Advancing the Exploration of Black Religion and Spirituality

November 17, 2016
David Waters and Taylor Stewart
HDS students David Waters and Taylor Stewart co-organized the inaugural Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture conference at HDS. / Photo: Laura Krueger

Harvard Divinity School recently hosted the inaugural Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture conference, organized by Harambee at HDS. The conference drew academic scholars, faith leaders, and social justice and non-profit leaders from around the country to campus.

Taylor Stewart, chair of the Conference Planning Committee and MDiv ’18, writes about the impact of the day’s conversations.


The conference is a result of the passionate vision of several students of African descent, endeavoring to find ways to increase the representation of scholarship present at HDS.

We organized in spring 2016 and met with Dean David Hempton to share our experiences here at HDS, our commitments to our respective communities and vocations, our desire to strengthen already existing efforts, and to envision more robust, integrated curricular and cultural representations of religious scholars and practitioners of the African Diaspora.

We recognize that our call is to be faithful, hopeful, prophetic, and undaunted in sustaining, and drawing from, our ancestral legacies and deep wells of transnational Black liberation struggles. Dismayed by the current dearth of black scholarship present within HDS, we decided to organize a Black religions conference at HDS—the first in the School's 200 years of existence.

Our conference seeks to advance the exploration of Black religion, spirituality, and culture across the Diaspora. We look to interdisciplinary scholarship and engagement for training in ethical leadership to address the world’s most pressing issues.

Specifically, the conference aims to 1) ask and explore questions of religion, spirituality, and culture from a Black perspective, 2) provide a gathering space for Black scholars, students, faith leaders, and civic leaders to foster a sense of genealogy, 3) nurture interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborative scholarship, and 4) explore linkages between scholarship and activism as transformative sites.

We were very pleased to have people from an array of religious backgrounds presenting, dialoguing, and delivering keynotes throughout the day's entirety. Our panels included: Black Religion and Religious Thought; Black Religion and Culture; Religion and Social Justice; Black Spirituality; and the Current Role of the Black Church. The day began with a spirited morning keynote address delivered in an overfull Andover Chapel.

The Black Religion and Religious Thought panel addressed the meaning of “Black religion,” the ways in which religious inquiry and spiritual life are transformed when wedded to Black worldviews and lived-realities, and how being a religious scholar and/or practitioner of African descent affects one’s work and vocation.

The Black Religion and Culture panel examined the various ways ethical thought and practice are enriched, changed, and constrained through dialogue with Black religious traditions, and how the arts and aesthetics of Black communities define, reflect, and challenge prevailing notions of what constitutes Black religious life and Black culture.

The Religion and Social Justice panel looked at the ways in which Black religions, spirituality, and cultural practices relate with embodying and making justice in the world, and the unique contributions of Black life and struggles to the transformation of social relationships and structures for a better humanity.

The Black Spirituality panel addressed the various forms of Black spirituality, such as how the social forces of racism and colonization inform Black spirituality and how Black spirituality addresses these forces. Following these panels, there was a dialogue on the current role of the Black Christian church within politics, community, social justice activism, and socio-cultural transformation within the United States and globally.

The evening ended with a seated dinner in the Braun Room, full of rich soul food, jazz music, and buzzing conversation. Every seat was filled. After receiving a powerful keynote address, we awarded our first Harambee Sankofa Award to Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton.

We left the inaugural Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture conference feeling motivated, rejuvenated, lifted, encouraged, and challenged. The richness of wisdom and intellectual acumen exhibited by the scholars, activists, and religious leaders who presented throughout the day's entirety was truly inspirational.

We offer a most heartfelt thank you to all who participated in our inaugural conference. Thank you to all of our speakers, sponsors, and supporters. We intend for this conference to be the first of many for years to come.

—Taylor Stewart, MDiv ’18