Published March 26, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, scholars Tony Tian-Ren Lin (Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream) and Todne Thomas (Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality) discussed their new books, in which they explore the religious cultural dynamics of Latino immigrants and Black evangelicals, respectively. These studies explore lived experiences, how church members may use their spiritual relationships to navigate racial and ethnic discrimination, and the rewards the church may offer in addition to salvation. In conversation with Joseph Davis.

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Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.

“[An] evocative debut. . . . Lin’s well-reasoned work makes a strong case that the Prosperity Gospel provides a way for immigrants to survive, remain liberated, and pursue their American dream.” —Publishers Weekly

“Todne Thomas tells a big story about the lived experience of navigating multiple identities and creating meaningful purpose within a community, complicating and refuting racialized narratives of evangelicalism and narrow interpretations of black identity politics in the process. She effectively shows what it means to be a black evangelical.” —Andrea C. Abrams, author of God and Blackness: Race, Gender, and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church

Community Partner

Thanks to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture for hosting this event.

Transcript

JOSEPH DAVIS: Welcome to “Seeking More Salvation: Religious Communities,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, a project of Virginia Humanities.

I’m Joseph Davis, a research professor of sociology and director of the Picturing the Human colloquy here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which is a research center within the University of Virginia. And we’re very pleased to be hosting this event today.

If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, which is the UVA Bookstore, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. And since this is the last day of the Festival, you’ll be able to just watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.

Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers, our authors:

Tony Tian-Ren Lin, author of Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, is a sociologist and program director for the Leadership Development Initiative at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City. Previously and for a long time, he was a research scholar here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. So, this is a kind of welcome back from New York.

And then Todne Thomas, author of Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality, is an anthropologist and assistant professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Her work examines the racial, familial, and spatial dynamics of Black Christian communities in the United States.

Both our speakers got their doctorates here at UVA. One in sociology—of course, Tony—and then Todne in anthropology. So welcome to you both. We’re really looking forward to today’s webinar.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Thank you.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Yeah, certainly. Now in terms of format, given that we have two authors, I thought the best way to proceed would be for me to ask each a series of questions that are aimed to kind of draw out a little about each of their books and the contribution that they’re making. And then when this part is finished—that is, the kind of Q&A between me and them—then have an open Q&A session. So, if you want to put your questions in the chat section of Zoom, then during the Q&A I’ll try to ask as many of those questions as I can in the available time. And then of course we’ll end at three o’clock. Okay, is that clear enough for everybody, including our speakers?

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Sounds good.

JOSEPH DAVIS: All right. Todne, maybe you could start with giving us a little overview of Kincraft, including telling us what—I don’t think most of us are familiar with the term kincraft, although I suppose we can kind of intuit some meaning from it. And then kind of what the question was that you were seeking to answer with your research. And then when Todne is finished, I’ll turn it over to Tony. Go ahead.

TODNE THOMAS: Thank you so much. Thanks for the invitation. It’s nice to sort of e-meet you both—to meet other UVA community members. And so, I’m really thrilled to be here. And I remember Virginia Festival of the Book being one of the highlights of being a grad student at UVA, so I’m really honored and excited to be here. I also think that some of the UVA Anthro community that I’m a part of is online. And so, I want to say hi to everyone, including my grad advisor Susan McKinnon, who I think is also a part of the webinar.

So Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality came out of really me being trained as an anthropologist of kinship studies. I was really interested in the ways in which Afro-Caribbean communities made sort of familial social networks. And one of the ways in which I ended up beginning to explore that was to look at how kinship became an operative language of community life in religious communities.

So, I was in Atlanta doing field work. I had a really difficult time trying to find an institutional basis for my work. And my grad advisor, Susan McKinnon, asked what about churches. Originally, I was a scholar of kinship studies exclusively, and so religion came later, the ironic thing being that I’m at a divinity school and my work has been most readily embraced really by religious studies. So, part of the process of Kincraft was interest and question but also a bit of serendipity in some of the exegesis of context.

By kincraft, I speak to sort of two origins for Black evangelical relationship-making. The first is religious. I think about evangelical theologies, about being part of the universal body of Christ. And in particular, this evangelical story is impacted by Plymouth Brethrenism, which is a nineteenth-century evangelical movement that beings in Ireland that’s very strictly anti-sectarian, very anti-denominational, grows out of the disestablishmentarianism of the nineteenth-century context, and really focuses on New Testament family churches—house churches—as the authentic language for religious community.

Within that, kinship become operative. It’s the alternative to denominational, sectarian language. So, a part of the provenance of kincraft comes from an evangelical imaginary that’s very much invested in kinship as an authentically biblical reference point for making Christian community. And so, people understand themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, and that I think is part of the Plymouth Brethren story. But I also think we see this in a number of evangelical communities across the board, right? It’s really that we tend to think about such kinship claims as fictive that has really kept us from understanding how people create kinship language and understand what kinship means in religious terms.

