Religion 804: Religious Geographies

This week our readings on urban religion aligned with my own excursion to the International Deaf Geographies conference at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Thankfully the subjects covered in Robert T. Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street and Diane Winston’s Red-Hot and Righteous provided a great deal of productive overlap with my thinking this week on space and place.

In Madonna, Orsi examined the religious expression of Italian Americans in East Harlem. In particular his focus is the festa, a ritual celebration of la casa della Madonna, the Madonna of 115th Street. His approach emphasized lived religion and popular religion.  He defined lived religion as “religious practice and imagination in ongoing, dynamic relation with the realities and structures of everyday life in particular times and places.” (Orsi xii) Popular religion included “all those crazy religious things that people do and all the crazy ideas they have outside the structures of an organized and properly ordered church.”(Orsi xl) Using these frames, he identified the religious practices of this largely immigrant community in two ways; daily interaction, through promotion of the domus and continued commitments to the Madonna;  and the feste, a period of public, open religious encounter that occupied both sacred and profane spaces. Orsi placed primacy on the worldview of his actors as he traced the ways in which believers understood their experiences  through the lens of the Madonna.

Building on a rich source base of oral histories and interview transcripts, Orsi was able to interrogate religious expression and experience on multiple levels. Orsi’s work is useful because it emphasized religious expression that took place outside of bounded church structures, into the homes and streets. Orsi argued that these expressions produced their own unique iconography. The “icononography of the streets in dense urban communities like Italian Harlem: the street is a text composed by the people, though their composition is shaped and constrained by the social and economic facts of their lives.” (Orsi 33) Thinking about how religion is lived also encourages scholars to consider and take seriously notions of the supernatural. This also provided Orsi with a means of examining notions of power, both sacred and profane, but also gendered power and religious institutional authority. The feste and associated practices operated in liminal capacity, creating a period when these hierarchies were disrupted. Moving his focus into the street and thinking seriously about how actors made sense of their world gave him space to think about the many ways faith is practiced.

In Red Hot and Righteous, Winston examined the work of Salvationists in New York 1880-1950. Like Orsi, Winston described the religious activities that took the men and women of the Salvation Army to the streets in an effort to “saturate the secular with the sacred.” (Winston 4) Salvationists “occupied city thoroughfares” transforming the city into a “‘Cathedral of the Open Air.’ A figurative canopy spread over the city, turned all of New York into sanctified ground.” (Winston 2) In so doing, Salvationists put themselves at odds with legal and social norms. Winston contended that these efforts were significant to their service to the “unchurched”.  Winston framed these efforts in the context of a late 19th century, early 20th century consumer culture. She suggested that Salvationists embraced this culture, “selling” themselves in the urban market by reinterpreting cultural symbols to win over souls and wallets (Winston 5).

Drawing from American War Cry and archival materials, Winston demonstrated the way that Salvationists disrupted ideas about faith by redefining religious practice. In large part, the visible role of women in enacting “faith as service” differentiated Salvationists from other religious figures. In these cases, they did not “minister” but lived religiously, expressing their faith through service to others. “Salvationists offered a religious vision rooted in a vernacular faith and expressed in the coalescence of the Army’s Holiness theology and the culture’s regnant consumerist ideology… Redeeming the world… meant facing its challenges  (poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and prostitution) and turning its secular idioms (advertisements, music, and theater) into spiritual texts.” (Winston 8)

Though both Winston and Orsi examined objects, behaviors, and spaces that are largely associated with the profane rather than the sacred, these are surprisingly different projects. Orsi’s work focused on a thick description of immigrant Catholicism in East Harlem. His study of symbols and meaning is rooted in lived experience, focusing on how individual believers made sense of their experiences and their faith in these contexts. He was able to draw these questions out of narrative oral histories. Winston, on the other hand, working from a church publication focused more directly on the institutional role of the church. While progressive in their reform efforts, Winston has more difficulty evaluating claims of equality or difference. Instead, her work focuses on the intersection of religion and consumerism in an urban setting. Here, material symbols (red buckets, particular attire, and even donuts) take on a sacred meaning.

Both of these texts were useful to me in considering the subjects at the Deaf Geographies Conference. For my interests, in what ways can a project like Orsi’s be useful for examining deaf religious histories? To what degree can the lived experiences of deaf congregants and missionaries be accessed? Or thinking about Winston’s project, In what ways did deaf people communicate their faith to hearing believers? Calls for donations, public outings, and the (in)visibility of deaf people traveling on trains- Winston’s work is driving me toward some new questions on these fronts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *