A recent Wall Street Journal article declares Democrats and Republicans agree that the “opportunity gap” is widening, economic mobility is on the decline, and Washington, D.C., needs to do something about it. Sure, there is a danger that the debate erroneously reduces everything to the economy, as if liberating market forces or sharing wealth more equally will magically erase deep social and personal wounds. But as long as the mobility debate puts a spotlight on growing class bifurcation, it’s welcome.
Most Americans aren’t politicians, however, and not all that is important happens in D.C. or state capitols. What can a typical person do about inequality, other than to cheer or jeer what Paul Ryan or President Obama says?
I think of Dennis, an evangelical Protestant pastor I met in Maytown, the small Ohio town where my wife and I interviewed working-class young adults in the course of our research. True to form for an evangelical pastor with a megachurch background, Dennis is pithy and well-spoken and thinks like an entrepreneur (he once owned several restaurants and is still a business consultant). True to form for a white guy in suburban, southwestern Ohio, he talks like a conservative who looks at lower-income families and, among other things, sees a broken welfare state that perpetuates poverty. But Dennis isn’t your typical white, suburban guy: instead of ranting about poor people with giant TV screens, he and his church are doing something radical.
As my wife Amber and I explain in our new essay at First Things, “Alone in the New America,” Maytown is divided into the historic, working-class valley, and the more affluent hill. The folks in the two parts of town distrust each other and rarely interact. They’re divided by class, and also divided by family structure. The sons of the engineers and executives on the hill usually graduate from college, get married, and have kids. The daughters of the welders and truck drivers in the valley are more likely to go to community college for a little bit, have their first child out of wedlock, and live in fragile cohabiting relationships.
What can a typical person do about inequality?
Dennis’s dad grew up in working-class Maytown, but he got married and raised his kids in a more respectable Main Street town, and growing up, Dennis barely even knew of the place. Dennis married and became a successful business owner—life was comfortable. Then, while worshiping at an evangelical megachurch, he heard God speaking to him. He immediately wrote down on a scrap of paper what he heard, part of which was that he was to go serve the poor. (Dennis still keeps that scrap of paper in his wallet.) Dennis didn’t know everything that this meant, but he figured he should go to the Salvation Army in Maytown and ask the kind old lady who ran it if he could volunteer there. “How many hours do you need?” she asked. Dennis just wanted to be helpful, so he said he could help out wherever there’s a need. But the kind old lady asked again, “Well, how many hours do you need for your community service?” She thought he was just another lawbreaker.
Dennis helped out there for a while, and since he was about the only middle-aged guy there, they gave him the hard and dirty work, like throwing out old mattresses. One day, after a few hours at the Salvation Army, he noticed a sign for a church outside a small office on the main road going out of Maytown. He stopped in to inquire and learned that Redeemer Community Church, the new evangelical Protestant church meeting at the elementary school, was starting an outfit in Maytown whose purpose was to help people break out of poverty. Jeremy, the staff member in charge of the effort, knew that if Redeemer was going to be a church worth its name, it had to be out in front helping the poor. They would give people food and pray with them, meet their material and spiritual needs.
One day Jeremy asked Dennis to help him take a dishwasher to the home of a Maytown resident. The man’s chest was wounded from a botched drug deal, and he shared his tiny house with about eight other people. Standing in that home, Dennis knew that Maytown was where he was supposed to be, and he joined Redeemer Community Church.
When Redeemer initiated a capital campaign to buy a building for their church, they also started a capital campaign to plant a church in Maytown. They approached town officials and said they wanted to meet in the old elementary school building, right in the heart of town. The location was important. When the residents of the new subdivisions on Maytown’s hill moved in, some of them refused to send their kids to the school in the valley. A few years later, the school moved from the valley to a new building on the hill. The old school building represented something important to Maytown’s working-class residents.
Within a few years, their congregation transformed the old school building into a community center.
And that’s exactly where Redeemer planted their new church. Within a few years, their congregation of about fifty families transformed the old school building into a community center that houses, among other things, their church, a food co-op, a computer lab, and a meeting place for people struggling with addictions (led by former drug addicts). Families from the new neighborhoods on the hill worship with families from the working-class valley. One day a week, church members with white-collar jobs leave work early and stop by the community center to tutor kids for an hour.
Dennis, now the pastor of the church plant, talks a lot about simplicity, and how if you’re looking for a laser show at church, you’re not going to get it here. And if you’re looking for comfort and convenience with people just like you, you’re not going to get it here. “This is not a church of poor people,” he says, “it’s a church for poor people, and for middle-class people, and for wealthy people.” In a town divided by class and diverging family structures, their church is a force for solidarity.
We should debate policy proposals to boost social mobility, and we should go further: for every policy proposal, there should be five conversations among neighbors and pastors and community leaders and CEOs about breaking through the class divisions that separate our own towns. For every argument that raising the minimum wage is counterproductive, there should be a business leader voluntarily asking, “What changes do we need to make in our company so that we can pay all our adult employees a living wage?” For every argument that the law can’t do squat to strengthen marriage, there should be a community organizer or social worker or just a neighbor connecting the pill-popping new father with the couple running the addiction recovery group at the local church. For every think tank report, there should be five Dennis’s, shepherding souls and starting food co-ops and tutoring kids in forgotten places tucked away in valleys, beyond the gated community, in an old and dying downtown near you, a town of limitless possibilities waiting for neighbors to rediscover each other in solidarity.
To combat inequality in America, we need solidarity.
In the abstract, solidarity is a highly romantic idea. In the flesh, there are the folks in the subdivision who shop at Whole Foods, the folks in the valley whose secondhand smoke settles on clothes and kids, and all the cultural fireworks waiting to go off from the exchange. In the bleakest of places, there are guns and gangs, pimps and prostitutes. But for seemingly intractable problems like poverty and distrust in men and women and marriage, there can be no shortcuts. Good laws are good, and neighborliness and solidarity are indispensable. As Amber and I put it in our First Things essay, “The only way to reverse the cycle of family fragmentation and mistrust, the only way to overcome the alienating sense of the purposelessness of a great deal of menial work, is to acknowledge and enter into each other’s sufferings.” And that kind of acknowledgement and sharing of suffering happens best when we are close to each other.
Solidarity doesn’t mean that everyone dresses the same, or talks the same, or has the same income; solidarity isn’t the same as sameness. It means that the rich and the middle class and the working-class and the poor are neighbors and fellow parishioners and compatriots on citizens’ committees. And a renewed solidarity movement would join poor and working-class young adults in their search for dignified, decent-paying work as well as their search for lifelong marriage and an intact family.
To combat inequality in America, we need solidarity.