Fr. John Rauschby Fr. John S. Rausch,
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

My friend joined a battle that was fought one hundred years ago.  On Paint Creek and later Cabin Creek, West Virginia, coal miners in 1912 went on strike because work conditions nearly resembled slavery.  The violence escalated to such a point that the governor declared martial law and sent in the WV National Guard.  What upsets my friend is the historical presentation of the conflict as being over wages and working hours.

Higher wages was the eleventh of eleven demands of the workers, and shorter hours was ninth of the eleven.  The first demand was the “abolition of the mine guard system.”  The brutality of the mercenaries hired to keep the miners in line extracted severe mental anguish on the worker and his family.  Free-market historians and journalists focus on the common concerns of trade unions: “wages, hours and conditions,” but seldom do they examine critically the patterns, structures and power dynamics of the workplace that speak directly to the human spirit.

Jobs

Candidates for office frequently talk about creating jobs, and the word “job” could be seen as shorthand for personal economic stability.  But, in our free market/capitalist system, you don’t need a job, you need income.  Every slave has a job, but the sons and daughters of the rich don’t need jobs—they need only walk to their mailbox to get their dividend or interest check.

Actually the idea of a “job” came from the specialization of the industrial process when a craft like making a chair was separated into segments with many workers making one part.  This led to enormous productivity through mass production.  Centuries ago, farming was not a job, but a lifestyle, and unique skills like woodworking or silversmithing were considered a craft or a trade more than a job.  Today, the more educated among us are not looking simply for a job, but a career.  And, perhaps that quest for something more is the window into the spiritual, and it introduces how people of faith view work.

Good Jobs, Dirty Jobs 

Somebody needs to take out the garbage, and somebody better clean the commode.  The work that dirties our hands ultimately benefits coworkers and the community, so perhaps the job itself is not the problem, but the way it is structured.  When folks work as a team, the cleanup duty goes much faster and might even become fun.  By day’s end, workers may be tired, but they can feel a sense of satisfaction that they treated customers curiously, or made a good product.  These are dimensions of the spirituality of work.

My point: we can structure work so everyone feels a sense of worth, dignity, belonging and pride in the effort.  Work can be organized either to feed the soul, or diminish the spirit.

Currently, free marketers disparage unions.  The story of the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Strike of 1912 reminds us that the power of ownership can structure work for near slave conditions.  Workers have a right to form a union because they are social beings and as isolated individuals without power they can suffer abuses to their dignity.

Free marketers frequently denigrate those who are unemployed because they draw government assistance.  Economists differentiate between frictional unemployment, when a worker leaves a job to find a better one, and structural unemployment, when in a deep recession no jobs are available.  We cannot blame the victim because jobs are scarce.  We need to question the system because people’s desire for work feeds their need for self-worth and dignity.

I once organized a group of three women on welfare to start their own house-cleaning cooperative.  After three months of meeting weekly, the Daisy Fresh Cleaning Association received its incorporation papers from the Commonwealth of Virginia and we were ready for work.  In a workers’ cooperative, the workers make their own rules and structure the work.  I remember at our luncheon celebration with Coke and snacks asking the folks what we want to buy first, knowing we had the money for all sorts of cleaning equipment.  First purchase—not brooms or mops—but decals that said “Daisy Fresh Cleaning Association.”   The folks sewed the decals on all their blouses and jackets.  More than wages and hours, the decals said “I might have been on welfare but I am somebody.”  The Daisy Fresh women knew more about the spirituality of work than people on Wall Street or most economists.

Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, is the director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and works against mountaintop removal.  He was the recipient of the Pax Christi USA’s Teacher of Peace Award in 2007.

4 thoughts on “REFLECTION: The spiritual dimension of work

  1. Thanks John for your excellent reflection on spirit-uality in work.

    James Autry in his book The Servant Leader finds meaning in relating spirituality to a deeper connection with our work. In surveying recent changes confronting business and a flurry of responses – “everything from Total Quality Management (TQM) to Reengineering to the Learning Organization”- he asks the question:

    “So what’s missing? I submit that what has been missing is a deeper connection with our work, a connection that transcends position and power and money, a connection that earlier generation had but that we seem not to have. I call that connection, that deeper meaning, the spirit of work. … I say “the spirit of work” to distinguish your spiritualiy at work from the more personal spirituality that comes from your relationship with the sacred, with God, with a higher Power. Certainly the spirituality you bring to work is derived from the same source – but the expression of it is in another context, which is, “How does your spirituality find expression in the workplace, in your attitude about your work, in your relationships with your employees, peers, colleagues, customers, vendors, others?” That’s the question and the challenge, because it is in your attitude and behavior as well as in your relationships that your spirituality expresses itself at work –- an expression that is most often manifest as service.”

    I believe that Instead of imprisoning and depleting human energy, passion, and vitality in jobs that block and limit spirit, work can nurture and release the human spirit. We can encourage the connection of who we are, what we do, and what we value in work and life, while enhancing a triple bottom line of people, profits and the planet. As philosopher Pogo said: “We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities!”

  2. Thank you so much for your work.

    My dad was born in 1909 in an Appalachian mining town that has long since been strip-mined away.

    Thanks to book donators from the north (denomination unknown), Dad had his pick of books from missionary barrels, and he devoured them. Thanks to a missionary who informed his family that Dad’s older brother Laudie was smart enough to go to college and that the area was filled with “opportunity schools” where anyone could work their way through high school and college, Dad at 5 had a powerful new dream. If your travels take you to Lincoln Memorial University where Dad worked through high school and college, remind them that their support to this one man left a huge legacy of writing, teaching, service, integrity, and well-educated children who love the land. Say thanks again if you go near Peabody, now part of Vanderbilt, where Dad got his master’s in education.

    Through my families, I learned early that there should be no split at all between spirit and work. All work can be done with dignity and caring. It makes me very sad when I, a non-Catholic, have to be the one to tell Catholics about Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and how practicing the presence of God changes everything for the better. Even the hard work of building a just, sustainable economy that works for us all — in spite of so many beliefs that it just can’t be done.. Many thanks, many blessings from here in northern California.

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