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(By Summer Ballentine for  Community members and students gathered Wednesday to hear speakers discuss issues facing the African American religious community.

The annual Black Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century Conference began Wednesday afternoon at Kellogg Center in Michigan and ends at about 1 p.m. Friday.

The conference has been held for five years. The theme this year is social justice.

“We’re in a world now where in order to have social justice you’ve got to have community engagement,” Conference Chairwoman Gloria Stephens Smith said.

“We have to engage and empower the community.”

Religious leaders, professors and others will speak about topics including women and religion and spirituality, Islam in America and community engagement.

Yvonne Delk, director of the Center for African American Theological Studies in Chicago, spoke during the conference Wednesday about African American women’s role in society and religion.

“We have internalized the oppression,” Delk said.

“The question we are struggling with is how we find our way.”

The goals of the conference include exploring the impact of faith on the African American community and the ways different faiths are responding to modern problems and opportunities.

Smith said it is important to understand the multiplicity of religion within the African American society.

“Not all African Americans are Baptists, not all are Catholics, not all are Muslims,” Smith said.

“We need to be able to describe and understand diversity within the faith. This provides an opportunity for people of various faiths to talk about (how) they are addressing these challenges.”

Another goal of the conference is to create a network of support.

“We hope to provide a network of academics, practitioners and community members,” Smith said. “We need each other. No one can do it alone.”

Often, academia and communities operate in separate spheres, which prevents them from making significant progress, Smith said.

Smith said she hopes this conference will help forge a relationship between these groups.

“Many times the academy goes out to the community and wants to do research without getting input from the community,” Smith said. “Sometimes the community can be very helpful.”

Mathematics freshman Mary Catherine Kwilos listened to civil rights activist Juanita Abernathy and Delk speak during the conference.

Kwilos said she was interested in Abernathy’s presentation because she is “living history.”

Abernathy was directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement and protested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“She is a primary source from the church and how women were involved,” Kwilos said. “History books would not tell you that.”

Kwilos was one of the few students who attended the events Wednesday afternoon.

“I think it’s sad there were so few people,” Kwilos said.

“(The speakers) have so much history and wisdom, I feel like we could learn a lot from them.”

Smith said the conference offers many opportunities for educating students and other members of the community.

“It’s a widening of their horizon,” Smith said.

“It’s a boundary expansion opportunity for students, faculty and the community.”

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