Vancouver Sun: Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by the Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity journalist Douglas Todd. His column piece on me was posted online on Friday; the print version should be out in the next few days. As usual, I’ll say a bit here about how the whole interview process went, what I think of the piece, and how this feeds into academic work. For my part, it certainly was an interesting experience being in the interviewee’s seat after talking to some 140 Chinese Christians in the Pacific Rim region and conducting 13 focus groups there as well, and it’s certainly very stimulating to read how my work is being interpreted in the press. The interpreter is being interpreted; how fun!

Douglas Todd contacted me back in May when the Statistics Canada release came out on ethnicity, language, visible minority status, and religion. We had a brief conversation about the statistics, and my hint to him at the time was to make sure that whatever he did with the large Chinese population that identifies as ‘not religiously affiliated’ (about 61%), don’t write them off as ‘non-religious,’ as many engage in popular familial religions, may hold various views of the supernatural, and may even be influenced by Christian environments, such as schools in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various parts of Southeast Asia. Although he did not incorporate my comments at the time, we developed a professional and collegial relationship through the process, and I’m fairly pleased with the series of articles generated from the statistics, although I had the occasional question about differences of opinion that I had about how to interpret the data. I suppose that’s how we academics are trained–to be critical, but always in a spirit of collegiality.

In any case, Todd said even at that time that he wanted to do a longer piece on my work, which, after a conversation with my supervisor David Ley, we decided would be good practice for these late stages in my doctoral studies. Indeed, I reviewed some of my comments to Todd during our conversation about statistics and found that I had given him a fairly technical academic answer to his questions. Yet as we spoke, Todd reassured me that my academic comments were exactly what he wanted (which, as I’m told, is unusual for a journalist) and that we would bridge academia and journalism in our piece, as he had himself been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Vancouver School of Theology (congratulations, Doug!), and thank you for being able to pull quotes from what I imagine must be a very difficult interview from which to pull, as I like to qualify many of the things that I say.

His call came last Friday. We set up a time for this Monday, and we spoke at length for about two hours about my thesis work, as well as my various theoretical and popular interests. I also sent him various academic articles I had written, emphasizing my interest in both ‘grounded theologies’ and in the empirical work of Cantonese migrations in the Pacific region with a religious spin. There were also popular articles in the batch as well, such as the Schema autobiographical piece and the Ricepaper pieces on Ken Shigematsu and on ‘how Asian religions aren’t that exotic.’ I suppose this may be why he calls me a ‘scholarly dynamo,’ although I certainly do not feel that way most days.

Because the conversation revolved around my thesis’s interest in how Cantonese-speaking Protestants engage the public spheres and civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong SAR, the discussion naturally veered toward the sexuality issues without us even attempting to get there. As you will see in the piece, we spoke at length about some of the pressing issues in Vancouver around parental rights activism, the drama between Liberal and Conservative Chinese Christian politicians vying for the vote in Richmond, and the Anglican crisis in the Diocese of New Westminster.  What I did was to try to shed light on the internal conversations that I have been hearing in relation to what I have read in more popular and academic portrayals. Todd is right to say that the press has been interested in this story for quite some time, himself being one of this literature’s main contributors. There are also other journalists like Marci McDonald (in The Armageddon Factor), John Ibbitson and Joe Friesen at the Globe and Mail, and Chad Skelton at the Vancouver Sun, who have all written about Chinese Christians engaging the Canadian public sphere, and sexuality has often come up as an item of interest. Indeed, one might say that their work lies somewhere close to the genesis of my doctoral project, for if they were examining the conversation as outsiders, I thought that it might be interesting to tackle the question of what imaginations and practices constitute Cantonese Protestant public engagements from within the community itself.

