On Labor Day and Every Day, Finding the Sacred in Good Work
September 4, 2022
As Labor Day approaches this year, there is one family tale my mind keeps returning to. I love this story primarily because it distills the pride my family finds in work.
In the family lore, my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents were gathered for my brother’s baptism. When the service ended, everyone piled into numerous cars to travel from the church to my home for a celebratory brunch. I rode with my mom, and when our vehicle approached the house she gasped in disbelief because what she saw was a small work crew, comprised of uncles and my grandpa, still dressed-up in their suits for church, standing in the rain and sledgehammering our front stoop to pieces. This particular home-improvement project was mentioned in passing the day before as my parents gave a tour of our new home. However, there was no mention that construction on a new stoop would begin during the post-baptism brunch. Hence, my mom’s surprise.
It’s fitting that in this story we’ve all just returned from church, because in my family there is a sacred dimension to work. How we practice our work and how we practice our faith are intertwined. Both work and faith give shape to how we gather, are central to how we care for each other, and play a role in how we not only dream about but also enact a shared future. Many of my most joyful childhood memories involve loved ones gathered around work — helping aunts and uncles with remodels, spending Mother’s Day digging fence posts on the farm. I have had it modeled to me that work in service of your community brings purpose and joy to life. And, this good work is how my family engenders gratitude for the life God has bestowed us.
Ever proud of our heritage, my family will credit the joy and purpose we find in work to our Norwegian Lutheran cultural lineage. I can understand the accreditation. I, too, am awestruck by the deep faith and tenacity my great grandparents clung to as they labored to make a living as humble immigrant farmers. However, while these ancestors deserve reverence, this Labor Day I wonder if I can’t honor them by acknowledging that pride in work is not only Norwegian Lutheran, but a value that belongs to us all.
The history of the United States’ labor movement, which Labor Day honors, showcases a rich diversity of workers, who organized across cultural and racial divides around a shared value of dignified work often informed by their religious beliefs. The labor movement rose during the late 1800s when slavery was newly abolished and industrialization had given birth to a greedy and unregulated strain of capitalism. A mosaic of workers, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Black, Chinese, Irish, Italian, came together to demand an end to their exploitation and to fight for fair working conditions. The labor movement in this country was, and is, a faithful movement built by people who believe in their shared dignity, and who understand that the right to not just any work, but good work is essential to building an equitable future for all.
Fast-forward to 2022, I am writing this article from an apartment in Seward, Minneapolis. This neighborhood of the Twin Cities courses with the current of the labor movement’s history. A historic boulevard of homes built in 1880, Milwaukee Avenue, is within walking distance of my building. The homes on Milwaukee Avenue were built to provide affordable housing to an influx of Swedish immigrant workers. Today, the neighborhood still thrums with Scandinavian cultural influence. Swedish and Norwegian flags are flown outside homes, and Lutheran churches, founded by Scandinavian immigrants are numerous. However, when you venture onto Franklin Avenue (Seward’s main street) you won’t find any Scandinavian businesses. Instead, you’ll find a string of cafes, barber shops, restaurants, galleries and halal markets owned and operated predominantly by Somali Muslim immigrants. For the past 200 years Seward’s community has been comprised of immigrants working hard to provide for themselves and their families. The neighborhood pulses with the heartbeats of laborers who’ve traveled from different cultures and different faiths, and found their way here, to Seward, in search of the same thing: a chance to work, build community, and flourish.
It strikes me, this Labor Day, that good work is a widely held human value. One that many people, from many religious and cultural backgrounds, share. I am also reflecting on the fact that purposeful work in service of one’s community is also a profound privilege. Here in the United States, the right to good work, work that pays fairly, is safe, and directly contributes to an individual’s well-being has never been accessible to all. I give thanks for immigrant workers who toiled to build the infrastructure we depend on today, our highways, our railroads. Yet, I lament that they (we) benefited from the violent removal and disenfranchisement of Native peoples in order to do their work. And I lament that to this day, many immigrant workers still do not have access to just working conditions.
This Labor Day, I hold these wounds of the past and present in tension with the gratitude and hope that I feel. I have gratitude for the hands that have worked before me; the hands that built the co-op where I buy my groceries, the hands that built the church where I worship, and the hands that built the apartment I live in. I give thanks, too, for the workers I encounter each day; the hands who collect my trash, the hands who brew me fresh cups of coffee, and the hands who landscape the park I frequent. And I wonder, which of these hands belonging to those who have worked before me, and those who now work alongside me have labored in safe, fair, purposeful conditions?
As I reflect, I am humbled by the past. I carry with me the lessons of my Norwegian Lutheran ancestors who passed along values of work and faith to their kin. And I am listening to the workers of the labor movement courageously voicing everyone’s right to good work. Their shared example fills me with hope, because they show me that fostering good work is both worthwhile and possible. And their collective witness teaches me that where good work, work centering human dignity, is valued, diverse communities can and do thrive. In fact, without the lives of these workers before me, Seward, where I live now, would not exist as it does today. As imperfect as it may be, this neighborhood, just like countless other neighborhoods across the nation, showcases the kind of cooperation across religious, cultural, and racial differences that is possible when good work is valued.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
American Civic Life