This is an excerpt of an article that first ran in Christianity Today in the October 2018 issue. We are grateful to CT and the author for permission to reprint it.
Our group was white, college-educated, and passionate about helping people find meaning in their careers. We looked at Josué “Mambo” De León, pastor of a bilingual working-class congregation called Westside Church Internacional, eager to hear his thoughts on a recent “faith and work” conference.
“For us, work isn’t about thriving,” Mambo said. “It’s about surviving.”
Between bites of salad, it slowly became clear who the man in a red baseball cap, World Cup T-shirt, and jeans really was: an emissary from another world.
“You start with the premise that you have a job and that you feel a lack of purpose,” he said. “But that doesn’t resonate with us. How are you supposed to find purpose and flourish when you don’t even have opportunities?”
On my way home from the office of the nonprofit I run, Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I stewed over Mambo’s comments. They reminded me of a similar conversation I’d had with Nicole Baker Fulgham, president of an educational reform group called The Expectations Project. Baker Fulgham, an African American working with low-income kids, asked me bluntly: “So when do we start talking about faith, work, and life for fast-food employees?”
In the past decade, the faith and work movement has exploded. Hundreds of new conferences, books, and organizations have sprung up from San Diego to Boston. But there’s a growing anxiety among Christian leaders that our national vocation conversation has a class problem.
A hundred years ago, partnerships between clergy and labor unions flourished. Yet as the forces of industrialization transformed the trades in the late 19th century, and vocational education and liberal arts schools parted ways, a new mantra for the college-educated took root: “Do what you love.” The late Steve Jobs, in a 2005 Stanford commencement speech, stated, “You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Work done out of necessity was devalued, and eventually conversations about Christianity and work applied the word vocation mostly to college kids contemplating work they would most enjoy.
Today, when American evangelical leaders talk about work, the working class—which is two-thirds of the American workforce—is largely absent. What are we missing?
Daily Meaning or Daily Humiliations?
Years ago, I started Denver Institute after reading Studs Terkel’s 1971 classic Working, an oral history of working-class Americans. Work, Terkel says, “is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Of course! I thought. This fit well with my graduate school angst (and growing boredom with my assignments). I liked the quote so much that I put it in my email signature.
But somewhere along the way, I forgot that Terkel also believed work was centrally about “violence—to the spirit as well as the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.”
This didn’t sound like the workplaces I was used to. But the tension between Terkel’s two statements has started to resonate with me. In the past five years, we in Denver have hosted thousands of doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other young professionals at our events. But there’s been a conspicuous absence of home care workers, retail sales clerks, landscapers, janitors, or cooks.
Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith—who once pulled 10-hour graveyard shifts on an air filter assembly line—observes, “The bias of the [faith and work] conversation toward professional, ‘creative,’ largely white-collar work means that many people who undertake manual or menial labor simply don’t see themselves as having a voice in this conversation.”
It may be time to do some soul-searching. Have we, by which I mean myself and presumably many of this magazine’s readers, seen the culture-shaping power of work but been blind to the “daily humiliations” of those whose work we depend on each day? Have we been interpreting Scripture through our own professional class bias and failed to ask how working-class Americans think and feel about their work?…
The Gospel and the Working Class
The good news is, the church (semper reformanda) is finding ways forward. Here’s what I’m learning from some of the best pastors, thinkers, and leaders serving America’s working class.
Emphasize the Fall with the powerful and Creation with the vulnerable.
“It’s very easy for folks who have a lot of power to gravitate to Genesis 1 and 2 and the affirmation of the goodness of work,” says Mullins, the Arizona pastor…“But sometimes the message they need to hear—those in more powerful positions—is that their work can be a means of idolatry, injury, and injustice if not stewarded well.” Businesses, even those owned by Christians, may be perpetuating the low-wage, high-stress bind the working class struggles to break free from.
Mullins adds, “On the same token, there are a lot of people in fields of work that are not esteemed by society that can tend to gravitate toward the Genesis 3 realities of work. They see work as toilsome, broken, and painful.” Mullins believes the working class needs “to hear the Genesis 1 and 2 realities of work—that work is good and that we’re cultivating God’s creation and reflecting God’s image when we work.”…
Notice the work—and start listening to the worker.
