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2011 RCA Convention Banquet Presentation

"Creating a Space for Religious Voice"

delivered by Professor Tina Harris1


Dr. Harris Keynote Address.pdf

Good evening. It is indeed a privilege to stand before you to deliver the Keynote Address for the Religious Communication Association's annual conference banquet. I am speaking because I have been blessed with the esteemed honor of being recognized as the recipient of the 2011 RCA Scholar Award. I would like to first thank my esteemed colleagues and RCA President Professor Rodney Reynolds and the officers/nominating committee for choosing me for this award. I am joyous, humbled, and encouraged to have been chosen for this honor, but more importantly, I stand here hopeful and inspired to doing? a work I firmly believe I have been called to do as both a scholar and woman of the Christian faith. It is my hope and faith that my address this evening will inspire and challenge fellow religious communication scholars in particular and communication scholars in general to be foreword thinking in their future research efforts. I encourage you to accompany me in this journey, a journey toward knowledge, understanding, revelation and exploration. I encourage both you and myself to continue clearing a path with scholarship that works toward "Creating a Space for a Religious Voice" in a discipline where diversity and difference matter. Thus, I challenge us to continue in our journey to bring religious voices from the margins to the center of communication scholarship and discourse. Above all, I challenge us to REVEAL, REFLECT, and RESPOND as we move to privilege religious identities in our teaching, research, and service to our intellectual communities and beyond.

Naturally, this charge applies to me as well, and I will heed my own advice by REVEALING to you my own journey towards privileging religious identity in my professional and personal worlds, REFLECTING on the opportunities I have had to explore this aspect of self further along the way, and identifying ways in which I am RESPONDING to the call to privilege a voice within me that has been on the fringes of an ever-changing world.


Picture it: Athens, GA May of 2011. I was in the throes of teaching summer school when I received an ominous email through Facebook from my friend and colleague Rodney Reynolds, asking if I had a moment to speak with him. Immediately, I reverted back to childlike ways of thinking and immediately thought, "Oh, my God. What have I done??" I began to think of the different ways that Rodney and I are connected, and I wondered if I had committed to some kind of service in NCA and somehow dropped the ball. I made a mental list of all of the service I was doing and continued to draw a blank. Did I promise to serve as a reviewer and he hadn't received my comments or rankings yet? Was I supposed to do something else that was escaping my mind and now I had to add it to my already long list of things to do. I began to panic a bit as I started thinking about how I could squeeze in "it," this "unknown it," in the middle of teaching summer school 3 hours a day 5 days week, preparing for teaching in Costa Rica in less than two weeks for a month, and everything else that was demanding my time. I took a deep sigh and resolved that whatever "it" was, I would do the appropriate and professional thing, which was accept responsibility for forgetting and cram it into my already full schedule. I was going to bite the bullet. I finally responded to the email and told Rodney to call me at his convenience. In the meantime, I was sweating bullets as I patiently awaited his call.

After a week of waiting, I finally received the call from Rodney. I soon learned that I had not dropped the ball. In fact, he was calling to inform me of the award, and it couldn't have come at a better time. I humbly accepted the selection, and when the conversation was over, I began to truly realize the magnitude of the honor. I was walking in downtown Athens, GA to have lunch when I received the call, and I was tempted to stop on sidewalk and proclaim the infamous words Sally Fields uttered in her Oscar speech: "They like me! They really like me!" The cars whizzing by let me know that wasn't such a great idea. Instead, I immediately embraced a spirit of gratitude as I thanked my God for this recognition by my peers.

Throughout that lunch and for the coming days and weeks, and even the months since, I have been reminded of the Bible scripture Proverbs 18:16, which states that, "A man's gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men." While the male noun is used, it is referring to both men and women. It is also referring to the inherit gift that lies within us to fulfill our mission in life. That gift is driven by passion, commitment, and diligence that will surely pay off in both small and big ways, greater than what we can imagine. This scripture resonated for me because it REVEALED a "truth" I have known for some time: that the calling that is on our lives is purposed and designed to bear good fruit that will ultimately be recognized by others seeking signs of goodness and hope too often missing in the busyness of life. To engage in the process or act of revealing, one must "make known to the public information that was previously known only to a few people or that was meant to be kept a secret." In the case of my research and my daily walk, they have worked together to REVEAL to others my epistemology that could potentially remain unearthed if the urging or opportunity to do so did not exist. To clarify, the ultimate goal is not to be acknowledged for doing good works; rather the satisfaction should come from knowing you are making a difference in the world with the gift that lies within you, and the fact that people appear to be taking notice is just icing on the cake. So, for me, to be recognized for doing something that is such an integral part of my identity is an honor. Words cannot express the joy I have to be in your midst.

