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More Little Rock religious leaders than ever have identified race relations as a critical concern in the capital city, according to the early results of a longitudinal study of congregations.

The Little Rock Congregations Study, led by University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor Dr. Rebecca Glazier, is an ongoing research project focused on learning about the effects of faith-based engagement in communities, and finding ways to use the results of the research to further benefit those communities. Dr. Gerald Driskill of the university's department of applied communication and Dr. Kirk Leach of the university's school of public affairs are also partners in the research, as are the members of the study's clergy advisory board.

The study traditionally serves another purpose -- engaging Glazier's students in research beyond the classroom -- but hands-on research changed in March because of the covid-19 pandemic as classes and coursework shifted to online platforms. With most houses of worship closed through April, faith leaders also sought ways to hold worship services and stay connected with their members.

Conversations with faith leaders, such as those on the study's clergy advisory board, began to resume in May, said Glazier, as clergy expressed it would be helpful to hear from their members. All religious leaders responding in this year's study so far have rated race relations as "very important" (70%) or "important" (30%); none have rated them "moderately important" or "slightly important" as a small percentage (less than 10%) did in 2018.

The early results come less than a month after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in police custody after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Video footage of the incident triggered outrage, protests and calls for police reform that have spread worldwide.

The research team at UALR has reviewed the data it has collected, and "we have seen how racial divisions continue to plague communities of faith in our city," Glazier said recently on the study's website.

This year's study, slated for release in the fall, will be entirely online and available to those who have registered with the Little Rock Congregations Study. It includes questions for individual congregation members conducted every four years since the research began in 2012, and answers to those questions will help shape future surveys.

Glazier noted the survey will include questions about race relations and social justice, and will ask members what their congregations are doing to welcome people across races. The survey also will ask about the physical, spiritual and mental well-being of members. The online format also allows the study to follow up with respondents about concerns they find "very important."

Race division was among the top issues for participating Little Rock clergy at a religious leaders summit Glazier hosted last year. That data and other information from past years indicate a facts-based approach to recognizing the needs of the city in terms of race relations, said Taylor Donnerson, who is enrolled at the Clinton School of Public Service and is one of the two student researchers working on this segment of the study.

"The fact that there is concrete evidence about what has been happening in Little Rock alone speaks to what we need to do in terms of changing the future," Donnerson said. "So highlighting the fact that we have the graphs and the research to back up these statements speaks volumes. ... We can be trusted in what we're doing because we're actively in the community asking these questions, getting the answers and having an understanding of what this really means."

Her role has included assisting with clergy interviews -- researchers first speak with clergy, who then have the option to accept or decline the invitation to survey their congregation in the fall -- and revamping the study's social-media platforms to amplify its online presence.

Jennifer Barnett, who recently earned a master's degree in public affairs at UALR, handled gathering and updating information for houses of worship -- and umbrella organizations, such as synods and larger religious governing bodies -- and didn't stop at making phone calls or sending emails.

"I would literally be heading somewhere and turn back around if I saw a church, or take a snapshot with my phone and I'd come back and go through the list and ... [say] 'OK, we need to add this,'" Barnett said. "And there were several churches that weren't on the list that ended up getting on the list."

In speaking with faith leaders on the list, Donnerson noted that all those contacted are acknowledging the need to change "or at least a step towards something different."

"We all kind of have a sense that something has to change," Donnerson said. "Just about every pastor has acknowledged the fact that we need to come together and bring about peace and know that we are welcoming each other, and we need to have unity among the churches ... different congregations, different denominations.

"We need to come together because we are one as people, and even if your church is behind my church or beside my church or down the street, we need to be unified in terms of making sure that we're all protected, whether that be against police brutality, the virus or any other danger, because that should come first.

"It's about community and it's about unity."

More information about the Little Rock Congregations Study is available at research.ualr.edu/lrcs and at facebook.com/LittleRockCongregationsStudy; Dr. Glazier can be contacted at [email protected]

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