“What do you do?” is usually one of the very first questions asked in a conversation between two strangers. How do you think you might feel if you had no meaningful answer to that question?
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” -Genesis 2:15
From the very beginning of time God ordained work to be a part of our purpose as human beings. Since this command came before Adam sinned, it is clear work did not come because of sin and is not something to be avoided. Quite the opposite in fact. Without some meaningful opportunity to contribute to the world around us, we are missing out on fulfilling a significant part of who we were created to be.
In an article by Tom Rath and Jim Harter from the Business Journal entitled Your Career Well-Being and Your Identity, the authors noted:
“To appreciate how much our careers shape our identity and well-being, consider what happens when someone loses a job and remains unemployed for a full year. A landmark study published in The Economic Journal revealed that unemployment might be the only major life event from which people do not fully recover within five years. This study followed 130,000 people for several decades, allowing researchers to look at the way major life events such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or death of a spouse affect our life satisfaction over time.
One of the more encouraging findings was that, even in the face of some of life’s most tragic events like the death of a spouse, after a few years, people do recover to the same level of well-being they had before their spouse passed away. But this was not the case for those who were unemployed for a prolonged period of time—particularly not for men. Our well-being actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.”
While there is certainly reason to question whether our identity should be so linked to what we do, there is no denying the fact that it does. This study followed people who were employed and then found themselves unemployed, but it is not hard to imagine the psychological impact a chronic lack of employment has on those who are living in poverty. When you add the other stressors associated with living in poverty, you have a recipe for disempowerment and diminished sense of self. These then end up being barriers to future employment.
This is one of the main reasons our model evolved from simply giving things to people into one where individuals acquire the things they need through volunteering. We recognize the first obstacle those living in poverty often must overcome is a belief their situation is unchangeable (hopeless). This is rooted in a worldview informed by the realities they see around them every day and a lack of belief in their own power and capacity.
For this reason, we attempt to communicate to EVERY person that they have been uniquely and wonderfully made by God with skills, gifts, and abilities for their benefit and His glory. We have found many people need someone else to believe in them before they are able to believe in themselves.
One-way giving models like food pantries and clothing closets have very little to no impact on getting people out of poverty because they don’t address what created the individual’s need in the first place. The frequent misapplication of these kinds of emergency interventions in chronic situations exacerbates the diminished sense of self and disempowerment, often leading to a cycle of dependence and entitlement.
Our giving, though well-intentioned, has led to transactional systems in which we unconsciously communicate to recipients they have nothing to offer. These “helping” models very clearly define the roles of giver and receiver, and in doing so rob people of the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to their own provision and the community they are a part of—denying them the opportunity to experience the fullness of who it is they were created to be.
This is especially true for people with physical, developmental, and social emotional disabilities. We have gone to great lengths to create opportunities for people with all types of challenges so they can experience community and contribute to it. These groups of people have been among the most responsive to our model. I think this is because they are often treated as “less than” and are denied these affirming opportunities.
A volunteer of ours nominated us for a grant from a local foundation, and as part of the application she wrote a beautiful essay about Salt & Light. In it she perfectly captured the essence of this.
“Salt and Light in Urbana models faith-based social justice in action: it demonstrates its deepest values through work which lovingly recognizes individuals and communities. It demonstrates its commitment through presence, serving as a destination not only for goods and service, but for relationship and affirmation. It offers relief from some kinds of crisis for those ready to be unburdened, not as receivers of charity, but as partners in a world of struggle and hope. And it models a dissolution of the notion that givers and receivers are on opposite sides of a gap: at Salt and Light, we are all in the middle together.”
We all need to know we are loved, valued, and have a purpose. Based on how our culture often engages people in material poverty, it seems like we fail to recognize the role meaningful work plays in a persons’ purpose. This does not have to be paid employment but must be something a person finds meaningful if they are to feel purposeful. This is central to how God designed us, and without it, we will always struggle to feel whole.