While studies of mothers living in urban poverty abound (Connolly’s Homeless Mothers, Edin and Kefalas’ Promises I Can Keep, Lein’s Making Ends Meet, to name but a recent few), Sullivan’s contribution lies in her examination of the place of religion and spirituality?the burgeoning field of everyday or lived religion?in the lives of those women.
In 45 deep, semi-structured interviews with mothers primarily of Christian backgrounds (or no religious background) living in poverty in the Boston area, Sullivan listened to women talk about the place of faith (as well as churches) in their lives. Her interviews reveal how religion contextualizes welfare and work, parenting, and what they see as God’s plan for their lives. The women also shared with Sullivan reasons why, in spite of their often-deep faith, many “don’t get to church anymore” due to issues not only of religious individualism but also capacity, stigma, and exit. In other words, in spite of being highly religious, many of the participants in Sullivan’s study cite logistical issues (e.g., single-parenting children during services, work schedules) or a sense of being made to feel “unwelcome in churches” because of their lifestyle status (e.g., receiving public assistance, living in a non-marital relationship). As a result of their perception that churches do not want “women like them” (p. 170), these women reject organized, institutionalized religion, taking what Sullivan calls not a passive but an active response to their perception of having been rejected. (I found this a particularly constructive application of Goffman’s stigma In the tradition of the best qualitative research (and the highly-readable monographs that method can produce), Living Faith is at its very best when Sullivan gives voice to the women who participated in her research. For example, the mother-role and their children are clearly central in these women’s lives, as is (even in the face of their own isolation) passing on religion to their children. In the words of Aletta, who took her children to Seventh-Day Adventist church services twice a week, but who stopped doing so after she moved into a long-term shelter:
Besides being a “good read,” Sullivan’s book is well-grounded in the sociology of religion. She provides solid empirical data on the trends shaping religion and religiosity in America, especially as those trends intersect with social class. She also offers insights and criticisms across the theoretical spectrum, from Marx and Weber to Wuthnow. (The more novice reader might appreciate a bit more reference to the classical Durkheimian tradition.) Sullivan also provides a much-needed consideration of resiliency, the place of “engaging religion positively and proactively in dealing with adversity” (p. 29). She tackles not only the place of prayer in troubled lives, but also the growth in faith-based initiatives as a way to address social problems like poverty. Living Faith is a stimulating read for scholars in the social scientific study of religion but, I venture to suggest, a humbling read for leaders of churches and faith-based social service organizations.