Black Female Religious Leaders Underscore the Importance of Interfaith Solidarity

On Feb. 18, Black leaders of the Muslim, Buddhist and Christian traditions spoke about their intersectional experiences with race and religion on a virtual panel. The event, which featured Lutheran theologian Rozella Haydee White, civil rights and domestic lawyer Tahira Amatul-Wadud and co-editor of Black and Buddhist Magazine Pamela Ayo Yetunde, was co-sponsored by the Interfaith Council, Black Students Union (BSU) and Multicultural Resource Center. It was moderated by former BSU President Joelle Crichlow ’22 and was followed by a Q&A session. 

In the panel portion of the evening, the three speakers emphasized how Blackness has come into conversation with their religious understandings. They explored how their intersectional identities have influenced their relationship with the divine and other members of their religious communities. The panelists also emphasized the importance of religious interfaith solidarity and finding meaningful, inclusive and righteous relationships in a tumultuous and violent contemporary environment. 

The conversation began with an introduction from Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Harrison Blum. He first acknowledged that the college stands on stolen Nonotuck land. He then cited Verna Meyers, a diversity and inclusion trainer, who told an audience in her TED talk that it is necessary to lift up Black lives and Black faith to counter the insidious pull of colorblindness and unconscious bias.

Blum gave the floor to Crichlow, who introduced the panelist speakers. Crichlow said, “What drew me to this event is that one of my resolutions or themes for 2021 was, quite frankly, to get back in tune with my faith. And so, after having taken a few years off from practicing some form of religion, I’m re-entering that realm now with a little bit more clarity. This conversation is a great way for me to kind of step outside the bounds of my own practices.”

Rozella Haydee White, a Lutheran public theologian, is a leadership consultant and writer focused on nurturing love and seeking and sustaining justice. Tuning in from Houston, Texas, Haydee White began by detailing the familial history that led her to become a Lutheran. She reflected on her twenty-year exploration as a woman of faith. 

“I have carried a lot of baggage because I was raised in a primarily white religious tradition,” she said. “This white religious tradition often conflated its theological heritage with its Eurocentric embodiment in a way that led to me wondering what my place is in this religious tradition.”

Tahira Amatul-Wadud had similar sentiments about her role as a Black woman in a tradition that does not fully embrace her lived experience as a Black woman. Though she was born into a Christian family, her parents became a Sunni Muslim in 1978 when she was in preschool. She noted that as an African American, with roots both in Christianity and in Islam, she does not always feel that her dualist identity is appreciated. 

“The vantage point of history and piecing together puzzles is your own story, and it’s a particular task for African Americans whose stories are not as easily told, and not all were often told, because they’re rooted in so much trauma,” Amutal-Wadud said. 

The final panelist, Pamela Ayo Yetunde, summed up the presentation portion with insightful words about being a Black woman of faith in today’s violent and turbulent times. Yetunde said, “Given the violence that we have experienced these last five years as African women — the violence to our psyches, of violence to our bodies, disease, willful neglect — it is a miracle that we are together tonight.”

Yetunde, a co-editor of Black and Buddhist magazine and an author of womanist theology for transgender spiritual care, noted the importance of interfaith conversations. She applauded all Black women who are leaders in their traditions for working through internalized anger and engaging in collaboration.  

After the three women completed their individual addresses, the event turned to the question and answer portion where speakers went into individual breakout rooms. Ben Gilsdorf ’21 enjoyed the opportunity to do breakout rooms and speak with the panelists. “I learned a lot about the intersection of race and religion, especially from a non-Christian perspective,” Gilsdorf told The Student. “Obviously there is a lot out there on the Christian tradition in American Black life, but I enjoyed learning about what is like as a Black Buddhist or Black Muslim in America.”

Crichlow had similar sentiments about the event “I think one of my biggest takeaways is that faith is fluid and evolving,” she said. “Many of our panelists had at one point in their lives practiced different religions than those they subscribe to now or are exploring now and so the idea of viewing faith as more of a personal journey was really insightful.”

In the Q&A segment following the talk, Eunice Daudu ’21, who works for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL), commented: “It was hard to find spaces of belonging within my [religious] community. For me, it felt like growing up in a rat race where you’re still confined to norms of fulfilling the wants and needs of a patriarchal vision of the Bible. The Black church felt very confining at times.” 

Daudu added that she is still dedicated to her faith, despite the struggles she has faced in light of it. She appreciates that the panelists embraced the imperfection of religion and encouraged listeners to continue on their spiritual journeys. 

“I’m happy that so many people got to ask their questions and I’m definitely grateful for the panelists openness and willingness to share their struggles and real experiences with their faith,” Crichlow said.