Professor Joins Other Religion Scholars to Extol Research

Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada religion scholars Sacred Writes
Sacred Writes, a network of religion scholars committed to helping a broad global audience understand the significance of their work, has selected Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Religion Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada to be one of 24 scholars from around the world receiving a Public Scholarship on Religion for 2021.

When religion scholars share information about their research outside their academies, they help the general public understand matters of the sacred and the importance of religion and religious diversity in contemporary life.

Enter Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada. Sacred Writes, a network of religion scholars committed to helping a broad global audience understand the significance of their work, has selected Maldonado-Estrada to be one of 24 scholars from around the world receiving a Public Scholarship on Religion for 2021.

With the scholarship, Maldonado-Estrada will receive a $1,000 stipend to participate in real-time collaborative sessions and multimedia training with other scholars from May 1 to August 31. Since 2018, similar cooperative work has helped 41 scholars of religion place 140 print, audio and video pieces with 52 media outlets including the Washington Post, PRI’s The World and CBS Religion since 2018.

“I am deeply committed to making my scholarship accessible and interesting to a broad array of readers,” Maldonado-Estrada said. “From writing about religion and tattoos to gender and gentrification, it excites me to tell stories about the ways religion is embedded in the everyday lives of individuals, communities, and cities. I am excited to be a part of a vibrant group of scholars, where we can hype each other up, learn new genres of writing, and craft and celebrate good work about religion.”

Sacred Writes also has chosen Maldonado-Estrada to write articles about architecture and sacred space, subjects important in her classes at K. The articles will appear in DigBoston, an alternative weekly newspaper.

“At K, I teach a class called Urban Religion where we learn how to be ethnographers and observers of space and social life,” she said. “Together we explore how religious communities shape the urban environment and how the city shapes the feel, look and experience of religion right back. I am so excited to write about architecture, development, and sacred space in this collaboration with DigBoston. These are the topics that really brought me to the study of religion back when I was an undergrad at a liberal arts college.”

In addition to Urban Religion, Maldonado-Estrada teaches classes at K on religion and masculinity, Catholics in the Americas and the religions of Latin America. She is an ethnographer, and her research focuses on material culture, contemporary Catholicism, and gender and embodiment.

Elsewhere, Maldonado-Estrada is a co-chair of the Men and Masculinities Unit at the American Academy of Religion and is an editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Art, Objects, and Belief. She was chosen for the 2020-2022 cohort of Young Scholars in American Religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. She received her doctorate in religion from Princeton University and her bachelor’s degree in sociology and religion from Vassar College.

“I look forward to finding exciting ways to meld my teaching and research and to bringing what I learn from this partnership back to the classroom at K,” she said.

Armstrong Lecture Spotlights Pakistani Entertainer

Armstrong Lecture Poster of Speaker and Entertainer
Amanullah De Sondy, a senior lecturer at University College Cork in Ireland, will provide the 2021 Armstrong Lecture.

A global expert in contemporary Islam will speak at a Kalamazoo College Religion Department virtual event about a prolific figure in Pakistani music whose voice empowered queer identities.

Amanullah De Sondy, a senior lecturer at University College Cork in Ireland and an affiliate of the University of Glasgow’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies, will provide the 2021 Armstrong Lecture at 5 p.m. Tuesday, February 23. His talk, titled “Music, Empowerment and Queer Pakistani Identities: The Case of Madam Noor Jehan 1926-2000,” will discuss the flamboyant Noor Jehan, an entertainer known lovingly to many as Madam ji.

Noor Jehan’s success came from her entertaining acts of disruption which spoke to parts of society that were suffering at the margins. From difficult marriages to challenging the Pakistani army, Noor Jehan was known for her wit and strength. De Sondy will explore her anarchistic style and show how she disrupted neat structures in society as she remained rooted in Islamic traditions.

The Armstrong Lectures are made possible by the Homer J. Armstrong Endowment in Religion, established in 1969 in honor of the Rev. Homer J. Armstrong, a longtime trustee of Kalamazoo College. To attend the free event Tuesday, register through the Religion Department website.

