God Is My Co-Parent: The “Everyday Religion” of Mothers in Poverty

God Is My Co-Parent: The “Everyday Religion” of Mothers in Poverty September 23, 2020

Recently finished Susan Crawford Sullivan’s 2011 Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty, a qualitative study (ooh fancy) of moms recruited from the waiting rooms of various Boston welfare and social-service offices. Sullivan asks the right questions and, as a practicing Catholic, understands the true weight of the answers. She never instrumentalizes her subjects’ faith; even when she talks about the *~*practical benefits*~* of religious belief, she always notes that the purpose of these women’s prayers and faith are not to make them “resilient” or give them “social capital,” but to worship and love God.

There are two main areas where Sullivan’s study gives especial insight, and for these sections I’d recommend the book highly. By 2011 the trend of “faith at work” pop-Christian books, workshops etc etc was already in high gear. Because Sullivan’s research began as an attempt to understand the theology by which mothers in poverty made sense of welfare reform and its work requirements, she asks a lot about faith at work–and finds a very different picture from the one painted by previous studies of middle- to upper-class Christians.

Poor women, including those who don’t go to church (more on this in a moment), prayed at work often. Their prayers have a note of desperation: “Help me get through the day.” They pray to cope with customers and bosses who don’t treat them as human beings. They frequently feel overwhelmed and need strength from the Lord to make it through. Where richer Christians incorporated their faith into their work by considering their jobs “vocations,” these women consider motherhood their vocation; their jobs are sites of testing and suffering.

And also service. A few mothers noted that their jobs as housecleaners, nurses, factory workers etc. allowed them to give others gifts–of prayer, care, a needed item, “a touch of love.” And like richer Christians, they do evangelize at work: One woman describes her conversion, in which a fellow keypunch operator witnessed to her and prayed with her. They had to keep working their machines the whole time so their managers wouldn’t notice that a soul was coming to Christ! As Sullivan notes, workplaces are often more important in her interviewees’ “lived religion” than churches.

Sullivan asks whether religion or God requires anything of the women’s employers. They basically say, “They should treat us with respect”: “Only one mother mentioned decent wages and benefits.” My guess is that this is partly because most of the women have worked for larger corporations where their immediate boss or franchise manager didn’t set wages and other work conditions, and when somebody asks you what your boss owes you your first thought is of the person who tells you which rooms to clean rather than, like, whoever owns the Hilton hotel chain. But the universality of this answer also suggests a serious failure of Christians to communicate the duties of employers; and it’s also, you know, such a low bar.

The second area where Living Faith is especially insightful is in its discussion of the religion of women in poverty who don’t go to church. If you look at the survey data it seems like the old stereotype of rich atheists and churchy poor people has reversed, and now church is for the better-educated and better-off. Sullivan finds that the mothers in her study who didn’t go to church often had a deep faith and a personal prayer life. Maybe the most striking image of the faith of those who don’t go to church is this: “[A] significant minority of those women who themselves rarely or never attended sent their young children to church regularly with others.” One pastor in a study Sullivan cites estimated that two-thirds of the children at his church were not related to any adults there.

Sullivan notes that God as Father is one of the most common ways her interviewees talked about God. He is a loving Father who takes care of them and desires their well-being. He’s a Father to their children, and they can turn to Him if the human fathers of their children prove unreliable–the title of this post is almost a direct quote from one mom. When her interviewees described what they hoped religion would give their children, they often said that they hoped their kids would know that they’re never alone. They hoped to imbue their children with a sense of their worth in God’s eyes. These concerns, Sullivan says, rarely appear in the literature on wealthier Christians’ religious hopes for their children. But they also often see God as a disappointed Father.

Why would a woman who reads her Bible regularly, who prays with her children, who turns to God frequently for help and to give thanks, stay away from church? There’s one dumb obvious reason, which is logistics. Poor women have very little control of their schedules and often get moved around from place to place; a church you could get to easily from your old apartment becomes inaccessible once you’re in the family shelter, and if you find a church near the shelter, you’ll lose it again when you go into subsidized housing. Even if you do have Sunday off, which lots of women in service industry etc. jobs don’t, it may be your only chance to do the five hundred things you need to do to keep the household above water.

