This interview was conducted between Dr. Melissa Borja and Dylan Nelson.
Dylan Nelson For these interviews, we have one main underlying question: How does the work you’re undertaking at the Warren Center to relate to the year’s theme of religion and American public life? We are particularly interested in how fellows define “religion” and “public” and how that interaction relates to the questions that are most important to fellows.
Melissa Borja This is such a big question. What is religion is basically the question at the center of every religious studies conference. I joked in several events that we've had at the Warren Center Ah yes, someone in this conversation has asked, but what is religion anyway?, so we can check that off the bingo card. But it is, I think, a central part of what we do, which is calling attention to the fact that religion is such a critical part of public life in America. I'm going to say also, specifically politics, and how we work out questions of racism and ideas of ethnicity and national belonging, religion is part of all of that. And at the same time, religion as a category is very fluid; we're not even sure what religion is sometimes because boundaries and definitions are always contested.
In my scholarship, I began to study religion because I realized that in the particular field in which I was doing research people were not paying attention to religion enough. I did not train first and foremost as a scholar of religion. I'm trained entirely in history departments by people who specialize in political history and in particular immigration history. What I discovered in immigration histories and political histories was limited conversations with people who study American religion. So a lot of my work has been trying to bridge the disciplinary divides between these different fields: US history, immigration history, political history, and religious studies, specifically the subfield of American religion.
The origins of my project and the origins of my engagement in the topic of religion began almost two decades ago. When I was a sophomore in college, in the fall of 2001, 9/11 happened. That obviously was a big event for so many reasons. For my own intellectual development, it raised the question of “how do we incorporate and make safe a space for people who are religiously different and who are racialized on the basis of being religiously different?” It was very formed by the religious pluralism work that was taking place at the Pluralism Project led by Diana Eck. I also took a course on personal choice and global transformation in the religion program at Harvard the semester when 911 happened. It was really interesting to experience that event in the context of lots of conversations about religion, religious diversity, religious tension, religious hostility, and I think that was a critical part of how I began thinking about religion and its relationship to the public. I also became interested in the relationship between religion and social service provision or public policy because of the particular context of the early 2000s. This was a time when George W. Bush was a strong advocate of faith-based initiatives and using religious institutions to do public work, and there were lots of debates about religious freedom, the separation between church and state. I was consistently troubled by the fact that people were having these debates about religious freedom and the proper relationship between church and state without paying attention to how a close collaboration between church and state, as was advocated by many people who were in favor of funding faith-based initiatives, they were not considering how this impacts people who are religious minorities, and they were not considering the experiences of religious minorities in those arrangements. So I thought that even in the fall of my sophomore year at Harvard, refugee resettlement would be a useful place to study this question of how do religious institutions and government institutions work together? How do they share resources, to what purposes, and to what perils? And how are people actually affected by this? Critically, how are non-Christian people affected by this? It developed from there, it was a concern about what I think were real public policy debates at the time in the world around me, but also what I saw were missed opportunities by scholars studying immigration, religion, and public policy to be in conversation with one another.
Dylan Nelson This question emerges from a challenge I am facing in my own work. When you are looking at something like refugee resettlement and religion, there are a number of laws, government programs, and so on, things organized at higher levels and that you need the historiography to be able to keep track of. Then there are the actual religious experiences of people, things that are more intimate or everyday, and that often require different methodologies or sensibilities to give justice to. Do you see a similar distinction and how you approach bringing them together in your scholarship?
Melissa Borja I think you're doing exactly the right thing. I think the part where law, public policy, and human experience intersect is the most exciting thing, for me as a scholar to study, and I imagine that's what you're interested in studying too. I think you're completely right that the historiography tends to focus on one or the other. Immigration is a good example of how that has developed and how there have been good models of how to understand the intersection. For a long time, immigration scholars have been interested in the experiences of immigrants, their cultural journeys, their formation of ethnic communities. I think, for example, of Oscar Handlin’s work, The Uprooted, which is the classic immigrant history and published in the middle of the 20th century. That did a lot of work in saying, Hey, we need to pay attention to the experiences of people as immigrants. But I think we have seen also, in the past few decades, three, four decades, greater attention to the importance of immigration law, and immigration policy and how that has changed over time, how that has been shaped by ideas about race, by foreign relations, labor needs, all sorts of issues. What I find interesting and generative is to think about how these laws have a direct impact on the experiences of everyday people, and how everyday people in turn shape laws, and how everyday people find strategies around immigration restrictions, for example, and how that affects the family lives they create, the work lives they create, the religious institutions they create. I think there have been really good examples of that type of scholarship in immigration history. I am hopeful that I can do something similar in my work in refugee policy and the impact of refugee policy on the religious lives of migrants. I think other people have studied other aspects of refugee lives, issues of family and culture, but I don't think religion has been studied that much by people who study refugee policy, at least in terms of the religious experiences of refugees as they're shaped by the policy. So that is an intervention I'm trying to make. But I think broadly, I do want to see more studies of how public policy and how laws are relating to the choices people make on the ground. That is really exciting.