Religion Chair’s Book Offers ‘Glimmers of Hope’ for LGBTQ Mormons

Religion Department Chairman's Book Tabernacles of Clay
Kalamazoo College Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey wrote Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism as a history of gender identity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey
Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey has authored his second book, Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism.

An often-forgotten member of the religious right and its views on gender identity are the subjects of a historical book released this month by Kalamazoo College Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey.

Petrey said the post-World War II views of Evangelicals and conservative Catholics are well-documented, as they traditionally reflect political opposition to feminism, same-sex relationships and trans identities. But what about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as Mormons? That record has been incomplete if not completely non-existent until the release of Petrey’s book Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism, published by the University of North Carolina Press.

“I’m trying to situate Latter-day Saints in a broader conversation about the nature of gender and sexuality,” Petrey said. “I’m showing what’s most surprising is that even conservative religious groups think not that gender and sexuality are fixed and predetermined or divinely ordained categories, but rather they rely on social constructions of gender to make sense of conservative teachings.”

The LDS Church’s leadership and older generations of church members have steadfastly maintained conservative views related to gender identity despite experiencing some discrimination themselves from other denominations.

“Latter-day Saints have often felt that sting of being excluded from the broader culture of Christianity,” Petrey said. “But one of the strategies they’ve used to integrate themselves into the broader culture of Christianity has been to adopt these conservative values and create social and political alliances with the religious right. That made a lot of sense after World War II. It created a kind of alliance or shared identity to say, ‘We’re Christians just like you.’”

However, younger generations of Latter-day Saints in congregations nationwide have commonly aligned themselves with more progressive views.

“At a local level, you might find a diverse range of views on these topics with a generational divide,” Petrey said. “Younger members tend to be much more liberal. They might not be as liberal as generational peers, but much more than their own older generations.”

The book doesn’t push for change toward more progressive views as a result of this trend. Yet the historical record shows how the church’s teachings have shifted somewhat, prompting some optimistic outlooks for Mormons in the LGBTQ community, for example.

“The popular story that most people know or believe is that the church has never changed its teachings,” Petrey said. “It’s a common way that many churches express themselves. ‘We’ve always taught this.’ What the book shows, actually, is the church has changed its teachings quite a bit in the last 70 years. And for many people, that gives some glimmers of hope that it may continue to change.”

Petrey’s first book, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction and Sexual Difference, was released in 2015. He also edited Re-Making the World Christianity and Categories: Essays in Honor of Karen L. King in 2019 and the just-published co-edited volume The Routledge Handbook on Mormonism and Gender in 2020. In 2018, Petrey was prominently interviewed in Church and State, a documentary about the toppling of Utah’s gay marriage ban, and he currently is the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Plus, his latest work, available online and at bookstores, has generated public enthusiasm since the first advance copies were distributed about six weeks ago and Petrey is looking forward to receiving more feedback.

“I have been overwhelmed by the positive response,” Petrey said. “Immediately, the most eager readers were other Latter-day Saints, especially gay Latter-day Saints, and I’ve been incredibly happy with the first reviews that have come out online and the buzz about the book so far.”

Silent Sky Features Women Reaching for the Stars

Silent Sky at Festival Playhouse
Milan Levy ’23 (from left), Sophie Hill ’20 and Aly Homminga ’20 portray astronomers Williamina Fleming, Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt in the Festival Playhouse production of Silent Sky.

Watch a trailer of Silent Sky on YouTube

Much like an astronomer who draws constellation patterns, Aly Homminga ’20 is connecting the dots.

Homminga serves as both the dramaturg and lead actor for the Kalamazoo College Festival Playhouse production of Silent Sky. As the dramaturg, Homminga researches topics and time periods addressed in the play to assist Director Ren Berthel in teaching the actors about their characters and the play’s settings. As the lead actor, she connects those ideas to her portrayal of real-life astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.

“Dramaturgy is important, especially for Silent Sky as a period piece,” said Homminga, a theatre arts and religion double major from East Lansing. “If a director’s job is about artistic vision, dramaturgy is about facts and the time period of the play. This play goes on an arc of about 15 years, so I have to make sure Henrietta is different at the beginning than at the end. Playing Henrietta has given me a chance to test my skills and create a character who’s real yet flawed and different from me.”

The production is set in the early 1900s, as Leavitt begins working at the Harvard College Observatory, part of Dr. Edward Pickering’s “harem,” as they were known. Leavitt and her female colleagues mapped stars by taking pictures of glass plates and analyzing them, receiving no scientific credit for the discoveries they made along the way. Leavitt’s discoveries related to cepheids, which are stars that brighten and dim, and how they can be used to measure astronomical distances.  Edwin Hubble, the namesake of the Hubble Telescope, confirmed the validity of Leavitt’s discoveries about 20 years later, and her work has been credited with transforming the field of astronomy.

Leavitt’s work with fellow scientists Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, portrayed in Silent Sky by Sophie Hill ’20 and Milan Levy ’23 respectively, builds a theme of feminism in the play. It’s the second of three plays in the Festival Playhouse’s 56th season following forgotten female figures. Other actors include Rose Hannan ’23, who plays Leavitt’s fictional yet inspirational sister Margaret; and Rigo Quintero ’22 as Peter Shaw, the head astronomer’s apprentice.

“I think this play is unique in the season because much of it is historical,” Homminga said. “It also marks an intersection between theatre, women’s studies and science, when science isn’t talked about or explored a lot in theatre. We want to reach out to science professors and classes, and let them see this as an opportunity to see their history, especially that of women in science.”

Scientific minds are bound to appreciate a set design developed by Wynd Raven, a local artist who was commissioned to paint the Festival Playhouse stage as a nebula, which is a cloud of gas and dust in space sometimes visible in the night sky. In addition, Homminga is creating a lobby display in her dramaturgical role. The display will focus on life at the Harvard observatory and the roles of women at the turn of the century to create an atmosphere in the context of the play that will appeal to scientists and general audiences alike.

Silent Sky will run from Thursday, Feb. 27-Sunday, March 1. Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday show will start at 2 p.m. All shows are at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse Theatre, 129 Thompson St.

Tickets are available through the Playhouse’s online box office. They cost $15 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older, and $5 for students. Tickets for Kalamazoo College students are free when they present K-IDs at the door. Faculty and staff may receive up to two tickets free with their IDs. For more information on the play, visit the Playhouse’s website.

Holocaust Survivor to Speak at K

Irene Butter  a Holocaust survivor, author and University of Michigan professor emerita  will visit Kalamazoo College on Monday, May 13.

Holocaust Survivor Irene Butter
Holocaust survivor Irene Butter will visit Kalamazoo College to talk with students at the Book Club Cafe and speak at Stetson Chapel.

Butter will discuss her experiences in two concentration camps, how they changed her life and why it’s important to keep telling stories about the Holocaust in an appearance sponsored by the Jewish Studies Department, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Religion Department and Hillel, the organization for Jewish students at K.

Butter’s schedule will include conversations with students over coffee from 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. in the Book Club at Upjohn Library Commons, and her main speaking presentation at 4:30 p.m. in the Olmsted Room at Mandelle Hall, which is open to the entire K community. Her book, Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story, will be available for $20 in the Book Club and can be paid for in cash or by check.

Butter was born Irene Hasenberg in 1930 in Berlin, Germany, and grew up as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe, where she lived with her parents, John and Gertrude; and her brother, Werner. She had friends in common with Anne Frank after moving to Amsterdam in 1937 when her dad accepted a job with American Express. There, her family felt safe from the growing threat of Nazis until Germany invaded in 1940.

Holocaust Survivor Irene Butter and Her Brother as Children
Holocaust survivor Irene Butter and her brother, Werner, as children.

Her grandparents, who were still in Germany, were taken to Theresianstadt concentration camp in 1942 and Butter never saw them again. Her immediate family was rounded up in 1943. She survived Camp Westerbork and Camp Bergen-Belsen before coming to the U.S., arriving in Baltimore in 1945.

Upon arrival, Butter was told not to talk about her experiences, so she focused on high school, graduating from Queens College in New York City, and becoming one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University. She married Charlie Butter and both became professors at the University of Michigan.

