A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, October 25, 2009
TO BE OF USE: Finding the Heart of Work
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
— To Be of Use, Marge Piercy
Many, many years ago my father got it into his head he wanted to go live in the Florida Keys. The keys are a chain of islands at the bottom of the Florida peninsula that run over a hundred miles more or less in a southwesterly arc from the mainland culminating in the famous Key West. I have no idea why; maybe he heard the drinking was good in Earnest Hemingway’s one time stomping grounds. Whatever, I was bored with my job working as a clerk in a large Oakland bookstore and it sounded like it could be an adventure. I quit the job and helped pack and drive my parents old Lincoln dragging a stuffed to the max U Haul from California to Florida.
By the time we arrived in Miami, we were out of money. So, my father found a job bartending and I landed a job washing dishes in a very big Miami restaurant. I don’t recall lots of the details from this time well over forty years ago. What I do recall was how the kitchen was hot, really hot and thickly humid. The hours were long, as I recall ten-hour shifts, where I felt constantly like I was drowning or broiling, and usually both. I also recall I earned a dollar an hour.
For that dollar I was part of a team of dishwashers, maybe a half dozen. The oldest and leader, whether by actual job description or force of personality, I don’t know, was ancient, I mean ancient, at least thirty. He was an Afro-Cuban and his English was difficult for me to follow, although fortunately enough the instructions were simple. Scrub pots and pans. Endless pots and pans, I couldn’t figure out how they could dirty so many pots, so many pans, so fast. But they did. Those pots and pans kept coming, hour after hour; except for a couple of all too brief breaks.
After the first day the crew decided that I, the sole white kid among them, was pulling his weight, at least enough, and they began including me in conversations during those breaks. We, well, I more listened, talked about girls and baseball and girls and what they’d do when they got rich and, oh yes, girls. We leaned against the building or sat on garbage cans, our head’s surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. I didn’t smoke, but I tried not to look like I minded. When our leader passed the pint of rum around to me for the first time I felt this was somehow important. It was something dark, and sweet, and I choked as I swallowed my sip. They laughed at me. But they passed it around to me again, and that seemed even sweeter than the rum.
For the next three weeks, or so, my life was work, back to the motel and a shower, and sleep. Then back to work. Every muscle in my body hurt, and I discovered muscles I had no idea I possessed, which hurt in ways I didn’t know could hurt. I never liked that job. A swig of rum with older black guys felt somehow important, but not important enough for the exhaustion and the Sisyphean task of cleaning endless filthy pots and pans. I hated that job, but I, we, needed that dollar an hour.
Then not quite a month into it, my father decided we’d saved enough for the next push down to the keys. I left relieved and, interestingly, feeling a little guilty that I wasn’t trapped there like the other guys. But my attention was forward. We made it not quite half way down to Key West. Once on the bridge highway that ran along the keys, we’d stopped at a restaurant for lunch and my father was schmoozing and ended up being offered a job bartending. A month after that I left my parents ensconced in Islamorada, the next island south of Key Largo, perhaps best known as the backdrop of a Humphrey Bogart movie, and hitchhiked back to California. A subject, let me tell you, suitable for a future sermon. Well, at least parts of it…
So, what’s my take away from that job, I would throw in, the hardest I ever had? And I mean hardest. Well, for one thing, back after Ted Kennedy died one of the anecdotes about him that was told and retold fits the bill for me. The story was about that first senatorial campaign in 1960 when his opponent quite correctly pointed out how the young senatorial aspirant had never “worked a day in his life.” The story as told by John Kenneth Galbraith has how Kennedy was shadowed by that accusation until he went to a factory line one morning and an old worker came up to him and said, “Let me tell you somethin', lad. You haven't missed a thing.”
And I agree. Hard work for the sake of hard work doesn’t mean a whole lot, at least to me. I come from a long line of hard workers; poor people who barely kept their families clothed and housed through that hard work, and which for many simply drove them to early graves. And, of course, that’s not the end of it. Yes, there is dignity in labor. Absolutely. And too many of us know the grief of not being able to work. That all by itself can be a terrible wound. There is dignity in doing what one must to support one’s family, whether fun or not. Which is something I see going on among people I love a lot, particularly these days. But if that’s all, something really is missing, and one ends up hating what one does, and waiting for it to pass. Three weeks or thirty years, waiting to stop doing something is a hard way to live.
