Read Along with Me: Learning about Black Lived Theology and the Body of Christ

by Malia Sample (she/her/hers), 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I just graduated from UVA this past spring, with a major in kinesiology and a minor in religious studies, and this school year, I will be getting my master’s degree in Kinesiology for Individuals with Disabilities—and I could not be more excited! I have the most amazing parents, older brother, and dog named Kona, and I grew up in Northern Virginia. Although they moved to Leesburg, Virginia before I was born, my dad is from Minnesota and my mom is from Hawaii, so I like to joke that they are proof that opposites do in fact attract. I am also Asian American, and one of my favorite hobbies during this past year has been trying to learn how to cook some of my grandma and mom’s favorite Hawaiian and Chinese dishes. In my free time, I love to explore Charlottesville, and I am always in pursuit of a good park or body of water in the area. 

This summer, I am beyond grateful to be a part of the Project of Lived Theology, and to work with and learn from the incredible PLT staff, my mentor Dr. Paul Jones, and the other fellows. For my project, I am seeking to learn more about how faith—the Christian faith in particular—has intersected and continues to intersect with racial injustice against Black Americans. I will be reading about and learning from the lived theologies of several Black theologians and activists, including but not limited to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James H. Cone. Throughout this summer, I am reading books and essay collections such as Why We Can’t Wait by MLK, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone, and Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being by M. Shawn Copeland.

For my final project, I hope to create a webpage, on which I discuss what I, as a member of the predominately white American church, have learned from what I have read this summer, and how it has expanded and increased my understanding of lived theology, God, and what the body of Christ does and is meant to look like. Through this webpage, I hope to consider what it means to be a part of a greater body, and to recognize and discuss how the evangelical American church has been complicit in, and sometimes perpetuators of, racism in American history and the present day. With this webpage, titled Moving Towards, I also hope to share how the lived theologies of others, specifically the lived theologies of Black theologians and activists, have expanded my understanding of God, His action, and His body, and to explore how these theologies can help the church move, in the words of SNCC leader Victoria Gray Adams, “toward the kingdom of God,” specifically in terms of the fight against racial injustice.

If you would like to read along with me this summer, here is my reading list:

  1. Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Malcolm X Speaks Selected Speeches and Statements by George Breitman and Malcolm X
  3. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? by James H. Cone
  4. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  5. A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone
  6. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being by M. Shawn Copeland
  7. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tibsy
  8. White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

“I Don’t Want to Be Content to Just Study”: Centering Emerging Digital Communities of Christian AAPI Women

by Maddie Pannell, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I’m a rising fourth year and East Asian Studies major at the University of Virginia. I’m also involved in the Department of Religious Studies here at UVA: I’ll likely minor in religious studies. That’s how I became connected to the Project on Lived Theology (PLT). I was drawn to the project’s mission not just because the work they are doing is interesting but also because through the work, the project seeks to truly create social change through justice and compassion. Studying East Asian history, culture, and language has brought me great joy; so has studying Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. 

It’s an incredible blessing and privilege to study such fascinating and compelling subjects. I don’t want to be content to just study though. I believe that knowledge is a tool for change: I want to go out and do something meaningful with what I learn. Thus, I’m excited that PLT’s summer fellowship has allowed me to fully engage with my research. My project is centered on emerging digital communities of Christian AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) women, and specifically how their gathering on digital platforms exemplifies a new and unique presence. I believe the ways that they are collecting, validating, and honoring each other’s stories highlights an understanding of who God is that’s specific to their lived experiences as AAPI women. These communities are recognizing their own kind of lived theology by uncovering who God is in their specific personal stories. My goal with this research is to further broadcast and emphasize the tremendous work that these AAPI women have done with their presence and voices, particularly during a time of increased anti-AAPI hate and racism. 

The work of these women is furthermore distinctive because their communities have been formed primarily in the digital world. Though of course many of the women who are connected digitally have also met with each other in person, there is a certain visibility and accessibility that is different for a digitally based community versus a mostly in-person one. I’ve been especially focused on participatory media platforms such as Instagram and podcasts in my research. These digital platforms provide a particular opportunity for users, both the technological experts and the less trained consumer, to exchange and create original and secondary media. The democratic nature of digital participatory media allows bottom-up initiation of community formation; in the case of my research, these technologies have provided for the formation of Christian AAPI women’s communities. 

Someday is Here Co. is one of the groups I’ve had the honor of learning from in my research thus far. Connecting Instagram, the podcast format, and the (virtual) live conference atmosphere, this organization’s mission is to be a space for the growth of AAPI women’s identity as it embodies intersections of faith, culture, and leadership. After listening to the podcast for the past several weeks, I’m humbled and blessed to have attended their virtual conference on June 26. 

