By George Kevin Jordan, Special to the AFRO

Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D., dean of the School of Divinity at Howard University hosted a panel discussion called “Race, Religious Freedom and The Politics of Belonging,” from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Knight Conference Center, Newseum.

This discussion was the first of a series of public events coinciding with the Newseum’s January 2019 intensive course, “African Americans and Religious Freedom.”

Dr. Yolanda Pierce, the first woman to serve as the dean of the School of Divinity at Howard University, hoted a panel at the Newseum called Race, Religious Freedom and the Politics of Belonging on Oct. 30. (Courtesy Photo)

Pierce, the first woman to hold her position in the school’s 150-year history, said, “Much of the historical and contemporary conversations about religious freedom have excluded the African-American perspective despite the religiosity of various Black communities. This conversation is a first attempt to explore the particularities of how religious freedom has worked. Or failed to work, for Black faith communities.”

Other panelists included: The Hon. Suzan Johnson Cook (Ambassador Sujay), an instructor at the Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center; Corey D. B. Walker,  a scholar of African-American social, political and religious thought, vice president of Virginia Union University, the 10th dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology and a professor of religion and society and Brad Braxton, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

This event was a partnership between several constituencies, according to Pierce, including the Luce Foundation, the Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union, the Religious Freedom Center, the Newseum, and Howard University School of Divinity. “Together, we are interested in exploring the intersections of race and religious freedom in the American context,” Pierce added.

Religion is one of the few protected items in the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But to Pierce, the conversation is one that needs to expand to include everyone. “Religious practices in the African-American context are incredibly rich and diverse,” said Pierce. “The right of religious freedom is absolutely crucial for already marginalized people, particularly those whose religious practices may not be understood or affirmed by the dominant society.

“The ‘politics of belonging’ is an expression to discuss who has been included and who has been excluded in conversations about religious freedom. Are there communities of people who, although they are citizens, still remain outside of the realm of constitutional protection, as in the case of religious freedom?”