Dr. Evelyn Kirkley

Dr. Evelyn Kirkley is an associate professor in the religion and theology department at the University of San Diego. She became an Pluralism Project affiliate with her project mapping San Diego’s religious diversity. Dr. Kirkley incorporated a field research project into an existing introductory world religions course at the University of San Diego, a private Roman Catholic liberal arts university. The course examined the historical development, foundational beliefs, ethical systems, ritual expressions, and community structures of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Chinese traditions, and other religions. It also analyzes methodologies for the study of religions. While faculty and students at San Diego University often visit area communities of faith in this course, they had not heretofore incorporated structured ethnographic or participatory action research.

Dr. Kirkley wrote of the mapping religious diversity in San Diego project:

Second largest city in California, seventh largest in the nation, San Diego has a diverse religious landscape. The area’s moderate climate, beautiful beaches, and stable economy make it appealing to emigrants from inside and outside the United States. Unsurprisingly, the largest percentage of the population is Christian, with large Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant communities, bolstered by proximity to Mexico. Moreover, San Diego has attracted residents from South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and hence has thriving Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim congregations. San Diego is also home to a large Church of Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i faith, Rastafarians, and a small but vibrant Neo-Pagan community.

Given its pluralism, San Diego is an ideal context for faculty-directed student ethnographic research.

Following the model established by the Pluralism Project and utilizing the resources of USD’s Center for Educational Excellence, students chose a religious tradition and immersed themselves in it through scholarly and ethnographic research. They selected a specific community of faith in San Diego from that tradition and analyze its history, challenges, opportunities, and relationships with other faith communities. By situating world religions in the United States, specifically San Diego, students questioned definitions of religion and spirituality; relationships between “mainstream,” dominant cultures and marginal, under-represented ones; the roles of religion in history and society; and inter-cultural contact and conflict. Through interviews, documents, attendance at rituals, and trained observation and with faculty guidance, students synthesized their research into a coherent analysis presented in a multimedia portfolio. This experiential learning combined with collaborative faculty-student research enabled students to understand religions other than their own, cultivate empathy and openness, and gain research experience.

“Mapping San Diego’s Religious Diversity” also resulted in co-authored presentations and articles in peer-reviewed journals in religious history, ethnic studies, U.S. culture and religion, student-centered learning, and innovative pedagogy. To accomplish this end, students first presented their research at USD’s annual Creative Collaborations conference in spring 2011. In so doing, they gained experience interpreting their work to a broad audience and perceive themselves as scholars.

Of this research’s connection to the University’s mission, Dr. Kirkley wrote:

Studying the world’s religions through participatory, ethnographic research fulfills USD’s mission and core values for students to become effective leaders in an increasingly diverse global community. It strengthens undergraduates’ breadth of experience, improves their religious literacy, and promotes inter-faith dialogue. In fostering respect for individual dignity and solidarity with the marginalized, this project furthers the aims of Catholic Social Teaching. Finally, it will contribute to USD’s Strategic Goal of becoming a “more culturally competent community” and a “powerful advocate for social justice and human rights.”

Selected Links and Publications