How Garbage Collectors Can Refresh Our Theology

Scraping back the veneer called “vocation”

Some questions have the power to change our lives. Five years ago, I decided to leave a management consulting career in Brazil to study theology in Canada. “I’m following my vocation,” I said to a friend, “and that’s what everybody should do.” As good friends do, he listened carefully and, as sensible people do, he expanded my imagination with a question: “Do you really believe that garbage collectors, for instance, care about vocation?” The question pierced my soul, but I was not yet ready to acknowledge the rawness of my theories. “I don’t know if they do,” I responded. “What I know is that I do.” How considerate. I clearly needed some help.

My theology of work was forged in the fires of modernity and therefore highly “professionalized.” It was easy to talk about work and vocation for lawyers, doctors, and engineers but not for bus drivers, secretaries, and hairdressers. The ideas behind my theology stemmed from a worldview in which I could choose to be whatever I wanted so long as I had the resources to do it. It took me some time to realize that for thousands of years choosing one’s work was not an option. And there I was, denying my creatureliness with my modern power, trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps to find my way in the world. I thought that knowing my gifts and the needs of the world would suffice. Unintentionally, I covered my privileged position of the agency with a cheap spiritual veneer and called it “vocation.” It turns out my theology was excluding 80 percent of the world’s workforce. Of course, these groups experience work differently, but shouldn’t they also be able to account for the theological trajectory of their work?

Perhaps our current theology is taking our agency too seriously.

Our churches are full of both professionals and working-class laborers, so if we want to teach about work from a biblical perspective as part of our discipleship, we need a theology infused with a broader paradigm of labor. The experience of millions from the working class teaches us that being who Christ calls us to be doesn’t depend on the job we have. They remind us that we can’t control our circumstances and that faithfulness is more important than performance. So the question becomes, Are we willing to listen to what their lives are telling us? The ancient story of Ruth the Moabite might help improve our hearing.

The Problem of Agency

Our theology books often highlight only one side of the cultural mandate found in the first chapters of Genesis, that of our duty to exercise dominion over creation. The blessing aspect of the mandate slips by untreated. So we get a theology of work that encourages a kind of Christianized self-actualization, one that assumes there is always a career choice available. This may be the luxurious burden for those professionals with the social autonomy to ponder the particularities of their contribution to the common good and change jobs accordingly, but it’s almost impossible to think about a larger purpose when you need to fight for survival. Modern professionals can discern their occupational options not only because they are well-positioned socially but also because, over the past few decades, they have been given the power to craft jobs—first for themselves and then for others. In practice, the so-called gig economy is perceived by many laborers as a hipster version of the every-man-for-himself philosophy, pushing us toward individualism and ultimately benefiting only a small group of workers. The working class often accepts jobs simply to keep their budgets afloat, with a little perspective of social mobility or mental space to reflect on moral questions related to their vocation. Perhaps our current theology is taking our agency too seriously. Perhaps we need more books written from the perspective of those who take jobs, not only from those who give jobs.

Contemporary theology’s obsession with an externalized agency has fueled a narrative in which our vocation in the world is something to be grasped, not received. The illusion of control causes us to forget that life usually happens to us—regardless of the power we believe we have. Suffering, displacement, lack of autonomy, the randomness of life, the silence of God, systemic injustice, and so many other realities felt most often by the working class are absent from Western theology today. No wonder so many has a sense of disconnect between the things of God and daily life. Shouldn’t Christian dignity be able to hold the tension between our divine ability to shape reality and the human hardships of labor?

Perhaps we need more books written from the perspective of those who take jobs, not only from those who give jobs.

According to the International Labour Organization, 2.6 billion people in the world are part of the working class—93.6 million of whom live in North America—and a majority of these experience a lack of material prosperity, economic security, and equal opportunity for human development. Many workers find themselves having to take unattractive jobs characterized by low pay and little or no access to social protection. Overall, 2 billion workers were informally employed in 2016, accounting for 61 percent of the world’s workforce. The poor quality of many jobs also manifests itself in the fact that, in 2018, more than one-quarter of workers in low- and middle-income countries were living in extreme or moderate poverty. And I know this reality.

My dad is a black man born into a poor family of twelve children. His father was absent, and as the eldest, my father had to take responsibility as a breadwinner, which proceeded to set the tone of his life. My earliest memories are visiting my dad at his work, and in the long arc of our relationship work was arguably the most important part of what I saw him doing. For many years, he served as a pharmacy clerk, our days organized around a variation of his nine-to-five schedule. Any need that would exceed the monthly budget meant more hours.

