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uconn_reads_logo_newThe University of Connecticut’s UConn Reads program has been created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.

We invite you to join us in reading this year’s book of choice and, over the coming year, participating in the conversation through an exciting series of discussion groups and other events and activities hosted by the University. We look forward to what is sure to be a stimulating and fulfilling conversation.


UConn Reads: The Power of ‘Amazing Grace’

Flowers spring up around a pile of coal. (iStock)

(Originally published in UConn Today on August 30, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.

On April 5, 2010, there was an explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine, near the little community of Montcoal, W.Va. Officials identified 25 miners who had been killed, but said there was a chance that four men were still alive inside the mine, in specially designed safety chambers.

A desperate four-day rescue effort commenced, in which people all over the state kept their porch lights burning day and night, and hung signs on front gates that said things like, “We Need Four Miracles.” Late on the night of April 9, then-Gov. Joe Manchin announced, in a small elementary school that served as a media base, that the four men’s bodies had been located. They had not been able to reach the shelters in time. It was the worst coal mine disaster in the United States in 40 years.

At the time, I was a reporter for the Associated Press. Although I had been transferred to the Raleigh bureau the month before the blast, I had spent the previous four years working in the news service’s Charleston, W.Va. office, about 30 miles north of Montcoal. Accordingly, my bosses dispatched me, along with many other reporters, photographers, and editors from the region, to cover the unfolding disaster.

When Manchin announced that Friday night that the four miners had been found dead, I filed an alert to the wire, added to the story as it developed, and then, when there was nothing more to do, I went outside and cried.

Saturday passed in a daze of grief, and when Sunday dawned I went to Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, the Catholic parish I attended when I lived in Charleston, hoping for some kind of comfort after the week’s awful events.

When Mass had ended and the congregation filed outside, I saw the precise opposite of comfort: a flying picket from the Westboro Baptist Church.

The tiny, Kansas-based group has become, over the years, something of a folk devil for people who want to invoke the presumed intolerance of Christians in a political argument. With their gleefully profane expressions of hatred, their desire to exploit any tragedy to publicize their loathsome message, and (let’s face it) their genuine media savvy, they’ve attracted far more attention than any group with a few dozen members should expect.

And there they were, three adults and about as many small children, waving placards that said “Thank God for Dead Miners,” “Miners in Hell” and, since they were outside a Catholic church, “Priests Rape Boys” and “The Pope is a Whore.” The leader of the small band, Shirley Phelps-Roper, was wearing the American and Vatican flags as a skirt, with both spattered in fake blood. She was chanting to the tune of “Country Roads,” the unofficial anthem of the state, replacing the original’s “Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water,” with “Miners’ bodies, blown to little pieces,” and the like.

About eight times as many counter-protesters had gathered across the street, which tends to happen when the Westboro Baptist Church comes to town. There were teenagers wearing homemade shirts with messages ranging from lofty (“Your god is false; Jesus loves”) to earthy (“Go home, douchebags”). Joining them were some punk rockers, members of Charleston’s gay community in camouflage baseball caps that said “PRIDE,” and, because no protest is complete without this, a shirtless hippie playing a didgeridoo.

Soon, worshipers from the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church came out from their service, with the priest and altar servers still in their cassocks, to stand alongside the people coming out of Sacred Heart, including the choir, which was singing “Ave Maria.” Coming down the street from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church were some well-dressed worshipers holding signs that said, “West Virginia is no place for hate.”

It was at that point that three or four miners arrived, spoiling for a fight. One of them leaned over a terrified-looking little boy in the Westboro group and bellowed in a voice that carried several blocks, “Hey! You’re going to hell, you know that? Hell-bound!” Police officers shifted their weight nervously, and Mayor Danny Jones, still in his track suit from a morning run along the Kanawha River, stood between the miners and the Westboro group, trying to prevent anyone from throwing a punch.