I should note that this body of journalistic work has often been met with mixed reviews by both conservative and progressive Asian Canadians for different reasons, yet both because of the work’s philosophically (and arguably, politically) liberal framework. By ‘liberal,’ I don’t mean the archetypal open-minded opposition to ‘conservatism,’ but the philosophical bent that attempts to seek an ‘overlapping consensus’ from various groups that have bracketed their communities of identity to seek some sort of abstract common ground for political life together. On the right, this work has been seen as ‘liberal’–as in too far to the left–because it is viewed as generally unsympathetic to a case against gay rights; some Chinese Christians have often decried how they have been portrayed as a propaganda-spreading community that is generally top down and unwilling to integrate into Canadian civil society, while many others protest the ‘overlapping consensus’ approach as not paying attention to how their views might be part of a majority Canadian view that is being contested by a vocal minority.  A relevant situation was in 2011, when Todd’s Chinese New Year piece was read as saying that Chinese Christian communities were unwilling to integrate into a liberal society, sparking outrage within Chinese Christian churches and a fairly assertive rebuttal from the Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship that Chinese Christians were Canadian too. On the left, however, this body of literature has also been criticized as overly ‘liberal’–as in too far to the right–in their critique of Asian Canadian identity politics and their recent assertions that the racializing wrongs of the past can be attributed purely to economic reasons. In either case, this body of work has often been done by those who are not themselves Asian Canadian, writing often as outsiders attempting to write about a complex community. With that view in mind, I also regard this work critically while valuing it precisely for its outsider perspectives, views that can come into very interesting conversation with insider accounts, for at a methodological level, there is no monopoly on knowledge by either insiders or outsiders to a community.

All that is to say that it was pleasantly interesting to be interpreted by someone with likely a different philosophical, political, and theoretical bent from mine. As he notes, I do thank ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ in my MA thesis (and my B.A. [Hons.] as well, and it will probably make it into my PhD), and I have a whole chapter there detailing my theological orientation at the time. (I also have a positionality chapter in my PhD.) As those who have read the grounded theologies piece will know, my theological leanings are heavily shaped by the new critical re-assessments of the secularization thesis at the nexus of theology and religious studies, a reformulation of concepts like ‘theology,’ ‘religion,’ and the ‘secular’ in ways that on the one hand promise to transcend the culture wars of our time and on the other have potential to demonstrate that ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ are veiled theological concepts themselves. I’m not saying that my views would be diametrically opposed to Todd’s, but I am saying that our theoretical and philosophical approaches are probably fairly divergent. That said, with the exception of the blow-up around Todd’s 2011 piece, he has followed the Chinese Christian story very closely since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, covering stories such as the Chinese New Year celebrations at Oak Ridge Mall in the early 1990s, Bill Chu’s work with First Nations since the late 1990s, shifting immigrant voting patterns in the 2000s, Chinese Christian involvement in the Anglican Communion’s woes since synods in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the activism around Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s challenge to the city’s requirement for them to obtain a social services permit to feed the homeless from 2007 to 2008. In other words, I’m a bit flattered that my PhD work is the latest episode in Douglas Todd’s long career of covering Chinese Christians, and I was delighted and honoured to converse with him, especially because I knew that we would have a fun conversation given our theoretical differences. (It is hard to have conversations with those who are exactly the same as oneself.)

Now for the piece itself: I am generally pleased by how the article panned out (if you must know, ‘generally pleased’ in academic-speak is generally high praise). The headline of the piece is ‘Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality,’ and the new tagline just posted reads, ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand.’ As I’d point out to the editors, while the title is catchy and will certainly lead to the article being more read to my dully titled blog posts, the article is not only about homosexuality, nor is my thesis work, and Todd understands that and tries to signal that as well. After all, my thesis work is about ‘the public sphere,’ not only about sexuality issues, although it is true that sexuality issues are fascinating theoretical cases for studies of the public sphere as they challenge public-private boundaries. To that end, I hope that the small, yet necessarily incomplete, picture we painted in the article of the Chinese Christians does not make it sound like they are only concerned about sexuality issues, but about a broad range of topics that generally surround how they negotiate the boundaries between public and private spheres.

As for the content of the comments, here is a brief word for the methodologically curious. The Vancouver research is based on 50 key informant semi-structured interviews with either Cantonese-speaking Christians or those who have worked closely with them, and they are supplemented by three focus groups among Cantonese-speaking Protestants whom I met in Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Richmond. As my project is limited to ‘Cantonese,’ I did not expound on the Mandarin-speaking Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) in Vancouver, although my MA project touched on how Cantonese-speaking congregations deal with their Mandarin-speaking newcomers and neighbours (and a comment from that work made its way into the article). As this is a qualitative project, my approach was to ask key informants to share their stories and to put together the picture of their public engagements from their responses; I think of them as people who can shed insider knowledge on various churches, organizations, and networks from whose information a general portrait of their public activities can be extracted. Each of the statements in the article is defensible from the data; in fact, reading through the piece, I think immediately of key quotes from the data that come to mind. I am especially happy that Todd went to the nuance of talking about the balance of ‘rights,’ as this was one of the core issues in the Vancouver site.

The tagline ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand,’ is admittedly a bit cheeky, but I see how the editors might get that impression from the piece itself. For my part, my reading of the situation is that there is no one ‘Chinese community’ as a monolithic body. Instead, respondents often spoke of the Chinese population in Vancouver as a ‘pot of scattered sand’ (一盆散沙) and of their frustrations that it was difficult to mobilize people for any sort of political action, even when it came to the sexuality issues. Moreover, some were upset that their second generation did not hold to their strong views on sexual normativity, be it for biblical reasons or for essentialized cultural reasons. Breaking down this conversation, what I found was that the fissures among Chinese Christians became extremely important for telling the story, especially to counteract the narrative in the press that a unified ‘Chinese community’ with well-defined ‘Chinese community leaders’ were able to mobilize effective ethnic political action. Quite the contrary: I found that there were debates about what was religious and what was secular, what was public and what was private, how children should be educated and what parents should do about it, who their leaders were and why they should be (or should not be) acknowledged, etc. While some also complained to me that this disunity lacked a sort of harmony, my sense was that these internal deliberations were themselves the stuff of democracy. In other words, bringing out these internal complexities and conversations is a way of demonstrating that Chinese Canadians are actively grappling with how to be democratic citizens, hardly the picture of a community that is uninterested in ‘integration.’

In other words, I’m fairly happy about the level of complexity with which Todd is willing to grapple. As I said, I’m often told that journalists do not have the patience for academic ramblings (that is to say, our closely argued theses), and I’m grateful that Todd was willing to take the time to wrestle with the nuances.

And that brings me finally to a word about public academia. My sense is that journalists and academics both perform a remarkable service to democratic deliberations because they seek to inform the public forum. My hope is that this piece can be taken as a sort of model for how the two sectors can engage each other (or perhaps, how journalists can ask pointed questions to academics to get the quotes they need!), as journalists and academics are not the same, but we can certainly complement each other. In fact, we need each other. Where we academics perform the service of close argument and teaching students and readers to do the same, journalists have a sort of immediacy in their dissemination that is also a profound public service; they are fast and direct, where we are slow and cautious, and I think that’s where we strike an excellent balance when we work together. This experience has been a good first lesson for me in interacting with a very patient journalist who is actually willing to hear my complex thoughts and to represent them with careful nuance and skill; I suspect that some in the future will be less patient with me. I also appreciate how Todd demonstrates in this article how one can represent someone from a different philosophical bent studying people who are very different from himself and come out with this level of insight.

So thank you, Doug, and I certainly hope that this piece will feed nuance and complexity into an ongoing public conversation that seriously needs that level of depth to be able to grapple with the difficult issues so skillfully articulated in this article.

Metropolis BC Working Paper 13-06: Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC

I am very pleased to announce the publication of a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia on our collaborative project on the ‘Highway to Heaven,’ No. 5 Road in Richmond, BC, on which over 20 religious institutions are arrayed on a stretch of 3 kilometres. Titled ‘Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC,’ this co-authored report among Claire Dwyer (University College London), David Ley (UBC), and myself explores the question of what ‘immigrant integration’ means on the Highway to Heaven.

The paper can be accessed here. A policy briefing note is also available. For the complete list of published reports in 2013, please click here.

Here is the abstract:

This paper draws on a case study of religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia to explore the role of religious institutions in the process of immigrant integration. Colloquially known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’, No. 5 Road includes over twenty religious communities on a three-kilometre stretch of road, their location the result of a planning policy for an ‘Assembly District’ in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Drawing on interviews conducted with twenty-two out of twenty-four of the religious institutions as well as with policymakers and staff at Richmond City Hall from 2010 to 2012, we argue that integration is a complex term, which can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. We identify a range of different ways in which the religious institutions along No. 5 Road might defi ne their activities as contributing to the integration of immigrants, and we discuss a range of practices that support integration. However, we argue that immigrant integration was not the primary planning objective, nor was it the main theological purpose for religious congregations. Nonetheless, we conclude that policy makers could draw on the range of activities we explore to use the road as an educational resource to promote public conversation about the intricate relationships between faith, migration, and the contested meanings of ‘integration.’

