Lazarus and the Rich Man

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Hamlet, North Carolina (Luke 16:19-31)

That man dressed fine as Sunday every day
of the week. Owned Imperial Food Products
poultry processors. Had a plant right here
in town. Every morning, early, the workers
would line up at the front gates–mostly women,
mostly black folk, some with joints froze up from
working those machines, some with emphysema
from working the pantyhose factory
down the road, but all wanting their babies
to eat half as good as what sat on that
rich man’s table every evening ’round supper time.
Well, he got to worrying that some folks
might start stealing his chicken parts,
so he took to locking up the factory
doors once the morning shift was in place. The
time came when a hydraulic line blew on
one of the deep-fat fryers and black smoke
filled up the room, followed by grease fire. None of
the state-of-the-art, automatic, carbon
dioxide sprinklers ever came on. Most
folks died at the south end of the building
near the walk-in freezer. They had headed
for the exit, but it was locked. Then they
were drawn on by the gulps of cool air. Some
died down at the loading dock. Piled up on
each other trying to get through the small
hole between the wall and the truck blocking
the platform. There was Mary Alice Whit.
She was dead. There was Peggy Fairley. She
was dead. There was Lillian Mary Wall,
who’d only worked chicken a few months. She
was dead. And Margaret Banks. When
they brought her out, you could already
tell she was dead. All in all, there were 25
who died that day. The Hamlet police lieutenant
said you couldn’t tell whether the bodies
were white or black on account of the smoke; but the
angels, who pay no mind to color, came
and carried every single one of them
up into the arms of Abraham.
Now, all of this happened the day after
Labor Day. And even though Imperial
didn’t allow no organizing in its
plants, the North Carolina Textile Workers
Union still sent dresses (and suits for the
men) to use as burying clothes. At the
First Baptist Church the mourners cried out “Lord,
Lord,” maybe because in the confusion
they had missed the angels. They cried out “Slavery
time’s been over! How much longer is it
going on?” To which there was just no good
answer. What all happened to the rich man
was never much covered in the newspapers,
but the actual truth is
his story’s been told before.

Rose Marie Berger

On September 3, 1991, a fire swept through the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. Twenty-five workers were killed and 55 injured, trapped behind locked fire doors. In 11 years of operation, the plant had never received a safety inspection. Investigators believe a safety inspection might have prevented the disaster. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of Imperial Food; his son, Brad Roe, Imperial’s operations manager; and plant manager James N. Hair were indicted in March 1992 on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Emmett Roe had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside. He received a prison sentence of 19 years and 11 months, less than a year for each person he killed. Roe became eligible for parole in March 1994, and was released just under four years into his sentence.

(Lazarus and the Rich Man by Rose Marie Berger first appeared in Sojourners magazine, August-September 1992)

For more on the Hamlet, N.C., industrial fire, read A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow by Lawrence Naumoff.

See also the University of Virginia “Labor Disasters” web site.

Bill Droer: Mixed Motives and Social Justice

social justice

“Keep in mind these two Catholic principles: #1.) Everyone does everything for mixed motives. The right thing gets done for mixed reasons; just as the wrong thing can get done with good intentions. #2.) Social justice is a this-worldly virtue. Thus, all reform is incremental; more social justice will be required tomorrow.”–Bill Droer, Initiatives (March 2014) from the National Center for the Laity

Joan Chittister: Bless the Work of Our Hands

photo by Ben Curtis
photo by Ben Curtis

“A spirituality of work is based on a heightened sense of sacramentality, of the idea that everything that is, is holy and that our hands consecrate it to the service of God. When we grow radishes in a small container in a city apartment, we participate in creation. We sustain the globe. When we repair what has been broken or paint what is old or give away what we have earned that is above and beyond our own sustenance, we stoop and scoop up the earth and breath into it new life. When we wrap garbage and recycle cans, when we clean a room, when we care for everything we touch and touch it reverently, we become the creators of a new universe. Then we sanctify our work and our work sanctifies us.

A spirituality of work draws us out of ourselves and, at the same time, makes us more of what we are meant to be. My work develops myself. I become what I practice all my life. “Excellence,” Samuel Johnson wrote, “can only be attained by the labor of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price.”

My work also develops everything around it. There is nothing I do that does not affect the world in which I live. In developing a spirituality of work, I learn to trust beyond reason that good work will gain good things for the world, even when I don’t expect them and I can’t see them. In that way, I gain myself. Literally. I come into possession of a me that is worthwhile, whose life has not been in vain, who has been a valuable member of the human race.

Finally, a spirituality of work immerses me in the search for human community. I begin to see that everything I do, everything, has some effect on someone somewhere. I begin to see my life tied up in theirs. I begin to see that the starving starve because someone is not working hard enough to feed them. And so I do. It becomes obvious, then, that the poor are poor because someone is not intent on the just distribution of the goods of the earth. And so I am. I begin to realize that work is the lifelong process of personal sanctification that is satisfied only by saving the globe for others and saving others for the globe. I finally come to know that my work is God’s work, unfinished by God because God meant it to be finished by me.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpt from For Everything a Season by Joan Chittister (Orbis)

Happy International Women’s Day!

