A few weekends ago, I was traveling with my family when our tire blew out. It was a Sunday, and no tire shops were open.
I used AAA’s mobile app to schedule a tow truck to pick us up, but there was only enough room for one additional passenger in the tow truck. This meant I was going to have to figure out another way to get my wife and four kids back home.
After a couple of hours waiting for the tow truck, my two-year old ran out of patience and experienced a full meltdown. I used Uber to arrange a ride home for my family. The woman who responded, “Wanda”, lived only a few miles from the highway. Wanda was a grandmother and was used to dealing with young children. She patiently waited while we loaded all four kids and car seats into her vehicle. Meanwhile I waited another three hours for the tow truck to arrive.
Our Tow Truck Driver with Big Dreams
When the truck finally arrived, the driver “Darryl” loaded our van on the flatbed and we both hopped into the truck together. To break the ice, I asked the basic question, “How’s your day going?” Darryl spent the next twenty minutes explaining the challenges of working for the towing company.
The worst part was spending time away from his young daughter while working a fifteen-hour shift on a Sunday. It was long hours with minimal pay. Moreover, Darryl knew what he earned was only a fraction of the revenue earned by the towing company. But because he didn’t have his own tow truck, he had no other choice.
I suggested to Darryl that if he could save to buy his own truck, he could freelance for several towing services as an independent contractor. Immediately Darryl’s tone changed—he enthusiastically shared how he had already made plans to buy his own tow truck in the future. Through working with several companies, he could earn more money and even save enough to go back to school and earn his degree. His big dream was to run his own trucking business and employ some of his family members who were struggling to find work.
The New Gig Economy
Both Darryl and Wanda are like many of the clients we work with in that they’re operating within the new gig economy. Apps like Uber take full advantage of the online environment allowing everyday people to run their own “side hustles” to earn extra income.
Mobile technology has also become incredibly cheap to produce, which means that web access is available even in poorer communities. Chicago’s struggling neighborhoods have operated within an underground gig economy for decades. But that gig economy was based on strong community relationships. While people in the new gig economy are more connected through technology, they are much less interconnected through community.
That’s where the church comes in—to reorient the new economy toward hope and dignity.
What Does This Look Like Practically?
I work with a program called Sunshine Enterprises that offers training and support to local entrepreneurs. It operates in neighborhoods across the city of Chicago, helping establish hundreds of micro-enterprises every year.
Today, the concept of the side hustle is now part of everyone’s vocabulary. It seems that everyone has a side hustle these days. But the difference is that while some people do so in order to splurge on shopping or vacation, others are running their side hustles from necessity. Most of the individuals that come through Sunshine are looking for creative ways to support their families. The reality is that when there are no jobs available, people come up with whatever means necessary to make ends meet.
In our community of Woodlawn, we have a van parked outside of an apartment a few blocks from Sunshine’s offices. It has the owner’s phone number spray-painted on the side, along with the ad hoc business name, “Neighborhood Transportation Services” in large gold letters. Before apps like Uber came along, this was the easiest way to solicit potential customers.
Woodlawn has at least a half-dozen of these delivery service vehicles, which many elderly residents use to get to and from doctor’s appointments. If the van breaks down, the neighborhood mechanic who lives close by comes over to fix it. He doesn’t have a garage to work out of, so he repairs cars right on the street. This is the paradigm in neighborhoods across Chicago.
How Your Church Can Help
Churches need to learn about the communities in which they seek to serve. This starts with recognizing the wide array of God-given talents and skills that people in their community possess. But churches must also seek to understand the context in which those talents are being utilized (or underutilized) and why.
Years of disinvestment have left certain communities undeveloped, facing stagnant growth. For decades, many south-side Chicago neighborhoods have been barred from access to the larger marketplace. But greater access to technology is a simple means of removing those barriers. One other component is recognizing how technology allows us to connect directly at the source of goods or services without an intermediary. This new transparency encourages better consumer accountability with larger companies and stronger relationships with local entrepreneurs.
Cultivating Networks of Exchange and Opportunity
This new economy in some ways is more reflective of the system of barter and exchange that early colonies instituted with indigenous tribes and other settlements. Once the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued some of the first paper money, it didn’t take long for greenbacks to become the currency of the land. But before this, people traded on skills and services to one another. Today neighborhoods facing chronic joblessness operate in much the same way. This “off-the-books” economy is driven by relationships, a general knowledge of one’s neighbors, and an interconnectedness that makes meaningful exchange possible.
Churches have the opportunity to model interdependency and connection to one another, just as the early church did. Because every person has been made in God’s image, they should be afforded the dignity of being able to use the work of their hands to contribute to strengthening the neighborhood. If enough neighborhoods can cultivate a thriving ecosystem of exchange, then those neighborhoods can in turn form hubs of opportunity, forming larger regions, and so on. Technology has a big role to play in building these robust networks across the country, as does the church in issuing the call to meaningful, purposeful community.
Ethan Daly, Sunshine Enterprises Director, leads the strategy and partnership development efforts for Sunshine Enterprises. He has specific experience in mentoring, skill building, leadership development, community outreach, and economic development as a small business owner and entrepreneurship trainer and coach. Ethan is originally from Indianapolis.