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:
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 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 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.
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 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.
I take an anthropological approach to studying religion. My research focuses on Buddhist responses to chronic and acute pain in Taiwan. Using ethnography to study how Buddhist monastics and hospital patients respond to pain is part of a larger move towards a more inclusive understanding of Buddhism. It challenges Buddhist Studies’ traditional disciplinary focus on philosophy, texts, and doctrine and allows us to add an additional focus on Buddhism as it is lived and practiced by the majority of Buddhists. This theoretical and methodological shift results in a turning away from religious exemplars and extraordinary individuals to focusing on non-elite Buddhists and ordinary experience.
Outside of my studies, I have written on Asian American Buddhism for Lion’s Roar, the Buddhist magazine. By the Pew Forum’s estimate, roughly two-thirds of Buddhists in America are of Asian descent, but Asian Americans have historically been underrepresented in mainstream American Buddhist publications. This is something I am hoping to see change. In light of the incidents of anti-Asian violence in the past year, this work feels more important than ever.
As a recent first-generation Korean immigrant woman in the States, I have found myself both as an insider and an outsider within various layers of community and identity: citizen and non-citizen, Asian/Asian American and people of color, Korean churches and predominantly white churches, and states in the South and in the West. This constantly shifting status, as disorienting as it can be for me at times, also offers a lens through which I can be both participant and observer, a role with which I hope to pursue in my academic work.
My research interests include Asian immigrant experiences and religiosity in a transnational context. I’m particularly interested in how Protestant Christianity in early 20th century America shaped and engaged in Korean immigrants’ embodied experiences. How were Korean immigrants racialized by state power and white-centered society? How did gender play a role in the process of immigration? How can we understand the lives of Korean immigrants reflected in Korea’s relationship to the imperial powers of America and Japan? And finally, how might we find these various inputs intersecting under the umbrella of Protestant Christianity? These kinds of questions have also spurred me to co-organize a panel on Race and Gender in Contemporary Religious Studies at Stanford University and to serve as a committee member in Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation Ministry in Disciples of Christ.
I work at the intersection of Islamic Studies, Religious Studies, and critical theory, striving to understand how Muslims and non-Muslims labor to produce communities in which all members can live and thrive. Working with Muslims and in Muslim spaces has focused my attention on how racialized religious minorities make space for themselves, their aspirations, and their concerns within, and often in spite of, people and systems that seek to minimize, marginalize, and even eliminate them. I’ve been privileged to learn about human creativity, resilience, and integrity from living and working outside of the white, middle-class American context of my birth. These experiences and studies have helped me to question and unsettle many of the theories, methods, and materials we rely on in the academic study of religion, for example in regard to the extractive logics of much ethnography. And so I value discomfort and confusion as guides to my inquiries and search for a more collaborative and transformative mode of exploring our shared world.