This report is important as an act of public academic engagement with questions in Metro Vancouver’s civil society. In the last few years, accusations and insinuations have circulated that new immigrant populations are not ‘integrating’ in Vancouver, a discourse that is made even more confusing because there are migrants who both support and challenge this claim. Our report shows that when the question of ‘integration’ is examined in a geographical site like No. 5 Road, there are a variety of ways in which migrants say that they are ‘integrating.’ As a result, our advocacy is not based on whether migrants should or should not integrate. We’re saying that sites like No. 5 Road are excellent sites for public education and discussion about what ‘integration’ actually means.

This is the first in a series of papers that we will be publishing on No. 5 Road’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ and we will also actively be revising this report for publication in an academic journal. Please feel free to send comments and feedback. We look forward to the public conversation that can develop from this report.

Progress in Human Geography: Grounded Theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography

As I noted in the previous post, I am excited to announce the publication of two articles today.  This post deals with the second one.

Progress in Human Geography, a widely-read journal where geographers publish reviews of current geographical research that point to new agendas for study, has published a piece that I contributed to them. It is available on OnlineFirst. It is titled ‘Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography.‘ Again, I will post again when a print issue comes out.

This is a theoretical paper that deals with how ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ should be studied in human geography.  I’ve had a long interest in examining these concepts more deeply, and I’m still interested in going deeper.  In 2007, when I began my master’s degree in geography at the University of British Columbia, I had to take an introductory course called Geography 520: Theory and Practice in Human Geography (here’s a sample syllabus, taken from 2011).  One of our assignments for that seminar was to write a short, 3,000 word essay modeled on Progress in Human Geography‘s review style. As I recall, we were told to review some 30 recent articles and books. I told our seminar instructors that I wanted to do a review essay on geographies of religion. They replied with something to the effect of: ‘Oh, let us know if you can find anything.’

In many ways, this is my way of saying: ‘I found something.’  I began developing these ideas more fully after that introductory course, which then culminated into my master’s thesis on Chinese churches in Vancouver. As I began my doctoral work, I began to toy with the idea of ‘grounded theologies’ in my directed studies courses, and I finally wrote about it in my comprehensive examinations on geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  That was when my supervisor, David Ley, encouraged me to develop this piece and put it into Progress in Human Geography, even as I was writing up my doctoral thesis proposal.

The reviews came back as I was conducting field work for my doctoral project. To my pleasant surprise, the editors and the reviewers were not only supportive, but extremely thorough, profound, and constructive, advising me on how to maximize my arguments for the best possible impact on the field. I then revised the paper, foregrounding the notion of ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography.

The paper is basically about how geographers should study ‘religion’ and the ‘secular.’ I began by engaging the work of Lily Kong, a cultural geographer and the Vice President at the National University of Singapore, who had suggested that geographers need to define what ‘religion’ is and is not.  I am an admirer of Lily’s work, as she has recently opened up many possibilities for us to study religion in geography. I was also struck by her corollary call to engage theology and religious studies more deeply. Engaging this literature, I found that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are very contested terms and that to define what religion is and is not would reinforce the binary idea that some spaces are religious and others aren’t.

The alternative path proposed in the piece is that of grounded theologies, ‘performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent’ (p. 2).  While there has been a growing literature in geography on the possibilities of ‘post-secularism’ (in fact, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont have a piece on this in the most recent print issue of Progress), there have also been some complaints that this literature doesn’t take seriously what secularization actually means (especially by Justin Wilford, also in Progress). I propose that the way forward is to see ‘the secular’ as much as a grounded theology as ‘religion.’  After reviewing the relevant literature on ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in theology and religious studies, I demonstrate how this concept has already been put into practice by social, cultural, and political geographers.

