As the University of Edinburgh's School of Divinity celebrates 175 years of New College, we talked to senior lecturer Dr Emma Wild-Wood about how her “Belief in the time of Covid-19" project explores trust in public health and why studying World Christianity helps us understand different global perspectives.
Dr Emma Wild-Wood's research project was always going to be a challenge. Her research partners from the Anglican University of the Congo, Drs Yossa Way, Amuda Baba and Sadiki Kangamina can not travel freely to collect the data they need. Not primarily because of Covid-19 but because there are six militia groups operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Province where they’re conducting their research. It just isn’t safe.
“Covid is the least of the worries for DRC, and I think that when it is top of our agenda and when our whole society has been turned upside down by this one disease, it’s important to remember we are working alongside people who are living with numerous diseases all the time and huge political insecurity, so they’re balancing all these tensions,” says Dr Wild-Wood.
Last year, Dr Wild-Wood, Senior Lecturer in African Christianity and Indigenous Religions and a co-director of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of World Christianity, was awarded a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council Urgency Fund to learn more about how religious practices influence trust in Covid-19 public health messages in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Public health often operates on an international development platform and, because it is influenced by Western views, it can put religion in a private bracket without recognising its public role in other countries, especially in the Majority World."
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Dr Wild-Wood taught for several years, is majority Christian. About 10-15% of the population identify as Muslim and many people engage in traditional religious practices too. Many Congolese people have affiliations with more than one religious group. Religious faith and practice is very much part of everyday public and private life.
“What’s interesting to me is that there’s variety and diversity in the way people express faith and that it is so important to every part of their lives. Public health often operates on an international development platform and, because it is influenced by Western views, it can put religion in a private bracket without recognising its public role in other countries, especially in the Majority World.
“This means that in countries like DRC where religious affiliation is very public, public health institutions don’t always have the trust of the population or they have the trust of some of the population but not others,” explains Dr Wild-Wood.
Over half the healthcare in DRC is provided by faith-based organisations. These organisations often have great social capital and trust. While some religious groups support a biomedical approach, there are some religious traditions that doubt its efficacy. Some communities will preach faith-healing and divine protection by prayer only. During the Ebola outbreaks there was a wide range of ways in which religious communities responded to protective measures and the same has been true of Covid-19.
The 'Belief in the Time of Covid-19' project aims to understand the landscape of meaning-making and trust within religious communities vis-à-vis Covid-19 in order to identify where trust/mistrust lie as regards public health messages. Theologians Dr Way and Kangamina are able to understand the discourse of faith-groups. While Dr Baba is a public health specialist who works closely with medical services. Together with research assistants in the DRC they are well placed to make public health messages more trusted among the population.
“With Covid-19 there’s also a suspicion that this is a western disease or that the public health measures are being used for political ends, and certainly in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that has been the case. Conspiracy theories or misinformation are everywhere! In DRC helpful and unhelpful information is disseminated in trusted religious communities,” says Dr Wild-Wood.
The research team is looking at seven faith groups: five Christian groups, one Muslim group and a traditional healing group, gathering data through talking to people, monitoring social media and listening to sermons on the radio, which is a significant communications channel in DRC.
"Issues of trust and meaning-making have become really high up on the agenda during the pandemic across the globe. The Democratic Republic of Congo has experiences that can be shared."
“Issues of trust and meaning-making have become really high up on the agenda during the pandemic across the globe. The Democratic Republic of Congo has experiences that can be shared,” says Dr Wild-Wood, “The country’s knowledge of managing disease and developing community resilience is something we can learn from.”
This project is just one example of how the University’s Centre for the Study of World Christianity, based in the School of Divinity, is committed to exploring the world through different perspectives. Studies at the Centre trace the complex historical trajectories that led to the current reality of Christianity as a Majority World religion and examine the consequences of that within socio-political and religious contexts.
"Christianity is not a hermetically sealed entity." c. Kharps via Getty Images
When the Centre was just starting, Dr Wild-Wood was an undergraduate at the School of Divinity and was drawn to the alternative perspectives of religion the Centre’s research uncovered.
“I was aware as a young person of the imperial legacy of Britain and felt somehow ashamed and troubled by that. What I saw in the studies in the Centre was that there was a more complicated relationship than I had understood. Christianity is much more varied and widespread than the western tradition I’d been taught,” she explains.
“Christianity is not a hermetically sealed entity: Christian people and movements interact with people from other religious and cultural traditions, and with politics and society. Christians have used their religious tradition to oppress and to liberate. Human concerns, the way we know about the world, and what is spiritually important can look very different when viewed from another’s perspective.”
Dr Wild-Wood returned to the Centre for the Study of World Christianity to do PhD studies after several years of teaching in DRC. She then took up academic posts in the Cambridge Theological Federation and the University of Cambridge, bringing with her new relationships and connections that are part of what makes this research centre so effective. It’s an important network of voices and perspectives from around the world.
“This Covid project couldn’t be done without working with Yossa, Amuda and Sadiki who I’ve known for over 20 years,” she says. “I think these deep relationships of trust means that we can still work well together even when we’re reliant on WhatsApp as our main means of communication. Because we have these relationships of trust, my colleagues can correct me when my thinking is too shaped by my own context in the UK.”
"Last summer saw the Black Lives Matters movement and discussions about decolonising the curriculum reach popular consciousness, but these things have already been embedded in what we do in our centre and how we teach our students."
Inclusion and diversity have been fundamental to the work of the Centre long before discussions about decolonising the curriculum became mainstream. Looking at the world through different expressions of faith is one way to better understand each other in a time when arguably empathy has never been needed more.
“In order to address the social issues that are facing our globe we need to understand the whole of them, and we need to understand how they’re seen in different parts of the globe. Sometimes we assume there’s only one way of responding to a set of issues, and we exclude people from other parts of the globe, that’s one thing I think our attention to diversity in the study of World Christianity brings,” she says.
“Last summer saw the Black Lives Matters movement and discussions about decolonising the curriculum reach popular consciousness, but these things have already been embedded in what we do in our centre and how we teach our students. We ask: who are you reading, who are our voices of authority, how do you understand the groups of people or the organisations you’ve been studying, which perspectives are important and why? The Centre for the Study of World Christianity has been asking these questions for 30 years. I think that’s something to shout out about.”
The University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity celebrates 175 years of New College this year. If you’d like to find out more about the School’s work in 2021 and how you can get involved in anniversary events and activities, visit the website.
Main banner image: World Bank / Henitsoa Rafalia