Philippe Couton of the University Ottawa published a review of my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving the Haitian Diaspora, in the fall edition of the Canadian Journal of Sociology. This is an open-access journal, so all should be able to access it by clicking here.
Professor Couton summarizes the main points of my book and states that “the result is an original, richly detailed study of one the world’s great diasporas, and one that makes a clear, well-supported argument about the role of ethnic and mainstream religious institutions in the lives and adaptation of immigrants in three very different social settings.”
After pointing out the book’s merits, he then critiques the book because it “often seems biased in favour of Catholic organizations and quick to dismiss or at least ignore their potential problems (of which the current spate of scandals is only one). It has been widely known that religion is a very common lifeline for immigrants (particularly refugees, illegals, and others who face difficult situations), but organized religion has almost as often been a crutch or worse.”
In response to Couton’s review, Brian McDonough, the director of the Social Action Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal wrote to me in an email, “I’m not sure that I agree with Couton’s assertion that organized religion has been ‘a crutch or worse’ for immigrants. On what grounds does he make this assertion? Also his reference to the ‘current spate of scandals’ is a cheap shot that is hardly relevant to the role the institutional Church play in welcoming and assisting in the integration of persons who have just arrived [in Canada].” As a lawyer and a member in good standing of the Québec Bar, a former board member of Montreal’s United Way (“Centraide du Grand Montréal) and the founding president of Community Chaplaincy of Montreal (a prison ministry program), McDonough’s reply provides an expert voice questioning Couton’s assertions.
In early November 2010, I presented the findings of my book to a group of scholars who participated in a seminar on Religion and Public Life in Canada organized by Solange Lefebvre from the University of Montreal. In that presentation, I stated that, as evidenced by Couton’s review, the dominant perception in Canada (and particularly in Quebec) is that organized religion is a crutch for weak members of society and that the personal failures of members of Catholic Church impede its institutional work for the poor. This popularly accepted narrative portrays religion as a problem in society rather than as part of the solution to society’s problems. In contrast, my book portrays the power of Haitians’ faith—lived through organized religious communities—to transform their lives. Furthermore, I show how Catholic social service institutions—another expression of organized religion—were once crucial to the successful integration of Haitians in Montreal. The soon-to-be-published scholarship from the November 2010 conference at the University of Montreal will provide further information on the long-overlooked contributions of religion to public life in Canada.
Philippe Couton of the University Ottawa published a review of my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving the Haitian Diaspora, in the fall edition of the Canadian Journal of Sociology. This is an open-access journal, so all should be able to access it by clicking here. To see my reply to this review, click here.
On Thursday, October 21, 2010, Marifeli Perez-Stable, Professor of Sociology at Florida International University, published a review of my book in The Miami Herald. Click here to see the review. Her review shows a great appreciation for both the ethnographic and the comparative arguments of my book.
A review of my book appeared in the March/April edition of Books and Culture. It mentions how my book is especially relevant now that so much international attention is on Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.
Manuel Vazquez, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Florida (Vazquez is on the left of this picture and Terry Rey, Professor of Religion at Temple University, is on the right), called my book a good example of post-functionalist sociology of religion. Functionalism enters into sociology of religion when scholars talks about religion in terms of what religion does for people in terms of “cash value.” Vasquez commended that although I don’t ignore that religion does things for Haitian immigrants, including connecting them to social networks and social services, I also talk extensively about hope, resilience, and generosity—or the substantive and meaning-making side of religion. In other words, he said I talk about what religion does for people while also talking about what religion means for people. Furthermore, he liked how I embed Haitians’ religious faith within specific institutions without falling into functionalism. He called my use of multiple levels of analysis a non-reductive type of materialism. He cautioned me not to over-generalize the three models of church-state cooperation that I describe. In the U.S., he thinks there may be more conflict between immigrants and the state than I acknowledge in my book. In response, I think that as Milton Gordon said about earlier immigrants to the U.S., American society did not become a melting pot without conflict. Gordon said, and I agree, that what is interesting about the U.S. is that despite some conflict, over time most immigrants and their descendants joined the American middle class mainstream. Similarly, when Haitians first began settling in Miami, there was some conflict with the state. But through the advocacy of Father Wenski and others Catholic Church leaders, the state slowly began to cooperate more with Haitian institutions. Using the term “cooperation” to describe the U.S. model of interacting with immigrant organizations, including faith-based ones, does not mean that conflict is totally absent. Rather, over time in the U.S. and when compared to France and Quebec, the U.S. is remarkably adaptable to new immigrants and new religious groups.
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.
