There is always interest in the evaluation of religion and spirituality. The evangelical tradition in particular is routinely undergoing sociological study in order to decipher the spiritual temperature of the modern-day United States. In Johanna Bard Richlin’s book In the Hands of God: How Evangelical Belonging Transforms Migrant Experience in the United States, questions surrounding migrant spiritual experiences are fully investigated, particularly within the evangelical tradition. Richlin’s book is a needed contribution. Like every other aspect of society, there are pockets of people and experiences that seem to go unstudied or at least, underreported. For instance, while helpful and instructive in many ways, the 2019 Pew Forum research findings on religion in the United States neglect to account for undocumented migrants and their spiritual experiences and contributions to the Church in America (2-3).
Richlin’s focus on the evangelical migrant experience reveals that “increasing numbers of Latin American migrants have converted to evangelical Protestant churches while in the United States” (3). This sea change in recent migrant religious affiliation among Latin Americans is what prompts Richlin’s fundamental research question, namely, “What accounts for the growth of evangelical faith among Latin Americans in the United States, especially migrants without legal status” (3)?
Richlin’s research focuses on the particular experience of Brazilian migrants living in the Washington DC, area, and how both their spiritual and migration experiences are intertwined. Her ethnographic study argues there is something particular about evangelicalism that helps these Brazilian migrants make sense of their current situation, while also providing opportunities for spiritual transformation. Richlin’s main arguments center on the experiences of isolation and migrant distress, and how evangelical therapeutics impact them. In doing so, an obvious difference is presented between the more traditional approaches of the Roman Catholic tradition to the migrant experience in the United States, and the evangelical experiences that seem to be leading to such tangible growth within migrant communities.
It must be noted that the Brazilian migrant experience is unique. Richlin’s ethnographic work here shows that many Brazilian migrants within her study only plan to stay in the United States for a short period of time. Their plans are often centered on short-term wealth accumulation. With this in mind, they are often referred to by researchers as “sojourners” rather than “settlers” (52). However, what begins as a sojourn often turns into extended stays that lead to many experiencing a profound sense of “stuckness” and isolation. This type of undocumented isolation can lead to the spiritual, emotional, and even physical maladies of migrant distress.
The therapeutics of the evangelical tradition seem most effective at combating this distress. Richlin argues that key ingredients of evangelicalism, such as “embodied intimacy” (71) and a true “sensorial experience of being in this consoling divinity’s presence” (71), have not only helped minister to migrants already claiming evangelical faith, but also have converted unbelievers to faith—in addition to bringing in those previously affiliated with Roman Catholic or Spiritist traditions. Richlin points out that evangelicalism’s position as a “spiritual hospital” (73) allows for individuals to bring their feelings of isolation and other maladies of migrant distress to a “context for physical and social healing” (73). Richlin writes: “Evangelical churches’ clear articulation and effective management of migrant distress help shed light on what compels migrants to increasingly turn to evangelical religiosity in the United States. While churches failed to remove the legal and socioeconomic sources of congregants’ suffering, they succeeded in teaching migrants to reinterpret their hardships through the eyes of God and fellow believers” (73-74).
In other words, the Brazilian migrants were neither searching for practical solutions to migrant distress in their spiritual communities, nor for the cultural integration or assimilation offered by the Roman Catholic Church (140). Instead, their personal and individual spiritual desires and needs are met by a relationship with a personal God. A God that has a plan, and addresses their stories and feelings (167).
This of course echoes the evangelical traits that have become part of the American religious landscape. From the earliest stages of the evangelical tradition in the 18th century, the rise of individualism in both American culture and the American church led to evangelicalism as a “religion of the heart” to grow in its influence, as Mark Noll details in The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (InterVarsity Press, 2003). It is not surprising, then, that those new to the United States, struggling to find their way amid dislocation and disruption, would find the teachings and therapeutics of the evangelical Protestant tradition preferrable to the more institutional cultural integration on offer from the Roman Catholic Church, even though many of the Brazilians Richlin studied grew up as Catholics in Brazil.
I found Richlin’s ethnographic and qualitative research to be both engaging and heartening. The stories shared by her participants, in addition to her observational research in these Brazilian church communities, reflect both the harrowing and beautiful experiences of faith and relational community found within these migrant populations. Throughout the book, Richlin does state that not all of the experiences within evangelicalism were helpful to these Brazilian transplants. Some found particular experiences and their individual churches to be places of harm. It is good that Richlin included these counterpoints. However, her research does invite readers, of both academic and ecclesial persuasions, to take notice of these important experiences, which are often overlooked and neglected.
While Richlin’s book focuses on Brazilians finding spiritual vitality within Brazilian evangelical churches, a future study of how these same undocumented migrants are finding evangelical vitality, or not, within English-speaking congregations would be helpful. What can the wider American evangelical Church learn from these smaller, migrant congregations that seem to care for those in isolation and distress so well? How can evangelicalism as a whole learn from the spiritual vitality of the undocumented, migrant spiritual experience? Finding answers to these questions would both enliven evangelical spirituality across the board and help more churches effectively minister to migrant populations.
Philip Letizia is the pastor of spiritual formation at Park Road Presbyterian Church, Hollywood, Fla.
J. Philip Letizia
Date Of Review:
November 29, 2023
Johanna Bard Richlin is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon.
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