The Campbell Divinity professor talks about why he founded the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, the only one of its kind in the world.
When George Braswell Jr., senior professor of world religions at the Campbell Divinity School, returned to the United States in 1974 after serving as the first Baptist missionary in Iran with his wife, Joan, he was struck by the changing demographics.
There were more and more immigrants from around the world arriving to the United States, and there were burgeoning movements by religious and ethnic minority groups, says Braswell, who grew up in Emporia, Virginia, and joined the faculty at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, North Carolina, after spending parts of the 1960s and 1970s teaching English and world religions to Muslim clergy and students in Iran. “The U.S. was drastically changing because of religion pluralism.”
But Braswell also saw many Christian leaders who weren’t aware of or weren’t acknowledging the shifting dynamics. He began pondering: “What are we as Christian leaders going to encounter? How can we better prepare for it? And how can we better serve our congregations and neighbors?”
A theological accrediting agency began “to perk up” in the late 1970s, he says, and awarded him a grant to develop a practicum in world religions that would help Christian leaders better understand religion pluralism. Since 1980, several thousand seminary and divinity students have joined Braswell as he has visited various houses of worships and met with people of other religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Today, this intensive, one-week, 3-credit-hour course, Practicum in World Religions, is organized through the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, which Braswell founded at Campbell University in 2007. The center also hosts numerous seminars and short courses related to world religions each year and offers a certificate program that prepares Christian leaders in the teaching of world religions. More than a hundred students have graduated from Campbell Divinity with a certificate in a world religion over the past eight years.
The consistency of these programs and offerings make the World Religions and Global Cultures Center the only one of its kind. “No other seminary in the world integrates the academy and the church like this on a consistent basis,” says Braswell, who joined Campbell Divinity in 2004 as a senior professor. “We want to be as academically excellent as we can be, but we also want to be as practical as we can with what we teach ministers so they can better understand others religions and relay a Christian message with sensitivity and kindness.”
Braswell talked to Campbell.edu about what led him to found the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, the moments that have shaped his career, and what has driven him to raise awareness about religion pluralism for the past 40 years. The following is an edited transcript.
What drew you to a life of missions?
I went to Yale Divinity School, and I had a professor who studied the Middle East. He concentrated more on religions like Islam. That was seed bearing to me. But I also think of the seeds of early childhood. In Sunday school, we learned about the Magi and the Persian king whom Esther married. That was seed bearing. My wife, Joan, came up the same as I did; she grew up in a Baptist church in Canton, North Carolina. All of that put together helped us think of missions. After graduating from Wake Forest University, I went to Yale Divinity School. In my class, there were about 150 people. There were Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and maybe six or seven Baptists. I thought: Are they going to accept this Southerner? And they did.
After graduating from Yale Divinity School, you attended medical school. What led you to medical school, and why did you leave after just one semester?
My wife’s family were medical doctors who encouraged me to give it a try. I also got a four-year scholarship to the University of Virginia. That was also encouraging. The vision was medical missions. At the time, the University of Virginia’s medical school did gross anatomy that first semester. We dissected a cadaver. The man had murdered his wife with an axe and was electrocuted. Here I am thinking and talking about philosophy and psychology and all this theologizing was going on in my heart. I thought back to my training in chaplaincy at Yale.
My last year there, I interned at the Yale Psychiatric Institute. There was a male patient there from New York who taught me how to shoot pool. I was assigned to him. He was a Jew, and his family lived during World War II and the Holocaust, and that was part of his issues. After I left, he hanged himself in a cell. I remembered that experience in medical school. I went home and said, “I don’t think I’m called to give my life to science. Medical school is more than science, and doctors do more than science, but I’m more people-oriented. And that cadaver was dead as a door nail.”
I resolved it in my heart and mind that I was supposed to go this other way in ministry. People asked if I agonized over leaving medical school, but once I made that decision, I didn’t look back.
How did you end up as a missionary in Iran?
I was a pastor near Western Carolina University, at Cullowhee Baptist Church, and we took a youth group to Ridgecrest for Missions Week. I thought maybe some of them would be interested in missions, but the short of it is that my wife and I got interested in missions. The Foreign Mission Board, as it was called at the time, offered us several positions to consider. They offered Saigon, Vietnam; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Beirut, Lebanon. At one point they said, “We’ve always wanted to start work in Iran. Would you be willing to consider it?” We could have gone to several other places, but we thought, “Nobody had done Iran before.” We were independent and adventurous.
Where did your spirit of independence come from?
