Course/Project: Religion and Public Life
Location: Winston-Salem, NC
For nearly twenty years, Winston-Salem resident Darryl Hunt spent every day in a dreary prison cell serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. In spite of a trial that was devoid of physical evidence tying Hunt to the scene of the crime, he was convicted of first-degree murder in 1984. Hunt was just nineteen years old at the time.
Facing perhaps the cruelest fate a human being can endure, Hunt maintained his own innocence, and his spirit remained unfettered as he called on God to give him strength and to comfort him. As his days behind bars grew in number from the hundreds to the thousands, Hunt’s faith in God only intensified and served as much more than a means of preserving a glimmer of hope for life outside of prison.
Nine years after being convicted, DNA evidence surfaced indicating that Hunt, an African American, could not have committed the crime, yet the appeal of his conviction was denied. In 2003, his attorney, who served him for eighteen years pro bono, threw one last “hail Mary” pass in the form of a motion to compare the DNA in the 1984 rape kit to a state database of DNA profiles. Miraculously, he got a “hit.” Finally, the real murderer was found and Hunt was freed. Hunt’s remarkable story gained national recognition and became emblematic of Winston-Salem’s historically tense race relations.
Building upon his experience, Hunt founded the Darryl Hunt Project with community leaders to help prevent the criminal justice system from convicting innocent parties, educating the public about faults in the system, and helping ex-offenders re-enter society and become productive, contributing citizens.
Just one year after Hunt’s exoneration, Wake Forest student Rashad Daker had the opportunity to transcribe Hunt’s daily journal entries that he wrote during his imprisonment, an assignment that Daker chose as part of Professor Stephen Boyd’s “Religion and Public Life” course. Daker and Hunt are both practicing Muslims, and according to Boyd, both individuals found the experience cathartic and spiritually engaging.
“Rashad was in awe of Darryl’s faith during his time in prison, and he found Darryl to be a challenge and inspiration for his own faith,” Boyd said. “Darryl really bonded with Rashad as well and loved having the opportunity to be his mentor. Their experience was mutually beneficial and was one of the highlights of the course.”
In addition to Daker’s work with the Darryl Hunt Project, each student in Boyd’s class worked with a local nonprofit organization that is addressing a significant need in the community. For instance, one student worked with Advocacy for the Poor, researching issues related to poverty, affordable housing, homelessness, and hunger. Another student tutored and mentored at-risk students through the Winston-Salem Sheet School, while a third student served as youth minister for Emmanuel Baptist Church.
The in-class portion of the course focused on issues of religious leadership, social entrepreneurship, the separation of church and state, and the differences among service, advocacy, and community organizing, as well as their roots in three dominant theological paradigms in Christian history.
One of Boyd’s primary goals for the course was to have students see how the topics from class played a role in the day-to-day operations of the organizations that each student worked for during the semester.
“It might seem obvious at first, but social justice and religion have been intertwined for thousands of years,” Boyd explained. “As a result, it doesn’t make very much sense to teach only one of the subjects by itself in a vacuum. I wanted students to see firsthand how social justice informs spiritual faith and vice versa. In this vein, the service learning component was an effective teaching tool because it brought to life the issues that we focused on in the classroom.”
Boyd also sees great value in simply getting students involved in projects off campus – outside the “Wake Forest bubble.”
“As a student, it is easy to get consumed with life on campus,” said Boyd. “Students sometimes forget there is an exciting world outside the “Wake Forest bubble”, one that is full of challenging issues that can be gratifying to work on.”
The students and the organizations were not the only ones touched by the course, however. Boyd described the experience as “the most rewarding course I ever taught” and is looking forward to offering it for the second time in 2011. In the meantime, he is completing a book about Darryl Hunt’s wrongful incarceration.