THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM “Religion and Its Intersections: Spirituality, Secularism and Religion Among Black Diasporic Communities in Higher Education” ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF COLLEGE AND CHARACTER, VOLUME 20, ISSUE 2
A reinvigorated commitment to the study of religion, spirituality, faith, secularism, meaning-making, purpose, and interfaith dialogue in higher education is evidenced through the production of various scholarly texts. The pendulum among higher education scholars seems to swing toward finding ways to explicitly engage with what has been described as the “Big Questions” by some, but also described as taboo territory by others. More central to my own research agenda is the work done by scholars examining the various ways religion matters in the lives of Black college students. In part response to the race-less treatment of college students’ spiritual and religious lives as well as an attempt to attend to a phenomenon that has remained significant for Black diasporic communities, these scholars produced empirically rich and sensitive work that demonstrated the relevance of faith, religion, and spirituality among Black college students. In this manuscript, I situate my previous and ongoing research in relation to this body of scholarship and make explicit how I think through race, gender, sexuality, and nationality with religion. Next, I highlight the work of several scholars whose work is pushing us towards more expansive and necessarily heterogeneous notions of Blackness (that is not US centric) and religion (that is non-Christian and non-theistic). In conclusion, I discuss how the collective research can improve educational practice related to supporting diverse Black college students’ spiritual, secular, and religious needs.
I have often expressed, and rightfully so, that the study of religion, spirituality, and identity among Black students in postsecondary educational settings found me as much as I found it. Socialized throughout portions of my graduate training to believe that any version of intimate proximity towards a topic might render me inefficacious as an aspiring scholar, I initially drifted away from such questions that had been drawing me. Yet, these were some of the various queries that enlivened over-lunch discussions and passionate post-study session debates among my colleagues and me. Largely informed by my own rearing in Southeastern North Carolina—as part of the Bible Belt—Christianity was literally and figuratively everywhere. I learned up close from the multiple Black sub-communities that were my home that religion could easily be read in its most pronounced forms; the physical presence of cathedrals, storefront churches, and ubiquitously sprawling bumper stickers that read “Jesus Saves” or “Jesus is my co-pilot” were cultural mainstays. However, responses to religion also emerged in more un- and under-stated ways as a constitution of decency—such as of-age-adults stashing the cooler with alcohol off to the side of the house during cookouts or Sunday dinners in order not to offend; or alcohol not being sold on Sundays at all. While religion is not synonymous with a certain code of moral behaviors, in my home communities’ households and activities that were considered sacred (re: Christian) and respectable were not places for public consumption of alcohol. Moreover, as an actively involved member of various Christian commu- nities from late adolescent to young adulthood in formal and informal roles, religion and spirituality were formative factors in my own becoming.
Fortunately for me, my entering graduate school coincided with a reinvigorated commitment to the study of religion, spirituality, faith, secularism, meaning-making, purpose, and interfaith dialogue in higher education. Evidenced through the production of various scholarly texts (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011; Rockenbach & Mayhew, 2012; Stewart, 2002; Stewart & Lozano, 2009), the pendulum among higher education scholars seems to swing toward finding ways to explicitly engage what has been described as the “Big Questions” by some (Parks, 2000) and taboo territory by others. More central to my own research agenda, the work done by scholars examining the various ways religion matters in the lives of Black college students was foundational to my own theorizing and thinking about this topic (Herndon, 2003; Stewart, 2002; Watt, 2003). In part as a response to the race-less treatment of college students’ spiritual and religious lives (Patton, McEwen, Rendón, & Howard-Hamilton, 2007), as well as an attempt to attend to a phenomenon that remains significant for Black diasporic communities, these scholars produce empirically rich and sensitive work that demonstrates the relevance of faith, religion, and spirituality among Black college students.
Across institutional contexts and among diverse participants samples, data from this work continue to advance an understanding of the ways faith, religion, and spirituality are intricately interwoven into students’ sense of self and subject formations (Dancy, 2010; Porter & Dean, 2015; Stewart, 2002, 2009), engenders a sense of belonging (Strayhorn, 2011), and helps to productively manage academic and racial stressors (Herndon, 2003; Patton & McClure, 2009; Watt, 2003; Wood & Hilton, 2012). There is also modest evidence marshalled to support the idea that religion and spiritualty positively influence Black students’ academic performance (Walker & Dixon, 2002). Employing and extending earlier higher education scholars’ frameworks, this body of scholarship makes clear that religion and spirituality among Black students were not easily reducible to cognitive structures or non-religious specific concerns. Put differently, as Watts (2003) appropriately intervened, the affective, social, and cultural contours of Black collegians’ lives could not be ignored.
For the remainder of this manuscript I first situate my previous and ongoing work in relation to this body of scholarship and make explicit how I think through race, gender, sexuality, and nationality with religion, including the blind spots generated as a result of my own situated emphasis (McGuire, 2017; McGuire, Casanova, & Davis III, 2016; McGuire, Cisneros, & McGuire, 2017; McGuire, McTier, Ikegwuonu, Sweet, & Bryant-Scott, 2018; McGuire, Sweet, Bryant-Scott, McTier, & Ikegwuonu, 2017). Second, I highlight the work of several other scholars who push us, the field of higher education educators and scholars, towards more expansive and necessarily heterogeneous notions of Blackness (that is not US centric) and religion (that is non- Christian and non-theistic). I bring the article to a close with a discussion of how this research can improve educational practice related to supporting diverse Black college students spiritual, secular and religious needs. I would be remiss if I did not explicitly state how my own work is informed by and indebted to the critical interventions made by several scholars. Namely, Professors D-L Stewart, Sherry K. Watts, and T. Elon Dancy hold and offer foundational intellectual space for me to take up an intersectional analysis of race, religion, and gender in ways that are embedded in everyday living. This is a statement of gratitude for them and their work, which now extends almost two decades.
Prior to sharing the various insights gained as a result of my own work with Black students’ spiritual and religious lives, I want to briefly introduce two larger studies from which these data emerge. The first project, “The Stories We Tell: Narratives of Spiritual Development Among Black Undergraduates” (hereafter referred to as “Stories”), was a qualitative study in which I employed narrative analysis (Riessman, 2008) to better understand the developmental arc of Black students’ experiential lives. Occurring in a single, predominantly White institutional context, in the Northeast region of the United States, the project engaged the lives of 21 Black undergraduates. With purposeful attention to socializing agents and pedagogical spaces, this project particularly concerned formative influences as well as ways Black students understood and performed their spiritual and religious selves prior to and during college. The second project from which I report insights I refer to as “A Pledge of Faithfulness.” Using a combination of interviews, focus groups, digital observations, and Photo Voice, this study sought to understand how participation in a Christian fraternity shapes Black college men’s understanding and embodiment of their racial, gender, and religious identities as well as influences their overall academic experiences. Primarily residing in or attending institutions in the Southwest region of the United States, participants included both current undergraduate members, active alumni, as well as founders of the fraternity. In all, there were a total of 18 men who participated in the study.