I Learned Whole-Life Theology From My Blue-Collar Family

It is impossible to avoid, to escape, or to deny the reality that we live in a broken world. Broken people. Broken relationships. Broken neighborhoods. Broken systems. Broken commitments. Broken dreams. Broken hearts. Certainly, this pervasive brokenness is the obvious consequence of a creation corrupted and corruptible by our misplaced faith and our proclivity to reject God’s purpose and God’s promise. Yet, God’s purpose and promise have never been revoked. There remains the redemptive and restorative possibility of all things in Christ, toward which we have all been called to work.

The hardest work is the work of the heart. Perhaps one of the critical reasons why we have not experienced more transformation of the brokenness is that more of our hearts have yet to be captivated by God’s heart for us. Each week as I prepare to offer good news to the congregation among whom I serve, I consider my own heart and what is most important to me. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34 NASB). Consequently, I always come back to my experience of the family that shaped my life and utterly spoiled me for the work I do today.

Learning faith and work as a boy in Detroit

Beyond the privilege of the graduate theological education I have undertaken, the much more formative education I received was at 16502 Snowden Street in Detroit, Michigan, my home during the first chapters of my life. My single mother and her two boys lived with my grandparents. We maintained a modest lifestyle with one bathroom, plastic on the living room furniture, a garden in the back yard that produced fresh vegetables on my grandmother’s table for a family of seven. My family prudently resisted the dangers of the credit trap, choosing instead the annual “lay-a-way” at the local store for Christmas shopping, back-to-school clothing, and household appliances. Then and there it was not just about a family who cared unwaveringly for us, but those examples in our lives provided a wonderful community who demonstrated how time, money, gift, and influence could work to encourage a life of abundance.

My grandfather was a longtime General Motors assembly worker elevated to the responsibility of teaching white corporate executives the technical processes of plant operations – an extremely rare role in the 50s and 60s. Yet, granddaddy could also be found regularly doing after-hours work as an electrician for numerous families in the neighborhoods near and many miles away from our Detroit home. Each week I looked forward to accompanying him on his runs as I watched him work tirelessly, receive a handful of cash, and later hand it over to my grandmother to cover the bills. My grandmother was a seamstress by trade. I was always fascinated by the stacks of garment patterns and rolls of fabric scattered throughout the house and the constant traffic of church music directors looking to purchase custom robes for their choirs. I watched my mother leave each day for work as an administrative assistant for Wayne State University, before she would later step out in faith to try her hand at regional corporate sales and ultimately start her own retail business.

God’s favor and our faithfulness

What powerful examples of God’s favor at work through human faithfulness and fruitfulness. There will always be my treasure. There will always be my heart. The amazing thing was not so much what or how much was produced, but the treasure of humble lives poured into work that has borne much fruit over many decades. Despite the unrelenting systemic constraints placed historically on African Americans in this country and absent a level playing field or equal opportunity, the family I knew wisely operated within an economic reality to gain ownership of private property and to exchange goods and services.

I suppose one could dwell in the abstract and cite principles of how economics work in our United States context. Yet, people in the pews can find great fulfillment in the recognition and appreciation of economics as simply “taking care of the house.” Whether the house is where we are privileged to lay our heads or the “world-house” that Dr. Martin King, Jr. identified where all of humanity shares rented space, the treasure can be found in the house. Capitalism in a pure sense is merely one modern expression of human creativity and fruitfulness, began originally by our faithful God for the house. The idea involves the spiritual and social capital that every individual is meant to provide, partake of, and participate in. But more personally, it is in the words of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Doing the best we can with what we have.”

The tools of exposure and enterprise

The lessons I learned early were my first experience of whole-life discipleship. The solid foundation of economic wisdom fueling me today can be traced back to two critical influences gained in those early years in the Motor City: exposure and enterprise. God allowed me to be exposed to the ways in which faithful and fruitful lives could bless a household and keep a community thriving. I experienced small gift-based businesses serving a city with integrity and excellence, while providing for the needs of an urban household. Even aside from the impartation of a valuable work ethic, I learned the power of creating value through what we offer to the world. The wellspring of enterprise by ordinary people still inspires within me today the unshakable desire to be a blessing through what I contribute.

Jesus exposed disciples and crowds alike to the treasure of kingdom possibility. Jesus created the treasure of a sustainable and productive enterprise that has endured for thousands of years. Exposure and enterprise can become powerful tools of redemption and restoration to overcome the brokenness that too often takes center stage. Pastors stand in a unique position of great influence to underscore the importance of honoring God’s economy in the context of the relationships we are given, especially for the generations that follow. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Topics: Christian Life, Work and the Common Good

About the Author

Kevin Dudley pastors The Church at North Pointe, a healthy missional congregation in Columbus, Ohio, assisted by his wife, Gail Dudley and is father to Alex and Dominiq. Having earned a B.S. in business administration from Franklin University, both M.Div. and S.T.M. degrees from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, he holds a D.Min. in leadership from Ashland Theological Seminary and has completed coursework for a Ph.D. in systematic theology. He also serves as senior advisor for community development with the Catalyst Group in Central Ohio.