On Work

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When I was old enough to apply for working papers at thirteen, I got my first paying job as an office gopher for the Board of Education. In high school, I worked for the New York Police Academy as a film projectionist. These menial jobs were tedious but put a paycheck in my pocket. In weekends, I also waited on tables, worked late and endured abuses in the kitchen and dining room. I suffered their obloquy for good money. In college, I worked in a church as summer school counselor. During the school year, I was a community organizer and helped form the “We Won’t Move” committee. We fought against The New York Telephone Company who had wanted to displace a block of tenement tenants. Organizing powerless people against a powerful company aroused a certain moral purpose. After that, I also worked in a neighborhood day care center. My title was family counselor but my responsibility had nothing to do with counseling. I primarily processed families’ applications for day care. The pays were meager but exposure to city politics, racial diversities, the working poor and the parlous corporate world was emotionally affirming. After seminary, for the next four decades I was a parish cleric. Not built for sitting in the lead chair, I struggled with character and competence challenges with conflicted church leaders and members. Discouraged often but not once did I doubt my calling.

Along the way, I detoured to work for my denomination overseeing churches. The position exposed me to religious politics, institutional bureaucracy as well as ecclesiastical movements. This grand vista of the church, in its goods and bads, prepared me for my next vocation. Toward the final years, I became a seminary professor of pastoral studies. The art and craft of academic vigor and the classroom dynamics were incredibly fulfilling. It affirmed a creative bent in my calling and validated an integration of my life experiences with theological education. In time, after working since I was thirteen, my body had grown tired and my mind had become weary. I was simply spent. After walking away volitionally from my vocation, I retreated into contemplative sunset (my home is on Sunset View). In contemplation, in leisure, in being alone with the alone, I paint, read and write. Whenever invited, I still preach and teach in local parishes.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt mused that in our human condition, we need a vita of labor, work and action to find our calling. Labor is what we do to make a living. In those early employments I labored to earn pocket money. With money came buying power. After saving a full year I bought a Nikon camera. I also brought home groceries from time to time to support my family. With money also came independence. I learned financial responsibility early and quickly. Work is what grants us opportunities to find meaning in what we do. Few are fortunate enough to wed labor with work in their employments. My work with the “We Won’t Move” committee and the daycare center gave significance to what I did. I didn’t know it then, but I was nurturing a deep sense of life calling (the meaning of vocation). By the time I entered professional pastoral ministry, my work had become a convergence of life experiences, realized skills and providential opportunities. Arendt defines action as those intentional acts that cultivate relationships with others. Through these many years, whether I wanted to or not, or realized it or not, at every developmental stage, significant people entered my unformed life and gave it formation. I could not have done much or come this far without their affirmation, validation and empowerment. With others, we labor, work and act simply because we need to be human.