Through it all, he and my mom were able to give me a good education. I became a professional, chose a career, studied theology, and could eventually see myself as someone who “fulfilled his vocation.” But I couldn’t say the same about my dad. For him, labor has been a necessary evil. I’m sure he sees the joys of work well done, that he understands the dimension of service and that he knows that his jobs were God’s gifts for him to provide for his family. But he couldn’t see the marketplace shaping his spirituality, the constant presence of God with him, nor the place of his life in the larger narrative of God’s story. Nobody told him what his hard work and struggles had to do with being a Christian. And, as we have seen, my dad is not alone. Many people like him are seeking discipleship in our churches.

Ruth as a Guide

Just like us, Ruth is portrayed as someone who lived in a time when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” but, unlike most of the other books in the biblical canon, the story doesn’t focus on any historic events in Israel. There’s no slave becoming prime minister, no refugee giving counsel to kings, no fishermen challenging any empire. Just ordinary people living their ordinary lives faithfully.

In the beginning, we encounter a family of immigrants moving countries to escape famine. A dramatic series of events follows, and the new family formed by people from two different countries loses its main breadwinners. After ten years, they hear that the old country has become a better option, and they move again. In the old (new) home, the two widows experience an acute dependence in a world directed by men. In the first seven verses, we read about food security, immigration, familial tragedies, job security, gender issues. Sound familiar?

In the new land, Ruth didn’t have many options besides engaging the new reality as well as she could. The new social, economic, and theological realities embraced Ruth in a way she could not escape. Known now as a poor immigrant woman, she had to glean the fields as the only job available and follow new rules to do everything else. The environment was shaping her decisions and character, but she was shaping the environment too. Her decision to provide for Naomi, her diligence at work, and her moral steadfastness changed that place forever. And interestingly, her influence was not the expression of a master plan to change the culture. Rather, she was “simply” faithful to the opportunities she received. Her agency was relatively limited, but that never prevented her from taking responsibility for the tasks at hand.

All this might sound too passive to professionalized ears, but, in fact, Ruth doesn’t accomplish anything extraordinary. Extraordinary is what God does out of her daily faithfulness. Her story brings a word of hope to those struggling in a performance-based society because it tells us that God is always working through us—even if we don’t realize it. At the end of the story, God redeems his people through the faithfulness of two women living in an obscure corner of the world. The lineage of David is established and the providence of God takes another step as daily, wise, and diligent work is undertaken by one pair of human hands in an interconnected web of thousands.

The Bottom Line

Most of life is ordinary, and when we learn about Moses, Daniel, or the apostles as the examples of “professionals who fulfilled their vocation,” it’s natural to feel inadequate. Even though those stories are about redemption, our performance-obsessed culture tends to use them as distorted pictures of what success looks like. This is harder to do with Ruth. As she demonstrates, to fulfill our vocation means to respond to the call of God wherever we are. It means to deal faithfully with the surrounding circumstances in a particular place at a particular time—even in ordinary life. I wish my dad knew all this when he started working.

Do I believe that garbage collectors care about vocation? Yes, I do. Perhaps not in the same way that lawyers, doctors, or engineers do, but just as deeply, and in some ways more richly. While this is changing, its own tragedy deserving of a separate reflection, members of the working class historically have experienced an interwoven mutuality with the tight-knit communities they’ve called home, daily aware of how their individual and collective labors affect their neighbors. And despite the erosion of the very webs that have provided this meaning, they remain the gleaners of our time, working quietly in the presence of the Most High, offering their bodies as living sacrifices on our behalf. Their relatively constrained lives prepare them to understand labor as a gift. And I believe we have good reasons to listen not only to them but to all the working class, especially in North America.

Fifty years ago, in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last public speech, inviting a group of laborers to put pressure on the economic structure as a way to be heard and foster social change. “It’s alright to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism,” he said, “but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” In his final words, Dr. King shared his hope of better days, saying, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” Dr. King’s eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord and the first ones to hear the news were, guess what, the garbage collectors.

Gustavo H. R. Santos is the program administrator for the Master of Arts in Leadership, Theology, and Society (MALTS) at Regent College. This article originally appeared on November 21, 2019, in Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus, and is reprinted here by permission.

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