Research: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, and the third post about the project’s origins. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this month’s post, the author addresses the processes of researching Salvation with a Smile.

The discipline of history defines the primary investigative lens of Salvation with a Smile. Published and unpublished primary source material formed the documentary foundation of my work, while I also conducted oral history interviews and recorded field notes from participant observation in various congregational activities at Lakewood Church. While I am not formally trained as an ethnographer or sociologist, the work of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth, as well as the work of historian Randall Balmer—particularly his quip about being a “shade-tree sociologist” for the research he conducted on evangelicalism in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory—methodologically informed parts of my qualitative research on Lakewood. In Salvation with a Smile, my historical and cultural assessments of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church focus on context and change over time.

First and foremost, the rich scholarship on American religious history provided a robust historiographical tradition upon which to base my book. The excellent work of David Edwin Harrell on neopentecostalism, for example, helped me to frame Lakewood’s early years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Books on the history of the prosperity gospel by Kate Bowler and Gerardo Marti assisted me in making sense of John and Joel Osteen’s teachings. Publications on Pentecostal healing and prayer by scholars such as Joseph Williams, Candy Gunther Brown, and T. M. Luhrmann, along with publications on evangelical biblicism by James S. Bielo and Brian Malley, offered a way to understand religious experience at Lakewood Church. And the list goes on and on. My book’s endnotes and Bibliography demonstrate the breath of scholarship to which my work is indebted.

With respect to primary sources, the publications of John Osteen and Joel Osteen, along with works by Dodie Osteen (Joel Osteen’s mother), Victoria Osteen (Joel Osteen’s wife), Lisa Osteen Comes (Joel Osteen’s sister), and Paul Osteen (Joel Osteen’s brother), as well as the books of former Spanish Lakewood pastor Marcos Witt, provided clear windows into the religious perspectives and ideas with which these individuals understand the world. When I started the research for Salvation with a Smile, John Osteen’s books were difficult to obtain, so in addition to Amazon.com, I found a number of his books on eBay. As I discuss below, interlibrary loan also came in handy, as did archival research.

In addition to printed materials, my book also utilizes audio and video sources, including a number of Joel Osteen’s early cassette sermons, along with his messages on VHS between 2001 and 2004. Around 2003, most of Joel’s materials became available on CD and DVD. I purchased over a dozen of the cassette packages, along with CDs and DVDs on eBay. In a stroke good fortune, several current and former Lakewood members I interviewed for the book kindly loaned me over 50 of John Osteen’s VHS messages from the 1980s and 1990s. This vintage material, some of which has become available on YouTube in the last 2 years or so, proved vital for my research. I used the videos for primary source materials of John’s teachings. In addition, since Joel Osteen produced the VHS sermon videos (he was Lakewood’s media producer during the 1980s and 1990s), the episodes also offer a literal view into Joel’s production strategies, which I interpret in light of televangelism’s recent history.

Participant observation also forms part of the evidentiary basis of my analysis of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen. I first began attending services and congregational activities at Lakewood in 2005. As I indicated in an earlier post, some of this initial ethnographic work and research appeared in Holy Mavericks. For Salvation with a Smile, I continued to attend worship services and visit Sunday school classes, scribbling notes and thoughts down along the way. I also attended a number of “Night of Hope” events, as well as stadium and arena meetings Joel Osteen holds around the country. I attended two events held in Texas (one in Killeen, the other in Corpus Christi), and obtained a DVD of another— Joel’s very first arena event at Madison Square Garden. Thus, about a decade of participant observation informs the parts of my book that deal with Lakewood’s congregational life, primarily contained in a chapter on religious identity titled “The Redemptive Self”—a concept I borrow from narrative psychologist Dan McAdams.

Oral history interviews with current and former Lakewood members, as well as with journalists and scholars, allowed me to develop an understanding of Joel Osteen and the congregation’s broader history. I conducted about 25 interviews—including several follow-up interviews—over a four-year period. The stories I heard from members and attendees were intriguing and fascinating. They provided unique perspectives on Lakewood’s history, as well as the religious experiences that took place within the context of congregational worship services.

I’d like to share two anecdotes from my interviews that appear in the book. First, Joel Osteen routinely recites a “Bible confession” at the beginning of every service and “Night of Hope” event (read the text here, and find it performed here), a tradition that he adopted from his father. As detailed further in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, from one of my interviews I discovered the unique origin of the “Bible confession,” which began suddenly when John Osteen opened one of his services with it in the 1980s. A moment of call-and-response between John and a Lakewood member created the memorable mantra of “This is my Bible…”. Second, Joel’s own narrative about how he became Lakewood’s pastor emphasizes a divine prompting that inspired his decision to fill his father’s shoes. While I don’t dispute Joel’s interpretation of those events in the book—after all, I don’t have access to his interior life—I document that as John’s closest assistant in the 1980s and 1990s, Joel was the likely candidate to succeed his father as Lakewood’s pastor. Moreover, an interview I conducted with scholar David Edwin Harrell added additional evidence. Harrell had met John over the years while researching his books. For instance, while Harrell was researching All Things are Possible during on a Fulbright in India in 1995, he ran into John, who was there leading a revival campaign, and conducted another interview. From that conversation, Harrell remembered querying John about Lakewood’s future, during which time the aging pastor suggested that his son Joel might assume pastoral duties at the church.