The second basis for kincraftis really an African diasporic story—the African diaspora. The deep histories of displacement, of ongoing migration, of kinmaking in difficult contexts. The ways in which people of African descent have chosen kinship language as a way of creating community amidst broad processes of mobility, disenfranchisement. So, this community is very much a migrant community. We have Afro-Caribbean evangelicals and also highly mobile African American evangelicals who are part of this faith-based community in Atlanta. And so, I argue that kincraft also speaks to what I call the semiotic audacity of people of African descent conscripting kinship language even in times of slavery when they weren’t able to own or lay claim to their kin, of making themselves kin amidst contexts of disenfranchisement and mobility.

So kincraft weds together this evangelical sensibility and this Afro-diasporic provenance to really understand and make sense of the kinship claims that Black evangelicals are making in real time in their lived religious experience in Atlanta.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Thank you. And you used the phrase fictive kinship, I believe.

TODNE THOMAS: Yes.

JOSEPH DAVIS: As a way of expressing, I guess, the idea that it’s not just blood relationships.

TODNE THOMAS: Right.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Like the normal way we think of kin are relatives—blood relatives.

TODNE THOMAS: Exactly, Joe. It’s an older term that was really popular within kinship studies. Fictive kinship was understood to be kinship claims that were made that weren’t biological. The problem with fictive kinship as a term is that it assumes that biological kinship is primary or operative. And what we really learned as scholars of kinship is that a lot of kinship studies in anthropology exported Western genealogical sensibilities across the world and was based in a lot of assumptions.

So, because of that, our understandings of kinship claims that aren’t bounded in biology and Western context are sometimes very impoverished. So, I actually rebuke the idea of fictive kinship and try to show how people create discourse, enliven it with their time and their resources and their food sharing and their mentoring and discipling as well.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Right, right. As you say that word fictive makes it sound like it’s make-believe or not real.

TODNE THOMAS: Right.

JOSEPH DAVIS: So, the bias there is sort of built right into that phrase in a way that you’re trying to argue, I take it, that that’s not the case. That these are real kinship and not some kind of artificial thing.

TODNE THOMAS: And there’s also valences of deception that hang around. There’s a sociologist named Margaret Nelson who actually has a book that came out about fictive kinship, and one of the things she noticed was that, in doing a lit review of social scientific studies fictive kinship that social scientists themselves were more likely to use the language of fictive kinship when speaking to minoritized populations. There were other terms. Chosen kin was used in queer communities. Peer networks were used in white communities. So, the term fictive kinship itself, according to Margaret Nelson, is quite racialized.

I remember a comment by a classical kinship theorist, Julian Pitt-Rivers, and his quote was, “Non-kin amity loves to masquerade as kinship.” Right, the idea of the masquerade. Somehow there’s something deceptive. What is it that you mean when you call yourself brothers and sisters in Christ? Please explain it to me. What does it mean to you? So, yes, I am indebted to anthropology by also sociologists’ work on that as well.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Right, okay. Very good. Thank you, Todne. All right, Tony, let’s turn to you. Same question. Tell us a little bit about the prosperity gospel and who the prosperity gospel Latinos are particularly and kind of a little overview of your research question?

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yes, so thank you, again. And it’s nice to meet you, Todne. We’ve crossed paths in many places, but we’ve never actually met until today—until right now.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Does this constitute meeting? I guess so.

TODNE THOMAS: I’m teaching Tony’s book in my class this semester, so, yes, it does.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yeah, maybe it’s a fictive meeting. So, my book—I wanted to use the immigrant experience to shed light into an American phenomenon, which is the prosperity gospel. And of course, there’s a full range of prosperity gospels from hard prosperity to the more neo-Pentecostal. The people I study are more towards the more traditional hard prosperity, which means they focus on the material reward of faith. And I argue that the prosperity gospel is the gospel of the American Dream. It’s the ideals of meritocracy and consumerism spiritualized in a form that’s attractive to people. And it’s a theodicy for both the suffering and the wealthy. For the suffering, it gives them hope to pursue—that they can achieve prosperity. For those already prosperous, it’s a theodicy that justifies their wealth so that they—it’s not enough to know why one is wealthy. The wealthy need to know why they are wealthier in comparison to those who are suffering, right? To the poor. And prosperity gospel gives them that justification. And it is at the core of the American Dream and the whole idea of meritocracy.

And I wanted to study immigrant communities because the newest Americans are usually the ones who aspire to the ideals the best and the hardest. And so, I looked at Latin American, Spanish-speaking immigrant communities and why they were adopting this. They were converting. Most of the participants I studied, they converted to these faiths. Most of those who are coming right now from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, they are already prosperity gospel believers. Ninety-some percent of the general population—not even Pentecostals or Christians, but the general population—in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras believe that if you have faith, God will give you wealth and health. Those are the people coming, who are at the border right now. So, they’re coming already believing in this idea.

