This weekend we are celebrating Labor Day and what St. Francis of Assisi called “the gift of work.” Our readings call us to humility, a virtue valuable in all times and places but perhaps especially in the workplace. For example, consider workers in fast-food restaurants.
While fast-food has traditionally offered good job opportunities for high school students and adults with entry-level skills, there also seems to be a growing trend toward hiring persons with physical and/or mental disabilities. The first time I noticed this was in a restaurant near my home. There was something distinctive about the young man sweeping the floor, a combination of characteristics common in individuals with Down syndrome. But there was something else; there was a humble and genuine desire to be of service. “That table over there is clean. You can sit there, if you want.” Then he went on about his work of sweeping the floor.
And sweep it he did! That young man swept the floor like no floor has ever been swept before. He actually seemed to enjoy sweeping the floor. It was obvious that he took great pride in his work. But each time someone entered the restaurant he would stop sweeping, smile broadly, and with as much grace as if he was welcoming them into his own home, direct them to a clean table.
This weekend we celebrate workers and the right to expect a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s labor. Yet many people, caught in the trap of unemployment, still wait for an invitation to the banquet. For the young man in the fast-food restaurant the invitation to move up to the higher position of an entry-level job offered freedom from the captivity of people’s prejudices and fears and the opportunity to live his life with dignity and respect. His presence reminds us that when we view our work as gift and perform it with humility even the most menial job can earn us the esteem of our companions at the table.
Are we as grateful as that young man for the gift of work?
Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister, retreat leader, spiritual director and published writer and poet.