Who needs religious literacy? In a disaster, maybe we all do

Tara Gingerich Conflict, Disasters, Humanitarian

Tara Gingerich reflects on her recent work researching religious literacy; what she realised about her own point of view and why we need to engage with religion.

I remember when I first started to talk with Oxfam colleagues about the new research project I would be leading, together with the Harvard Divinity School. It was on how Oxfam and other international humanitarian organisations engage with local religious groups as part of our work to promote humanitarian action being led by local and national humanitarian actors in crisis-affected countries.

Some Oxfam colleagues were excited and said how important—even overdue—they thought such work was, but I also received confused and sceptical reactions, followed by statements along the lines of “I don’t understand. Oxfam is researching religion? Why? But we’re a secular organisation.” Two colleagues—one from the US and a national staff colleague from an Oxfam field office—told me that our engaging on the issue of religion in any way made them uncomfortable. While it didn’t make me uncomfortable, I will admit that I entered into the research with scepticism about how much a secular organisation like Oxfam should partner with local faith groups and fairly certain Oxfam did not need to have religious literacy (whatever that was).

Fast-forward five months, 45-plus interviews, countless articles and webpages read, and a fantastic symposium organised by the Harvard Divinity School. When I circulated the draft report findings to colleagues, including the colleagues who were uncomfortable with the project at its onset, they reported back to me that they had completely changed their minds: they both now think that Oxfam absolutely needs to be exploring issues around how our work supporting local humanitarian leadership intersects with religious groups. I, too, am among the converted (pun intended). If I can speak for my previously concerned colleagues, the realisation we all made was this:

If Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations are serious about promoting local humanitarian leadership—if we truly believe that government and civil society in countries preparing for and responding to emergencies are almost always best placed to lead those efforts—then we cannot continue to avoid an entire segment of those participants: local religious groups, which range from churches, mosques, and temples to faith-based local aid organisations.

And, speaking for myself, I learned something else: I had a secular bias. I associated the term “secular” with neutrality, impartiality, and organisations that are primarily guided by human rights. Whereas I learned that the term “secular” is complicated. It is often used in a value-laden manner to convey the very associations I had, but it has its own biases. I definitely see that now.

Now what about the research itself? Here’s what we found, in a nutshell: Engaging with local faith groups is complicated too. There are both opportunities and risks. For example, when disaster strikes, faith groups may well be the first ones on the scene—and that’s great—but will they help everyone in need equally? And will that help meet important basic standards?

In order to navigate questions like these, humanitarian agencies like Oxfam need to have a good understanding of how religion and religious groups function. We need religious literacy—at least a lot more than we have presently. And that’s true of secular and faith-inspired organisations.

I am grateful to our collaborators in this work, Diane Moore and the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, for deepening my own understanding of these topics and, more importantly, for helping to frame the research in critical ways. Without Diane’s expertise, we would not have been thinking about religious literacy, we would not have known the right questions to ask to get at these issues, and we certainly would not have been aware of the underlying biases.

So what happens next? I can say that, at Oxfam, we have some learning ahead of us, and some decisions to make: are we willing to wade into these waters (to continue the analogy), to increase our religious literacy, and to get past our secular bias in order to connect with this pool of local humanitarian actors? I hope so, because I think it would be to our benefit and ultimately to the benefit of the people we seek to support.

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Alhasan Swairjo