The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive. Foreword by Starsky D. Wilson
Patrick B. Reyes, Senior Director of Learning Design at the Forum for Theological Exploration in Decatur, Georgia tells a story of contrast between his life and that of his cousin who died from addiction, diabetes, and lack of support. Like his cousin, Reyes is a Chicano from Salinas, California who grew up facing gang violence, trauma, and neglect. However, unlike his cousin, Reyes benefited from countless people in his life, including family members, teachers, pastors, and friends, who believed in him and encouraged him to live a life of meaning and purpose. This difference between the conditions that were made available to him but not to his cousin is what drives Reyes to address “the purpose gap” that exists when marginalized people are not given access to the necessary resources and opportunities to thrive and fulfill their life purpose.
In this book, Reyes intends to reframe the narrative on vocation, meaning, and purpose that has been designed primarily for white, middle-class, and professional individuals and that leaves behind most Black, Brown, minoritized, and working-class people. He challenges this narrative as it often contributes to creating an ample gap where marginalized people cannot reach the opportunities they need to achieve their life purpose. Rather, Reyes asserts, we need to rethink the conditions that have been designed to keep people from fulfilling their purpose and callings in order to close the purpose gap. Applying the metaphor of a bridge, Reyes explains how under normal conditions, only a few people of color manage to cross over from purpose to opportunity through the support of mentors and organizations on either side of the gap. Reyes provides the example of first-generation college students who earn scholarships but who, once they cross over to the other side of opportunity, the fulfillment of their purpose is not always guaranteed. For Reyes, the goal is to close the gap once and for all by replacing the bridge, designed to only help the “exceptional” few, with a “communal road map” that leads marginalized people to freedom and the opportunity to thrive (85, 192).
Writing as a Christian theologian, mentor, father, grandson, community leader, and as a Brown man who has experienced abuse and discrimination in his life, Reyes argues that to close the purpose gap we must first acknowledge that it exists, and then think deeply about what it “means for our spiritual and intellectual inner lives” (12). He also calls for people of color and marginalized communities to explore ways to discern our many purposes even when there are systemic structures at play that limit our access to resources and opportunities. He supports his argument with a rich body of evidence that includes scriptures, storytelling, ancestral wisdom, decolonial theory, and scholarship on vocation. For example, he compares closing the purpose gap with the promise of Jesus’s Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mountain. Drawing from Matthew 5:3–10 Reyes says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (13). Applying biblical reasoning, he challenges the reader to design solutions that are “free from oppression and that provide access to opportunities for the next generation to thrive” (12).
In The Purpose Gap Reyes continues to develop his vocational call to life which he introduced in his first book, Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood.1 There, he outlined the call to life in three stages: a quest for survival, a struggle for the marginalized to find their place in society, and, finally, a pursuit of liberation.2 With this in mind, The Purpose Gap serves as a guidebook to freedom from death and marginalization for future generations of people of color and disadvantaged communities. For these communities to flourish, Reyes invites the reader to imagine alternative designs to the ones that create the purpose gap, to understand cultural differences on each side of the gap, to reflect on institutional vocations, and to build networks across both sides of the divide. Closing the purpose gap will require us to not only form and nurture these relationships, but to embody Christian virtues such as compassion, humility, courage, and gratitude.
To display his plan for closing the purpose gap Reyes divides the book into three parts. Part I, “Why the Purpose Gap?,” explains what the purpose gap is and explores the importance of our collective effort to create the conditions for marginalized people to thrive. In chapter 1, he introduces the historic conditions of the purpose gap and challenges the myth that everyone has access to the same opportunities to find purpose and meaning in life. Chapter 2 continues to challenge the single story of purpose. In particular, Reyes takes aim at how mainstream theologians, historians, and artists alike follow a linear storytelling of meaning and purpose based on a lone hero’s journey. Instead, he sees the need to introduce non-linear notions of storytelling, such as focusing on the experiences of all characters not just on an individual protagonist, to better represent the realities of marginalized people. In chapter 3, Reyes addresses the insufficient resources made available to people of color and how that deficit results in many cultural, social, economic, psychological, and spiritual obstacles that limit their purpose. He calls some of these limitations “cultural commutes,” real and imaginary barriers that prohibit the closing of the purpose gap. Chapter 4 goes one step further and examines how rethinking the mission and purpose of institutions and organizations can help close the purpose gap for the people they serve. Each chapter of the book ends with a list of reflection questions. These include “Can we construct collective purpose?” (59), “What communities and institutions have paved the way for you to achieve or help you achieve your purpose?” (78).
Part II, “How Do We Close the Purpose Gap?,” emphasizes the work of the whole community in closing the gap. In chapter 5, perhaps the most hopeful and inspiring chapter, Reyes recommends that instead of continuing to create conditions “for stars to shine” we need to imagine alternative conditions to “build constellations” of young people reaching for their purpose. Chapter 6 focuses on the role of networks for creating constellations. Chapter 7 addresses some of the challenges that many Brown and marginalized communities facing displacement and dispossession have to confront when attempting to build networks with others and at home. For this chapter, the closing reflection questions include “Who were your greatest teachers beyond the classroom? What do you have to unlearn from your education?,” and “If education is the price of freedom, then how are you contributing to the liberation of future generations?” (140).
Part III, “What Is My Purpose?,” explores the possibilities for thriving that come when people are able to live into their purpose. Through inspiring stories about the human spirit, such as Jesus’s healing of the paralytic man in Luke 5:17–26, chapter 8 addresses the power of communities that come together to move individuals “toward healing, justice, and accomplishing the impossible” (143). Finally, chapter 9 reframes what it means to live every day as a “good day” when our focus becomes supporting one another and continuing to create the conditions to uplift future generations to achieve their purpose. The closing reflection questions include “What stories encourage you to flourish?” (168), “How are you going to design your day?,” and “How do you create conditions for future generations to thrive?” (192).
This ambitious, challenging, and at the same time practical and necessary book is written primarily for people on the margins who seek to overcome the purpose gap and for those committed to make this thriving a reality. As Reyes states, “I want to help parents, teachers, social workers, friends, neighbors, and elders see that to create conditions for people on the margins to thrive is not just central to our purpose but it is the very heart of our tradition” (9–10). For Reyes, this tradition is none other than the quest for social justice and the advocacy for the sacredness of every human being set forth by Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) and that continues to this day through the work of Brown theologians across the Americas (64). Therefore, readers accustomed to engaging with questions of purpose and vocation from the vantage points of white authors may not be as familiar with the many outstanding authors of Chicano and Latin American literature (Anaya, Anzaldúa, García Márquez, Moraga, Santiago), decolonial theory (Fanon, Freire, Glissant, Mignolo) or Brown Theology (Las Casas, Baca, Dussel, Romero) cited by Reyes. But that is exactly the point I wished Reyes would have emphasized more, that the gap runs both ways. If we are seriously committed to redesigning our disciplines and institutions, building our networks, and closing the purpose gap, we must level the playing field and make our different traditions evident and relevant to one another so that all theologians, historians, and artists learn from each other. This way, we all can enter the conversation on how to make sure Brown and marginalized people discern purpose and vocation on their own terms.