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Released February 27, 2003

With aid of $1,200 grant

By Phil Hearn

HATTIESBURG - Cindy Brown is using a camera to dispel religious stereotypes in Mississippi and, in the process, has experienced a personal "spiritual awakening" of her own.

An assistant professor of mass communications and journalism at The University of Southern Mississippi, Brown has spent the past three years photographing religious services at churches, mosques, temples and religious centers across south Mississippi – at her own expense.

Now, however, she is receiving financial help for her long-term photographic documentary project from the Pluralism Project – developed at Harvard University by Diana L. Eck to study and document the growing religious diversity of the United States, and particularly the country's new immigrant religious communities.

"I've been documenting religious diversity in southern Mississippi and the folks at the Pluralism Project at Harvard have just awarded me $1,200 to profile several religious centers in Mississippi, and produce a couple of slide shows for their Web site," said Brown, a veteran photojournalist and picture editor who teaches photography and graphic design at Southern Miss.

"I also hope to produce a book of photographs," added Brown, who grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and spent her teenage years playing the organ at a Methodist Church. As an adult, she converted to the Unitarian Universalist faith.

"I felt the need to see how others believed and worshiped, and knew my camera would be a ticket into places I might not otherwise venture," she said. "To a large extent, the project was part of my own free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

"During the course of this documentation, I have experienced what I would describe as a spiritual awakening," Brown continued. "I can't say that the awakening was a direct result of the documentary project, but I'm sure the project was one of many influences leading to that awakening.

"The religious pluralism project is one of several projects I hope to complete during my lifetime that focus on dismantling stereotypes," she said.

During the past three decades, according to the Pluralism Project Web site, the U.S. religious landscape has changed dramatically – with Islamic centers and mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and meditation centers locating in virtually every American city

"The encounter between people of very different religious traditions takes place in the proximity of our own cities and neighborhoods," according to the Web site, which may be accessed at "How Americans of all faiths begin to engage with one another in shaping a positive pluralism is one of the most important questions American society faces in the years ahead.

Brown said she already has documented a wide variety of religious services on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in Hattiesburg, Sumrall, Mount Olive and Ovette. As a photojournalist working for the Biloxi Sun-Herald a couple of years ago, she photographed and wrote about a Hare Krishna farm in the Carriere community. She plans to focus on churches and religious centers in Jackson and Biloxi in continuing her documentation project.

Brown joined the Southern Miss faculty in 1999 after working as a photographer at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and as a picture editor for the Indianapolis (Ind.) Star. She worked in the summer of 2000 at the Sun-Herald as an American Society of Newspaper Editors Summer Fellow. Before coming to Hattiesburg, she served as information architect and Web design consultant for Gecko Media in Tampa, Fla., where she also worked as an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM