End of stay for Sam Victor, BMO Postdoctoral Fellow 2022-2023

Published: 5 February 2024

Portait de Louis-Robert Beaulieu-GuaySam Victor was CIRM's BMO Postdoctoral Fellow for 2022-2023. As he continues his project with a postdoctoral fellowship from the FRQSC, CIRM caught up with him to take stock of this rich learning experience.

Sam Victor is passionate about studying the ethical, moral and political dimensions of intercultural encounters. His research focuses on the reflexive and deliberative aspects of social relations, especially the evaluative processes by which people determine what is important in life, and the persuasive strategies they develop to communicate these to others.

Please note that this article is a translation of an interview conducted in French.


Can you tell us about the original project that won you the BMO Postdoctoral Fellowship?

The project I originally developed with Hillary Kaell revolves around St. Jax’s Church, which is located very close to Concordia University (it’s a name that was created by the parish to be more modern and youthful, because before it was “St. James the Apostle”). We were interested in the efforts of this particular church, especially the efforts of the parish leadership, who wish to reimagine the church space (the church in the sense of the building itself). How can the building be used? What is the role of church buildings in a secular society? In the case of St Jax, it’s no longer just a church; it hosts several organizations (only NPOs, by the way, there are also three other Christian congregations that meet there) and also cultural events in an attempt to be more connected to the community. That's what they say about their place in the neighborhood.

At first, I was interested in how their discourse reflects broader trends in general, especially those of evangelicals (a current of Christianity that is a worldwide and very diverse movement). But in general, evangelicals are very dedicated to evangelizing, i.e. to have an influence on society. But some groups, especially in North American urban contexts, are changing their strategy; they no longer want to proselytize, they no longer want to impose themselves on others, they want to try to forge links with society around the church and try to reimagine the church's place. It is different from what you would think of when you think of "proselytizing" or "missionaries", for example.

So I wanted to see how they wanted to be part of the community, how they wanted to respond to the needs of the community, how they rethought the way their church functioned. It's very interesting to see how they play with the discourses, or rather how their own imaginary of what it means to be religious in a less and less religious world is embodied. But there are other issues that have emerged from this.


What are these other issues?

In anthropology, we ask questions first, and then often let our field inspire us! We are very attentive to our interlocutors, we always want to focus on their interests, we want to know what the world looks like in their eyes.

So the issue of the economics of religious heritage emerged. The church itself, St Jax, is in a heritage building. This comes with economic privileges, such as owning property in such a valuable location and having certain activities being tax-exempt. They take advantage of this, but at the same time they know it is a bit tricky. The fact that we are in a secular society, combined with the history of the Catholic Church in Québec, questions of colonialism and abuse... They are trying to take it seriously, to show that they are worthy of the privilege of not having to pay taxes, while at the same time occupying a "sacred" space, functioning as a church. The solution the current parish leadership proposes is for the church to become a “community hub”, to accommodate different NPOs that aren't necessarily Christian, and don't necessarily exist to advance Christianity as a religion as one might imagine evangelism typically taking place. They want to reflect the surrounding neighborhood.

There are economic issues that come with this; there's always this dialogue between the church institution and the public about the issue of trust that can be placed in it, and about the issue of managing the church's wealth. The church (the building itself) is still a private property that receives various government subsidies to maintain it, or to hold certain activities. There is this constant negotiation between the fact that it remains private property belonging to a religious institution, and the fact that it imagines itself as a public asset. Analyzing the more practical strategies deployed in the field to achieve this became the focus of my research.


Can you tell me about one of these strategies?

St Jax church is probably best known for the circus that rehearses and performs there. The company is called Le Monastère. Their shows are more of a cabaret type, more artisanal. They rehearse and perform in the church a few days a week, but there are still church services on Sundays. Le Monastère isn't religious at all, in fact it's a bit sacrilegious! Also, the company is very much in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, which contradicts what we think of a church in general, especially one that tends to be associated with a more conservative movement. So this is an example of how the church positions itself in the modern Québec public, morally, politically and culturally, but also economically, because Le Monastère is the main tenant of the building and attracts a lot of support from the public. So that's an example of how St Jax tries to forge links with different sectors of society.

Otherwise, there's an NPO serving refugees, called Action-Réfugiés. There's a language school that helps new arrivals learn French. There's also a food bank, so there are plenty of other organizations whose mission is not explicitly religious.


What challenges did you encounter during your postdoctoral internship at CIRM?

There is a lot going on in the St Jax church, so it was hard to keep track of every vein. Since there are so many organizations, it is hard to do an in-depth study of each one!

Also, we can study discourses, how St Jax staff talk about their role in society, how they evaluate different cultural narratives about secularism and how they position themselves within them. That's more straightforward, but it is hard to get the views of the public, the people who attend events at St Jax church and community center. We have done interviews with other organizations in the building and we have attended circus shows, where we have talked to spectators, but it is still hard to know what the other side is, especially as the audience is huge and very diverse.


Why is it important to study churches as buildings?

There are so many churches in Montréal! They are part of the urban landscape, but also of culture, politics, history and the public imagination. The whole grand narrative of secularization and laïcité in Quebec leaves traces, very obvious material traces, especially in Montréal. So it becomes a question of society, what we do with these material traces. There have been major public debates in Québec for decades.

In discourse, it is difficult to navigate because, at the same time, we have an increasingly secular society, but this same society wants to keep this material religious heritage for cultural reasons. So the question of whether it is religious or cultural is at the heart of current Québec discourse.

It also involves questions of identity. Especially because the material traces are almost exclusively Christian churches, but today in Montréal there are many people who are not Christian. Like Muslims or people of other religions, they are not necessarily integrated into Québec's history. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves how we can include in this heritage things other than just the history of Christianity. It's a big question, and I don't have the answers, but studying churches puts the focus on that, and that's really important!


How has working with a religious community influenced you?

It's a continuation of what I did in my doctorate, where I studied an evangelical Christian community. And it's funny because I'm also wondering why I'm so interested in evangelical religious communities! In the evangelical imagination, they always want to be a little outside mainstream society, and so they have an interesting perspective on that society, which is often controversial. But even beyond political polemics, it's interesting to see people with a certain imaginary who want to be part of and influence a society, while at the same time remaining somewhat outside it.

And also, the evangelical movement, in general worldwide, is on the rise. I think it's a bit of a challenge to the idea that society - the world itself - is becoming less and less religious. It seems to be the case, especially in certain societies, like here for example. But at the same time, there's immigration, there's the fact that we are a society open to other people who are often religious. We have to take stock of this reality: Québec society - but also many other societies, especially in the West - are societies that are changing in religious terms, even if we think they are becoming less and less religious. I don't think they are really becoming less and less religious, but they are changing in terms of how people experience religion. What's certain is that evangelicals are just one case, at the center of these discourses, and that makes it possible to study all sorts of political, cultural and other issues.


Will you continue to work in Montréal?

Yes, I hope so! The post-doctorate I started here at CIRM is continuing because I've received a post-doctoral fellowship from the FRQSC!

What great news, congrats!


How would you describe Montréal to someone who doesn’t know the city?

A hidden gem

What’s a perfect day in Montréal?

A bike ride along the river, with a picnic with some charcuterie

3 symbols of Montréal?

The universities, Orange Julep, alleyway balconies.

Favorite neighborhood?

Verdun, always!

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