And then, someone began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Written in the 18th century by the English slave trader turned abolitionist John Newton, the hymn has long become something of a cliché, its title adorning everything from ad campaigns to a DC Comics super villain. But it’s also a song that, in a place like West Virginia, just about everyone knows, regardless of how long it’s been since they’ve sat in a pew, or whether they’ve ever been to church at all.

And so, before long, maybe 60 or 70 people – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, as the old saying goes; gay men in camouflage hats and miners in their work clothes; punk rockers and a church choir; the mayor in his track suit, the hippie with the didgeridoo, and even the police officers – were singing, loud enough to drown out the hateful chants of the Westboro group:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

The mistake here would be deciding that the people singing “Amazing Grace” represented “real” religion, with the Westboro church a counterfeit version. The truth is more complicated: there are real theological differences between the people that came together and sang that morning, which assuredly included atheists and agnostics as well as different varieties of Christian, that in some ways are just as profound and insurmountable as their differences with the Westboro group who, after all, are just as entitled to their version of faith as anyone else.

But to see people who normally have so little in common, whose differences would in many cases keep them from even acknowledging each other on the sidewalk during a regular day, stand together in the street and sing John Newton’s old hymn, was to understand, at once, the concept that underlies so much religious faith: transcendence.

For a few minutes on Quarrier Street in Charleston, W.Va., in 2010, on the Sunday of a week that spilled grief and sorrow all across that little state, that transcendence was real. As long as I live, I hope I never forget what it felt like.

UConn Reads: Religion and the Promise of the United States

 George Washington from the National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans, Vol. I, 1862. (iStock Image)

(Originally published in UConn Today on August 30, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

On July 28, at the Democratic National Convention, Khzir and Ghazala Khan delivered a speech about their middle son, Humayan, who was killed in the line of duty in 2004. As his father eloquently recounted, Capt. Khan was stationed at a guard post in Baqubah, Iraq; spotting a suspicious vehicle, he ordered his subordinates to stay back as he moved to investigate. His suspicions were tragically confirmed: the truck contained 200 pounds of explosives; when it detonated, he along with its two drivers were killed immediately.

Mr. Khan – in recollecting his son’s passing – was quite pointed in his critique of Donald Trump, who just a week earlier had accepted the Republic nomination for president. Immediately following the retelling of his son’s sacrifice, Mr. Khan noted that heroes like his son would never have had the opportunity to serve their country had the presumptive candidate’s policies concerning the wholesale banning of Muslim immigration to the United States already been in place.

The bereaved father then delivered the following admonition: “Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of the law’ …. Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.”

While much attention has been paid to the Khan family’s critique of Donald Trump, and much of the discussion has rightly involved the politics of xenophobia alongside the polemics of Islamophobia, it is Khan’s engagement with religious freedom that has the most relevance to this year’s UConn Reads theme – “Religion in America” – and the committee’s selection, Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

Khan’s invocation of “liberty” in conjunction with “all faiths, genders, and ethnicities” potently and provocatively attests to both the nation’s past and present.

Although it is widely known that Puritans came to the colonies seeking freedom from religious persecution, and despite the oft-accessed First Amendment clause that stresses “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” what is less apparent is how religious freedom played a key role in the administration of the nation’s first president.

In 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, R.I., and met with representatives from many religious denominations. Among those was Moses Seixas, who led one of the first Jewish congregations in Newport. At issue was the question of religious freedom at the federal level. At the time, requirements for citizenship varied greatly. In Rhode Island, Jewish subjects were protected from discrimination, yet were unable to vote or become naturalized citizens.

Soon after that fateful meeting, the first president composed a “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport.” In it, Washington stressed, “The citizens of the United States of America … All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship …. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as it were the indulgence of one class of people.”

Washington’s insistence on spiritual freedom as the basis of American selfhood would take legislative form in the passage of the first federal naturalization law that year, which – despite carrying the problematic proviso of “free white persons” – established access to U.S. citizenship regardless of religion or creed. This particular account figures keenly in Patel’s Sacred Ground, which contemplates through religious freedom, interfaith coalition, and pluralistic affiliation the broad-minded promise of the United States.

