Does faith at work work for the poor?

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By Blaine Crawford

Humanizing Work” was the theme of the Center for Faith & Work’s annual conference this year [2014]. During the opening session, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was mentioned. Maslow, a 20th century American psychologist, studied people’s motivations, eventually developing his infamous hierarchy. His model was comprised of five needs, beginning with basic (physiological) needs before ascending to safety needs, social needs (love, belonging, and community), esteem needs (confidence and respect), and self-actualization (purpose and meaning). According to Maslow’s theory, the baser motivational needs must be satisfied prior to other needs. For example, one does not live and work out of a desire for esteem until the basic, safety, and social needs have been met.

During the session, one of the speakers said that while we used to work to meet needs lower on this hierarchy, we now search for meaning, fulfillment, and purpose in our work ‒ the higher levels in the hierarchy. In Maslow’s terminology, we seek to become self-actualized. Implicit to his statement, however, was that the lower level needs have already been met.

The speaker’s claim fit very well with the audience that attended Humanizing Work. Most attendees of the conference were, socio-economically speaking, middle-class to upper-middle-class. All the speakers were white-collar professionals from different fields. When speaking to a well-educated, white-collar audience, of course self-actualization, purpose, and fulfillment should be discussed.

But one of my struggles with most of the faith and work literature I have read (with the exception of one book, which I’ll return to in a moment), which extends to conferences such as this one, is the lack of attention paid to not only blue-collar, service industry workers, but also to those who work multiple jobs simply to meet the basic needs. The church I serve is comprised of both white-collar and blue-collar workers. Some work for purpose and meaning in life; others work simply to provide food, shelter, and medical care for their family. The suburb in which I serve is similar: plenty have inspiring, invigorating, meaningful work that pays well; others struggle to find work, let alone find meaning beyond familial provision in that work.

David Jensen’s fantastic book, “Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work,” opens with a chapter on the promise and the problems of work in America today. One of the issues he explores is the oft-overlooked group of people called the “working poor.” The working poor hover right around the poverty line. They may work, but day-to-day expenses are a struggle, let alone the possibility of saving money for their children’s education. David Shipler, author of “The Working Poor: The Invisible in America,” explains the predicament further: “Moving in and out of jobs that demand much and pay little, many people tread just above the official poverty line, dangerously close to the edge of destitution. An inconvenience to an affluent family—minor car trouble, a brief illness, disrupted child care—is a crisis to them, for it can threaten their ability to stay employed” (p. 4). How might we, as pastors and churches, respond to the issues and needs of the working poor?

If the integration of faith and work – or this whole movement ‒ is to go anywhere, it must be holistic and inclusive enough to avoid marginalizing those who work in the service industry, blue-collar trades, and those without multiple degrees. It must be large enough not only to tackle issues like meaning and purpose, but also fair wages, safe working conditions, and struggling families. We need the faith and work movement and the church, through the grace of Christ and the leading of the Spirit, to dig deeper into these issues which impact our local communities. I’m encouraged to see theologians like Jensen take up the task and start the conversation. But more voices are needed, and I urge you to add yours to the dialogue.

Blaine Crawford serves as minister at Lakeview Community Church in Rochester, NY. This post originally appeared on the Kern Pastors Network website on April 23, 2014 and is reprinted here courtesy of the Oikonomia Network.

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