Experiential Learning About Race and Religion

by Karen Johnson

I'm always amazed at the number of people who think race doesn't matter any more.  After all, we have a black president, they say (and Obama might even be our second black president, if you count Clinton as black!).  Most of those folks talking, however, are white, and for them it doesn't matter because they have access to all the things whiteness gives you.  In my mind, American history, society, and religion have been and are unarguably shaped by race in ways, as Phil Sintiere alluded to, that are by no means benign. 

One way to help white students see the world differently, and perhaps begin to understand how race continues to work in American society, is to put them in a situation in which they are a minority - and give them the opportunity to process what they're seeing >A few months ago, my friend Rusty Hawkins and his co-teacher, Brian Fry , brought 73 students from Indiana Wesleyan University to Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church, in the heart of Chicago's Austin neighborhood.  Austin is a predominantly black neighborhood.  When outsiders hear about Austin, they think of its crime, but they know little of the vibrant blocks of great people living and working (and landscaping their lawns) in the community.  I see both sides of Austin because I live there.   The students rode the train from downtown Chicago and got off and walked the three blocks to the church.  They had spent the morning in Hyde Park, which is an interracial, wealthy neighborhood on Chicago's South Side (the University of Chicago and the neighborhood did some really creative maneuvering to maintain the character of the neighborhood.  For a flavor of this, seeHirsch,Making the Second Ghetto, chapter 5).  Their walk in Austin was a very from their afternoon in Hyde Park. 

For the first time for some of these students, they experienced being a racial minority.  And they found out that it can be uncomfortable.  Most of the folks on the street the students walked by knew what it was like to be a minority - being black in a white neighborhood can be a dangerous prospect.  Being white in a black neighborhood, however, does not carry the same level of danger because the law is on your side.  At the end of their five minute walk, they arrived at a giant red brick building that used to be a Catholic school and convent before Austin changed, block by block, from a white to a black neighborhood.  Rock of Our Salvation Church and Circle Urban Ministries co-own the building, and the students were there to learn about interracial churches.

Rock Church is an interracial church - about 3/4 black and 1/4 white, in a white denomination.  I put together a panel of folks from the church to talk about its history and what its like to go to an interracial church.  The ensuing conversation was powerful, both for the Rock Church folks as well as for the students.  Rusty told me that every student present said the evening was in their top three events for the weekend.

I think it was so powerful because the Rock Church folks talked openly and honestly about race.  They took the elephant in the room and described it - sharing the challenges of going to an interracial church, what its like to live in the neighborhood as a white person or as a black person, and some of the strategies the church has used in order break down walls between black and white people (in my next post I'll talk more about Rock's history).  It strikes me that for students to have this sort of experience, institutional bridges matter. 

The experience the students have mirrors that of some of the Catholic interracialists I study.  For instance, I've seen case after case of white people putting themselves in settings in which they were a minority and their eyes being opened to how race worked in their context.  Friendship House, an interracial Catholic center in Chicago's Black Belt, provided a similar bridge for white Catholics from the 1940s-1960s.  Patty Crawley of the Christian Family Movement remembered that, "We felt so brave going from the sheltered white suburbs to the South Side.  For most of us it was our first contact with blacks socially . . . we would go to Friendship House . . . which awakened us to horrible prejudices that existed in our city.”

I know of a professor of sociology who, when he teaches his class on race, will fill his roster with as many students of color as possible.  One positive effect of this strategy is that the white students in the class cannot dismiss the racialization of American society as easily.

Religious experiences in the United States are structured by race.  We need more bridges which can help those in power realize, to use George Lipsitz's phrase, the possessive investment in whiteness, and hopefully partner to create a more just society.  That night with the students from Indiana Wesleyan - and the hard work they and their professors did throughout the semester -  was one small step in that direction.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Karen. I share your concern about the centrality of race and racial division to American identity. In the classroom, I use books like Gary Gerstle's AMERICAN CRUCIBLE and Emerson and Smith's DIVIDED BY FAITH to make that point. Spring Arbor University, where I teach, also invests alot in experiential learning along these lines. Our CORE 200 classes in Issues in Faith and Culture go to Chicago every semester for a weekend. We usually visit churches in Lawndale and Little Village. I took my first group this spring. I led twenty mostly white students on a walking tour of Little Village on a Friday evening. We definitely were a minority, and I even noticed people on porches laughing at us--and I'm certain we were a comical sight. As you note, though, the worst we had to fear were police asking us if we were lost or were looking to buy drugs. We ended up having a greeat meal on 26th street and great visit with people at La Villata Community Church. Our students and myself were definitely changed by our experience. It costs a good deal to send 4-5 classes each semester; but as you note such experiences are priceless.
Edward J. Blum said…
like, like, like ... oh wait, I'm not on facebook. Thanks so much for this post. All such neat points. I always enjoy Paul's _Freedom's Coming_ for the historical side of white-black interactions/non-interactions and how religion/theology/religious cultures influence the whole.
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Alan Scot Willis said…
Very nice article. It leaves me wondering what has changed and what has not changed in the last -- say -- 60 years. While 60 years ago, most white students would have agreed that race mattered, what they thought it meant was certainly a moving target. But the idea of placing white youth (college, high school) in (religious) setting in which they were the minority was certainly used (at least by some of those deeply involved in the community mission activity of the Southern Baptist Convention) to open the eyes of youth to what it might be like to be the "other" and on the "other side" of the color line.
Karen Johnson said…
First - I'm glad to hear that there are other institutions like Spring Arbor committed to teaching students about race experientially.

Second, your insightful wondering, Alan, about what has changed and what hasn't changed, I think a lot of it has to do with the civil rights movement and the successful national legislation in 1964 and 1965. This, along with changes in the mortgage industry (see Beryl Satter's _Family Properties_) have made it no longer legal to discriminate - which makes racial inequalities even harder to pin down. (This draws from one of the arguments Hall makes in her 2005 Long Civil Rights movement piece).

Perhaps another issue is the privatization of American religion. The Catholics I study believed they could use their faith to change the very structure of American society, and black and white Protestants held similar convictions 60 years ago (I'm thinking of Chappell's _Stone of Hope_ for instance). When religion does enter the public sphere - at least from evangelical voices - the concerns voiced usually have something to do with gay rights or abortion - not race or social inequality.

Another issue might be how race and class relate. I'm reading a great book now - Alice O'Conner's Poverty Knowledge_ - which lays out the changing ways social scientists have conceptualized poverty, showing how social scientists have stopped thinking about poverty in terms of the institutional opportunities (job availability, for instance) in favor of viewing it in terms of the individual characteristics of poor people. To me, this sounds a lot like the trend of individualism Emerson describes among white evangelicals.

But the question still remains . . . why the shift?
Karen Johnson said…
And, by the way, I love _Freedom's Coming_. Its been an inspiration, Ed.

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