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Black seminarians take first-time religious freedom course

The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, at podium, teaches a Religious Freedom Center class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON (RNS) — As former religious freedom ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook stood before a class of black theological students, one raised his hand to ask her if it had been challenging to work with atheists and agnostics.

“It’s not about what I believe or what I think you should believe,” responded Johnson Cook, the first African-American and clergyperson in the State Department post. “It’s about you have the right to believe or not believe.”

Gathered Tuesday (Jan. 8) around five round tables in a studio of the Newseum, 35 students from religious graduate schools at historically black colleges and universities attended the first session of a four-day intensive class on religious freedom. They were there to learn the lessons and lingo of a field that has traditionally been predominated by white men. The new pilot course is part of a partnership with the theological school of Virginia Union University and the Religious Freedom Center, a nonpartisan initiative of the Freedom Forum Institute.

Sheila Davis. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The three-year program is funded by a $450,000 grant from the Luce Fund for Theological Education.

The Rev. Sheila Davis, an African Methodist Episcopal minister in Baltimore, said Johnson Cook helped her understand religious freedom from a different point of view.

That surprised her.

“I thought I had it down pat at this point,” said Davis, who also is a student at Payne Theological Seminary.

Corey D.B. Walker, former dean at VUU’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology and a consultant on the project, said the partnership aims to help African-American students learn about the range of views on religious freedom in a religiously diverse and “religious averse” country. Those perspectives are shaped by everything from declines in traditional Christian church attendance to increasing Muslim populations from the African diaspora to statements by Church of God in Christ Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. defending the right to oppose abortion and gay marriage.

“We have to train the next generation of religious leaders to be very fluent in understanding this contested terrain,” said Walker, now a visiting professor at the University of Richmond, in an interview.

On-site at the Newseum, members of the teaching team cited examples of people of color in the history of religious freedom, including the Ethiopian eunuch in the New Testament Book of Acts, who converted to Christianity, and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who led escaping slaves to freedom.

“She literally took families to a place where they could live more freely, both religiously, physically and mentally,” the Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith, senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church engagement at Bread for the World, told the students. “So we owe so much to Harriet Tubman for being a champion for religious freedom of our people.”

The Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith speaks at a Religious Freedom Center class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

At an October launch event for the project, which featured black scholars discussing race and the “politics of belonging,” course organizer Sabrina Dent recited the names of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

“They represent the innocent children who are impacted by racially motivated terrorism that impacts the religious liberty of African-Americans,” said Dent, a graduate of the VUU theological school and former fellow of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Students took notes Tuesday on laptops and notebooks as they learned about “countries of particular concern” — the State Department’s designation for the most egregious religious freedom violators — and brainstormed ways they could apply  the principles they were learning in their congregations and communities.

Itihari Toure, institutional effectiveness director at the Interdenominational Theological Center, cited the example of “Project Blitz,” an initiative by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation that wants to see “In God We Trust” displayed in public buildings.

“Some of us — not calling names — might say, ‘I don’t see anything wrong with that. God’s good,’” said Toure, who teaches at a consortium of African-American seminaries in Atlanta. “But that’s one group’s tradition. And what happens when you begin to impose one group’s tradition on everybody?”

Itihari Toure, institutional effectiveness director at the Interdenominational Theological Center, discusses how different kinds of cups can represent inclusion during a Religious Freedom Center’s class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

As a metaphor for advancing religious liberty, she started a class discussion of different cups — from a handcrafted wooden one to delicate china to a shot glass — she had placed on a ritual table near the front of the room.

“When we think about this notion of religious freedom and we think about the cups of life, what cups are on the tables that we set?” she asked. “Are we open enough, are we willing enough to consider some cups that may not have been a part of our lived experience?”

The class originally was slated to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, but it was closed due to the partial government shutdown. Instead, the group visited the “Slave Bible” exhibit at the Museum of the Bible. Lecturers from the African-American museum and the Baptist Joint Committee were also scheduled to address them.

Tisa Wenger, whose 2017 book “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal” was cited several times during the first session, said she thinks the class is unprecedented.

“It’s certainly exciting and I think broadens out the conversation on religious freedom in productive ways,” the associate professor at Yale Divinity School told Religion News Service in an email.

Students added “covenant cups” to a table of cups about inclusion during a class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

By the end of their first day together, the Christian and Muslim students, who must also complete online assignments and a final project, had already begun strategizing on ways they could make their own congregations more open to people with different beliefs and traditions.

