On January 8, 2022, the Starr King community gathered on Zoom for our 10th annual Symposium. This year’s theme was “Co-Creating a Just Digital Future.”
This year we were thrilled to have Dr. Sylvester Johnson as our Honored Teacher!
Dr. Johnson is Assistant Vice Provost for the Humanities and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative advancing human-centered approaches to technology at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities, which is supporting human-centered research and humanistic approaches to the guidance of technology. Sylvester’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race governance. He is a member of the Religion and Culture faculty and a design-team faculty member in the socio-technical, transdisciplinary Calhoun Discovery Program at Virginia Tech. In addition to co-facilitating a national working group on religion and US empire, he led an Artificial Intelligence project that developed a successful proof-of-concept machine learning application to ingest and analyze a humanities text.
Sylvester is the author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000 (Cambridge 2015), an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (University of California 2017) and Religion and US Empire (appearing from NYU Press in 2022). He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. Sylvester is writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis. And he leads “Future Humans, Human Futures” at Virginia Tech, a series of research symposia funded by the Henry Luce foundation that focus on technology, ethics, and religion.
The morning began with introductory slides of the day’s participants paired with music by Jenn Johns. After a quick technical introduction by Rev. Dr. Chris Schelin (Dean of Students), Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini (Dean of Faculty) shared words of welcome. Current Starr King student Joe Gabaeff led the group in a land acknowledgment before our traditional chalice and candle lightings by Pastor Jacqueline Duhart (Director of Spiritual Care) and SKSM student Ellen Plummer.
Our ritualists for the day, Rev. Amelia Mu’mina Marie, Badia Askari, E.N. Hill, and Rev. Jennifer Cassady (ministers from Dare to Bless the Love), led small groups in a morning ritual, including breath exercises, inviting the ancestors, and chants. Dr. Johnson was then awarded the Litterarum Humanarum Doctor (Doctor of Humane Letters) by Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt (Starr King President) and Starr King Board Chair Ted Fetter.
In his keynote lecture, Dr. Johnson examined the relationship between treating people as objects (the history of slavery) and perceiving personhood in things (talking to Siri) in order to ponder the technological future of humanity.
After lunch, Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini moderated a panel discussion on “Visions of a Just Future in Science Fiction.” Panelists included Dr. Monica Coleman (University of Delaware Faculty), Dr. Som Pourfarzaneh (Starr King Faculty), and Ayize Jama-Everett (Starr King Adjunct Faculty).
Participants took a short break before they were split up into Starr King faculty-led breakout rooms to integrate the ideas presented in pre-event materials, the keynote address, and the sci-fi panel.
When we gathered all together again, Dr. Som Pourfarzaneh shared an exciting announcement: the creation of the Center for Multi-Religious Studies (CMRS) at Starr King! The first of its kind, the CMRS will offer graduate-level courses, research, symposia, and public programs that advance scholarship and dialogue about multi-religious spiritual formation, ritual arts, education, and their interrelated dimensions. Click here to learn more.
During our closing, we were blessed by the voice of musician and activist Jenn Johns as she sang two of her original songs live on Zoom. Our ritualists led small groups in a closing ritual that included a breath exercise, an introduction to embodied practice, reflection questions, and a blessing and sharing of food.
The day ended with closing words from President Rosemary Bray McNatt and a blessing from Pastor Jacqueline Duhart.
Visions of a Just Future in Science Fiction Discussion Panelists
Monica A. Coleman (she/her) is Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware. She spent over ten years in graduate theological education at Claremont School of Theology, the Center for Process Studies and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Coleman has earned degrees from Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. Answering her call to ministry at 19 years of age, Coleman is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and an initiate in traditional Yoruba religion.
Dr. Coleman brings her experiences in evangelical Christianity, black church traditions, global ecumenical work, and indigenous spirituality to her discussions of theology and religion.
Dr. Coleman is the author or editor of six books, and several articles that focus on the role of faith in addressing critical social and philosophical issues. Her memoir Bipolar Faith shares her life-long dance with trauma and depression, and how she discovers a new and liberating vision of God. Her book Making a Way Out of No Way is required reading at leading theological schools around the country. Dr. Coleman is co-host of the webinar series Octavia Tried to Tell Us: Parable for Today’s Pandemic, addressing today’s pressing issues with insights from Afrofuturist literature, process theology and community values.
Coleman’s strength comes from the depth of her knowledge base and from her experiences as a community organizer, survivor of sexual violence and as an individual who lives with a mental health challenges. Coleman speaks widely on mental wellness, navigating change, religious diversity, mental wellness, and religious responses to intimate partner violence.
Dr. Som Pourfarzaneh (he/him) is the Assistant Professor of Islamic and Digital Media Studies at Starr King School for the Ministry. He holds a Ph.D. in Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, and was part of the first cohort to graduate from Starr King’s Master of Arts in Social Change (MASC) program in its inaugural year. He also holds a B.A. in Integrative Biology from the University of California, Berkeley.
Pourfarzaneh’s academic work focuses on Islam and Media, Muslims in America, Anthropology of Islam, Digital and Social Media, Social Justice, Cultural Production, Interreligious Dialogue, and Multi-Religious Identity. Outside of the academy, he has also written and worked for high-profile entertainment companies and editorial websites such as Electronic Arts, Perfect World Entertainment, Modus Games, and MMORPG.com, and is the author of four books and three games
Ayize Jama-Everett (he/him) holds three Master’s degrees: Divinity, Psychology, and in Fine Arts, Writing. He blends these degrees in all his work, often identifying as a guerilla theologian, a community-based therapist, and an afro-futurist in the same breath. He’s taught at Starr King School for the Ministry, California College of the Arts, The University of California, Riverside, and a host of private High schools for over twenty years. His expertise includes working with adolescents, the history of substance use in the United States, the history of Sacred Plant medicines in the Maghreb, the religious roots of political violence from Ireland to the Middle east, educational arts pedagogy, and Afrofuturism. He’s published three novels and one graphic novel. His shorter works can be found in the LA Review of Books, The Believer, and Racebaitr. He is a Board member of the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, leading their initiative to look at the role of psychedelics in the mental health of People of color and poor people.
Ritualists – Dare to Bless the Love
Rev. Amelia Mu’mina Marie (she/her) is a spiritual activist and someone who has long entered the world through movement. Inspired and called to serve people on their unique paths to healing, exploration, and greater understanding and awareness of Divine loving relationship, Amelia prepared for and was ordained to Multi-Religious ministry on September 10th, 2016. She received Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Social Change degrees from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is honored to have studied, practiced with, and worshiped at the feet of some extraordinary humans along the way: Dr. Liza Rankow, Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje, Rev. Chris Fry, Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt, Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini, Swaminiji Saraswati, Jiwon Chung, and Govindas among them – Huuuuuuu
Rev. Amelia has been practicing yoga for 25 years now and became a certified Bhakti yoga teacher after finding her home in this tradition of “love, service, and devotion.” Amelia weaves mystic Christian and Chishti Sufi dervish strands of self-identity together with her Bhakti devotional practices and feels most true and complete in her life with the Beloved by inhabiting this particular intersection of spirituality and religious living. Also a former professional dancer, Certifying Instructor for Pilates Academy International, and studio owner, Amelia has been teaching classes, small groups, workshops, and one-on-ones for 17 years in: NYC, the Bay Area, on outer Cape Cod, and in Los Angeles – incorporating a wide variety of spiritual practices and movement disciplines into her offerings.
Badia Askari (she/her) is an educator, justice advocate, poet, dream interpreter, mother of five, and a spiritual counselor. Badia has been an educator for over 20 years, including religious education at two Islamic schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Since the age of 16, Badia has been a disciple of Shaykh Hassan Cissé, the preeminent spiritual leader of the Tijaniyya Sufi order and now ascended master. She studied Quran and sufi tradition under his guidance in Senegal, West Africa. Her most recent studies include mind and spirit explorations of the Lotus Sutra, A Course in Miracles, Bahai texts, Goddess training with a focus on Orishas, Shakti, Voodoo Queens, and other manifestations of the Divine Feminine. With an enthusiastic yes, Badia has accepted her Divine calling to be of service to Love and aspires to be ordained with Dare to Bless the Love. Badia describes her ministry as a “Joy ministry of mindfulness, magic, and mysticism.” Badia’s Ministry of Joy emanates from nature spaces of trees, free flowing water, wind, and creatures of earth, sea and sky. Her spiritual practices and offerings are multi-religious, and call on the divine beings, guiding spirits, and teachings revered in Islam, Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, West African Vodun, Ho’oponopono practice, the Bahai faith, and the Divine Feminine. Alongside her husband E.N. Hill, she is a co-founder of BE, an entrepreneurial ministry created to empower people of the African Diaspora. Badia’s personal transformative journey through sexual & emotional abuse, and domestic violence ignites her passion to be of service to youth and women who contend with the same or similar issues.
E.N. Hill (all pronouns accepted) is a military veteran, a social justice activist, a spoken word artist, and an aspiring Unitarian Universalist minister. After serving as an Air Force Aviator and Senior leader for 15 years, E.N. separated honorably from active duty to pursue full-time theological education. In the Spring of 2020, they graduated from Starr King School for the Ministry with a Masters of Divinity focusing on multi-religious leadership. Upon completing ordination and internship requirements, E.N. plans to re-enter the military as a Army Reserve Chaplain. They also intend to pursue co-ministry with their wife, Badia Askari, to offer spiritual support and resources to various communities in their local Tallahassee area, as well as on-line. Together, they founded BE, an entrepreneurial ministry that promotes a bold culture of radical self-love within the Black community and beyond. When not serving the community, E.N.’s hobbies include spending time in nature, reading, listening to music, running, and journaling. In the near future, E.N. plans to publish an anthology of poetry and short stories detailing their mystical journey through seminary.
Rev. Jennifer Cassady (she/her) is an activist and a multi-religious interfaith community minister. At Inspire Sierra Health Center she provides case management, pastoral counseling, advocacy, and leads therapeutic groups and educational workshops. She spent several years helping to grow the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, functioning as a director, advocate, case manager, friend, housing specialist, and community educator. Jennifer strives to take a harm reduction strength based relationship focused approach with all whom she is fortunate enough to interact. Jennifer sees herself as a keeper of the sacred amidst the commonplace. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Reno, Nevada, her Master of Arts in Social Change from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA, and was ordained with Dare to Bless the Love. Jennifer cherishes her time playing with and learning from her three children and her grandchild. Jennifer has a passion for creating compassionate community and countering oppression. With her ministry she hopes to create a more just and sustainable life for all of our neighbors.
Jenn Johns is a powerhouse, vocalist, songwriter, producer, activist, and entrepreneur who creates sounds, experiences, and products that are sure to stir your soul, inspire your mind and move your body.
Ms. Johns has taken her brand of “afro-diasporic world music” all over the globe, rocking stages from Denver to Dusseldorf, Los Angeles to London, Kuala Lumpur to Kampala. Jennifer has shared line ups with some of the best in the business including the likes of Ms. Lauryn Hill, The Black Eyed Peas, Mos Def, Capelton, Ziggy Marley, Gil Scott Heron, Wyclef, Les Nubian, De La Soul, and Common to name just a few. Click here to learn more about Jenn Johns.