The Confluence project
by Rabia Gregory, Associate Professor of Religious Studies
How do humanities scholars contribute to the mission of a Land Grant University?
Building on work started in 2017 to develop a systematic method for maintaining awareness of issues of religious diversity in our classrooms and across our state, in 2019, a group of faculty and students in Religious Studies and Black Studies at the University of Missouri began planning a celebration of Missouri’s religious diversity as part of the state’s Bicentennial that we named the Confluences project. I want to introduce you to the incredible work of three recent graduates of the University of Missouri whose contributions to this project were funded by the Missouri Humanities Council.
Then-undergraduate researcher assistants Cameron Fenton, Tessi Muskrat Rickabaugh, and Caleb Sewell conducted original research across Missouri to recover discarded narratives of Missouri’s religious diversity and bring a more holistic understanding of religions to Missourians. The opportunity to conduct original research as an undergraduate can be transformative; all three of our research assistants are starting graduate school or planning to apply for admission this year.
Cameron documented the Marian Days festival in Carthage Missouri. Though the festival was canceled due to Covid-19 in 2021, in 2022 he was able to attend the festival and learn more about its significance for identity formation for Vietnamese-Americans from across the U.S. Carthage has become an anchor for the Vietnamese American community, a site where they are re-united with long-lost friends, distant relatives, and build their religious identities.
Tessi’s research considered how museums manage sacred and ceremonial Indigenous artifacts. Through her study of the purchase and display of recovered the history a sweetgrass basket made by “little hands” which is now part of the Harry L. George collection of Native American artifacts in St. Joseph, Missouri. She was able to place the basket within the history of the Carlisle Indian School (PA) and situate the basket’s history within her own family’s history and questions of what it means and meant to be “Indian” in Missouri.
Caleb studied the life of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the first Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. of African descent. Born in Ralls County, MO, Tolton was ordained in 1886 and is currently being considered for canonization. Caleb linked Father Tolton’s life to a conversation about religious diversity today, showing how the challenges Tolton faced as being Black and Christian continue to shape the Black Church in America.
Other aspects of the project include a study of the role of religions during the cholera, influenza, and covid-19 pandemics in Missouri. Using both historical examples and contemporary events, graduate student researchers Emily Murray and Faiza Rais showed that religions influence individual attitudes towards community, healthcare, and science-based medicine.
The Confluences project had originally planned to share our research through public events including an in-person conference in Columbia, but our plans were foiled by the covid-19 pandemic. Instead, in October of 2021 we held an online conference on Religion and Health in the American Heartland. Despite the temporary closure of museums and libraries and the postponed on of religious festivals, we are currently working to complete an edited book summarizing our research and showing how, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the South and Midwest, the Ozarks and the prairies, America’s religions flow together and are remade in Missouri.
To learn more about the team working on this project check out https://car.missouri.edu/confluences.