Religion in a Crisis: Faith Communities and COVID-19

“This pandemic shows us that our economic, social, political, [and] cultural systems are not working,” Imam Abdullah Antepli, Associate Professor of the Practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Divinity School, announced to a gathering of more than 40 scholars, religious leaders, and students from around the globe.

This convening typically takes places annually as part of an international conference and summer school to confront the most pressing issues in religious traditions. This year’s virtualized event, hosted by the International Network on Interreligious Research and Education (INIRE), in collaboration with Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII (FSCIRE), highlighted how the pandemic challenged religious communities and also spurred them to action to confront those challenges.

Malachi Hacohen, Director of the Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and co-organizer of the event, commented that the Network’s aim “to address a central problem to religious traditions, explore innovative solutions and advance interreligious dialogue” seemed best directed to  the pandemic at this moment. As Alberto Melloni (Director of FSCIRE, Professor of History of Christianity at the University of Modena-Reggio) suggested, “COVID was asking religious communities, religious doctrines, and religions as faith systems to prove to be useful.”

Reflections from students and from leaders in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions offered both justification and critique of the response to the global crisis and its impact on specific faith communities. Boaz Ordman, student from Rabbaney Bet Hillel, considered decisions by the Orthodox-Jewish establishment in Israel that prohibited synagogue attendance in an effort “to find the balance between the routine of life and dealing with this pandemic.” Ordman suggested Jewish law and religious reasoning ultimately influenced these closures, as “saving life supersedes shabbat.”

Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini (CO.RE.IS) offered a more critical reflection on this “balance,” particularly surrounding the closing of Mecca. He underscored how “Worldwide, Muslim institutions” affirmed that “health is a priority, not only for ourselves and our communities, but also for humanity,” but that “religious authorities and believers need to somehow frame the balance between priorities [. . .]—we have to stress [health] and the emergency at the global level, but we cannot somehow forget our religious duties.”

Throughout the discussions, seminar participants aptly made connections to social justice issues, highlighting how the pandemic exposed and made more prevalent social injustices as well as how religion was and is instrumental in advancing movements like Black Lives Matter to address them.

Despite all these challenges, Carol Bakhos, Professor of Late Antique Judaism and Jewish Studies at UCLA, suggested that religion’s purpose might not be so different now: “what we see religion offering in a time of crisis is actually what religion always offers [. . .]—a sense of comfort, stability, belonging, and hope.”

If you would like to view recordings of the seminar sessions, please click here. To learn more about INIRE and the Religions and Public Life Initiative, please visit the Religions and Public Life website.





Racism, Police Violence, and Protests

In a lunch-hour conversation on Friday, June 5, the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ signature series, The Ethics of Now from Home broke from its weekly webinar schedule to quickly respond to George Floyd’s murder, racism, police violence, and public demonstrations happening all across the nation. In the conversation, “Racism, Police Violence, and Protests,” series host Adriane Lentz-Smith (Associate Professor of History), was joined by William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr. (Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy) for an insightful conversation followed by attendee Q&A.

Lentz-Smith and Darity reflected on the current pandemic’s role in exacerbating and amplifying deep-rooted problems, from the racial wealth gap to state-sanctioned destruction of black lives and property. “The kinds of inequalities that are linked to America’s racial history and its racial present were exposed dramatically by the COVID-19 crisis,” said Darity, “and I think that the murder of George Floyd, which was extraordinarily visible to everyone across the country, was an instance that brought to light another dimension of inequality, which is anti-black police violence.”

Despite this grim legacy, Darity was not wholly pessimistic about the rule of law and the Constitution. While “American police forces have disproportionately functioned as an ally in a white supremacist mission,” he noted that U.S. military leaders seem to have “deeply internalized the notion of their constitutional position and their constitutional status,” and have resisted using the military to repress protestors.

For Darity, effective policy solutions to police violence must uphold existing law and change the incentives for doing so.  “Policing practices are violating the written law on a continuous basis,” he reminded attendees. However, he suggested if penalties for police brutality – malpractice – were paid out of police pensions rather than municipal budgets; if qualified immunity were revoked; if police unions were less powerful; and if police forces were demilitarized, the incentive structures around policing would improve.

Prison abolition could also shift the focus and manner of policing. “[S]omething we really, really have to address is the enormous over-incarceration that takes place, and that has implications for the system of criminal justice writ large, and also for police practices,” Darity affirmed. “We would not have to have as much policing by any means if there were not a host of minor offenses we put black people in jail for.”
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In terms of what individuals can do, within and beyond the current nationwide protests, one attendee commented, “There does not seem to be a leader, although it seems that we are now in a movement.” Darity encouraged citizens to address the issues at all three levels of politics: municipal, state, and federal. He also emphasized a distinct, yet important role for a national consortium bringing together state and local governments, universities, and corporations to lobby Congress for reparations programs. Lentz-Smith noted that the emphasis on particular visionaries in the civil rights movement may overshadow the leadership that emerged from remarkable activist groups doing the work. “So it’s less a question of who do we look for to tell us what to do, but how do we work together,” she said.

The Ethics of Now from Home webinar series continues this Thursday, June 11th (7pm) with Professor Lentz-Smith and WLF Bass Connections Associate Professor in Public Policy Anna Gassman-Pines for the conversation “Well-Being for Children and Families during COVID-19.” View the full-length videos of previous webinars from the Kenan Institute’s YouTube channel.

Staff Ethics Book Clubs

Established in 2015, with close to 70 books having been read across 21 departments, the Ethics Book Clubs for Staff initiative seeks to foster an informal and fun conversational space for Duke staff to discuss works of fiction and non-fiction related, broadly, to ethics.

