During the Labor Day weekend and the days after Labor day, I asked readers to contribute stories of hard-working women and men who have influenced their lives. The suggested hashtag was #listentoaworkingman, from my friend Gabriel Sealey-Morris, the author of the book Stubborn Pines: A Novel of the New South. I suggested we also include the hashtag #awomansworkisneverdone celebrating the work women do here in the south. Beyond their work at their day jobs, so often the women in our southern communities also are actively caring for children, doing more than their share of home upkeep, involved in keeping the church going, and active in community service. No wonder we developed the southernism “a woman’s work is never done”! Truly, often these women are unsung heroes in their own right, tirelessly working for their families and their communities to be healthier and stronger.
I want to share some of the stories I’ve gathered with you of working men and working women, as well as some thoughts different southern bloggers have shared this past week about the challenges faced by working women and working men in this moment.
To begin, I want to share a song that makes me think of the first man I learned about work from, my father, Jerry Bruce Royal. Some of my earliest memories of dad centered around him being a working man. Daddy taught math for over 30 years first at Stedman High School and then at Stedman Junior High. Dad was a dedicated teacher; spending long hours at the school, staying after school to help tutor students, and then spending many a long hour in the evening checking homework and tests. Dad was very dedicated. I remember only one real time daddy took time off work. He was horribly sick, and in constant pain. He tried his hardest to still work then, but finally the pain got too bad. The doctor told him he should have come into be looked at much sooner — his appendix was about to burst! Yet dad was not all work. Though he was hard at work during the week, come the weekend, daddy would be off the clock. He would take time to spend with us kids. I remember many a Saturday or Sunday afternoon riding bikes with dad around the neighborhood with my brothers and sisters, or fishing at our great uncle’s pond in Johnston County, NC. I can still hear the sound of crickets and smell the lake water when I think about those days. Daddy poured all the time and money he had into us when he was not at work. To me, daddy’s working hard was one of the ways he tried to show us he loved us. His work ethic reminds me of the words of this Ricky Skaggs song:
Another working man I remember is my late uncle John. Uncle John was a pig farmer. Every year he would throw a big pig-picking and the whole community would come. He would slow cook several pigs in huge barrels. There would be live music and dancing. Also, many years he and my aunt would host the family reunion for that side of the family. Somehow, when Uncle John and Aunt Elaine hosted family reunions, it would swell in size. It would seem like not just the whole family would show up but the whole town. Like most farmers, Uncle John didn’t make a whole lot of money, but he was generous with what he did have. John was a very giving, caring man, who’d give you the shirt off his back. To me, the lesson I learned from Uncle John was to work hard, but realize you always had to take time for your family. He earned everything he had, but he used each bit he earned in ways that blessed everyone in his family and his community. This is an example of a working man who lived close to the earth, close to his roots, and gave of his heart.
Gabe Sealey-Morris wrote, ” I tried to think of a quote or life lesson from my dad, but I couldn’t think of any. Most of what I learned from him I learned from watching. I watched him for years improvise solutions to problems with whatever he had on hand, and it think I’ve taken that blue-collar pragmatism with me into academia and writing. I’m not much for complex theories; I want to know what works, and how I can use it.”
Sally Rigg wrote, “My dad was a Navy pilot. I always wanted to fly in the F11-F1F, but they couldn’t find a poopy suit small enough [for me to ride along as he flew]. He taught us and his squadrons to never, never, NEVER fly under the Jamestown Bridge.”
Karen Rymph Smarsh writes of the example of her grandfathers: “I admired both of my grandfathers in part because of their great differences. My paternal grandfather was well educated and involved in local politics. He served as a city commissioner of Wichita, KS during a time when there were bickering factions. Because he was a negotiator who worked hard to bring about cooperation he was selected to be the mayor (it was a time when the mayor wasn’t elected, he was selected by the City Commission). Levi was a great example of how to work with people you disagree with! My maternal grandfather had an 8th grade education, but told me from his life experience real cowboy stories of herding cows along a trail from Texas to Kansas. From him, I learned to love the earth, and both the art of listening and the art of story telling.”
