At South Street, I often work with volunteer groups. This may be one of my favorite aspects of my role there. I feel a kinship with most volunteers, knowing that volunteering has been such an essential part of my own urban experiences. I also get to share some of the theology and theopraxy of South Street with the volunteers, a conversation I generally enjoy having (and a soapbox, I seldom avoid).
This week a group asked me about downward mobility. Before I expand upon my thoughts, let me introduce some background definitions. Upward mobility is a socio-economic idea of moving up social and economic classes. It is one's ability (whether intrinsic to that person, as in naturally athletic or intelligent, or circumstantial) to move up and out of own's present circumstances into a 'better' life. Many would associate the idea of upward mobility with the premise of the American dream.
However, the group asked me about downward mobility. Downward mobility, from the questioner's perspective, is the notion of forsaking one's natural 'success' for a life 'below one's means.' This question is derived from the South Street story. Duane, haven given up a middle class job, for a life of pastoral work in a predominantly lower class neighborhood embodies this notion of downward mobility.
And it was at this point, that my normal paradigm began to shift. A year ago, I would have signed on to the notion that downward mobility was a good thing. That forsaking my chances for economic success in exchange for a life of service was the way to go, however I find there is more to it than that. And the more to do is this idea of privilege.
I have stated above that mobility is connected to one's ability, whether intrinsic or circumstantial, however I would now expand that definition to include privilege. There are occasions where underprivileged individuals and families move up the social ladder. And there are too occasions where the over-privileged (if we have underprivileged, a term I often use in grant writing and hear often times in social justice settings, dare I suggest that we must therefore have over-privileged) will be forced down to a lower economic class. However for the privileged, these are usually matters of choice, whereas for the poor it is generally a forced status.
Why bother with this distinction? To what end rant about economics and class and mobility? Because I am trying hard to love my neighbor and I wonder if talk of downward mobility is a little offensive to them. I recognize that my choice to live on Bachtel in Summit Lake was a choice to forsake living elsewhere, but I often recognize that it was a choice in the first place. I did not move here out of necessity or out of poverty (poverty really being a lack of power and resources). I moved here by choice. My privilege allowed for upward and downward mobility, which is a contradiction somewhat.
So when my volunteer group asked about pursuing downward mobility, I cringed a little. It was suggestive that we could choose to be poor. That 'slumming it' was a good choice for up and coming college graduates. And as I pondered their question, I thought of my roommates. One who just received a promotion at his financial investment firm, the other who just purchased a new (well new to him, used) car since he had a new job. Is that not the definition of upward mobility? New jobs, better pay, better vehicles. A better life?
And that is what I want for my neighbors. A better life. But a better life together. I would not encourage downward mobility for downward mobility's sake, that is a foolish contradiction. Rather upward mobility together, that is an idea I can rally behind. Because with those new jobs and opportunities, my roommates continue to share with those around them. Their success does not just trickle down to the poor, it is directly shared with our neighbors (sometimes, often times we are a bit too selfish still).
Mobility is a real idea. I have witnessed friends graduate and succeed. I have seen neighbors try and try and try and remain unemployed still. Privilege is also a real concept, I have been privileged to have many of the opportunities I have had. I recognize that they were in part of my own hard work, but ultimately the credit lies on the systems that favor people like me (and consequently de-favor people who are different). But it was not mobility that led me to South Street. It was love.
And there is no law on love. Love is not restricted to a particular socio-economic class. And as I struggle to love my neighbor (and in doing so struggle with my love for God), I wrestle with the differences of class and cash. But my hope for my neighbor is not poverty, but opportunity.
So, good reader, as you too consider these things, I am sure that something above comes off wrong, but if you take anything from my jumbled rant, remember to love your neighbor, and wrestle through what that means.