Interfaith leader turns religion degree into activism

Matt Hartley (M.A., 2017) took his graduate degree in religion back to Jacksonville where he long served as a youth minister active in the local interfaith community and turned it into a new opportunity for engagement. Now, Hartley serves as the Director of the University of North Florida’s Interfaith Center. He is also the Associate Director for its  Department of Diversity Initiatives. 
The Interfaith Center’s mission is to engage the UNF campus around religious pluralism, support the religious and non-religious identities of students, and provide distinctive programs and services for students to voice values, engage with others, act together, and lead others to do likewise.
UF Religion caught up with Mr. Hartley to talk about his training in religious studies and how it is helping him in his new vocation at UNF.
Why did you go into religious studies in the first place? 
Growing up, I was a nerd about my own religion, and college turned me into a nerd about religion in general. And 9/11 was 3 weeks into my Freshman year, so the study of religion took on an urgent appeal. I especially wanted to learn more about Islam, because it seemed to be oversimplified and treated unfairly in the media. Several years later, I was a high school teacher with Muslim students in my classroom, and I wondered about their experience growing up Muslim in the Bible Belt. Eventually I decided I should ask them and do some research, and UF let me come and do just that.
Who was the single most influential person in your preparation for this career? 
My parents most of all, in obvious ways like raising me to be curious my own religion. But they also planted seeds I have only recently recalled. My mom made me read The Chosen by Chaim Potok to learn more about Jewish life, and my Dad had a close friendship with a Rabbi which I got to share some part in. Ultimately, they conveyed to me a sense of curiosity, appreciation of complexity, and valuing the experiences and voice of people who practiced religion differently than us.
Growing up, I was a nerd about my own religion, and college turned me into a nerd about religion in general.
What have you been doing since graduation?
After a year of continuing a ministry position with the Episcopal Church, in May 2018 I began a new position as the Director of the Interfaith Center at University of North Florida in Jacksonville, as part of a larger role as the Associate Director of the Department of Diversity Initiatives. I also organize interfaith education and solidarity efforts in Jacksonville.

What are your plans?
In the short term, I am quite happy to settle into my position at the UNF Interfaith Center, and build on an already strong legacy, with focus on student leadership development, collaboration with Academic departments on mapping the history and landscape of Jacksonville religious diversity, and hosting regional Interfaith conferences. In the longer term, I’d like to help develop new frontiers of interfaith cooperation that engage college students currently graduating with extensive interfaith organizing skills. To that end, I may eventually seek a Ph.D.

What challenges have you faced, and what do you consider to be the most significant challenges facing the academic study of religion?
I think a contemporary challenge for religious studies which overlaps with my professional field of Interfaith cooperation is distinguishing between activism and academia. I think current political conversations have heightened this challenge, with feelings of urgency about taking action. Of course, activism and academia are not so easily compartmentalized, but I have observed growing concern from some religious studies academics about interfaith activism coopting the space of religious studies. Even as an interfaith professional myself, I share this concern. I appreciate an academic approach to interfaith work and the topical research of Interfaith Studies. To the degree that this casts a critical eye on the motivations, methods, and outcomes of interfaith efforts, Interfaith professionals can only benefit from such an approach.
I am reminded of Russell McCutcheon’s admonishment that as academics we are critics and not caretakers of religion-this is true of interfaith as well. My work supporting student religious diversity is surely related but also distinct from the academic study of such work. Obviously, this is a complicated conversation, hearkening back to the history of institutions like the University of Florida, which had to distinguish between what were originally campus ministry/theology departments and the religious studies departments they became. I think on campuses like UNF in Jacksonville and in the national religious studies scene, Interfaith workers like myself have got to take care not to coopt for activism spaces that are first and primarily for the academic study of religion.
What is one book you would recommend to anyone interested in religious studies? 
A book close to my own heart and research recently published is Keeping it Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys by Dr. John O’Brien of NYU Abu Dhabi. This book reflects a similar sociological approach to growing up Muslim in America that I used in my thesis “Southern Crescent: Muslim Youth in the American South.” Grounded in the experience and idiom of young Muslim Americans, O’Brien illuminates how a particular group of young men face different arenas of private and public religious expressions, including the controversy-fraught arena of dating, and how they find their voice in hip-hop. In speaking about their “culturally contested lives”, he mirrors previous research by Sirin and Fine on the burdens of moral exclusion by American society and the challenging navigation of hyphenated identities across differing religious and ethnic cultures. I recommend it not only as a fascinating examination of Muslim American lives, but also as insightful addition to literature on American youth religion in general.

How has studying at UF prepared you for dealing with the challenges and opportunities of your new work? 
I came into UF straddling the worlds of academia and faith leader, and always found my professors and fellow graduate students to be supportive and helpfully challenging in thinking about how to live in both worlds at the same time. Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, my thesis advisor, was a great mentor and incredible inspiration as someone who has given her life to both academic and activism. Dr. David Hackett encouraged me through many conversations about working in both fields. Fellow students like Dr. Jason Purvis and Kerri Blumenthal helped me think with a critical eye about interfaith efforts. Being able to pursue my interest in studying the lives of young American Muslims helped me develop my own academic voice and discern the lines between my scholarship and my activism. I’m excited to apply all this wisdom to my work at UNF as I support students in their own studies and activist passions!