Foundry United Methodist Church

Jana Meyer, Minister of Missions




Honor Thy Neighbor’s Labor

Sunday, September 4, 2005



Jeremiah 22: 13-17


Romans 13: 8-10


Jana Meyer


Our country is not the same as it was a week ago.  The images and news from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi have been unimaginable and hard to grasp, and, no matter how involved we may get in our everyday tasks, impossible to put out of our consciousness. I want to thank those of you who have called me and spoken with me and helped me to reflect both on how Foundry might support response efforts, and also on how we as a community reflect and pray together today, in the context both of this hurricane disaster, and of Labor Sunday.  These conversations are the basis for this reflection.

It is appropriate that we hold these two contexts together, this horrific disaster and this day in which we honor the dignity and value of workers, and affirm their historic and present efforts for justice in their workplace.   The big disaster was not just the hurricane and the levees and the problems in the response.  As several journalists have noted, the big disaster was poverty and racism.  The people left behind in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were for the most part the people who could not afford to leave, or who were staying with family who could not leave.   The people left behind were primarily African American.  When the call came for evacuation, there was no plan to evacuate the 100,000 or more who could not afford to leave.  And so, they were left behind, as often happens to people who are not taken into account.  Disaster can happen to anyone, rich or poor, but the options for survival that you have if you are rich or poor are very, very different.

So as we open our hearts to respond to this disaster, I would hope that we not overlook the warning and the lessons.  It can be natural in a disaster to focus on taking action immediately.  The reality is that there are many silent disasters of equal proportion taking lives everyday, such as HIV/AIDS in this city with the highest infection rate in the country, malaria, which kills more people than AIDS, countless wars including Iraq, violence in the home.  But we no longer focus because we have become immune and we are no longer horrified or moved.    So one challenge in response to Katrina will be to maintain our attention and efforts and presence for the years it will take to recover. 

The other challenge will be prevention in our own communities.  We can talk about the resources that were diverted away from the work on the levees, or the impact of the war on the availability of the National Guard and other resources, or other things that could have happened differently.  But we also need to be asking about the economic levees, about poverty, because when disaster strikes it disproportionately affects poor people.  And as recent articles have noted, Louisiana is one of the poorest states where black people make on average half as much as white people do.  Why are so many people in the community too poor to evacuate?  Why did no one take them into account?   But before we point the finger at Louisiana, let’s look at ourselves.  How prepared is our own community to face a disaster, particularly one that falls heaviest on those with the lowest incomes?


Our scriptures today offer us insight as we struggle with these questions.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts us to owe no one anything except to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do not wrong to our neighbor.  Jeremiah rebukes Jehoiakim for building his palace with conscripted forced labor.  “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages.”  Jeremiah contrasts Jehoiakim’s practices with his father Josiah’s focus on justice for the poor and needy.  So it seems pretty clear.  We construct our communities on the basis of love and justice for our neighbors.   Both passages talk about our neighbors.  Paul addresses love for our neighbor, and Jeremiah is talking about construction, and the way we construct, and our relationships with those doing the building.         


And this passage on construction is an appropriate lens through which to view our community.  DC is in the midst of construction.  How does this construction take into account those who are most economically vulnerable?  We all know that working families are getting pushed out of the city by the revitalization and gentrification that is happening.  And it is not the building that is the problem, it is the discounting of and sacrificing of our neighbors in the process that weakens our community.   Furthermore, we can ask questions about those who are doing the actual constructing.  Are their lives being revitalized or sacrificed in this process?


As you know, a group of us at Foundry have been getting to know our neighbors the day laborers at 15th and P, who have been involved in this construction.  Many of them tend to work for subcontractors, often doing paint jobs.  Most of the workers have experienced not being paid or being underpaid.  In the short time I’ve gotten to know them I’ve been appalled at the number of injuries that have come to my attention.  These injuries become problematic not only in the injury itself but also the lack of health care available, lack of access to medication, and loss of earnings.  Although workers are eligible for workers compensation, many are unable to collect it if they do not have sufficient information on the employer.   It is a shocking reminder that some of the construction or renovation we see around us, even in individual houses, has been stolen from our neighbor’s labor.


