Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty

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Scholars have made urban mothers living in poverty a focus of their research for decades. These women’s lives can be difficult as they go about searching for housing and decent jobs and struggling to care for their children while surviving on welfare or working at low-wage service jobs and sometimes facing physical or mental health problems. But until now little attention has been paid to an important force in these women’s lives: religion.
Based on in-depth interviews with women and pastors, Susan Crawford Sullivan presents poor mothers’ often overlooked views. Recruited from a variety of social service programs, most of the women do not attend religious services, due to logistical challenges or because they feel stigmatized and unwanted at church. Yet, she discovers, religious faith often plays a strong role in their lives as they contend with and try to make sense of the challenges they face. Supportive religious congregations prove important for women who are involved, she finds, but understanding everyday religion entails exploring beyond formal religious organizations.
Offering a sophisticated analysis of how faith both motivates and at times constrains poor mothers’ actions, Living Faith reveals the ways it serves as a lens through which many view and interpret their worlds.

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Editorial Reviews

Theda Skocpol
“When people think about religion and the poor, they imagine soup kitchens run by a church or members of a congregation visiting a down-and-out family. Talking directly with poor mothers on welfare about their religious ideas and experiences allows Susan Crawford Sullivan to set the record straight. Most poor mothers pray and think about God in their lives and the lives of their children, but many do not feel welcome at church and rarely attend. In Sullivan’s wonderfully detailed and empathetic interviews we see ‘everyday religion’ as it really is and glimpse the tough and resilient lives of impoverished mothers. This book has many valuable lessons for social scientists and leaders of religious and community institutions—and it challenges the assumptions of public policy makers hoping to reach and assist the poor.”
Robert Wuthnow
“Over the past quarter century, much of the debate about poverty and social welfare has been framed by two groups: writers on the right who argued that faith-based compassion could help the poor much better than government programs, and writers on the left who completely ignored religion, perhaps for fear of seeming to favor the other side. Living Faith is a brilliant, thoroughly researched, engagingly written study that offers a more balanced treatment of the issues. Drawing on first-hand interviews with women in poverty, it shows the significance—both positive and negative—that religion and religious interpretations play in their lives.”
Omar McRoberts

Living Faith offers a thoughtful parsing of religious ‘coping’ as a multidimensional and multidirectional phenomenon. It usefully conceptualizes religious practices that are salient to the book’s subjects as well as to broader religious publics. This highly original treatment of the role of religion in the lives of low-income women will be read widely, and for a very long time, by students of inequality, religion, gender, urban institutions, welfare policy, and more.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226781617
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/13/2012
  • Series: Morality and Society Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,009,072
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Crawford Sullivan is assistant professor of sociology and an Edward Bennett Williams Fellow at the College of the Holy Cross.

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Read an Excerpt

Living Faith

Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78161-7

Chapter One

Introduction: Listening to Poor Mothers about Religion

Maria, a twenty-four-year-old single mother with three small children, is in many regards a highly religious Pentecostal. She says that her religion is "very, very, very important" to her. She prays many times a day and reads the Bible once or twice daily. She follows all of her religion's precepts regarding not wearing pants, makeup, or jewelry and not dancing or listening to nonreligious music. "Once you are in the religion for a long time, six months or a year, you will begin to forget about the makeup, the earrings, the bracelets, pants." Maria's previous coworkers asked many questions about her religion because of her noticeably different lifestyle.

Yet for all of the obvious salience of religion in Maria's life, she does not currently attend church. She used to be deeply involved in her Hispanic Pentecostal church community and attended services weekly. But after moving in with the father of her children, she was no longer welcome at church. "We are not married. We live together. I just like to call him my husband." Her religion "says that two people should not be living together if they are not married. That is one of the reasons why we are not in the church right now, because me and my husband are not married. So we have to get married in order to go back to church." Maria wants to go back to church but does not see marriage as a possibility in the immediate future. "Now is not a good time for us to get married. We have to keep going on with our lives and try to get our feet on the ground in order to do it." Maria has also recently moved to a long-term housing shelter for families, not conveniently located to her former church. She stays at home caring for the children, while her boyfriend helps support the family. Her church, she says, "is too far. I don't like to take my kids far away. It's just a mother thing. My church is all the way downtown."

When she was involved, Maria found her church community an invaluable source of practical assistance and emotional support. As a single mother on welfare, Maria had occasions when she needed assistance.

If you need help in any way, somebody comes to your house and tries to help in any way he or she can. You can ask for help from the people in church, especially the pastor. he may come to your house, or some other members of the church can try to help out in the best way they can.... When I didn't have a place to stay with my children, they helped me stay in the house of one of the sisters in the religion [fellow congregants].... If I didn't have money to go buy milk for my kids, they would provide me with money sometimes. they will just go from house to house of the people in church and pick up things that would be probably helpful, that would go in your refrigerator, and they help you to get things until you get back on your feet.

