Crossing Faith & Color Lines in the South

This May I had the opportunity to teach a course unlike any I’ve taught before: Interfaith Atlanta Across the Color Line (RELS 298). 1) It was a Maymester course (a semester condensed into a little over two weeks), making each day effectively a week of class. 2) It was a study away course, so we spent one week in a traditional classroom setting (albeit one that met 3.5 hours-a-day Monday-Friday) and one week learning through a variety of activities outside the classroom. 3) It was a course with an explicitly Southern emphasis, designed to explore the intersection of religion and race in and around Atlanta, GA.


Me with Julia, Mona, Tanner, Kristen, and Iman at the Center for Civil and Human Rights

And for all those reasons, plus (read: most importantly) an incredible group of com/passionate and hilarious students, this class was and undoubtedly will remain one of the best teaching experiences of my life. 


Just before I arrived at the College of Charleston in Fall 2015 the Religious Studies Department received a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion to support our expansion of high impact learning practices oriented around interreligious encounters. Because of its diversity and proximity to Charleston, not to mention my own familial connections with the city, I immediately latched onto the idea of teaching a class called “Interfaith Atlanta.” But the course really took off after a lunch 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 not only different ways of living in the world (religious, racial difference) but also 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 the 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 characterized the religious and racial landscapes of the twenty-first century United States, thought through different conceptual models for social change, and did our homework on 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 high impact learning experiences we embarked on over the course of our week.

About a third of our week in Atlanta consisted of service learning, where we engaged in manual labor in service to particular communities, first at Koinonia and second with an interfaith build for the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. It is common practice for those who visit Koinonia Farm to join in the life of the community while you’re there, so once we arrived we jumped out of the van and into painting projects, weeding (and weed-whacking), and other farm maintenance. And, since we arrived on a Sunday, we joined them for communal worship that was 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.


Mona thumbs-up a job well done for Atlanta Habitat

Once in Atlanta we had another kind of high impact experience, what I’d call a “public historical pilgrimage.” In a class on the color line in Atlanta, we could not miss an opportunity to visit Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth place and final resting place, especially since we had 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. The museum is designed to have a visceral emotional impact on visitors, to inspire by immersing those present in the sights and sounds of the civil rights era and then to inform them of ongoing civil and human rights crises around the world. In a week chock-full of exciting opportunities, I must say I was pleasantly surprised to find that our “museum day” ranked among the most powerful of the week for students.

Without a doubt, though, the highlight of the week for them was the “interfaith immersion” we embarked on over our final two days in Atlanta. Organized by Interfaith Community Initiatives, an organization that facilitates interreligious immersion experiences around Atlanta and across the world, and led by Jan Swanson, affectionately known as the “godmother of interfaith in Atlanta,” we spent two days meeting (rather than simply reading about) the religious and racial diversity of the city head on.


Class views a Torah scroll at Temple Sinai

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 on the road would end with personal reflection followed by expansive critical conversation on how the particular organization (or community or institution) we’d visited that day approached social change and whether this analysis effected their answer to our overarching question: Can racial justice and interfaith work coexist? I am happy to report that their 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. And having spent more than two weeks with them, I wouldn’t sleep on it.

(A shorter version of this has been posted on CofC’s Southern Studies blog.)


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