UConn Reads: An Act of Kindness

(Originally published in UConn Today on July 20, 2016. The link to that story is as follows:

Painting of an attic view drawn by a Jewish teenager while in hiding during the Holocaust. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eva Schloss)

Throughout my youth, my maternal grandfather bestowed his personal philosophies on me through tales of his experiences in Europe. A survivor of the Holocaust, he often recounted life as a Jewish partisan in Eastern Europe, and the kind gestures of gentile friends and strangers who saved his life by offering him food or shelter.

One of his stories in particular stands out in my memory, a story that began before the breakout of World War II when, as he would recall, God gave him the medicine he needed before he was sick.

As a young man in the Ukraine, my grandfather was the director of a petroleum wholesaler, rationing out gas and oil. Once, a woman came to him asking for more than her ration allowed. At first he turned her down, but then – not knowing why – he changed his mind and gave the woman a barrel of oil.

When war came, he was hidden in attics and basements and given food by former employees and friends, and he moved in and out of the ghetto, planning and hiding in the surrounding forests. One day with almost a year left before Soviet liberation, as he and another man moved from house to house looking for safe haven they arrived at a home with a familiar face: the gentile woman once in need of oil.

While she asked my grandfather’s companion to check on her cow in the barn, she quickly told my grandfather that she remembered him and his past generosity. She then hid him in her home among her two daughters and grandson for the remaining nine months of the war.

Of the few thousand Jews who lived in the area before the war, only a hundred or so survived. My grandfather attributed his survival to luck and the reciprocated kindness of friends and strangers.

After the war, he met and married my grandmother, who survived the Holocaust with her mother and sisters in Poland, and began a new family, immigrating to the United States in 1949.

Once their children and grandchildren were old enough to understand, my grandparents told us their personal stories of the Holocaust, hoping that we would understand the power of hate and kindness to do evil or good. My grandfather was not a religious man, and he had not been allowed to attend Hebrew School before the war in the Soviet Union, but he believed in a living God – one who gave him the sense to offer kindness that would save him in his eventual time of need.

Two decades after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech in South Africa at the University of Cape Town, warning the students in attendance against the “danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” Kennedy continued, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

He pointed out that thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” he said, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Near the end of the first chapter of Sacred Ground, the 2016-17 UConn Reads selection, Eboo Patel recalls the actions of John Tateishi, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, who worked to protect American Muslims following the attacks of 9/11 by recalling a sense of gratitude towards the people who had stood up for Japanese Americans during World War II.

“The most American thing you can do,” Patel concludes, “is stand up for someone else.”

The philosophy of kindness and courage exhibited by my grandfather and his protector, by Robert F. Kennedy, and by John Tateishi can be the legacy of America, a nation of immigrants, refugees, and the once- and now-marginalized peoples of the world, dedicated to improving the lives of others, resisting the waves of hate and ignorance and fear, and striving always for a more perfect union.

Brandon Murray is on the staff of the Provost’s Office and is a member of the UConn Reads Steering Committee.

UConn Reads 2016-2017: Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground

UConn Reads 2017 book, Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel on May 16, 2016. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

(Story was published on May 18, 2016 in UConn Today. See

One year ago, in May 2015, the Pew Research Center published a series of reports, “America’s Changing Landscape,” focused on Americans’ shifting religious affiliations. At the time, the Center’s findings drew scrutiny and surprise: an unprecedented number of U.S. adults averred that they “do not identify with any religion, while a shrinking majority describe themselves as Christians.”

Subsequent reports issued by the Pew Center laid bare changing attitudes about religious observance and secularization, alongside the growth of an identifiable “religiously unaffiliated population.”

While many news outlets contemplated and decried a seemingly unprecedented loss of American religiosity, perhaps most telling was a series of facts that accentuate demographic shifts and a largely under-examined spiritual diversity. For example, according to a previous Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, more than half of U.S. adults – 51.3 percent – identified as Protestants in 2007; seven years later, in 2014, that figure had dropped to 46.5 percent, or fewer than half of Americans who considered themselves Protestant, a significant first for this previously-held “majority Protestant nation.”

