Jeff Haanen

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Work

Just For White Guys?

 

Is the faith and work movement just for white guys? This question has been a mystery to me for some time. 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.)

I think Maslow might be able to help explain this quandary.

Anybody who’s taken an introduction to psychology course will have heard of Abraham Maslow (b. 1908). He’s famous for proposing a hierarchy of needs that explains human motivation, organized into a neat little pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic physiological needs: food, water, oxygen, sex. One layer higher is the need for safety from, for example, illness or danger. Above that came needs for self-esteem, love, intellectual stimulation, and beauty. At Maslow’s apex is “self-actualization” – the need to engage your skills and talents to reach your highest potential.

After World War II, Americans became the wealthiest people in human history. In the 1950s and 60s, satisfying the needs for food and shelter became almost universal.  The expectation of comfort became the norm. In the late 20th century, millions were “liberated” to pursue self-actualization. And work was where self-actualization was primarily sought. As early as 1962, Maslow said,

“All human beings prefer meaningful work to meaningless work. If work is meaningless, then life comes close to being meaningless.”

As we approached the 21st century, more people rejected being “Organization Man monoliths,” as Daniel Pink has pointed out in his book Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. They sought to venture out for themselves in record numbers, starting new businesses and organizations, hoping to find that their “true self” through meaningful work.

For the time being, let’s bracket the inherently idolatrous nature of looking to work to find your sense of purpose (perhaps the topic of another blog post). Instead, let’ s bring the issue of race into the picture. 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.

To be fair, faith and work ministry exists globally in the form of business as mission (BAM). The reason business is so important is because buying and selling provides human needs like food and shelter. The Lausanne Movement has a thriving BAM arm and is comprised of people from every race under the sun.

Historically speaking, it’s no wonder that faith and work ministry looks like a project that’s “just for white guys.” It’s not tough to see how history produced different motivations for work among different ethnic groups. It would be wise to remember Maslow when teaching about faith and work to those from different cultural or social backgrounds.

But I believe the “just for white guys” stereotype will soon be a thing of the past. The middle class in Latin America has been growing for decades, and China now has a thriving, middle and upper middle class workforce. There are even signs of hope for Africa’s economic prospects. In a world that becomes wealthier yet more isolated from a sense overarching public purpose, the question of meaning will continue to bubble to the surface – for Latinos, Asians, Blacks , and even white guys.

Photo by kay ef

Discussion question: So, am I right or not? Is the faith and work movement just for white guys?

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