The day labor issue has struck a nerve locally and nationally, bringing attention once more to the issue of immigrant workers, who are at the intersection of neighbor and labor.   These workers are our neighbors in our cities, and also our neighbors on this continent.  They are building our cities, and are helping us to rebuild our lives after each disaster.  Forty percent of the workforce that rebuilt the Pentagon were Latino workers, for example.  And most likely, they will be a significant part of the workforce that rebuild after Katrina.  And yet, although immigrant workers grow our food, take care of our children, build and rebuild our houses, work in the restaurants we eat in, clean our houses and hotels, rather than create the means for them to legalize their status, we continue in a system that keeps many locked in an economic subclass of undocumented status.  We have been unwilling to respect and honor these neighbors for the work and service they provide to our communities.  We do not even consider them to be our neighbors.


In order to love our neighbor we must be aware of our neighbor and go to the encounter of our neighbor and get to know our neighbor’s situation.  And that is not always easy.  I have to say it has not always been easy for me to walk down to 15th and P to encounter our neighbors.  I am forever grateful to Joyce McKee who agreed to do it with me from the beginning, as well as many others at Foundry who have taken part and helped shape this outreach.  I know that I go there with my own fears, my own ignorance, and my assumptions.  Sometimes we may encounter mistrust, sometimes people may laugh at us, or be angry with us, or wonder what we’re doing, or feel patronized.  Sometimes we get to know different workers and the next time we go there it’s a different group and we don’t know anybody and it’s like beginning again.  It can feel very awkward sometimes.  Sometimes our efforts to support them and address the injustices they face seem to go nowhere.  We make mistakes.  And yet, we go back, because we’re committed to this relationship with our neighbors.  And I find that there is something that happens when we meet each other in our mutual imperfection.  We are not perfect in our efforts and neither are our neighbors.  The relationship develops in our mutual willingness to accept that.  And in the process, we receive something in the relationship, and we learn more about our neighbors. 


As we encounter our neighbors, we begin to know their stories.  Like yesterday, when we went to 15th and P to honor the workers for Labor Day.  We took them sack lunches, and a workers prayer, and the phone cards that all of you generously donated.  The reason we took them the phone cards is that we have found out that so many are separated from their families. 


It’s not that 1000 people from Foundry need to go to 15th and P.  There are many other 15th and P’s in our lives, where we can go to encounter our neighbors:  in our own workplaces, in the programs we create.  Wherever we step out of our own comfort zone and get to know our neighbors, and the work they do, and how it relates with us.  The people at our workplace we have not gotten to know or truly appreciate.  The people who work for our church, do you know all of them? Those who care for our children, who clean our worksites and places of worship, the hotels we stay in when we travel, the nurses and doctors who care for us when we are sick. The preschool teachers at the church.  The security guards, the parking attendants, the taxi drivers.  The people who take care of our yards and our buildings.  People who are struggling to make a living in this city and cannot find work, or enough work, or work that pays a livable wage.  These are our neighbors, and we depend on their work.


As we get to know our neighbors, we discover faithful questions we must ask about the injustices in their lives and in our lives.  Why are people working and not getting paid?  Why aren’t people earning a living wage in this city or in our workplace?  Why do we take it for granted that people working in certain types of work, including child care, janitors, security guards, are not going to make a living wage for this city?  Incidentally a self-sufficiency budget for Washington DC for one parent with an infant and school age child is $20 an hour or $42,000 a year.  How are families who make less surviving? Why so many people without health insurance? Why are people getting injured on the job and getting no assistance?  If we need the workers, why don’t we create ways for them to legalize their status?  How is it possible that so many people are too poor to evacuate in one of the richest countries in the world.  Why are so many working people still poor?


These questions may seem somehow less important when faced with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.  But this is the work of the levees.  The work, which when ignored because it doesn’t seem somehow as critical, leaves us much more vulnerable to disaster.  This is about how we construct our communities, our programs, and even our very buildings.   If we are to build strong levees, we must construct with love and justice for our neighbors, even if it seems costly in the present.  We must be willing to take the unpopular stance of Jeremiah and denounce injustice as we see it, even if it is within our own foundations.  We must dare to construct communities and workplaces and programs and faith communities where people can earn a living wage for their families, and where everyone’s work is valued and respected.


This is certainly not an easy charge.  It is not easy to go to the encounter of our neighbor in uncomfortable places when so many things divide us, and to stay aware of our neighbors when our attention is drawn by something else.  It is not easy to call attention to injustice and to try to build justice, especially when we can’t see any immediate results. 


But we must persist.  We have to persist.  To love our neighbor is to honor and value their work in our community.  It is the vital work of prevention, of the levees, which we cannot ignore.