“We need each other”: Ronning Centre interim director wants to learn from, connect with community

Get to know Joseph Wiebe, his vision for the next year and how our community can get involved.

Sydney Tancowny - 31 August 2022

 Photo of Joe Wiebe.

On July 1, 2022, Joseph Wiebe was appointed as the interim director of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life. Take a moment to get to know him, his plans for the coming year and how community members are an important part of his vision.


Q: First of all, congratulations on being appointed as interim director! Would you be able to share a little bit about yourself and why you were interested in this role?

A: I’m an associate professor of religion and ecology and have also been on the Ronning Centre advisory board for several years. The Ronning Centre is a unique and exciting part of not only Augustana but also the wider community in Camrose and the University of Alberta. I’ve loved being a part of events that appeal to academic and popular audiences like when we hosted Edward Snowden, Kate Bowler and Chris Hedges

Religious literacy is so important right now, but the study of religion feels under-supported institutionally. The Ronning Centre is positioned right now to become the place to study religion at the university as a whole. And it's not only unique within the U of A. The fact that the Centre is in Camrose, the University's rural campus on the prairies, puts it in a different position than other Centres for studying religion in B.C. and Toronto. I’m really excited to build on [previous director] Ian Wilson’s work and see how we can bring questions about religion and public life to the university and its wider community. 


Q: So on the note of building on the centre’s previous work, what are your plans for the coming year?

A: Right now the most important thing is connecting with our community. The closures and distancing required by COVID-19 mandates really changed how the centre was able to interact and communicate with people. Now that we can meet again, we’ll be hosting more events that people can attend. But the focus is going to be finding out from the community how these events are meeting their interests. This will be people’s opportunity to have their voices heard and their ideas impact the work of the Ronning Centre going forward. This feedback is crucial for imagining the centre’s vision for a world changed by the pandemic.


Q: Do you have a vision for the future of the Ronning Centre? What opportunities do you see?

A: We learned a lot from the adjustments we had to do during COVID. The disconnection we felt with our local stakeholders coincided with the opportunity to connect with people outside of Alberta and Canada. We were really able to expand the centre’s reach through online events. We had some of the biggest attendances, virtual or in-person, the U of A has ever had. We want to take advantage of this success and learn from the lessons during the pandemic. So now is the time to strategize: How do we reconnect with the local and maintain the momentum with the global? Figuring that out will have to be a collaborative process. We’ll need all the input we can get to have programming that promotes religious literacy to audiences that may be playing a board game at Fox and Fable or watching the Jays play in Rogers Centre.


Q: In your opinion, what benefit does the Ronning Centre offer our community and their daily lives?

A: Not everyone is religious but everyone wants meaningful lives. We get bored at work if we don’t find it meaningful. We drop friends or even family members if we don’t feel like they’re meaningful relationships. Many people find meaning through religion, and it helps to understand how and why they do. It helps connect with people who find meaning in different ways or use different languages and do different things to communicate that meaning. 

The purpose of promoting religious literacy and the importance of religion in public life isn’t to force new ideas on anyone or tell people that they need religion — or a new religion — if they want meaning in their lives. It’s an opportunity to say in a public space that this stuff matters. We love the experience of being a part of something bigger than ourselves — maybe it’s having a family, or being on a sports team or volunteering for a charity or community service. Religion is one way we get that experience and some people find it really meaningful. And they do it publicly, not just in their private lives. Understanding that helps us know other people better but also can help us know ourselves and our own search for meaning, whatever it may be.


Q: And why do you think it’s important for the Ronning Centre to connect with the community when undertaking this work?

A: One of the great things about the centre, and what makes it unique, is that it’s both university and public facing. A lot of what academics do in their conference talks, publications and teaching has a hard time getting past the ivy draped over our towers. The Ronning Centre is in an academic context but tries to bring knowledge beyond the university. There’s research and papers, but there’s also performances and storytelling. Connecting with the community is important for the centre to show how the study of religion and building religious literacy is relevant to everyone. But it’s a collaborative process and we need to listen and engage with community as much as host events. We need to know what has worked and where we can put our attention to have success. So the importance of connecting with community really goes both ways. We need each other.

The Chester Ronning Centre will be holding an open house on September 23 during U of A Days. All community members are welcome to come by and say hello, have some food, tour the centre’s new space and share their ideas. 

Want to learn more about Joseph Wiebe? Listen to the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology podcast where Wiebe shares more in-depth knowledge about himself and his academic work.