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Uncovering Hidden Figures and Moments of the Virginia Civil Rights Movement

by Rachel Olson, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I am a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, on the pre-medical track, with a bachelor of arts degree in religious studies. During my time at UVA, I took great interest in understanding the world around me in terms of religion and science. I became a religious studies major because of my love for different religions and cultures, and I am part of a pharmacology research lab through UVA’s School of Medicine because of my love for science. I enjoy volunteering at Charlottesville’s multi-resource day shelter The Haven as well as mentoring incoming Black students at the University. I take great interest in human rights, equality, and giving back to those in need. 

For my summer research project in lived theology, I am creating a digital exhibit on the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia that will feature key documents, moments, and actors. More specifically, I have been completing preliminary research, such as gathering primary sources, searching archives, and writing articles for the project. Recently, I have completed my first interview with an author who has written a compelling narrative on civil rights and religion in Richmond. The digital exhibit will feature an all-encompassing timeline of events that occurred during the civil rights era in Virginia. It will also feature relevant primary source documents from this time period as well as photos of important figures and locations. We hope to also link to significant resources, which can be of great use to educators and students of all ages. I believe this digital exhibit will provide scholars as well as the general public with reliable sources and facts about civil rights in Virginia. Our hope is that the exhibit will bring new insights and attention to events and activists who may not have received widespread publicity at the time of their pursuits.

I am passionate about deepening my understanding of Virginia’s rich history, and I yearn to approach this sensitive topic with accuracy and care. Although the Civil Rights Movement was a difficult and trying time, it is my aim to showcase the way in which this movement, along with religion, became a catalyst for change in a positive direction. By shedding light on major drivers and events of the movement, I am confident that all of us can learn and grow to be more accepting people, who are capable of valuing each other, despite our differences. 

Learn more about the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia digital exhibit project here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Sitting With the Stillness and Silence: Quakerism and the Pandemic

by Siana Monet, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

They told me that it was the largest gathering of Quakers to have congregated at the Blacksburg Friends meetinghouse since the pandemic had started fifteen months before. Twenty-five people in varying stages of formality––ranging from khaki trousers to everyday gardening wear––gathered to sit outside on an eccentric collection of folding, beach, and lawn chairs with the occasional blanket thrown in. We sat in near silence for an hour, interrupted only by birdsong, the reflections two Friends offered on the importance of giving, and the crackling of the speaker set up to include the two participants who were joining via Zoom. The first part of the meeting ended when the Friend chosen that week clapped once and stood up so that we could begin introductions and then offer the joys and sorrows we had experienced in the last week: gratitude for the monarch butterfly way-station erected in a front garden, joy of a new grandchild being born, worry over a sister-in-law’s cancer.

My interest in Quakerism had developed as part of a long and circuitous path. Having been born and raised in Kenya and Thailand, indigenous African religious traditions such as those of the Maasai and the Theravada Buddhism practiced in much of Southeast Asia came much more easily to me than the Missouri Synod Lutheranism of my extended family. Upon moving to Northern Virginia to begin high school, I struggled to find a faith community which resonated with the multicultural spiritual background that I had inherited. I wanted to be able to be in communion with fellow seekers and travelers while not echoing religious insistences that there was only one path to the divine. My family and I ended up attending a Unitarian Universalist church for four years, but the lack of religious commitment was isolating in a different way. 

In the middle of high school, I stumbled across the book Let Your Life Speak by the Quaker theologian Parker Palmer. It completely changed my sense of responsibility and commitment to vocation. I considered for the first time that I might want to love what I would do with my life; the book worked its magic on my heart for many years until I decided to drop the premedical track that I had been pursuing and instead begin to consider the spiritual dimensions of healing. This interest in the intersection between spirituality and healing led me to pursue a certificate in Bhutanese traditional medicine, intensive research in Yoruba divination traditions, and a job helping to create the first encyclopedia of Tibetan contemplative traditions. While pursuing all of these different paths, an interest in the stillness at the core of them––and present in the Friends meetings of Herndon and Charlottesville that I came to sit with––grew.

