Work and Witness: The Role of Faith Communities in Working-Class America

Rob is a twenty-six year old white male who lives in Massachusetts. After graduating from vocational high school, he hoped to build a career in manufacturing technology and carpentry. But as soon as he entered the labor market, Rob realized that his professional skills were obsolete. The school system switched to CNC [computer numerical controlled] machine programs the year after he graduated, which meant that his skills manufacturing tools by hand became “useless.” He found work stacking lumber, installing floors, landscaping, and pouring steel, but his only steady income since high school has been pay from the National Guard, and he has already served two eighteen-month tours in Afghanistan. Of his situation, Rob says, “I am looking for a new place [to stay]. I don’t have a job. My car is broken. It’s like, what exactly can you do when your car is broken and you have no job, no real source of income, and you are making $400 or $500 a month in [military drills].”

Rob’s story comes straight from the pages of Jennifer Silva’s new book: Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (Oxford: 2013). For men and women throughout the country, a fragile labor market sets low expectations for consistent work, which leads to distrust of broader social institutions, such as higher education, that offer promises of financial security. This instability confounds romantic and familial relationships and produces a profound sense of isolation. As Silva says, “Experiences of powerlessness, confusion, and betrayal within the labor market, institutions such as education and the government, and the family teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril. They are learning the hard way that being an adult means trusting no one but yourself.”

In other words, “growing up” in working-class America is difficult. And not only that, it places intense pressure on the individual to construct a narrative of perseverance, independence, and “willful self-change.” Commitment of any form – relational, professional, financial, etc. – is a risk that working adults cannot afford to take. “Young adults learn early on that commitment, rather than a hedge against external risks of the market, is simply one demand too many on top of the already excessive demands of the post-industrial labor force.” Better to go-it alone than to let external attachments drag you down.

What are the roles of religious communities in this unstable landscape of contemporary adulthood?  I suspect that our first reaction is to say, “You need commitment? We are a people of commitment! You need community? We have community!” And perhaps that is the right way to respond. Communities of faith across the country provide a range of helpful resources: religious narratives that can provide purpose and identity, belief-systems that promote the dignity and self-worth of the individual, financial resources, emotional and psychological support services, and communities of belonging. But I wonder if, instead of assuming we are the answer to the question, we need to spend a moment considering our complicity in the way things are. This is nowhere truer than with my community of faith, the church.

If there is widespread distrust of social institutions, this is a call for the church to consider its own trustworthiness. Do we change our service programs with every new season, or do we provide a consistent presence in the local community? Do we maintain neat divisions between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor, or do we honor the dignity and self-worth of all church members and community neighbors, regardless of their race, class, or social networks? Do we welcome into the church those confronting powerlessness, financial instability, job-loss, or relationship struggles? These are serious questions, and they call for the church to consider, prayerfully, its complicity in the instability of contemporary life. In a world of betrayal, are we a community worth trusting?

After describing the challenges of adulthood for Rob, Silva says, “In the end, he realizes that he is alone in his quest for redemption, with no one to validate the worthiness of his life but himself. Rob, like many working-class youth, is trapped … longing for a witness in a world in which he has only himself to rely on.” “Witness” is a powerful word, and it has specific resonance for Christians. When the church fails to address the difficulties of working-class life, it is because we turn our heads and look the other way. We refuse, at the most basic level, to witness the reality of lives like Rob’s. And the church, like so many other institutions, is coming up short.

For those trapped in the loneliness of contemporary working-class adulthood, there is a persistent absence of recognition. What are your communities doing to recognize those affected by the “powerlessness, confusion, and betrayal” of the labor market? What are you doing to establish confidence in your institutions? How are you ensuring that your faith communities are worthy of trust in a distrustful world?

The above photo is used courtesy of CMLibraryInAction via Flickr Creative Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Work and Witness: The Role of Faith Communities in Working-Class America

  1. This is a great question, Adam. Coming from the Jewish tradition and a long history of labor organizing, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as a religious community can speak to the struggles of the working-class. I think, and I’d like to see a lot more of, Jewish clergy and communities affirming our body of literature known as ‘Mishpat Ivri,’ which is the part of halakha (Jewish Law) that treats civil and criminal legal cases. Among the statues of Mishpat Ivri, protections for workers and precedents for effective labor organizing are discussed in a religious, deeply Jewish framework. I really think that a wider dissemination and emphasis on how religious law (halakha, sharia, Canon) legislates labor could add a lot to the conversation, and help serve people like ‘Rob’ better.

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