Lois Ann Lorentzen, Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III, Kevin M. Chun, and Hien Duc Do, eds. Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana:

Lois Ann Lorentzen, Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III, Kevin M. Chun, and Hien Duc Do, eds. Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana: Politics, Identity, and Faith in New Migrant Communities, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009. Pages vii-372. $26.95. Paper. ISBN 978-0-8223-4547-3. 

Reporting the findings of a four-year ethnographic study conducted by the Religion and Immigration Project (RIP) at the University of San Francisco, the anthology explores the complex ways religion supports and resists assimilation into United States civic life. Investigating five ethnic populations—Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Salvadoran immigrants, it builds on scholarship that documents the multiple identities, complex negotiations, and diversity across geographic terrains. Moreover, it demonstrates that although identities and faiths are mobile, people’s decisions are structurally contingent, shaped by history, race, gender, sexuality, and migration—among others. However, they can also act upon their conditions, making for complicated expressions of religion and the self. The book directly dialogs with Manuel Vásquez and Marie Marquardt (Globalizing the Sacred: Religion Across the Americas, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003) who examine the role of religion in the interplay of dispersal and resettlement.

The book advances how scholars of religion conduct research. First, RIP is collaborative, comparative, and interdisciplinary. Second, it rejects the congregational model as the research site. Embracing the lived reality of new migrant communities, the contributors followed people “to places such as tattoo removal clinics, brothels, single-room occupancy hotels, and the streets of San Francisco, El Salvador, Vietnam, Taiwan, China and Mexico” (x). Moving beyond the congregational model and conducting multisite research, they find a vibrant religiosity in multiple locations outside of temples and churches. Many of these locations are transnational, which is the third methodological contribution, and it requires comparative analysis across time and space. Chapter 5 serves as an excellent summary of the anthology’s use of transnationalism as a conceptual framework for understanding relocalization. The Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese American Buddhists of Chua Viet Nam, a temple in San Jose, California, make the annual pilgrimage to The Land of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a journey that is organized by different temples, sects, and ethnic groups in Northern and Central California. “This kind of pan-Buddhist organizing and interaction is different from Buddhist activities in the home culture of Vietnam, but clearly it is not part of a kind of assimilation to white American culture.” (Do and Khúc 137). The book suggests a revision immigrant settlement and implies a third-space subjectivity that does not depend on the country of origin.

Finally, the goal of the project is to inform public policy and promote social justice. This model of engaged scholarship cannot be overlooked. As community advocates, the researchers sponsored workshops on employment, health, and education as well as shared findings with the religious communities that they studied. They also helped to produce a parade for immigrant pride, a conference, and a theatre troupe. The social justice imperative of ethnic studies and other fields that emerged out of the civil rights movements was beautifully articulated by the contributors and should serve as a model for other scholars.

The four parts of the book reinforce the comparative analysis across ethnic populations: Gender and Sexualities (chapters 1-3), Acculturation (chapters 4-5), Transnationalism (chapters 6-10), and Civic and Political Engagement (chapters 11-12) While the chapters certainly cluster into these topics, the several chapters address transnationalism (i.e. chapters 1, 3, and 5) and civic and political engagement (1, 2, and 4) as well as acculturation (3 and 8). This complexity speaks to the richness of the research. Each section challenges, if not shatters, views about new immigrants and their religious sites. For example, the Pentecostal pastor and congregants of Buen Samaritano critique American consumerism, greed, and imperialism during service and programs and explicitly challenge the double standard that privilege men. Although a concluding chapter would have helped to reinforce this interwoven argument, the contributors individually demonstrate that commonly held presumptions about ethnic minorities and immigrants are dangerously inaccurate. Skeptics should turn to the section on political engagement. It documents how Filipino religiosity transformed abandoned urban centers vacated by European Americans into vibrant spiritual and political communities, thereby consolidating space between religious and secular spheres. Similar to arguments presented throughout the book, the section confronts the argument that non-European migrants are destroying Americans social fabric.

Scholars of Latino theology will be particularly interested in three groundbreaking contributions: Chapter 1 “Devotional Crossings” examines how Mexican transgender sex workers cross craft a mobile spirituality, such as La Santisima Muerte, that allows them to reevaluate Catholicism and resist marginalization. Chapter 8 “Ahora La Luz” is structural analysis of state violence and its role in Salvadoran youth gangs. The co-authors document how a Pentecostal tattoo removal program uses indirect spiritual reflection to encourage the youth to life outside of violence. Through community service, gang youth find new understandings for loyalty, devotion, and caring. Chapter 10 “The Latino ‘Springtime’ of the Catholic Church” examines two organizations that decentralize church authority through horizontal leadership and enliven the spirituality of the congregants.

The only problem scholars might have with the book is the anonymous photographic portraits that appear throughout the monograph. After such careful attention to the politics of research and the vulnerabilities of the ethnic communities they studied, I was dismayed that the contributors would use a problematic mode of representation. I can only guess that since their work embraces the fundamentals of decolonial research that the Press made the poor choice to use people of color as mere decoration—unnamed, unannounced, and like objects.

Nevertheless, the book is a valuable contribution that bridges many fields, and although not cited, provides ethnographic and historical evidence for Gloria Anzaldúa’s theory of the borderlands. The anthology strengthens a notable trend in religious studies that investigates contributions of faith and spirituality in the transnational social spaces of migrants, their consequent flexible and complex identities, as well as the challenges to nationalist and assimilationist ideologies.


Loyola Marymount University                                                  Karen Mary Davalos, Ph.D.