All of the panelists commented that they enjoyed my use of theological concepts in the book, something that is not very common among sociologists who study religion. Michael Emerson asked me to expand on what I meant when I wrote at the end of the introduction that, in my book, a theological imagination accompanies the sociological imagination. In the course of my fieldwork, I experienced the shortcomings of the position from where I started my inquiry. What I saw again and again in my fieldwork was: I was trying to bracket out their faith, move past it quickly, and get to what “really” mattered from the position where I started: immigrants need social services, legal papers, health care and I thought the church helped them get there. But I realized that something was wrong with the position from which I started my inquiry. Over and over again, my interviewees wanted to talk to me first about their faith in God. I came to realize that their theological imagination—their understanding of who God is and how they relate to God—profoundly influences their social struggles. So in writing Faith Makes us Live, I invite my readers to leave behind their position from which they would look into this situation and take seriously the position from which the people I interviewed began their inquiry. I realized that for the people I interviewed just the fact that someone from a very different position in the world was trying to understand their position in the world itself was a powerful healing force for all the suffering they had experience. From their position, using a theological imagination, I am also a child of God, thus I could understand their suffering and console them even though I am from a different social background. My interviewees didn’t see me as simply the product of social forces that have made me a light-skinned, highly educated Cuban-American. They saw me as another human being capable of entering not only their material world, but their symbolical world. I genuinely trying to understand their meaning, I reinforced their belief that faith can triumph over suffering and that faith can trump differences in class, race, and power. In sharing their suffering with me, we met on a level deeper than that of social class, skin color, money. We met as human persons. By entering into their world personally, I learned better what was going on at these faith communities more generally: communion with others relieves suffering. Eucharistic communion as celebrated in Catholic communities is not just about a one-on-one encounter with Jesus, it is about a community coming together to heal, fortify and build strength. Thus, the theological imagination leads us to transcendence, to the concept of the person as a gift and in relationship to others through his or her relationship to God.
Melissa Wilde commented on my argument that although France and Quebec try to define an officially “neutral” policy toward religion, in practice their policies do not seem neutral. To extend my argument in the book, I argue that the state cannot be neutral towards religion any more than the state can be neutral to the good. Neutrality among religions is possible, at least more possible, than neutrality towards religion in general. State enforcement of non-expression of religion in the public sphere over allowing religious expressions in the public sphere, the general aim of French laicite and Quebec’s open secularism, is not neutrality toward religion: is it privileging non-religion, and that privilege of non-religion needs to be justified on some kind of legitimate moral grounds. Thus, how religion is included or excluded from public sphere is part of a larger debate about the moral legitimacy of the state and about how non-state actors formulate moral criticism of state power and actions. Melissa questioned why, if second generation Haitians in Montreal and Paris are becoming more secular, I still think that religious communities will be important for their assimilation. Although I am saying that, in comparative perspective, more Haitians in Montreal or Paris will decline in religious practice, but at least some will retain their faith and practice. I’m not saying that faith based services should be the only kind of social services, but they are part of the picture and should be acknowledged for their contributions. Although I’m not trying to say that the US model is perfect, I am trying to say that the French and Quebec model marginalizes one important way that immigrants traditionally have found mobility. Religion alone does not determine any particular assimilation outcome, but it interacts with just about every other thing that influences how immigrants adapt: where people settle, education, family, job hunting, community building, and political advocacy. The narrative of hope provided by religion can help people take advantage of opportunities that are there, rather than turn away from them. For immigrants like many Haitians who are poor, black, not highly educated, and not very welcomed, religion is an extra social support. Religion can moderate the effect of good state policies, that is, make those state policies work better. Religion can also mediate between individuals and the state and market—people can find opportunities for mobility through their religious community. I am not trying to argue that religious communities by themselves can achieve immigrant assimilation, but I am saying that the French and Quebec model weaken one community resource among Haitians–their religious faith–and that the greater secular environment of Montreal and Paris has negative consequences for immigrant assimilation because immigrants there do feel excluded yet they have fewer symbolic and material resources with which to be agents in their own assimilation.
Richard Wood asked for clarification on why I thought faith-based mediating institutions were necessary for successful immigrant assimilation. Can’t the French system, for example, guarantee upward immigrant mobility through other means? Isn’t the reason we have a strong state, Wood asked, because of the limits of a voluntaristic approach to social services, which would undoubtedly leave many gaps? To answer, I argue in Faith Makes Us Live that an empirical examination of Haitian immigrant assimilation in all three cases show that the state cannot do everything to achieve this assimilation. The downward assimilation of some Haitians and some members of other immigrant groups in each country I studied is a reality. As Steve Offutt in the audience noted, voluntary associations or associations of civil society exist to complement, not replace, the state social welfare system. No matter what country you are talking about, he said, there will be failures in the state and the market, and thus the voluntary sector will always have some role to play. In addition, I think that voluntary sector organizations have an important advocacy role in pointing out to the state and the market what their failures are. Thus, I argue that the successful assimilation of immigrants into new societies requires strong communities, and for many immigrants, these communities will be religious. These religious communities give a sense of meaning and hope to make sense of the difficulties in this assimilation–something the state does not do well. Furthermore, religious communities often help provide real material resources and political advocacy to forward assimilation goals. Comparative research needs to move beyond taking national discourses at face value and confront ideology and narrative with empirical cases, thus refining our theories, concepts and understandings. As Steve Warner said from the audience, the fact that I point out the consequences of these different national models of church-state relations for immigrant assimilation does not mean that it is simple to derive policy implications from my work. As Steve aptly put it, I am not trying to say that France or Quebec needs to turn its back on its own history and traditions, but I am pointing out some of the weaknesses of their approach that emerge in comparative perspective. For example, I argue that laicite and Republicanism lack legitimacy among many in the immigrant banlieue.
An online article summarizing some of the main points of my book was published today. To see it, click the link for Public Discourse.