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Stranger in a Strange Land: Brian Howell


Faith Makes Us Live

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In this way, Mooney's study of Haitian communities provides general insights about the adjustment of immigrants, public religion, and the provision of social services generally. It is encouraging, for those of us in the United States, that the cooperation between state and religion seems more productive and of greater benefit in the context of Miami, where the wider political climate leads to easier cooperation between local governments and religious institutions. Where the state viewed itself in competition with religious institutions (Montreal), or even viewed religion as a barrier to successful cultural integration and assimilation (Paris), Mooney found the church inhibited in its ability to create moral communities of connection and social-cultural life. She does not, however, endorse the currently fashionable view that religious communities flourish best in the complete absence of government support for religious institutions. On the contrary, her case studies suggest that a society in which government support is available for the Catholic community—as it is in Miami, yet without the baggage of an established church—serves as the best context in which faith can counterbalance the forces of disintegration, cultural loss, and dislocation.

In addition to these larger sociological arguments, Mooney's work dispels many stereotypes and challenges some scholarly constructions of Haitians. In her discussion of Haitian Catholicism in the appendix (which is nearly worth the price of the book alone), she disputes the common scholarly view that Haitian Catholicism necessarily exists on a continuum with traditional religion (i.e., Vodou). While she acknowledges that her research did not take her into contact with those professing Protestantism or Vodou, her ethnographic focus on theology among the people with whom she interacts allows her to uncover what she calls "hard boundaries" between Haitian Catholicism and Vodou that other scholars have downplayed. Her close relationships within the communities led her to believe there were far more fran katoliks, or "pure" Catholics, than previous ethnographic studies would suggest.

I finished reading Mooney's book just as the news of Haiti's devastating earthquake filled the airwaves. As I read the words of Arnaud, the choir director at Notre Dame d'Haiti in Montreal, or those of Carmel and her husband raising their four children in Paris, I wondered if they were frantically calling Haiti for word of missing relatives or organizing relief efforts among their fellow expatriates. Of one thing I was sure: they were turning to God in prayer, relying on their community of fellow Christians in a time of pain, and crying out to a God who hears. "Misery divides us," acknowledged Wilbur, an unemployed man living in Miami, but in the same breath he declared, "Faith makes us live."

—Brian Howell is associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College.

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