What do religious narratives have to do with the adaptation of immigrants from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? Is it only in the United States—a remarkably more religious country than Canada or France, where many Haitians have also settled—that Haitian immigrants center their lives on religious communities and establish faith-based service organizations to support their adaptation?

From 2001-2003, I spent nearly 16 months conducting interviews with more than 150 people in the Haitian communities of Miami, Montreal, and Paris. I traveled twice to Haiti to learn Haitian Creole and gathered important background historical and cultural information about Haiti in preparation for my sociological study of Haitian immigrants. I was interested in learning more about the social and spiritual work being done by the Haitian Catholic mission of each of the cities I studied, and how those Catholic missions interacted with other Haitian organizations and government agencies. The book based on this research, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, was recently released by the University of California Press.

A few vivid examples from my fieldwork in Miami, Montreal, and Paris demonstrate how religious narratives—especially Christian narratives about transformation and redemption that are largely lacking in secular discourse—provide Haitians with real meaning and hope in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. The Haitian proverb that states “faith makes us live” captures the power of religious narratives in many Haitians’ lives. Many people I interviewed had little money, couldn’t find a job, or faced a medical problem, but they nonetheless affirmed that “my faith makes me live. I would be dead if it were not for my faith.”

Immigrants’ faith and the parishes, prayer groups, and social groups they form to share their faith constitute what I call cultural mediation. By relying upon belief in the incarnation of Christ, by serving the church, and by assisting the broader Haitian community, Haitians find psychological relief in the difficult adaptation process—including experiences of discrimination, poverty, unemployment, and awaiting the adjudication of political asylum claims.

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For example, Marie, a 40-year old Haitian mother-of-two in Montreal described how her faith helped her cope with intense loneliness when she first arrived in Montreal. Echoing many other Haitians across the three sites, she said, “God lives in me all the time. I can call on him when I want.” Her personal faith led her to become an active member in her parish and to join a weekly prayer group. In contrast to the social isolation she felt in Montreal, belonging to a prayer group made her feel like she belonged somewhere, and she explained how “when you feel that you are somebody, [that] you are a person, [that] you are important, you can move mountains, and that is faith.”

Numerous other examples illustrate how even immigrants from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere go beyond being needy newcomers who are passive recipients of state social support and become agents of their own successful adaptation just by praying for others and volunteering to help with church activities. Many clergy and lay leaders explained that getting people to see themselves as agents in their own lives was desperately needed before trying to assist them in some material way. Although many Haitians are convinced that their faith can literally move mountains, they also firmly believe that authentic faith requires action. Illustrating the close connection between faith and action, the second part of the Haitian proverb that begins with “faith makes us live” ends with “but misery divides us.”

Cooperation with state agencies and access to government funding are crucial to the success of such missions. Mark Chaves, a professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the nation’s leading scholars on religious congregations and their social service agencies, stated that my research shows that “when immigrants are religious—and so many are—pragmatic cooperation between church and state can hasten their acculturation and improve their well-being.”

Although this point may seem rather uncontroversial in the Unite States, such pragmatic cooperation between the church and the state faces many obstacles in Quebec and France. In fact, despite the fact that Haitian Catholic clergy and lay leaders in Montreal and Paris attempted to runsocial service agencies similar to those of the Haitian Catholic community in Miami, the governments of Quebec and France have largely refused to cooperate with these faith-based mediating institutions, thereby cutting off contact with one of the most important institutions in immigrants’ daily lives. Haitian community leaders in Paris say they felt “invisible” to the government and hence they felt that their initiatives to support their community were weakened. In Quebec, the government passed a resolution favoring cooperation with secular community associations over faith-based ones, which led the most important association in the Haitian community to remove the word “Christian” from its title to avoid what its director called “misunderstandings.”

The models of church-state relations in the three countries could best be described as cooperation in the United States, conflict in Quebec, and invisibility in France. While both first- and second-generation Haitians in Miami, Montreal, and Paris face tremendous challenges to their successful assimilation, it is only in the United States that the Catholic Church’s efforts to support that assimilation—what I call institutional mediation—are likely to have a large impact because the state welcomes the church’s initiatives rather than ignores or hinders them.

Several decades ago, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus argued that religious institutions and community organizations mediate between individuals and the state by providing meaning, personal identity, and fulfillment. Similarly, faith-based institutions like those created by Haitian Catholic leaders in Miami, Montreal, and Paris, can be more effective at meeting the needs of the communities they serve than state agencies precisely because of their close connections to religious institutions, where so many immigrants turn for personal fulfillment and guidance on assimilating into their new home. The Haitian Catholic missions of Miami, Montreal, and Paris, and their affiliated social-service centers, work together to meet Haitians’ spiritual and social needs. Especially for hard-to-reach, vulnerable, and excluded populations like immigrants, prisoners or ex-prisoners, and the poor, government partnerships with faith-based and community organizations make sense.

Some claim that mediating institutions are necessary in the United States only because of a relatively weak welfare state. Indeed, one Quebec official told me that the church only helps immigrants in the United States because the state is absent. In Quebec, he explained, the provident state takes care of everyone so the church has no need to do social work. But my fieldwork showed me that the perfectly provident state is nonexistent. No matter how dense the social-safety net, some members of our societies—immigrants among them—will always need charity to meet their human wants and they will also need institutional mediators to stimulate debates about justice.

Haitian immigrants in Miami, Montreal, and Paris all struggled to find jobs, secure adequate housing, and support their children through school. In such situations, should we be surprised they simply turn to those who they trust the most—their religious leaders—for help? Too often, interactions with state agencies are one-way exchanges from the more powerful to the less powerful. Faith-based mediating institutions can often provide necessary charity that goes beyond both what an individual’s family can do to support him and also the services offered by the state. Perhaps more importantly, because these institutions are most often a central part of people’s daily lives, people who receive help are also asked to give something back to the community, even if all they can give is their volunteer time, a smile, or a prayer for someone else.

Debates about church-state relations cannot end with principles of “neutrality” or “secularism,” terms that too often mask an attempt by the state to largely the church’s social work (as in France) or to refuse to cooperate with faith-based service agencies (as in Quebec). As Raphaël Liogier argues in “Legitimate” Secularism: France and its State Religions, (published in French in 2006 as Une laïcité “légitime”: La France es ses réligions d’Etat) the French government in theory claims neutrality toward religion, but in practice state agencies use secularism as a straight jacket for freedom of thought and speech. Thus, French secularism essentially grants the government the authority to pick and choose which religions and which religious expressions of those religions are “legitimate,” a practice which leads to decisions that baffle many North Americans, such as the 2004 ban on women wearing the Muslim headscarf in many public places in France, including public schools.

Our conception of religious freedom should encompass the right of individuals and groups to practice their religion by founding associations with spiritual as well as social and educational purposes. The situation of the Haitian immigrants shows that such an approach is not only right on the grounds of principle, it carries with it real practical benefits.

For millions of immigrants past and present to the U.S., the principle of religious freedom has created a society in which being religious serves as a kind of currency, a valuable token that provides a kind of social identity. Religious associations abound and flourish in the U.S., thus helping newcomers integrate into the broader society from a position of strength. In contrast, not only for Muslim but also for devout Christian immigrants to France and Quebec, being religious forms a barrier to integrating into secular society. As we debate how best to integrate immigrants, we should focus not only on socio-economic mobility, but also on how immigrants create a sense of moral order in their new homes, for the two are inextricably linked.