The Kenan Institute for Ethics invites departments to keep this form of engagement going in this moment of virtual learning through the creation or continuation of intra- or interdepartmental book clubs. To apply for seed funding ($500), which may be used to purchase books and supplies, please complete and submit the attached form to Jeremy Buotte (jeremy.buotte@duke.edu). Departments that have received seed funding in the past may apply again.

Expectations for all book clubs are as follows:

  • Clubs are open only to staff members from Duke departments and schools; clubs must be comprised entirely of Duke staff members
  • Clubs must engage issues surrounding ethics through their book selections and group discussions (sample book list available upon request)
  • Clubs are to meet virtually on a regular basis (weekly, biweekly, or monthly), preferably during work hours
  • Clubs should be open to convening with other book clubs, as is fitting (e.g., if the same book is being read by more than one department), for occasional group discussions

For more information, please contact Jeremy Buotte (jeremy.buotte@duke.edu).

DOWNLOAD the seed funding application form (PDF)

“Spanish Narratives of Migration”: Abolitionist Organizing on the US-Mexico Border

Nina Ebner, an advocate with the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee (DMSC)/Fronterizx Fianza Fund, will unpack recent developments in Juarez/El Paso during an hour-long workshop. In it, she will discuss her work with DMSC, an abolitionist collective of femmes and queer individuals, fighting for more equitable immigration policy, the demilitarization of border communities and an end to migrant detention. The talk will be followed with time for Q&A addressing how space—and place—is fought for.

The workshop, as part of the “Spanish Narratives of Migration” Seminar, will take place via Zoom on Thursday, April 2, 2020 from 3:05-4:20. It is open to the public but will require pre-registration and a password to join.


Please email Anna Tybinko (anna.tybinko@duke.edu) for the event password and prior access to readings.

Sara Kate Baudhuin Presents Refugee Research

Earlier this month, Sara Kate Baudhuin, Trinity sophomore, Program II major, and member of the Kenan Refugee Project, headed to Oxford College for the weekend. Sara Kate was attending the Time, Space, and Culture conference sponsored by the London Institute of Interdisciplinary Research. At her very first academic conference, she presented her summer research findings comparing the experience of refugees from Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo currently living in Rwanda.

Based on 40 refugee life stories, The Influence of Physical and Temporal Separation from Home on the Notion of Hope in Refugee Populations, explores the impact of protracted displacement on refugee well-being. Through analysis of a poignant set of refugee narratives, Sara Kate argues that a diminishing hope of repatriation and return to home and family can create new forms of intergenerational trauma. Both the initial forced displacement and the prolonged waiting in refugee camps, however safe they may be, generate trauma. Sara Kate concludes, “Time does not exist in a vacuum, the duration that one spends in refugee camps is not merely lost time with no effect, but rather, this trauma seems to compound with time. We see this trend happening in real time, we see the way this has affected both populations that we spoke to; this should catalyze policy change and demand more immediacy in finding solutions and support.“

Sara Kate is planning to revise her article for publication.

The Kenan Refugee Project (KRP) is a community-based research and advocacy project at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics.


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Project Amours: Alumni Mentorship for Refugee Students

On a recent Friday across a table in the Duke Hospital cafeteria, new and extraordinary connections were being made. The vital ties that carry social capital—the insight, experience, social and emotional support so important to enabling immigrant and refugees to thrive in their adoptive communities–were emerging over lunch. Iqra Basri, a Pakistani born, immigrant and first generation community college student, who aspires to a career in health care, was getting to know what a typical day looks like for Rosie Canizares. Rosie is a Duke alumnus and Clinical Specialist in Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. Rosie, herself a child of immigrants, was strategizing with Iqra about how to plot a path to a four-year college—a new direction neither her family nor friends understand.

Think you know this story? Think again.

Hint: This is not another adult mentoring program.

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Instead, this story is part of an innovative social venture, Project AMOURS (adult mentors of underrepresented refugee and immigrant students), that was developed in the Kenan Institute’s Citizenship Lab. The program partners alumni, Duke students, and newcomer youth in vertically integrated mentoring relationships and friendships. The relationship between Iqra and Rosie, a newcomer to Durham and Duke alumni lies at the center of a set of overlapping and reinforcing friendships that also include a Duke student,  Marium Kahn. Marium is Iqra’s Duke undergraduate mentor, herself an aspiring doctor and recent immigrant.  Building on social networks and educational access research, the student leaders of Project AMOURS found that creating overlapping and layered circles of friendship is the most effective way to work with and build this social capital—precisely because it is also good for the Duke students themselves.

The key to this success is finding older adult partners for youth such as Iqra, and thus forming the anchor relationship. Duke alumni are the answer. These Duke alumni participate in Project AMOURS for a range of reasons, but the desire to work with motivated newcomer youth as they find their way in a new country is paramount. Many alumni also describe a longing to reconnect to campus and wanting an excuse to meet smart and interesting Duke undergraduates like Marium.  So for Rosie, Marium and Iqra, this relationship is a win-win-win for all.

Back in the cafeteria, Marium was telling Rosie who the most engaging professors are so that she could steer her own first-year advisees to their classes. Marium, for her part, was learning from Rosie that being a doctor was not the only fulfilling career in the health care field.  “I had no idea,” Marium remarked, “that you could get PhD in Physical Therapy and have a rewarding career that includes seeing patients and teaching until I met Rosie.” Furthermore, Marium’s new insight about her own trajectory enabled Iqra to have a new sense of the possible as well.

Project AMOURS and Citizenship Lab are part of Global Migration at the Kenan Institute for Ethics – a multidisciplinary collaboration between faculty, students, and practitioners exploring the empirical and normative consequences of human migration.