Congregations and Kinship

Todné Thomas

By Charlie Feigenoff (Ph.D., English '83)
Todne Thomas

Todné Thomas
Photo by Tom Cogill

Kinship is a fundamental concept in anthropology, but during the last few decades anthropologists have begun to apply it more flexibly. Though frequently used to refer to a cluster of biological relationships, kinship is now more broadly applied to relationships that can emerge during shared activity in any community. It is this more inclusive definition that Todné Thomas, a graduate student in anthropology, will bring to bear in her study of West Indian immigrants in the Atlanta area.

Middle-class West Indians in Atlanta are joining Pentecostal fellowships, an interesting phenomenon because in their home countries such churches are associated with the working class. “My hypothesis is that they benefit in their new surroundings from the set of relationships that this form of religiosity encourages,” Thomas says. “My research will help me define what these benefits are.”

By choosing her topic carefully, Thomas has positioned herself to apply a fresh perspective to a number of intersecting issues. Until now, studies of West Indians have concentrated on ethnic identity politics. And most have looked at established immigrant communities in places like New York City. Thomas has chosen to study Atlanta, an emerging destination for West Indian immigrants over the last two decades. And she is focusing on class. “In Atlanta, you can see immigrant communities coalescing around institutions,” she says. “The process is still fluid.”

Thomas also believes that her work may have practical implications for religious institutions in America. As she sees it, church and family are not separate institutions, but overlap. “Churches can function as families,” she says. “Viewing their congregations as families might help religious institutions provide more satisfactory experiences for their members.”

Thomas plans to move to Atlanta for a year and focus her research on a single Pentecostal church. With the consent of the congregation and church leaders, she will attend family nights and Sunday school as well as worship services. She also hopes to be invited to informal gatherings of church members at their homes. At the same time, she will conduct several different types of interviews, including life histories devoted to an individual’s spiritual development.

Thomas is able to embark on this ambitious project thanks to funding she receives as a Jefferson Scholars Graduate Fellow. These fellowships were created in 2001 to bring exceptional graduate students to the University. As the Terrence Daniels Family Fellow in anthropology, Thomas receives a living stipend as well as tuition, fees, and health insurance. As important as this funding is, Thomas also finds that just being a Jefferson Fellow opens doors, making it easier to interact with faculty members with complementary research such as Professor Susan McKinnon, cultural anthropologist and chair of Thomas’ dissertation committee. “There’s a genuine interest on the part of the faculty in my work,” she comments. “They are committed to my doing well and producing accurate and relevant research.”