“I didn’t ask to go through the Holocaust,” she says on her website, “but I was saved through the miracles of luck and the love and determination of my Pappi (father). I owe it to him and everybody who suffered to talk about what I learned because suffering never ends, so our work must continue.”

Get Versed in National Poetry Month

If your knowledge of poetry is limited, April is the perfect time to expand your horizons and practice your writing. That’s because it’s National Poetry Month, and Assistant English Professor Oliver Baez Bendorf has creatively developed ways for students to hone their skills and develop their interests in poetry to celebrate.

Kayla Park National Poetry Month
Kayla Park read at the Belladonna* Collaborative Reading last spring. She interned with Belladonna*, an independent feminist avant-garde poetry press, through the New York Arts Program during the winter 2018 term at K.

Among his classes, Baez Bendorf teaches an advanced poetry workshop, which is participating in a 21-day challenge to write every day. Students are assigned poetry-inspired aliases and write about their praxis, or practice, of writing. “Writing about writing” might sound redundant, but its purpose is to help students learn about themselves, their influences and their processes to discover what inspires them.

Audrey Honig ’21, for example, is an English and religion major with a concentration in Jewish studies from Elmhurst, Illinois. She is writing erasure poems under the alias Lyra based on what she sees through social media. Erasure poetry erases words from an existing text in prose or verse and frames the result as a poem. The results can be allowed to stand on their own or arranged into lines or stanzas.

“I thought it would be interesting to bring what normally is a distraction into my writing,” said Honig, of the social media she analyzes. “I thought I wrote a lot before this class started, but I really wasn’t creating much. I was working on my writing, but I was mostly working on the editing process. Now I’m doing something small every day.”

Her biggest takeaway from the course has been how to better give and receive feedback to classmates and other writers.

“As students, we’re used to getting feedback when a professor might say, ‘This is a B,’” she said. “In this class, we’re really thinking about the specifics of what we’re doing as writers, so we can give honest and helpful feedback without tearing anyone down.”

For her 21-day challenge, Kayla Park ’19 selects a book at random off her shelf every day and writes a poem inspired by the last sentence on page 21 in that book.

Audrey Honig Recites During National Poetry Month
Audrey Honig presents during a class at Kalamazoo College’s Humphrey House. Honig is is writing erasure poems under the alias Lyra based on what she sees through social media.

Park, who writes under the alias Pegasus, earned a Heyl Scholarship when she matriculated at K to study within a science major, and she double majors in English and physics. She said she can see how a writing genre such as poetry helps make her a better scientist.

“When you continue doing a lot of work in one field and you get used to a certain mode of thinking, that’s beneficial in making you an expert in your subject, although you can also restrict your thought patterns that way,” she said. “In poetry, I’m expressing knowledge under a set of conventions that is different, but no less valuable than in science. Engaging with different modes of thinking helps me to see connections across disciplines and approach all situations from a broader point of view.”

The creativity poetry stirs for Park complements what she does with two a cappella groups at K, Premium Orange and A Cappella People of Color (ACAPOC), as well as with Frelon, the campus’ student dance company. It also helps her deal with her own perfectionism.

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, regardless of the assignment, I get hung up on making it perfect,” she said. “Forcing myself to write every day is beneficial in letting a little of that perfectionism go. It helps me write more freely and produce something that I can always go back and edit later.”

Baez Bendorf also offers an intermediate poetry workshop. That class this month is memorizing poems such as Truth Serum and 300 Goats by Naomi Shihab Nye and To Myself by Franz Wright with the goal of reciting them in May.

“We approach it as a kind of ultimate close reading of the work, and then aim to know it by heart, hopefully for a lifetime,” Baez Bendorf said.

National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It since has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers and poets celebrating poetry, according to the American Academy of Poetry.

The organization drew inspiration for National Poetry Month from Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, and it aims to highlight the legacies and ongoing achievements of American poets, encourage the public to read poems, and increase the number of poetry-themed stories in local and national media. Read more about National Poetry Month at the Academy of American Poets’ website.

K Professor Featured in Mormon Gay Marriage Documentary

A Kalamazoo College professor has a featured role in a documentary, premiering Sunday, about the improbable toppling of Utah’s gay marriage ban.

