Religion and Joining SNCC
Joan Browning
August, 2004

[Joan Browning was a Freedom Rider and SNCC activist in Southwest Georgia 1961-65.]

Every individual has a different SNCC story. I came to SNCC from a deeply religious perspective. I was raised in a very simple rural Methodist congregation composed of my family and neighbors, about 30 families in all, and in college plunged into an alien 1,000 member mega church.

My first, though unintentional, crossing of the racial divide came in search of a Methodist worship experience more like those of my childhood. I found that spiritual experience in a black church, for which I was kicked out of college. I next went to a Christian student conference at black a church-sponsored college to study "Christian Students and the Sit In Movement" under Rev. Jim Lawson and others.

While I was actively volunteering with SNCC, I attended the college age Sunday School at St. Marks in Atlanta and hung out with the Georgia Tech Wesley Foundation crowd, where I heard Alan Watts talk about Eastern spiritual paths and the folks from the Austin Texas Faith and Life Community, as well as dabbled with the Friends meeting.

In the Movement, I found the witness of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU) attractive and have been an Episcopalian since, though I am at a stand-off with the ultraconservative Diocese of West Virginia and so my tithe is now split between the Open Door Community in Atlanta, a Presbyterian-initiated Dorothy Day ministry to the homeless and to the imprisoned, especially death row prisoners, and in support of the local Methodist church whose senior pastor attended Ohio Wesleyan College — as a freshman she remembers Mary King, who was a senior.

I cannot imagine where, except from religious convictions, I may have received the courage and moral clarity to be part of SNCC and indeed to continue living my life today. By the time I found SNCC, I was learning that the church structure taught, but did not practice, beliefs that are central to my existence. In SNCC, nobody in SNCC "preached" but in fact almost all practiced at a clear and indisputable level my fundamental religious beliefs. So, for me, SNCC was not a religious institution but it was a structure that allowed me to join with others and together, whatever their motivation, we were practicing my religion.

Another aspect of SNCC that I treasure was that after all the deliberations, talk and decision-making, it was up to me to decide how and to what degree I would participate in a proposed action. All that was required what that I keep my word, i.e., that I do whatever I said I would do, and that I would follow instructions and protocols. I was indeed trying to be a student, was committed to nonviolence for both spiritual and practical reasons (though my commitment to nonviolence was sorely tested, especially by events in Greenwood in 1963), and not being nor wanting to be a leader, I was happy to be among the coordinated. And even then, I had a strong aversion to serving on any "committee."

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