Main content start

Working in the Field

This is a space for faculty and graduate students in Stanford's Religious Studies Department to reflect on the ways in which their own work foregrounds issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. We will feature a different graduate student and faculty member on a rotational basis.

The current feature is:

Valeria Vergani

As a scholar of religion and culture in contemporary North America, I examine the discursive formations, the political economies, and the asymmetries of power that surround current public debates on the role and category of ‘religion’ in a variety of public institutions—including the academy, health care, and the government. 

I am particularly interested in appraising contemporary trends in religion and politics in North America as settler colonial formations that are predicated on the historical and ongoing dispossession of sovereign Indigenous Nations. My dissertation aims to better understand ‘interfaith dialogue’ and ‘interfaith cooperation’ as institutionalized modes of mediating, governing, and disciplining religious difference under the colonial-secular regimes of the United States and Canada during the past three decades. Who gets to be at the interfaith table, and who is recognized as belonging to a religious community? Who is considered worthy of inclusion? How do myths of national legitimacy and belonging on occupied Indigenous lands shape debate and practices of interreligious relationship-building? Questions of diversity and inclusion are central to my research, precisely because the state-endorsed idioms of religious pluralism and multiculturalism also always imply hidden exclusions and the delegitimization of certain groups whose religious practices are considered illegitimate or invalid within these frameworks. Questions of diversity and inclusion are at the heart of American religious politics in the contemporary moment.

In my future teaching, I hope to intervene in debates about religious authority and legitimacy by intentionally expanding the array of voices that are considered ‘authoritative’ in the study of religion. Beyond scholars, observers, and theorists steeped in Western traditions, I seek to center and uphold the authoritative wisdom of Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and Indigenous Teachers who offer alternative histories on the relationship among religion, politics, and community in American history. By doing so, I want to continue reflecting on how academic knowledge-production shapes the world we live in and contributes to legitimizing or troubling its political and colonial dynamics.

Past Features

Elaine Lai

I am a Ph.D Candidate specializing in Buddhist tantra, specifically Dzogchen, though I wear many other hats. My dissertation explores the relationship between Buddhist literature and time, specifically, how form and content may interplay to cultivate more expansive and compassionate temporal relationalities that disrupt monolithic narratives of time, and thus create liberative possibilities. In both my pedagogy and my work, I seek to actively dissolve disciplinary boundaries. I approach my scholarship the same way I would any other kind of creative collaboration: in reciprocal relationality with community—whether textual communities, scholarly ones, activist ones, or otherwise. I am animated by a diverse range of inspirations, spanning from Buddhist stories, to queer theory, to literature of all genres, film, and of course, my many different conversation partners/friends. This year I’m proud to be teaching a course called “Queering Buddhism: Gender, Sexuality, Liberatory Praxis,” which is a culmination of a personal project of mine to investigate the possibilities and constraints to queering or transforming any institution, and how the field of queer studies and feminist studies might constructively, and ethically be in conversation with Buddhist theories of liberation.

Apart from my designated role as a PhD student, I previously served as the co-president of the Buddhist Community at Stanford (BCAS) for three years, where I initiated a shift towards framing Buddhism as compassionate intersectionality rather than purely Buddhist identity, and helped to host a range of speakers, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, who are committed to an ethics of nonviolence, anti-racism, and moving beyond restrictive binaries. Through BCAS and other communities on campus, I am also actively engaged in screenwriting, playwriting, filmmaking, and other forms of creative work like this two-part podcast called “Queer Joy and Community Resilience: Voices from Stanford.” My most recent short film 新年快樂 Happy New Year focuses on the intersection of religion and nonviolence; it is about a Taiwanese-American Buddhist who resolves to say goodbye to 2021 by committing to five acts of random kindness, but her resolve is shaken when she becomes a target of anti-Asian violence. This film was made in response to the rise in anti-Asian violence around the Stanford and greater Bay area during the pandemic and in hopes that it could foster more nuanced and complex conversations on how to continually commit to compassion in a world that is endlessly violent.

