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 great divide
“Because hard work was such a high value for our family, it was also demoralizing,” says pastor Jim Mullins of Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona. “One of the most difficult aspects of growing up was not the lack of money but the shame that would come with not having opportunities. That shame would boil into anger. I think a lot of the drug use and alcohol [use] that we experienced was a sort of numbing of the shame.”
Mullins’s story echoes the stories of millions of working-class Americans who have seen life deteriorate over the past 50 years in nearly every economic and social category. (I use the term “working-class” to mean those without a four-year college degree.)
The growing body of research is astounding.
Since 1970, though professional wages have increased dramatically, the inflation-adjusted wages of high-school educated men have fallen precipitously. Today, about 10 million working-age men are unemployed or have dropped out of the labor force altogether.
And it’s not just men. Take, for example, the jobs of direct care workers—home health aides, nursing assistants, personal care workers—typically filled by low-income women of color. One study found that even though demand for direct care workers increased from 2,512,940 in 2004 to 3,483,820 in 2014, real wages dropped in that same time period, from $11.82 per hour to $10.85.
In today’s “gig” economy, where freelancers make up as much as one-third of the US workforce, many low-income families struggle to stay afloat financially as they navigate constantly changing social ties and jobs that are mostly low-wage, part-time, and without benefits.
All of which has taken a toll on the health and families of white working-class Americans, in particular. Since 1999, drug and alcohol poisonings have skyrocketed 323 percent. For the majority of children in working-class households, that home is now a single-parent home. And those children face a widening education gap between them and children raised in professional homes. Nobel Prize–winning economist Angus Deaton and his wife, fellow Princeton professor Anne Case, have found you’re more than twice as likely to kill yourself if you only have a high-school degree rather than a college degree.
From Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 to 2010 to Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, sociologists and commentators have been ringing an alarm bell. The 2016 presidential election woke up much of the nation to the political consequences of this reality. But are we paying attention to the vocational consequences?
Several months ago, my colleague Brian Gray preached on the topic of calling at a megachurch in Texas. After the sermon, the senior pastor took him to lunch with a local businessman who owned a chain of fast-food chicken restaurants. “I just can’t get them to engage with this faith and work stuff,” the restaurant owner confessed, flummoxed at his employees’ lack of interest in the topic.
“How much do you pay your entry-level employees?” Gray said.
“$9.50 an hour. Why do you ask?” the restaurateur responded and went back to eating his chicken sandwich.
Seeing through working-class eyes
A friend shared with me a story about Doug Muder, a Unitarian Universalist journalist, and his working-class father. Muder’s father worked in a factory that made cattle feed. It was a good job in that it paid enough to support a family. But it was also a bad job in that he came home every night stinking of fish oil. The noise of the factory eventually ruined his hearing. And he—like every other worker in the factory—worked the day shift one week and the night shift the next, rotating every week until he retired.
Muder’s church focused on the very poor: the homeless, panhandlers, and mission projects overseas. But he says they understood very little about working-class people like his father.
“Imagine society as a giant maze,” Muder says, “with success as a prize at the end. Some people are born right by the exit. Others start in more difficult places. They can’t just wander out. They have to make all the right moves.”
Now, imagine that you’re overlooking the maze, Muder says, and you have compassion for those still inside. You ask questions like “Couldn’t we knock out a few walls? Raise the minimum wage? Why can’t college be free?” From a God’s-eye view, those are great questions—but they’re of no help to those deep inside the maze.
“That’s working-class life in a nutshell,” Muder says. “You’re not following your bliss. You’re not pursuing your calling. You’re selling time for money. The way out of the maze, and the way to get your kids out of the maze, is to get up every day and do something you’d rather not do.”
Many college-educated young adults, writes David Brooks in The Road to Character, see work as the arena to maximize financial and psychological benefit while minimizing discomfort: flip flops, flexible schedules, social enterprise startups launched from your laptop.
The working class, however, sees work as a constant struggle for survival. Job insecurity, dropping wages, and balancing childcare put unrelieved stress on working-class families, making them feel at a constant disadvantage. “God doesn’t close one door,” writes author Alfred Lubrano in his book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, “without slamming your fingers in another.”
Yet many in the working class take deep pride in their work. Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, points out the dignity manual laborers often feel after a day’s work: “He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”
This pride, however, is often tempered with the knowledge that society doesn’t esteem their work. Joan Williams, author of The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, writes that at a high-school reunion, her husband asked a former classmate a common ice-breaker question for professionals: “What do you do?” The classmate’s face got red and he hissed, “I sell toilets.”
