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Newseum Explores Politics of Race, Religious Freedom

The Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute (RFC) announced a three-year partnership with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology of Virginia Union University (STVU) to create a national education program for religious and civic leaders on Thursday, Oct. 25.

The project, “Educating for Religious Leadership in a Pluralistic Society,” focuses on seminaries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of religious, cultural and racial diversity. The project is being funded by a grant to STVU from the Luce Fund for Theological Education.

The first program in a series of public events of the partnership was held Monday, Oct. 29 Newseum’s Knight Conference Center. The event, titled “Race, Religious Freedom and the Politics of Belonging,” was a panel discussion that highlighted the complex issues around the politics of race and religious freedom in the United States.

The event began with remarks and remembrance by Kristen Farrington, RFC’s director, and Sabrina Dent, director of recruitment at the RFC, on the fatal shootings of two African Americans at a Kroger grocery store in Jefferson, Ky. and the eleven congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by white supremacists.
Corey D.B. Walker, vice president of Virginia Union University and the 10th dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, was the moderator during the panel discussion.

On the panel were Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom and an instructor at the Freedom Forum Institute; Yolanda Pierce, professor and dean of the Howard University School of Divinity; and Brad Braxton, director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The discussion began with Cook telling the audience her experience as a Black woman working on the challenges of religious freedom issues abroad and interacting with white conservative evangelicals.

Pierce provided the theological education perspective on how the story of the American experience is told, be aware of how diverse the story is and who is included and how is excluded.

Braxton shared the experience of people visiting the museum, the presentation of materials in the exhibits, the emotional effect it has on them as a wake-up call about history and explained the truncated narrative of African Americans and religious freedom.

The partnership brings together the RCF with 10 HBCUs including Howard University School of Divinity, Hood Theological Seminary, Interdenominational Theological Center, Payne Theological Seminary and Shaw University Divinity School. In January, they will offer a weeklong intensive course, “African Americans and Religious Freedom,” that is designed for graduate students in seminary to be engaged in the politics of race and religious freedom in public life.

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