Deacon Profile: Ulrike Wiethaus

Betlihem Ayalew/Old Gold & Black

Betlihem Ayalew/Old Gold & Black

Ulrike Wiethaus is a professor of religion and American ethnic studies. She received her doctorate in religious studies from Temple University and is a 2013 Community Solutions Fellow with the Institute for Public Engagement at Wake Forest University.

Her research focus includes Christian spirituality, the effects of American Colonialism and Native American religion and spirituality.

She is a recipient of  the Donald O. Schoonmaker Faculty Prize for Community Service, Innovative Teaching Award, the Presidential Library Grant and the Entrepreneurship and Liberal Arts Award for Local Community Involvement and Outreach. 

Why do you think religion is important to study?

Because in my view, religion, and this is an artificial term, is a container of some of the deepest knowledge that humankind has gathered about what it means to be human — about what it means to live on this planet, about what it means to relate to everything that is alive.

And that can go both in a good direction, and a not so good direction which is harming and destroying life.

Knowledge is a verb; knowledge is constructed and created. It’s a shared project between my students and myself and other voices that are made present in the space of a class session.

It is profoundly collaborative and profoundly dynamic and the best classes are the ones that evolve  so I don’t know where the class will end.

Why is it important to study Native American religion?

For a very simple reason. And the reason is that I’m living in the United States, and that I want to be a good guest and on this land mass, I am an immigrant.

I am a guest worker. I consider Native Nations to be the communities that have profoundly shaped this land. And that I am paying my respect to this deep and profound presence.

What attracted you to Wake Forest?

I remember very distinctly being on this campus during my job interview, and at that point it was much smaller than now.

I really love the small size; I find it creates community in a really substantial way.

And the second thing I liked about Wake Forest is that I thought it was a very humble place.

It appealed to me because when you’re humble you can really appreciate the things that are really big in life — the things that are bigger than you.

And the third thing I really liked was the strong commitment to have substance, to not be superficial, and that appeared to me in a great deal. It’s the students. That is what really makes me happy. 

How has Wake Forest changed since you first arrived here?

The growth. From my experience as faculty, there’s been a huge increase in bureaucracy. Twenty years ago, there was more space to create something new and fresh — to experiment.

And now, this is part of being a larger campus.

You have now a lot more bureaucratic and administrative hoops to jump through, and that is neither good or bad. It’s just how it is; you have to synchronize since you have more people.

It reorganizes relationships profoundly. I like small places — that to me is important. If you grow, you put more stress on water, electricity and birds.

You put more stress on the plants, and the plant life, so it’s important to be mindful of scale and what is the best ratio to have healthy relationship with others and with everything else. 

What work do you do at the Alexander Correctional Facility?

It’s evolving. It’s very important to me to bring my students to prison, so as we all participate in a society where we all have rights and responsibilities to understand how law works and to understand how we all participate in the legal system.

We all eventually becoming members of a jury or deciding what’s legal and what’s illegal and to think about that.

It’s an invitation to connect the dots. I’ve been told that you can get any drug on campus.

It’s very important that if you’re on the consumer side that you understand that you’re participating in a shadow economy.

What do students do at the Alexander Correctional Facility?

My vision for a university is that it’s a place for communities to come together.

So I have an image in my head of a classroom without walls, and together with colleagues, I built the Institute for Public Engagement. It’s a way of reaching out and building community.

We ask the inmates what topics they would like to learn more about, and we leverage the fact that we are an educational institution.

Students then design projects around themes that the inmates want to learn more about and engage in a very passionate and fun conversation about these topics.

Is there anything else you would like to tell students?

I am very interested in contemplative pedagogy and expanding our tools for building relationships to include mediation, deep listening, being present to each other in these more creative ways. So right now, I’m holding a space for a faculty group. It’s a growing movement over the country and we are very intentional about it at Wake Forest.

I would really like to partner with students to explore that more especially since so many students are massively stressed out, and it doesn’t have to be like that.



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