In doing so, I had to engage with what is known as the ‘canon’ in religious studies (e.g. the foundational work of social scientists like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, William James, and Clifford Geertz), formative debates among religion scholars about what ‘religion’ is (e.g. a critical juxtaposition of the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as well as more recent work by Jonathan Z. Smith), and the recent critical conversation on secularization that blurs the lines between theology and religious studies (e.g. the work of John Milbank, William T. Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Brad Gregory, and Charles Taylor). I then put this literature to work by looking at how geographers have already been engaging to some degree with grounded theologies as they undertook studies of how different religious subjects understood their identities by intersecting their social spaces. I also looked at recent discussions in critical geopolitics surrounding religion, especially as geographers have been interested in the eschatological dimensions of religious engagements with the public sphere.

My hope for this paper is that it will open avenues for geographers to research ‘religion’ and the ‘secular,’ as well as engage with scholars in theology and religious studies. Moreover, my aim has been to critique the notion that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are mutually exclusive.  By doing this, we might be able to show ironically how people conventionally labeled ‘religious’ sometimes employ ‘secular’ ways of making place while people who call themselves ‘secular’ are guided by implicit theological narratives in their geographical practices.

I’d really like to thank David Ley for guiding me through this process, as well as the editors of Progress in Human Geography who oversaw this publication, Noel Castree and Anssi Paasi. The five anonymous reviewers who critically turned over every part of this piece have greatly strengthened this paper; I also feel extremely humbled that they have taken my work so seriously and have engaged it with such profound insights. Claire Dwyer, with whom I am working concretely on a project dealing with grounded theologies in Richmond, British Columbia’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ has also been very encouraging. My friends, Robert Edwards and Carl Hildebrand, also read the piece and offered very constructive thoughts. I am very thankful that this piece is out, and I look forward to engaging fellow students of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ on how these concepts describe grounded theologies put to work in the making and contestation of real places in the world.

Homo Religiosus? Religion and Immigrant Subjectivities (co-authored with David Ley), in Religion and Place: landscape, politics, piety (eds. Peter Hopkins, Lily Kong, and Elizabeth Olson)

I just received my copy of Religion and Place: landscape, politics, piety put out by Springer and set for a 2013 release date.  It’s edited by my friends, Peter Hopkins (Newcastle University, Geography), Lily Kong (National University of Singapore, Geography), and Betsy Olson (University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Geography), and it’s got a great line-up of geographers of religion contributing in its various chapters, including Banu Gokariksel, Anna Secor, Sarah Moser, Nimrod Luz, Lynn Staeheli, Caroline Nagel, Barbara Bompani, Giselle Vincett, David Conradson, and Julian Holloway.

My supervisor, David Ley (University of British Columbia, Geography), and I co-authored a chapter entitled Homo religiosus? Religion and immigrant subjectivities” based on Ley’s 2010 lecture for the Association of American Geographers’ Geography of Religions and Belief Systems annual lecture series.  I contributed a great deal of citations to make the chapter relevant to theology and religious studies (fields that Lily Kong [2010] has been pushing us to get involved in) as well as some empirical material on Chinese Canadian evangelicals, especially from my 2011 article on a Cantonese Christian congregation published in Population, Space, and Place.  Our chapter suggests that while there has been a great deal of interest in the relationship between religion and migration, little has been done from within the theological frameworks of religious migrant practitioners themselves. We attempt a thought-experiment with transnational Chinese migrants to Vancouver who attend Christian churches to examine their religious practices from an explicitly theological perspective.

One of the innovative elements of this book is its explicit openness to doing social science of religion from within theological frameworks, as can also be seen from Julian Holloway’s chapter.  To me, this raises questions about how human geographers do religious studies similarly and differently from their social science counterparts in sociology and anthropology.  The editors and the contributors are very excited about the release of this book, as it signals a growing interest within human geography in religion and the growing significance of various approaches to religious studies in the social sciences more generally.

Association of American Geographers 2011 (Seattle, WA)

A few updates on the sessions in this Association of American Geographers in Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center and the Sheraton.

