The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. … it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. …Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…”
It was March 25th, and Francis Perkins was enjoying tea with some friends. A butler rushed in with the news. A building was on fire. Francis and her companions raced to the scene. When they arrived, they beheld what they thought were bundles of cloth being thrown from the building. A closer look revealed person after person, jumping from the burning building to their deaths.
This took place in 1911. Two years earlier (1908), a young Russian immigrant named Rose Schneiderman had led the women working at Triangle Shirtwaist and other factories on a strike to address the very work safety issues that led to the fire that March afternoon. The response to her efforts was sad but predictable: indifference and harassment.
Witnessing the fire moved Frances Perkins to action. Up until this point in her life she had lobbied for worker rights on behalf of the poor. And, even at the time of the fire Frances was working at the Consumer’s League of New York, endeavoring to put an end to the practice of child labor. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire moved her from simply doing good works toward a vocation. Moral indignation set Frances on a course that would change her life and those of countless others to our own day and age.
The force of Frances Perkin’s character and her tireless efforts on behalf of the poor led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ask her to become his Secretary of Labor. By this time, Frances had a clear idea of what she felt was needed. So, she confronted FDR with her terms. If she were to join the cabinet, the President would have to commit to a broad array of social insurance policies including: unemployment relief, a public works program, minimum wage laws, a Social Security program for old age insurance, and the abolition of child labor. “I suppose you are going to nag me about this forever,” Roosevelt told her. She confirmed she would.
Perkins’ tenure wasn’t without strife, controversy and compromise. Through it all her faith provided her with strength. She once reflected “When a person gives a poor man shoes, does he do it for the poor man or for God? He should do it for God, she decided. The poor will often be ungrateful, and you will lose heart if you rely on immediate emotional rewards for your work. But if you do it for God, you will never grow discouraged.
Listen again to St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
This seems a particularly poignant passage as we observe Labor Day Weekend, a time in which we celebrate American workers. At the height of the Industrial Revolution the average American worked 12 hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a meager basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 years of age toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, faced deplorable and unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.
Labor unions first appeared in the late 18th century. In time they grew more prominent and vocal and began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.
Today, there are many things we take for granted—a weekend, minimum wage, a 40 hour work week and basic safety conditions. The safety nets that provide many people with the ability to earn a living wage and work without undue fear of losing a limb or their lives at work, including having some money set aside for their old age or should they become disabled are something which many of us assume have been around far longer than they have, and will remain. But a closer look at history reveals that at the time, these measures, which many of us would agree are reasonable (putting an end to child labor, instituting social security and insisting on workplace safety standards), these were lobbied against with a ferocity we might find shocking today. For instance, did you know that the owners of coal companies in West Virginia persuaded the United States Army to bomb communities who were striking in Logan County, WV? They did. Our government bombed its own citizens in 1921 to put a stop to a labor uprising. Now, that’s something not found in most of your history textbooks! Yet the Bible tells us: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”
Perhaps this year, more than others, should give us pause to consider the blessings and challenges of worker’s rights. The Covid era has highlighted the risks many people are taking in an effort to keep their jobs. Health care workers, certainly, but also teachers. This challenging time has also highlighted the extreme peril that many people who are working for minimum wage, and living paycheck to paycheck, endure. The high rate of deaths among those working in meat packaging facilities and by farm workers, the safety of those who operate public transportation and the conditions for sanitary workers is something which should all give us all pause. And it poses this question for us, raised by the Gospel which says: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor”: What are we willing to extend to others in order that all of us can thrive? How can we help those who labor in dangerous working conditions on our behalf?
Time and again, history has taught us that far too often those employers who are focused solely on the bottom line are more than willing to compromise worker safety—and the safety of humanity in general. We need only look at the horrific examples of DuPont and its promotion of Teflon, Boeing Corporation and its compromise of safety in its airplanes and coal companies in the Appalachian region of our country who routinely fought the claims of those dying from black lung and to this day pollute ground water supplies with impunity; Merck Pharmaceuticals who ignored studies and scientific protocol and promoted Vioxx to unsuspecting individuals for arthritis, who never guessed that the drug could also lead to heart attacks and strokes. And the list goes on. Why is this the case? Well, because when all you see are profits on a piece of paper, it is all too easy to miss the people. They become expendable. Loving others means that we see the people who make our lives the blessing they have become. It means we see sanitation workers, teachers, nurses, first responders, doctors, meat packaging workers and delivery persons. It means that we all are willing to give something up in order that we might all thrive.
These are moral issues. Moral issues are those which have the potential to help or harm others or ourselves. This means the ethics of our economics and the ethics of our politics are vitally important and should not be ignored. Indeed, they are the responsibility of each one of us. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.
Today we give thanks for the love of God, a love which asks us to see our neighbor as well as our actions in the light of Christ. And this day also offers us a challenge, to ensure both that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that the love we bear towards them does no wrong. This was a challenge in the time of Jesus and St. Paul, in the time of Frances Perkins, and in our own day and age as well. The challenge is for us to open both our eyes as well as our hearts to see; and to choose to live in the light of Christ rather than dwell in the darkness of ignorance and greed. I close with the words of St. Paul: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (and) let us live honorably as in the day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.