Teresa Smallwood, JD, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow & Assoc. Director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative in the Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Steve Green/Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt ties racial justice to religion in new program

Teresa Smallwood, postdoctoral fellow and associate director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative in the Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Steve Green/Vanderbilt University

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(RNS) — Watching the civil rights protests on television as a child, Emilie Townes asked her mother, "Why do they hate us?"

Today, as dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Townes is behind an effort to make that question a thing of the past with a new collaborative aimed at eradicating hate and promoting racial harmony.

"I have been trying to understand evil all my life," the Rev. Townes said in a statement announcing the collaborative. "We are, in many ways, imprisoned by the cultural production of evil, and I do not like it and think that none of us should accept it as the status quo for our lives."

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Called "Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative," the program kicks off with a public discussion on Sept. 28 in Nashville, Tenn., the home of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Then it continues with "summer intensives" designed to equip clergy and other religion professionals, laypeople, local business owners, community organizers and students to counter racism with faith and justice not just in their own communities, but together.

"Most of the people who are doing racial justice work are siloed in their own communities," said Teresa Smallwood, a Baptist minister who will serve as associate director of the project. "But the hour we live in requires all hands on deck."

The goal is to create a "national hub" for racial justice. Faith, she said, is a vital spoke in that hub.

"This is really about the composite drawing of God, the idea that everyone is a witness and has something to offer to the way we project the idea of God to the world," Smallwood said. "We want to be the kind of folk who can, through the faith language, impact the world."

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The Vanderbilt program is one of several similar events blending faith and activism in response to such things as the violent Charlottesville, Va., rally; police shootings of unarmed black citizens; immigration; and more:

  • The Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion's October conference is themed "Teaching From and for the Margins in These Troubled Times."
  • The Justice Conference of Women Religious, an organization of Catholic nuns, included several sessions on responding to racism and immigration reform in its 2017 meeting.
  • The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism held a "Consultation on Conscience" that included discussions about incorporating diversity and racial justice in congregations and how congregations can engage in activism around racial issues.


  1. As important as this issue is, no doubt about it, this school should be teaching Christ/and Christ crucified. This is how Christianity becomes watered down in issues that even though important, divert the church from it’s mission – to teach all that Christ commanded.

  2. If combating prejudice/discrimination and seeking justice for the downtrodden isn’t a major part of one’s teaching of Christ/and Christ crucified then it begs the question as to whose version of Christianity is really watered down. 🙂

  3. Seeking justice for the downtrodden, combatting prejudice is important,
    Spud, but more important is Christ crucified – people in a relationship with Him and journeying toward Home with Him – Heaven. Nothing is more important than that.

  4. You are the reason for atheism.
    Not only are you a terrible human being but you don’t even care about the example giving to you by the guy worship. Dude literally sacrificed himself for you after spending his life taking care of the downtrodden. And you’re like “me first.”

  5. Your response here reminds me of the “blind indifference” I experienced as a young lady in southern baptist church. Never felt better when I walked away from such warped and uncaring dogma.

  6. Christianity preys upon selfishness – selfishness which it targets by creating and developing irrational fear. In sales speak it’s called creating the need (read up on mouthwash)!

    If you have been convinced of the unlikely fact that you have a soul, and further convinced that the equally unevidenced concepts of heaven and hell are real you are potential pew fodder for those who will, whether with good intent or malicious greed, take advantage of the fear that follows such belief.

    Ultimately Christianity is not a moral force, nor a socially positive movement – it is primarily about, to the exclusion of anything else, the Christian’s unevidenced soul residing in an non-demonstrable heaven eternally. And, if one’s quality of life has been (or one has been convinced that it has been) so poor that never-ending boredom is preferable to the one life we know we have one might be able to ignore the silliness of the dogma and be able to subsume any tendency to human decency in order to believe that the promised ultimate state of worshipful zombieism is achievable.

  7. Getting involved in racial justice is good, getting involved in disaster relief is good, getting involved in improving education and resisting addictions are good. Churches, mosques, gurdwaras, mandirs, temples, synagogues – they all do good things – even Scientology does some of them – though touch assists and lying about drugs are more likely to be harmful than helpful. We should understand that caring for the organisation and its leadership is often more important than caring for those who may benefit from such activity.

    Religions know that their fear-based messages no longer bring in the devotees(money) as they did and are looking to grab the coat-tails of any socially laudable activity so that they can con people that the good they do is somehow concomitant with their peculiar beliefs. It has long been the practice of religion to claim that which it is not entitled to – how many have heard the false claim that there is no morality without a deity. This is simply the reverse of the coin whose obverse is “hurricanes caused by the gay/same sex marriage/the chipping away at religious privilege/obamacare/not sending me money etc. etc.. It’s good cop/bad cop.

    I don’t wish to damage efforts to improve the lot of those who are needy, but mixing such improvement with religion is potentially to replace one problem with another and is of dubious morality.

    Good people do good things and bad people do bad things. Religion only seems to be a factor when it is used as a way to get good people to do bad things.

  8. If you had been given the gift of faith by Jesus, you never would have left.

  9. Not sure if this is cognitive dissonance or religion lace arrogance.

  10. We were commanded by Yahushua to proclaim first the Kingdom of God. He said nothing about preaching His blood as
    sacrifice. Men turned His mission into a religion, something He never intended. Kingdom or nothing.

  11. They also do lots of crap to get money from people who need religion to tell them that being a-holes is a-ok.

    We just gave money to food for the Poor, an evangelical charity with a decent rating. I told my husband that there were plenty of non-religious charities that feed the hungry and that I would rather not give evangelicals any money. He really wanted to, so we did. We sent them a letter with our donation saying we didn’t need an acknowledgement, and please. Don’t send us any more fundraising appeals, as our charitable means were limited, and we wanted our donation to feed people.

    Within a month, we had received FOUR. I wrote them a letter again, saying please don’t. A few weeks later, we received another fat appeal, this one with a stamped envelope, not a business reply envelope. I used the stamp to send them ANOTHER letter saying STOP IT!

    Last week, we received another appeal, this one with a set of Christmas cards in it that they had paid some Haitian 20¢ a day to make. (LOng story). I’m sure they were just hugging themselves with delight at their generosity.

    I wrote them a nice long letter about why I don’t give money to church related charities. Well, the letter wasn’t nice at all.

  12. That has been my experience with any charity for any purpose. I believe it is based on the premise that most people do not like to say no more than one or twice – especially after a yes. I still get annual calls from one charity – Shriner’s – after last giving 25 years ago. Don’t about that specific charity but typically fundraising isn’t an operational activity per se but is outsourced to a 3rd party. It is a pain for sure.

  13. I’m certain that they outsource it, which is one of the reasons it keeps happening. The outside agencies have an investment in keeping it up. The charity executives have an investment in not knowing about it.

    There are a few organizations that I wish to donate to, but stopped because of this. After you tell them four times or so to knock it off, and they don’t respond…well, it takes a while to get back into my good graces again.

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