Kevin Sampson
Kevin Sampson (Courtesy photo)

The Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute (RFC) recently 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.

The “Educating for Religious Leadership in a Pluralistic Society” project 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 funded by a grant to STVU from the Luce Fund for Theological Education

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

The event began with remarks and remembrance by RFC Director Kristen Farrington and Dr. Sabrina Dent, the center’s director of recruitment, on the fatal shootings of two African Americans at a Kroger grocery store in Jefferson, Kentucky, and the 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, vice president of Virginia Union University and the 10th dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, moderated the panel, which included Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

Cook, an instructor at the Freedom Forum Institute, was the first African American, first woman and first faith leader to assume the ambassador role.

Also on the panel was 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 of her experience as a Black woman working on the challenges of religious freedom issues abroad and interacting with White conservative evangelicals, while Pierce provided a theological education perspective of how the American experience is told, the diversity of the story and who is included and 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 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. They will offer a weeklong intensive course in January, “African Americans and Religious Freedom,” which is designed for graduate students in seminary to engage in the politics of race and religious freedom in public life.

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This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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