On Thursday September 5, 1996 President Greer (1992 – 2015) announced the creation of a center to promote religious freedom and understanding of different faiths. In a press conference, he said, “We have come here today as Jew and Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, to find common ground. . . .We've come here to celebrate the yearning of the human spirit to live in understanding, acceptance and peace.” From its beginning, the Center was seen as a vehicle for fostering education and mutual understanding in our increasingly diverse world.
The Center's founding Director, Dr. Catharine Cookson, brought together campus and community in engaging and meaningful partnerships, addressing community controversies and challenges head-on. She served until her death in 2004. In 2005, a memorial Peace Garden, located just outside the Center offices on the Virginia Wesleyan campus, was dedicated in her honor. Her successor, Dr. Paul Rasor, served as the Joan P. and Macon F. Brock Jr., Director of the Center from 2005 – 2014. Dr. Rasor focused on developing resources for the Center, specifically through building a collection of books that focus on religious freedom and developing funds for lectureships.
At the start of the fall 2014 semester, the Center welcomed Dr. Craig Wansink (Joan P. and Macon F. Brock Jr. Director), Ms. Kelly Jackson (Associate Director) and Dr. Eric Mazur (Center Fellow for Religion, Law, and Politics). The new team looks forward to engaging the campus and broader community to make a difference in how individuals communicate about and respect basic human rights, particularly those protected by the First Amendment.
The Center has received awards and grants from several local, regional, national and international organizations.
Rumi Forum Hampton Roads Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue Award
Presented to Center Director Paul Rasor in recognition of his ongoing work on behalf of interfaith dialogue in Hampton Roads (2008).
The Muslim Community of Tidewater
Recognized the Center for its "efforts to promote religious freedom for people of all faiths" and its "service to the cause of inter-religious understanding and harmony" (2004).
Joseph H. "Buddy" Strelitz Community Service Award
Given by the Jewish Community Center of South Hampton Roads to honor the NEXUS interfaith dialogue program, which the Center co-sponsors (2002).
Distinguished Merit Citation
Given by the National Conference for Community and Justice, Virginia Region, Tidewater Chapter, "in recognition and appreciation for continuing humanitarian contributions to the greater Tidewater community" (2001).
Human Rights Award
Given by the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission, for the Center's "support of human rights and intergroup understanding" (2001).
Given by the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars. The Fulbright program is designed to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and the peoples of the world through education and cultural exchange. The Center's Fulbright scholar was from the University of Haifa, Israel (2000).
25th Anniversary Virginia Foundation Award for Religion and the Humanities
Given by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, for the Center's accomplishments and contributions in bridging the gap between the academic and scholarly world and the public life of Virginians (1999).
The Center is grateful for the contribution the following grants have made to the Center's work.
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy Grants
Grants from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy partially funded the following programs:
- Religious Freedom and Political Conflict in America; spring 1998.
- The Bill of Rights, The Courts, and The Law; fall 1999.
- Religious/Freedom, Southern Style; spring 2001.
- For God and Country: Exploring the Relationship between Religion and Nationalism; spring 2002.
- Creationism, Evolution, and Intelligent Design: Religion and Science in the Public Schools; spring 2007.
- From Jamestown to Jefferson: The Evolution of Religious Authority in Colonial Virginia; fall 2007.
Virginia Arts Commission Grants
The Virginia Arts Commission helped fund the following performances by Claudia Stevens sponsored by the Center:
- Madame F; spring 2001.
- Dreadfully Sorry, Guys; spring 2004.
- A Table Before Me; spring 2006.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities
The Center's Spring 2004 Symposium Is Democracy a Dinosaur? was funded in part by a grant from the Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement (CLEC), a project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities intended to promote civic learning as a focus of academic inquiry. Virginia Wesleyan College was one of only seven (out of 137) colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan the University of Massachusetts, to receive CLEC grants.
The Zimmerman Program in Jewish History, Literature, and Culture
The Zimmerman Program in Jewish History, Literature and Culture, funded by a generous grant from Mr. Raymond Zimmerman, promotes understanding through the international exchange of ideas between Christians and Jews, in the hope of creating lasting friendships and expanding the boundaries of human wisdom, empathy and perception. The Center's grant contributed to the costs of bringing a Fulbright Scholar to Virginia Wesleyan College during the spring semester, 2000, as well as a visit by Virginia Wesleyan Professor Dr. Craig Wansink and two VWC students to Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the summer of 1999. The grant also enabled the Henry Clay Hofheimer Library of Virginia Wesleyan College to develop its Judaica book collection, and provided support for lectures by several visiting Jewish scholars from 1998 through 2001.
The Center makes sense in VIRGINIA. Since the late 1700s, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom has shaped Hampton Roads, even making Norfolk an attractive draw to Moses and Eliza Myers, the region’s first permanent Jewish residents. In more recent years, the religious diversity of Hampton Roads has become increasingly striking. Virginia is a very appropriate place to think about religious freedom.
The Center makes sense because of the WESLEYAN in Virginia Wesleyan College. Religious freedom has long been part of the Wesleyan tradition. In 2004 the United Methodist Church passed a specific resolution noting that “The United Methodist Church declares religious liberty, the freedom of belief, to be a basic human right. Religious liberty includes the freedom to doubt or to deny the existence of God, and to refrain from observing religious practices. . . . Our members have an obligation to speak out on behalf of those for whom such freedoms are denied.”
The Center makes sense because we are a COLLEGE. Although there are institutes like Baylor University’s J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and Washington University’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, VWC—as a liberal arts community—is able to leverage the entire college experience in bringing students to recognize the importance of religious freedom.
United Methodist Heritage
Religious freedom has always been part of the Methodist tradition. The United Methodist Church recognizes religious freedom as a basic human right for persons of all faiths. The Church's social principles support the separation of church and state and strongly condemn all forms of religious intolerance.
United Methodist Church Resolution on Religious Liberty
United Methodist Church Resolution on Separation of Church and State
United Methodist Church Social Principle on Church and State Relations
United Methodist Church Social Principle on Rights of Religious Minorities
The United Methodist Church declares religious liberty, the freedom of belief, to be a basic human right. Religious liberty includes the freedom to doubt or to deny the existence of God, and to refrain from observing religious practices. We believe it is the right of a person to be allowed to follow the call of conscience when it becomes impossible to live by both the dictates of the state and the decisions of faith.- United Methodist Church Resolution on Religious Liberty