More and more Americans are “religious switching” between traditions and faiths; and, just as important, while Christians continue to comprise a firm majority of members in Congress, U.S. religious groups and denominations exhibit a wide range of racial and ethnic diversity, consistent with the “changing face of America.”

Despite such diversification – evident in the multiplicity of ethnic, racial, and religious identities that substantiate characterizations of the United States as a multicultural nation – the United States has yet to fully live up to its potential as an unequivocal “promised land.” In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported that roughly 60 percent of reported anti-religious hate crimes involved Jewish Americans; and anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently five times more common than before the Sept. 11 attacks.

As church shootings (e.g., Charleston, S.C. in 2015), mosque vandalisms (nationwide), and Wisconsin Sikh temple attacks (such as in 2012) bring to light, anti-religious bias is often intermingled with profound racism and unfettered xenophobia. Such unsettling religious politics are by no means limited to isolated neighborhoods and seemingly faraway ethnic enclaves: indeed, presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s call to ban the Muslims traveling to the United States has entered the mainstream political debate.

Given the current state of America’s “religious landscape,” it is fitting that this year’s UConn Reads selection is Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (2012). After the initial call for nominations was issued in March, the committee received a number of very strong recommendations from the UConn community; Sacred Ground was chosen after much discussion and deliberation.

Beginning with the increased animosity toward Muslim Americans and situated within the context of post-9/11 public discourse, Patel deconstructs the politics of Islamophobia by insisting that such religious-based discrimination militates against core American ideals and values. From George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr., Patel explores U.S. history and American pluralism through the actions of such “interfaith leaders;” he likewise attends to their lessons of interfaith activism in order to offer a more hopeful way forward in an admittedly complicated and convoluted contemporary moment. As this brief description underscores, Sacred Ground’s contemplation of spiritual pluralism, anti-religious prejudice, and national promise corresponds directly to this year’s theme of “Race in America.”

Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit committed to making interfaith cooperation a social norm by engendering faith-oriented action campaigns and dialogues; most recently, Patel serves as a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. In addition to Sacred Ground, Patel is author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007) and Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action.

The UConn Reads program was created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.

To give your suggestions for UConn Reads programming or for more information on starting your own UConn Reads reading group, contact the 2015-2016 UConn Reads Selection Committee Chair Cathy Schlund-Vials at


UConn Reads Announces 2016-2017 Theme: Religion in America

Launched by President Susan Herbst in 2011 and envisioned as a means of engendering campus-wide discussion and dialogue, the UConn Reads initiative has consistently featured books that both engage the diverse viewpoints of our university community and refract contemporary issues and debates. From Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, UConn Reads has unfailingly reflected present-day concerns over human rights, class inequalities, gender disparities, and environmental catastrophes. Continuing in the provocative vein of its predecessors, this year’s selection – Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow – prompted much needed conversation and reflective dialogue about race, racial oppression, and systemic racism.

Building on the success of this year’s “Race in America” focus, the UConn Reads Steering Committee has selected next year’s theme: “Religion in America.” Founded as a haven from religious persecution and envisioned as an asylum of spiritual tolerance, the United States is not surprisingly home to a number of different faiths and diverse denominations; nevertheless, as the increase in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic crimes makes clear, religion remains a contested and central issue in contemporary American life. The UConn Reads Selection Committee seeks nominations that reflect this upcoming year’s “church and state” focus; while remaining open to multiple types of nominations, the Committee will not consider specific religious texts (e.g., the Bible or the Quran).  Instead, the Committee will consider novels, non-fiction, poetry, and graphic novels.

In the interest of expanding the purview and reach of the UConn Reads program, this year’s nomination process will take place over the remaining spring semester (2016).  The final decision will be publicized the first week of May (2016). Please submit your nominations at the link below:

Please direct any and all questions to Cathy Schlund-Vials (