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Living Faith

Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty

Living Faith

Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty

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.


“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.”

Theda Skocpol, Harvard University

“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.”

Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University

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.”

Omar McRoberts, University of Chicago

Table of Contents

1          Introduction: Listening to Poor Mothers about Religion
2          Building Blocks: Theory, Religious Practices, and Churches
3          “God Made Somebody Think of Welfare Reform”: Religion, Welfare, and Work
4          “I Send Him to Church with My Mother”: Religion and Parenting
5          “God Has a Plan”: Making Meaning
6          “I Don’t Get to Church Anymore”: Capacity, Stigma and Exit, and Religious Individualism
7          The Church in the City: Impressions from Urban Pastors
8          Conclusion: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty
Appendix A: Background Information for Study Participants Interviewed
Appendix B: Methodology


ASA Sociology of Religion Section: Distinguished Book Award

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: SSSR Distinguished Book Award

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