Kathryn Gin Lum

I am a scholar of religion and race in American history. My first two monographs look at Christian ideas of hell and at the category of the “heathen” to investigate the relationship between religious othering and race-making in the US. I am also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History. In my research and my teaching, I seek to complicate the discipline of “history” in relation to “religion” and “race,” and to trace broad changes and continuities over time while remaining attentive to a diversity of lived experiences. 

In my classes and engagement with students, I also try to show how I do this work, from thinking about paragraph structure to sharing templates for research and reading notes. I believe that talking about and practicing practical skills is an essential way to build equitable and inclusive community and to foster collaboration. I didn’t come into grad school knowing how to write an article or a book, and I try to create spaces where students and faculty can be vulnerable together as we learn from each other and read each other’s work.

Anuj Amin

Anuj M. Amin, Ph.D Candidate in the Department of Religious Studies, specializes in traditions of late antiquity. From his perspective, historical reconstructions of the late ancient world are fundamentally dependent on understanding the diversity of communities, identities, and cultures of the period:

“Working across languages like Middle Persian, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, I am constantly amazed by the societal complexity of this era. My research, which considers demonic possessions, exorcisms, and magic, is an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor. I look at literature, art, and ritual from Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian sources to understand how these traditions may have had shared conceptions of the infernal. My research emphasizes the importance of considering identity, and through my research, I ultimately strive to create a more complete reconstruction of lived religion in the late ancient world.

C. Naomi Mendez

Naomi Mendez

Naomi is a Ph.D. student in Jewish Studies specializing in Jewish mysticism. Her work critically analyzes and contextualizes the role of gender and sex in medieval Kabbalistic literature and practice. She brings in methods from Religious Studies, Feminist Studies, Linguistic Studies, and History in order to argue against the assumption that these texts operate on essentialist notions of gender dualism, as well as to argue against the general consensus of androcentrism and female inferiority in medieval Jewish mysticism. Naomi aims to demonstrate that femininity and the female body in Kabbalah are dynamic ideas that often convey a fluid, non-binary and complicated understanding of gender that has otherwise gone unnoticed by scholars. She does so by considering how cultural norms undergird Kabbalah’s linguistic construction of sex and the body, and by critically approaching the construction of gender in Kabbalah as a part of a complicated web of cultural and theological symbols. She hopes her work will be conducive of new perspectives in the contextualization of gender and the female body in Medieval and Jewish Studies.

As a first-generation Latinx college student, Naomi is currently working on numerous translation projects featuring medieval Jewish texts. She is aware that there are few Spanish-speaking scholars in the fields of Jewish Studies and Kabbalah and even fewer Spanish-speaking female scholars. She is passionate about making key medieval texts and reliable scholarship accessible to Spanish-speakers all around the world.

Alexis  Wells-Oghoghomeh

Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh

As a historian of African Atlantic religion, my research and teaching examine the conflicts and exchanges that have occasioned the appearance of religion as an academic category and race as a global system of human organization. I am particularly interested in the ways that enslaved and colonized peoples challenge, nuance, and expand concepts of religion, while theorizing and practicing visions of themselves and their communities apart from the category’s colonial impositions. My first book explores how enslaved African-descended women responded to the material conditions of enslavement through varied social, sexual, and parental strategies. Like the rest of my work, the book interrogates the broad themes of race, religion, and gender through recourses to the mundane—recognizing that social, academic, and legal constructs operate and find meaning in everyday interactions and intimate spaces. For me, theorizing the experiences and epistemologies of the people who constitute everyday spaces and using them as a source of knowledge about race, religion, gender, and other categories we consider in religious studies is essential to creating truly inclusive spaces and equity in the field.

Jem Jebbia

Jem Jebbia

jem studies historic inter-religious communities in California’s Central Valley. Her dissertation draws on four case studies that show the ways immigrant and Indigenous laborers navigated laws and policies that upheld (and uphold) white supremacy by forming coalitions and communities across religious, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and gender differences. Her work brings in methods from religious studies, sociology, history, labor studies, and earth science.

jem hopes her work will urge scholars of religion in America and scholars of the American West to see the importance of "encounter" in the history of the American West. Further, she focuses on the Central Valley because the region is essential to the formation of California and big agriculture, yet is often overlooked in studies of the American West. jem enjoys teaching and consulting with the Center for Teaching and Learning on Campus, being a member of the American Religions in Global Context Seminar, and serving as a research assistant for the Shared Sacred Spaces Project.