Taylor Petrey, associate professor of religion, says he gave an extensive interview to the makers of “Church and State” about the role of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Latter-day Saints in the fight against legalizing gay marriage.

Taylor Petrey Gay Marriage Documentary
Taylor Petrey, associate professor of religion, has a featured role in a documentary, premiering Sunday, about the improbable toppling of Utah’s gay marriage ban.

The movie, premiering at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, California, documents how a gay-rights activist teamed with a small Salt Lake City law firm to win an unexpected 2013 court ruling that overturned the conservative state’s law against same-sex marriage. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the ban the next October, gay marriage became legal in Utah. With a Supreme Court ruling in 2015, it became the law nationwide.

Utah is more than 60 percent Mormon, and “the conflict between Mormons and gay-rights activists became the defining issue of modern Mormonism,” Petrey says in a clip from the movie trailer.

In the interview for the movie, Petrey, who was raised in Utah and is a member of the church, addressed how Mormons, as they sought mainstream acceptance, moved from sanctioning an alternative form of marriage — polygamy, which they abandoned in 1890 — to adopting conservative positions on social issues that mirrored those of evangelical Christians.Church and State

Though he specializes at K in the history of ancient Christianity, he also studied the history of Mormonism and sexuality, and wrote about the issue during a 2016-17 stint as a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.

He says he first met one of the Utah-based producers of “Church and State,” Kendall Wilcox, five or six years ago during a previous project on gay Mormons. “We’ve been in touch off and on,” he says.

Wilcox’s partner in the production, Holly Tuckett, says that in the film–edited, coincidentally, by Kalamazoo native Torben Bernhard–Petrey appears repeatedly, serving as the main authority on the history and positions of the church on homosexuality and gay marriage.

“He helps contextualize all of that for us.” she says.

Petrey says the choice to use him as an expert on the subject was understandable.

“It’s a small world of Mormons who are interested in this stuff,” he says.

He hasn’t seen the movie and got his first glimpse of it when he watched the trailer online, he says. Set to be released to theaters late this summer, it was named as one of the documentary festival’s “10 must-see” films by The Desert Sun of Palm Springs.

“I guess I’ll see it when the rest of the world sees it in August,” Petrey says.

Armstrong Lecture to Focus on Religion, Racial Identity During Great Migration

As African Americans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants poured into northern U.S. cities during the early 20th century, religious movements arose that offered them new identities as descendants of the Arab culture of North Africa, members of the “Lost Tribe” of Israel or simply humans free of racial labels.

Armstrong Lecture Speaker Judith Weisenfeld
Judith Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University, will speak about her research as she delivers this year’s Kalamazoo College Armstrong Lecture at 7 p.m. Monday in the Olmsted Room at Mandelle Hall.

“While such groups frequently have been dismissed as cults and fringe elements, they gave people, then referred to as ‘negroes,’ a claim to something more exalted than a socioeconomic status tinged with the memory of slavery,” Judith Weisenfeld writes in “New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration.”

Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University, will speak about her research as she delivers this year’s Kalamazoo College Armstrong Lecture at 7 p.m. Monday in the Olmsted Room at Mandelle Hall.

Titled “Apostles of Race: Religion and Black Racial Identity in the Great Migration,” her talk will explore the intersection of religion and racial identity among the migrants from the South and immigrants from the Caribbean who encountered one another in cities such as New York, Chicago and Detroit. She will focus in particular on the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement, congregations of Ethiopian Jews and the Nation of Islam — all part of a quest among the urbanizing population for what Weisenfeld calls “new religious frameworks for understanding the black past and future.”

“New World A-Coming” was awarded the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions. Weisenfeld also authored “Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949,”  “African-American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905–1945,” and “This Far by Faith: Readings in African-American Women’s Religious Biography.” She received her bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and her master’s and Ph.D. from Princeton.

The Armstrong Lectures, hosted by the College’s Religion Department, are made possible by the Homer J. Armstrong Endowment in Religion, established in 1969 in honor of the Rev. Homer J. Armstrong, a longtime trustee of Kalamazoo College.