Wednesday, November 18, 2009
From November 6-10, 2009, I traveled to Montreal, Quebec, Canada to attend the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In addition to presenting my book on a panel about World Christianity, I also visited the community in Montreal where I did my research, Notre Dame d'Haiti. At the AAR, I attended many sessions, including one on the history of religion in Quebec, one on inter-faith dialogue in Canada, one on the Bouchard-Taylor commission (a study of accommodating immigrants' ethnic and religious diversity in Quebec) and one on understanding secularism today (which included presentations by Charles Taylor, Jose Casanova, Craig Calhoun, and Saba Mahmood). The picture here is from the altar of the Basilica of Notre Dame in Old Montreal. Due to Quebec's rapid secularization since the 1960s, there is growing concern about preserving the cultural heritage of churches such as this one that have many fewer parishoners than before.
Gerardo Marti, Associate Professor of Sociology at Davidson College (pictured here with me), said he thinks my book's greatest contribution is the cross-national comparative research design, which allows me to highlight the importance of the nation-state’s relationships to immigrant communities. Although much work has been done on immigrant religious communities in the U.S., my work highlights how different national contexts contribute to shaping the institutions which immigrants rely on succeed in their new societies. I agree with Gerardo that most scholars in the U.S. find the cross-national comparative research design to be the greatest strength of my book. However, visiting Quebec for the AAR reminded me that the national context also influences what readers think my book's most important contribution will be. In the last 40 years, Quebec has become one of the most secular societies in the world. Many intellectuals and members of the general public in Quebec tend to look upon religious piety as an escape from worldly probelms and they generally view religious institutions as oppressive. Hence, in Quebec, my book may be most cited for demonstrating how religous faith can give people agency and how religious institutions can empower the poor. In Quebec, it is generally known that the American people are generally pro-religious and the American government works extensively with faith-based and other types of private associations in delivering social services. If Americans sometimes forget that our national context is generally pro-religious, then the parallel is that Quebeckers sometimes forget that religion can be liberating and that their state does not perfectly meet all social needs.
On Sunday, November 8, 2009, I returned to Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic mission in Montreal, where I had done part of my fieldwork for Faith Makes Us Live several years earlier. I must admit that I was nervous when I returned to my fieldsite. Would people remember me? Would they appreciate what I have written? As soon as I walked through the door and saw old friends, all my fears went away. I showed many people the book, including where I had quoted them. I gave out flyers about the book with the link to the website. I saw many people who sang with me in the choir and who I interviewed for the book, including this family pictured here. At the end of Mass, I spoke to the congregation in Creole, telling them about the major argument of the book and thanking them for their hospitality and generosity while I was doing research in Montreal. Sitting in the front row of the church next to one of my friends from the community and singing in Creole reminded me of how much I loved doing the fieldwork for my book. Although I hardly get the opportunity to speak Haitian Creole or even French now, I was amazed at how fast these languages came back to me. In fact, walking around Montreal for 5 days speaking French and Haitian Creole almost feels like speaking in tongues--I am truly amazed that I can communicate in these languages that I practice so rarely!
The readings during Mass at Notre Dame echoed two of the themes from my book--keeping the faith in the middle of struggling to survive and being generous even when one is poor. In the first reading, from Kings 17, the prophet Elijah asks a woman for water and then for bread. At first the woman replies that she doesn't have any bread to give him, but Elijah tells her to go bake something, give some to him, and then he promises her that she'll have plenty left. She believes the prophet and obeys him, and her family is saved from starvation because of her faith. During his homily, the priest pointed out that often times God asks us to put our faith in him, to give every last thing we have, and then he will come and save us. The woman I am pictured with here was one of many people who told me that God requires them to be generous even when they wonder how they will pay their bills or find their next meal. The sharing of the bread from this Old Testament passage is analogous to the sharing of the Eucharist at communion--this sacrament signifies both a vertical covenant between Christ and his people and a horizontal covenant among the people of God. The Gospel reading was from Mark 12 and recounted the story of the proud Pharisees who made a big show of donating money a large sum of money at the temple, whereas the poor widow humbly gave a few cents, which was all she had left. During his homily, the priest used this Gospel passage to highlight how God asks us to "give what we have", not to "give what we don't have" or to "give what we don't need." One of the themes of my book was how faith communities turn poor people into givers, not just recipients. These readings and this homily once again emphasized this message: God asks everyone to give, and to give generously, even when they are struggling to survive, not just to give from their abundance. The priest also emphasized the importance of how we give to others. Often times, we give with pride. We want other people to see what we give, or we show disrespect to the person we are giving to. He forcefully stated that when we are in a position to give, we should not show off. Furthermore, he cautioned not to treat the recipients of our generosity like dogs, but rather we should treat all people, not matter how destitute they are, with dignity. Sometimes, he said, it is easy to see God in the beautiful people of this world, but we have to remember that God is in everyone, even those who don't treat us well or who don't share our faith. As I argue in my book, even though many Haitian immigrants are very poor, their religious communities provide them with a way to become givers--both materially and spiritually--and seeing oneself as a giver helps them to then be able to receive with dignity the help they may need from others.