Thoughts on Prayers: Conversations with Duke Religious Life Leaders

March 17, 2020
pictures of Duke Religious Life leaders
By Renate Kwon

A priest, a rabbi, an imam, and a dharmic advisor walk into a classroom…

Far from being the precursor to a punchline, this was the setting for a thematic mini-series conducted over the course of the 2019-2020 academic year under the banner of the Wednesdays at the Center seminar series coordinated by the John Hope Franklin Center (JHFC) and the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS).

Across two semesters, Father Michael Martin, Dr. Madhu Sharma, Chaplain Joshua Salaam, and Rabbi Elanna Friedman each engaged in conversation with Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, Director of DUCIGS, and Julie Maxwell, M. Div., a program coordinator with the Duke Islamic Studies Center, about their work as religious life leaders on campus. Each of the conversations was conducted with an audience of students, faculty, staff, and members of the community.

Though each came to their current expression of faith through highly different life experiences as well as divergent religious traditions, all expressed their joy at being able to help students on campus grow into maturity of belief as well as nurturing their intellectual development. In turn, they feel they have gained much from the experience of university chaplaincy. As Father Mike put it, “I never thought that coming to Duke would deepen my faith the way that it has. I am humbled by the students here who engage their faith. I feel they call forth from me something greater.”

Duke University formally recognizes 27 denominations on campus and there is a strong tradition at Duke of welcoming people of different religious backgrounds. All four chaplains acknowledged the challenge of getting students to learn more about their own faith as an important prerequisite before engaging in inter-faith dialogue with others.


Father Mike

I never thought that coming to Duke would depen my faith the way that it has. I am humbled by the students here who engage their faith. I feel they call forth from me something greater." -Fr. Michael Martin, Duke Catholic Center

Father Michael Martin (known widely as “Father Mike”) has been working in education nearly the entirety of his ministry, first at a Catholic high school and, for the past ten years, serving as the leader of the Duke Catholic Center. He observed that college is a particularly challenging time for young people, and he pointed out that ministering to them on campus is not the same as being a church. At his conversation on September 18, he noted, “a lot of people don't realize what goes on in campus ministry - they think we're out on the quad, throwing frisbees and handing out t-shirts and pizza. In reality, we are ministering to the spiritual needs of the students.”

He believes the shift to a student ministry model is one of the major changes that has taken place over the past decade. "We're trying to empower students to walk with their peers," he said, although an ongoing challenge is helping students to feel more engaged and being empowered as faith disciples.

Another challenge is helping students navigate their purpose in being on campus along with the accompanying stress. “What are we saying,” he asked, “when so many of our young people are saying the stress of getting through the day is so much they cannot handle it? How can we as a community help dial it back without diluting the meaning of being at Duke?” He believes that more can be done to step back and encourage mindfulness. To this end, he conducts a biweekly podcast, titled "I pray before I go to bed - and other lies I tell myself." The purpose of his role on campus, as he sees it, is to "try to help students learn to appreciate and acknowledge God's presence with them in that moment, wherever they may be."

One of the special elements of being at Duke, he believes, is tremendous amount of resources available to students seeking spiritual guidance - moreso than the culture at large. Along with his fellow chaplains, he works to help students avail themselves of the resources while they are at Duke. “It's this both/and of providing them with resources through crisis but also strengthening their ability to walk through adversity and see there is hope on the other side, even without the institutions they can access on campus.”


Madhu Sharma

quote by Dharmic Advisor Madhu Sharma

Dr. Madhu Sharma began her professional career as a chemical engineer; she later went on to earn a Master of Social Work and returned to the Triangle just as Duke was looking for a “Hindu chaplain.” She noted, with humor, that there is no such thing as a “chaplain” in the Hindu religion – “dharmic advisor” would be a more appropriate title. However, she was encouraged to apply given her strong family connections to Hinduism both abroad as well as in the Raleigh-Durham area.