But the ones I study in my ethnography, they converted when they came to this country. I was very curious to see why. It clearly wasn’t because of the money. Not everybody was getting rich. But also, if you’re an immigrant and you’re able to make it in the US and essentially survive for all these years, you’re pretty smart. You are sophisticated to be able to navigate. You know, show up without speaking English, without any connection, and you make it. You get married. You have kids. You buy houses.

JOSEPH DAVIS: That’s a lot of merit.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yeah, yeah. You’re not some gullible fool who’s believing in this pie-in-the-sky nonsense. So, why? Why, when they’re so smart and have all these skills and talents, are they adopting this faith? And that’s why the title of the book is key. You can read the whole book by the title on the cover of the book. It’s their American Dream. They’re not coming here just taking the generic American Dream of picket-fence houses and 2.5 kids. They’re chasing their version of the American Dream, which is a lot more therapeutic than the material things that this country promises.

They know that hard work alone is not going to get them to where they need to be, but they believe—I use the term miraculous meritocracy. And prosperity gospel gives them—they’ll work hard, they’ll have to sacrifice both in real life and spiritually in the church. And the work alone is not going to make it, but the work will get God’s attention to give them that miracle that will take them over to their dream.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Can I just ask—sorry, I don’t want to get into the weeds on these things. But do you think the prosperity gospel is something that’s been exported already? You said that a lot of people in the Central American countries—you mentioned El Salvador and so on—already seem to have this idea. Is that a form of the prosperity gospel that they actually have? And how did they get it? From listening to you, it sounded like it’s kind of an American thing.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: So, towards the end of the book—and I didn’t get into this too deeply because I didn’t do research outside of the US, so I couldn’t speak with total authority. But I hinted that this is a new form of—a spiritualized version of colonialism. Of the same colonialism that happened before with the neoliberalist, capitalist ideals that is very Western—embedded in Western ideals. That are being exported as a spiritual version. And not only is it transforming cultures in other countries—just anecdotally, my friend who lived in Kenya said that it was a national holiday when Juanita Bynum, a prosperity gospel preacher, went there. It was a national holiday, and they shut down the schools.

Most people here have—Joe, you have no idea who she is, right? Have you ever heard of her? Juanita Bynum? But in Kenya, they closed the schools to welcome a prosperity gospel preacher. And the prosperity gospel preachers outside of the US—their assistant pastors are wealthier than some of the prosperity gospel preachers here in the US.  The biggest prosperity gospel network of churches in the world, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Sao Paulo, Brazil—they’re worth billions. Whereas the wealthiest prosperity gospel preachers here are worth a few million. I don’t think any of them passes even a hundred million.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Not that prosperous, apparently. Only a few million.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yeah. So, it is exported. It is transforming communities in other parts of the world. And I think the more cautious, right—I don’t want to say dangerous. But the more concerning part is that it’s wiping out local versions of Christianity. You can go literally—I’ve been to church in Buenos Aires. And if you close your eyes, it feels exactly like any prosperity gospel church in the US, right? They sing the same songs. It’s the same style. Different language, but the core of the message is the same. And it wasn’t like this. Fifty years ago, each country had their own hymns. Each country had—the essence, the culture, of that country was infused into their expression of Christianity. But in the last roughly twenty to thirty years, the local versions have been wiped away by the English-speaking version. Not just the US but Australia. Hillsong is also extremely popular.

And then of course the other unsaid part is in a lot of places in this country, your ability to speak English is the sign of prosperity. So, if you are anywhere in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and throughout the continent of Africa, if you speak English and you can preach in English, people see you as more successful.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Okay. I need to move us on a little bit. Sorry, I’m prone to ask more questions than I should. Let’s go back to you, Todne. Both of these books are ethnographies, meaning that the author spent a lot of time in direct interaction with the people and churches and so on that they were studying. So Todne, why don’t you begin? Tell us a little about your fieldwork, who you were working with, and where. And then Tony.

TODNE THOMAS: Sure. So, I did work in two Black evangelical congregations in the Atlanta metropolitan area. I spent more time at one, which was a predominantly Afro-Caribbean evangelical congregation. But I also had some interactions with the sister church, also in the Atlanta metropolitan area, that was a predominantly African American evangelical congregation. So, these two congregations came out of the same religious movement that was spawned by a kind of Afro-Caribbean missionary. He came to the segregated South in the 1950s to plant what they refer to as Bible-believing churches. So, the history of this organization—it’s not a denomination—is fascinating. You have an Afro-Bahamian missionary who’s basically deciding to do missionary work in what’s popularly known as the Bible Belt.

