Auburn Theological Seminary’s Katharine Rhodes Henderson Henderson opens discussion on future of religion in America



When she was 9 years old, the Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson learned about the Holocaust, or as she put it, “the evil that people can do to each other.”

As she continued to learn, she was particularly inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor whose anti-Nazism led to his execution.

“The idea is to stand up, to resist evil,” Henderson said. “Maintaining the status quo isn’t what we’re called to do as Christians.”

At 1 p.m. Monday, June 5 in the Amphitheater, Henderson will present her lecture, “Living Between Precarity and Promise,” the first of three Interfaith Lectures based on Week Two’s theme, “New Frontiers: Exploring the Future of Religion in America.”

Henderson is the president of Auburn Theological Seminary, a 203-year-old multifaith leadership development and research institute based in New York City. She has served as president there since 2009 and is in her final months as president. Afterward, she’ll go on sabbatical and explore possibilities while working with faith and justice, she said. 

Her father was a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where Henderson was raised during the civil rights movement. She frequently attended marches and would end up singing at services in Black churches.

“Faith is not only sitting in a pew on a Saturday or Sunday, it’s getting up and taking faith to the streets,” she said.

Additionally, Henderson is the author of God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith Are Changing the World.

“I’m very interested in how people of faith and moral courage get into ‘good trouble,’ as (the late Senator) John Lewis would put it,” Henderson said. 

“These are places where people of faith and moral courage need to focus their energies and attention as we think about building the world and building the future.”

Katharine Henderson
Auburn Theological Seminar

Broadly, Henderson said people of faith and moral courage are responsible for building a more equitable, just and compassionate world.

In today’s times, she sees that as fighting for democratic principles, against authoritarian forces and white supremacy. 

She is inspired, encouraged and influenced by grasstop and grassroot leaders alike. 

“What I see is a web of connections and extraordinary, selfless work on behalf of others and on behalf of the work of justice,” she said. 

During COVID-19, she said, her work at Auburn was not greatly impacted in terms of technology because it is a national institute that is well-adjusted to remote work. She said they have actually been able to expand all over the country, and one of their largest events of the year, a gala fundraiser called Lives of Commitment, which usually drew 600 in-person attendees, welcomed several thousand guests online in 2020. 

She said the same is true for other organizations, and she knows of synagogues and churches in New York City that have expanded membership globally. 

However, numbers of deaths from COVID-19 have been challenging, she said.

“Many of the people we work with who are leaders of congregations or communities have had to learn how to meet the personal needs of people who are dying and their families at a distance,” she said. “It’s very hard to do that when you can’t hold a person’s hand when they’re dying.”

This grief is shared among people of all religions, and people need to grieve, she said. To her, life shouldn’t rush back to “normal.”

“It has been a time of multiple pandemics,” Henderson said. “Not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but the racial reckoning pandemic, the economic and equity pandemic, and as a world, the climate change pandemic.” 

For her lecture, Henderson will focus on how society stands emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on white Christian nationalism, religious freedom, race and climate change. 

“These are places where people of faith and moral courage need to focus their energies and attention as we think about building the world and building the future,” she said.

Henderson said she will share stories of her own experiences at Auburn and from people around the world doing this work. 

Coming out of the July 4 weekend and looking ahead to the nation’s 250th anniversary in five years, Henderson wants people to think about the future of their dreams. She plans to have some calls to action, or an action agenda, about the steps needed to get there.

“None of us is a silent partner,” she said. “We’re all partners in creating the world that God intends.”

Tags : auburn theological seminaryinterfaith lecture previewKatharine Rhodes HendersonNew Frontiers: Exploring the Future of Religion in Americaweek two

The author Max Zambrano

Max Zambrano is a recent Western Kentucky University graduate in his first season at Chautauqua. At WKU, he served as editor-in-chief of the Talisman magazine and website, majored in political science and minored in journalism writing. Max has traveled to Australia and Morocco, and he hopes to visit all 50 states (28 to go). This summer, he will report on interfaith lectures and sacred song services. Let him know if you want to play backgammon on Bestor Plaza.