The Rev. Tashara Void, a student at the Interdenominational Theological Center, said she’s thinking of ways to make the “monocultural” atmosphere of her African Methodist Episcopal congregation more multicultural. Void also is considering applying to the Baptist Joint Committee and White House fellow programs to continue to advocate for religious freedom.

“We have to live among each other,” she said of people of different traditions. “So we might as well learn how to get along with each other and, at the very least, just respect one another.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

36 Comments

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  • “The Rev. Tashara Void, a student at the Interdenominational Theological Center, said she’s thinking of ways to make the “monocultural” atmosphere of her African Methodist Episcopal congregation more multicultural.” Help them to become Christians, yes.
    Christians don’t endorse/allow other “religions” to take over Christianity or to add to it. This looks like a “wash down Christianity to make it politically correct” rather than a “what did Christ say and teach?”
    Sounds like they are promoting heresy

  • This smells to me of drag the blacks in (first African-American and clergyperson in the State Department post; African Methodist Episcopal, etc, etc) on the promise of black solidarity, and sjw-ism that treats blacks as if they are stupid.
    Some of the most godly churches I have attended would consider themselves “black” – wonderful, godly people and this travesty treats them as if they were stupid, and know nothing of Christ and what He taught.
    This idea and article is insulting. They are trying to dupe the “blacks” to water down their Christianity and I am surprised no one has caught them up on the travesty of trying to mix Christianity with a cult.

  • “We have to live among each other,” she said of people of different traditions. “So we might as well learn how to get along with each other and, at the very least, just respect one another.”

    I don’t think Reverend Void is trying to communicate a strategy with her statement. If she were communicating a strategy I would be critical of the strategy.

    There are differences between her and I that would make us counter cultural in areas. There’s some good values in both our cultures if we both display those values and we are committed to respecting those values we can begin with “at least respect.”

    “Getting along” can form a multicultural community. Respecting shared values in people who are culturally different, will, build a multicultural community. It will build stronger more diversified communities if the fear of them can be overcome.

  • I actually talked one time in a comment section with a man who claimed to be a traveling evangelist. He told me he found he could be successful by just preaching against abortion and preaching against gays. That’s it. He appeared serious. That’s it. Black theological students may want to ask themselves if “that’s it” for them too.

  • Not really. Opposing the LGBT people is probably the hottest church topic in Africa. The question is whether that is the best that black people are ever going to get from church after it is captured by evangelists with the mindset of the one I talked to. Suggesting this question to black seminarians is actually a fair question about whether they can make something more of the faith than finding somebody to be against.

  • I love this: “Some of us — not calling names — might say, ‘I don’t see anything wrong with that. God’s good,’” said Toure, who teaches at a consortium of African-American seminaries in Atlanta. “But that’s one group’s tradition. And what happens when you begin to impose one group’s tradition on everybody?” The answer, we go to court and stop you. Religious freedom means I have freedom from your god and you have freedom from mine, even if mine is NO god.

  • A lot of liberal Democrats, both white and black, plus their national libbie media and religion shills acutelyaremember what blacks “did to Hillary” in that fateful 2016 election.

    They remember perfectly, Bishop Charles Blake’s last-minute warning that some of us black church folks were refusing to sing “Kumbayah” with Hillary because we hadn’t ditched our Bibles after all. Nobody paid any attention to Blake until John Podesta unexpectedly showed up to say Hillary wasn’t doing her coronation speech.

  • Belief is internal. No one can take it from you. Believe what you want, but be careful how you behave. Respect for others is always welcome.

  • floydlee, I promise, I am not anti-“black” clergy, and as you probably know, I am not dem (!) I just cannot stand how they are being used in this silliness that I honestly see as trying to ruin the strength of the church.

  • They are trying to dupe the “blacks” to water down their Christianity

    Who is they? Everyone involved in this event were Black, the facilitators as well as the students.

    the travesty of trying to mix Christianity with a cult

    What cult?

  • You haven’t the foggiest idea what they are trying to do. You have this one-track mind about your brand of Christianity and it’s the one key on the piano that you press constantly, monotonously.

  • Christianity is the same yesterday, today and forever and is not open for private interpretation, as we keep telling you

  • the cult is islam.
    the cult is women preachers, who Christ disagrees with.
    The Christians are the people they are trying to dupe.

  • You are describing what in sociological terms is lateral/horizontal violence, often in Black Church situations in Subsaharan Africa, brought about by internalized colonialism. This man you dialoged with is counting on that and is preying on that to put himself living in a mansion, driving a first class car, eating the best food and maybe even claiming that he needs a jet to further his “ministry.”