So, there’s a lot of variegation within intra-Christian identities, intra-black, intra-racial identities. Ethnicity is an important part of the story. I spent roughly a year in the Atlanta metropolitan area, getting acclimated into community life. When students ask me—I think there’s a kind of exotic idea about what fieldwork looks like, especially on the part of some of the divinity school students that I work with who are interested in ethnography as a methodology. Like what was it like? What were you doing? It’s like I went to a lot of Bible studies. On average, I went to about four a week. By and large, that was the most common activity that I was a part of. But ethnography also meant, you know, I was asked to be a Vacation Bible School teacher. I was part of a local subgroup, and so that meant hanging out. Sometimes we would have a number of services, and there’d be a break between services. So that means sometimes I’d get asked over for dinner in between, say, worship service, which went from the breaking of bread at eight until worship service, till tarrying in the parking lot that might end around one or two. So, you have like six hours of church, then a break, and then there might be a church anniversary service. So, I’ve had Sundays that have lasted—fieldwork days that have lasted around fourteen hours. Some of the busiest days.

It could be what I also call deep hanging out, right? So, I also talk about—Marla Frederick is one of my favorite anthropologists. She has this book called Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith. So, between Sundays fellowship could mean someone is doing what’s called in the Caribbean a lime, which is like hanging out. So, one of my church parents, she was an amazing cook. And so, her house was the house where people sometimes, especially Jamaican congregants, wanted to hang out. So, one Friday she might be making goat soup, and churchmen are playing dominoes, and in the basement there’s gospel. I’m hanging out with her in the kitchen and keeping her company. So, it also meant being a part of these informal, impromptu fellowship moments as well between Sundays.

So, fieldwork required attending the sort of formal institutional services, but I repurposed Robert’s idea of the invisible church. These invisible church, quotidian moments as well. Church sisters getting together for a prayer service. I grew up Presbyterian, so I thought a prayer service would last an hour, you know? It’s on a Friday night. I’m thinking, okay, it’s a Friday night. It’s at someone’s house. It’s going to last an hour. It starts at seven. And then I get home at three a.m.

So, I tell students one of my biggest advice points to you is pack snacks. Right? Pack snacks. When you don’t know what fellowship looks like or what it can mean timewise. I’ve had so many low-blood-sugar moments. So, it became—as those relationships of trust and being known, I kind of got adopted by two couples who kind of helped me become more fully integrated into this quotidian church. It meant going from the institutional to the everyday.

And it was a process. It took months, really, before people were interested in really talking to me. It was a lot of the unpopular— I don’t know if Tony has experiences—but being the unpopular kid at school again on purpose. You know, hanging out, kind of getting ignored, feeling awkward. But over time getting more and more integrated.

And I always say that one of my favorite stories is you could think that you’re being innocuous or you’re fully integrated. I remember one time there was a Vacation Bible School, you know, fete. People were eating. It was a barbecue. And I was hungry. I just remember being hungry during fieldwork. And I was eating a hot dog, and I was just minding my own business. I was just taking a beat. And someone walks over to me and says, “I bet you’re just standing there and you’re taking this all in, and you’re just going to go home and scribble this in your notebook.”

And I said, “Brother Johnson, right now I’m just eating a hot dog.”

But it was a reminder. Because I’d been there for about eight months at that. Some people never forget why you’re there. Even if you get integrated enough—to be trusted with someone’s children as a teacher is a big act of trust. But there are people who still remember why you’re there, right? What you’re doing when you’re there. Even when you are trying to check out, they haven’t deselected or forgotten the work that you’re doing. So that’s a bit about what that was like. Lots of Bible studies.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Yeah. And did you—I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology. Of course, in those days it seemed like everybody had to go outside. An anthropologist staying inside the United States was not what people did. But were there certain kind of confidants? Or what’s the usual word they speak of? Somebody who kind of helps you understand the culture. Kind of an interpreter, if you will. Were there certain people like that that you had a close relationship with?

TODNE THOMAS: Absolutely. So, there were sort of two couples that adopted me. One was an Afro-Jamaican couple. One was an Afro-Trinidadian and African American couple. So, they were the places where I could go in between church, or I could just show up. And it really came out of the sensibility that like a young, single woman shouldn’t be in a city without people. It was really, I think, a kind of migrant sensibility. An Afro-diasporic ontology which is very heavily relational. The idea like part of the reason why people get adopted or make kin is because it’s understood to be—and I guess I was a migrant, in a sense. To be in a new place without people is dangerous. It’s not okay for someone to be without people. So, one of my church friends—my Afro-Trinidadian father—called me a stray alley cat. He was like, “You know, a stray alley cat. You feed it, and it keeps coming back to your house.” He was explaining to someone else how he knew me. He was like, “You know, she’s our daughter. She’s a stray alley cat that we took in.”

