(excerpt from article written by Reverend Ed Middleton for the Dallas Area Progressive Christian Alliance)
It was the summer of 1972, decades ago, and yet, not as long ago as some like to think. A textile worker sat at her sewing machine experiencing great discomfort. She was eight plus months pregnant on a 94 degree morning when her water broke. There were still three hours left on her morning shift, and she had agreed to pull a double shift beginning at11 p.m. later that day, ending at 3 p.m. the next day.
As she limped from the plant that morning en route to the hospital, her supervisor warned her, “If you don’t have that baby and get back here by eleven tonight, don’t expect to have a job when you return.”
She did have that baby and at 11p.m. that evening she was sitting at her machine determined to pull a sixteen hour double-shift in order to save her job.
I have shared that story in sermons past and it never fails that someone asks me its locus. I report that it happened in a textile plant in southeastern North Carolina. It was not an exception to the rule, rather it was typical of the systemic inhumanity manifested in industrial plants across Flannery O’Connor’s Christ haunted, but never Christ centered, south.
Company supervisors sat in pews with plant employees many Sunday mornings singing the pious songs of Zion, while pastors preached against alcohol, adultery, card playing, dancing, and gossiping. Deacons and Benevolence committees talked about how to help the poor at Christmas, but never was a word spoken about how a worker was worthy of his or her hire and deserved to be paid appropriately for her or his labor.
Civil observances regularly intruded upon the liturgical seasons with special Sundays like: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July (Patriotic) Sunday, Community Thanksgiving service. Hardly ever was time taken on Labor Day to pay homage to workers, and never was anything said publicly about the determined workers across the decades who risked their lives to stand up for fairness in the work place.
There are many reasons why we so readily ignore the meaning of Labor Day. Among them is that we have yet to sort out how we feel about work itself. We struggle in a love/hate relationship when it comes to work. We were raised in a culture still blessed or tormented (you can decide for yourself which one it is) by the protestant work ethic. Therefore some of us find our self worth bound up with work and how far we can rise in the system.
This has translated, I believe, into the consumeristic furor of the past three decades. "I’ve got more stuff than you; I must be better. My stock portfolio is thicker than yours; I must be more righteous than you. I work smarter, harder, better. See, I’m a person of quality, a true American Christian. Now I can feel good about myself."
We’ve bought thousands of self-help books, taken courses on line, attended retreats with the latest spiritual guru (who, no doubt, will end up on a PBS fundraising program), and we still are unclear about the place of work and whether it’s about feeding ourselves or validating who we are.
The early storytellers, who passed along the creation narratives, seemed to get that we would always have this ambivalence about work. You won’t live in paradise and will have to work yourself to death, but life goes on and God continues to abide with you.
The prophets (I do so love Amos’ anger and Jeremiah’s whining) saw clearly that faithfulness to God meant faithfulness to justice in the market and the work place, as well as in the temple. The Jesus of the gospels showed himself not only to be aware of his Jewish tradition, but deeply connected to it. The gospel writers were marked by Jesus’ stories about harsh masters and timid servants, day laborers who worked different sets of hours only to be paid the same wages, and a reaffirmation that what God requires of us is that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
People of faith are confronted by an abundance of evidence that the way things are is not the way God intends, yet we stay silent. We keep quite about Dallas’ privatized sanitation workers who barely make minimum wage. Texas is the most deadly state in our nation for construction workers having few safety requirements and little enforcement, but we stay silent.
I understand that we haven’t figured out how we feel about this work thing in our life, and why so much of our sense of worth is connected to it. But I am suggesting that perhaps we need to move beyond our personal comfort zones to deal with greater issues regarding work and justice. Isn’t this present economic crisis an opportunity to seek out our sisters and brothers who daily face dangerous work for the lowest of pay, the unemployed who have given up on finding a job and who have lost hope, or those among us who struggle in their fight for a living wage? What might justice look like through their eyes and what might work mean to them?
The struggle for justice is always hard, but it is most bitter when people who have received great mercy fail to be sources of mercy for others. As we approach and observe this Labor Day, what are our commitments to do justice and love mercy?
Reverend Middleton and Elaine Lantz at a recent Jobs with Justice meeting