She noted in her October 16 conversation that she is also one of the few individuals serving as Hindu chaplain in the U.S. – only three other universities have comparable full-time positions despite many schools having large numbers of Hindu students.

To increase her ability to work with the Hindu population at Duke, she recently completed a PhD in order to learn more about Hinduism so she could support students and their questions. In her daily work, she finds that she uses a combination of the training she received while earning her MSW and executive coaching, even outside the Hindu framework. She also finds it somewhat ironic that very few Hindus have completed PhDs in Hinduism while many who teach Hinduism on an academic level are not practicing Hindus.

All of the religious advisers on campus meet twice a month to compare notes and to learn from one another’s experiences, she said. 

Hinduism is quite a broad tent at Duke, encompassing both Jain and Sikh traditions, though Buddhism is fairly separate. She also has observed that there are many differences in religious perspective and practice between undergrad and graduate students as well as those who were born in the U.S. or overseas. Thus, Hindu communities at Duke and UNC are somewhat at a disadvantage; there are a total of 4 chaplains for Hindus, compared with over 20 for Christian students (including 10 full-time staff for the Catholic Center). In Dr. Sharma's opinion, Hindu students are not necessarily receiving the service or spiritual guidance they need.

In response to an audience question about the connection between religion and mental health, Dr. Sharma stated that she has occasionally found it challenging to fully support some students because many Hindus from India tend not to acknowledge such issues as mental health concerns for cultural reasons. Therefore, although her office does refer students to mental health support services on campus, she tends to respond more with an approach of providing spiritual guidance. Interestingly, her doctoral thesis was on the teachings in the Vedas that deal with anxiety; she has found, over the course of her work, that much of the Hindu teaching on the subject is supported by science.

There is a whole part of Hinduism, she observed, that is not religious in the western sense, but prescribes a way of life that includes practices such as yoga and general mindfulness. In her view, “Hinduism is not a ‘religion’ – it is a spiritual way of being – it’s a way of life.” One of the distinguishing elements of Hinduism, compared to other religions on campus, is its focus on individual development rather than being part of a group. "It's a journey for individuals - it's not a community - to understand who they are. It's about self-knowledge."

Over the past nine years, Dr. Sharma has seen a slow increase in awareness of Hindu life on campus. Last year, 500 students attended Diwali in the chapel, and she sees a large part of job as helping spread awareness of Hindus on campus and making the broader Duke community aware of what Hinduism is. In September 2019, she gave the opening prayer at the NC Senate session - this was the first time there was ever a Hindu prayer to open a senate session and it was possible because of the Duke Hindu chaplaincy.

Near the end of the conversation, Dr. Sharma shared that one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is seeing how Hindu celebrations have expanded and that students want to take on responsibility and leadership roles. As one example, later that night, a grad student would lead the Navratri puja. She finds it particularly rewarding to see students be happy with decisions they make and grow into themselves as individuals.


Joshua Salaam

quote by Muslim Chaplain Joshua Salaam

"Sometimes they call me 'imam,' sometimes they call me 'chaplain,'" noted Joshua Salaam near the beginning of his conversation on January 22. In a “typical” week, he is called on to deal with spirituality, socialization, and making sure that students know about all of the resources Duke has to offer Muslim students on campus. In his view, "I'm here to serve all Muslims - they're all people who deserve accommodation. That's why I call myself a chaplain - I am a resource for all communities, even those of other religious traditions."

Joshua Salaam opted to become a Muslim chaplain at Duke rather than an imam for a different Muslim community in order to help students strengthen their spirituality. A lifelong Muslim, he nevertheless came to chaplaincy via a rather circuitous path. As an undergraduate, he struggled to find an academic path, left school, joined the Air Force as an MP, returned to school to complete a degree in criminal justice, re-entered government service, worked for a time as a youth director, then earned a master’s degree and completed the chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary where he also expects to finish his PhD.