  • You are who keeps saying that, unless you are possessed, you are an I, not a we.

    It is Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. His Church, she appears in various iterations in this 21st Century, as opposed to her primitive foundation in the 1st Century.Go look at the RNS article This week in Photos. Those photos this week don’t include people of non-Christian faiths. Those are photos of folks who all consider themselves Christians. How many of them do you identify with?

  • David, nothing is going to help you to give up the heresy that you have assimilated, and I realize that. Satan has you blinded, and I’m sure we all pray for you. I’ll continue to pray for you. Blessings

  • Just as clarification, I think the man I talked with was preaching here, not Africa, and was probably a white man preaching to white churches in the USA. But I am a bit concerned that opposing the LGBT people may really be the #1 signature hot button in African evangelicalism or fundamentalism. That’s the way I hear it, anyway.

    So, what about the Golden Rule? Does it survive as the purpose of Christianity? Better rescue it soon as a concept. It is being drowned in white church. Black church too?

  • Ohhh yes I do know. Candidate Donald Trump, in spite of his flaws, wisely played the one critical card that the arrogant Queen Hillary absolutely refused to consider: Religious Freedom for Christians — including black Christians — regarding key issues like Gay Marriage and Abortion.

    Blake’s (and two dozen other clergy leaders’) unprecedented warning offered as firm political friends and supporters of Hillary.
    But she blew them off. Not even a canned one-second reply.

    She assumed that, with Obama’s endorsement in hand, and even invited to speak to a very warm welcome of a National Black Baptist convention, she didn’t need to respect or even respond to the stated concerns given by Blake and the other leaders.

    She thought we Black Christians would all happily slave away on her Democrat Plantation no matter what. She was Wrong.

  • You know something David? You’re actually correct on it. That’s what I get for posting in the middle of the night, half-asleep, while watching Military History Channel reruns. My apologies to you for missing the tag-line.

    (But no apologies for the post itself or the previous one, of course.)

    Bottom Line……….. Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, Gays, Lesbians — we’ve all taken our constitutional religious freedom for granted.

    But that’s going to change soon. For the worse, not the better. Gotta prepare for it.

  • whether liberal democrats or conservative republicans, whether black , hispanic or white, they recall that trump won the electoral college 306 votes to 232 votes for clinton .

    3 states were won by trump by a bit less than 1% of the vote : michigan by 10,704 (.0023) votes . wisconsin by 22,748 (.0077) votes . and pennsylvania by 44,292 (.0072) votes . those states were worth a total of 46 votes in the electoral college . trump won in the electoral college with 306 votes . clinton lost with 232 votes . if some 78,000 voters in those 3 states had voted for clinton rather than trump then clinton would have won the election . bishop charles blake did not effect the results in those states . and thus did not affect the outcome . if anything some 77,744 white working class and rural voters of those three states were the decisive voters .

    no “progressives” determined that blacks or hispanics were specifically to blame for clinton’s loss . the fact that trump has shown he has nothing to offer any group probably means that groups traditionally voting for democrats will continue to do so .

  • the only thing here that we know for sure is that you really don’t like hillary clinton . that adds nothing to the conversation . the number of blacks that voted for clinton was 88 percent . not a bad number . the number of black women was 94 percent, of black men 80 percent .

    are black men more religious than black women ? else it is hard to understand why the women were more inclined to vote for clinton after all the bad thing that blake and other clergy said .

  • “…allow other “religions” to take over Christianity….”

    where is that suggested or promoted in the article or in these comments ?

  • i imagine david prays for you . i know i do .

    may you someday see in the bible a way of living with and loving others .

  • The electoral college was (according to the well-pleased media) Queen Hillary’s guarantee of victory in 2016.

    **Not one complaint** about the EC from any of Trump’s opponents in politics or media.

    Until too many blacks stayed home in Florida, that is. (Shc actually received multiple prior warnings about Florida’s blacks, but she blew us off like slaves.)

    There were just enough Trump votes from all colors(including blacks), to flip the state. Plus other bad combos suddenly popping up in 2 or 3 other states.
    THEN people complain about the EC.

  • people complained about the electoral college because dumbo was defeated by clinton in the popular vote by 2 million 800,000 . a blowout by recent standards . yet dumbo won by a technical knockout .
    people also complained in 2000 for a like reason . gore had gotten more votes, bush jr. got the job . though in 2000 the vote was a lot closer . gore only won the popular vote by some 500,000 votes .

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