Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellows Recognized for Leadership and Theological Reflection
No one could have predicted that 2020 would be the year when a global pandemic, economic distress, and protests for racial justice would affect millions of lives and upend nearly every sector of the country, from education to health care to law enforcement to religious practices. The Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) initiative at Duke Divinity School doesn’t specialize in that sort of prediction—but the TMC Fellows program does equip health professionals to be prepared to respond. Their recent contributions have been recognized for their theological acumen, thoughtful leadership, and interdisciplinary perspective.
For centuries, Christians have thought of the work of attending to those who are sick as a vocation or calling. But in the 21st century, how do Christians faithfully confront the moral and spiritual challenges in American health care? The Fellowship in Theology, Medicine, and Culture was designed for students and practitioners in any of the health professions or health-related vocations to study for one or two years at Duke Divinity School, an opportunity to nurture the theological foundation for the important work of a medical vocation. Fellows have academic courses, spiritual formation, mentoring, weekly seminars, church- and community-based practicums, and semi-annual retreats.
As COVID-19 began to sweep across the world, TMC Fellow Emmy Yang published an article in Christianity Today, “What Martin Luther Teaches Us About Coronavirus.” Now translated into at least seven languages, the article offered a nuanced perspective from historical theology on how Christian health care workers and ministers could view the pandemic. Yang was joined by two TMC Fellow alumni, Dr. Brewer Eberly and Dr. Ben Frush, in another article that articulated how Christian principles of repentance, hospitality, and lament might look in churches and communities battling COVID-19.
“Emmy is a remarkable student who was ahead of all of us, ” said Dr. Warren Kinghorn, the Esther Colliflower Associate Research Professor of Pastoral and Moral Theology, associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, and co-director of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture initiative. “In the 2019 fall semester, before the novel coronavirus was on anyone’s mind, she wrote a course paper on Martin Luther’s letter ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,’ because as a future physician she wanted to learn from it. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she was ready, and published one of the first op-ed pieces on how Christians might respond. It’s been an honor to see her share her voice and gifts in this way.”
“The TMC Fellowship has trained me to think critically about my formation in medical training and through the throes of life such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. I have learned to ask questions, such as: ‘How can we get through this together?’ and ‘How do we emerge as more loving people?’ And I have learned to seek answers through intentional practices. ”—Emmy Yang, M.T.S.’21, fourth year medical student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
TMC Fellow Jennifer Tu received the Heitzenrater Award for History from Duke Divinity School in 2020. Xi Lian, the David C. Steinmetz Professor of World Christianity, described her work: “Jennifer’s paper is an impassioned investigation of the roles of both American missionaries and the secular, modernizing state in the making of mental health care in China. And she does that with scholarly detachment and meticulous care. Her paper offers an insightful analysis of the evolution of psychiatric care from fraught missionary beginnings to Mao’s revolutionary nonsense of employing revolutionary committees in diagnosis and treatment. Most original research.”
“I have treasured the past year in the TMC Fellowship for many reasons, the biggest being the relationships it has birthed and cultivated. It’s rare to meet people who are so fully invested in both medicine and religion that they are willing to step back and challenge the assumptions and limitations of each field. It’s even more special to find individuals who are willing to lower their masks and show their true face, to tell the stories of how they struggled, survived, and came to their calling and their faith. That’s what the TMC has offered: a time and space in which we can learn from one another and strengthen each other for the challenging road ahead. In these devastating, uncertain times, I’ve found immense support from the TMC Fellows and faculty, who have become a source of Christ-like love, even as we have had to be physically apart.”—Jennifer Tu, M.T.S.’21 and fourth year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine
In addition to historical theological perspectives on health care and the pandemic, TMC Fellows have been recognized for leadership and thoughtful responses to systemic racial injustice, which affects health care in multiple ways. Kirsten Simmons, a TMC Fellow and current co-president of Duke’s Student National Medical Association, was named a Graduate Student of the Year in the 2020 Julian Abele Awards at Duke University. Recipients are honored for their outstanding work in their graduate/professional school at Duke and their commitment to Black communities and Black scholarship. They are expected to demonstrate an intangible quality that uplifts the Black community and to engage in leadership activities.
Nominations for Simmons highlighted that she “is a role model for younger Black Duke students aspiring to become physicians.” Her commitment to scholarship included a study of “how Black people’s religious beliefs influence their medical care and health outcomes,” and her volunteer service included mentoring, visiting sick children, and creating care packages for the homeless.
“The Theology, Medicine and Culture Fellowship prepares you to take on an incredibly complex task. That is, to adopt a personal vow to become more loving, ethically sound, morally grounded, and culturally and socioeconomically competent within the communities we serve. Aside from absorbing core content within the learning space, I’ve been challenged to partake in advocacy for the Black body through the means of writing and speaking. The faculty and newfound family I’ve met at Duke Divinity School have sharpened me into a better person, friend, medical student and follower of Christ . For that, I’m forever thankful.”–Kirsten Simmons, M.T.S.’20, fourth year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine
The TMC Fellowship is preparing health care leaders who are not only excellent medical professionals but also equipped to deal with moral issues in health care. This year, TMC Fellow Brendan Johnson was recognized with the Kenan Moral Purpose Award for his essay “Moral Medicine.” Johnson described how his studies in social medicine and liberation theology led him to question the inherent value structure of professional medicine, realizing, “the status of the poor becomes the ethical standard by which we measure the success of our actions, of our profession, or of our society.”
“TMC has deeply formed me as a person and future physician. Through friendship, mentoring, and a stimulating intellectual environment, I have learned new and productive questions for our medical vocation. Especially in the midst of multiple moral and medical crises, TMC has been a place to reflect on how we can faithfully and creatively work for love and justice through medicine.”—Brendan Johnson, M.T.S.’21, fourth year medical student at the University of Minnesota