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Prominent scholars will explore the current and future impact of the black church during a time of deep divisions in race, culture and religion at a Vanderbilt Divinity School conference April 3-5.

Vanderbilt’s Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies will host “The Black Church’s 11th Hour: The Promise of Our Ideals and the Realities of Our Time.”

“When one reflects upon the significance of this year – 2013 – it marks a particularly bittersweet moment in the history of the African American experience in the United States,” said Forrest Harris, assistant professor of ministry and director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies. He noted that 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. It is also the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

“Even prominent scholars of African American religion, thought and culture like Eddie Glaude, have argued, ‘The black church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead,’” Harris said. “Yet, for many of its faith practitioners, the black church still is a necessary institution for black social uplift and spiritual empowerment that evokes a sense of needed affirmation, peoplehood and the prospects of social transformation.”

The conference, free and open to the public, starts April 3 with the opening lecture by James H. Cone, the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. His books include Black Theology & Black PowerGod of the Oppressed, and Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream of a Nightmare? Cone’s latest work,The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is also the title of his campus lecture, which will be in Benton Chapel at 7 p.m.

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