I was on an airplane flying home to Houston a couple weeks back, and a guy who looked roughly like me in life stage, dress, and carriage struck up a conversation. He learned I was a writer by trade, learned I was interested in issues of class and inequality, and immediately launched this missile:
“You know what makes all of us who we are, what shapes our lens on the world and expands or limits our life possibilities? Culture. Not skin colour, not money. In this country today, the cultures that form us are the cultures that define our futures.” My head snapped to attention. Here was someone thinking along more supple lines than the usual inequality voices. But he quickly tacked personal.
“Are you from Houston originally? No? D.C. you say. Interesting. And Chicago for college, Boston, and overseas before that. And you support yourself now by writing?” Yes, yes. I was beginning to flush at the way it all sounded. I threw some of the same queries back at him. He was Mexican American, I learned, a longtime Texas resident, employed for years at a small boutique bank just outside Houston.
“So this proves my point,” he said, not bitterly. “You—you’re able to get out. Do stuff. Explore. Take risks and bounce back. You can freely come and go from wherever you call home. Me, I’ve been trying to get a job elsewhere for years, enter another stream and way of being, but I can’t seem to get out.”
It was a poignant thing to say, jarring though his honesty was in an airplane aisle that otherwise appeared as though it held two people of similarly expansive trajectories.
We didn’t dig into the nitty-gritty after that, but I think we both understood the huge buckets of variables both tangible and intangible that now hung by this handle called “culture.” From family upbringing, to educational background, to manners and social confidence, to geographic exposure and rootedness or lack thereof, to professional expectations, to capacities for optimism and tough mindedness, to understandings of community and the place of the individual, we were each raised with certain mores, particular social networks, and experiences, work and leisure that gradually fashioned a lens for world outlooks and morality metrics for our characters. The tone between us was gracious, curious, and without accusation, but an invisible wall built by so many years of inputs had been erected, and was felt.
“That’s what culture does,” he repeated. “It limits and it propels.”
A World Divided
We live in a fragmented age. If we were explicit with everyone we met in public settings, a version of that airplane exchange would happen a thousand times a day. With ever-increasing pluralism, changing attachments to place and a privatization of those civic institutions that once provided covering for a larger bulk of people to informally share values and life experiences (think public libraries, intra-town sports teams, one nightly news channel), most of us now find ourselves in worlds and routines that, while many of them are diverse in ways previous generations didn’t experience, also have thicker borders that we either cannot, or choose not to, cross.
The borders I’m talking about are thick because they guard the nebulous, complex, and emotionally intricate thing my airplane friend named—culture. I (and I’m quite sure he) did not mean this as anthropology alone. He was not referring to the impact his sisters’ quinceañeras had had on his family loyalties, nor was he attributing his limited set of job prospects to the fact that he looked Latino, though no doubt the fact of his being Mexican American has and will continue to play a role in shaping how he lives, where he goes and is able to go. Rather, by “culture” he was referring to all those inputs that shape the values and assumptions we each carry about the way life should be lived, the way it can be lived, and how those values and assumptions do or don’t translate to others, how they are or are not accepted by other worlds.
These inputs grow within complex, years-in- the-making ecosystems that are at once moral and spiritual, familial and historical, affected by geography but increasingly transcendent of it. They are ecosystems layered by particular vocabularies and social etiquettes, status variables and aspirational trajectories, institutions, ethnic heritage, consumption habits, and distinct formulas for social trust. In other words, they are ecosystems transmitting values and worldviews, although the systems themselves are more commonly framed by material traits like income level, education, race, and zip code.
“Inequality” is how we’ve come to characterize the differences between ecosystems and the lives they bear, and it’s a helpful (if negative) word. We use the “class” concept, too, and writers across the ideological spectrum have debated the defining fault lines. Charles Murray goes by education and real estate, Timothy Noah by income level. Robert Putnam is concerned with inequality of opportunity, and Thomas Piketty hones in on financial capital. Others observe the growing social divide: Where are families healthy and where are they breaking down? Who is getting married and who isn’t? Who feels alienated and who feels plush with social opportunities and professional choices?