While I enjoyed the challenge of understanding and interpreting content from audio and video sources, participant observation, and oral history interviews, another delightful aspect of researching Salvation with a Smile was tracking down Lakewood’s history in the archives. All told, I obtained research materials from approximately 18 different archival collections.

Fortunately, a number of collections in the greater Houston area, including materials on John Osteen from the San Jacinto Baptist Association, Central Baptist Church, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, did not require extensive travel. Documents from the San Jacinto Baptist Association and Central Baptist Church—as chapters 1 and 2 reveal—helped me to document John Osteen’s history before his start at Lakewood Church in 1959. A visit to the Pentecostal Research Collection at Regent University proved particularly fruitful in this regard as well; here I found evidence of John’s affiliation with the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, along with vital material on the print culture of neopentecostalism.

Research conducted at Oral Roberts University’s Holy Spirit Research Center was probably the most important archival excursion I took. As I write in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, this archive provided rare Lakewood material from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most interesting and puzzling discoveries included a VHS tape of a 1986 Good Friday service at Lakewood, during which an evangelist named Lucy Rael exhibited the stigmata—visible trauma on hands, feet, forehead, and back that, according to traditional Roman Catholic teaching, mimics injuries similar to those of Jesus Christ at crucifixion. I interpret the Rael event in light of neopentecostalism’s broader history, and John’s teachings on spiritual warfare. And speaking of spiritual warfare, while this particular work appeared in spring 2015, too late to include in my book, religious studies scholar Sean McCloud’s recent book American Possessions offers a keen interpretation of neopentecostalism’s notion of spiritual struggle.

Also vital to my research were a number of digitized archival collections. In the first chapter, I explore some of John Osteen’s earliest engagements with televangelism, contextualized by material on the subject in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College. From the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, I found material on the civil rights movement in Houston, a time, as I explain in chapter 2, that marked an important juncture in Lakewood’s history. At the very end of my research for the book, I discovered digitized copies of the Pentecostal Evangel at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, a publication that covered a number of John Osteen’s early revival meetings (thanks Arlene Sánchez-Walsh!).

This post covers some of the research I conducted for Salvation with a Smile. The next post discusses areas for future research on Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. In the meantime, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

Book origins: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here. For this month’s post, the author breaks down the book’s origin story.

I got interested in studying Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen about a decade ago in the summer of 2005, when the congregation moved into the Compaq Center. For nearly 50 years previous, Lakewood’s home was located in a Black and Latino/a working-class neighborhood on Houston’s northeast side. Lakewood’s new home generated national headlines, which, as a scholar of religious history, initially drew my attention.

Joel had emerged as a national figure in 2004 with the publication of his first book Your Best Life Now, which became a New York Times best-seller, and in early 2005 Washington Post writer Lois Romano dubbed him the “smiling preacher.” In addition, in June 2005 Osteen appeared on Larry King Live, where he spoke about taking over Lakewood Church from his father John Osteen, his life as a pastor, and his first book, among other topics. An exchange between King and Osteen during which King queried the smiling preacher about the exclusive claims of Christianity and salvation in Jesus Christ, however, quickly became a flashpoint of controversy that further catapulted Joel into the national spotlight. Because Osteen refused to condemn religious people of faith traditions outside of Christianity—while simultaneously maintaining that he believed God was the ultimate Divine Judge—many evangelicals believed he had denied the exclusivity of Jesus Christ on national television.

Critics roared with disapproval. A series of online, print, and television campaigns (which continue to the present) by the likes of evangelicals R. Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, Michael S. Horton, and Hank Hanegraaff castigated Osteen’s supposed uninformed theology, slim reasoning, and shallow dogma. Such dismissals, many of which emanated out of the New Calvinist movement, shaped opinion about Osteen, and even prompted a minister named Adam Key to picket and preach outside of Lakewood Church with a poster of his book Your Best Lie Now on display. (I recount this larger moment of religious controversy in chapter 8 of Salvation with a Smile, and explain its historical and cultural significance.) The summer of 2005 was thus a signature moment in the history of Osteen and Lakewood Church, and represents the origins of what became Salvation with a Smile.

