“I just wish I did work that mattered as much as your work does.”
I was wrapping up lunch with a new friend when he dropped this line. His comment didn’t catch me off-guard. Frankly, it didn’t surprise me at all. I hear this comment—and close iterations of it—a lot. And I’m really tired of it. I’m tired of what it does to me and, even more, I don’t like it does to my friends.
I get it. I’m living the Christian dream, folks.
I work for an incredible global nonprofit. We’re missionary bankers, investing in the dreams of over half a million grassroots entrepreneurs around the world. Every day, we give vulnerable Rwandans and Ukrainians hope for today while introducing them to lasting Hope for eternity. We’re literally “proclaiming Good News to the poor…and setting the captives free.” I’m living the dream. But these comments inadvertently elevate my work while diminishing all others to little more than donation-makers.
I understand the line between my work and eternal significance seems incomparably short—surely much shorter than someone working as an engineer or baker—but my work is no more sacred. Granted, it’s taken me a long while to really believe that. When I first started working for HOPE International, I probably did think I was a little better than many of you Christians not working for nonprofit ministries. Just a little bit better. I’m sorry, but I think I did.
And I probably thought I was a little less spiritual than missionaries working directly on the field, those actually working in the slums. I felt I was less spiritual than activists running orphanages and/or living the monastic life. I always had an inferiority complex, to be frank, whenever I talked to anyone working to free women trapped in the sex trade at International Justice Mission. Because, I mean, they’re just amazing.
In The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, my friend and colleague Peter Greer titled a chapter, “God Loves My Job More Than Yours.” It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to very real danger of this common perspective. The vocational kingmaking pervasive in our churches corrodes us. And it’s simply unbiblical. I believe it hoists many pastors and missionaries onto dangerous pedestals and relegates the rest to cheerleading. Yes, God calls some of us to work for remarkable nonprofits, but he calls more of us to work for law firms, retailers and electrical contractors.
If we really believe we’re all priests, my work is no more significant than Christians manufacturing metal fans and selling mattresses. Scripture uses the analogy of a body. And our biblical heroes include all sorts of careers, from shepherds to centurions.
Some of their careers appear really secular. Matthew worked for the Roman IRS. Daniel and Joseph served as high-ranking government officials in pagan regimes. Jesus and Joseph were carpenters. Peter, Andrew and John were fishermen (they still fished for fish, even after they became fishers of men).
When I really look at scripture, perhaps I am the one who should be concerned about whether or not my profession is biblically validated. It’s not so easy to find biblical examples of Christian fundraisers!
Through my work, we provide loans and savings accounts to people living on meager incomes in Congo and Haiti. But my work is not more sacred, nor more biblically validated, than bankers managing the assets of American millionaires. We’re all to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness.” No career has the market cornered on being salt and light.
Merrill Lynch and HOPE International. [Your employer] and International Justice Mission. In light of God and the mission he’s given to us all, we’re all on the same team, each serving uniquely. I don’t care if you’re a homemaker, hotelier, or housemaid. It might not always feel that way, but your job matters as much to God as mine does.
—- I wrote this post to celebrate the launch of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work. I joined the Denver Institute board because of my enthusiasm about encouraging all Christians to consider the implications of their faith on their work.
Coach Kibomango fights with just one eye. He lost his other eye in a bomb explosion in his hometown of Goma, Congo. Kibomango grew up fighting as a child soldier, but today he is one of Congo’s top boxers. And he’s helping other former child soldiers cope with the heavy baggage they carry out of war. Kibomango can’t keep the lure of war away, however.
Boxing and Congo are not unfamiliar bedfellows. Rumble in the Jungle—one of the most-famed boxing matches of all time—squared George Foreman and Muhammad Ali against each other. The two heavyweights danced around the ring for eight rounds before Foreman, the world champ at the time, succumbed to Ali. The fight was cultural dynamite, stirring the enthusiasms of Congolese across the country.
And because of the efforts of Congolese leaders like Kibomango, boxing has returned to the world’s poorest country. The members of his boxing club share in the pain he experienced in his childhood: Most were conscripted by militia groups before they were teenagers. All of them experienced unspeakable horrors. But in the boxing club, gloves replace guns. Kibomango believes boxing, unlike the brutality of bush war, is about control and discipline.
“I feel at ease when I see them practicing,” Kibomango says. “Considering what we passed through, when I see young people practicing like this, it pleases me a lot.”
It’s a feel-good story: A therapeutic boxing club for boys recovering from the heinous life of guerilla warfare. But it ends on a depressing note. Kibomango’s young boxers are leaving the club. And they depart for the very existence Coach Kibomango helped them escape. With a new rebel army forming in the jungles outside Congo, young men willingly disappear back into the ranks, desperate for a paycheck. Though he has invested his life helping fellow child soldiers recover their identity, he admits he is close to reenlisting: “There’s no other way of surviving without being a soldier.”