So, they were very helpful, especially when I would sometimes run against—my grad advisor Susie would be like, “You’re the instrument.” So, your faux pas, your mistakes—all of that—are how you learn. So, at one point, I remember sitting between my church parents, and I was told that it was inappropriate to sit between a husband and wife in church. And so, they were where I could go to process things like that. Like I’m sorry if I messed up. They thought it was ridiculous, but they explained to me what the rationale was. You know, and they were like they obviously don’t get that we’re kin, but this is what they meant when they said that.

There was also another key informant, who was an Afro-Jamaican woman who grew up in the States mostly who is around my age. So, she helped me understand a lot how younger Black evangelicals navigated being within this community. Some of the youth perspective. Some of the—you know, we would hang out on the weekends too. It was a kind of hang out that felt less top-down and more lateral and peer based. So, yeah, I’d say there were definitely about five people that really helped me understand just what some of the invisible rules and codes are. If I messed up or got some sort of negative feedback, I could go to them and say like, “How did I mess up? What am I missing?” And they could translate for me.

And, yeah, I think the point about what is real ethnography—does it take place outside of the United States or not? I still think that that’s a thing, Joe. I have been lucky. I went to Cornell undergrad. Vilma Santiago-Irizarry was my advisor. Puerto Rican anthropologist who did work in the US. And I never got any discouragement from the program at UVA for wanting to do domestic research. For me, anthropology has such a colonial legacy. And even in my newest work on contemporary Black church arson, we have so much stuff we have to unpack here. That the idea for me of going somewhere else when we have so many colonialities and antis and isms bubbling up here. I could spend my life very comfortably doing work in the US and always, I think, be engaged. I think that’s still, for some, a very operative idea. And I’ve been grateful because I think religious studies has been a great home for my work and understanding the significance of studying something as mundane as evangelicalism. That’s not cool, right? From a certain standpoint. And religious studies has always been—

JOSEPH DAVIS: Your job is to make it exciting.

TODNE THOMAS: —oh my gosh, this work is so significant. Yeah.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Okay, all right. Tony, same question. Tell us a little bit about your—how you did your fieldwork and—

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: So, this whole project stems out of an ethnography class. I was taking ethnography with Sharon Hayes. Remember Sharon, when she was at UVA? So, she was teaching ethnography, and I was taking her class, and one of the assignments was you have to go somewhere you’ve never been. It had to be somewhere new. And I too grew up Presbyterian. Still am Presbyterian. So, I thought what is the most different from Presbyterianism? 

Pentecostalism. And I was just looking for a straight-up Pentecostal church. I had visited some friends’ Pentecostal church, so I knew it was different enough. But I didn’t—you know, certainly never studied or participated deeply in those communities. 

So, it was in Charlottesville. I went to the first one that was close and convenient. I showed up. And on that Sunday, the preacher said anybody who brings $100 will get $10,000 by the end of the year. And I had never been in a context like that, and I had certainly never been in a context where people went up and gave him their money. So as a good ethnographer, I said let me hang around to see if it works. Because I bring no judgment, right? So, I stuck around.

And that started this fascinating adventure. It was a Spanish-speaking church. I’m from Argentina, and at that time the most famous Spanish-speaking Pentecostal preacher, Claudio Freidzon, is from Buenos Aires. So, it resonated. It made sense that somebody from Argentina would show up to one of these churches.

And the church was so fluid. And most of these communities are very fluid. So, a new person is not—it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s not like your country church where people have their own pews and generations sit there. It’s so fluid that they didn’t mind—they were very open to helping me interview. The pastor was very open. He was helping identify people I could interview. And then I went to San Diego. So, it was Charlottesville—and the church I studied in Charlottesville is no longer there, so I can say Charlottesville. They’ve moved, and the pastor has moved on to a different city. And then I went to San Diego for a few months to do an ethnography there.

So as a graduate student, I only did those two cities, and then as a postdoc, you, Joe, gave me money to do New York City. So, you funded. The Institute gave me money to research New York City. So, I had Charlottesville where immigrants who had been here between ten and fifteen years. San Diego was very transient. Most of the people were—the pastors had been there a little bit longer than—about ten years or so. But even the pastors didn’t speak English fluently in San Diego. And most of the people—because it was so transient, most of the people were not fluent in English. And many of the cars in the parking lot there had Mexican plates. They just came back and forth.

And then the New York City one, it was in Manhattan. That church is also no longer there. But it was mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who had been here for a long time. And their immigration status is obviously very different from those I studied. So, I wanted a comparison to see how does prosperity gospel play out for immigrant communities who have been here—like the ones in Charlottesville who have been here. They’re established. They have careers and professions. What does it mean for them? What does it mean for those who are transient, who are not permanent in the US but are coming here for church? Seasonal work, right? And what does it mean for those who are mostly senior citizens who are—many of them were US citizens. They’re Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. They’ve been here for many decades. Most of them could speak English, but they chose to worship in a Spanish-speaking church. So, it was the way those three different communities practiced and adopted the prosperity gospel.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Tony, you’ve raised a couple of interesting questions we’ve got to get to the bottom of. I have one, and then Faith has written in one. First, did you go up with $100 at the service in which you get the $10,000? And then, did people get the $10,000? You’ve got us hanging now.

