PLT Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows Ask Big Questions About Faith and Society

Spring 2021

This spring, staff members at the Project on Lived Theology (PLT) realized that because of COVID-19, they would not be able to implement their usual summer immersion program, during which undergraduates work on site at service organizations across the nation. 

So, the PLT team quickly adapted by creating the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology. This re-imagined program allows students to conduct research, think, and write about questions related to the social repercussions of theological commitments.

Last month, eight UVA rising fourth years and new graduates began their Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowships in Lived Theology. Each fellow receives a $3,000 stipend, and works directly with a UVA faculty mentor, who acts as a theological-academic mentor and offers guidance on the fellow’s research project.

“Over the years, the PLT summer internship program has supported truly special students of mine who are brilliant, soulful, idealistic, and self-directed. They demonstrate a commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world),” said Vanessa Ochs, UVA religious studies professor. 

Ochs, who has served as a mentor to interns in previous years, is this year helping Siana Monet, who graduated last month. For her research project, Monet is investigating how lived Quaker theologies intersect with poetry as a contemplative practice. 

“I’m so excited to get to learn alongside students and professors who are similarly inclined and to share these insights with this community,” said Monet.

Paul Dafydd Jones, mentor to fellow Malia Sample, sees the working relationship between fellows and mentors as a two-way street. 

“It’s always a delight to serve as a mentor, and to learn with–and from–students. I’m consistently impressed by their industry, commitment, and moral passion,” said Jones, who is an associate professor of religious studies at UVA and the director of the Project on Religion and its Publics. Sample will study racial justice and faith during her fellowship.

Some fellows found out about the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowships in Lived Theology through their professors. Sophie Gibson, a rising fourth year, applied to the fellowship after talking with PLT director Charles Marsh about how his class on the Kingdom of God in America connected to her academic and extracurricular interests.

Maddie Pannell, a rising fourth year, first heard about PLT in Heather Warren’s class on American Religion, Social Reform, and Democracy, which led Pannell to apply to the fellowship. Warren, an associate professor of religious studies at UVA, will serve as Pannell’s mentor and guide her exploration of the experience of Chinese and Chinese Americans with American Christianity. 

“I’ve been interested in the study of religion and have believed in its potential for creating social change since my first year at UVA, but [Warren’s] class introduced me to people doing exactly such kinds of work,” said Pannell. “I’m grateful that this fellowship gives me the opportunity to explore more deeply the recent anti-AAPI hate and the brave AAPI men and women standing up against it. It’s truly an honor to participate in work that is so deeply meaningful to our community and nation.”

Throughout the summer, Isaac Barnes May, PLT research fellow and UVA American Studies assistant professor, is leading weekly group sessions for the fellows over Zoom. During this time, fellows can check in about their progress, discuss assigned readings, or hear a guest speaker. 

“During our time together, we will consider how faith commitments have been lived out in difficult and trying circumstances, said May. “This is a chance to engage in big questions, particularly how people try to live out their theological commitments and change society.”

The fellows and mentors got to know each other better during an introductory session on June 2. The fellows also plan to gather together for fun virtual activities, such as movie and game nights, over the coming months.

The fellows will also write blog posts for the PLT website about their research progress and discoveries. In the early fall, they will present their work at a public event. Depending on the COVID-19 situation, the event will either be held in person on Grounds or over Zoom. 

The 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows in Lived Theology are: 

Karen Cortez
Project: The role of Christian and Evangelical organizations in uplifting those marginalized by socioeconomic status
Mentor: Isaac Barnes May

Sophie Gibson
Project: The participation of St. Paul’s Memorial Church (Charlottesville, Va.) in the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968
Mentor: Heather Warren

Josh Heman-Ackah
Project: Creation of a digital exhibit on the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia
Mentor: Isaac Barnes May

Siana Monet
Project: An ethnographic study, with the Blacksburg (Va.) Friends, about how Quaker practice has changed during COVID-19
Mentor: Vanessa Ochs

Rachel Olson
Project: Creation of a digital exhibit on the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia
Mentor: Isaac Barnes May

Maddie Pannell
Project: Interviews with Chinese international students at UVA to learn more about the experience of Chinese and Chinese Americans with American Christianity 
Mentor: Heather Warren

Malia Sample
Project: What racial justice (in relation to the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Atlanta shootings) means to faith 
Mentor: Paul Dafydd Jones

Annie Webber
Project: How lived religion has played a role in the Black Lives Matter movement
Mentor: Heather Warren

PLT plans to share details about the 2022 fellowship application process in November or December 2021. Details will be posted at livedtheology.org.

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.