“Education and faith are the Tigris and Euphrates of our liberation, twin rivers at the source of our redemption.” —Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III
These words from the late Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III illuminate my core convictions and commitment to faith and education. At the heart of my faith lives an unwavering desire to constantly engage in various aspects of life through unconventional, and authentic ways that express who I am in tandem with what I believe. This desire did not originate from my childhood or even from earlier experiences in church. Growing up, I was under the impression that faith and spiritual practices were reserved for certain days and certain “religious” spaces. I was also under the impression that faith and spiritual practices had to look or sound a certain way to be genuine.
Growing up in a very conservative Baptist faith tradition, religion was instilled in me as an unchanging and fixed way of life. I was taught to never question God, and no matter what, always believe. This gnawed away at my soul from the time I was a small child. I would always wonder: What kind of God is God if he is intimidated by my questions? If God is all-knowing, and knows me so well, then God should know I am experiencing different things in the world that are causing me to evolve. Why does it feel like church is holding me back because it refuses to evolve? There were times in my youth where I was scolded for my unconventional questions of religion and the Bible. I was never one to accept things at face value. I always desired to dig deeper. As I matured, I never lost sight of my conviction. I became more determined to make sense of my faith and connect with who I believe God has called me to be.
Thank God for education and strong friendships. When I went off to college, I was exposed to what I now believe to be the essence of true spiritual practice: social responsibility, curiosity, and respect for scripture. In a noticeably brief time, the relationship I formed with my now mentor, friend, and Muslim teacher Qasim Abdul-Tawab challenged me to ignite the kinship of faith and education. Faith and education are two distant lovers in some religious spaces, but a marriage between the two could result in world changing experiences. I can recall insightful and sobering conversations Qasim and I had that shook me to my core. His Socratic approach to understanding scripture constantly caught me off guard and challenged the conventions of my theological framework.
Once, when discussing the mysteries of the Genesis narrative, I attempted to argue my position on the fall of man. I do not think Adam can be given much blame because the serpent did not initially entice him, the serpent enticed Eve. In an instant, Qasim interjected a very arresting question: “Where does scripture say Adam ever woke up?” So simple, but the implications of his question challenge the very nature of the story and all the stories that follow. In scripture, God commands Adam and Eve not to eat from a forbidden tree. Soon after, he forms a woman from the rib of a man by forcing Adam into a deep coma-like sleep. Eve suddenly appears but scripture does not inform us Adam is awakened. The implication of Adam never waking up is that the human condition is limited to a paralytic state of existence. If Adam never woke up, life would be nothing more than a dream.
If faith is to be transformative, our responsibility is not just to take it seriously but live it seriously.
These types of conversations challenged me to develop an insatiable curiosity and respect for scripture. As a result of his tutelage, I also began to develop a healthy balance of tradition (going to church, singing certain songs, reading a certain version of the Bible, etc.) and lived experience (who I am in the world and what the world needs today). I discovered that tradition truly is at the heart of faith. It provides a solid foundation. However, if tradition is at the heart of faith, lived experiences and how we express our faith in the world must be the blood that flows to and from the muscle that gives us life. If faith is to be transformative, our responsibility is not just to take it seriously but live it seriously. Working at the Howard Thurman Home in Daytona Beach, Florida with Qasim as my supervisor opened my eyes to what faith lived seriously looked like. We organized reading and writing programs for young people in Volusia County and attended school board and town hall meetings advocating for our community, for those who Thurman would say “live with their backs against the wall.”
Our work at the Thurman House was designed to be a continuation of the legacy of Dr. Howard Washington Thurman. He was a Black Baptist preacher, professor, community activist and mystic, and was regarded as the spiritual sage of the Civil Rights Movement. His unorthodox approach to faith laid the foundation for interfaith work that is going on today in America. His passion was people and exploring the depths of spirituality by extinguishing the limitations we put on God. He founded the Fellowship Church for All People alongside a white pastor in the 1940s. This was a church that embraced and welcomed all faith traditions and invited them to worship together under one roof. His revolutionary legacy brought Qasim and I together, a Baptist and a Muslim.
Qasim has been with me through major transitions in my life. The death of my paternal grandmother, getting married, the birth of my two sons, and more recently my ordination as a Baptist minister. His teachings inspired me to approach my ordination process with an unquenched thirst for knowledge from the true author of it all, God. One of his favorite sayings from Thurman is “God is.” He would often tell me, before you read scripture or commit to the work, you must believe that. It starts and finishes with God, and that is who I believe brought us together.
Bryant Wilcox, Interfaith Specialist at University of North Florida, graduated from Bethune Cookman University with a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy with a concentration in Christian ministries, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration. In his current role, Bryant launched the Black Student Interfaith Initiative, a cross campus effort to support the diverse religious and non-religious identities of students of color in Jacksonville, Florida. This initiative focuses on engaging students through education, collaboration, and community service.