I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, to sit with the Blacksburg Friends group, many of whom I have met over the course of the last year. In doing so, I hoped to understand more deeply how their practice had changed and shifted since the coronavirus pandemic. For a group who practiced sitting with one another in stillness and silence, I was curious how a year of stillness, silence, and occasional fits of furious toilet paper stockpiling had impacted the Blacksburg Friends’ practice. During the pandemic, I had often thought back to my earlier experiences with Quakerism as a resource for considering the kind of quiet camaraderie that my fellow citizens and I experienced while waiting in line outside of the supermarket, sanitizing our hands before entering and exiting every building, and methodically extending a six-foot berth to those on the sidewalk when running by. I’m excited to see how the Blacksburg Friends’ practices have deepened and changed as I continue to pursue this project.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Looking at God Through a Scientific Lens: The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia

by Josh Heman-Ackah, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I recently graduated from the University of Virginia, double majoring in biochemistry and religious studies. I have always been intrigued by the concept of a deity whose hands are molding our world. From the initial creation of the universe to everyday occurrences, I am always looking out for where God may be present. During my digging into how a deity may have created the world through a scientific lens, I fell deeper in love with chemistry and its brilliant rules that govern our planet. After this fellowship concludes, I will continue research within the UVA Department of Chemistry, investigating the deuteration of pharmaceutical drugs to increase their efficacy and safety. In my free time, I love to exercise, watch movies with close friends, and serve in my local church and community.

For the Project on Lived Theology, I will create a digital exhibit showcasing the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia. Despite what people may believe, there is a huge scarcity of resources related to the movement in Virginia relative to other states. And out of what is recorded from Virginia, even less is accessible to the public. This project utilizes primary sources, such as autobiographies, interviews, newspapers, and court cases, to collect, catalog, and share as much information as possible about this subject. Topics for this Civil Rights exhibit will include integration, interracial marriage, UVA racial unrest, Dr. King/SCLC, the Lynchburg Christian Academy, voter rights, African American efforts, protests/boycotts, and more. Recently, I interviewed Douglas E. Thompson, the author of Richmond: Priests and Prophets, a compelling narrative of civil rights and religion in Richmond, Virginia. Additionally, I have drafted a summary of information gathered from various primary and secondary sources about the Loving v. Virginia case, which legalized interracial marriage in Virginia and set a precedent that would forever change marriage in the United States.

My research interests are focused primarily around the 1950s, when laws and attitudes regarding segregation and race drastically changed. I am most intrigued by what society looked like from a real-world perspective. I want to know how it was determined that in a particular state, African Americans could enter and patronize a store, but not use the changing room or sit down at the lunch counter. I want to know more about the thoughts and attitudes of African Americans, especially as they lived through segregation day to day. I deeply want to know the individuals who paved the way for my future. If I was born even fifty years earlier, I would not be able to vote or dine in certain restaurants, and would have had several basic rights withheld from me. Most importantly, I would love to discover how the existence of God and religion have shaped the foundation of segregated systems, and how those same influences helped Virginia break out of those racialized structures. People should study history so that they do not repeat the same mistakes. Virginia will inevitably slip back into its old habits if it does not even know its history to begin with. This project will help pave the way for continued growth and understanding within the state.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

PLT Collaborator Jacqueline Bussie Named Executive Director of Collegeville Institute

The Project on Lived Theology (PLT) congratulates Jacqueline Bussie on being named the new executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. Bussie’s new position begins on Sept. 1. She will be the first female executive director in the institute’s fifty-four-year history.

“I’m overjoyed and humbled by this appointment to serve as the Collegeville Institute’s next executive director,” said Bussie during an address to the institute’s Board of Directors earlier this month. “This marvelous and mutilated world needs the gifts that the Collegeville Institute offers more than ever—world-transforming scholarship, soul-sustaining worship, bridge-building dialogue, and life-giving community.”

The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research is a residential center that brings together diverse groups of scholars, writers, artists, and faith leaders through its various programs. Located on the grounds of Saint John’s Abbey and University in central Minnesota, the Collegeville Institute was founded in 1967 by Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, to nurture scholarly research and promote mutual understanding across denominational differences. The Collegeville Institute is rooted in the Christian Benedictine tradition and sees its mission as fostering the world’s healing through the power of religious ideas, insight, and practices.

“In these times of deep division, the Collegeville Institute’s mission of bringing people together to bridge differences is needed more than ever,” said Bill Cahoy, chair of the Collegeville Institute’s Board of Directors. “Dr. Bussie’s achievements and commitments prepare her well to lead us into the next chapter for the Collegeville Institute.”