Betsy Olson, Claire Dwyer, and I co-organized a session on Wednesday, 13 April 2011, at 10 AM entitled Religion and transnationalism/Traveling faith (#2244).  This paper featured paper presentations by Murat Es, Abby Day, Ben Kogaly, Sharon Suh, and Patricia Ehrkamp.  Claire Dwyer, David Ley, and I also gave our presentation on Richmond’s “Highway to Heaven”:

While geographers have written much about the varying dimensions of transnational urbanism (Ley 2004, MP Smith 2001, Mitchell 2004) religious transnationalism remains under explored despite the establishment of many new spectacular religious buildings in diaspora cities in the last decade and evidence of the continuing significance of religious practice for many migrants (Levitt 2007, Tweed 2002). In this paper we draw on recent empirical work in the multicultural suburb of Richmond, Vancouver to explore the complex geographies of a transnational suburban religious landscape. Along the Number 5 Road, on the eastern boundary of the city and adjacent to the major 99 highway, more than twenty religious buildings including mosques, churches, religious schools, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples are clustered within 3 kilometres. This suburban religious landscape has been produced by the complex intersection of suburban planning regulations, municipal multiculturalism and the transnational activities of a range of different diasporic faith communities living in greater Vancouver and beyond. Our paper traces the processes by which this landscape has been produced and raises some questions about the possible outcomes of planning for religious and cultural diversity and the varying trajectories of religious transnationalism.

I am also giving a paper on Thursday, 14 April 2011, at 10 AM in the Issues in Ethnic Geography II (#3220) session.  Here is the paper abstract:

Until recently, ethnic, religious, and ethno-religious spaces in North America have been assumed to be apolitical.  Urban ethnic centres (such as Chinatowns), ethnoburbs (such as Richmond in Metro Vancouver), and ethnic churches and temples have often been seen as sites where migrant cultures to North America have been preserved; indeed, the only politics in which they are involved may be anti-segregation and anti-racism protests.  However, Cantonese Christians have not been apolitical.  In 2008, Cantonese Christians successfully campaigned for the election of a Conservative Member of Parliament in Richmond, British Columbia; a parallel in the San Francisco Bay Area was an alliance of Chinese evangelicals with the larger evangelical movement to pass Proposition 8 to ban same-sex unions.  Such a trend has also been noticed by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, running a front-page article on immigrants and the conservative vote.  In this presentation, I propose a working approach to such migrant religious communities that takes into account their politics.  We must ask: what are the civic imaginations and practices of Cantonese Christians who are said to vote conservative?  This paper grounds this question in Vancouver and San Francisco as the starting point of a new line of inquiry into the political agency of communities formerly thought to be ethnic enclaves running parallel religious lives in North America.  It is the hope of this paper to initiate a new approach to immigrant and ethnic geographies from which empirical data can be collected.

Finally, in the usual great run-up of speakers for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems Annual Lecture, Claire Dwyer will be giving this year’s lecture (#4258):

Encountering the Divine in W5 and Highway 99: stories of the suburban sacred
This lecture reflects on my on-going collaborative research on suburban faith spaces in London and Vancouver to explore the significance of everyday geographies of religion.  Recent research on suburban faith spaces offers both into a reinterpretation of the assumed secularism of suburban space and an analysis of the transnational and postcolonial connections shaping suburban geographies. Through this analysis of suburban faith spaces I develop two broader arguments about the geographies of religions and belief systems. First, I ask what geographies of religion have to offer to wider theoretical discussions within the discipline. Second, I reflect on the  possibilities and challenges of accessing the suburban sacred as part of a wider reflection on geographies of encounter and enchantment.

Metropolis Canada: 23-26 March 2011

Just wanted to check in and report on the success of a paper session I co-organized with my friends Claire Dwyer, David Ley, and Paul Bramadat at Metropolis Canada.  Here’s the session information:

Immigrant Integration, Religious Diversity and the Suburbs
This session brings together academics and policy makers to discuss the ways in which the civic engagement and integration of immigrants is facilitated through religious institutions and organisations. It focuses on the emergence of new religious spaces in the suburbs of many Canadian cities and the challenge of planning for diversity.