At Duke, he works with undergraduates as well as graduate students, faculty, staff, and even members of the surrounding community. There are also non-Muslim community members who engage with the Muslim Student Association and participate in activities. On campus, around 180 students currently self-identify as Muslim, though this number is a likely underestimate since many Muslim students are fearful of identifying as such. Also, several of Duke’s graduate schools do not ask incoming students about their religious affiliation, so engaging in outreach among these populations can be challenging. However, he believes building this community of support for Muslim students is a critical part of the chaplaincy.

Helping students navigate many issues related to their spiritual growth during their time at Duke is an ongoing challenge. Salaam believes that "one of the key ingredients of success is listening - hearing people tell you what they want."

One interesting facet of Salaam’s life is his career as a musician. A founding member of the Islamic musical group, Native Deen, Salaam sees music as a way of helping to inspire young people to keep their faith amid the pressures and temptations of daily life. 

In response to an audience question about how one can learn about religion and the Muslim faith, Salaam answered "I encourage people to redefine what it means to be a practicing Muslim." He also returned to the difference between an imam and a chaplain, observing that his chaplaincy training at Hartford Seminary prepared him to wrestle with these types of questions because everyone in the class came from various faith traditions.

Finally, Salaam feels strongly that there is a great opportunity to create a strong community supporting Muslim students at Duke. He noted that his colleagues at Religious Life and around campus have a healthy desire to collaborate, though there needs to be emphasis on collaborating early rather than having inclusion be an afterthought. However, he concluded, “good things are coming!”


Elana Friedman

quote by Rabbi Elana Friedman

Rounding out the mini-series in the spring semester, Rabbi Elana Friedman began her conversation on February 12 by noting, "I was really drawn to campus chaplaincy because of the interesting conversations that happen in a university environment."

Rabbi Elana grew up in a strongly Jewish household, attending Jewish schools and camps throughout her childhood. As she put it, "most of my life is embedded in a Jewish community."

After completing her university studies in a far more secular environment, she continued searching for a way to fulfill her spiritual needs. Upon discovering that it was possible for her to become an ordained leader in her faith through the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she reflected that, "to be a woman rabbi, and be progressive and radical - that was very appealing."

As Campus Rabbi for Jewish Life at Duke, she views her work through a broad lens, noting "our Jewish students are often looking for a place they feel at home at Duke; for a lot of them, that is us." Spending one-on-one time with students is a cornerstone of her position, one which she strongly enjoys. The center also teaches multiple classes - for fun, personal growth and fulfillment for students. In Friedman’s view, "we have 'big tent' Judaism on campus - we welcome everyone. But, in some ways, we are not as pluralistic as it might seem."

That being said, the doors of Jewish Life at Duke are open to all, and Rabbi Elana encourages students to take on leadership roles in worship services, bringing the best from their home congregations into their campus experience. "There's no better way for Judaism to flourish than by bringing people in and exposing them to Judaism. So, every shabbat, I implore students to bring their friends so they can experience the service and feel welcome in our center. They are part of our community just as much."

Music, in particular, is an area where Rabbi Elana believes students can come together to engage their faith. Different Jewish congregations have varying perspectives on incorporating music in a service, and she has worked to encourage students to be open-minded about how songs and instruments can enhance their worship experience while respecting differing views about what is appropriate.

Food, she noted, is another great uniter. The inter-faith roundtable is a campus program, which she initiated, that brings clergy together over breakfast to create a community for sharing information and knowledge so they can all help students. Rabbi Elana’s “pipe dream” is a Jewish-Muslim fellowship comprised of 10 students (5 Jewish and 5 Muslim) who would work with her and Muslim Chaplain Joshua Salaam. The program would culminate in a group trip to Morocco, a country where Judaism and Islam have long co-existed peacefully. Then, she would have pairs of students (1 Jewish, 1 Muslim) lead sessions on campus to educate the broader student population about what they experienced through their participation.

Working at Duke has been an outstanding fit for Rabbi Elana, particularly given that chaplains are traditionally male. She noted, "as a woman, to be comfortable as a rabbi, I needed to be in a community that embraced me. I didn't want to be in a place where I had to fight against the system."