Dylan Nelson The way that I have been coming to understand this is probably a bit more theoretical, thinking especially about gender, but there are senses in which refugees are regarded as not belonging to any public, and religion is alleged to be absent from the public sphere. At the same time, the causes of forced migration and attempts to respond to its consequences are distinctly public, the refugee experience is spiritually demanding, and resettlement is understood as calling upon the nation’s moral and religious reserves. I’m wondering if you see these things similarly, how you negotiate them in your scholarship, and what I may be leaving out.
Melissa Borja I agree with everything that you said, and I would add the way religion operates in all the things we do related to refugees. I include how we aid refugees overseas, how we administer the resettlement in the United States, how we think about their belonging in the United States, how refugees survive in the United States, or other contexts, because of course, the United States is not the only place that accepts refugees. In all those areas, religion is part of the story. I think the key is to pay attention to how different religious experiences play out differently with different groups of people. So here the particularity that I'm interested in as a historian and not as, say, a sociologist who wants to create a model, but as a historian paying attention to the specific experiences and specific times and places is critical for us to have a full sense of scholars of all the different ways religion can operate. But I think the key to thinking about religion in America is to remember that it is part of the air we breathe, in the water we swim in, and even if it's not named as religion, it is there. There was a lot of discussion in the past few days about how religion was on display at the inauguration. I don't know if you had a chance to watch the inauguration, but it was so religious in so many ways. It was shocking to me how religious it was, especially since Democrats do not have the reputation of being the party of religion. It occurred to me that anyone who makes that claim is only caring about a particular type of religion.
And I think actually something is at work here with how we think about refugee migrations too. In some places, religion is very prominent. For example, I was just having a conversation the other day about the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. That is a Protestant denomination, I think usually described as evangelical but I would describe it more precisely as theologically conservative Protestant. They had a lot of missionary work in Southeast Asia, in particular Laos and Vietnam. They have had a lot of Christian people whom they had converted in those countries. When the war ended, or I should say, when Saigon fell in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in the United States felt a special obligation to help people who had become Christian through their missionary work, and people with whom they had a direct personal relationship with. Religion is functioning there as facilitating connection, facilitating a sense of duty, and operating in tandem with broader civil religion, a sense of obligation to help people who are fleeing Communism in search of a free America. That was the rhetoric that was used to justify the acceptance of refugees from Southeast Asia. And you can see it in Congressional debates, this emphasis on America's cityon-ahill status, obligation to help people who are seeking freedom. I think it's useful for us to be attentive to how religion can be very explicit, how types of religion can operate in different ways, and religion can be also implicit, as we see in these public debates about justifications for accepting refugees from Communist countries.
I would add that of particular interest to me is thinking about how ideas about refugee migration are understood by people who are not Christian. You mentioned in the note you sent ahead of time my work with the Princeton Religion and Forced Migration Initiative. One thing that is striking to me in that work is how forced migration is understood in the context of Jewish history and Jewish experiences, in Jewish beliefs, in Jewish rituals, and how it's understood by Muslims, and how it's understood by people who practice what I call the Hmong way (described as a combination of ancestral worship, animism, shamanism, and perhaps Buddhism). What I think is going to be a key part of the work we're going to continue to do at Princeton is paying attention to how different types of religious people engage in religion when they make sense of forced migration.
Dylan Nelson I’m so excited to talk about the Religion and Forced Migration Initiative, for which you are a senior advisor. How did that initiative come about and what are some of the main lessons you have learned from it? Can you describe the nature and goals of the Oral History Project of that initiative? Why is oral history such an important tool both for trying to understand the religious lives of refugees and more broadly?
