We all have those teachers whose impact lasted beyond the final exam. My list of classroom heroes includes professor George W. Braswell Jr.
His seminary class on cross-cultural communication has long informed my understanding and practice of relating to those from backgrounds that differ from my own. These insights served me well, especially when working with international students in my first career, and then throughout my life when relating to the growing diversity experienced each day.
On Nov. 4, 1979, more than 60 American hostages were seized when Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. This revolutionary act was part of the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in reaction to Western influence.
The religious-political context was complex and confusing to most Americans — many of whom held (or still hold) little more awareness than the old Three Stooges’ map showing the neighboring countries of “I-ran,” “He-ran” and “She-ran.”
However, we took the daily news and our own questions into the classroom. Braswell and his wife, Joan, had served as Baptist missionaries in Iran where they built significant relationships.
An exceptional scholar in comparative religions, George was invited to teach this subject at the University of Tehran’s Islamic School of Theology. He was the only non-Muslim to serve on the faculty.
The revolution was no surprise to him. He had heard whispered conversations over strong tea and had seen the early dynamics at play.
He brought such informed perspectives to the class and taught us the value of understanding cultural context — something often lost in the easy, mindless world of talk radio and bumper sticker politics.
A few years after graduation, I hosted my former professor when he came to Georgia to lead an international student conference. The hours we spent together (from the Atlanta airport to a North Georgia conference center and back) were a delightful rehashing of that course that had enlightened my understanding of cultural contexts and given me some needed skills in relating effectively across sociological lines.
Through the years we have kept in touch through career shifts along the way. And I’ve enjoyed visiting with the Braswells at their home in Wake Forest, N.C.
One mark of his career has been leading a practicum in world religions that helps church leaders to better understand the growing diversity of religious belief systems that co-exist in what were once rather homogenized societies across the U.S.
His last stop in an impressive 55-year ministry career was Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. And his work is being honored in a way that is fitting and allows for future students to experience and learn the valuable lessons of cross-cultural relationships.
Last October, the Campbell University Divinity School hosted a ceremony to name its George W. and Joan O. Braswell World Religions and Global Cultures Center. The center, founded by Braswell in 2007, helps ministers and laypersons to understand cultures and religions of the world and to interpret these understandings from a Christian perspective.
Dean Andy Wakefield, in a media release from the divinity school, commended Braswell’s efforts at building relationships across interfaith communities and ensuring that students have the chance to engage persons from various faith traditions in an open, “dialogical process” rather than “an antagonistic process.”
With so much fear, misinformation and overreaction tied to perceptions of the “other,” this is a timely and important venture — just as it was when my classmates and I hustled across a seminary campus in the late ’70s with eagerness to hear our professor explain the cultural context of the news we were hearing.
So, congratulations to George andJoan on this most-appropriate honor. And thanks for sharing your good gifts with so many of us. Your impact is lasting and appreciated. NFJ