During the summer between my second and third years of law school, I worked as an intern in the General Counsel’s Division of Children, Family, and Aging. Every morning, I made my way to the Hubert Humphrey building in the shadow of the nation’s capitol, not realizing until then how many federal government employees filled Washington, D.C. every day. Once in my office, I learned just how many lives are touched by the services of Health and Human Services, and I helped write amicus briefs to the Supreme Court about faith-based initiatives in government programming. It was an exciting time in my career, and a mind-opening experience for a young woman from the rural Midwest.
I was offered a longer-term position after law school, but I couldn’t afford to live in Washington, D.C. on the salary that they were offering, so I entered private practice instead. I would have loved the opportunity to continue in that work, as I felt a true sense of purpose there, and a way, however removed, to help people. I enjoyed my colleagues, and I will always have a special place in my heart for Washington, D.C. For recent law school graduates, the federal government provided some stability, if not in huge salary numbers, but in benefits and security. It was generally thought that those jobs would be there through market fluctuations and litigation trends, and that they were safe from the ups and downs of private sector hiring. Of course, everything I knew then about federal government employment has been turned on its head by the recent government shutdown and mandatory employee furloughs.
Several weeks ago, my former colleagues and thousands of other federal employees were sent home on furlough. Regardless of who is at fault for this government shutdown, these employees have now been out of work, or working without pay, for weeks. My family is now far removed from Washington, D.C., but in Houston, Texas, we’re fortunate to know some federal employees who work for NASA. When we learned that they were furloughed, I could only imagine the sense of dread they must have been feeling, especially if they felt some sense of security in working for the federal government, as I had imagined I would have felt if I had taken a job there directly out of law school.
We have other friends throughout the country who work for the Justice Department, the National Park Service, and other federal agencies, and they are all impacted by this furlough. What we have learned is that compounding the problem of being out of work, or working without pay, is the loneliness that accompanies this furlough. Many furloughed employees don’t feel like they can talk to anyone about it, because the issue has become so politicized. It becomes more about Democrats and Republicans than it does about the individuals who are out of work. If they have a chin-up attitude about it and try to make the best of their time away from the office, they’re accused of treating it too lightly. If they describe the seriousness of their situation, they run the risk of being chastised for their views, or being told that they’re lucky that they’ll have a job to return to. They seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, no matter how they react.
Jesus had a special affinity for those who were down on their luck, those who were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and those who were subjected to the whims of their government. I read the parable of the vineyard workers in a completely different light when I consider that the workers who showed up to work in the morning knew that they would be paid, and knew that they had the security of employment. Meanwhile, those who showed up later may have spent the first part of their day worrying about whether they would find enough work to provide for their families that night. The relief those latecomers must have felt at being paid a whole day’s wages must have been, like God’s grace, an unexpected gift.
When this world’s circumstances start to feel like they are too much to bear, I think about Jesus’ “comfortable words” that are sometimes repeated in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church: “Come unto me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Paul’s letter to the Romans echoes Jesus’ words about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities…” (Romans 13:1-7). But in that very same letter he reminds the Romans (and us) that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39). Neither furloughs, nor governments, nor angry political fights on social media, can separate us from the love of God.
All of this might be well and good and comforting, but I don’t think I could bring myself to quote scripture to a furloughed friend, knowing that spiritual salvation is less on their mind than their family’s dependence on their next furloughed paycheck. The love of Jesus is with them, and sometimes that love might look like friends and family acting in God’s name. For me, that means inviting my friends for dinner, feeding them with food I’ve prepared in love. It looks like being a listening ear to their frustration and their anxiety, without judgement of how they are spending their forced time away from work. It means sitting with them through this difficult time, and rejoicing with them when it is time for them to return to work. It might mean praying with them, and if we don’t have the words, we can look to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, in the Collect for Labor Day.
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[Collect for Labor Day used with permission from the Episcopal Church.]