From social life to scholarship, religion plays many roles in community

Jacques Berlinerblau gives a talk at Duke University about his studies on secularism on Sunday, Sept. 17. (Staff photo by Alex Zietlow)

Religion, in some ways, can be personified as a man of many hats.

Beyond simply providing “spiritual care” for individuals, religion, specifically Christianity, plays several roles in northeast central Durham — from being a framework for social interaction, to gathering people as a collective body to address certain challenges a community might be facing.

“We recognize that churches are assets in the community,” said Reynolds Chapman, an executive director of DurhamCares. “They are assets that serve the community in a very holistic way.”

DurhamCares is a non-profit organization who says its function is to “inform, inspire and connect the Durham community.”

Chapman, even though he is a member of the Durham Christian community, said that the organization listens to its community members and can articulate an experience from that knowledge.

“They listen to some of the challenges in the community and address some of those challenges,” Chapman said. “Some of the churches that we’ve seen have had food programs that help feed people in the community. Some have had clothing programs.”

Chapman also said that the relational social aspect is also an important part of Christian community building.

“Through that spiritual lens, it becomes a holistic asset to the community.”

One role of religion that sometimes gets overlooked is the educational aspect that religion can play — and this is evident in communities less than a 10-minute drive from Durham’s downtown area.

Jacques Berlinerblau, a Duke religious studies professor who spoke at the Nasher Museum of Art on the university’s campus Sunday evening, spearheaded a discussion on secularism in his scholarly analysis of the Book of Genesis.

The sociologist engaged in a discussion about the first book in the Bible, and he made two points very clear: Secularism is neither atheism (the non-belief in a god), nor is it the ideal of the separation of church and state in government. Berlinerblau, rather, said that secularism is an interpretation of religious texts without a religious context.

“Is genesis a secular document?” he asked the audience. “Well, we’ve seen that Genesis is more problematic than might be assumed.”

The scholar, who is Jewish, spoke to a crowd of about 40 people. In the crowd, there were almost exclusively white, middle-aged faces — some of whom had Yarmulke’s on their heads. No undergraduate students attended the lecture, even though the event took place in the heart of Duke’s campus.

Marc Brettler, another religious studies professor who helped organize the event, said that many in attendance — himself included — were members of the Beth El Synagogue in Durham. He said he was “frustrated” and more or less confused why more students wouldn’t want to take advantage of this learning opportunity.

Bill Wang, who currently is attending Duke Law School and has a special interest in studying the Bible, was also surprised by the student turnout.

“The students should be interested in this …” he said. “How did these people get the information? I got the information from the [law school]. Why are there no students here?”

According to a 2013 demographics report of the Durham population put out by Sperling’s Best Places, 43.35 percent of the population affiliate with a religion and less than a percent of the population practices Judaism.

Just from looking at the participation, the lecture may have only resonated with a slim subsection of the Durham community.

But the community, according to Chapman’s message as leader of DurhamCares, should not perceive this discussion as a bad thing. After all, he thinks “the role religion plays in the community is really informed by us listening.”

“What’s most important is to hear from people who live in the community, or have some kind of religious congregation in the community,” he said.

“The experts are the ones in the community.”