At the time of Osteen’s ascendance in 2005, I was nearly finished with my Ph.D. coursework in the University of Houston’s history department, and looking for an independent study to round out my fall schedule. I had been reading Andrew Chesnut’s writings on religious economy—then at the University of Houston, now at Virginia Commonwealth—and approached him about using religious economy to analyze Lakewood’s congregation. The following fall, I conducted extensive participant-observation at Lakewood, and read widely about religious economy. I began to consider Lakewood’s historical origins, and think about why and how the congregation became America’s largest megachurch. The paper I wrote for the independent study with Professor Chesnut, it turned out, formed the basis for the chapter on Joel Osteen in my book Holy Mavericks, which appeared in 2009.

Yet the Holy Mavericks chapter could hardly tell the fuller story of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Much of the research I compiled for the chapter pointed to a much larger account of the congregation’s history and Osteen’s cultural significance, so I began to consider what that larger story might look like. By 2009, Joel Osteen had become a household name, and had published three New York Times best-selling books. He was, as Mara Einstein has observed, a powerful religious brand in American Christianity. The story was growing. In 2010, I assembled a book proposal and in March of 2011, with a book contract in hand, I continued to write and research Salvation with a Smile for NYU Press.

Having grown up in Houston in the 1980s, I’d heard of Lakewood and remember seeing the church’s founder John Osteen on local television. Another memory was “Lakewood Church: Oasis of Love” bumper stickers on cars around town. The origins of studying Lakewood in 2005, as I look back now, was also a way to conduct research on local history, and learn more about Houston’s past. Long story short, the research I compiled for the graduate paper, and later the Holy Mavericks chapter, proved too much to fit into those limited spaces. I had to write the larger story, which you can find here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009).

Interview with Rebecca Moore, author of Women in Christian Traditions

9781479829613_FCBelow is a brief interview with Rebecca Moore, Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University and author of Women in Christian Traditions (NYU Press, 2015). The book, part of the Press’ new Women in Religions series, examines the roles women have played in the understanding of Christianity. You can read the full interview on San Diego State University website here

Give us a brief overview of what the book is about.

Women in Christian Traditions offers a concise and accessible examination of the roles women have played in the construction and practice of Christian traditions, revealing the enormous debt that this major world religion owes to its female followers. The text provides an overview of the complete sweep of Christian history through the lens of feminist scholarship. It recovers forgotten and obscured moments in church history to help us realize a richer and fuller understanding of Christianity.

What inspired you to write the book?

I was honored to be asked to contribute a volume to a series on women in religions published by New York University Press. I had published a prior book on Christianity, “Voices of Christianity,”  and on Judaism and Christianity, “A Portable God: The Origin of Judaism and Christianity, Rowman & Littlefield.” I have been studying Christian traditions since graduate school, so this was a book that was decades in the making.

I have taught courses on Christianity and on the New Testament here at SDSU and elsewhere for many years. The new spin, however, was to take a feminist approach to explain the history of Christianity, and this required original research on my part. I had incorporated discussions of women church leaders in my classes, but writing an academic book required much more study than I had previously done.

What did you learn from writing this book?

The most valuable thing I learned, and that I hope others will learn, is that women have played a major role in the development of Christianity. I learned of important figures, movements, and ideas that were somewhat unfamiliar. For example, because Protestant church leaders excluded women from participating in male missionary societies in the nineteenth century, women simply created their own missionary societies. They raised money, trained leaders and sent women doctors and educators abroad. I could go on at length about all I learned!

Why should people read this book?

NYU Press required authors in the series to limit their texts to no more than 200 manuscript pages. This means that the book is short and is designed to be reader-friendly. Readers will learn about inspiring women figures who have been largely lost to history because of the way Christianity is generally understood.

Mad Men, Esalen, and spiritual privilege

—Marion Goldman

The online community is still pulsing with speculation about the final close up of Don Draper meditating on the edge of the Pacific at Esalen Institute—where he found bliss or maybe just an idea for another blockbuster ad campaign.

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The writers and set decorators of Mad Men got 1970s Esalen spot on: from the lone outside pay phone at the run-down central Lodge to the dozens of long-haired hippies, former beatniks and spiritual seekers revealing themselves to each other in encounter groups. The images are so accurate that an alternative cyber universe of old Esalen hands has been speculating about how the writers were able to depict the old days so well—and whether the morning meditation leader was supposed to be Zen trailblazer Alan Watts or edgy encounter group leader Will Schutz.

None of these debates matter much to the entrepreneurs who have transformed Esalen from a rustic spiritual retreat to a polished destination resort that serves gourmet meals and offers workshops with themes like ‘capitalism and higher consciousness.’ Soon after the last episode of Mad Men aired, Yahoo Travel published an article promoting a “Don Draper Weekend Getaway” for fortunate consumers who could foot the tab. The rates vary, but on a weekend, a premium single room at Esalen costs $450 per night and the prices go way up for luxurious accommodations overlooking the sea. In a throwback to the old days, there is a ‘hardship policy’—making it possible for up to a dozen people who take weekend workshops to spend ‘only’ about $200 a night to spread out their sleeping bags in meeting rooms that they must vacate between 9:00 in the morning and 11:00 at night.