This notification from Rodney served as a revelation to me; a revelation that there are likeminded people who are quite possibly working towards centering religiousness or religious identity into their framework or point of reference. Personally, my religious identity is a critical part of who I am, and I have chosen to directly reveal that in both personal and professional contexts. My aim is not to proselytize or convert, but operate from a place of love and respect in a world or place where there is none. My goal is to give voice to a cultural marker that is central to the lives of many.

In terms of my scholarship, I began to articulate my religious identity in a concerted and strategic way when I was afforded the wonderful opportunity to participate in grant work with colleague-mentors Roxanne Parrott and Celeste Condit who each had multi-million dollar federally funded grants from the National Institutes of Health. Each grant was commissioned with the purpose of understanding the extent to which the findings of the Human Genome Project have been translated by and within various racial and ethnic communities or the lay public. As we explored this communicative phenomenon, one lens that seemed to be nonexistent was religion. My father was a pastor/preacher for 17 years up until his death and my mother has been a pastor/preacher for 12 years now, and as the proverbial PK (or Preacher's Kid), I have been immersed in a religious, or cultural, community where I have been exposed to and subsequently adopted a framework and related ideologies that have assisted me in the sense-making process needed for functioning and surviving in this world. Essentially every part of my life is informed and shaped by my religious beliefs and values, and this is certainly a phenomenon that is not unique to me. It is unique for me as an individual, but it is a common experience shared by both people of the same faith and different faiths as well.

Coming from such a background and lived reality shaped my personal life and naturally permeated my identity as a professional. This became more apparent and was REVEALED when I was on the two NIH grants. My colleagues were also my mentors who encouraged me to follow this path of understanding that was somewhat untapped in communication scholarship, especially in the area of human genetics. I was compelled to "create a space for a religious voice," which meant adding research questions to the interview protocols that allowed participants to share narratives regarding understandings of health phenomena and how religious frameworks were used in the process. The findings have been revelatory and illuminating in the sense that more evidence has been discovered reflecting a clearer connection between natural occurrences and the religious beliefs used to interpret and understand them.

Giving voice to these marginalized experiences through narratives was, and is, very empowering, for me and I assume the participants. An opportunity was offered to articulate a standpoint that has incredible significance on many levels. Were it not for the narratives, it is quite possible that their stories of struggle, coping, peace, and faith would never be shared. Revealing one's faith can be a daunting and, in some extreme cases, life-threatening task, or for others a very liberating and affirming experience. In either case, the decision to REVEAL that facet of one's identity is a personal, intimate one that can contribute to our appreciation of the diversity that lies within our local, national and global communities.


REFLECTING is what I recognize as a part of the revealing process that hopefully ends with one choosing to RESPOND. For the purposes of this speech, I qualify the word "reflect" as an action verb. To reflect means "to give evidence of the characteristics or qualities of someone or something." To reflect one's religious identity extends beyond revealing, which involves disclosure. This denotes that one feels compelled or chooses to create an artifact of sorts that clearly expresses to others what a certain quality means to them. As a communication scholar, REVEALING realities and truths through research is at the core of what we do. We pose hypotheses and research questions that explore myriad of phenomena, and it is in the findings and answers that we gain deeper understanding of human epistemologies or "ways of knowing."

I implore each and every one of us, regardless of and because of our religious orientations, to be bold and courageous enough to fuel the fires and flames of inquiry that serve to demonstrate how rhetorical discourses and interpersonal relationships are sites where our religious identities are performed and expressed. We are in the unique position of being powerful vessels of knowledge that in some countries and contexts are, to many people, inaccessible. We should recognize this opportunity as a gift, a prize, a treasure to be shared with others. Regardless of our respective religious orientations, we should seize the opportunity to celebrate a part of our identities that is sometimes ignored. By creating a space for religious voices, there is a strong possibility that we are sharing experiences that are shared by many others but they just do not have the space to articulate them.

As I REFLECT on my own scholarship that of others in the communication discipline as well as the humanities and the social sciences, I am grateful that many have been bold enough to take a risk in sharing their religious orientations. The risks are well worth it because they individually and collectively function to let everyone know that religious identities are not an anomaly. The research, or what I deem "accounts of religious experiences," offers further evidence that the hierarchical order of our identities vary from person to person and context to context.  Race, gender, class, sexual orientation, educational background, and religious orientation are all cultural markers that define who we are; however, we have standpoints that are foregrounded by one or more of the aspects of our identities. Most of these markers are heavily researched in the discipline, so why should religious identity be any different?

