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Duke Chapel series Theology Underground discusses underrepresentation, diversity in religious education

The Duke Chapel’s new series “Theology Underground,” which aims to highlight underrepresented voices in religious academia, held its first event last Tuesday. 

Tirzah Villegas, Divinity School ‘22, was the event’s featured speaker. She is an expert in Mujerista Theology, a Hispanic feminist theology that emphasizes the everyday realities of Latinx women. 

Theology Underground is focused on bringing lived experiences to the forefront of theological conversations and investigating “how culture, identity, and race impact the way we live out our faith and beliefs,” according to the series’ website.

The series is a collaboration between the Duke Chapel, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, the Center for Multicultural Affairs and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. 

Alejandra Salemi, a doctoral candidate in the Duke School of Medicine said she believes in the goal of the series. 

“This Mujerista Theology along with other community of color theologies, are not part of what we would consider the canon because it's usually white men,” she said. 

Mujerista Theology, Villegas explained, is a theology in which “lived, embodied experiences matter the most.” In her opinion, part of the reason why traditions like Mujerista Theology are not prominent in normative theological discourse is because they require action.

“If you’re talking about bodies, then you have to pay the staff that cleans your building a living wage and make sure that if they get injured they are actually getting enough time off,” Villegas said during the event. “If you’re not centering that theology, you don’t have to live up to it.”

Earlier during the event, Rev. Racquel Gill, the minister for intercultural engagement at the Duke Chapel, echoed a similar sentiment. 

“Discourse around God is not always in the ivory towers. It is not always with the academics. It’s with the folks. It’s with the farmers. It’s with the migrants. It’s with people who are struggling every day,” she said.

The name of the series, “Theology Underground,” serves a dual purpose: the room in which the meetings take place, the Mary Lou’s Multipurpose Room, is literally underground. But so are the different beliefs and rituals of the communities the series aims to highlight, according to Gill. 

“God is also at work in a lot of cultures and a lot of identities and a lot of communities that are sometimes not centered in our normative discourse,” Gill told The Chronicle about the mission of the series.

Villegas and Gill argued during the event that more traditional theological discourse strips everyday people of theological authority and concentrates it in the hands of priests and theology professors. 

“I have seen students get shut down in very unkind ways. Students of color, who were speaking their truth about their lived experience ... get shut down by other students or professors, and nobody’s defending them,” Villegas told The Chronicle after the event.

As an alternative to institutionalized religious education, Gill said she believes in the power of popular education and community organizing. This is why the physical home of the Theology Underground series is important to her. 

“In a building like the Mary Lou Williams Center, we think about the history of student organizing, of students finding a way or making one,” she told The Chronicle.

Sophomore Sage Hirschfeld appreciated the opportunity to attend an event about spirituality, especially as finding time for it grows difficult. 

“The Chapel is at the center of campus. And so you would think that space for some spirituality would also be at the center of campus,” Hirschfeld told The Chronicle after the event. “What actually is communicated as the priority is appearances and also academics.”

The next Theology Underground event will take place in the Mary Lou’s Underground Multipurpose Room at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27th and is open to the public. Future event topics include Queer Theologies and Native and Indigenous Theologies.

Holly Keegan profile
Holly Keegan | University News Editor

Holly Keegan is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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