Working Among the Working Poor

For three and a half years I dropped out of the professional world and worked at a well-known “Big Box” store, side-by-side with the working poor.  I stacked shelves, unloaded trucks and ran cash registers right along with the rest of the unskilled workers.  What I learned about the lives of the working poor was a revelation to me, and changed the nature of my faith.

I discovered that our employer did not guarantee us either a set amount of hours or even a set schedule.  One week I might be scheduled for a 40-hour week, the next week only 32 hours.  In January or February, after the holidays, it was as little as 16 hours.  And the shifts I worked changed from week to week, with little predictability.  One week I might work on a Tuesday morning, the next week a Wednesday evening, with only a two-week lead time in my schedule – beyond week #2, I had no idea what my schedule might be. Under the circumstances, my income was unreliable and planning my life beyond two weeks impossible.  Meanwhile, Big Box’s profits soared.  My salary?  Under $9.00 an hour.

Many of my fellow workers left Big Box in search of a better job, but found few options.  Small factories are the only other major employer in my area, and they hire their workers via temporary staffing agencies.  Called “ten ninety-nine employees” for the ID number on their tax documents, the workers labor ten hours a day for a four day week, and are dismissed on Day 89 of their employment.  The factories do not want a 1099’er to reach the 90-day mark, as they then could be eligible by law for full-time status, with all the employment rights therein.  They are paid a bit better than at Big Box, but 20% of their pay goes to the staffing agency, and on Day 90 they are unemployed, in search of another job.

The reasons for these exploitive business practices are twofold: to avoid the rules and regulations that protect workers’ rights, and to suppress wages, maximizing profits.  One of the consequences of these practices is to keep the working poor permanently poor.  Unskilled labor cannot earn a livable wage or reach the next rung in the economic ladder, as these practices are standard operating procedure in American corporations.

“The poor have poor ways”, as the saying goes, and with good reason.  I think of Bob, who unloaded trucks at the back dock all day but still depended on a SNAP card to feed his family.  Or Sue, who would never rise beyond overnight stacker because she had no front teeth, could not afford dental work, and management did not want her working with the public.

Bob and Sue are trapped in their own poverty, and are so alienated from the rest of us that they embrace their alienation and bury themselves deeper into it, covering themselves with tattoos and anesthetizing themselves with cheap alcohol and drugs.  Their behaviors appear to us as self destructive, and they hand down their family traditions of “poor ways” from generation to generation.  But these poor ways are the products of great anger, betrayal, and suffering among the working poor, as well as despair; mind-numbing, fatalist despair.

My experiences impelled me to study scripture with new eyes, pondering over the prophecy of Micah, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good/and what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love mercy/ and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) and the teachings of Jesus: “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” (Matt. 25:40)  And I asked myself: “What does that all mean now?  If we, as a church, take the teachings of Jesus and the prophets to heart, how then shall we live?”

I have come to see our mission as a church in the three concepts of presence, prophecy, and community.

We need to be present in the lives of the poor, not just visitors.  They do not attend our church partly because they are either working or recovering from work, while we are in our pews, praying.  We need to take the church to them, where they live, so the church can live and work among them.  We need to see the working poor as our mission field and be “worker chaplains” among them – a worker version of the Community of Hope. Community of Hope members are trained laity in the Episcopal Church who dedicate their lives as lay-chaplains to the sick.  We need a Community of Hope that intentionally ministers to the working poor.

We need to prophecy in the name of the poor, as their advocates in the halls of business, government, and education.  The conscience of the business leaders must be better formed, the exploitive loopholes in workers’ rights abolished, and the job skills of the unskilled improved.  We must replace the notion of a minimum wage with a livable wage.  A minimum wage is a race to the bottom; a livable wage is a just and sensible economy.

If we can familiarize ourselves with the culture of poverty, and better understand the reasons behind “poor ways”, we could create a more welcoming community to the poor.  We could create fellowship events and worship opportunities in which all of us could participate.  We could become one, single organic community of faith, spreading out across all sections of society.

From what I have experienced, this may be the best way we can be authentic Christians to the working poor.  In Marks of Mission #3, we are to respond to human needs by loving service, and in Marks of Mission #4, we are to transform unjust structures of society.  In order to live up to our own vision as a faith community, we need to practice the concrete responses of presence, prophecy and community.  It is what we are called to be as Christians and as church.

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