Mothers in Poverty: “Yes” to Spirituality, “No Thanks” to Worship

Mother kissing child

Aletta is a 22 year old black/Latina mother of three young children (ages 5, 3, and 1).  She used to attend a Seventh Day Adventist Church twice a week.  Then she and her husband moved away to a long-term transitional housing shelter, and she stopped attending church.

She still continues to pray with her children and teach them about religion.  “I just want them to learn that there is somebody out there watching over us and there is somebody to pray to. . .I want them to know that there will be somebody there for them and they’re not going to be alone.” (Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011, 116)  She prays and reads the Bible to them daily, but she no longer goes to church.  Why?

Susan Crawford Sullivan, sociology professor at College of the Holy Cross, interviewed Aletta and other mothers in poverty to understand more about their lives.  She interviewed forty-five of them, mostly in and around Boston, to find out how—or whether—faith mattered to them.  She quickly found out that faith and spiritual practices mattered deeply—yet they had given up on church.  Why?

A few reasons. . .

Transportation Issues:  One woman, Elisa, used to receive rides from a family in her Pentecostal church, but the rides stopped, and it was too far to walk.  She was unable to find a church in her neighborhood. 

Housing Instability (Need to Relocate):  Aletta, the Seventh Day Adventist mother, cited rules (including curfews) at her housing shelter as an obstacle.   “Once I get my apartment, we will attend church.  But in the shelters it’s kind of hard.  You’ve got to do a lot of things, follow the rules.  So I don’t really attend church right now.”  (p. 157)

Stigma:  In Sullivan’s study, one-third of the mothers felt stigmatized for being poor and being on welfare. 

  • The Shame of Being on Welfare:  Shantelle said, “Growing up in church, most of the people there were working people.  They wasn’t on welfare.”  (p. 161)
  • Poorly Dressed:  Some women felt that church is more appropriate for middle class persons, not the poor.  Some expressed concerned at not being poorly dressed.
  • Publicly Criticized:  Most women in her study had experienced criticism or discrimination in various places:  welfare offices, stores, when applying for a job and attending health clinics.  Those who had worked previously (prior to going on welfare) felt it even more intensely. (p.160-61)

Lisa said this:

The church I grew up in disappointed me, so I don’t want to go to that church no more.  The priest told me that it takes a man and a woman to conceive a child and it takes a man and a woman to raise a child.  That’s the first time I swore at somebody of the cloth.  I feel bad for it, because I do believe in God, and I do believe in what I was taught.  But don’t tell me that it takes a man and a woman to raise a child because it doesn’t. . .I told him that’s where he was wrong, because my mother raised three daughters by herself.  We came out pretty damn good. . .I need to find a church that I am comfortable with going back to before I go back. (p. 165)

Sullivan’s study opens a door on the everyday spirituality of mothers in poverty.  She talks to women who employ a strong faith and regular spiritual practices as a central part of their strategy to be good mothers for their children.

What can be done to reduce the distance between churches and mothers in poverty? How can churches in low income neighborhoods be more welcoming?  Any ideas?


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