When Esalen opened its gates in the 1960s, visitors and residents traded work for housing or paid what they could afford. The founding generation believed that everyone was entitled to personal expansion and spiritual awakening through the growing Human Potential Movement. My book, The American Soul Rush chronicles how Esalen changed from being a mystical think tank, sacred retreat and therapeutic community into a wellness spa dedicated to de-stressing affluent customers with challenges at work or in their relationships.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s very different kinds of people drove along Highway 1 to Esalen, hoping to create better lives for themselves and often hoping to repair the world as well. They were spiritually privileged, with the time and resources to select, combine and revise their religious beliefs and personal practices. However, many of them were far from wealthy, because Esalen opened at a time of economic abundance that extended far down into the white middle class and there was widespread faith in unlimited possibilities for every American.

People in small towns and distant cities read long articles about Esalen and human possibilities in Life Magazine, Newsweek and other popular periodicals. Its key encounter group leader briefly became a celebrity when he appeared regularly on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And during Esalen’s glory days, movie stars like Natalie Wood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen regularly drove north from Hollywood to discover more about themselves and to soak in the famous hot springs baths. But once they arrived, they stayed in simple rooms, they were called only by their first names and other workshop participants tried to honor their humanity by treating the stars as if they were just like them.

Esalen was dedicated to opening the gates to personal and spiritual expansion to everyone and it fueled a Soul Rush. It popularized many things that contemporary Americans have added to their lives and can practice almost anywhere: yoga, mindful meditation, holistic health, humanistic psychology and therapeutic massage.

But most people can no longer afford to visit Esalen itself. A leader who left Big Sur to counsel clients in disadvantaged neighborhoods summed up how much the Institute has changed over the decades: “Damn,” she said, “I guess we got gentrified just like everybody else.”

Marion Goldman is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (NYU Press, 2012).

Celebrating Revolutionary Blackness: Haitian Flag Day

—Bertin M. Louis, Jr.

[This post originally appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, NewBlackMan (in Exile).]

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In communities across the globe, thousands of Haitians celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 at concerts and ceremonies, on the Internet and at festivals and parades. The flag not only reflects pride in Haitian roots but it is the flag of the first black republic in the world. The Haitian flag takes on renewed meaning as an anti-racist symbol of revolutionary blackness and freedom in a continuing time of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Its inception was from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803).

On May 18, 1803, in the city of Archaie, not far from Haiti’s current capital of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the blacks and the first leader of an independent Haiti, and Alexandre Pétion, the leader of the mulattoes, agreed on an official flag, with blue and red bands placed vertically. Haitian heroine Catherine Flon, who also served as a military strategist and nurse, sewed Haiti’s first flag. However, the flag was modified on Independence Day (January 1st) when the blue and the red bands were placed horizontally with the blue band on top of the red band. Haiti used the red and blue flag until 1964, when President-for life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used a vertical black and red flag and added a modified version of the arms of the republic during the Duvalier regime, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. On February 25, 1986, after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti on an American-charted jet and the Duvalier regime fell apart, the Haitian people in its vast majority requested that the red and blue flag be brought back. The red and blue flag remains the official flag of Haiti.

Haiti was the French colony of Saint-Domingue before the revolution. A 1697 treaty between the French and the Spanish created the colony on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was known as “the pearl of the Antilles” because the industrialization of sugar in the region enriched its French absentee owners and made it one of the most successful sugar colonies in history. The arduous labor required for sugar production resulted in the virtual eradication of the indigenous Taino Arawak population and an average seven-year life span for Africans who were brought against their will. In an area roughly the size of Maryland enslaved Africans produced indigo, tobacco and at one point in history two-fifths of the world’s sugar and almost half of the world’s coffee.

Physical and psychological violence were used to maintain plantation production processes. As sociologist Alex Dupuy writes it was not uncommon for slave masters to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave…Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” Within this violent and dehumanizing environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors and participated in the most radical revolution of the “Age of Revolution.”

The Haitian Revolution was more radical than the American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) because it challenged chattel slavery and racism, the foundation of American and French empires. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “The Haitian Revolution was the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed. And they both failed. In 1791, there is no public debate on the record, in France, in England, or in the United States on the right of black slaves to achieve self-determination, and the right to do so by way of armed resistance.” The Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of plantation capitalism on the island where both modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located.

Through the efforts of black people and the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, British and Spanish forces were defeated and independence from the French colonial master was achieved. The only successful slave revolt in human history resulted in the formation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic, which extended the rights of liberty, brotherhood and equality to black people. Unlike the United States and France, Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens regardless of race unlike the United States where only propertied white males had the privilege of full citizenship.

