Matthew 5: 1 – 9, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
This past week marked a significant anniversary in the life of our country. It was exactly 400 years ago, in late August of 1619, that Africans were brought to this shore, to the coast of Virginia. It is the 400th anniversary of the dawn of American slavery. This past week many African Americans commemorated the anniversary by gathering in Hampton, VA. They faced the sunrise to the rhythm of drums and waves on a windswept beach, dozens wearing white, near the spot where the first enslaved Africans arrived. Those gathered participated in a cleansing and naming ritual. This ritual was presided over by visiting chiefs from Cameroon, Africa. Bells tolled at landmarks around the country – from the Statue of Liberty in New York to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to the Harriet Tubman historical site in Maryland. The United Church of Christ in Hampton, VA rang its bells 400 times in commemoration of the 400-year anniversary. Africans persevered through the indignities, dehumanization, and atrocities of the middle passage. These Africans were sold as involuntary laborers and as indentured servants. This began our country’s unjust labor practices.
Unjust labor conditions continue for many black and brown skinned persons, especially. Today is Labor Sunday. The first Labor Sunday was established in 1909. It was meant to be a day for churches to pray for workers (which we did this morning) and to raise congregations’ awareness about unjust labor practices which I will do in the sermon today. This is not easy news to hear. But sometimes we must hear the bad news before we hear the good news. So, first the bad news.
- Over one-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. (28%) pay poverty-level wages. Forty-three % of Hispanic workers, 36% of black workers and 23% of white workers earned poverty-level wages.
- Over 8 in 10 low-wage workers do not have a single paid sick day.
- Up to two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries are victims of wage theft. Failure to pay for all hours worked or for overtime are just some examples of the ways employers steal wages.
- The U.S. food system employs 1 out of 7 workers, of the nation’s workforce. Yet, the U.S. food system is the worst employer in the country in terms of wages and working conditions. Food workers have the highest rate of food insecurity, ironically. That is, food workers struggle the most with paying for their food.
- It is very difficult to buy clothes – and especially shoes – that are made under fair, sweat-free conditions and not in a sweatshop.
- Most coffee beans are produced by small countries who grow and harvest their crop, then sell it to a local buyer, a “coyote.” It then passes through the hands of additional middlemen and then reaches huge multinational coffee roasters. Small farmers rarely get fair treatment in a system where all the market power lies with the middlemen and the huge multinational firms. This is exactly why UCC sells and serves during fellowship hour Fair Trade Coffee – so that the money will go to the farmers rather than to the middlemen and huge multinational firms.
- Most of the chocolate we eat involves child labor. There are two countries in Africa that produce 70% of the chocolate and they use child labor. This is why we sell Fair Trade Chocolate because Fair Trade Chocolate ensures that child labor was not used in its production.
Most low wage workers are black and brown-skinned persons, but let’s not forget that we follow in the footsteps of a brown-skinned carpenter, who, too was a low wage worker. Jesus and his disciples were low-wage workers. Jesus worked the rough wood, walked the long and dusty roads, and knew the bitter thirst of the poor. Jesus said blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom (the Kindom) of God. Low-wage workers are high-value children of God according to today’s scripture passage.
Low wage workers today include house-keepers (who themselves live in substandard housing while they keep others’ homes shiny and beautiful), child caretakers (who sometimes have to neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for), farmer workers (who suffer from low pay, few benefits and harsh and often dangerous working conditions), and retail sales clerks (many of whom cannot afford the clothes in the department stores of which they work). It’s been said that these low wage workers are the greatest philanthropists, sacrificing the most for the benefit of others. These positions are more likely to be filled by women and people of color – marginal jobs for the already marginalized. Just like Jesus. We sometimes justify poverty wages by assuming certain workers are not worth more, are not worthy of living wages. Low-wage workers themselves sometimes believe themselves to be unworthy and begin to think that what they’re paid is what they are actually worth. But all workers are people of God, made in God’s image. Jesus was a low wage worker. Low-wage workers today, just like Jesus, deserve a living wage.
We may be feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point and wonder what can we possibly do to make a difference? Certainly, we can and must urge lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, further improve workplace safety, and provide more equitable health care. But there are individual things we can all do – small gestures that may have enormous impact on the life of a worker.
Be polite. Wait patiently in line at the fast-food restaurant. Put your cell phone away and say hello to the cashier at the grocery store. When you are finished with your grocery cart, put it back where it belongs. When the construction crew, standing in the hot sun, inhaling exhaust fumes all day, has the highway blocked to repair potholes, obey the speed limit and heed the signs. Clean up after yourself in the hotel room. Throw away your popcorn bag after the movie. Say thank you to your waiter when they bring you water. Respect those who serve you. Be polite.
Be mindful. Notice the workers around you who make life what it is. Think of the many ways you benefit from others’ labor. Two weeks ago, I was toiling over a sermon. Sermons can be quite challenging to write (and I was feeling even a bit sorry for myself). I looked out the window and I noticed one of our workers toiling in the 103-degree heat. We use a service for our landscaping at church called Miguel’s Landscaping Service. He had dropped off one of his workers. An older man with who was disabled. He had a big brim hat, long sleeves, long pants (to protect him from the sun) and a big backpack connected to a blower. He was blowing the leaves off our church parking lot in 103-degree heat on asphalt, his leg dragging behind him. As you can imagine, the sermon I was toiling over in a comfortable air-conditioned office did not seem quite so challenging. Be mindful of the workers who make life what it is – a clean parking lot in this case.
Be generous. Tip well. Waiting tables is hard and often thankless work. Ten percent is not enough. I encourage you to tip at least 20%. I heard about a church in South Central Illinois who had met their operating budget by the end of November. The Elders stood up before the church and said, “We have met our budget. We don’t need your money.” Yes, that is what those crazy people said. Now to be fair, I need to say, that they didn’t have a minister for half of the year – so that helped with budget expenses, but they said, “We don’t need your money. So, whatever money you would normally give in December, we want you to give it away to someone who needs it. And then tell us your story.” Lots of stories came in. A favorite though was the $1000 tip to the Waffle House waitress.
If you’ve ever been to a Waffle House, you know that you pay on your way out. The waitress dropped off the yellow ticket. And this church member stuffed $1000 – fifties and hundreds – underneath the yellow ticket. He runs out to his car, so he can watch from his car through the glass window. If you’re a waffle house waitress and there is no one there, but the ticket is still there, you’ve been stiffed. And he watches. She looks around. She rolls her eyes, she rips the ticket off the table, and she sees a wad of cash. And she begins to count it. And he sees that she’s thinking she is in the middle of a drug deal or a money laundering kind of thing. So, he gets out of his car and runs in and says, “That’s your money. Merry Christmas. God bless.” She’s crying. He’s crying. His story inspired others in the congregation to leave big tips for service industry folks.
We may not be able to tip $1000, but we can be generous and tip well. Be polite. Be mindful. Be generous.
It was 400 years ago that enslaved Africans were brought to this land, in August of 1619 – facing oppressive, brutal working conditions. Four hundred years ago exactly. I got to thinking, it took 400 years to deliver the people of Israel out of bondage from brutal, oppressive, unjust labor. After 400 years God delivered the people of Israel out of bondage through his servant Moses. I wondered, “God, are you going to deliver this nation from the stranglehold of oppressive and unjust working conditions? After all, it’s been 400 years now. Exactly.” And God said, “I don’t know. You tell me.” Indeed, we are co-laborers with the Creator of Liberation and Justice. May we work together to create the Kingdom / Kindom of God on earth for all people. Amen.
*Many of today’s statistics came from “Labor Day Resources” on the UCC’s Worship Ways website.