I recently spent a rare evening watching a reality television show called “Undercover Boss.” The premise is this: CEOs of companies go undercover as regular employees and see the dark or uplifting side of their corporations. Each episode concludes with a heartfelt interaction between the CEO and someone he or she had covertly worked with as part of the show, usually a hardworking and energetic but low-level staffer struggling to make ends meet. One was a single father and warehouse clerk buried under $12,000 in debt from reckless driving tickets incurred during a less-than-earnest youth. Another was a first-generation American whose single mother couldn’t afford to send her to college while struggling through breast cancer treatments. Some of these associates were working second jobs or part-time jobs while going to school, others were young people supporting their siblings and parents, and still others were grandparents whose retirement was far off as they continued to support and raise their own grandchildren. These heartfelt interactions were sentimental and formulaic: the CEO ultimately wanted to help transform their lives and handed over up to $50,000 to help this small handful of employees pay off loans, start college funds for small children or, in the case of one employee, serve as angel investor for a store manager who wanted to own his own franchise location. There were tears of joy and hugs between one who inhabits a corner office and others who operate forklifts, conveyor belts, or cash registers.
My husband was anything but touched. He was adding up in his head the amount these CEOs had collectively given away to individuals and protesting, “These people are in positions of power where they can implement new policies and actually create systemic change! They could set up matching funds for college saving accounts or retirement, or profit-sharing opportunities for employees at all levels of the company. This is ridiculous…” Should we prioritize relief of individual suffering or are we also obligated to work for systemic change? This question was on my mind all summer as I served as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), a family homeless shelter housed in a network of twenty-seven synagogues and churches.
Twenty-five years ago, these congregations took stock of their ability to help and realized that their greatest assets were people and space. Alone, no one congregation could operate a shelter serving a single family year-round. Together, they keep eight families at a time off the streets and out of cars. While the families are in shelter, they receive case management services that support them in achieving a sustainable living situation with suitable income, health care, and educational opportunities for children.
Eight families per week can feel like a drop in the bucket, especially when faced with the reality that many multiples of that number are left unserved by the shelter system on any given evening. Some of those served will still raise their own children in poverty and, if the dismal statistics on mass incarceration continue, many of the sweet young toddlers I cuddled or read books to this summer will find themselves in jail at the hands of a broken criminal justice system.
Yet, there were smiles and cheers when a mother of five got keys to her new apartment and tears in my eyes when I saw the exuberant reaction of a young girl to the news that her mother found employment at Wendy’s.
But often, I left the shelter wondering the same thing that my husband pondered at the end of that reality TV show. As faith-based leaders, our direct service to individuals makes a critical difference in their lives, just like the help of the CEOs. But mustn’t clergy also do something to change the system that results in the following statistics:
- 53% of children in Cincinnati live below the poverty line
- 21% of households with children in 2008 were food insecure
- At $7.25/hour, a minimum wage worker would have to work more than 58 hours a week, 52 weeks a year just to keep a family of four above the poverty line. See the Family Promise National Just Neighbors Curriculum for details.
- Among industrialized nations, only Mexico has a higher percentage of children living below the median income than the United States.
- The federal government’s allocation for low-income housing has decreased 48% since 1976. In the meantime, the cost of living has increased at a rate entirely out of sync with minimum wage.
The result is great income inequality: nearly half of the financial wealth (49%) is held by 400 households, while the other 51% is shared by the remaining population of the country. And income inequality correlates with race: the median net worth of white households in the U.S. is $118,300 but $11,800 for black households, and African American families must work an average of twelve weeks more in a year in order to earn the same amount as white families with a similar income. (Unless otherwise indicated, statistics are from Family Promise, the national network of congregation based family homeless shelters.)
Part of my portfolio for the summer was to develop training for the congregational volunteers who are at the center of the shelter’s overnight operations. These dedicated individuals are energetic novices at caring for a population that has experienced not only the trauma of homelessness but many other challenges completely beyond their control.
Besides educating on how to be the most hospitable to guests in shelter, it became clear that it was worthwhile for these dedicated volunteers to deepen their knowledge about the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Based on volunteer and guest feedback, we created a curriculum that addresses personal needs of guests as well as structural issues in our society, created by public policy and persistent cultures of prejudice and racism that impact housing, employment, and education. Our strategy is to avoid a punitive relationship with guests and emphasize empathy and compassion for families navigating an unequal system. It is my personal aspiration that volunteers use this information about systemic issues to link their commitment to these families with advocacy work on issues of economic and racial injustice. This can happen by going to the ballot box, participating in policy campaigns, and having conversations with family and friends about these systemic issues that invites both reflection and action.
As a future clergy leader, I see that performing direct service is a powerful experience for communities of faith and should be prevalent in congregations. We are already organized and ready to deploy our time and energy. We do so in droves, in often public ways. During the High Holiday season we collect thousands of pounds of food for those who are hungry, but at all seasons we participate in equally public and important volunteerism. This is the good television of “Undercover Boss,” the direct service that does indeed change individual lives.
But what would it look like if we wanted to make more systemic change? Where does our power lie, and how can we make more overarching changes to impact homelessness and the inequality that causes it? A lot of the hard work that needs to be done on these issues happens behind closed doors: efforts to change policy and hard conversations about racism in this country, its relationship to poverty, and our role in perpetuating such a system as individuals, knowingly or not.
IHN’s new training curriculum will engage its volunteers in just some of these questions. How can we as faith leaders add a systemic aspect to the work we are already doing to relieve individual suffering? What elements of education about systemic issues do we add to our social action efforts? How do we provide our community members with opportunities to address the root causes of issues rather than just their symptoms? Do we provide spaces for discussing sensitive issues of power, race, and class and how they impact people in dramatically unequal ways, resulting in long-standing and entrenched prejudice and suffering? Just as our congregations are places to leverage resources of time and space, they are also places where we discuss things we rarely discuss elsewhere: issues of mortality, God, the challenges of family life, and personal weakness. Our congregations are places of vulnerability, ideal for having these conversations we rarely have elsewhere. Perhaps strategies for systemic change will emerge.
As clergy leaders (not only rabbis), we must continue using our resources of power, space, time and money to address the symptoms of social ills: hunger, homelessness, educational inequality. Yet we must also move beyond the symptoms to understand the root causes of these issues, even when, in the process, we ought to confront our own complicity and complacency as part of a systemic inequality that is deeply rooted in our society.