Dogged attempts to defend one’s dignity in the face of “daily humiliations” is the burden of the working class.
In professional communities, workaholism and busyness are signs of success. They signal initiative and entrepreneurial flair. Members of this class tend to derive worth from their work. But the working class prizes traditional values, family loyalty, and community. If you sell toilets, it’s safer to hang out with people who won’t judge you for your dirty job. Dependability and stability are a buffer against economic insecurity—and the growing dignity deficit dividing America.
As I think about my own career, I realize that I’ve slowly become segregated from the working class. Though I was raised by a single mother who taught public school, I made it through college, got a master’s degree, and eventually landed my first (low-paying) job. But because of my education and social networks, I took a risk. I started an organization. I met influential people who connected me to more influential people. I had kids who did sports with other kids like them. And soon I didn’t have a single genuine working-class friend. Their world was foreign to me.
I don’t know if my story is unique. But my growing concern is that the faith and work movement has become an echo chamber—for people just like me.
The gospel and the working class
So what are we missing? Why don’t conversations about work and culture among Christians reach the other two-thirds of America?
I can think of a few reasons. To start, blue-collar workers face different and more urgent demands on their time and priorities than professionals do. If you’re juggling a family and working one—or two—full-time jobs, and you don’t have the flexibility to leave work for a 10 a.m. women’s Bible study or a Thursday gathering of Christian business leaders, you probably also don’t have much time to leaf through the latest book on God and calling. You’re more likely focused on finding a ride to work. Of course, members of the creative class also know what it’s like to be busy, but their busyness looks quite different and far less often involves stakes like, “Will my children have a Christmas present this year?” Many conversations about calling and work among professionals assume a certain amount of choice and agency that are foreign to most working-class men and women.
There are questions of identity and prestige involved, as well. If you weren’t inclined to find your identity in your work, would you feel the need for a church conference about it? If, like the man who sold toilets, you felt people looked down on your job, would you volunteer to come to a gathering to talk about it? And many blue-collar workers, seeing how few people like them achieve any kind of prominence, feel that no one wants to listen to them talk about their work at all. (Remember, it was Steve Jobs giving that Stanford commencement speech, not a factory worker.)
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. “In some ways that can become a proof text to what they already believed about their work.
“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.”
Mullins, who has pastored both professionals and the working class, says, “The temptation is to emphasize Genesis 1 and 2 with the powerful, and Genesis 3 with the vulnerable. But you really see deep transformation when you switch that emphasis.”
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).
It can also be a sacrament, a means of God’s grace expressed through creation. “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation,” writes Wendell Berry. “When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament.”
Yet truly noticing the work requires listening to the worker, a job for both the pastors and professionals who have often become disconnected from the working class.
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.”
Vance, Muder, and my friend Mambo agree: A theology that stresses right and wrong, good and evil, heaven and hell may seem restricting or even moralistic to “gospel-centered” preachers, but it’s exactly what the working class most benefits from. The church is a place of grace but also a place of positive moral pressure empowered by the Holy Spirit—and a place that reminds Christians of the real, weighty consequences of their decisions. “That feeling—whether it’s real or entirely fake—that there’s something divine helping you and directing your mind and body is extraordinarily powerful,” Vance says.
Trade “do what you love” for “love Whom you do it for.”
Gallup reports that nearly 70 percent of Americans are just punching in and punching out of their jobs, or dislike their work so much they’re actually working against their company’s mission. Let’s admit it: Much work in blue-collar America isn’t done out of love for the job.
But 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.”
In today’s labor market, there are millions of job openings at retail stores, call centers, hotels, and daycare centers, “but most of them are lousy and have been for decades,” saysZeynep Ton, MIT business professor and author of The Good Jobs Strategy. “They offer low pay, few benefits, and no career paths.”
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.
In my work at Denver Institute, I’ve seen business owners start to “get” the integration of faith and work when they see their employees through a new “love-your-neighbor” lens. James Ruder, the CEO of L&R Pallet in Denver, has hired more than 80 refugees from Burma and provided on-the-job support ranging from translation to housing assistance. Pete Ochs started Seat King, a company that manufactures car seats, inside a medium-security prison and provides the inmates with both fair wages and “life lessons.” Karla Nugent, the chief business development officer of Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, started a new apprentice program for people with barriers to employment in their past.
A handful of brave business owners are exploring business models that benefit frontline employees as much as investors, recognizing that God cares about all aspects of their business—including their workers.
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.