Another working man I remember is the late Eddie McGirt. He was a mechanic from a rural town that attended my daddy’s church growing up. He did not learn to read until he found Christ, and he did so in order to read his Bible. He taught himself to read, just him and God, alone with his Bible. He marveled to see my siblings and I learning to read as children. He openly talked even after we were grown about his sense of wonder when he saw my older brother, Matt Royal, as a little boy do what he could not do until after finding his faith as an adult: reading from a menu. He never let any of us forget what a gift reading was, and is one person who instilled in me the value of education, hard work, honesty, and faith. I will never forget hearing him explain his own spirituality. “You gotta understand, there are two Eddies. There’s me, and the other Eddie. That other Eddie, he’s a rascal. He gets me in trouble. He hurts folks. Every day I gotta decide which Eddie I’m gonna be. Every day God helps me say no to that other Eddie”. Indeed, Mr. McGirt. And you know, there are at least two Micah’s too. Thank you for teaching me to say no to other Micah and to look for God’s help to do so.
I also asked for examples of working women, with #awomansworkisneverdone. I did not get the response I would have liked. For me, this is a topic near to my heart. As I talk about in my blog about the life of my mother, Lessons From My Mother, my mother taught me lessons by her example about how a woman’s work is never done:
“Well one of the great lessons my mother taught me growing up was it is never too late to further yourself and move forward. When we were little, my mother stopped her career as a teacher both to help raise us and also to take care of my ailing grandmother, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot. On one level this is what she wanted, and another it was what her culture expected of her in that day and time. I have always wondered what that was like for mom. For me it would have probably felt like I was done, and it was time to throw in the towel on my dreams. But when we kids had grown older and needed less care, mom went back to school. Mom earned a Masters degree which she used as an educator.
Mom’s example of not giving up on her dreams, of doing what must be done in her time and place but, when the time was right, shaking off the dust from her feet, rolling up her sleeves, and going for her dreams has stayed with me. It is a part of what gave me the strength to go back and finish my degree after all this time. It is a lesson from my mother that stays with me.”
To me, mom’s working to care for us, care for our grandmother, and ultimately continue her education to enable the career she wanted, all picture how southern women work as hard as southern men, often with their own unique struggles added to the mix. That struggle of the southern working woman is well pictured for me in the song “National Working Woman’s Holiday”:
I want to share a few memories of women who were woman that, like mom, worked hard and made a difference.
First, I think of a working class woman who touched my life forever. She moved into an area I was pastoring to be near her adult children. She was an out and proud lesbian who told stories of growing up in an era where she was told she could not be herself. She told how trying to be the Stepford Wife crushed her soul, turned her to drinking. She would tell how learning to accept herself as a lesbian set her free. It freed her to meet Jesus, and to give up the bottle. She didn’t need to drink once she came to know and live the life she was made for instead of letting others force her into a painful box. It freed her to restore relationships that being someone she wasn’t had led her to live a lifestyle that damaged those relationships. And she couldn’t have been further from the stereotypical southern stay at home woman by the time we met her. She worked as a mechanic, and wore largely mechanic uniforms or Christian T-Shirts. She was a hoot, with a sense of humor that could light up any dark day and was a faithful friend to all in her life. She loved animals. She combined that love for animals and for practical jokes eventually by, without our knowledge, teaching one of our dogs to drink out of a straw. We only discovered this trick when my wife looked down at a drink she had not finished which was now empty, only to hear her service dog let out a lemony Sprite-smelling belch. This beautiful working woman worked very hard for a small paycheck but treated what she owned as something she shared freely with those she cared for. She was a woman of few words, so what she would say was worth hearing. She showed me the value of honesty, not just to others but to yourself. She showed me how dangerous that boxes we push people into are, and how beautiful a person becomes when they realize they are free in God to be who they are at heart.
Another working woman that shaped my life was Ms. L. Ms. L. was a schoolteacher in Junior High. She was that mixture of tough as nails and also very giving and compassionate that I think southern women have a knack for. Ms. L. demonstrated to me a heartfelt Christian lifestyle. Her example is one of the reasons I chose to begin to pursue my Christian faith for myself, and also explore other churches than the very legalistic church of my childhood. Her example of openness to her students is part of why I have the faith I have today.
