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ISSA Presents: Does the Black Community Need God?

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On November 10th, 2011 with the support of the Secular Student Alliance and other cosponsors, the Illini speakerSecular Student Alliance hosted its most innovative event to date. More than half a year in the making, “Does the Black Community Need God?: A Debate on Race, Faith & Culture” was first conceived during Jamila Bey’s talk at the 2011 American Atheists Convention. It became immediately clear to the ISSA officers present that we wanted to bring Jamila to the U of I to talk about the unique experience of secular African Americans and, in doing so, take full advantage of her background as a champion debater. The idea of putting Jamila head-to-head with some African-American theologian seemed too good to pass up, so ISSA went to work to find a worthy opponent.

About two months before the tentative date, we found our man: Bishop Carlton Pearson, former acolyte of Oral Roberts, now labeled a heretic by those he once counted as allies on the Christian Right. In recent years, Bishop Pearson has turned away from fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal teachings and begun preaching what he calls “The Gospel of Inclusion” – the doctrine that there is no hell but what we create for each other here on earth, and that those of other faiths (or no faith at all) are not inherently bad in the eyes of God. ISSA was excited to have Jamila share the stage with Carlton, as it seemed that the two speakers were bound to have an earnest and frank conversation on faith and the African American community. We secured the support of our university’s Office of Minority Student Affairs, and the director of said office even agreed to be our moderator. Every last detail had been meticulously planned out to ensure an engaging and informative discussion. Then, mere hours before the event was to begin, we learned that Jamila’s flight had been significantly delayed and she would be unable to attend. We were devastated, and knew that we needed to switch gears before the entire event was lost.

Jamila’s absence meant we’d have to scrap our planned format and devise a new one – and fast. She was kind enough to quickly draft ten questions for Carlton to answer, “Does the identity of being a black American mandate a faith position?” among others. Our moderator then delivered these, and the second half of the event was dedicated to allowing the audience to ask their own questions. The event was followed by a reception with refreshments and lively conversation.

Despite the last-minute change of format, the event was still successful on many fronts. We attracted a large and diverse audience for discussion of a contentious (yet rarely-discussed) issue, and in the process managed to foster awareness of secularism in the campus community. Bishop Pearson himself noted a resemblance between what he’d seen of ISSA’s community and the unity he’d known growing up in Christian churches. To an audience with a large religious component, this was certainly eye-opening. The debate also gave us an opportunity to forge ties with campus groups with which we’d not previously worked, many of whom hadn’t known of ISSA’s existence. An entirely favorable piece on the event was featured in the school paper, and the reception found our members speaking at length with other attendees (of varying degrees of faith), demonstrating that we had, in fact, succeeded in sparking the sort of dialog for which we’re always striving.

The financial support of the Secular Student Alliance was integral to the success of our event. The project grant that ISSA received from the SSA exactly covered the portion of the speakers’ fees, travel and lodging not covered by our university. We received additional support from the Center for Inquiry, our school’s Office of Minority Student Affairs, Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers and various other groups, helping us cover the cost of the room, promotional materials, furniture rental and the reception.

In short, the event proved both a rewarding and eye-opening experience. We were proud to facilitate such discussion, and our group learned a great deal about large-scale event planning and general crisis management. We look forward to hosting similar events in the future.

To read the University of Illini's article of the event click here.

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