I am not sure if Frances Perkins is a household name for Christians. I can safely say she’s not mentioned in the same breath as Mary, Peter, Paul, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, or Mother Theresa. Nevertheless, Frances Perkins holds a place on the church calendar for many reasons, especially the way she lived out her faith as a public servant during a time when women were not welcomed into politics, labor, or business.
Frances Perkins lived the biblical injunction to execute justice for the orphan, widow, and stranger in our midst. She advocated for the rights of children, women, and undervalued workers. Her advocacy for those whom society marginalized and paid a paltry wage in order to enrich the wealthy placed her at the center of torment, ridicule, and attack. However, armed with the knowledge that all people are created in God’s image, she continued fighting for the rights of those not invited to the tables where policy was written.
After witnessing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire in Manhattan, Perkins felt inspired to advance the cause of equality for women and children in the workplace. She was named the executive secretary of New York City’s Committee on Safety, which paved the way for 36 new labor laws, including restrictions on child labor, the length of workdays, and offering compensation to workers injured on the job. She also supported union workers who received unfair wages and endured hazardous working conditions. She realized that we are our neighbor’s keeper and aligned this belief with her vocation. Throughout her career, Perkins continued expanding the definition of neighbor to make it more inclusive.
Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve on a presidential cabinet when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her Security of Labor, a position she held for twelve years. In this role she designed the New Deal, advanced social security, established the minimum wage, and issued unemployment insurance. As a woman of great intelligence, insight, and compassion, she believed that she “had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to [her].”
Frances Perkins’ advocacy work folded into her spirituality and her love for God. She lived her Christian principles, which centered on the Anglican ethos of relational theology. She intuitively understood that her love for God was manifested through her love for neighbor. She used her God given gifts to correct the injustices of big business and unjust laws that advanced the profit at all cost philosophy practiced by corporate tycoons. Frances Perkins used her intelligence, spirituality, and courage to face these challenges.
Frances Perkins’ work and faith enjoyed a holy relationship. She nurtured her faith as an associate of All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor and spending one day a month in silent retreat at the convent in Catonsville, Maryland throughout her twelve years as Secretary of Labor. This alignment of faith and work reminds us to use our God given gifts to advance the cause of those who are marginalized.
As we prepare to celebrate Frances Perkins’ commemoration on May 13th, I wonder how we as Christians are teaching our children to align their gifts with the biblical injunction to serve others? How can we teach our children the same resilience and courage possessed by Frances Perkins? How do we demonstrate to our children that we must align our vocation with our faith? How do we foster within our children the need to live devout lives?
We begin this work by honoring the holy reality that all people are made in God’s image. We can illustrate to our children that Jesus chose working people to follow him. Jesus empowered others —especially those who may be deemed least likely —to advance the New Covenant. We can name these people who are in our midst today, perhaps inviting our children to expand the definition of neighbor as Frances Perkins did throughout her lifetime. In the end, we can make our home a safe place where our children may discern their gifts and pray that their gifts may be used to demonstrate love for God and love for neighbor. After all, Frances Perkins accomplished just that.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via National Archives and Records Administration, College Park]