Joining the Choir

Religious Membership and Social Trust Among Transnational Chanaians

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Nicolette D. Manglos-Weber
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190841041.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the introduction to his book The Gift, Marcel Mauss used a Scandinavian poem to make a general point that regardless of which society we come from, we engage in relationships of exchange with people we trust as well as with people in whom we have little or no trust. Similarly, Pentecostals have a friend in Jesus, in whom they have trust and confidence. Yet they also have to engage with the world and with people whose actions and speech they do not always trust. Trust is central to Nicolette D. Manglos-Weber’s argument about how Ghanaian Christian migrants in the US choose their churches and how religious membership contributes to immigrant integration into the United States. Weaving together a rich tapestry of individual life portraits, Manglos-Weber’s sociological analysis of trust brings us on a delightful journey through the lives of several central characters, showing how they negotiate their faith in God with their immigrant realities. 

Manglos-Weber’s entry point into “social trust” is through theories of social capital. Focused on long-term and endearing ties that people share with each other, and drawing on Georg Simmel’s description of trust as a “leap of faith,” Manglos-Weber takes “personal trust as an imaginative and symbolic activity” where “trusters are generally hopeful about the trustworthiness of others” (24). In the US, where “foreignness” and “race” challenge the ability of many Ghanaian migrants to build trust networks, religion becomes an important conduit for creating community. Joining a specific church becomes a personal choice for members of this immigrant religious community even if people are actively avoiding trusting the wrong people (25). In chapter 2, Manglos-Weber introduces us to Evangel Ministries International (a pseudonym), a charismatic church from Ghana with branches all over the world. Its church members in the US are immigrants who are aspiring toward upward social mobility and economic success. While disappointment and failed expectations are common experiences for many Ghanaian migrants, trust networks are important in building social connections beyond immediate families and regional or ethnic identities. In Evangel Ministries, these include former classmates and those from the same social class and educational background. 

Manglos-Weber sensitively describes how Ghanaian migrants in the US live in the interstices of two social identities (“race” and “class”) and how these unfold differently. In chapter 4, Manglos-Weber explores the role of charismatic Christianity in Ghana in building a “portable basis of new social connections for young people … whether or not they ever go abroad” (66). Evangel Ministries establishes institutional legitimacy through publishing books and audio recordings, making religious participation fun, and offering pragmatic advice and lifestyle changes to its youth. Importantly, church leaders help create a “structure of support” in ways that are similar to family relations (87-89). In chapter 5 Manglos-Weber asks: “What makes a good church?” (90). One appealing characteristic of Evangel Ministries is that it de-emphasises Ghanaian culture and wants to bring more non-Ghanaians into the church. Trust is also built as church members spend a lot of their time socializing after services and while attending church activities such as choir rehearsals. Manglos-Weber calls this a “culture of connection” (105) that prioritizes social connection and helps create a new community that functions like a family. In chapters 6 and 7, we learn about the different ways that Ghanaians balance their religious faith and personal ambitions with the trials and disappointments that come with overseas travel. The strength of these chapters lies in how Manglos-Weber draws on the narratives of several people to reveal how church members negotiate between expectation and constraint, or faith and belonging, and between their hopes for a better life and the unforeseen circumstances that force them to question, reshape, and even transcend their identities.

“Trust” is a better way to understand Christian commitment as it helps us move beyond the limitations of an analysis of Christian “belief.” What is appealing about a general analysis of trust is that it allows us to acknowledge that it is in their ability to build long-term moral relationships resembling kinship that Pentecostal-charismatic Christians become better integrated into different societies.However,we need to also trouble “trust.”Like other kin-like relations, relationships between Pentecostal-charismatic Christians reproduce tensions and the problem of mistrust. An over-reliance on “trust” in studying ethnic religious congregational life potentially creates certain pitfalls. First, focusing on a general theory of trust potentially avoids information that may not fit into this explanatory schema. For example, trust is regularly cited as a crucial factor for successful integration and democratic participation. Such analysis assumes that trust is an identifiable thing—that it provides the social glue and its presence in community participation is positive and productive. Manglos-Weber raises some concerns when she points to the structural and cultural forces that contribute to a Ghanaian migrant not having any “white friends,” or to instances when foreign social contexts are positively transformed through religious membership (183-84). Secondly, religious motives are of a secondary importance. Manglos-Weber acknowledges this when she writes, “A full account must leave room for personal spirituality, belief, and private devotion” (181). 

However, there is the additional importance of “Ghanaian Christianity” as a specific historical and cultural phenomenon. How much of the “problem of trust” is also about the “problem of presence” (Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. University of California Press, 2007), a biblical narrative that reflects the Judeo-Christian distance between God and humans? How is trust reflective of the “already/not yet” temporal structure of charismatic Christianity (Jon Bialecki, A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement, University of California Press, 2016)? 

Trust and mistrustneed to be understood within the specifics of how people communicate and conceive of personhood, and sometimes mistrust does not diminish social relations but gives them particular characteristics.In Ghana, and in other parts of Africa, legitimately created relationships are like legitimately made wealth: they depend on an understanding of reciprocity. While Ghanaians have a choice in where they worship, and while religious membership serves as a basis of social trust, these Christian migrants are also reproducing aspects of being “Ghanaian” in seeking social obligations that are resonant of networks of care and spiritual power that are familiar and recognizable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicolette D. Manglos-Weber is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kansas State University.

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