Speaking about emotional distress, Maria explained, "If you are feeling stressed, you get down and you pray next to your bed.... Then if you don't feel the way that you want to feel when you get up, you call somebody from the church, and they will come to your house, and they will try to help you. They will try to give you a sense of focus. They help you a lot."

Maria occasionally visits her old church, but, as she noted, she is not welcome to attend regularly, as cohabitating violates church norms. The move to the family shelter removed her from the immediate vicinity of the church, and she does not have frequent contact with church members now. Lacking transportation and dealing with several very young children, Maria does not find it easy to get to church anymore. She summarizes, "The times that I want to go full-time to the church, it never works out ... because it is too far, or because me and my husband are not married, or because of my kids." Thus, Maria currently practices her faith in an individual way, isolated from a religious community.

I interviewed Maria as part of my research on the role of religion in the lives of low-income urban mothers. She recounted her experiences as we sat in her small apartment in the family shelter, her toddler dribbling grape juice as he played with my eight-month-old son. Her story presents several paradoxes: here is a woman whose deep traditional religious faith is a defining part of her life, yet she does not attend church. Maria, like many other very poor urban mothers, has pressing needs that could in part be met by the spiritual, emotional, and practical support of a church congregation. Yet it turns out that, like Maria, even if women are highly personally religious, many do not regularly participate in organized religion. And although she is not currently part of a church congregation, religious faith pervades and shapes the ways in which Maria responds to challenges, parents her children, and makes meaning of her circumstances.

I did not set out to write a book about the role of religion in the lives of mothers in poverty. Originally I planned to explore the connection between faith and work for low-income mothers. As a new mother of an infant, I found myself surprised when talking with some highly educated mothers who used religious language and concepts to frame their decision to leave the labor force and care full-time for their children. These affluent and religious mothers viewed any use of child care and continuation of career as selfish at best, if not a downright rejection of God's will. But I knew welfare reform required poor mothers of very young children to work. What did low-income mothers think? I wondered. Certainly some of them were conservative Catholics or evangelical Protestants like these highly educated, affluent women who rejected the concept of mothers of young children working outside of the home. Did poor women simply frame these issues differently due to their economic circumstances? How did the requirements of welfare reform square with their religious convictions? I set out to explore these questions, conducting in-depth interviews with urban mothers who were on or had recently transitioned off welfare and, later, talking with pastors who ministered in poor urban areas.

I found that religion can influence poor mothers' conceptions of work, welfare, and motherhood. But what really struck me in the interviews was how personally religious many respondents seemed to be, yet they did not attend church. I saw how prayer and religious beliefs played a defining role in their daily lives, although organized religion often played little or no part. Unasked, mothers brought up how they had found it difficult to continue attending church after moving into a transitional housing shelter or how they had felt stigmatized at church for being single mothers or for some other aspect of their lifestyle. And although most did not participate in organized religion, they spoke repeatedly about how much they relied on prayer and faith in facing challenges such as securing housing and jobs, raising their children in dangerous neighborhoods, and trying to make sense of the difficulties they faced. Religious faith served as a lens through which many viewed and interpreted their worlds.

Everyday Religion

This book contributes to a growing body of research on "lived religion" or "everyday religion," that is, how people actually practice religion in their daily lives. David Hall notes, "We know next-to-nothing about religion as practiced and precious little about the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women" (1997, vi). Scholars such as historians Robert Orsi and Marie Griffith, sociologists Meredith McGuire and Courtney Bender, and anthropologist Marla Frederick, among others, have produced groundbreaking work on lived religion. To study lived religion, states Orsi, "entails a fundamental rethinking of what religion is and of what it means to be 'religious.' ... Religion comes into being in an ongoing, dynamic relationship with the realities of daily life" (1997, 7). Nancy Ammerman draws attention to everyday experiences of individual lives and the importance of understanding the social worlds where religious ideas and practices exist. Traditional ways of measuring religion, such as religious adherence and church affiliation, miss the many religious practices that occur outside of institutions, leaving much of actual everyday religion unanalyzed (Ammerman 2007).

Orsi calls us to rethink religion as a type of cultural work "concerned with what people do with religious idioms, how they use them, what they make of themselves and their worlds with them" (2002, xix). Religious practices thus have meaning only as they are related to how people actually live. "Religion is approached in its place within a more broadly conceived and described lifeworld, the domain of everyday existence, practical activity, and shared understandings, with all its crises, surprises, satisfactions, frustrations, joys, desires, hopes, fears, and limitations" (xiv). How poor urban mothers experience and live religion can be understood only from within the broader framework of their lifeworlds.

Religion and spirituality remain strong in the lives of modern Americans. A high percentage of Americans say that religion is very important (56 percent) or fairly important (25 percent) in their own lives, with women more likely than men to say religion is very important (66 percent to 51 percent). Fully 85 percent of African Americans say that religion is very important in their lives. Poorer and less-educated individuals are more likely to regard religious faith as very important (Newport 2006). Forty-nine percent of Americans say they felt a strong sense of God's presence in the previous twenty-four hours (Gallup and Jones 2000). Six out of ten Americans say faith is involved in every aspect of their lives, and seven out of ten say they find purpose and meaning in life because of their religious faith (Gallup Organization and Center for Research on Religion and Civil Society 2003).