Men: Wish the women around you “Happy International Women’s Day!” Perhaps give them a symbolic “bread and roses” to honor them.

Women: Who are three women who have had a profound and positive influence in your life? Tell the story.

I chose this particular video of the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, women textile workers strike because I was delighted to see that it had been translated into Arabic – a contemporary twist to match our global winds of change.

And here’s the lyrics so you can learn the song:

Bread and Roses play mp3 or 

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

Good-bye ‘Norma Rae,’ Sorry About the Health Care

crystal_lee_suttonCrystal Lee Sutton, the textile worker and union organizer from Burlington, North Carolina, who was the inspiration for the 1979 Academy Award-winning film Norma Rae, died last month from cancer.

Norma Rae was a ground-breaking film for the American labor movement and also launched Sally Field, who played the lead, in her film career.

“Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally,” Field said in a statement responding to the news of Sutton’s death. “Portraying Crystal Lee in Norma Rae, however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being.”

NormaRae fieldLinda Meric,  executive director of 9 to 5, the national association of working women, has a sobering post over at Facing South on Sutton’s death as it connects to delayed coverage from her health insurance company. Meric writes:

Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman whose life inspired the 1979 film Norma Rae, about a brave union organizer, died of cancer on Sept. 11, 2009,  after struggling in 2008 with her health insurance company.

Her insurer delayed her treatment by two months, initially by denying coverage of her medications, according to an article published last year in North Carolina’s Burlington Times News.

Her untimely passing at age 68 speaks powerfully to the continuing debate over health care reform.

Read Linda Meric’s full post here.

Substantive health-care reform includes 1) a publicly funded option for obtaining health insurance, 2) provides accessible and affordable insurance for everyone who is uninsured or under-insured, including legal and undocumented immigrants, and 3) contains clear “conscience clauses” around the issues that are morally sensitive.

Without it, we will continue to lose our heroes–known and unknown.

Religion, Workers, and the Economy

youngstown-steelI really appreciate the class analysis from the folks over at Working-Class Perspectives, a blog from the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. They are doing contextual analysis – and sometimes, contextual theology – from the heart of the Rust Belt.

Here’s an excerpt from Religion, Workers, and the Economy by Brian R. Corbin, looking at the Pope’s new encyclical Charity in Truth. Brian is director of Catholic Charities in Youngstown and blogs at brianrcorbin.com.

Since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic social teachings have provided moral and ethical guideposts for economic behavior.  Of particular importance, have been the Papal Encyclicals on the economy that have sought to protect the working class and their institutions in the face of unfettered capitalism.   In Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Church goes a step further by providing a critical analysis of neoliberal economic thought and the problems of globalization while reiterating the need for basic protections for workers and unions.

The pope writes explicitly that justice abhors great disparities in wealth and that societies need “to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”  Employment, however, needs to be “decent work.”  Benedict writes that  such work  “expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman; work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”

To read my column on the encyclical, see A Love Letter From the Pope.

Our New Organizer-in-Chief

I caught indy journalist and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman at D.C.’s Green Festival yesterday. She reminded the still-deliriously happy crowd that the work of rebuilding democracy is just beginning.

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman

Calling Obama our new “Organizer-in-Chief,” Goodman said the election was won by a combination of community organizing and unprecedented fund raising. But the jury’s still out, she said, on the lessons learned.

The answer is in who gets listened to in the new administration. Will it be the big dollar donors who find an ear? Or will it be a new day for community organizations and the people they represent?

Goodman made the point that Obama will need organizers pushing from the outside – both in times when community leaders genuinely disagree with him, but also for the added power it gives the president when he knows millions are ready to take him to task should he wander astray.

And to prove her point, Goodman lifted up two women as models for the kind of leadership that we now need:

Rosa Parks. Contrary to the watered-down history that portrays her as a tired seamstress too exhausted to give her bus seat to a white man, Parks was a trained community organizer – trained, in fact, at the Highlander Center with Myles Horton. Goodman called her a “first-class troublemaker” and pointed out that it was Rosa who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched Dr. King into leadership of the civil rights movement.

Mamie Till. The mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched during a summer vacation to in Mississippi in 1955, Mamie Till made the strategic choice for an open casket at Emmett’s funeral. Because of a mother’s courage, photos in newspapers around the world showed the brutality of racism.

Our new Organizer-in-Chief needs a few “first-class troublemakers” like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till to lead from the grassroots. Tuesday’s victory was huge and necessary, but this campaign was won, not solely by Barack Obama, but by an electrified citizenry committed to change. To move this from a historic “moment” to a historic “era” will take ongoing commitment by that same citizenry..