Notes on Fieldwork in the Greater Lafayette Area
From July 17 to August 16, about twenty scholars from China attended the “2011 Research Training Workshop of the Chinese Spirituality and Society Program” held by the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. In addition to lectures on special topics and class discussion, the workshop arranged a series of religious fieldwork observations, which greatly enriched our personal experience of American religion.
The fieldwork observations included four Sunday worship services at Christian churches, one Muslim jumu’ah, three visits to Christian charity organizations, one Christian baptism, two volunteer practices, and one visit each to a Catholic church and a Methodist Church.
In chronological order of our visits, the five Christian churches were the Upper Room Christian Fellowship, Covenant Church, Faith Baptist Church, White Horse Christian Center, and Greater Lafayette Chinese Alliance Church. Some participants visited St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Center at Purdue (on campus) during lunch break. These churches, as they belong to various denominations and religious traditions, each has its own characteristics. The Upper Room is an independent church with a slight charismatic bent. On the day of our visit, many murmured and quietly wept, while about half of the congregation waved and clapped to the music during the service. The style of the worship of Covenant Church is more formal and solemn, accompanied by an organ, a well trained choir, and a music band of professional level. Faith Baptist Church is a large church. They have three Sunday worship services with a congregation of 1,800 in total. The last Sunday of our visit, we went to a worship service at White Horse Christian Center, a lively charismatic church. This was my first experience of this type of worship, which made an exceedingly deep impression on me. There were about 500 people in the congregation, mostly middle aged and elderly. The makes of the cars in the church parking lot indicate that their owners belong to the middle or lower-middle class of society. During the service, some cried out in loud voices, many were filled with the Holy Spirit while they prayed, some wept, some sobbed, some shouted, some stayed quiet, and some fell on the ground.
The workshop also arranged for us to visit a mosque. We attended a jumu’ah at the Greater Lafayette Islamic Center, which is also the site of the Islamic Society of Greater Lafayette. During the service, males and females sat in different rooms. The major hall of worship was divided into two sections by a glass wall. Visitors could find seats behind the glass wall. On the other side of the glass wall, believers worshiped on their knees on the carpet. After that, an imam preached for about an hour. In my observation, about 70% of the participants were Middle East immigrants, while the others were Caucasians, Africans, Chinese, and other Asian descendants. The Chinese who told us about this service belonged to the Han ethnic group, but had converted to Islam. This visit gave me an opportunity to experience American Islam in person.
We visited three faith-based social service organizations. The first one, located in downtown Lafayette on the other side of the (Wabash) River from Purdue University, was the Lafayette Urban Ministry. LUM is a cross denominational charity supported by several religious charity groups which focus their mission on serving children, low income families, and the homeless. Last year, 42 churches out of their 48 members ran the organization on a budget of activities costing more than $600,000. LUM has a food pantry that provides free food including canned food, bread, and some fresh vegetables. Last year 7,600 families received free food from this food pantry. The food is distributed according to the size of the family. Currently, there are 50-75 families who come to get food every day.
The other programs of LUM are housed in a two-story building. The after school program is located on the first floor and the homeless shelter on the second floor. The goal of the after school program is to shorten the gap in education between the children of low income families and those of high income. Their daily work constitutes three tutors working with 40 children for two hours after school by helping the children with their homework. During the summer, they offer free tutoring for these children called “The Fifth Season.” The homeless shelter on the second floor is among the most important parts of this organization. The Greater Lafayette area has a standing population of about 400-500 homeless people, some of whom have mental illness or drug addiction. This shelter has about 40 beds and offers two free meals for the homeless. In the evening of the visit, some of my fellow workshop participants and I worked for an hour as volunteers at this shelter.
We also visited two organizations established by religious groups: Trinity Mission and Faith Ministries Campus. The major service of Trinity Mission is to help drug addicts overcome their addictions with the help of the Bible. Faith Ministries Campus is a multifunctional community center, which includes a counseling program and women’s ministry. Clearly, religious charity and civic activities are major components of American religions.
This intense schedule demonstrated the high proficiency of the workshop organizers and deepened the Chinese scholars’ understanding of American religions.