Melissa Borja Some basic things you should know about the Princeton project: I see it as having two types of interventions, the scholarly interventions and the public policy or public interventions. I'll begin with the scholarly interventions, and then I'll shift to what is more important to my heart personally, which is the public policy or public interventions that we hope to make. In general, critical refugee studies doesn't do a great job of engaging in religion. I think, for example, of fantastic work like Yen Le Espiritu’s book Body Counts, the book Unsettled by Eric Tang, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work on refugees--fantastic work thinking carefully about how refugees and forced migration relate to ideas about race, national belonging, foreign policy, imperialism, colonialism, all these things. They don't talk about religion as much as I think they should or could. My book project attends to that need. This project also attends to the need that we discussed earlier, which is helping us understand how these big policies relate to lives as they are lived by people who are experiencing the impact of those policies. The context for the Religion and Forced Migration initiative, of course, is Trump's Muslim ban. This project began as we were trying to make sense of a new refugee resettlement landscape in 2017. That is an important context you should know. But in terms of scholarly interventions, we were interested in understanding how religion can be a source of resilience for refugees, how government institutions rely on religious institutions to do their work on the ground, and how all these things shape the religious experiences of people involved in one way or another with the system of refugee resettlement in the United States. We were trying to bring religion into conversations about refugee resettlement, we were also trying to understand experiences on the ground. We were also trying to, just in general, develop resources that help us understand and study and document experiences of diverse refugee communities. It's striking to me that the examples of critical refugee studies that I mentioned before were all focused on Southeast Asian refugees. Partly that's because that's the area in which I've read the most, but I do think that we need lots of research on refugee experiences that cut across racial, ethnic, and religious identities. One thing that is exciting about our project is that we interviewed people who are Cambodian, Bosnian, Somali, people coming from Central America. It was attentive to thinking about forced migration experiences and religious experiences of refugees across different communities.
So those are the scholarly contributions. The goal was to build an archive of oral history interviews and so far we've done about 150 interviews, we'll probably do more. What matters more to us, though, is the public policy interviews. This developed out of a collaboration between the Office of Religious Life at Princeton, scholars of refugee migration, scholars of religion, and religious organizations themselves. We were all deeply troubled by the disruptions to refugee resettlement during the Trump years, in addition to the refugee crisis that was unfolding all around us beginning in 2015 with the Syrian refugee crisis. There was a series of conferences trying to get religious communities to respond effectively to that problem. This project, I think, has been animated by this very deep impulse to try to make the United States more hospitable to refugees. One thing I find fascinating is how religious communities have been so central to welcoming refugees. At the same time, religious communities have been so central to the Christian nationalist impulse that advocates for building walls and ending refugee resettlement. We've been interested in trying to understand that, but also perhaps to make an intervention into those exclusionary impulses through religion. And we have been interested in, for example, trying to help evangelical Christians know that some of the refugees who are coming in are also evangelical Christian, and trying to help people see those connections. In fact, under the Trump administration, there have been more Christians resettled than there had been previously. Our hope is that by having these stories we might be able to not only make them available for other researchers, and most critically, the communities whose stories are documented in these oral histories, but also use these oral histories and create public programming so that we can help the public understand why refugees come to the United States what their experiences are, and perhaps, this is my hope, create a more welcoming climate, to be perfectly frank.
Dylan Nelson Can you also talk about how refugees and undergraduates were involved in the project, what they gained from the experience, and how university teaching can learn from projects such as this?
Melissa Borja Yeah, that has been maybe the most exciting part, that it's not just traditional researchers doing these oral history interviews--we are training students and members of refugee communities themselves. Also, members of religious communities that have been involved with refugee resettlement. We've been training them to do oral history interviews so that they can document the stories for future use and preservation. We were fortunate to get a very generous grant from the Luce Foundation for three years to help make this possible and what this has involved is us training--I don’t remember how many students exactly, several dozen, at least, students mostly at Princeton, but some possibly at other institutions. And what we do is, I, as their oral history advisor, do workshops. I teach them how to do it in a pretty quick workshop, we practice doing the interviews with each other. We have a really great person, Katherine Clifton, who oversees all the administration of this project and keeps it all running. What we do is teach them the principle of oral history, which is to facilitate the telling and preservation of another person's story. I think that's very empowering and I think that's the beautiful part about oral history, in comparison to other forms of interviewing. Typically interviewing is driven by the needs of the interview: the journalists, the researcher. Oral history is rooted in a very different commitment, which is: what we do is in service of the community whose stories we're facilitating, recording, and preserving. We are training the people who do the interviews, the students or the refugee communities, to think about this as an endeavor of helping people narrate their own story and create an archive so that their children's children may hear it. So that involves regular workshops. We're in the process of seeing what's next. We're still collecting oral history interviews but we're talking about doing all sorts of things. In addition to making sure they're in an archive and accessible to people in the future, we're talking about potentially making curriculum, writing about these interviews, and disseminating the knowledge we have helped create, or facilitated the creation and preservation of, disseminating that to broader audiences to, as I said earlier, help people understand refugees better, and help people understand refugees’ religious needs better.
