My parents grew up in relative poverty in England in the early part of the twentieth century, when there was very little economic opportunity. Neither of them was able to finish school or could afford to go to college. My mother lived with her three brothers in a house with two rooms in a war-ravaged city in the North of England, and had to work as soon as she was able to supplement the family’s income. My father spent his childhood in various foster homes and orphanages in London. He contracted TB, which incapacitated him and kept him from work in early adulthood. Opportunities, support, and pathways to success were in scarce supply.
But social changes with the poor in mind slowly created better conditions and more opportunities for working people. Children gained full access to a good public education, and I personally benefited greatly from that. I remember some of the difficult days (including one memorable week where we ate only porridge!) but by the time I approached adulthood, and with a grant from the government for low-income families, I was able to go on to medical school. That would never have been possible in my family just a few generations before.
My story is far from unique, of course! Not so long ago, families who did not own land or other means of production had very few rights or opportunities. But people who have gone before us courageously, patiently and selflessly struggled to establish workers’ rights (including a holiday to both celebrate “labor” and provide time for some well-earned rest)—such that today many of us have access to unbelievable opportunity and benefit.
So this Labor Day I want to take a moment to remember those who helped create a brighter future for people like me. I want to express gratefulness and celebrate the Labor Movement not just as a very practical and political entity, but as a movement that resonates with God’s belief in humanity. Everyone matters, everyone bears the divine light, everyone has immeasurable potential and so much to give.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by actually having some down time, resting from my own labors, and honoring those who struggled so that people like me could be allowed time off.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by honoring the thousands of working people around me in jobs that seem menial and often go unnoticed, but that keep the world ticking over and make my life so much better. I want to renew my commitment to see them, to speak with them, to tip them, to thank them, and to share God’s love.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by being painfully aware of the countless people who still don’t have as much opportunity as me for all the reasons that I find so hard to talk about like race, economics, power, and privilege. I want to renew my commitment to taking action in society with the interests of the less privileged as a priority.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by emulating those who have gone before me and giving my life away to others. I want to renew my commitment to invest time and energy in my relationships and to look out for others who need support and encouragement.
For many, Labor Day has come to mark the official end of summer. Evenings are getting slightly shorter, mornings are a little cooler, goldenrod is blooming, and the leaves are tinged with yellow and brown. Soon those leaves will fall, a sacrifice to enrich the soil with the energy and nutrients to make another spring possible. This Labor Day I want to renew my commitment to live my life like that. As Jesus said: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”