How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected religious communities in Rhode Island and their ability to support their members? How has worship changed in the age of social distancing?
These are some of the questions Bryant’s Katayoun Alidadi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at Bryant and expert in comparative law and the intersections of law and religion, addressed in a summer research project funded in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, a private nonprofit organization and an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her project was one out of 5 projects awarded grant support in a summer round of funding by the humanities council.
“My body of work is about religious freedom, and human rights in general, in complex diverse societies ... it is interesting to see how religious institutions have navigated a crisis such as this and have found opportunities within it.”
The project, Religious Services in the Age of Social Distancing: Rhode Island Narratives and Snapshots, gathers findings she derived from field visits and interviews with leaders and members at dozens of houses of worship, from churches to temples to mosques, exploring how COVID-19 has affected religious services across Rhode Island.
Wondering how houses of worship have weathered the pandemic piqued her research interests, said Alidadi, who is a Research Partner of the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology in Germany and has studied multiple religious communities, including non-believers, in Europe and the U.S. “My body of work is about religious freedom, and human rights in general, in complex diverse societies. The pandemic has led to challenges and so have legal restrictions, so it is interesting to see how religious institutions have navigated a crisis such as this and have found opportunities within it,” said Alidadi.
The fieldwork, she says, is a key element of the project, and of her research. “I’ve always incorporated an empirical aspect in my work, making it interdisciplinary,” says Alidadi.
“As with any documentation, you are choosing ‘winners’—there may be many stories out there that are lost.”
Her efforts have been regarded as more than fruitful—her research and expertise are in demand. Previously she was a lead researcher for a comparative research project on religious diversity funded by the European Commission as well as was co-author of the final report to the Commission, a panelist at the G20 Interfaith Forum, and a hearing participant with colleagues where she provided expertise to the Council of Europe, the chief human rights organization in Europe. In April 2020 she served as a guest expert at the Harvard University Law School Human Rights Symposium convened by Harvard’s Human Rights Program (HRP), which included the publishing of an article on reasonable accommodation and a Summer 2021 article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal.
Sparking conversation—and student trajectories
To Alidadi, the religious services project is an opportunity to document and start conversations on how houses of worship navigated religious services during the pandemic and engage people in civic life in Rhode Island. To foster continuing dialogue, the themes and experiences arising from the fieldwork are captured in an exhibit of 8 posters for viewing at various public spaces throughout Rhode Island.
“My hope is that by looking at the exhibition, those untold stories will come up and people will be able to contribute to ongoing developments in religious services in the pandemic.”
Importantly, notes Alidadi, “As with any documentation, you are choosing ‘winners’—there may be many stories out there that are lost,” says Alidadi, noting that some churches have closed during the pandemic. “But, my hope is that by looking at the exhibition, those untold stories will come up and people will be able to contribute to ongoing developments in religious services in the pandemic,” she said.
She also hopes that the research project presents valuable learning opportunities for her students. A dedicated teacher, she extended the experience into her Law & Society class at Bryant, creating an assignment where students design posters based on interviews and fieldwork. Two students created a poster based on their field visits to a Zen temple, for example.
“There’s wonderful support for innovative teaching at Bryant.”
She says bringing her research into the classroom as such will not only help her students better cultivate leadership skills, critical skills and analytical skills, which they need to excel in the workforce or in top graduate programs in law or political science, where Bryant grads are well represented. It also creates innovative experiential learning opportunities—which are a hallmark of a Bryant education, and for good reason, she says.
“These experiences cultivate close collaboration with students and other expert faculty,” says Alidadi. “Students at Bryant really have the ability to connect with individual faculty members and to build these really meaningful mentoring relationships. I can see that the connections that I'm building with my students really is moving them forward, whether they want to enter the workforce or graduate school.”
“There’s wonderful support for innovative teaching at Bryant,” she said.