“Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty”



Last week, I organized a panel at the Association for the Sociology of Religion to discuss Susan Crawford Sullivan‘s new book Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty?University of Chicago Press, 2011). Here  are my brief comments.

“Jamila. Age 28, Black, single. Two children ages 5 and 7 months. Raised Catholic (graduated from Catholic school); now attends Mass occasionally with her mother. Sends her daughter to Mass every week with her mother. On welfare, living in a family shelter.

Lenora, age 22. Hispanic. Single. One child almost two years old. Occasionally attends an evangelical church. On welfare; living in a family shelter.

Peggy. Aged 43. White. Divorced. Two children ages 5 and 15. Devout Evangelical who stopped her previously frequent church attendance when she got divorced. On welfare.” (Appendix A, pp. 227-229, Living Faith).

What images come to mind when you here these profiles, the profiles of 3 of the approximately 50 poor mothers Sullivan interviewed for her book Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty?”

Whatever image came to your mind, I assure you that you will have a very different image of mothers in poverty, and of their deep prayer lives, after you read this book. Among the many reasons I liked this book, perhaps the most important one is that Sullivan presents her interviewees with all the drama of their very difficult lives, and all their hope and faith for a better life to come. She presents their deep trust that “God has a plan”, their strong sense of personal sinfulness and desire to be better, alongside stories of their social isolation from most types of social groups and the particular stigma they often feel from many members and leaders of organized religion.

In presenting the struggles, faith and resilience of extremely poor mothers, Sullivan presents her interviewees in their full humanity and dignity, an important starting point for both social theory and public policy.



I first met Susan at a conference in 2009, where I presented findings from my book telling very similar narratives of hope in the midst of life-threatening trials and extreme poverty among Haitian immigrants. We then exchanged numerous emails and helped each other discover deeper insights from our work, in particular about religion and resilience among the poor. I encourage you to read every word of her new book, even the full list of bios of her interviewees in the appendix.

Her book, although just published, has already been awarded the best new book prize from the Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association. I’m sure our recent author-meets-crtiics panel at the Association for the Sociology of Religion and Susan’s well-deserved award represent the start of much discussion about this important book.

"Are you aware that some people have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome? We ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"Thanks for this. We do, indeed have a way to compare our current environment with ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"The important issue here is global warming and why evangelical Christians often fall in the ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"OK, fair enough. Bill Nye is not a scientist. I hereby rename him "Bill Nye ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I find the entire topic interesting and the idea of three vignettes, representing the three largest ethnic blocks in America a perfect anecdotal study.
    In my thirty years of politics and community activism, I have come to appreciate the worth to society of the woman, head of family and believer. Without her, the inner city would be a shambles. With her, the inner city has hope.
    Looking forward to reading the book.

    • Xavier,

      I’m glad you liked it. You are right that I picked just 3 bios that I thought represented the diversity of races and faith traditions found in many American cities.

      Just reading the bios of the women she interviewed reminded me of so many people I (and even more so you) have encountered. Their lives are very difficult, but they are struggling to find meaning, take care of their kids and make a better life. The book is sympathetic to all involved yet has very clear suggestions in the conclusions about how to understand and work better with the poorest women in our country.

      Let me know when you have read the book and we can talk about it.


  • Steve Offutt

    This is fascinating stuff! Do you think there are implications for development theory or practice in this book?

    • Steve,

      She is writing about poor mothers in Boston who have a relatively strong welfare state to support them. Although she began her studying trying to look at the implications of welfare reform, which cut many of their benefits, she is clear that these women do still receive a fair amount of state aid for food, apartments, etc. Given that, I think the context in most developing countries would be different because more services would be coming from private agencies (like churches) than the state.

      That said, I think just reading about how people struggle psychologically through tough times is applicable across many places. To often, we focus on what poor people need rather than just listening to how they work through their situations.

      I hope that helps!


  • I’ve become convinced that the real problem we’re facing is a problem of trauma, not morality per se. There was a good article in Phillidelphia magazine that pointed to this as well. By some estimates 40% of poor urban dwellers are suffering from PTSD. Here’s the link:

    I’ve been saying for a while that Christians need to take our call to perform works of mercy – visiting the sick and in jail, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc – more seriously. Not just because there are needs out there, but because when we do these things we are putting ourselves into direct contact with people in the middle of the problems we want to pontificate about. Until we’ve done that, our opinions are based on next to nothing. Sociology helps by compiling research, but there’s nothing like encountering the real people in the middle of these situations to destroy your arrogance and presumptions.

    I wish I could read the book – no cash for such things, I’m afraid. But if your friend or the publisher wanted to send a copy, I’d be happy to do a review on my blog. 😉

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Sullivan’s book does talk about many of the women suffering depression, some perhaps due to chemical imbalances, some due to traumatic personal events, and of course, some due to both. And you are right that Christians are called to the corporal works of mercy-caring for the sick, the homeless, those in jail. Without mercy, works trying to do good for others would fall short of true Christian charity.

    • Bobby B.

      Yes, Christians should be involved. Most government “servants,” even those who start out idealistic, become part of the systemic problem rather than the solution.