Sunil D. Persad

Sunil D. Persad

Sunil D. Persad is a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies and specializes in Late Antique Christianity. His academic and professional experiences, together with his mixed Caribbean roots, have made him aware of the ramifications resulting from a lack of diversity and the significance of making every voice heard. As he describes, this has become one of the guiding principles of his studies:

“My interests center on challenging some of the dominant reconstructions of early Christian communities. These narratives are often evaluated through certain categories like orthodoxy and orthopraxis, which not only determine which stories are told, but also which are forgotten. A contributing factor to this problem is that the body of scholars in this field also suffers from a lack of unique voices that would otherwise contribute to a more integrated discussion. My research intersects at these obstacles and is essential, both in and out of the classroom, in embracing a more complete account of Christian history.”

Ralph H. Craig III

Ralph H. Craig III

Ralph H. Craig III is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Stanford University. He received his B.A. in Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, where his studies included comparative theology and Yoga Studies. He is currently writing a religious biography of Tina Turner (under contract). His dissertation is a study of medieval representations of Buddhist preachers across South Asian Buddhist literature. Other interests include metaphysical religion, African American religious history, and religion and popular culture.

My early encounters with religion were in New Orleans, Louisiana, my hometown. There, I encountered Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Voodoo, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities. These communities are heterogenous. Consequently, my interest in Religious Studies lay primarily in the exploration of such heterogenous religious communities.

I am painfully aware that there are few Black scholars working in my areas of specialization and I am determined to ensure that this situation does not continue.

Elaine Fisher

Elaine Fisher

Both my academic research and teachings on Hinduism are shaped by questions of the internal diversity of the Hindu religion. My first book, Hindu Pluralism draws attention away from the erasure of this diversity by the project of Hindu nationalism, arguing instead that prior to colonial intervention, Hinduism in south India was fundamentally plural in its public culture. For me, even though this plurality tells us something of interest about the early modern past, it’s also of deep relevance to Hindu public culture today—it speaks to the need to remember and acknowledge the diverse forms of Hindu identity adopted by individuals across regions, across social boundaries such as caste, or across gender identities. I pursue these themes in detail in my undergraduate courses as well. For instance, in The Hindu Epics and the Ethics of Dharma, we consider how to we might read the classics of Hindu narrative literature, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, in a way that is inclusive of multiple religious and regional cultures. The interpretation of these texts, and of the Indian past, has real consequences for the lives of Muslims and other religious minorities in India today.

Even more broadly, however, I feel that engaging deeply with the past is a project that hones our sensitivity toward human diversity. By entering into worldviews radically different from my own, structured by categories quite different from those that are normative in the modern Western world, I’ve come to realize the incredibly provincial and situated nature of my own experience of being human.

Esiteli Hafoka

Esiteli Hafoka

Esiteli Hafoka is a PhD candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University. She received her MA from Stanford and her BA in Religious Studies and Ancient History from UC Riverside. Esiteli’s dissertation surveys Tongan historical narratives, ethnographies, social media, and personal interviews to argue that religion is essential to understanding Tongan collective identity in America. Her dissertation identifies religious threads connecting 19th c. Methodist Christianity, Mormonism, national Tongan democracy, and Tongan Crip Gang members in Utah. Esiteli’s research reveals the ways Tongans navigate their racial identity in America through a religious epistemology, and how, for Tongan Americans, religion and race are co-constitutional.

Out of about 60,000 Tongans in the U.S., Esiteli is currently the only Tongan PhD student at Stanford—it would not be a stretch to claim that she is the first Tongan PhD student at Stanford.  As of 2017, there are six known Tongan women who hold PhDs in the U.S., and Esiteli is among a few in the pipeline. Doctoral students often address the loneliness of PhD study but her own experiences with loneliness are compounded by the pressures of representing an entire ethnic demographic. The added weight of becoming a parent in graduate school protracted Esiteli's time to degree, but she was fortunate to receive the DARE fellowship through the VPGE at Stanford to complete researching and writing her dissertation while still providing for her family.