The Haitian Revolution would spawn uprisings among captive Africans throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The revolution also influenced other Western Hemispheric liberation movements. Haitian blogger Pascal Robert observes that Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar went to Haiti to receive the military assistance and material support from Haiti’s then president Alexandre Petion. Bolivar used those Haitian connections to liberate colonial territories from Spanish rule. The Haitian flag reflects and symbolizes this unique and promising moment for people of African descent – black freedom in a world dominated by white supremacy.

Haitian Flag day celebrations take on renewed meaning when we recall the recent treatment of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere. In February 2015 a young Haitian man was lynched in the Dominican Republic. This lynching occurred at a time where the Dominican state has revoked the citizenship of Haitian-descended Dominicans. Essays from sociologist Regine O. Jackson’s edited volume Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora (Routledge 2011) discusses how Haitians serve as repugnant cultural “others” in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Cuba. In Haiti a post-earthquake cholera outbreak introduced by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has claimed 9,000 Haitian lives and affected more than 735,000 people. This preventable tragedy is in addition to earthquake aid that did not go to Haitians but mostly went “to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors.” A recent essay from Latin Correspondent reporter Nathalie Baptiste recognizes anti-Haitian policies in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

While we must attend to the differences in the local histories, varying socioeconomic factors and political situations of each country mentioned, a pattern of alienation, expulsion, elimination, marginalization and stigmatization of Haitians is evident when reviewing recent news and scholarly publications.

Anti-Haitianism is also prevalent in the Bahamas where I conduct anthropological research and where a new immigration policyadversely affected Haitians. A brief anecdote that I discuss in my book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press 2014)”illustrates this fact. Towards the end of ethnographic research in New Providence, I was invited by a Bahamian friend to speak about the importance of education to elementary school children at an afterschool program. The children, who all sat around me in a circle, were black. As I spoke to them about the importance of reading, studying, doing well on tests, and getting help when they encountered difficulties, one girl was struck with a look of astonishment when I mentioned that I was of Haitian descent. After my speech I took the opportunity to ask her why she was so stunned. She replied that I didn’t look Haitian to her but that I looked Bahamian. So I asked her “so what does a Haitian look like?” Replying in Bahamian Creole she and her friends replied that Haitians were “scrubby,” meaning that they have an uneven or mottled dark complexion. They also said of Haitians that “Dey (They) black,” “Dey smell bad” and “Dey look like rat.”

These comments came from children who are of African descent (85 percent of the Bahamas is black) and the darkest black-skinned Bahamian child in that group said that Haitians were “scrubby.” This story from the field reflects the current crisis in Haitian identity in the Western Hemisphere and why it is necessary to celebrate Haitian Flag day as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a key component of white supremacy “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” In this example, young Bahamian children do the work of white supremacy through their use of anti-Haitian and anti-Black stereotypes.

The stigmatization of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere should alarm other black people because Haitian instability also reflects the current insecurity of blacks around the globe. The deaths of West African migrants in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, Ethiopian Jews who are encouraged to either leave Israel or be imprisoned, police brutality against blacks in favelas in Brazil, and attacks against African immigrants by black South Africans should remind us of this ongoing crisis, which many people view as normative (i.e. there’s always death and destruction among Africans and in the African Diaspora). But we do not have to look outside of the borders of the United States to understand the deprivation of the humanity of black people. The current #BlackLivesMattermovement against police killings of unarmed black people is another reminder of the disposability of black life in the modern world which continues a pattern of anti-blackness that harkens back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-blackness began with the forced marches of Africans from the interiors of the continent to African coasts where they were sold as chattel and would become the engine that fueled European colonial wealth. It continued during the Middle Passage where white captains tightly packed blacks together on slave ships and threw black bodies into the Atlantic Ocean with the hope that large numbers of human cargo would offset increased deaths. Anti-blackness was codified in the colonies and territories where the legally imposed identity of slave was passed from mother to child and became associated with blackness.

Anti-blackness is prevalent during this contemporary period in the media coverage of the killings of Walter Scott and Eric Garner as corporate news channels show their video-recorded killings at the hands of American law enforcement on a loop and refer to the black youth of Baltimore rebelling against unequal treatment under the law as “thugs.” Anti-blackness is also reflected in the current relations between Haitians and the nations they live in as well as how other countries treat people of African descent.

In closing, the Haitian flag reminds us that white superiority and black inferiority are fallacies and have no basis in biology and that white supremacy can be challenged and defeated as the Haitian Revolution demonstrated. Due to the poor treatment of Haitians throughout the Western Hemisphere we should also understand why Haitians are proud of their heritage and celebrate the anniversary of their flag. But the Haitian flag is also a flag that belongs to people of African descent around the globe, as do other flags. It is one of many symbols that Haitians and other people of African descent should utilize in resistance to the dehumanizing and deadly effects of capitalism, state power and white supremacy on black bodies. Overall, Haitian Flag Day should remind all of us to celebrate revolutionary blackness and to continue to challenge white supremacy in the struggle to create dignified lives for black people worldwide.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press, 2014) and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the creator of #ShamelesslyHaitian, a Twitter event where Haitians express pride and educate others about their history and culture on Haitian Independence Day and Haitian Flag Day. Follow him on Twitter @MySoulIsInHaiti.