TODNE THOMAS: Did you plant your seed?

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: I was a grad student in those days. I didn’t roll like that. No, I did not go up with $100. I did write down the name of many of the people who went up with the $100. And the ones I was able to follow up at the end of the year, they did not get $10,000 in cash. Some said that they were blessed in other ways. You know, different jobs or more work. And many of them, it was self-blame. They sabotaged their own prosperity somehow.

As I said earlier on in the book, the prosperity gospel is formulaic. It’s a very modern religion that follows a prescription, a formula, that to them is scientific. It cannot fail, right? It’s like a science. Faith plus action equals blessing. So, if you have enough faith, which includes positive thinking—if you have faith and you take action, which the more sacrificial the action, the more likely God is going to pay attention to you. But you have to take a step of faith. You have to put that money—the money you don’t have—in the offering plate. You have to buy the car or the house you can’t afford, right, in faith that God will give you the money. You have to do something. And if you have faith and you take action, God will bless you.

But faith and action are so subjective that, if you don’t get it, it’s so easy to say that I had faith up to this point, and I doubted, and that sabotaged it, right? Or I didn’t sacrifice. I missed a tithe, right? I missed paying a tithe, and that’s why. So, if I do it again, right?

And this is ultimately the reason why prosperity gospel is so powerful. It’s that it keeps them hoping. It keeps them hoping and pushing to achieve that dream. And to those who criticize those who believe this, I often ask what hope can you give them? If you don’t believe this, to these people who have already suffered so much and risked everything and even their lives to come here and try to make it, and they have this dream that, in our logic—in our Western logic, in our ivory towers—they are not going to be able to make it. But how do we make that make sense to those who suffer so much?

JOSEPH DAVIS: Yeah, very good. Okay, let me come back to you, Todne. You both I guess have already sort of said personal things. But both of these seem personal. There’s a personal element in these projects. And I wonder if you could just briefly elaborate, if you care to, on kind of a little bit of how you came to these particular topics, if there’s a biographical component. Go ahead, Todne.

TODNE THOMAS: Yeah, that’s actually a very great question, Joe. And there’s a way in which I was actually challenged by a divinity school student here a couple years ago. So, there are sort of two things that I think are really personal about this project, and it’s written into the final book project. I decided to err on the side of being more vulnerable about my own family background because family can be very deeply intimate and personal. So even as I’m studying this spiritual kinship stuff, I’m also dealing with some of the ways in which Black families have been pathologized. Particularly in the post–Moynihan Report—same of the same stuff happens in the Caribbean as well—for whether they’re able to approximate heteronormative relationships or not. So, I end the book by talking about my divorce and how my spiritual parents responded to that. And interestingly, throughout the course of my fieldwork—I got engaged while I was doing fieldwork. People from church were at my wedding.

And even though I was making this argument that we have to pay attention to the spiritual kinship that Black evangelicals are constructing, we miss the boat when we think that neo-evangelicalism is inherently about heteropatriarchal family values. That there’s something else that’s going on.

Even though I was writing this argument, I withheld my family information from my church parents because I expected them to judge me. And then when I told them about what happened, they didn’t. And so that’s how I knew my argument was right. But I also talk about what does it mean that the problem that I was writing against, I fell into as a researcher. That I was writing against this problem, that I replicated it, in the ways that I related to, to people that adopted me and made me kin. People who had shared some really painful aspects about their family life. I mean, I’ve had interviews where people were in tears. And I withheld my family information. I compartmentalized my heteronormative failures or whatever, even though I was talking about how spiritual kinship kind of tries to open up those compartments.

The second thing is I had a conversation for theories and methods here, and students were asking about ethnography. And one of the things I love about the divinity school is that we have students from so many different backgrounds. And so, one student said, you know, what do you think are the politics of you being a liberal humanist doing research with conservative communities that you have no personal grounding in? And I had to respond to the student, “What makes you think I have no personal grounding with evangelicalism?”

And one of the things I forgot to mention—I had to go back to my introduction. I think maybe Susan knew this. But I went to an evangelical primary school from ages five to thirteen. It was a school that was sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. Some of our textbooks were created by Bob Jones University. And then I grew up in a Black Presbyterian church. So, my own childhood straddled these two religious worlds. I remember when I would be presented with forms of Christianity that didn’t make sense with my home Christianity. And my mom would be like, “That’s their stuff over there, and we do something different. Don’t pay that any mind.”

It was this idea that somehow these Christianities were irreconcilable, and evangelicalism was somehow for white people; it wasn’t for me as a Black person. So, it also helped me think through why people have such a hard time—even scholars—conceiving of Black evangelicals. So, one of the things that I noticed is that, even for scholars of evangelicalism, I get questions that are kind of like how evangelical are they, right?