Now sometimes that’s the deal. We’re dealt the cards, and we have little choice, but to play them. That’s life for grown ups. But even so, whether we have to do something no matter what our druthers, or more likely for most in this room, we have some freedom of movement, some choice in what we do; how we choose to approach it matters.
It’s like that old story about the man who asks three stonemasons what they’re doing. I’m sure you’ve heard it. The first says, “I’m sanding this block of marble.” The second says, “I’m preparing a foundation.” And the third, famously, says, “I’m building a cathedral.” This is a very old story, one source I found claimed it traces to the seventh century and St Benedict’s rule, although I’m wary of that as there are all sort of things people claim are in Benedict’s rule which aren’t. But, it’s old; that we can be sure of. And it speaks an ancient truth; that we can be sure of. It’s about the heart of work. And that’s what I want to explore here today. What is the heart of work?
I’ve thought a lot about Ted Kennedy of late. In my opinion back in 1960 he had to be one of the least suitable candidates ever to run for the senate. And a decade later I’m sure it’s true, if his name weren’t Kennedy, he’d have gone to jail, and deservedly so, following that shameful event on Chappaquiddick. But, what haunts me, and what drives this thought into the heart of this sermon is how out of that lowest of low points, painfully, slowly, he became something, ultimately a gift to our nation and to the world. Some people give their lives for the country. He gave his life to the country, and through that, to the world. Ted Kennedy found his redemption through hard work, real work, through the heart of work.
But what does this actually look like? What are the characteristics that make work something more than just about survival? What allows it to open our hearts and to make us something larger, and genuinely useful? How can work be transformative? How can we speak of a heart to work?
Well, I found a very big hint as I was searching the web using the terms “to be of use” and “Unitarian” and “sermon.” It’s a regular part of my sermon preparation to see what the colleagues might think about the subject I’m considering. I stumbled upon a sermon that also used Piercy’s poem, which is today’s text. In 2001 while just finishing up seminary Julia Older wrote of her time during that long simmering process of discernment and preparation when she was a hospice volunteer.
The very first visit that I ever made as a Hospice worker was to an elderly couple who lived far out in the North Carolina countryside. They did not even have running water. There was a hand pump from a well. But the cottage was tidy and welcoming, and the atmosphere in this place where two old people had spent their last 50-plus years together was truly peaceful. I sat by the patient's bed and his wife continued her chores, stopping only to offer me lemonade. “Thank you for coming,” they both said over and over. “We so appreciate your coming here to be with us.” I learned that when the time had come for the old man to accept that he was not getting better, he stood before the congregation in his tiny church and said, “Mary and I will be grateful for any help you can offer us.”
I read that and my heart broke. And I saw how work, the work of the heart works. Transformative work comes as a gift. The gift that elderly couple gave was opening their hearts and revealing themselves and their need, without affectation or assumption. That small passing of a pint of Puerto Rican rum was an act of communion among those who labor hard and who have, even if only for a moment, come to be one within that work.
And everything’s not quite equal. The communion among dishwashers was sweet. The communion among friends in that church was the whole of life. The work that followed as people responded in the same spirit to those people in North Carolina, and just giving, just giving some time and some effort: that revealed the whole of what deserves the exuberant language of faith: the mysteries of love. Like two arrows meeting in the air, gift and giver become one thing, and the essential sanctity of our individual lives and all life are revealed as intertwined.
And the point of connection between each of us is work. At that moment, when we see it, when we act from that perspective of hearing the need, and just giving, then work becomes holy. At that moment it doesn’t matter, actually what the work is, supporting any of our community life and heritage programs, sitting with an old friend, or new, changing a bedpan or a bandage, digging a ditch, running accounting numbers, organizing a food pantry, campaigning to change an old injustice to a new justice. The holy is found when our hearts are open. And from that openness, the cry of the ancient need to be of use turns each action toward grace, transmutation, gold reaching out to gold.
Perhaps Gary Snyder says it best in his little poem with the long title “Removing the Plate of the Pump on the Hydraulic System of the Backhoe.”
Through mud, fouled nuts, black grime
it opens, a gleam of spotless steel
swirl of intake and output
at the heart
That’s our call. To the relentless, lovely, compelling, heart of work.