Entering Lakewood Church

Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October! The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the making of the book, including his research and the writing process. To kick off the series, below is the opening vignette from the book’s introduction. (Check out his other post on the book’s cover over at Baldblogger!)

9780814723883_FCI am in the upscale business complex of Greenway Plaza, near downtown Houston. After parking my car, I follow the signs directing me to Lakewood Church. Emerging from the dimly lit confines of a parking garage, I join hundreds of people surging to the church’s entrance. In an energetic multiethnic mix, I walk alongside individuals, some of whom are black, others white, still others Latino/a or Asian. Some are talking with one another, while others are silent. Some walk with heads down as if in prayer. I see men wearing their Sunday best, along with women adorned in stunning white and pink hats; others come in jeans, T-shirts, and shorts. I hear the sharp strike of high heels and the flop of sandals. Some carry Bibles as they purposefully walk toward the church. I see Bibles that appear worn and creased, the result of a sustained engagement. I also observe congregants clutching Hope for Today Bible, a resource designed with notes and commentary by Lakewood’s pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen.

Shortly, at Joel’s invitation in the worship service to “lift up your Bibles and say it like you mean it,” congregants will thrust their Bibles into the air and make Lakewood’s famous “This is my Bible” confession. A mantra started by Joel’s father and Lakewood’s founder, John Osteen, in the 1980s, the statement highlights the church’s evangelical fidelity to the Bible and firm conviction about its spiritual power. I also observe a large group of people rolling into the church, some wheeling themselves while others proceed in electric wheelchairs. The leader of this group also ushers in other disabled persons, some with visual impairments, others with Down’s syndrome. Lakewood’s doors open for a diverse array of people.

As I enter the building with the throngs of men, women, and children who pour in for the service, a volunteer with a nametag greets me with a warm smile and “Welcome, God bless you.” I take the bulletin she hands me. I start ascending the stairs into Lakewood Church. Knowing that Lakewood is America’s largest megachurch, welcoming  over 40,000 members and other attendees each week, I feel as if I am in an important place. It pulsates with energy. I also notice symbols of the church’s history on display. I pause halfway up the steps as I encounter a life-size bronze display of Lakewood’s founding couple, John and Dodie Osteen, honoring Lakewood’s fiftieth anniversary. The couple meets visitors with smiles and a Bible held in the air. The base of the bronze statue is in the shape of a heart, symbolic of Lakewood’s old motto, “Oasis of Love.” While John never preached at the Compaq Center, a converted sports arena that became Lakewood’s home in 2005, six years after his death, his likeness, along with that of Dodie, greets visitors as they enter the church he founded. At Lakewood, the past intermingles with the present, while the future is a source of perpetual anticipation.

As I continue to walk up the stairs, to my left people enter and exit the well-stocked bookstore. On the television screen that sits in the middle of a display that contains Joel and Victoria’s teachings I look over to see and hear Joel encouraging a positive mindset in the midst of difficult circumstances. In the bookstore, I browse the most recent books by contemporary Christian teachers such as Joyce Meyer, John MacArthur, Joseph Prince, and John Piper, and a substantial variety of study Bibles and study aids such as theological encyclopedias and Greek dictionaries. The bookstore contains a children’s section and several rows with a variety of Spanish-language resources. I also notice that it sells framed paintings of the Christian artist Thomas Kinkade as well as spiritually themed items like T-shirts, key chains, or bookmarks that can also be found at Christian chain retail stores such as Family Christian, Lifeway, and Mardel. Just outside of the bookstore, families head quickly to register kids for Lakewood’s expansive children’s programs. Other people mill about like tourists, many of them visiting Lakewood for the first time, clearly pausing to take it all in. Things are buzzing at Lakewood Church, but also proceed in an orderly fashion. I notice people with official Lakewood nametags, energetic volunteers with clipboards and walkie-talkies who help the massive operation to run smoothly. Not shy, one volunteer inquires if I am interested in trying out for Lakewood’s choir. Responding to her facial expression and her excitement to recruit volunteers, I return the smile—and politely decline. “God bless you,” the recruiter replies as I continue walking.

I proceed to the worship center, and with many others, I anticipate my entrance into the 16,000-seat sanctuary. There is a palpable sense of expectation, a feeling already cultivated by Joel’s popular television message of self-improvement and salvation on television and published in a handful of New York Times bestsellers. Looking up, I see the ceiling arranged with large square white sheeting to produce a cloud effect, simultaneously reflecting blues, reds, greens, and purples from multicolored spotlights. I begin to get an inkling of the church’s massive size, an architectural expression of Lakewood’s signature place in American Christianity.

