At the beginning of Sunday school, one of the four- and five-year-olds piped up to ask: “Miss Hannah, can we pray that my mommy won’t be mean to me anymore?”
For the past year, I’ve been squeezing my knees under a two-and-a-half-foot-tall table every week to teach these little ones that Jesus loves them. We start by talking about the week and taking prayer requests, things like, “My finger has a boo-boo” or “Can we pray that I’ll get a rabbit for Christmas?” or “I want a baby brother.”
Occasionally, the children come with greater burdens. That morning, it was a young boy who’d recently moved in with his great-aunt because the courts found his mother unfit. He was older than the others—already turned six—but spent kindergarten at four different schools and wasn’t ready to move to first grade.
His story isn’t the norm for our small church in southwest Virginia, but it isn’t remarkable either. My husband pastors the congregation, made up of low to middle income folks. We have teachers and cops and retirees, and a lot who just get by. We regularly pray for those who are unemployed, living in unusual domestic arrangements, or struggling with legal issues. For them, our church is one link of a very fragile chain of being.
America’s Opportunity Gap
In his New York Times bestseller, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam lays out the larger backdrop for the kinds of things showing up on our church’s prayer list. The Harvard political scientist addresses whether the United States is truly a land of opportunity or if hidden barriers have created an “opportunity gap” in our country.
It’s a question that matters as we look at generational change: Is it likely that a child born in poverty in the US can work toward a better life, or will he become caught in a cycle of instability and brokenness?
Putnam begins in the small Ohio city of Port Clinton, where he grew up in the 1950s. He remembers it as a place where rich and poor existed side-by-side, in the same schools, neighborhoods, and churches. Even his poorest peers had plenty of opportunities, with many going on to college and successful careers. Port Clinton looks different today, highly segregated along class lines. This divide, Putnam says, represents the key factor keeping the town’s poorest children from rising above their surroundings.
As evidenced by Putnam’s extensive research and first-person interviews in Our Kids, the same problem occurs in cities and towns across the country. For most poor children, the American Dream does not exist.
Of course, the issue is more complicated than “class segregation,” with family instability, parenting and early childhood development, schooling, and the state of the surrounding community all contributing to this opportunity inequality. Surprisingly absent from the list are race and gender. Though these remain forms of inequality in the US, Putnam names class as the greatest dividing factor. Affluent African Americans have more in common with affluent whites than with working class African Americans; and the statistics remain consistent across racial lines.
For me, though, the question of opportunity inequality extends beyond statistics, to the panic I feel when I pray with a six-year-old boy and wonder what kind of future he can hope to have. I feel a sense of helplessness when I consider what I can do about it as his Sunday school teacher and pastor’s wife.
For sociologists and public policy makers, Putnam’s book has been hailed as groundbreaking. Last week, President Obama and Putnam participated in a panel discussion as part of the “Overcoming Poverty” conference hosted by Georgetown University, aimed at motivating an evangelical and Catholic audience to work toward bridging the class divide in our country.
Putnam’s work has theological implications for church leaders. This focus on the opportunity gap relates directly to our desire for human flourishing and the Christian doctrine of imago Dei. Addressing income inequality is not about ensuring Americans can accrue wealth to enjoy a lifestyle devoid of responsibility (e.g. make it to the top of the ladder), but about giving poor children the chance to, in his words, “develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids.” Their current lack of opportunity has nothing to do with ability or desire and everything to do with whether they have to repeat kindergarten because they don’t know the alphabet or go to school hungry each morning.
Church leaders face a harder question, as well: Does the social “opportunity gap” predict a corresponding spiritual “opportunity gap”? Have our congregations become (as Putnam terms schools) echo chambers for broader societal inequality? Are we amplifying the gap instead of bridging it? If we are, then not only will poor children be unable to develop their God-given talents, it’s possible that they may never know the God who gave them those talents in the first place.
According to Putnam, this is precisely what’s happening. Since the mid-1970s, weekly church attendance among lower income adults (already lower than their more affluent peers) dropped by a third, while it slipped only slightly among the upper class. “If you listen carefully,” Putnam writes, “hymns in American houses of worship are increasingly sung in upper-class accents.” For Putnam, this is an institutional concern: churches are part of a broader social network and have traditionally provided mentorship and financial aid in tough times. But for pastors and church leaders, the gap has another layer. It represents the children who are growing up without knowing God’s care for them.
The Local Church
If part of the problem is class segregation, then part of the solution might be found in forming geographically based faith communities: local churches that are actually local. Many American Christians choose a church to attend based on how comfortable a congregation feels to us, theologically and socially, and how it might help us grow in the faith. These instincts are natural, but the problem is we end up mirroring how class segregation happens in the rest of society. According to Putnam, it’s not that the wealthy and the poor don’t exist near each other; it’s that their lives simply never intersect. Like seeks out like. And those with resources and mobility can find whomever they prefer to be with.
If we emphasize the local nature of the church, then we will associate with those within our geographic proximity regardless of background. With this mindset, if we target the upscale subdivision for evangelism, we must also target the trailer park that’s just a mile down the road in the other direction. If we are uniting around Christ and not class, we can unite with our neighbors whether they are “bond or free.” And the more this happens, the more the concerns of the poor become our concerns. Their children become “our children.”
Furthermore, if the church focuses on its local context, it will ensure that evangelism and discipleship paradigms arise out of local needs, not social media trends or ministry fads. For example: some churches are finding Sunday school to be extraneous, so they’re shifting the responsibility of discipleship back to parents. On the other hand, in our situation, we’ve found Sunday school to be essential. For some of our children, this will be the only religious education they ever receive. So every Sunday, we are working to ensure that they have at least a rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith.
Much of what our church has done has been instinctual, led by the Holy Spirit to fill needs when we see them. Like the time we rallied around a single mom to collect a down payment on a house so she could escape the instability of renting. Or the myriad times the church budget has paid electric and water bills, helping folks keep their self-respect in the process. But I also know that even this isn’t enough. While we work on the social opportunity gap we also want to keep on working on the spiritual opportunity gap in people’s lives.
If we are committed to winning our communities for Christ, it will mean taking the good news to folks who are socially alienated from the church. It will require creative thinking and a willingness to do things outside of our comfort zone.
And it will require that even as we pray about boo-boos and rabbits and little brothers, we also pray and work to ensure that all children have the opportunity to know the love of their heavenly Father.
Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live Imago Dei. She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com, or on Twitter @sometimesalight.