“Yes, I am a fortunate man, but that is not enough. I want others to have my fortune too.”
I am a fortunate man. I have known this for some time. If I were still young and could look into the future at what shape my life would take in my mid-fifties, I can confidently say I would be pleased. I left the doctor’s office this morning for an annual checkup and was given a clean bill of health, and of my life generally that could be said. My children have done well and so has my marriage. At this chapter in my life I am where I should be, the pastor of the stately stone church in the small city of Thomasville. God is putting me to use here.
Would I choose all the details that take up my days? Certainly not. A water line break at the house, and dickering over my cell phone and getting nowhere is not an afternoon in sunny weather, but these are not inconveniences that down-grade my life. So as I said, I am a fortunate man. And yet … I find myself disheartened.
It would help to know that I come from working class stock. My grandparents emigrated from Quebec to work in the paper factories of the early 1900s when manufacturing was still in existence in Northern New England. Though my mother was attending graduate school when she was my age, she raised us with a high school diploma and a waitress job at a local tavern. My father, though not around most of my childhood, managed gas stations along the Massachusetts turnpike. I was raised in a neighborhood of second and third generation families of European descent who came home from work with the soot of manual labor, making the stuff people bought off the racks and shelves in stores like Sears & Roebuck.
That way of life is gone now, with many of my childhood friends having left our Thomasville-sized city for places with opportunity. There are few jobs left in Chicopee with wages that would pay a modest mortgage and provide healthcare for the family. But it is not only jobs lost, rather a way of life in rural communities and small cities that many of us identified as America. Take a long drive on any of our cross-country scenic highways and you will get a visual of one-time vibrant towns fallen into hard times.
I am not naive enough to think that the nation’s empty factories will be restored as they were in the 1970’s. Bedroom furniture, jeans and our favorite basketball sneakers need a smaller workforce to manufacture them and much of it has found a new home overseas where it will remain. Time brings change and always will. Pining for the past has never been a successful enterprise for anyone.
My low-grade malaise is not for what has been but for the lack of hope in what is still possible within Middle America. For most of our history people thought of the United States as the land of opportunity; and even though we may have lived in a financially struggling household there was always the future and with hard work we could get ahead.
I read recently an interview with a scholar from the Brookings Institute whose study’s find that “today 62% of Americans think their children will be worse off than they are.” I was not surprised; I have been seeing these numbers lately in articles and books, most notably Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis and Hillbilly Elegy. Most of that really low optimism comes from the white working poor, which is my lineage and kin and possibly yours.
I am convinced that the determining factor in a child’s future is not how much money a family has, but whether or not a family has hope. From hope expectations are taught and a better life realized. Opioid overdoses and suicide, a scourge in our poorer communities especially among white men, are deaths of despair. It is an infection from not seeing a way forward. These are the people I ran with when I was a kid, and when I see their obituaries or that of their children posted on Facebook my heart is broken.
But it is within a broken heart that we hear God speak, and so he has. I am a plain spoken Methodist preacher, ordained in a church that was born from the plight of the coal miner and the factory worker. Methodists are the people that received me when I was a teenager and my family was broken. It is within our DNA to receive kin like mine. John Wesley may have had the personality of sour milk, but he cared deeply and working folks knew it.
Yes, I am a fortunate man, but that is not enough. I want others to have my fortune too. This is why each day I get up and go to work.
Hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion; speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, Thy people, from consuming passion, who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.
Hope of the world, who by Thy cross didst save us from death and deep despair, from sin and guilt;We render back the love Thy mercy gave us; take Thou our lives and use them as Thou wilt.
United Methodist Hymnal