I find a seat, and settle into place on the second level on the far left side of the auditorium. Lights bathe the stage in a glittery display as members of Lakewood’s choir, wearing blue robes, find their place in the two choir lofts. The band, arranged on a retractable stage, warms up in front of a massive, bronze globe, an iconic symbol of Lakewood’s historic commitment to missionary endeavors. Announcements for religious education classes and church events along with advertisements for resources available in Lakewood’s bookstore flash across the three large screens that hang above the stage. I notice individuals  in front of the stage and they appear to have security escorts: the Osteen family and other church leaders proceed to their seats. It is nearly time for the service to begin.

The interracial duo of singers Cindy Cruse Ratcliff and Israel Houghton begin the service by leading nearly 16,000 people in musical expressions of adoration toward God and the spiritual meaning of life in Christ. People clap in rhythm with the drums, and sing along as lyrics flash across the large screens. I also notice worshiping bodies sway with the music. The emotional temper of the music produces what appear to be moments of tender introspection; I see people with arms raised and eyes closed, and some with tears streaming. Later, prayer partners meet and pray with those in need. People cry and hug, finding individual spiritual solace among the thousands present in America’s largest congregation.

The service proceeds with an encouraging testimony from Victoria, a period of prayer and tithing, and a twenty-five-minute message from Joel. An altar call with a simple recitation, asking Jesus to reign as Lord of one’s life, starts to draw the morning service to a close. In a final moment of affirmation, Joel asks people to clap if they are better now than when they came in.

Employing positive confession, a historic neopentecostal practice of making verbal affirmations of spiritual significance—and much like his father John did at Lakewood—Joel makes several declarations. Each declaration becomes more intense as Osteen’s voice rises and he bounces tiptoed  as if to push his positive proclamations into every square inch of the auditorium:

“I declare . . . God is breathing on your life, he’s breathing on your dreams, he’s breathing on your finances. . . . God will multiply your talent, multiply your resources, multiply your strength. . . . If you’ll be confident in what God has given you, then I believe and declare you will overcome every obstacle, defeat every enemy, and you will become everything God’s created you to be . . . if you believe it, give the Lord a shout of praise!”

Joel ends the service in prayer, sending intense petitions upward with his face lifted, eyes tightly closed, hands raised, and his body moving as he speaks. He asks God to make the day’s message real in everyday life.

“Lord, draw them by your Spirit, let them feel your love as they’ve never felt it before,” he prays . “A new beginning . . . a fresh new start . . . the road to victory . . . comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Now that we’ve entered Lakewood Church, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

St. Patrick, St. Joseph and Irish-Italian harmony

—Paul Moses

[This post originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.]

Right after Valentine’s Day, the front window of my Brooklyn home sprouts a field of cardboard shamrocks each year. A statue of St. Patrick appears on the bookshelf and a sign is posted on the back door: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

moses-comp-finalThis is the work of my Irish-American wife in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. As the Italian-American husband, I have in past years suggested equal attention to St. Joseph, a favorite saint of Italians. Nothing doing.

The proximity of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Feast of St. Joseph two days later leads to a good deal of teasing and ribbing every year between Catholics of Irish and Italian ancestry.

There is nothing extraordinary about this little bit of fun, unless one considers the bitterness that once marked relations between these two peoples. As impoverished Italians poured into New York and other major cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the already established Irish became their mentors and tormentors—more so the latter, at first.

Much of the rivalry concerned jobs: Italian laborers were willing to work for less pay and longer hours than the Irish, and sometimes they were used to break strikes. Fights were so common between crews of Irish and Italian construction workers that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined a 1894 editorial: “Can’t They Be Separated?”

This bitterness spilled over into the Catholic parishes where the two peoples mingled with their very different forms of practicing the same religion.

The Italians “are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church,” a Vatican agency noted in an 1887 report that singled out an Irish parish on Mott Street in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown for maltreatment of Italian immigrants.

The pastor of Transfiguration Church responded through an article his brother wrote in a Catholic journal that said the Italian immigrants didn’t know even elementary Catholic doctrines. Nor were they so concerned about having to hold services in the church basement, it added, because “the Italians as a body are not humiliated by humiliation.”

These were, in turn, fighting words for a prominent Italian priest who wrote to his bishop in Italy: “I have proofs at hand—it would make your blood boil—to see how Italian priests have been treated by American pastors.”

Such exchanges continued for decades, with Irish churchmen trying to cope with the “Italian problem” and Italians complaining angrily to their bishops and the Vatican.

