Fostering Diversity Beyond the Chapel Walls

With its ‘Unity through Diversity’ theme, the Chapel connects through intentional outreach

Guest artist Anton Armstrong, Professor of Music at St. Olaf College, leads a choral clinic on sacred music at Duke Chapel in January 2024

“There’s been a pulse, there’s been a heart – a human heart – at the heart of the university, and that’s the Chapel,” said Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, Dean of Duke Chapel. “Our approach is multifaceted, but I think ultimately, it’s to say: Diversity is a reflection of who God is. It’s a reflection of the beauty of God. And we want to live into that in a greater way – in all of the areas that we are engaged in.”

“Unity through diversity” is a central theme of the Chapel’s educational and outreach programs and a vital part of all the ways that it interacts with Duke’s campus and beyond. Here are some ways the Duke Chapel community fosters connections.

Guided conversations

Theology Underground, a monthly series for students, faculty and staff, offers “conversations that really explore the intersections of race, faith and place,” said Rev. Racquel C.N. Gill, Minister for Intercultural Engagement. Gill calls the series a "passion project" she began last year that has exploded in popularity.

Recent discussions have included The Holy in Hip-Hop with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, and Theology and Mental Health with Dr. AY Bryant, a psychologist with Duke Counseling and Psychological Services.

A group of students gather in a room for a Theology Underground session led by Duke Chapel
Rev. Racquel C.N. Gill leads a Theology Underground session. Photo courtesy of Duke Chapel

"Its like-minded folks who like to talk about the intersections of ideas, and who really want some in-person face time around topics that we don't always have to agree on – but we can still respect and appreciate each other's perspectives," Gill said.

Nurturing expression through music

The Chapel offers diverse musical selections, which included a Centennial concert in April, “Our First Lady of Jazz: Celebrating Mary Lou Williams.”

Williams was a composer and jazz pianist who taught at Duke and occasionally performed in the Chapel and with the Chapel Choir. She arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and mentored artists such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

Guest artists who joined the Chapel Choir for “Our First Lady of Jazz” included the Vocal Jazz Ensemble from North Carolina Central University and Patrice E. Turner, a student in the Divinity School hybrid program and Director of Music and Worship Arts at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

“Two of the hallmarks of life at the Chapel that people always think of is the great preaching tradition, and they think of sacred music,” said Zebulon Highben, Director of Chapel Music. “It’s critical that we are intentional and more thoughtful about inclusion and equity and equality for all people who consider this place home.”

Living in community across divides

The Bridge Internship Program, a partnership with North Carolina Central University, brings together students from NCCU and Duke across religious traditions in an eight-week summer residency. Students live together and consider how matters of faith affect them.

If you don't have the diversity piece, God's love isn't revealed as all-inclusive,” said Rev. Bruce Puckett, Assistant Dean of Duke University Chapel. “It's so essential to what I understand a good world to be and the Chapel's role in creating that.”

Engaging with the community

Staff meetings gather at various cultural and community centers throughout campus to learn and develop partnerships. It's through some of these meetings, Gill said, that ideas like Theology Underground came to fruition.

"I think sometimes you can get very siloed," Gill said. "And the Chapel is a beautiful building so it's easy to not leave it. You can easily not know what is going on just a stone's throw away from here."

Send story ideas, shout-outs and photographs by writing

Follow Working@Duke on X (Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram.