Our Social Stratification and Its Role in Reaching the Poor

I’ve had the privilege of working in fast food for seven years out of my adult life (mostly as a side gig).

I say “privilege” because I think this matches up with Jesus’ value system: the lower you go, the higher you get. The service industry is an incredible opportunity to witness to hard cases who bounce around at that level of work, often with no path out.

It got me thinking, though – have you ever noticed that it often takes flipping burgers for some of us to ever meet these people in any quantity?

Let me set the table for this point. I attend a fairly well-to-do church. Most of my church family is middle- to upper middle-class with relatively stable incomes – a deft mix of business owners, farmers/ranchers, medical professionals, management types, educators, engineers, code geeks, and experienced tradesmen. That sort of thing. We live in comfortable homes, some of them rented, some of them remodeled by our own hands.

And it’s not just the money. Though we wouldn’t call ourselves filthy rich by any measure, we enjoy an assurance that many lack: we’ve got arrows in our quivers like degrees, certifications, references, and experience. Unexpected unemployment can still be dicey, but generally, we’ve got resources to fight it. There’s a lot of that blue-collar ruggedness mixed up in my church.

Now, the people I work with in the service sector are often not so blessed. Many have lots of mouths to feed, but without the resources to match. A fellow delivery driver lost the gig because her car got hit by a deer and she lacked the money to fix it. Another was trying to rise above a misdemeanor rap last time I saw him. It’s more common to find such folk living in humbler abodes – run-down apartment complexes, the less desirable trailer parks. Many of them have worked at dead-end jobs their entire life, without much in the way of resumes or references to catapult them to the next level. They also may never have learned where to even look for the button-up-shirt-and-benefits jobs that can widen a cashflow even without a degree, and many of them wouldn’t know the first thing about home renovation, or at least doing it right. (I emphasize that these are all general trends, not hard and fast rules.)

But while I was recently pondering the plight of the “first-world poor” in this country and the countless political solutions being bandied about, it occurred to me that probably the biggest gap between these two groups of people is their community.

The average attendee of my church potentially has an army of a thousand at their back should they ever want. It’s a remarkable position. At my church, you could quickly find a quality babysitter, mechanic, CPA, math tutor (ahem), veterinarian, property manager, plumber, graphics designer, pro bono attorney, or disaster restoration guy all in one congregation – maybe even all in one service, the way we’re going – without breaking a sweat. The overwhelmed mom has tight friends to help babysit (or be fodder for their internet business); the dad has buddies willing to jaunt over and help build the house he’s planning to flip and sell in two years. Basically, it’s much harder to crash and burn. You always have someone who can provide solutions and manpower.

What do the poor outside my church have?

Their community looks very different. Often, they have a few close friends, mostly family, and those folks are often as poor and unconnected as they. I’m not fixing blame; I’m stating a problem. There just haven’t been that many dynamics in their lives that would naturally bring them into contact with richer, more versatile folks. Community college, a big social and vocational enabler, often isn’t an option because of kids and debt. And it isn’t just that they don’t go to church – that’s not where I’m going with this – they’re often introverts, sometimes feeling vaguely unwanted by the world, and really don’t go that many places at all.

It’s a situation robs a family of momentum. Social collateral, of a kind. There just aren’t that many paths out of such a life, not without immense expense that just isn’t practical.

(And yes, alcohol, drugs, and sloth are certainly part of some stories. So are the $3,400 DVD collections in their living rooms. But this isn’t part of the post, because this post is for someone else.)

I almost used the word “castes” to describe this social layering. I decided that was a little strong. It makes it sound intentional when none of us really mean to contribute to any of this.

But when Jesus said to help the poor, I don’t believe he was giving polite advice. He knew what the causes and barriers of poverty would be, in every epoch and culture. That doesn’t surprise him. Yet the command stands. He wanted us to go the distance. He certainly went out of his own way himself.

Could it be that equipping the poor is one of the ways a church was intended to serve as a light to the world?

So I wondered – do we know enough poor people?

Do our professional and personal circles bring us into enough contact with the poor?

Are we sharing experiences with people who might lack the same gear, hobbies, or interests as us because they haven’t had the time or money to pursue them?

Are we spending quality time around people who make us nervous because we never know when they honestly might just baldly ask for money?

Because, sad to say, I don’t know how many of these poor people I would know right now without my pizza gig. Probably not enough.

Most of us know someone like these. But oftentimes, we “allow” the chance for deeper friendship to slip away. We turn to other priorities, often legitimate, or perhaps just choosing friends who are closer to our world. It leads to a form of unintended social caste system, one whose layers can be defied and moved between (more so in this country than any other, in fact) but still requires a helping hand. The two groups just don’t have much in common, and we don’t fight the lack of inertia.

How might these people’s lives instantly be changed if they were invited to church? Regularly invested in? Handed a few life skills we picked up along the way? Or even just smiled at?

Many of my friends do take advantage of these opportunities. They’ve been a huge inspiration to me. But it’s taken an intentionality. Inviting these folks over to the next drywall hanging, using them as a babysitter (assuming trustworthiness) instead of the sister, or just introducing them to friends. It makes a difference in their lives. They pick up skills, connections, confidence, and yes, some money along the way.

I think it’s the sort of thing Jesus wants us to do.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!