One working woman who has become a hero to me is Heather Mack. Mack is a soldier whom I came to meet while serving as a pastor in Fayetteville, NC, with a church focused on welcoming and affirming GLBT people and their families. She was a friendly and hard-working person who had devoted her life to serving her country and caring for her family. Though Heather is not the type of person upon first meeting you’d imagine pushing herself into center stage, for a time her face and family had their names plastered all over the country. The reason? Heather is married to Ashley, and those two women are devoted mothers and loving spouses to each other. However, when they first began to have children and raise them together, the military in which Heather was serving to fight for our freedoms did not want at first to recognize Heather and Ashley’s freedom to marry and were denying Ashley’s right to be treated as Heather’s wife, and their rights to co-parent their children. Ultimately, Heather and Ashley had to speak up, and ask “How can Heather go across the seas to fight for our freedom as Americans, but come home and not be able to enjoy those freedoms with the woman she loves and her children?” The humble and devoted way they stood by each other and spoke out showed a quiet and beautiful courage that I think has forever changed the way our military talks about the rights of families.
I would be remiss not mention two very pivotal working southern women who touched my life. When I moved back to NC right after leaving Grace Communion International, the denomination that had ordained me, over their treatment of GLBT people, in many ways my faith was tattered and I was not sure if my calling as a minister was over too. I did not see a way forward in those aspects of my life. Also, my wife Kat and I had been through so much we were both a bit shell-shocked, needing healing in ourselves and in our marriage. During that first year back in NC we attended Calvary Methodist Church in Durham, NC. I talk a bit about my experience at this church in a blog post I wrote in memory of one of its pastors, Rev. Gayle Felton. The two pastors at the church at the time were Rev. Gayle Felton and Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman. In the writeup I did about Rev. Dr. Felton I shared how she helped me rediscover faith and Scripture as gifts of freedom and liberation rather than the tools of abuse, discrimination, and oppression I had seen them become. Rev. Coffman, or “Pastor
Laurie” as everyone knew her, was also a powerful healing presence. She has a pastor’s heart and a pastor’s voice. When she sat and talked with you at Calvary Methodist, she had the gift of making you feel as if you were the most important person in her world in that moment. She also was deeply empathetic and compassionate about your struggles. Her ministry to me was deeply healing, a balm of healing water at a moment of deep brokenness for her. I will always be thankful she is a woman who broke the traditional southern mold of what a woman’s work was to pastor in Durham.
This week there were a number of other southern women who were mentioned online having done important work.
First was Fanny Lou Hamer, a Missippi woman whose story was recently recounted at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/02/remembering-civil-rights-heroine-fannie-lou-hamer-i-m-sick-and-tired-of-being-sick-and-tired.html. She was a southern share-cropper who made history by testifying before the Democratic National Convention about the horrible treatment of people of color in the south, including the exploitation of share-croppers such as herself and the stark police brutality she and others had faced. Hamer was a woman whose hard work was never done, first as a share cropper, and later as a social activist who joined the fight for equal rights for all until the day she died.
Then was Claudette Colvin, who was born this week in 1939. She was 15 years old when she was arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Her case preceded Rosa Parks’s arrest by nine months. Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the 1956 court case that ordered the desegregation of buses in Alabama. She was a strong Southern woman who, when she saw injustice, said “a woman’s work is never done!”
Another strong southern woman was Journalist Ida B. Wells. Wells was an avid suffragist and an early Civil Rights leader, who used the power of the pen to challenge racial & sexual discrimination. In 1892, Wells published “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases”, a scathing exposé of lynching practices. In retaliation for her articles, a mob destroyed her Memphis printing press, and after numerous threats to her life, Wells moved to Chicago to continue her anti-lynching campaign. Learn more about Wells in our online exhibit: http://bit.ly/1lIclqX. She was a woman from the south who said “a woman’s work is never done!”
The stories of men and women whose work has blessed us individually and blessed the south should remind us of the role of labor and working men and women. It also should remind us of our responsibility as a society to ensure that honest work produces honest pay. A few southern writers share on this theme this week, and their voices are worth hearing.
Rev. Dr. Willam Barber wrote at theroot.com :
“While our country celebrates workers …, poor and working families are under attack the other 364 days of the year. Wages remain at poverty levels as corporate profits skyrocket. The average CEO makes 774 times more than a minimum wage worker and 331 times more than the average employee. Corporations have turned to temporary and minimum wage workers to silence their employees’ voices. States, counties and cities across the nation are dismantling collective bargaining and other rights that would give workers the chance to challenge these regressive trends.
