Research from the Little Rock Congregations Study at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock shows that religious leaders in Little Rock are growing more concerned with the issue of race relations.
The Little Rock Congregations Study is led by UA Little Rock professors Rebecca Glazier, Gerald Driskill, and Kirk Leach, in consultation with the project’s Clergy Advisory Board, a group of eight clergy members in Little Rock who advise the Little Rock Congregations Study.
Glazier, a professor of political science, and her student researchers are surveying religious leaders over the summer as part of the 2020 study. After seeing the protests that enveloped the community after the death of George Floyd, Glazier turned to the data for answers.
Today, there are no longer any faith leaders in Little Rock who are responding that the issue of race relations is “moderately important” or “slightly important.” A recent look at the results shows that 30 percent of clergy identify the issue of race relations as “important,” while 70 percent identify it as “very important.”
“I think the clergy in Little Rock have been concerned about race relations for many years,” Glazier said. “We see a trend of increasing importance in this issue that has been going on for years. I think it reflects a growing awareness of this issue in our society. As we have seen more instances of police brutality caught on video, you see our society saying this is unacceptable. You’ve seen the Black Lives Matter movement grow. We’re seeing how important racial justice issues are.”
After hosting a Little Rock Religious Leaders Summit last year, the Little Rock Congregations Study research team decided they would more directly address questions of race and social justice during the 2020 study. Among other topics that faith leaders emphasized at the summit, racial division rose to the top again and again.
“When we look at the data we have collected over the years, they tell a story of a city that is deeply divided,” Glazier said. “Little Rock has a history of racial violence, segregation, red-lining, and hate. It is no surprise that the vast majority (86 percent) of 2020 responding clergy strongly agree or agree that ‘Little Rock has a problem with racial division.’”
Clergy, historically, have played an important role in civil rights in the United States in terms of mobilizing and healing. Many of the religious leaders participating in the study have talked about their roles as leaders in the current crisis.
“I think they can continue to play a very critical role at this moment in history,” Glazier said. “The clergy that I have been talking to for years have said we’ve heard a lot of talk about the need for social justice and better race relations, but we haven’t seen a lot of actions. I believe the religious leadership think now is the time to take more action. They are leading conversations across racial lines, holding meetings with police, protesters, and legislators, holding peaceful protests, and talking about working peacefully toward reconciliation. The call is very much to action and not just to words.”
During an interview with Pastor Billy Burris of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church, Burris recalled the many activities he participated in during a single day, which included a prayer call, an interview on a radio station, and a meeting with other pastors and the chief of police.
“We are just trying to help, trying to be a conduit, if you will, between law enforcement and the community, and doing what we can for the peaceful protests,” Burris said.
Hope remains strong among religious leaders in Little Rock that the situation will improve. Sixty percent of early clergy respondents agree or strongly agree that race relations are likely to improve in Little Rock in the future.
“Places of worship and people of faith have always played a powerful role in mobilizing people to fight for justice and in healing past wounds,” Glazier said. “The early results from our 2020 study reveal that there is still a lot of hope in our city. Communities of faith are key to making that happen.”
In the upper right photo, UA Little Rock professors and student researchers, from left, Gerald Driskill, Jessica Olson, Jasmine Pugh, Kaylyn Hager, and Rebecca Glazier are researching how partnerships between churches and nonprofit organizations can provide services to the community. Photo by Ben Krain.