Religion on the Ground (At 35,000 Feet)



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BY ED BLUM

Airplane Space-Invaded Reflection on Courtney Bender, Heaven's Kitchen: Living Religion at God's Love We Deliver and Omar McRoberts’s Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Neighborhood

With Super Tuesday gone and still months from the actual election, I must admit that I’m tired of politics. I know it gets just about all of the media attention (along with some bits on pop culture); I know that our nation’s selection of the next president is crucial. But sometimes it wears me out. I find myself irritated by watching the $400 haircuts, the perfect suits, the photo opportunities, the sound bites. Romney, Obama, Clinton, Huckabee, and McCain – all of them fascinate me. Yet I cannot help but ask: do they really influence my day-to-day life? Would I look that beautiful at 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 if I had a personal trainer, nutrionist, and a team of make up experts? (if anyone wants to comment ‘yes,’ please feel free to do so).

So as I prepared to travel at 35,000 feet once again, I search for books about American religion that bring me back to the ground. I wanted to find some books that carried me to the nitty-gritty everyday life, where women and men, children and adults, search for meaning amid bills and bullies, clothes and cartoons, taxes and traumas. For me personally, my religious life is deeply connected to the individuals I know and interact with each day (not the celebrities or politicians I see on the television); my emotions and feelings are linked to the communities I see in person, that I touch with real hands, that I smell with real nostrils. So I grabbed two books from the library on everyday, lived reality of religion in the United States – Courtney Bender’s Heaven's Kitchen: Living Religion at God's Love We Deliver (which I had thumbed through previously) and Omar McRoberts’s Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Neighborhood. I could have selected a host of other books to get me on the street with “common,” everyday people. I could have selected books from Gerardo Marti, for instance, a wonderful young sociologist who has written several books on multiracial congregations. Perhaps I’ll blog about his work another time, but for now, I’m traveling in my mind to New York City and Boston.

In reality, I read these books while traveling to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, perhaps the antithesis of Boston or New York. Rural and significantly homogeneous, most residents of Oshkosh would probably feel culture shock with the individuals in Heaven’s Kitchen or Streets of Glory. But I love those kinds of juxtapositions and all of the cognitive dissonance that goes with it. I was on my way to speak before a wonderful crowd of folks at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Violence and Memory. I had a fabulous time, discussing W. E. B. Du Bois and the redemption of lynching. Clearly, the faculty at Wisconsin, Oshkosh had dolled out the extra credit in heaps, because the place was teeming with undergraduates. But back to New York. (incidentally, the airplane film was Dan In Real Life, an awful Steve Carell movie but the theme of real, everyday life was a nice reminder for my reading).

Before delving into the book, I want to applaud Bender for the title. An obvious play off of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a neighborhood in New York where a young Walter Rauschenbusch served as a minister. Bender’s title borders on too cute, but doesn’t go over the edge. It’s not, to me, as clever as How the Other Half Dies (perhaps my favorite book title of all time), but it’s nonetheless a creative play. Heaven’s Kitchen is a marvelous study of a nonprofit, nonreligious organization named God's Love We Deliver. It’s a fascinating name, especially since volunteers rarely discuss God. The organization prepares home-cooked meals for people with AIDS. Bender spent more than twelve months working there. With the other volunteers, she spent day after day preparing hundreds of meals: washing vegetables; peeling potatoes; packaging chicken; cleaning utensils – all that stuff celebrities don’t have to worry about. I felt guilty reading about their efforts as I complained internally about the person sitting next to me. I guess my airplane partner thought we were playing a game of Space Invaders; he won. As I read Bender’s work, I was amazed that she was able to have any analytical powers while working so feverishly to get the meals out on time.

