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Marthe Hesselmans – “Untangling Race, Religion, and Ethnicity in South Africa: A Community Effort”

April 28, 2015 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

This event will now take place on Tuesday, April 28th in 301M Fayerweather.

Untangling Race, Religion, and Ethnicity in South Africa: A Community Effort

Once a pillar of South Africa’s apartheid system, the Dutch Reformed Church has in recent years become the scene of a remarkable transformation process. It now claims to promote diversity rather than ethnic exclusivism, and encourages communities to bridge their divides and merge into one interracial and multiethnic church.  Marthe Hesselmans, PhD Candidate at Boston University and Visiting Research Scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, explores the depth of this transformation against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa. How do church communities seek to adapt to the new “rainbow” society, and to what extent are they able to untangle their entrenched religious-ethnic and racial affiliations?

In this presentation, Hesselmans will be zooming in on two stories of integration that she encountered during her field research in South Africa in 2014. One pertains to a conservative rural setting in which black and white villagers have begun collaborations in an attempt to sustain their rapidly declining church communities. The other involves a progressive urban congregation determined to shed its white segregationist past and become multicultural. Both stories exhibit the ambiguous role of religion in processes of social change. The church provides key language and rituals for racial reconciliation. Yet, it remains for many South Africans a last bastion to gather with people of their own identity group, not because of the law, but by choice.

An audio recording of this event is now available here.

Marthe Hesselmans portraitMarthe Hesselmans is a PhD Candidate at Boston University, currently living in New York. Her research investigates religious responses to globalization and diversity. For her dissertation, she studies the remarkable transition of South Africa’s Reformed churches away from the rigid racial segregation they long endorsed. She seeks to unearth strategies through which these church communities now try to overcome their deep-seated divisions over race, class and ethnicity. Besides South Africa, she has studied Muslim migrant communities in Western Europe, including her native country the Netherlands, as well as racial integration processes in American church life. Throughout these studies she looks at how faith intersects with often exclusive national or ethnic identities and the historic narratives and social hierarchies in play here. She worked on communal conflict and issues of gender, religion and ethnicity at the Social Science Research Council and various other nonprofit organizations. She holds an MA in History and an MA in Peace building for which she conducted field research on mediation techniques in the Middle East. She has been an Earhart Fellow from 2010 to 2014.


April 28, 2015
12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
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