It’s in my DNA, I think. My mother was pretty independent. She could shoot the stem of a pear off a tree with a 22 rifle. For a female who could do that at the time, you’re going beyond your means. And my father was a carpenter who did his own work. I worked for him for eight summers. He’d turn me loose and say, “Put up your own boards.” And I went to Yale Divinity School, which was like going around the world for me in 1958. I was going up North from the South, and I had never traveled very far. That cut some of the edges of independence.
What did you take-away from your time in Iran?
I had this streak of being an anthropologist as well as a missionary. My Ph.D. dissertation, written in 1975, was a pretty significant piece of work on Shiite Muslims. Nobody had done much serious research on Shiite Muslims at that point in time. But there was a lot of restlessness among the young people there, and I knew one day it would come to fruition. The Shah was in trouble, and the Ayatollah assumed power. After I came to Southeastern Seminary, Iran blew up. I’m not saying I’m a prophet, but I was on the ground floor. I look back on it and wish our leaders had paid more attention.
How has that experience impacted the work you’ve done since?
When I came back from Iran in 1974 to teach at Southeastern Seminary, our culture was beginning to drastically change with immigration and also some indigenous movements. American society was changing in its pluralism. Instead of just reading about Hindus and Muslims in books, I thoughts it was important for you to actually go meet those people. I thought about the kind of theological education process that could provide that. A theological accrediting agency began perking up in the late 1970s, and I got a grant to take a sabbatical and spend six months in Washington, D.C. I did research there and went to Hindu temples and Buddhist temples and mosques and synagogues. I met with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Jehovah’s Witness, whoever you could think of. I developed a practicum in world religions and came back to the seminary, and the faculty voted it in. Lo and behold, I haven’t missed a year of teaching this practicum since 1980.
Eventually, out of that grew the World Religions and Global Cultures Center. We send missionaries to India, Japan, and the Middle East, and that’s good. But the Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims are coming here, too. People of different faiths are all around us. We need to understand who they are, what they believe, and how they relate to people. So through the center and practicum, we are trying to put students and pastors in touch with the reality around them in terms of religion pluralism.
Why is it important for pastors to be in touch with that reality of religion pluralism?
As good as the church may be in terms of its programs and missions, the church often tends to be very isolated and insulated from the real world. It gets behind walls at times and feeds on itself. It has to feed on itself sometimes; it has to nurture itself. Education and worship -- all of that is essential to church life. But I saw religious neighbors developing all around the church, and the church didn’t want to go meet these people. The church didn’t want to know they were there. I think it’s a need for the church to be not only educated about religious neighbors but to understand them and be motivated with sensitivity and love to reach out to them. And if you’re sensitive and loving, you’ve got all kind of possibilities with communications with religious neighbors.
You mentioned before about also being an anthropologist. How has your training in anthropology influenced your work?
When I was in Iran, being around Iranians and Shiites and spending hours in the mosques hearing sermons, I got all excited and said I’ve got to learn more about this. Anthropology helped me understand them more and identify with their people. In many ways, anthropologists train and relate to people similar to those in ministry. A minister ought to be able to speak the language of the people and be involved in their lives and be there when they’re crying and laughing and succeeding and failing. That’s ministry. At the same time, a cultural anthropologist has to learn the heartbeat and the language of the people if you want to do the research right. And you have to go where they are. I think ministers and anthropologists have to go through the same things, and I wish more ministers would receive that kind of training.
How has your work influenced your faith?
It has clarified my faith and helped me understand where other people are coming from and what they’re seeking. All religious people are trying to do the best they can with the conditions they have. My experiences have helped me understand they are pilgrims on a path, too. I wouldn’t choose that path, but I understand that path and where they are on that path. It’s helped me understand them better and helped me to be better able to share my faith with them, not in a judgmental way but in a sensitive and kind way.
You’ve spent the past 40 years trying to help others understand religion pluralism. What has sustained your passion for your work?
Students keep me going. Certain churches keep me going. And I think there’s something still out there that churches and Christians ought to consider. I see the way the world is turning and what the demographics are telling us; there are a lot of things about religious communities and growth that we need to be aware of. I think I’m still on my calling.
What is your calling?
I’ve been a dreamer much of my life. I’m always looking beyond the present and thinking about what’s next for the church. What can the church do to better serve its neighbors and express its mission? How can divinity schools and seminaries have a curriculum to meet the needs of emerging culture and society? It’s always something else, and I keep hoping and praying and dreaming for ways we can do these things better. When will my dreams stop, I don’t know. Maybe they will stop when my heart stops.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photo by Bennett Scarborough