Routines and work and busy schedules—day to day life—can make us forget, or miss, what God is doing around us. Recently at Advance, three conversations with South Memphis neighbors woke me up and reminded me that our neighborhood is filled with talented people, made in God’s image, who are working to improve their lives and their community. Here are three things I observed in a fresh way, thanks to our participants. 

17000527041_4fb5f0f083_zPEOPLE WANT TO GIVE BACK
As we welcomed folks to class for orientation today, we asked, as we always do, “What would a positive possible future look like for you 18 months from now if you worked hard to move towards your goals?” Almost immediately a gentleman in the back spoke up and said: “I would be giving back to my community, investing in those like me who need somebody to help them along.” “I’d be financially stable and able to give generously to my community,” said another. “I could be a mentor or role model for younger folks, because they will see the change in my life,” said a third. (And grads ARE giving back – see this recent story.)

These answers get at the heart of why we do the Jobs for Life class: work is one of God’s best ways of empowering His people to contribute to the life of their communities. That’s why Paul tells even thieves to work with their hands: “so that you might have something to share with those in need.” Our neighbors are deeply invested in their communities and care about improving them. That’s a big part of why they’re here.

At the beginning of each class, though, we also ask about challenges that participants face. Criminal records are a common answer, but today I heard a story that reminded me of the injustices facing ex-felons in the marketplace.

“I worked for six years for a company, full-time with benefits, and good at what I did,” one woman shared. “But because of a situation at another warehouse, they decided to do company wide background checks, and when they saw I had a felony from 12 years prior, they fired me.”

What a reminder of the way the system stacks up endless obstacles against low-skilled workers and workers with troubled pasts, no matter how far back. Paul thought thieves should be able to work so that they could contribute, but too often our system ensures that former thieves, regardless of how recovered, find it very, very difficult to find any work at all. And in some cases, like this woman’s, a person’s background trumps 6 years of quality performance on the job. I’ll remember that story the next time I hear someone say that if somebody really wants to work they can find a job, or that businesses will always reward hard work and solid performance. The story from the community’s experience reveals a much more complicated situation.

This afternoon, I also ran into a recent LAUNCH grad. LAUNCH is a 10 week entrepreneurship class that seeks to equip our neighbors to achieve greater economic self-sufficiency through starting or improving small businesses. This woman was on the computer filing her paperwork with the IRS because she just got another regular commercial client. As I talked with her, I realized this woman is set up to be doing $2,800 dollars of guaranteed revenue each month! And she’s looking for more! What a testimony that this woman, currently living in government housing, is using her God-given gifts and her God-given hustle to overcome the odds and create work for herself and her family.

Isaiah 61 tells us that the Messiah would come to turn the poor, captive, and indebted folks into Oaks of Righteousness who would rebuild the walls of their devastated cities. One of the best parts of working at Advance is getting to know some of these Oaks, some of these folks who, like those I talked to today, are using their God-given gifts to become a “planting for the display of His splendor.” May we open our eyes and ears to all of God’s image bearers, looking for ways to encourage one another on our way towards His kingdom.

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