Working for a Living

November 4, 2011 — Leave a comment

I’ve worked at some sort of job since I was fifteen years old. I’ve mowed lawns, cleaned apartments, painted houses, pumped gas, mopped floors, scrubbed bathrooms and shingled roofs. I’ve sold newspaper advertising, encyclopedias and insurance products of all sorts. For a while I was a Fuller Brush guy. I even tried my hand at working in retail as one of the original cadre of booksellers at the first Barnes and Noble store in Jacksonville, Florida.

I’ve worked every shift — days, evenings and nights (and after working the night shift for six months, I know why they call it “graveyard”!). I’ve worked every major holiday. For the year I worked in the gas station, I worked 15 hour days Monday through Friday and then finished the week with a 10 hour day on Saturday (for a total of 85 hours/week @ $3.50/hour with no overtime pay). I was able to survive during this time because I lived with my sister “rent free”.

Through the years I’ve been unemployed and underemployed. Sometimes I was working two or three jobs simultaneously. I have only rarely had jobs that routinely provided the “weekend off”.

As the “Occupy” demonstrations continue, from time to time I hear folks critical of the demonstrators say, “Those people need to get off the street and get a job!” I suspect there are some of the “occupiers” who’d like nothing better than to have a job to go to. And my guess is, that, in some cases, their unemployed status isn’t for a lack of effort to find work — any sort of work — but for whatever reason, at this moment, there is no work to be found.

This is a difficult time in our country for many. The unemployed. The underemployed. The folks living with the stress of knowing their jobs could vanish or be shipped overseas at any moment. I don’t have any answers to the difficult questions posed by this continuing economic situation. But I don’t believe such answers will be discovered by simply yelling at each other.  I think we will actually need to take the time to listen to a point of view that may differ from our own.

Call me naive, but I really do believe most folks in this country desire the dignity of having work that pays a living wage. Perhaps the people who are making those seven figure bonuses forget the “little people” who make their bonuses possible. I’m pretty sure many of the folks in the work of government have forgotten they were elected to serve both their constituency and the ideals foundational to this country (not just worry about how to get re-elected).

I keep thinking that I ought to take some sort of concrete action, but I honestly don’t know what sort of action that would be. Maybe my own desire to take action is similar to what has fueled both the “Occupy” demonstrations AND the Tea Party Rallies. Maybe standing on the street with placards or talking into microphones represent our collective desire to be part of a conversation which so rarely takes the time to invite our input or bother to thoughtfully listen when the input is offered. Or maybe people simply want to feel like “words and witness” can make a difference in a world where circumstances so often seem to be beyond our control.

As for me, my work takes place amongst a constituency of about five hundred souls who gather somewhat regularly on a little corner in a moderately-sized suburb of a smallish metropolitan area in the Upper Midwest. We rarely have tea parties and we mostly occupy church pews. At the end of each liturgy we pray some version of “and now (God) send us out to do the work you have given us to do with gladness and singleness of heart.” Our work is that of proclaiming Good News — through words and actions — in our homes, neighborhoods and schools…and at our places of employment (if we’re fortunate enough these days to have such a place).

Sometimes, my particular work as a clergy person doesn’t look much like work — a few e-mails, some meetings, a dinner here or there, more meetings, talking for a few minutes every couple of weeks. Unlike painting a house or shingling a roof, it’s difficult to stop at the end of the day and see what’s been produced. Unlike farming, the harvest shows up in parish life in little ways, here and there, rather than intensely and abundantly at the end of a growing season.  But, this is the work I have and it’s my job to keep at it. This job includes (at the very least) praying for those who don’t have work, for those who seem to be making a handsome profit at the expense of those standing in the unemployment line, and for those who are charged with the creation of a just society through the governmental process. Most days, I don’t know how to most effectively pray in the midst of such complexities. On days like today when I feel the least able to make any sort of difference at all, I’m called by this peculiar vocation to do the work that doesn’t look like work and trust such work will be enough. Today I pray God will help me do both — work and trust.

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