Alli and I saw Les Misérables over Christmas break. The stirring message of grace surpassed any I’ve witnessed on the big screen. But one scene particularly haunted me. Weaving through the busy streets of 1830’s Paris, the film directors introduce Fantine, a single mom struggling to provide for her daughter. She struggles to make ends meet and eventually loses the factory job keeping her from life on the streets. With nowhere else to turn, Fantine resorts to selling her very body. She sells her hair, auctions her teeth, and sinks to prostitution to provide for her daughter.
Fantine’s story is fictional, but her plight is anything but. The commercial sex trade enslaves millions, with many of these girls lured into these horrific chains with the prospects of a good job. Sex trafficking and child soldiers are products of Adam eating an apple. They prove evil and are the worst displays of human depravity. But their fuel is joblessness. These are complex spiritual sufferings, but they are also straightforward financial realities.
Kibomango and his band of Congolese boxers hate their memories of ethnic massacres, torture and forced rapes. They desperately want to expel the demons of their childhood. And Fantine knew the decision to sell her body would lead to her death. She—and the millions of real women (like Rosa Andre) who face the same hard decision—never willingly enter this destructive industry. They acquiesce to it or are duped into it by the promise of a job. The child soldiers want to survive and the sex slaves want to provide for their families. The wake of joblessness for Kibomango and Fantine is death.
Jean Valjean, the gentle hero of Les Mis, rescues her from her misery and comforts her last days with the dignity of a hospital. And he takes in her orphaned daughter, Cosette. Like Valjean, we should bandage the wounds of the dying and care for the orphans. But even more, we should help them to not die. What Fantine needed most was a good job. If our solutions to Kibomango and Fantine’s problems ignore the simple economic realities, we fail to treat the malaise that will likely cause their death.
The battle rages on. Across the globe, forces for good assault a great evil–human traffickers. Ruthless, shifty and complex, our formidable opponent lurks in red-light districts and shantytowns.
“More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade…generating profits in excess of 32 billion dollars a year [GDP of Costa Rica] for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. Nearly 2 million children [population of Houston] are exploited in the commercial sex industry.” – International Justice Mission (IJM)
Leaders rally coalitions to combat villains who perpetrate these crimes on innocent children. Pioneers like IJM and Not For Sale convene activists and churches to fight this injustice. Together, they bring freedom to the darkest corners of our world. I pray these organizations grow. I pray justice is served. I rejoice with each girl whose chains of bondage break. And, I mourn to think of the many who are not yet free.
These pioneers are not without allies, however. On the front lines, a quiet hero is emerging. Inconspicuous, yet powerful, their chief ally wages war often without even knowing it.
Our hero? A good job.
Perpetrators rarely kidnap girls off street corners. More often, they lure girls into slavery with job offers. This explains why the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest countries are at greatest risk. Traffickers swarm in slums, offering parents a shot at prosperity. Give me your girl and I’ll get her a call center job across the border. They bait desperate families with financial opportunity.
Poor families are the bull’s eye for traffickers. Fewer poor families means fewer girls sold into slavery. How many parents in your neighborhood have gifted their daughters away to job placement agencies? Traffickers ignore our towns because our families aren’t starving.
Last month, I visited HOPE’s work in southern Asia. We work in a city known as a regional hub for the trafficking industry. I met with dollar-a-day families in slums throughout the city, watching our local staff breathe life into the oppressed. James, our country director, hates that his city is a target.
“We train the 6,000 families we serve how to spot a trafficker. And we help them start and grow businesses so the trafficker’s bait is irrelevant,” Jon told me.
HOPE International clients
Motivated by his faith to bless an at-risk place, my friend, Rick, recently opened the doors of a “trafficking-fighting agency” (pictured below) in another trafficking hotspot, Vietnam. This agency, a manufacturing facility, employs over 100 Vietnamese people. Linh, a beautiful young woman who was trapped in prostitution, now manufactures medical devices. She left a career of slavery for a life of freedom. The job changed her course forever.
Rick’s “Trafficking-Fighting Agency”
The CEO of a medical devices business, Rick doesn’t sign petitions and he doesn’t raid brothels. Instead, he creates opportunities for dozens of people to engage in dignifying work. His business provides an upstream, economic solution to an economic problem by putting traffickers out of business.
“I think our Vietnam operation will surprise us and become more than we’ve dreamt. We reflect Christ’s purposes in this place: To be God’s instruments to reclaim, to reconcile, and to redeem. To make all things new. That’s why we are here.” – Rick
In the war against trafficking, we need to deploy more than activists. We need to deploy an even greater force against our imposing foe. We need to unleash our secret heroes—the job creators. We need to affirm the big businesses, mom-and-pop shops, and social enterprises that create good jobs. We need to unlock the creativity of the human spirit to build new job machines, enterprises that strike the engine of the trafficking industry. We put the very fear of God in the heart of evil when freedom-fighters like IJM join arms with freedom-fighting job creators like Rick and HOPE International.