One thing is clear: we walk among fresh segregations. The rules of the meritocracy have trumped those of a pre-mobile society in which race, gender, and family name directed one’s life trajectory, and yet social mobility is stagnant. People are ever more divided along partisan lines. We don’t engage those who disagree with us and the talented and equipped are increasingly congregating in clusters of metropolitan magnets, leaving the less fortunate isolated and adrift.
A Sewage Pipe and Worlds Apart
Christians bring their own sensitivities to bear on this problem, not least because the ecosystems I’m describing deal ultimately in the currency of values, an arena not unfamiliar to those with transcendent appreciations. Ideally, the faithful are wired to acknowledge and digest the temporal distinctions that characterize today’s class divisions, but also to look beyond them. It should be natural for us to recognize the sins we humans fight across shades in earthly circumstances, the yearnings we share beneath our material differences. A sense of shared fallenness and dignity gives us the capacity for solidarity, for reaching out in some deeply mutual identification, humility, and friendship.
One man I’ve met recently illustrates the textured knowledge gained from a more intimate investment in the lives of those not like him. Bob Baldwin is a retired US Army officer who now runs a waste treatment facility that serves an affluent, gated community outside of Houston. He also owns and manages a trailer park for mostly Latino families right across the street, the sewage pipe being the infrastructure connecting the two. The children from both communities go to the same schools and board at the same bus stops. But there is not much contact between them. Because of the way the walls and gates of the affluent neighbourhood are situated, it’s hard to walk from one community to the other. Tomball’s ice cream truck enters the trailer park, not Waterstone Estates. The middle class kids are away on their travel sports teams, taking private music lessons. The Latinos are home taking care of their younger siblings, maybe helping Mom clean.
The children in the trailer park mostly come from intact families. Their homes are well cared for and their gardens are well tended. The community is rich, with families looking after each other’s toddlers and with each mother earning a reputation for her ability to cook her special dish. But the children lack networks beyond, especially as they enter their later teen years. As Baldwin puts it: “The main thing the Mexican kids face is isolation. They are relationally poor. There are no Boy Scouts for them. No Little League.”
Some of the kids have been touched by church retreats, but for others, their culture’s Catholic tradition doesn’t organize them in a way that resonates with their Americanizing routines and desires. It’s too ritualistic, one said. Not enough natural community.
Baldwin continues, “The trailer park has a wide open field unlike the estates across the street, but when you get to be a teenager, you don’t want to ride your bike around the same circle. You’re at this age where you have emotional, physical, cognitive capabilities but no outlet, no channel. The middle class kids are trying to deliver the paragraph on the Christmas card: the extracurriculars, building resumes. The poorer kids don’t build this identity around work, but neither do they have the civil society contacts to compete with those outside of this community when adulthood hits. Their families love them, but they are generally adrift.”
The Church’s Challenge
Bob and his wife find themselves the bridge between tribes, encouraging parents from Waterstone Estates to invite the teenage boys from the trailer park to help with Vacation Bible School, connecting a skilled worker with a demand for landscaping across the street. But the spheres don’t naturally overlap. Too many customs share no dictionary. Too many subtleties in rhythm and priority have accumulated over generations.
Bob understands all this, but he feels a call to inject some openness into both tribes. He sees the loneliness of the subdivision’s achievement orientation—the lack of a common playing field for the middle class kids, the thirty-minute drives to church with little sacrificial fraternity back inside the gates. He also worries about the lack of support structures that will greet the Latino teens once they reach adulthood. They are cocooned in schools and a close-knit community now, but what will happen when they need to exit the nest and find a job, start their own families? If they don’t go to college, are there any civic handholds to help guide them through? Who will help them make sense of the competing values they hold as Mexican Americans?