But there’s a deeper reason also, which Sullivan draws out. Many of her interviewees say that they don’t think church is a place for them. They don’t have nice clothes; they have babies out of wedlock. Moral, material, and cultural concerns intertwine–the clearest example is how often Sullivan’s interviewees say they wouldn’t be welcome at church because they smoke.

One of the hidden themes of this book is how much of life in poverty involves shame and judgment. The experience of being scolded or humiliated for using your food stamps at the grocery feeds back into your ideas about whether you’ll be welcome in church. Several women in this study sent their kids to church because the kids were still innocent, basically, as if it were too late for the moms.

That doesn’t mean the moms were simply passive scolded lambs. Several of them criticize the churches they once attended, or churches they know of (or churches they imagine! but these images are based on their real past experiences), for being judgmental and unwelcoming. Some people focused on how they’d failed to live up to “church people” standards, while others focused on how the churches themselves had failed to help or welcome them. Sometimes people’s anger at or criticism of churches is self-defense, even when you think the criticism is off-base; sometimes it’s insight.

Women often felt personally criticized by homilies condemning sex out of wedlock or, in one woman’s case, drug use. That woman was herself in recovery so you might expect her to feel like, “Yeah, drugs are awful, you tell ’em, Father!” But in reality she thought the priest had condemned her. There’s maybe only one story in this book where a pastor successfully guides a poor woman through a difficult moral decision: He first welcomed the unmarried couple, and only in personal conversation with them did he share the teachings of the church about sex and marriage. There are lots of ways to do that conversation wrong, too, to make it an ambush or a bait-and-switch or a high-pressure sale, but my basic point here is simply that poor people often come to church expecting the shaming and condemnation they experience elsewhere. If you don’t explicitly offer them something different, everything you do offer will be interpreted in light of that prior hard experience. THIS IS EXTREMELY RELEVANT TO GAY PEOPLE, lol.

My biggest beef with Sullivan is that she repeatedly slides, as if against her will!, into an assumption that guilt is always a negative or even “harmful” form of religion. Look, sometimes in life, you gotta feel bad about what you did. Otherwise you become BoJack Horseman, desperate only to be told that he’s good. Acknowledgment of wrongdoing rarely feels great even when we trust that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Feeling bad that you did bad things is okay #actually.

But of course as I read more I understood why Sullivan talked this way. Her interviewees are often trapped in their identity as sinners, as people in whom God is disappointed. Their feelings of guilt are quicksand, not spur. And their guilt becomes even more hopeless and degrading because it reflects societal judgments against them for their poverty or their welfare use–rather than overturning worldly hierarchies as the Magnificat does. Sullivan often misidentifies the problem as the presence of guilt and not the absence of hope or confidence in forgiveness, but her interviewees’ guilt in fact keeps them from seeing that they’re cherished already. These women speak readily of God’s plan, which allows them to meet their suffering with patience and trust in Him. What they don’t articulate is the possibility that their sins, too, can be transformed by Him, through both patience and repentance, in service of that greater divine plan.

The women in this study described churches where sin was named but forgiveness wasn’t proclaimed. This obviously may be as much about what the women remember as about what the churches actually did, but again, people primed to experience judgment need Gospel forgiveness more. Sullivan cites a study finding that “low-income people are more likely to pray for forgiveness of sin.” That would fit the Scripture about the camel & the needle’s eye, so it may just reflect greater spiritual insight or humility on the part of poor people. BUT ALSO it might reflect the way that American culture treats poverty itself as evidence of immorality and material success as a moral Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In a way this is Ursula de Jesus’s problem again: How do I pray, Have mercy on me, I’m the lowest of all, without praying, Have mercy on me, I’m lower than rich people?

Or from the other end–how can churches be a refuge from the judgments of the outside world, and not a recapitulation of them? How does a church offer the discipline of its moral teachings–but offer grace and forgiveness even more clearly and abundantly? (One starting point is, stop saying that Americans have lost a sense of sin. Y’all need to talk to more people on the bus!) How could a church overturn the world’s hierarchies, comforting those shamed for their poverty and rebuking those secure in their wealth? Sullivan offers a range of examples, some cautionary tales, others hopeful possibilities. Above all she proves that women who don’t go to church, who in surveys would register as irreligious or marginally-religious, are in fact blessed with deep faith and hungry for God.

It isn’t that people don’t want Jesus. This, too, is relevant to The Gay Experience.

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