By Jennifer L. Hollis 10-12-2015

“One of the things that most saddens me in conversations with criminalized and marginalized women is the absence of any sort of philosophy or theology — what I call cultural scripts — for making sense out of their suffering,” sociologist Dr. Susan Sered explained to my church earlier this year.

“And these women have suffered rape, loss of their children, chronic pain, solitary confinement, and social stigma.”

Sered, a professor of sociology at Suffolk University and co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, spent the last eight years conducting research with Boston-area women caught in the binds of poverty, violence, illness, and the prison system. As co-warden of a small, Episcopal church outside of Boston, I invited Sered to share her research and explain what members of our parish could do to make a difference in the lives of women like those in her study.

Her answer? Faith communities must address unmet needs for meaning and community in the lives of people who suffer. Too focused on the symptoms of structural social inequalities, churches set up soup kitchens or food pantries, whose irregular schedules force poor and homeless Americans to run around among a variety of different organizations in order to be able to eat and feed their families every day. This process covers up the lack of a real safety net in our public policies instead of challenging those policies. And when a church or nonprofit gives, and poor Americans receive, the relationship makes a social — and implicitly moral — distinction between the haves and the have-nots, between the people who serve, and the people who are served.

Many of the women Sered studied have already been involved in local churches that offered services such as food pantries, drug programs, or simply a warm welcome. But the women usually realized they were only welcome in church if they weren’t high, and only until it became clear that they would be an ongoing drain on resources. For example, one parish was happy to provide a woman in the study with cash for rent, but members were resentful when that housing situation did not last and she needed financial assistance again a few months later.

Though courts and social service agencies often require these women to participate in programs that focus on self-sufficiency, Sered isn’t convinced this is the right goal.

“None of us are truly self-sufficient; we are social creatures with long periods of physical and emotional dependency starting from birth and ending in a (hopefully) lengthy old age,” Sered told me.

“From what I’ve seen, marginalized, poor, and criminalized women have already sat through endless classes and programs teaching them skills such as housekeeping or food preparation, or even more basic ‘skills’ such as how to set an alarm clock to get to work on time. These classes at most lead to dead-end, minimum wage jobs or no jobs at all, once employers realize that these women have criminal records.”

Many of the classes and programs in which women participate (voluntarily or not) teach them that in order to ‘recover’ they must take responsibility for their own problems, stop blaming others, extricate themselves from ‘co-dependent relationships,’ and learn to ‘do me’ rather than giving themselves to others.

“This message undermines traits such as generosity and sympathy which women may most value in themselves,” Sered told me.

“It distracts attention from the social violence that sends so many women into the institutional circuit to begin with, and negates the possibility of finding meaning in suffering.”

Sered believes that faith communities, especially churches, have a radical opportunity to do something different: help these women make meaning out of their suffering.

“At least as a Jewish outsider looking in, it seems to me that the power of Jesus’ preaching as well as his horrific death is that suffering has cosmic meaning, that it has identifiable causes, and that those who have suffered the most can have the most to offer other people,” said Sered.

“Criminalized women need to hear these powerful messages from religious communities.”

Faith communities can share their social and cultural capital to create new cultural scripts.

“The women I know rarely have friends outside of their own circles of other poor and marginalized individuals and families. None of them know anyone who might be hiring or renting out a room,” Sered told me.

“Everyone they know has endured enormous suffering, so no one in their community has the emotional strength to provide support when someone dies or gets sick, or when these women lose their homes or jobs. They are not socially isolated but they sorely lack the kind of social capital that church members accumulate just by chatting together after a worship service.”

Sociologists define social capital as the array of benefits accruing to participants in social networks, including contacts that can help in finding jobs or housing, advice about schools, or doctors, support during periods of stress such as illness or bereavement, and assistance with labor-intensive tasks such as moving into a new home.

“Faith communities — with regular times for worship and adult education, and information-sharing through newsletters, social media and congregational list-serves — are probably the deepest sources of social capital in the United States,” said Sered.

Cultural capital refers to knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help people succeed in life. It can include the resources and power to make meaning out of life events, which marginalized women desperately need. In Sered’s earlier work with impoverished, non-literate, elderly Kurdish Jewish women in Jerusalem, she found that the suffering these women experienced growing up in highly patriarchal Kurdish families and aging in an Israeli culture that values health, youth, and education transformed them into “ritual experts” whose intimate acquaintance with suffering was seen by their communities as positioning them to appeal to God as well as to show other people how to survive. Their deep belief that “what goes around comes around and the one who is on top today will be on the bottom tomorrow” energized them individually and enhanced their status socially.

Sered’s recommendations to our congregation were simple but profound. Sharing social and cultural capital requires vision, time, and organization – but not enormous sums of money. Even small parishes in the Boston area are often filled with people who are affiliated with top universities, have a diverse set of job and life skills, and have themselves navigated complex institutions successfully. Parishioners could offer information and skills about education, housing, health systems, and any number of institutions. And the scripture, sacraments, and weekly liturgy of an Episcopal parish, for example, could offer women a new cultural script of “your suffering gives you special insight into the experience of Christ and our community,” rather than the institutional script of “you suffer because you are a criminal, or a victim.”

Turning churches into sites for shared cultural and social capital is not an easy suggestion. As Sered noted, poor women suffer from multiple problems that compound over time; crises erupt regularly. Faith communities must be prepared to offer long-term commitment to individuals through non-judgmental friendship. Everyone needs opportunities to give as well as receive, and structured volunteering or meaningful work within faith communities may also provide the opportunity to write and engage in new cultural scripts.

Or as Sered quotes one woman in her study: “I know I have a good heart, but I don’t know why other people can’t see that I do.”

Jennifer L. Hollis (@jenniferlhollis) is a writer and the co-warden of Church of Our Saviour, Arlington, MA.

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