As Labor Day approaches, I was reflecting on the teachings I received from my parents as I grew up. My mother always seemed to have a Bible verse for everything – “Whatever you do, do it unto the Lord” (1 Corinthians 10:31), “He who does not work does not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:11), and “Go to the ant, you sluggard” (Proverbs 6:6). Her favorite non-Biblical aphorism was that work has never killed anyone.
Living on the farm, there is work for the children as early as kindergarten. Assignments are given to feed the chickens, cows, pigs, and sheep in the morning and evening as well as to clean their pens. As one gets older, parents take their children to work in the fields – plowing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting. All these jobs entail getting up before sunrise and getting to the field in 30–60 minutes.
Once we left Yugoslavia, we lived in Italy for 16 months. I was 15 and I worked with my father loading stuff for a couple months before I got a job in an electrical store delivering materials.
I was 17 when we came to the United States and over the next 10 years, I worked at a pharmaceutical company, a furniture company, a tank manufacturing company, and a meat packing company. In two of these companies, I was employed because I knew somebody in the company who put in a good word for me. For the other two jobs, I put in an application like everyone else. I also worked in two companies in which I lasted only two days—selling copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica and putting caps on bottles.
Some of these companies had strong unions and some had strong bosses. I had a few post- college jobs that tested all my political and social skills as I observed that these workers had few rights but the wise corporations who treat their workers right reap great benefits. I have also worked for companies where people only wanted to benefit themselves; in the long run they destroyed their companies.
Since 1977, I have worked for churches, missionary organizations, and universities. Among the many stories I remember, I will mention two.
- One of my daughters found out that an adjunct professor is paid $3000 for 13 sessions of 3 hours each. In their minds, they figured out that it came to $230 a session (over $70 an hour). What my daughter did not know was that for each three-hour session, a professor prepares for 9-12 hours. Suddenly the three-hour session becomes $15 an hour, which does not include meeting with students or grading papers.
- At the end of a day when we taught 2-3 classes and had faculty meetings, some of my colleagues would exclaim that “teaching is backbreaking work.” I would reply that the real backbreaking work is in the field harvesting beans, beets, and lettuce and done by people receiving less than minimum wage.
The Bible says that the laborer is worth his/her wages. I am writing this article while vacationing in South Africa where Thursday, August 8th is celebrated as Woman’s Day. Schools were closed and South Africa took a four day holiday. The reminisced about national teams that brought gold medals home to South Africa, only to find out that the women on national teams get paid about 10% of what the men receive.
There are countries in the world where unemployment is high from 5%-50%. The 21st century will face a crisis of employment. While in the poorest homes may have family members who own a smartphone, it does not mean that they are equipped to make their living in the technological age. In fact, a new concept is being floated around that started in Scandinavian countries and was even mentioned by former President Obama in a speech he gave in South Korea. The concept is that a citizen is entitled to a salary no matter if he works or not. This is shifting the paradigm that work gives dignity to a human being to getting a salary gives dignity to a human being.
I have had many opportunities to work in my life. With the exception of those jobs that only lasted two days, I have enjoyed what I am doing tremendously. Even now I wake up every morning thanking God that I am alive, I am surrounded by a loving family, and I have places in the church and university to go where I thoroughly enjoy my work.
When I was in Chicago in the mid-eighties, a parishioner came to me and said that he is looking forward to life in the presence of God where he will not have to work at all. His concept of eternity was a continuous vacation. I responded with the verse that says, “My Father worketh and so do I” (John 5:17). God did not stop His creative work after the sixth day. He rested so he could continue to do the work of the universe. Jesus also says, “Blessed is the servant whose master finds him working when he comes” (Matthew 24:46). His reward will be an expansion of his working privileges because God found him faithful and trustworthy in his earthly work.