Religious studies and psychology major Wesley Meredith, ’15, started exploring the influence of faith long before he arrived at the University of Richmond. His interest has only expanded during his time on campus.
“I was raised Christian, but as I entered high school it was something I began to disassociate with,” he says. “Through that, I had a desire to learn more about religion as a phenomenon, very broadly.”
During his senior year of high school, he began to consider other paths, attending a different type of service each Sunday. One Sunday would find him at a Baptist service. The next would lead him to a local Mormon church. “I began to play with the idea of religious studies at a very interpersonal level, through discussion with people in the churches, and just by sitting in one of the seats during the services,” he says.
He found a warm environment wherever he went. “I wasn’t taking notes and inspecting with a magnifying glass,” he says. “People welcomed me and appreciated that I was interested in their faith group. I was received well.”
Those positive experiences inspired Meredith’s interest in religion to grow and he decided to add an academic lens to his examination.
He began his freshman year with a First-Year Seminar class — American Buddha, American Jesus — taught by Dr. Jane Geaney. Meredith describes the course as an introduction to the idea of religious studies, as well as to queer theory, which is one of Geaney’s specialties. “The class was a look at Buddhism and Christianity in popular culture, and we read a couple of different articles about religion from a queer perspective, so that was a great beginning to my exploration.”
Building on Geaney’s expertise, Meredith chose to pursue his own research in queer theory and Islam. “I’ve seen different aspects of [Geaney’s] academic interests while developing my own, and it’s been really cool to develop a strong relationship with a particular professor,” he says.
Choosing Islam was another opportunity for Meredith to continue his personal exploration of faith. “I initially took a course in Islam with Dr. Mimi Hanaoka because I felt that, having grown up in rural Virginia, I’d been in contact with several of the Christian denominations, and even Mormonism, but I had never engaged in a dialogue about Islam,” Meredith says. “I took the class and kind of fell in love with it.”
He also opted to put his study of queer theory into action through involvement with the University’s Office of Common Ground, which, as Meredith explains, “offers programming for race, class, gender identity and expression, and sexual identity, among others.” He’s worked as a trans-inclusion research assistant evaluating inclusive housing and sports policies at peer institutions and developing suggestions for applying them at Richmond; assisted with revamping the Queer UR resources on the Common Ground website; and planned and promoted programs and events. “We try, as an office, to be a space and a resource for people to explore areas of difference and to celebrate diversity,” he says.
Meredith is grateful to have had the chance to nurture his varied interests during his time on campus. “I’ve benefitted from being able to take courses like religion and psychology, or queers and religion, and get an intersectional education,” he says. “There is likely someone or something here that exists that engages you — either academically, or personally — and if not, there are avenues to create that for yourself.”