Kent Duncan is the lead pastor at Jefferson Assembly of God, a church of principally blue-collar workers. In an interview with CT, he shared about a concrete worker who said, “You [white-collar professionals] write a paper or something, but if I build a concrete wall, unless somebody knocks it over, it’s gonna be there in 100 years.”
Duncan believes noticing the work of laborers is a way to show his congregation how God’s image is expressed in their jobs. Working with your hands, too, can be Spirit-filled, as it was for Bezalel and Oholiab, the craftsmen who built the tabernacle (Ex. 31)…
Teach the gospel, but don’t overlook Spirit-filled ethics.
“I think we understate the importance of moral pressure,” says J. D. Vance, author of the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, “but it helped my dad, and certainly helped me.”
Vance’s father was one of the few stable influences in his life, and his Christian faith was a major influence. “If you believe as I do, you believe the Holy Spirit works in people in a mysterious way. I recognize that a lot of secular folks may look down on that, but I’d make one important point: that not drinking, treating people well, working hard, and so forth, requires a lot of willpower when you didn’t grow up in privilege.”…
Trade “do what you love” for “love Whom you do it for.”
Christianity says the prime motivation for work isn’t enjoyment but the love of God. Paul writes to slaves in the pagan marketplace, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23). At the heart of Christian faith is a message that suffering, when offered to God in love, is redemptive.
In an affluent American society, we often forget that a good portion of the New Testament was written to suffering believers (James, 1 Peter, and Revelation come to mind). The do-what-you-love ethic is unhelpful to such believers in the working class. But “love Whom you do it for” is different entirely.
Encourage church attendance—and more church potlucks.
Though church attendance for the college-educated has stayed about flat for the past 50 years, it has been falling since the 1970s for the working class. Sociologists say that church involvement is associated with a wide host of benefits for both children and adults. Kids who go to church have higher academic achievement and better relationships with parents and are more involved in extracurricular activities. Churchgoers commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, and make more money.
The relationships forged at the church potluck provide critical support for people in all walks of life, but especially for working-class Americans who may have less social capital than their professional peers. If you’re out of work, a used car from a church member might be a lifeline. If your parents are never home, a retired mentor from your church could be your ticket to navigating the college admission process.
Improve job quality.
“I worked a dead-end job,” remembers Eduardo Sanchez about his life as a deliveryman before becoming an electrician at Haynes Mechanical in Denver. “There was no room for advancement or opportunity to learn. I was doing it since I was 18. I spent 10 years with that job….Putting doors on my back and going up elevators was not what I imagined my life would be.”…
From the Aspen Institute to the Pinkerton Foundation, more thinkers, government entities, civic organizations, and business leaders are beginning to take seriously the call for businesses to raise the quality of low-wage jobs and provide ladders for workers to advance in their career.
Beginning to Listen
“If the faith and work movement is going to go anywhere, it must be holistic and inclusive enough to speak to all socioeconomic classes,” says Juan Peña, an engineer by training who now works with Denver’s urban poor. “The only way this is going to change is by deeply engaging the marginalized and listening to their perspective. I believe there is so much we need to learn from them.”
This is precisely what we in the faith and work movement haven’t done. We were so busy trying to shape culture by influencing urban elites that we forgot about the vast majority of workers. “The idea that those with more cultural power are the more valuable members of society is a big underlying presupposition,” says Geoff Hsu, executive director of Flourish San Diego, about the faith and work movement.
“But the upside-down nature of the kingdom is that it is good news because all of us, by grace, have access to it,” Hsu adds. “The kingdom of God frees the powerful from imprisonment to power and frees the less powerful from imprisonment to powerlessness.”
Though changing our perspective requires humility, I don’t believe this is a call to self-flagellation for college-educated Christians who work in the professions. We do a disservice to our working-class neighbors if we ignore our own cultural power.
“The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is not giving up power,” sociologist and Gordon College president Michael Lindsay told CT in a 2014 interview. “It is using power sacrificially.” The opportunity lies in professionals leveraging their influence for working-class Americans who are struggling.
But before we can start, I believe professionals must pause and listen to the other two-thirds of America.