Today we live in a political climate that treats people as disposable things, and corporations as people. Although Wall Street has moved past the Great Recession, most of us are still struggling to make ends meet. In the richest nation in the history of the world, people who work 40 hours each week should be able to put food on their tables and take their children to the doctor.
“But the extremists haven’t stopped with labor rights. We know that the same people attacking workers are attacking the pillars of justice in America, ranging from our sacred right to vote to our birthright of public education. Meanwhile, they are privatizing schools and prisons, polluting the environment, attacking LGBTQ and women’s rights, racializing the criminal-justice system, and denying the American dream to immigrants and their children.
Their agenda amounts to a sinister form of ‘Grand Theft Democracy.’ And when officials at any level try to roll back our human rights, it is constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, historically insensitive and economically insane.
Labor Day has always had a patriotic and economic message. But we believe that everything that has ever changed America and the world for the better has inherently carried a moral message, too. The long fight for labor rights, voting rights, educational equality and quality health care for all is not a partisan struggle. It is a moral fight for the soul of the nation.
We are calling for people to organize by building on the most sacred values of our faith traditions. Isaiah 10:1-2 is as clear as the bell of freedom: ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees; to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.'”
Rev. Mark Sandlin, Presbyterian minister, author of the blog The God Article, and contributor to the Moonshine Jesus podcast, adds at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thegodarticle/2014/09/would-you-like-living-wages-to-go-with-that-the-biblical-bias-for-a-living-wage/#ixzz3CsJozZeu:
“In the U.S., our system does not pay those earning minimum wage ‘a living wage.’ That means there are 3.5 million people in the U.S. who have jobs but don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs.
For the one-percenters this is good news. It means there’s more of the financial pot available to them, plus – lucky for them – it means that the government (and thus taxpayers like you and I) are underwriting the cost of employing people in their business.
If they are doubly ‘lucky,’ like businesses such as Wal-Mart, not only will their employees receive food stamps from the government to help supplement the below-living wage they receive, but they will also spend their food stamps at Wal-Mart! It’s a win/win. For the Wal-Marts of the world.
But, for the Wal-Marts of the world – a few Biblical thoughts.
‘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 22:13
The rich are building their houses – their fortunes – on the backs of fellow human beings that they don’t pay enough to survive and through the tax dollars the government must spend to help their employees meet their basic needs.
The one-percent is building their business by injustice as they force their fellow Americans to serve them for next to nothing by not giving them living wages.
‘Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.’ – Romans 4:4
When did our society sink so low that we stopped seeing wages as needing to be living wages? In return for work you should be justly rewarded. There is no justice in businesses lining up in bank lines to deposit their record profits while their employees line up at food banks in hopes of feeding their children. We must stop treating pay for work as if it were ‘a gift’ and start recognizing that workers deserve the respect of a decent income. We must stop acting like workers should be thankful for any paycheck; and, start recognizing that insulting human beings with pay that forces them to seek help meeting their basic needs is not only a condemnation of the company in which they work, but of a government that continues to allow its own people to struggle (while giving tax breaks to the rich).
‘Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts’ – Malachi 3:5
The Bible has a very clear bias against those who take advantage of their workers. If you think paying your workers a sub-living wage is not oppressing them you may need to have the Grinch check out the size of your heart – it may be several sizes too small.”
Added voices point out the racial disparity in employment: “There was a stubborn bit of data buried in the August jobs report released on Friday: The unemployment rate for blacks (11.4 percent) was more than twice that for whites (5.3 percent). We call this stubborn for one simple reason: In the 42-year period during which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has separated out unemployment data into different races, black unemployment has always been higher than white unemployment. In fact, it has always been at least two-thirds higher.” (taken from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/09/06/black-unemployment-is-always-much-worse-than-white-unemployment-but-the-gap-depends-on-where-you-live/ ).
We are reminded by these southern voices of the need as a community to not just value our workers with words, or with holidays, but by ensuring all can earn honest pay for honest work; and to work toward fair and equal access to work for all.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,