Reclaiming work through a local approach

Last time, we ended with Wendell Berry’s line “without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.” There is a lot we COULD say about this line, but I want to consider it now through the lens of vocation and the discussion we’ve been having about reclaiming the dignity of work. Last week, I touched on the idea that one of the things we might lose in a globalizing economy is the ability for each person within a community to contribute to the welfare and flourishing of their community. As communities develop economic engines that are determined by forces outside of the community itself, it becomes more and more likely that people lose the ability and option to discern a vocation in favor of playing the part of a cog in a wheel. This is not to say that these jobs cannot maintain, or reclaim, a sense of flourishing and treat people with dignity. Much good can be done in this space. In addition, this is work that people I know engage in, perform well, and authentically enjoy. I’m not calling these jobs bad jobs. I do want to challenge the notion that ‘any job’ is good enough and that there are certain ‘classes’ of folks who don’t need to, or get to, consider the question of vocation. 

My basic point is that, in order to celebrate the vocational potential of each person, we could probably do more to explore ways of creating work that resist the temptation to make people feel as though they are merely a cog in the system. As an example, I know of a workforce development program that does incredible work creating job opportunities for folks who have a hard time finding employment in the larger community. In many areas, they do an amazing job of celebrating people, their stories and journeys back to health. I love much about what they do. At the same time, I have a question about approach sometimes. Most of the jobs they hire for are incredibly low paying positions (not a livable wage) because they created economic engines that can’t pay more than that. Additionally, these are jobs that are very repetitive and isolating.  People sit alone and do the same menial task over and over. There may be a real need for this kind of job opportunity at times, and there may be a time and place for these jobs well applied. But I’d love to ask us, as we think about economic development, job creation and social enterprise to wonder together about the virtue of work, the dignity of each person, and the inherent gifts people bring to the table and to ask if its possible to create opportunities that—by design—acknowledge the wealth of capacity God gives each person.

Enter, the conversation about a local economy. The local economy is a community where as much as can be created and provided for the community, by the community…is. This could help us celebrate the inherent dignity of each person and the unique ways in which God creates and designs us for contribution to the communities into which we are born or live. It gives us the chance to come alongside friends and neighbors and ask them “what do you have in your hand?” That is a question that invites each of us to bring the best of ourselves for the flourishing of our communities.

I recognize that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that such changes couldn’t occur overnight, nor could they be fully employed by each person from the get go. But I do wonder, if in our haste to create opportunities for folks at the margins of society, if we forgot to value each person the way we would want to be valued ourselves. This—of course—is part of what it means to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. 

About Adam Gustine

Adam Gustine leads CovEnterprises for Love Mercy Do Justice and the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is also the founder of Jubilee Ventures; an economic incubator in South Bend, IN. He and his wife, Ann, live in South Bend with their three kids.

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