Dylan Nelson Is there anything else we should know about the work you’re doing this year while at the Warren Center?
Melissa Borja Well, I've been working on my book project already and that has taken up some time. My book is out for review and I'm waiting for reader reports and things, so I have a little bit of extra time. One thing I'm doing right now is a bit different. In addition to the book project, I am doing a lot of work documenting anti-Asian hate during COVID. This has a religious dimension in that some of the things I've been studying and supporting have to do with how religious organizations are responding to xenophobia during COVID. One thing that has been wonderful about being at the Warren Center is just finding space as a thinker, as a researcher, and as a person who is deeply committed to connecting research with making the world better. The world has been very tumultuous in the past year, as we all know, and having this fellowship this year has given me the space to respond as a researcher to various public crises. This includes the continued assault on immigration and refugee policies--well, I think that has changed a little bit in the past few days--the ongoing problem of racism in America, and because I'm an Asian American studies professor, I pay attention to the experiences of Asian Americans who have been scapegoated for COVID. So I've been able to have space to research that. The flexibility to be able to use some of my brainpower, and time and resources, to think about those issues in addition to my book research has been really lovely.
Two small side projects in addition to all the things I've already described: Harvard just gave me a small grant on Friday to move forward with a project that maps where Hmong refugees were resettled when they were first resettled in the United States and looking at the refugee resettlement records of 4000 Hmong refugees, settled in St. Paul and Minneapolis. With a geographer, we've mapped where they were placed and found that they were initially placed in areas that had high levels of poverty. It was really difficult for people who were coming to the United States having experienced the trauma of war and forced migration, who had often very little education or money themselves, for them to be asked to be self-sufficient very quickly, in the context of neighborhoods that were already under-resourced. That was a very difficult thing to ask a refugee. So we're studying the spatial patterns of their resettlement and how that related to their experiences of poverty when they were in the United States. And another project that assesses the demographics among refugees when they were resettled in the United States, using some of the same data that I'm going to discuss in my paper on Wednesday.
Dylan Nelson What are some books that have been especially formative for you that you would recommend to undergraduate and graduate students?
Melissa Borja I am preparing to teach the first graduate seminar in American religion offered by the University of Michigan in the past seven years, I'm going to teach that this coming fall. I was just discussing with some other Warren Center fellows, actually, What are your favorite books that you teach graduate students? Here are my four favorites. I love Robert Orsi’s Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. Partly because, of course, I'm an immigration scholar. I lived for 10 years in New York City, close to a lot of the neighborhoods that he described. But what I found very generative is the careful attention to the religious lives of migrants. At one point, he talked about wanting to write a spiritual history of migration. That's very interesting to me, and very much shaped the work that I do. I think if you read my work, you can see his imprint on my scholarship very much. I would also recommend Tisa Wenger’s book, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. What I find so useful is how she identifies that some people have beliefs, practices, and identities that are not obviously religion and having a Protestant-centric definition of religion means that other people who have beliefs and practices that don't fit that template have to make the case that they are religion. In the American context, this means that Native Americans, or Hmong refugees, or other non-Protestant groups have to organize things so that it fits that template. I'm very interested in that idea and I owe that to Tisa Wenger’s work. A third book I would recommend is Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. This has a lot of overlap with what Tisa writes. What I like about this book is, as the title explains, religious freedom can be difficult to put into practice. She focuses on law, which I write about in the final chapter of my book, but I think she illuminates nicely how religious freedom is not a simple concept, in theory and certainly not in practice. A fourth book I would recommend is Duncan Williams American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, which is all about the experience of Japanese American Buddhists who were incarcerated during the Second World War. What that book does is it reminds us that Japanese Americans were not seen as foreign and other and dangerous simply because they were racially different, but also because they were religiously different, as well as how the experience of Japanese American Buddhists differed from Japanese American Christians. He also has a strong story about resilience and resolve and adaptability. What I find powerful about that book is both how people who are not Christian, Asian American people who are not Christian in particular, have been othered because of their religion, but how they find ways nonetheless, to endure, and to be flexible and to adapt, and therefore to survive.