Or I remember giving a presentation once, and Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright was in the audience, and he was like, “Who are these people?” It’s like they’re the wrong kind of Black people, or we don’t know how evangelical are they really. And I realized that part of the reason that annoyed me, even though I wasn’t aware of it until a student pushed me, was that I had actually grown up around some fault lines and had to try and navigate these two religious worlds as a child. I don’t know if I ever actually really did. But ended up—I don’t know. Maybe somehow, we’re always working out some childhood issue sometimes with our research, whether we’re aware of it or not. But it was actually a student challenging me.

And when I explained that I was part of this evangelicalism—I was the captain of the Bible quiz team. One of the reasons why—someone told me, “I didn’t know if you were a Christian, but you knew the Word. You knew the Bible so well. Like you had Scripture memorized, and I saw your Bible was marked up.” And this was like my Bible from school. That I had an evangelical background. A lot of people think, oh, you’re Black, and so you’re doing research with Black people, and that gets you entry. It was the fact that I was properly biblical, according to someone, that made them trust me.

So those are some of the personal aspects of the story.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Holly, one of our participants, asks the question of whether the ethnography changed you. Doing the ethnography. Would you just have a brief response to that?

TODNE THOMAS: I would, actually. I think the ethnography changed me in the sense that it created what I like to call epistemological humility. I think realizing that I’d been working on this problem, right? And one of the problems I write against is that sometimes we tend to essentialize conservative religious movements in the same way we essentialize race. We think we know what a community is because we have these racial and religious cartographies in our mind. So Black evangelicals are either the wrong kind of Black people, or they’re not quite evangelical. They’re kind of these token minorities. And my own research questions that. Or evangelicals are really engaged in a spiritual project. But sometimes we still fall into that biological issue. Even though I was like fictive kinship is crap.

And I still fell into the problems that I was trying to write against. So, I end the conclusion by talking about, hey reader, I’ve tried to teach you a thing, but I want you to know that I also learned from my mistakes. The problem I’m writing about, I fell into. And I fell into after having evidence to the contrary.

I think also I tried to learn, even as I’m doing research in a community that has a different gender politics than me. I won’t say it has a different civic politics because I did research in election year, and some people were voting for Barack Obama, and some people weren’t. So, I don’t think we can say that evangelical always means Republican. My research very much challenges that. But that really—there was actually a poem by Elizabeth Alexander that helped me come up with the idea of kincraft. She talks about poets and why she loves poets. And she says she has a veneration for the sweat of the craft. That really after becoming married and divorced and becoming a parent, the labor that goes into making family.

I remember going back to interviews after becoming a parent, and I heard things that I didn’t hear when I was in grad school. I’m like, “Oh, that’s anxiety.” So, it did change me. I think it made me more humanistically oriented, more inclined to have a respect for the project. Even though it’s not my project. It’s not my gender politics. But making family, making kinship, keeping your families afloat, being a part of a religious community takes an inordinate amount of time and commitment and labor and energy, and I respect the labor even if the politics are not my politics. And I think that changed me. I think it made me more of a humanistic scholar and I think a better citizen in some ways.

And this is not to obviate. Evangelicalism is exceptionally problematic. It propagates a number of violences. But I think it taught me a certain kind of analytical and civic neighborliness that I try to tap into that I think our country could very much benefit from in this moment.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Yeah, yeah. Okay, thank you. I realize we’re running out of time. But, Tony, I want to ask you the same question just in terms of your own personal experience and how that played into how this unfolded for you. And maybe even the same question about whether doing it changed you in any way.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. And thank you, Todne. I was going to mention, when Joe asked that question about your conclusion in that book. When I got there and read that—I mean, everybody should read her book. When I read that phone conversation included, I was like, “Oh, wow.” So, everybody, read her book.

So, for me, I was very curious as a Presbyterian and a Presbyterian minister—I’m ordained in a Presbyterian church. I serve an immigrant church. Taiwanese. A Taiwanese American immigrant church. I was always very curious about the uses of religion in immigrant communities. And that’s why I think I was attracted to these communities and why I asked the questions I did.

The way that it changed me—I think in two ways. One was, being Presbyterian and of course a scholar, I tend to live in my head. Presbyterianism, we worship with our minds. And Pentecostals worship with their mind and their bodies. I don’t want to say just their body, but they worship with both. I only worship with one. And being with them taught me that there are aspects of worship that I was missing. I was missing an aspect of worship when I didn’t worship with my body. I recognize what’s missing. I still don’t worship—I’m still Presbyterian. I still don’t put my hands up when I worship.