“We as a church need to figure out what’s going on with these kids,” Bob says. “We need to get involved in the intricacies of their lives and concerns. We need to know enough about them to refer them to people who can help them. We need to ask and know: Who are they? They’ve all been gifted by God to be a blessing to the world. They don’t have any idea how to achieve that. They need a context to get outside of themselves.”
There was something about seeing these two worlds through Bob’s eyes—inequality in an acre—that made me wonder whether today’s church does indeed have a need teed up for its assets. There is so much isolation and alienation being felt on both sides of the class divide, that though it strikes in different forms, it seems an institution devoted to love (and to ordering loves properly) needs to dig deep within itself and figure out a way to provide fresh forms of community for people across the social spectrum. To be a shepherd of faith in something beyond one’s immediate universe, to provide steps toward hope, to offer a purpose to belong to and a home that offers a safe and trusting space to engage one another’s differences and to listen to one another’s stories. To be a place that doesn’t protect itself against the suffering in its midst, but rather opens itself up to it, and even woos it.
The church has at once been hamstrung by our class segregations even as it yet remains one of the last roofs to protect meaningful diversity. My own experience in this country has found Catholic culture to be better than that of evangelicals and mainline Protestants at nurturing a space for all walks of life to come and see, but whatever their denominations, local churches invariably contain melting pots of some kind, even as their ultimate orientation provides a reason to link arms. Since moving to Texas, I’ve enjoyed many a crosscultural experience, but one of the richest was stumbling upon a Latin folk group singing medieval canticles in the right annex of a parish on Westheimer Road. They welcomed me immediately upon asking to join their ranks, and within minutes I was singing “Alabaré a Mi Señor” between a woman who rolled dough at CiCi’s Pizza and a guy who poured cement. My Spanish was rusty and their English wasn’t great, but I hadn’t felt that level of sibling-ship in months.
What if more congregations and parish leaders who live within twenty-five miles of one another made a concerted effort to share picnics, weeknight lectures, outdoor trips, even small groups? In this country today, that radius will contain more of a socioeconomic and ethnic range than most of us experience in our schools and workplaces, neighbourhoods and Sunday morning services. Some cross-pollination within the webs of a body already bound by mystical strands could lead to important surprises, possibly service together, possibly an exchange of virtues and gifts. The closer a church is to the reality of the people in its orbit, the more it can hear and understand inequality in its fullness and treat the needs accordingly.
Which brings me to a third and final offering. I would love to see more Christians attain sociological curiosity and demographic expertise. The inequality debate is too important to be left to those who evaluate people in strips—income level here, ethnic identity there, zip code here, college degree there—without vocabulary for people in their undivided wholeness, as bodies and souls, minds and spirits. Check out your average inner city church and you’ll find they tend to be pastored by incredible community activists who know their places, know their people, and can reference a few job reports and political folks, too.
What if Christians could break out of their own cognitive and cultural culs de sac and confidently bring a distinct mode of social analysis to the wider world? What if publications like Patheos or FaithStreet or even Comment Magazine became the go-to places for stories on the demographic shifts of our time? They certainly have easy recourse to the source material (just look at the exploding immigrant churches). And why aren’t there Christian sociologists at the Aspen Ideas Festival, at TED, writing for The Atlantic and other publications? What if at Aspen, instead of religion only being for those in search of personal fulfillment, religion was granted public, respectable “use” again, to sit at the table and discuss inequality with William Galston from Brookings. With Charles Murray. With Thomas Picketty. Where are the consciously Christian thinkers who are credible to do this?
In an age allergic to moralism and lectures and sermons, Christians are ultimately distinguished by the way they see and perceive. If this careful observation leads to quiet action on behalf of justice and reconciliation, so much the better. But if we could be those who share a bit of what we discern in the human faces of our time, our lens may help shed a light on the bridges that can yet be built.