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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Faith and Poverty: Personal Religiosity and Organized Religion in the Lives of Low-Income Urban Mothers

Susan Crawford Sullivan, College of the Holy Cross
Date: February 8, 2006

On February 8th, Susan Crawford Sullivan, associate professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross, shared her research concerning the religious lives of poor women in Boston. Through fortyfour in-depth interviews in the Boston area, Sullivan uncovered that low-income, urban mothers have higher levels of personal religiosity—almost exclusively Christian—than the non-poor, and yet they participate less in organized religion. Based on data collected in her interviews, she explained this paradox as a function of two obstacles: minimized capacity to attend church services and a perception of disapproval from church leadership and fellow worshippers. Her study breaks new ground regarding the relationship between the churches and the poor. Scholars have primarily focused on religious social service programs provided for the poor, not how the poor connect with and understand their participation in churches.

From a practical standpoint, urban, poor women do not attend church regularly simply because their circumstances inhibit active involvement with a congregation. Transportation presents the first problem for many of these women. Since most lack a car, they must rely on the bus or the subway system. But these public services can be unreliable or inconvenient to a desired church location. Unpredictable and inflexible job schedules, along with the challenges of single motherhood, also prohibit easy access to Sunday morning services.

Even if the practical hurdles to church attendance are successfully managed, one-third of Sullivan’s sample of low-income mothers felt stigmatized and unwelcome at church. Some of these women encountered judgmental attitudes— both spoken and unspoken—toward single motherhood, cohabitation, and poverty itself, while others feared such opinions would prevail in churches. The reality and perception of stigma was particularly difficult for these women, the majority of whom have a history of strong ties to Christianity. Furthermore, recent scholarship, according to Sullivan, has demonstrated the advantages of church involvement, including the social network of support, interaction with members of other social classes, and the personal transformations that can occur in religious settings.

Sullivan concluded her talk with suggestions for churches to better include low-income, urban mothers, and also commented on the public policy implications of her research. For Sullivan, congregations could be more pro-active with implementing or improving transportation assistance and outreach programs for poor women. As a matter of public policy, Sullivan argued that her research cautions against viewing the church as a panacea for the poor, even the religious poor. In the end, religious programs designed for these populations can only be of service if they have the capacity to attend church and, once there, feel welcomed.