Discussions about faith-work integration are on the rise, with an ever-increasing number of related books, sermons, and blog posts (ahem) appearing with every passing day.
Just a cursory glance around the faith and work landscape, and you’ll find a bunch of middle class white men (with the occasional woman or Asian). So what’s going on here? Does integrating your faith and work only matter for white professionals and not African-Americans or Latinos? (For the sake of this post, you’ll have to excuse some generalizations.)
After offering a brief history of 20th-century American prosperity and the widespread self-actualization that followed, Haanen offers his hypothesis:
Twentieth century America did not bless all ethnic groups evenly with wealth and comfort. African Americans lived under the thumb of institutionalized racism even years after the civil rights movement, and struggled for years to acquire the kind of jobs, and thus material comfort, that their white counterparts did. Today, it’s mostly Latinos who occupy the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder; they make even less than blacks per capita across age groups.
All that to say this: while white guys were wondering about their purpose in life, blacks and Latinos were just trying to survive. When I was a pastor of a Latino congregation, it wasn’t terribly surprising that questions of existential despair or vocational fit never arose. Dignity and providing for the family trumped “fulfilling the cultural mandate.” Getting a job and paying rent was a bit higher on the hierarchy of needs.
Haanen’s point about disparate shifts in the makeup and distribution of work is an important one. The minimum-wage McDonald’s worker will likely face a host of spiritual challenges distinct from those faced by the white-collar executive. Likewise, the differences in time and comfort outside of that work will play no small part in defining that struggle. As Haanen also indicates, “intangible” factors like racism are bound to transform these struggles further, even among workers in the same job type and industry.
But having recognized all of this, it’s also important to recognize that just because a worker hasn’t the time, resources, or energy for armchair theologizing on “vocational fit,” it doesn’t mean that meaning, purpose, and transcendent activity isn’t taking place amid the strenuous circumstances. Whether or not we are actively thinking and talking about “cultural mandate,” the basic dignity of our work and the basic activity of serving society and providing for one’s family is an integral part of fulfilling that mandate. At a certain level, “needs-based” work has a forceful way of tempering our individualistic inclinations, and at that level, I think we need to seriously reconsider how closely we’re aligning “vocation” with our own personal preferences or our end-game goals. Does God not also call us to that initial job or task that begins a longer trajectory filled with other more “fulfilling” things? (more…)