JOSEPH DAVIS: You didn’t go that far.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yeah, let’s not take it that far, okay. But that made me think of what else, right? What else am I missing where my body is not partaking? Because not only do they worship with their body, but they’re faithful with their bodies. They are gracious. They extend mercy with their bodies. And those are all the things that I was not physically—I didn’t know that was possible until I was immersed in this community.

Then the other way it changed me is, because of what I learned, it humbled me theologically. I was one of those—and people who knew me before, who’ve known me all my life, I used to be the intolerant Presbyterian—you know, if you’re not Presbyterian, you don’t know what’s going on type of guy. But it forced me to recognize that Presbyterianism is a theology for the privileged. It is a theology of people who have been privileged with a certain type of life. And there’s little use—I would even go that far to say there’s little use for Presbyterian theology, from my perspective, for people who’ve gone through serious challenges and trauma.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Thank you. Let’s go back to Todne again. I want to just ask—and again, I have to keep it short because we’re running out of time. When one reads this book, what do you want the reader to take away? If you could distill it down to the most important message you think you have tried to convey in the book and through your research and through the ethnography, what would that be? This is another way of saying why should they read your book.

TODNE THOMAS: Right. I love these questions, though. They’re so practical, but they’re also challenging in a good way. In all the best ways. I think the answer to that is really a coda at the end of my book. So, I finished this book as the COVID-19 pandemic pretty much started. I was talking to some friends, and I said I really want to kind of mention how—right into this moment in like what work with Black evangelicals and thinking about really religion as a vector for kinmaking, right? Like rather than thinking about religion just as worship, or, you know, thinking about what religion offers all of us when we think about it as a site where people make co-activity.

And I end the book by talking about what it meant to kind of be watching the news and to think about sort of the nuclear family model and the toilet paper hoarding and this idea of nuclear as stand apart, as isolation. And what I hope this book does is that it shows these other ways of being in community, right? These kind of lateral networks. These sometimes where people rebuke the nuclear in favor of different forms of sociality, different forms of reciprocity. That there are really, even as mutual aid has become a catchphrase, that there are modes of collectivity and kinmaking that have preexisted this moment that can help us inhabit this moment in a way that can contribute to our mutual survival. 

And so, I end the book kind of by asking people to think about their own kinmaking practices. Like who’s your family? And how do you know? And how might those definitions be productively stretched or challenged or relativized or thought through? Who’s not a part of that family who maybe needs to be, right? How are our definitions of kinship expansive and limiting? What new horizons might this moment and might this book inspire us to sort of think about and think through and improvise or innovate?

And so that’s why. I want people to not just get a story but really committed and beautiful and challenging and contentious community, right? It’s not just a romance. It’s a real study. But also, for people to start asking those questions about their own socialities and kinmaking. I think it’s time. And for me, the pandemic—just seeing what people were doing with resources and how people thought about survival—the times where people entrenched and looked inward versus, you know, friends of mine who were organizers. I have a friend who’s a community organizer who enlisted me and some of her friends to help deliver food to undocumented workers who aren’t included in the unemployment numbers in our country because they’re undocumented. And so, when the restaurant industry tanked, we had food insecurity went way up, but there were people who weren’t being counted. So does your sense of kinship or community leave space for this kind of mutual aid, or are you trying to hoard toilet paper in your individual house? So that, to me, is—

JOSEPH DAVIS: Not guilty. Tony, it’s 2:57, if you could just give us the short version of the takeaway.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: The goal of my book was to offer a little window ultimately into the essence of Americanism. What is it to be American? And I wanted to show us what it meant to be American through the window of these Latin American immigrants. And like I said, prosperity gospel is the gospel of the American Dream. And I think at every level, all of us—whether you’re Christian or not, whether you’re religious or not—if you live in this country, in the system that we live in, we all believe in some level—at some level, we believe this. And it helps explain what happened in the last four years. Why some of the most prominent preachers you’ve seen in the last four years who gathered around Trump were prosperity gospel preachers. It’s not an aberration of what this country aspired to, but it is almost the logical conclusion—or not conclusion, right, it’s still going on—of what happens when you have a culture that’s so embedded in these ideals. And I hope my book, through this small segment of the community, helps to shed some light into that.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Okay, all right. Thank you. It is time for us to wrap up. Thanks to Tony and to Todne and everyone who was watching. Please consider buying Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, Tony’s book, and Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality from your local independent bookseller or through the links of VaBook.org. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org.

So, thank you all. This was a really wonderful conversation. And really terrific books, and we really thank you for writing them.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Thank you. Yeah, thank you for hosting this, Joe.

JOSEPH DAVIS: By all means.

TODNE THOMAS: Tony, it’s nice to meet you. I hope we can collaborate. I didn’t know you had a Presbyterian background.

TONY TIAN-LEN RIN: Yes, we’ll touch base. Yes.

TODNE THOMAS: I’d love that.

JOSEPH DAVIS: Yeah, yeah. And do things in person next time. All right, thank you.

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