Given figures like these, why has so little sociological attention been paid to the role of religion in the lives of mothers in poverty? Although there have been many studies of mothers on welfare, there is a conspicuous lack of research on their participation in religion and its role in their lives. Such women's lives are difficult and challenging: juggling searches for housing and decent jobs, struggling to care for children, surviving on welfare or working at low-wage service jobs that often lack dignity and benefits, coping with family disruption, and perhaps facing physical or mental health problems or addictions. It seems likely that many poor mothers might involve faith in their daily activities and find purpose or meaning through religious faith. Frederick contends that social scientists emphasize race, class, and gender in understanding how people navigate their worlds, while neglecting spirituality. Yet, she continues, "among the faith-filled, faith in God navigates how individuals respond to almost all of life's circumstances" (2003, 3). To study the lives of such individuals without studying how spirituality operates in their lives misses a key part of what both motivates and constrains their actions. To study the lives of poor mothers without exploring the role of spirituality obscures how many understand and respond to their circumstances. Faith speaks to the life experiences of those for whom religious faith is important, providing meaning in life's experiences and helping to shape people's interpretations and actions (Frederick 2003). How is "everyday religion" practiced amid the hardships of motherhood in urban poverty?

Religion often comes to play a more prominent role in people's lives during times of duress (Pargament 1997). Thus, in part I focus on how disenfranchised women draw on religion in dealing with challenges and making meaning of circumstances. Given the lack of access to other types of resources that more affluent individuals take for granted, religion can become an important resource for poor women in negotiating the many demands of their lives. This book both joins and builds on earlier works, including Carol Stack's All Our Kin and Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein's Making Ends Meet, in explaining how low-income mothers survive and attempt to overcome circumstances. While rejecting a utilitarian view that reduces religion to a mere coping mechanism, I contend that religion serves as a resource for a potentially large number of women.

In this book, I conceptualize religious resources as two types: institutional and cultural or personal. Institutional religious resources are resources associated with a church or faith-based organization, such as pastors, networks of fellow congregants, and material aid. Churches, first and foremost, exist so that people can worship together and experience the divine, acting as sacred spaces where worshippers can gain a sense of transcendence and connection with the divine. People join in communal worship, praying, singing, and receiving sacraments ( Wuthnow 2004). In addition, social scientists find that aspects of congregations have provided important resources across a broad array of arenas, ranging from the civil rights movement to mental health. Churches provide opportunities for companionship and participation in social activities, and churches often serve as sources of friendship and social support to their members. Pastors can provide such assistance as help with personal problems, financial aid, and emergency shelter. Congregations may engage members in actions aimed at addressing social problems.

In addition to church-based institutional resources such as pastoral aid or networks of congregants, religion also provides cultural resources—the beliefs, views, and symbols that people draw on to structure their experience of the world. Ann Swidler (2001) analyzes how culture shapes people's "strategies of action," a notion highly applicable to studying the role of religion in the lives of mothers in poverty. Religious beliefs provide a lens through which to interpret the world and a way to make meaning of life's experiences (Koenig and Larson 2001; Pargament 1997).

Because religion—in both its institutional and personal forms—has been shown to provide resources in many different types of situations, it seems highly likely that it would serve as a resource to very poor mothers with limited resources. My study indicates that impoverished urban mothers draw strongly on personal religious beliefs and practices and less frequently on institutional religion in confronting challenges such as navigating work and welfare, raising their children, and trying to make meaning out of difficult situations.

Religion, of course, cannot and should not be reduced to a resource, and it is not my intention to do so. My respondents who engaged in religious practices engaged in these practices because they believed in a divine being that they wished to worship and to whom they wished to grow closer. Their faith was important to them not because it was a resource but because it was a central part of who they were and how they viewed the world. Religion was not merely a resource for these women; it encompassed their lived experiences of culture and identity. As part of living out faith in daily life, poor mothers engage religion as a resource, but this does not make up the totality of their lived religion.


Excerpted from Living Faith by SUSAN CRAWFORD SULLIVAN Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction: Listening to Poor Mothers about Religion 1

2 Building Blocks: Theory, Religious Practices, and Churches 27

3 "God Made Somebody Think of Welfare Reform": Religion, Welfare, and Work 66

4 "I Send Him to Church with My Mother": Religion and Parenting 108

5 "God Has a Plan": Making Meaning 133

6 "I Don't Get to Church Anymore": Capacity, Stigma and Exit, and Religious Individualism 156

7 The Church in the City: Impressions from Urban Pastors 178

8 Conclusion: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty 202

Appendix A Background Information for Study Participants Interviewed 227

Appendix B Methodology 230

Notes 235

References 255

Index 271

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