to live for the sake of others.”
While teaching in a setting where there is a shared religious understanding, Leal first emphasizes that the starting point to open a dialogue with another person is to acknowledge one’s own unique value and identify each other as a son or daughter of God. “This is really the anchor point to communicating with anyone; you have to recognize that whoever you are communicating with has that same unique value.” Because Leal is often teaching in a more secular setting he finds other ways to emphasize each person’s value before they begin to learn the skills of effective communication. Says Leal, “Each individual can acknowledge themselves as a unique and special individual; and so is the other person. Without valuing myself and the other person as unique, valuable human beings then the rest of the skills (e.g. speaking) are merely plumbing - communicating information. You really need to start with the understanding that you recognize your own dignity and special value as a person and see the other person in the same way. Then you have ‘set the stage’ to begin practicing the paramount skill of listening.”
Leal shared one simple, but valuable tip - especially useful with married couples - which is to avoid the use of “you” statements, which can come across as accusatory. Instead, he suggests that couples strive to make “I” statements. As an example, saying “I feel upset when I feel I’m not being heard,” versus, “You never listen to me!” which is pretty much guaranteed to put the other person on the defensive. Bento emphasizes, “You want to do whatever you can to make it possible for the other person to hear what you are saying. Learning to actively listen and then in turn verify the other person’s experience through reflecting back the essence of what they have shared will demonstrate that you understand their heart; then things can move forward.” It is not a skill learned over night, but with practice it can be very effective.
Reflecting on his life and past experiences his advice for current UTS students is very practical. “Deepen your personal faith while you’re there, and make strong friendships that will last,” states Bento. “Learn to value other faith traditions and form deep relationships with fellow believers in God. Take this time to make life-long friends and get close to people. When you leave UTS, you will be glad you have made those relationships – your closest friendships may be with other UTS students.”
When he looks to the future, Bento declares he is optimistic, “But guardedly optimistic; I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do believe in a living God. And I believe in people of faith – they can be powerful agents of change – great things can happen. Big players in history appeared like small fry, but they took steps that made them great – for example you have Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela – things were always “darkest before the dawn,” but remember – this too shall pass. The sun is always shining and the clouds are temporary.”
Reflecting on his journey from his time as a young student at UTS to the present day, Leal muses, “It was a very special and formative time in my life and faith life, too. It’s been 40 years since I graduated – a lifetime ago. But the memories of Father and Mother, and my friends, the fishing, the camaraderie, the hopes and dreams remain. I owe much of who I am as a person and what I’ve been able to do in the church and professionally to my formative years of faith at UTS. They fueled me to higher ground. I appreciate that special time in every conceivable way.”
Bento Leal lives in San Leandro, California with his wife, Kimiko. When he is not teaching or writing books, he likes to take long drives along the beautiful California coast visiting small towns and ocean fishing for rock cod or salmon. Apparently Kimiko does a bang-up job of cooking fish!