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Department Spotlight

Crossing Faith & Color Lines in the South - Dr. Matthew Cressler

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In May 2017 I had the opportunity to teach a course unlike any I’ve taught before: Interfaith Atlanta Across the Color Line (RELS 298), designed to explore the intersection of religion and race in and around Atlanta, GA. Intense study on a Maymester schedule was followed by travel to Atlanta with an incredible group of com/passionate and hilarious students, making this class one of the best teaching experiences of my life.

This course was partly inspired by a grant the Religious Studies department received two years ago from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, but also by a conversation I had with Haley Hart, a CofC RELS grad who works as the sponsorship coordinator for Atlanta’s Habitat for Humanity. Haley introduced me to the history of interfaith in Atlanta, which had its origins in an interracial evangelical Christian commune founded in the middle of Jim Crow Georgia in 1942 called Koinonia Farm. It turns out interfaith Atlanta was born of an experiment in interracial living. As a religious studies prof with one foot in African American studies, I was hooked!

With the support of a course development grant from Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), I constructed a course that explored different ways of living in the world (religious, racial difference) and different models for social change. W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “the color line” and IFYC founder Eboo Patel’s “faith line” served as starting points for the class, but the hook, so to speak, was an exploration of contrasting approaches to social change. Interfaith work is often conceived as bridge-building work that unites people from diverse backgrounds around a common goal. Racial justice work, on the other hand, confronts systems of power and disrupts the status quo. Over the course of the Maymester, my students and I wrestled with the question: Do struggles for racial justice conflict with the movement to build bridges across lines of faith (and vice versa)? Are they necessary for each other or necessarily in conflict?

Our examination began in the classroom where we explored the religious and racial landscapes of the twenty-first century United States, different conceptual models for social change, and the faith and color lines that define 2017 Atlanta. Then we hopped in our sweetass minivan and headed to Americus, GA for our first stop: Koinonia Farm. There are far too many stories to tell in one short blog post, so I’ll highlight the three kinds of experiences we had throughout the week.

Service learning: Manual labor in service to Koinonia and an interfaith build for the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. Once we arrived at Koinonia Farm we jumped out of the van and into painting projects, weeding (and weed-whacking), and other farm maintenance. We joined a communal worship organized around a potluck dinner and featuring a minister-less service with a shared sermon. This would be the first of many times people’s preconceived notions would be challenged (this time around what “evangelical Christianity” looks and sounds like). Our group had its own in-built religious diversity – with backgrounds in varying shades of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim – so, needless to say, there were plenty of myths to bust.

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Public historical pilgrimage: We visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth place and final resting place, having already read his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” and watched Ava DuVernay’s Selma. We followed this up with a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a museum designed to have a visceral emotional impact on visitors, immersing them in the sights and sounds of the civil rights era and informing them of ongoing civil and human rights crises around the world.

Interfaith immersion: We spent two days in meetings organized by Interfaith Community Initiatives and led by Jan Swanson, affectionately known as the “godmother of interfaith in Atlanta,” experiencing the religious and racial diversity of the city firsthand. We witnessed worship, shared in meals, and engaged in conversation with Black Catholics, white and South Asian Hindus, Turkish and African American Muslims, white Buddhists, and Reformed Jews. And after our long days trekking from church to masjid to synagogue, the students willingly (excitedly even) gathered to decompress and analyze our experiences. Did I mention they’re the best students a professor could ask for?!!!

Each day ended with the class in conversation. How did the particular organization (or community or institution) we’d visited that day approach social change? Does this organization suggest that racial justice and interfaith work can coexist? I am happy to report that students’ final essays testified to two things: 1) they are not unanimous in their answers to that question (the debate continues), yet 2) they remain all the more invested in changing the world for the better.

You can read a longer version of this post on Dr. Cressler’s own blog.