Organizer | Organisateur
Claire Dwyer, University College London
Justin Tse, University of British Columbia
David Ley, University of British Columbia
Paul Bramadat, University of Victoria

Participants
Claire Dwyer, University College London, Justin Tse and David Ley, University of British Columbia
‘Highway to Heaven’: The Making of a Transnational Suburban Religious Landscape in Vancouver

Ranu Basu, York University
Kali in the Legions to Eid with Christmas Lights: Integrative Multiplicity in Toronto Suburbs

Meharoona Ghani, Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development, British Columbia
Multiculturalism and Inclusive Communities

Alan Hill, City of Richmond
Cultural Diversity and Integration

Chair | Modérateur
Paul Bramadat, University of Victoria

Discussant | Commentateur
Balwant Sanghera, Interfaith Bridging Project

A CLAIM TO FAME: our session was mentioned by Douglas Todd in The Search for our presentation on religion.  Thanks so much, Douglas, and yes, it provoked some great discussion on religion, secularism, migration, and the suburbs in Canada!

Religion and Society: a policy symposium on immigration, multiculturalism, and social change in Canada (Metropolis BC and Embrace BC)

On Wednesday, 2 February 2011, I had the pleasure of being the lead presenter on work done in collaboration among Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), Dr. David Ley (UBC Geography), and myself on Richmond’s No. 5 Road, otherwise known as the “Highway to Heaven” for its over-20 religious institutions on three big blocks of converted Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

The talk we chose to give was entitled: Talking infrastructure: another topic for interfaith dialogue on Richmond’s “Highway to Heaven.” I was the lead presenter.

Our main point was that because the “Highway to Heaven” lay on mostly newly-converted ALR, its lack of infrastructure often forced religious institutions to cooperate to get things built, often only as one-off projects.  We discussed three key issues.  The first was that while No. 5 Road has been portrayed as a miracle of interfaith cooperation (mostly in the sharing of parking lots), our research shows that there have been potentials for conflict, particularly within ethnic groups, although these clashes have also tended to be minor.  The second was a demonstration through the case of sewage lines that interfaith collaboration were often one-off projects and that failures and successes were usually not the product of theological or cosmological conflicts.  The third was that policy from the City of Richmond often had the unintended side effects of frustrating some religious practices, such as in the proposed Blundell Interchange onto Highway 99 or the requirement to farm the back third of the lots for tax exemption.

We got great feedback on this project.  People from the City of Richmond who were present were very receptive to our comments and are beginning to discuss with us more possibilities for collaboration to minimize those unintended policy side effects.  We have also begun to learn much more about the ALR as a result and are finding that rural and urban spaces really do matter for geographies of religion.  We also met many members of the Richmond community, including representatives from two interfaith organizations (one English-speaking, another Chinese), who encouraged us to do more thinking along the lines of theological reflection and interaction with the City as good neighbours.  We were very pleased with the turnout for the event and grateful for all the suggestions for our project, which is still a work in progress.

The PowerPoint should be available from Metropolis BC at some point, and I will keep you posted on when.

Other interesting talks of the day included talks by the co-organizers of the symposium, Paul Bramadat (University of Victoria, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society) and Meharoona Ghani (Embrace BC) on the necessity of a policy discussion of religion in a world where faith and politics are increasingly important, especially in British Columbia.  In our panel on Space, Place and the Sacred: Managing Religious Diversity in a Multicultural Society (chaired by Paul Bramadat), there were two colleagues whose work focused on the Greater Toronto Area as comparative sites for British Columbia: Heidi Hoernig (McGill University, Office of Research Services) and Sandeep Agrawal (Ryerson University, School of Urban and Regional Planning).  Another panel on projects from Embrace BC’s Interfaith Bridging Projects featured talks from Clare Whelan-Sadike (Embrace BC), Tahzeem Kassam (DIVERSECity, Surrey), Bruce Curtis (Community Justice Centre, Comox Valley), and Julie Papaioannou (CIC BC/Yukon).  The day was capped by an open discussion on post-secularism led by Paul Bramadat and Julie Drolet (Thompson Rivers University, Social Work), where much of the discussion focused on the need for education for religious literacy at all levels of schooling to address a multicultural, multi-religious society that is increasingly not following the patterns of secularization once prescribed for it in the 1960s and 1970s.

We are looking forward to a larger conversation that will happen at the Metropolis Canada conference to be held in March 2011.  Claire Dwyer and I are co-organizing a session on religion and migration, and our panel will include people from Embrace BC, the City of Richmond, and Richmond’s Interfaith Advisory Committee.