For me, my religious identity is primary, and it naturally intersects with my race, gender, and educational background, among others. I believe this is attributed to the fact that my how I understand myself as a human being is at the core of what it means, for me, to be religious. Not only does this translate into the core values and beliefs that I hold dear, but it also informs my relationships and the communicative experiences I have within a variety of relational contexts. I guess one might say that my efforts to REFLECT are a form of "me-search," which is a trick of the trade with which we are all familiar. While REFLECTING may appear self-motivated, its outcome and outgrowth are foundational to the myriad research areas in the discipline. For this, I applaud all of us for the valiant efforts were making in our strides toward creating research that has value within and outside of the world of academia.


Now that you have revealed and reflected on who you are as a religious being or someone interested in religious communication, I challenge you to think about the ways you plan to formally respond to these observations and inquiries. For me, it is my hope and desire that I am RESPONDing appropriately as I attempt to create a space that gives voice to experiences and realities that are similar to and different from my own. I hope that I inspire and affirm others to take intellectual risks as they delve into under-researched areas of inquiry that have been marginalized but are slowly gaining ground in scholarship.

As I have chosen to respond to this religious journey that has played a tremendous role in how I define myself, it is my hope that I have presented the truths and realities of the populations I represent in a way that affirms how they define and see themselves in the real world. While I am indeed a part of their community, I am also a participant-observer whose task is to remain objective as their narratives are shared with audiences who may not be connected to their interpretation of this world in which we live. It is my purpose and goal to observe phenomena and create an intellectual space where these experiences can be communicated.

The lives of the participants are somewhat intertwined with mine in that I deal with life issues and the professional expectations that are placed upon me to publish, teach well, and complete my many service obligations all from a religious orientation. With each task that comes, I ask, "Is this what God would have me to do? Is it going to be a 'good work' of which He and I will be proud? Is it going to make a difference in some way?" My hope and prayer is that the answer to each question is a resounding yes. I think I am at least getting a positive head nod, as my passion to continue to do work in the area of religious communication continues to grow. While I do not have the pressure I once experienced as an assistant or associate professor, I have self-imposed expectations that I continue to produce work that fills what I believe is a void in communication scholarship.

By responding as I have, I am no longer an innocent bystander who casually comments, "Wow, someone should really do a study on that!" I get excited and encouraged when I see that someone else is doing research on the same topic as me, and if they are not, then I become appreciative that other religious communication scholars have paved the way for me to do the kind of research that I do. They RESPONDED, and I have responded in-kind.

So the question I leave you with is, how will you respond to the need for more research religious communication? Will you remain committed to filling this niche in your own research agenda? How will you RESPOND when receive a manuscript to review that is on religious communication but the religious framework presented in striking opposition to your own? Will you automatically reject it, which I am sure none of us would? Or do you evaluate it on its merits and potential as a scholar body of work that contributes to our understanding of religious communication? We are all human, which also means we are fallible; therefore, the likelihood of our personal biases surfacing as we evaluate the work of others is strong.

As communication scholars from different intellectual, social, and religious backgrounds, it is imperative that we open our minds, and our hearts, to the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It is only through our individual and collective efforts that religious communication as a valuable area of research and self-exploration will move from the margins to the center. We must continue to be innovative, creative, and imaginative while moving toward a greater calling toward a greater good. Personally, I hope and pray that the work I have done has contributed toward that end. Have I made a difference? Has anyone changed, even the slightest bit, because of the work that I've done? More importantly, has this journey made me into the me that I am destined to become, that I am destined to be? I pray I have been a vessel and conduit of sorts for CREATING A SPACE FOR A RELIGIOUS VOICE. I HAVE REVEALED, REFLECTED, AND RESPONDED to what and who I believe I am as a religious person and a religious communication scholar, and I encourage you to do the same. My words are not to preach but to encourage you and challenge you to move your religious voice from the margins to the center, one step at a time.

Dr. Harris Keynote Address.pdf


1Tina M. Harris, Professor
Josiah T. Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor
Affiliate Faculty of the Institute of African American Studies
Affiliate, Qualitative Interest Group
University of Georgia
Department of Communication Studies
120 Terrell Hall
Athens, GA 30602
(706) 542-4893
(706) 542-3245 (fax)


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