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She teaches American liberation theology.

Seeing through lens of the marginalized draws many students

WASHINGTON - No one in the classroom looked surprised as the Georgetown University professor spelled out the words God is black on the chalkboard.

And when Diana Hayes turned to her students, most of whom are white, and asked what those words mean to them, several hands darted up. One student ventured that it means God identifies with the oppressed. Another student offered that it means God can be whoever a person needs him or her to be.

The professor's objective here is not for them to come up with a right answer as much as it is to get them to "think" and "feel."

A lot gets written about Third World liberation theology, but how does it get taught in the United States? American Liberation Theology, the name of the class, offers an example. It is among the more popular subjects taught at Georgetown, evidenced by the large number of students turned away each semester for lack of space, Hayes said.

The theologian has taught liberation theology at Georgetown for the past six years. She described it as a theology that "looks through the lens of the marginalized."

"Liberation theology is critical reflection on one's activities, actions and experiences in the light of one's faith," Hayes said. "It is a liberation - a freeing of theology ... a freeing of those who study it."

Theology, Hayes said, should no longer be taught as universal. "Universal" theology was formulated primarily by white, European, elite males, which made it difficult for women, minorities and others to grasp, she explained.

Liberation theology, on the other hand, subscribes to the premise that "God is working to help people make it through" difficult times, and that "God, in the form of Jesus, has always sided with those who are poor and oppressed," she said.

Hayes said that writing the words God is black - a reference to the book Is God a White Racist? - is her way of "dropping gentle bombshells ... to open (students') eyes to needs and concerns of others."

"What I am trying to do is get my students to think critically. I don't want them to think passively," she said. "All people are engaged in |God talk,' whether they are talking, praying, singing or thinking. So on one basic level all people can be theologians."

Typically, the students who make up this class each semester represent various religious backgrounds. Among them are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics.

On this day, the focus is on black liberation theology. Later in the semester they will study Hispanic and then American Indian liberation theology. "The only way we are going to survive is to open up to multicultural ideas," Hayes said. "We can learn from the past or we can engage in craziness like in Bosnia where they are killing each other because they are of different faiths."

Hayes, who was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, converted to Catholicism in 1979. Back then, she said she found the church to be "very new," "fascinating," and challenging.

Nearly 10 years later, she graduated from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, - the first black laywoman to receive a pontifical degree in Roman Catholic theology from that institution. She is one of only five black theologians - and the only layperson - in the United States to hold such a doctorate.

Hayes travels extensively throughout the United States, offering lectures on liberation theology. Responses to this subject vary: "Some love it. Some are turned off. Some are confused. Some are challenged. And some downright hate it."

In her lectures and classes, she said, she stresses the idea that religion "is not just a thing of teachings and doctrines, but a way of life."

"I don't aim to send people out to be social workers or goody-goodies," Hayes said. "I just want people to know that whatever they do and wherever they go, they have to make decisions regarding other people. They must think about the others who are not at the table where the decisions are being made."
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Title Annotation:Diana Hayes; Catholic Education
Author:Szczepanowski, Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 29, 1993
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