Elizabeth Abrash ’17 was scrolling through class listings last year when she came across the description for a religious studies course, “Prophecy.” The course, taught by Professor of Religious Studies Miriam Dean-Otting ’74 P’05,06, called for students willing to explore social issues by spending extensive time volunteering in Knox County. Abrash was hooked.
“I thought it was going to be my last non-science class, maybe ever,” Abrash, a molecular biology major, said. “I came across Professor Dean-Otting’s class, and I really enjoyed the description. I liked the idea of going out into the community.”
The idea to involve community engagement in the course came about naturally, Dean-Otting said, given the course’s subject. Prophetic voices in the Bible, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, brought light to social injustices and worked to right societal wrongs.
“The Hebrew prophets are really the social critics of antiquity,” Dean-Otting said. “They are calling out for justice in society. However, what they are addressing is very much like what modern voices discuss: inequities in public education, food insecurity, poverty and environmental disasters.”
The class wove Biblical prophets with modern prophetic voices, such as Malcolm X, the poet Claudia Rankine, and Jonathan Kozol, a writer who brings attention to inequities in public education. Dean-Otting wanted students to be able to relate the idea of prophecy directly to social injustices in their communities, so she dedicated her class this year to a topic close to home: food insecurity, or a lack of reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. The number of hungry families in Knox County combined with the amount of nearby food banks with volunteer opportunities made the topic a natural fit, she said, and students agreed.
“In a humanities class, you should be learning about society and people. Why not experience society and people for yourself while you’re learning about it?” said Olivia DeSilva ’17, a religious studies major who was one of 10 students in the class.
Students were required to volunteer at least two hours a week at the Salvation Army or Interchurch Social Services, both in nearby Mount Vernon. At the agencies, they helped stock food pantries and assisted families in selecting groceries. At Interchurch, volunteers also spent time organizing clothes in a thrift shop. Their volunteer experiences helped students realize the complexities of the social injustices they were discussing in class.
“Talking about [food insecurity] in a classroom is not at all the same as talking to people who are food insecure,” Abrash said. “It was one thing to be like, ‘They just need access to vegetables,’ and another thing to be like, “Well, there are vegetables here, but what are you going to do with one tomato and some peppers?’”
In addition to studying food insecurity through the lens of their community, students explored other social injustices through individual projects. Each student researched a social injustice or a contemporary social critic and had to make a case for including their subject in the discussion of modern prophets and prophetic issues. Subjects ranged from Bob Dylan to the #NoDAPL movement protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“What unifies the ancient prophets is that they are responding to social injustices and trying to bring justice,” said DeSilva, who chose to study the Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai for her project. “I think you see that same philosophy in modern social critics.”
Dean-Otting plans to offer the course again in the fall of 2018. She hopes the class will motivate students to continue exploring Knox County and to make volunteering in their communities, wherever they are, a priority.
For Abrash, the class affected not only her notion of community, but her scientific work as well. Now working as a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic, Abrash said she is considering studying how nutrition can affect gene expression in people.
“It was really nice to do this [class] as a science major,” Abrash said. “I don’t leave the cell ever. I actually very rarely leave the nucleus of the cell. … It’s nice to remember that there are humans and they are made up of cells and you should talk about them, too.”