Interfaith Center to Celebrate Religious Diversity, Spiritual Development
Oct 1, 2021
by Bobbie Stewart Noloboff
In 1964, when the doors of historically white churches in St. Augustine remained closed to African Americans, the entry to 132 Oviedo Street — then the Church of Christ - ushered in a new era of worship. For the first time in the city's history, white and Black congregants prayed together, beneath the same roof, shoulder to shoulder.
James Cook, a civil rights lawyer and former resident of St. Augustine who lived across the street from the church at that time, witnessed the historic moment.
“I remember sitting on my porch at 137 Oviedo Street on a Sunday morning when the church was letting out and I saw two or three (as I recall) African-American visitors emerge from the church walking among the other church members with no particular drama,” he said. “It appeared to me that the visitors were welcome to be there and intermingled with the crowd.”
Nearly six decades later and after serving as home to various religious denominations, the Oviedo site will assume a new identity next year apropos of its legacy: the Joseph G. and Susan Joyner Interfaith Center. Students of all faiths will have an opportunity to nurture both the inner, quiet growth that emerges from contemplation and the shared enlightenment that springs from robust dialogues and events focused on religious diversity. Joyner, who retired this year as Flagler's fourth president, is elated that there will be a dedicated space on campus that promotes spirituality and symbolizes unity over division.
“These days people want to label you and put you in a box, and that just creates more divisiveness,” he said. “There is a way to have respect and dignity for all people. In many ways churches can be very segregated places, but my (life) experiences helped me to realize the commonality of our faith. Flagler did not have a place on-campus to reflect on these issues. A new interfaith center will be special for students.”
As of August, generous donors committed nearly $500,000 towards renovating the Oviedo site. Rick Groux, chairman of the College's Board of Trustees, helped promote the fundraising campaign.
“For my wife, Leigh Ann, my daughter Margaret and I, we really believed that supporting the Interfaith Center was a perfect way to honor Joe and Susan Joyner for their service to Flagler College,” he said. “Most folks that have the opportunity to interact with Joe and Susan will soon recognize that their positive interaction with people is based on their strong faith. The opportunity to help refurbish the current facility into an Interfaith Center also is a statement for the importance of the spiritual side of our humanity, and the importance to nurture that on campus for all.”
The Interfaith Center is the product of years of planning by various campus stakeholders: Dr. Timothy Johnson, Craig and Audrey Thorn Distinguished Professor of Religion, was instrumental in laying the foundation and demonstrating the value of spiritual development on Flagler's campus. Dr. Sandra Miles, former vice president of Student Affairs, outlined ways the Interfaith Center could support the programming needs of a diverse student population. The center was also included in the College's Strategic Plan 2025 as a priority for cultivating a vibrant campus community.
The center will be managed jointly by the College's Offices of Academic Affairs and Diversity and Inclusion.
Kelly Toaston, who was recently named Flagler's chief diversity officer, said the center will play a pivotal role in highlighting the importance of reflection in the student's journey — an approach that underscores the College's commitment to nourishing student development holistically.
“The center will be a place where quiet reflection becomes part of a cultural dynamic to help our students transition through the academic phases of their lives and into their next stages,” she said.
Equally important to student growth is active, productive engagement across lines of difference. Dr. Art Vanden Houten, Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs, hopes the new center will be a place that cultivates mutual respect and discovery amidst diversity.
“In my view, campuses should always be about great conversation, and those conversations can evolve honest, spirited disagreement, and that's not a threatening thing,” he said. “It's a valuable thing that can ideally transcend the vitriol, but at the same time be a place for learning and engagement from people of different points of view and perspectives.”
The renovated space will include a large gathering sanctuary, stage, two classrooms and offices. It will serve as a resource repository on many faith expressions and will provide a space to host a weekly Bible Study and celebrate events like Ash Wednesday, the Feast of Passover, Kwanzaa, Eid al Fitr, Baháʼí, Gospel Explosion, Altar Workshops and the Lunar New Year. Faith-based student organizations will also call it home. The renovation of the Interfaith Center will be made possible through the support of generous donors. For more information on getting involved with the College's ongoing fundraising campaign for this project, please contact the Office of Institutional Advancement at 904-819-6437, firstname.lastname@example.org, or make a gift today at www.flagler.edu/support.Tagged As