Bussie currently teaches religion, theology, and interfaith studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., where she also serves as the director of the Forum on Faith and Life. She is an award-winning author and theologian. Her books include The Laughter of the Oppressed: Ethical and Theological Resistance in Wiesel, Morrison, and Endo (Bloomsbury, 2007); Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules (Thomas Nelson, 2016); and Love Without Limits: Jesus’ Radical Vision for a Love with No Exceptions (Fortress Press, 2018). Bussie earned her PhD from the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies and has an MA from Yale University and a BA from Davidson College.

Throughout the years, Bussie has been deeply involved in PLT initiatives, including the 2005 and 2013 Spring Institutes for Lived Theology (SILT). As part of the 2019-20 SILT, she is co-editing the upcoming PLT publication People Get Ready! Thirteen Misfits, Malcontents and Dreamers for Troubled Timesfor which she is also writing an essay on Southern author Flannery O’Connor. Bussie contributed to the PLT book Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

More Questions Than Answers: Deciding to Study My Church’s Civil Rights History

by Sophie Gibson, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I am a rising fourth year in UVA’s College of Arts and Sciences, and am double majoring in Political & Social Thought (with concentrations in Religion in the U.S., Educational Philosophies, and Sociocultural Anthropology) and Religious Studies (with a primary concentration in African Religions and a secondary concentration in Christianity). I was born in Charlottesville, but my family has lived on Cape Cod for nine years. At UVA, I am involved in The University Fellowship at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, Madison House, the Virginia Interfaith Coalition, and the University Judiciary Committee. I am also an intern at The Fountain Fund, a local nonprofit.

Interactions in the classroom, office hours, and committee meetings led me to pursue research with the Project on Lived Theology. As a student, I have prioritized taking classes on subjects that intrigue me and with professors I know will inspire me. For this reason, I have found a home in the Religious Studies department. The myriad methodologies and guiding principles that comprise the discipline of Religious Studies create a welcoming environment for questions and reflections. In fact, I found my way to the Project on Lived Theology in discussions with two of my professors, Heather Warren and Charles Marsh. I was first introduced to the concept of “lived theology” in Professor Marsh’s “Kingdom of God in America” class. Professor Marsh’s teachings about the theological underpinnings and enactments of the Civil Rights Movement made me ask questions about the impact of mundane lived theologies—particularly related to the recent history of Charlottesville. 

In my three years as a member at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, I have heard stories about St. Paul’s as the progressive Episcopal Church across the street from the Rotunda during the period of the Civil Rights Movement. As a member of the Mission & Service Committee, which was started at St. Paul’s in 2020, I found myself in discussions with very involved congregants and community members about the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our church. In this space, we realized that we have more questions than answers about our congregation’s history in the fight for justice. 

This summer, I want to learn more about specific leaders (including Rev. Ted Evans) and congregants who shaped St. Paul’s engagement with the rest of the Charlottesville community and the Diocese of Virginia. How St. Paul’s lived into its theology and how that history shapes the current congregation’s sense of identity directly and intuitively are central questions. I hope to use theological texts for background reading, archival resources, records housed by the Diocese of Virginia, and interviews with congregants to add detail and color to the period of 1954-1968 in St. Paul’s history. I am excited to see where this research will lead me this summer and beyond! 

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Whatever You Did For One of the Least of These, You Did For Me

by Karen Cortez, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I first found out about the Project on Lived Theology (PLT) sometime last summer.  I was on UVA’s Religious Studies website, trying to figure out which class I should take during the upcoming semester, when I found myself doing a deep dive of the entire PLT website. I was met with people who were doing incredible things to bring about good in their communities, inspired by their own faith or the faith of others, and I wanted to learn more.

For my research this summer, I am looking at the role that faith-based organizations play in alleviating communities affected by poverty. I am particularly interested in learning more about faith leaders who championed a life dedicated to this type of activism and about the theologies that motivate these leaders to live lives dedicated to this type of work. 

I was led to this topic by my own experience growing up serving in homeless shelters with my churches as well as going on service trips with my youth group and my current college fellowship. Whenever we would get a chance to speak with the leaders of the organizations we would partner with, they would often speak from the heart about uplifting and serving, through whatever means they could, those marginalized in their communities by homelessness, food insecurity, or socioeconomic status. Many of them would often cite Jesus’ statement in Matthew 25:34-40 as the motivation for their service: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” It was amazing to see how one’s belief in these verses could manifest itself in such works of good, and it always left me wondering what I could do to live that life too.

I am so grateful and excited to be spending my last summer as an undergrad thinking, reading, and learning more about my topic, and to be doing it alongside the rest of the fellows. I am hopeful for a summer that will not only teach me how others live out their own theologies but will show me the ways in which I can do so as well, for the good of myself and for those around me. 

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.