And what Bender found is illuminating. Even though God’s name is in the title of the organization, most sacred entities went unmentioned. Bender found that God, Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad were rarely, if ever discussed. Moral, ethical, and religious beliefs were often unspoken or purposefully avoided, Bender observed. It was the absence of God-talk that was so interesting. Bender showed that it was in their ordinary actions (the cooking of food), in their simple conversations (questions about loved ones), and in their silences (when perhaps they were praying or thinking about the rest of the day) that volunteers made religious meaning. What is so inspirational about Bender’s narrative is that she found moral ideas and worldviews at work in places that media outlets would miss, where pollsters would skip, and where the latest fashions and vogues would be insignificant. This was my kind of religion; I’m just thankful I didn’t have to peel the potatoes to comprehend it.

While Bender’s is a study of individuals within one organization, Omar McRoberts’s is a study of organizations within one small area. He is curious to know why Four Corners in Boston, roughly one half square mile made up mostly of African Americans, had almost thirty churches as of 1999 (that’s about one church per 500 individuals in the neighborhood). McRoberts wants to know why a poor neighborhood like Four Corners would have so many churches; he wants to know how these churches are similar and different; he wants to know what role these organizations play in group action (or how do they fail to aid collective activity). At base, McRoberts wants to understand the role of these churches within their urban environments – how the environment shapes the churches and how the churches shape the environment.

Historically, McRoberts tells a story of religious revitalization amid economic catastrophe. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Four Corners experienced massive economic disinvestment, the number of churches rose substantially. The two were connected in some ways. As businesses left, their structures could be used to house churches. The rise of churches was also connected to the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities between World War I and World War II. Church growth, McRoberts claims, was part of the process whereby churches constituted “particularist spaces of sociability” where, pardon the phrase, birds of a feather could flock together.

McRoberts has the ability to analyze statistical data and cultural forms. Just as he examines the locations of the churches and their niche marketing, he also searches out the cultural systems within each church. McRoberts looks closely at how different churches helped elaborate cultural differences between various groups of African Americans in Four Corners. He then looks at ideas of “the street,” which should remind any reader of Robert Orsi’s amazing study of the “theology of the streets” in his first book. For some of the churches in Four Corners, the street was an evil outsider; for others it was recruitment ground; for others it was a place to demonstrate concern for social issues. The street was a place of peril and possibility, of reform and regret. Finally, McRoberts examines how churches competed and cooperated. While they struggled against one another for resources, members, and power, they also aligned in many cases to improve their neighborhood.

So as we vote and debate about for whom we vote (and the religious implications of it all) and as we watch Britney Spears and mock her or adore her or both (and question the morality of media presentations of her), I hope we can still find time to remember religion on the ground, religion in the words spoken and unspoken, in the churches built and torn down, in the nitty-gritty world of the everyday. That’s where I find religion in my own life so why not as a scholar too. And that’s where I found my mental nourishment on my way to and from Oshkosh. Now off to Atlanta.

2 comments:

Seth Dowland at: February 13, 2008 at 7:46 AM said...

Great review, Ed. I found the review of _Heaven's Kitchen_ particularly interesting, because I had the pleasure of volunteering at God's Love We Deliver one day last summer. Bender's observation of the lack of God talk does not entirely square with my experience. (Of course, my observations are based on a whopping two hours of service, so I'd defer to Bender's interpretation.) Those of us volunteering for the day (myself, one other adult, and 10 high school students) were given a 15-minute orientation, which included a history of the organization. The woman who gave us our orientation told us the founder of GLWD began the ministry after visiting a Hindu teacher in India. So we received a history of the organization that was explicitly religious. After that, we traipsed off to pick up our meals to deliver, and we picked up those meals at Marble Collegiate Church, where Norman Vincent Peale preached. The religious historian in me wanted to stay and poke around, but we had to deliver our meals and head to our next stop! Oh well.

Anyway, thanks for the review -- I'll have to check out Bender's book.

Edward J Blum at: February 16, 2008 at 11:58 AM said...

You know, and I should have mentioned this in my review - Bender draws a distinction between the experiences of short-term volunteers (one day or one week folks) from those who come week in and week out, year after year; she finds that they represent two different communities and have two very different experiences. So it will be interesting to hear your thoughts - based on your own participation there. After you read it, post something on the blog about your experience vis-a-vis Bender's take.

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