The Italian brand of Catholicism—with processions and raucous street celebrations in honor of patron saints—didn’t sit well with Irish-American prelates. They knew their Protestant opponents looked down on these customs as pagan-like superstitions. Michael Corrigan, a son of Irish immigrants who served as New York’s archbishop in the late 19th century, tried to bar the processions. The Italians ignored him, and took note of the fact that the Irish celebrated their own feast on St. Patrick’s Day.

This battle within the Catholic Church was fought in many big-city parishes well into the 20th century. No Italian-American headed a diocese in New York state until 1968, when Francis J. Mugavero was appointed bishop of Brooklyn.

And yet, as a diverse group of marchers steps up Fifth Avenue led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it is worth noting that the Catholic parish played an important role in reconciling the Irish and Italians. In the years after World War II, people got to mingle and know each other in their parishes, especially in the suburbs and residential sections of the city.

Scholarly studies have shown that Italian-Americans who attended Catholic schools became more like the Irish in their practice of the Catholic faith.

As a result, as one 1960s study of New York Catholics found, Italian-Americans who went to Catholic schools and attended Mass regularly almost always wed spouses of Irish origin if they did not marry another Italian. That’s especially so for third-generation Italian-Americans, as I am on my mother’s side, a fact to which my Irish-American wife Maureen can attest.

In the early years of the 20th century, those who predicted large-scale Irish-Italian friendship and intermarriage were dismissed as impossibly optimistic. But the story of the Irish and Italians in America demonstrates that it is possible over time for serious divisions to be transformed into a matter of gentle teasing and ribbing between friends—if not husbands and wives.

Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be published by NYU Press in July.

Ayahuasca and the spiritual natives

—Brett Hendrickson 

What do Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and hundreds of Brooklyn hipsters have in common besides their glowing personalities? They all sing the praises of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic and psychedelic brew that has long been used by indigenous Amazonian groups. Ayahuasca sends its consumers into throes of reverie and feelings of spiritual connectedness. It also causes bouts of vomiting, which users lift up as part of the cathartic experience—the “ayahuasca cleanse.”

North American and European spiritual tourists being treated by a Peruvian shaman.

In its original Amazonian context, ayahuasca use is an integral part of the trances that shamans enter to carry out powerful transactions between waking life and other levels of their reality. The impetus for most of these trance journeys and transactions is healing of one sort or another, whether this be physical recovery from illness or the restoration of ruptured social norms. Shaman specialists take the ayahuasca in order to enter the visionary realm wherein they can do the important work of re-establishing balance, harmony, and health for their patients and communities.

By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists who studied ayahuasca-using South American tribes were trying the drug for themselves and bringing back stories of its psychedelic properties. Soon, the growing counter-culture was experimenting with ayahuasca and other psychotropic plants common in Central and South America like peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms. Adding significantly to these plants’ inherent hallucinogenic properties was the ostensible authenticity and simplicity of indigenous people’s wisdom and spirituality.

The last few years have witnessed a rise in the popularity of ayahuasca use both on ethno-tourist jaunts to Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, and in spiritual salons dedicated to the drug in the United States. It has become especially trendy among creative types like musicians and writers and also with young urbanites who might self-identify as spiritual seekers. Like-minded people have taken advantage of online social networking to gather with shaman/entrepreneurs who provide not only the ayahuasca but also a guided tour into a commodified form of indigenous spirituality.

A recent story in the New York Times describes such a meet-up in Brooklyn that featured a Colombian shaman, cups of ayahuasca, barf buckets, candlelight, chanting, drumming, and a $150 price tag. Others are not content with this kind of dabbling and have taken the plunge to remote South America to learn to have even more authentic experiences and perhaps become shamans themselves. A recent profile of one such individual describes a young Jewish man from Williamsburg who made various trips to the Amazon and the Caribbean where he received a new name from indigenous masters: Turey Tekina (allegedly “Sky Singer” in Quechua). After many spiritual adventures and self-discoveries, he “returned to Brooklyn, and turned his apartment into a temple for [ayahuasca] ceremonies. He has a steady flow of regular and new clients, all who learn of him through word of mouth.”

The history of Anglo-Americans who have dabbled in—or even appropriated—the religious and traditional medicines of indigenous people is long but remarkably constant. In almost every case, the white seekers are looking for healing and wholeness, but almost always in a such a way that critiques the complications and coldness of “Western” life and/or its “institutional religion;” utterly romanticizes indigenous people as simple and pure sources of unadulterated ancient wisdom; and can be easily commodified and thus sold in packages with other alternative medicines or therapies.

The latest craze for ayahuasca’s visions and vomiting is one more item in what sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof has called America’s “spiritual marketplace.” When this particular trend passes, no doubt another will take its place in this unique form of American religiosity that privileges the sacred wisdom of the natives, as long as we can have it when—and how—we want it.

Brett Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College (PA). He is the author of Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo (NYU Press, 2014).