Religious unpaid labor in an American ethnic-Chinese church as moral community

Religious Unpaid Labor in an American Ethnic-Chinese Church as Moral Community: A Durkheimian Reply to Religious Economy

Ke-hsien Huang


This small project is to analyze a case of an ethnic Chinese church in America, illustrating how church work is engaged by its members. By looking into the ethnographic detail in assigning and performing ordinary tasks in a church, the project tends to illustrate religious life is more than a zero-sum game of involved parties carefully calculating their own cost and benefit; it is also about the embodiment of belonging to a moral community in which members participate voluntarily and feel obligated to contribute without making individual marks.

I will appeal to the idea of what Durkheim described of how individuals act in a moral community to highlight how church work is conducted. Three aspects of this religious labor will be examined: (1) how to recruiting workers with or without requiring their willful consent first (2) how workers narrate about their work performance, and (3) how members fear to be a stander-by who just watch others work without providing any help. In addition, I also attempt to see whether doing church work could be utilized by individuals as a legitimate way to escape the surveillance from religious authority, which may serve as a vivid example showing that actors in a moral community still have their agency exercised.