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Finding God’s presence in jobs of drudgery


In our cyberspace group discussion of spirituality at work, one member recently asked this question: “Is God present everywhere, even in lifeless jobs full of drudgery?” The responses show that an important element of workplace spirituality is the sometimes difficult or scary effort to make the workplace better.

“I question the view that God is present everywhere,” wrote Terry Ryan. “We have a mystical tradition that can speak about the absence of God. When we live outside our true selves, God is absent. Where God is not, there is no life, no existence. That’s why some jobs are lifeless. Rather than try to find God in all work, admit that some jobs are without God and get out. To stay in them is to live outside yourself. What I question about finding God in all work is that it can divert us from the need to change the systems that make this work so lifeless. If you don’t want to be there, why should God want to be there?”

Another respondent, Rob Marcynski, said, “God is not to be found in the poor work environment, but rather God is to be found in how we respond to that environment. For example, the existence of God is not proved by the evil in the world or the deformities of the disabled. God is found in how we respond and treat the disabled and how we rebuff and fight the evil.

Nick Brunick told this story: “I spent the summer after my first year in law school living in a public housing community in McComb, Miss., doing legal and community development work. I lived with a family in the community and met a lot of people -- in some cases single mothers, in other cases adult males with or without families -- who lived day to day and month to month from a mixture of odd jobs, welfare payments, unemployment assistance, charity and irregular work in some of the most demeaning and demanding low-wage industries in America. I heard stories about the horrible working conditions and wages in the poultry processing plants and the area catfish processing plants. I got to visit one of the plants, but only to the fenced-in, razor-wire-topped front gate where armed security guards told me that I could go no further with the woman who was my client and had a dispute with the company over her wages and hours.

“I learned firsthand from these men and women about repetitive sinus infections caused by extremely cold temperatures in the poultry plants, about swollen ankles caused by standing in freezing cold water in the catfish processing plants, about high-speed working conditions that often led to lost fingers and repetitive work injuries, about a lack of health insurance or regular break periods, about abusive bosses who often attempted to elicit sexual favors in return for better treatment on the job, and, of course, about absurdly low wages for all this difficult work that produces food for our society.

“One might say that God could not be present in these conditions, but most of the individuals that I met would not agree -- although many of them (and rightly so) would describe the work (and often did) as “hellish.” Nevertheless, for the most part, they believed in the work they did; they wanted to work those jobs (because there were so few other options); and they wanted to make those jobs into better ones.

“I remember one mother telling me how she felt good about the fact that she was producing food for other families in her job and how she felt blessed that such factories were located near McComb, given the fact that areas of the Mississippi Delta still lacked such employment opportunities.

“She also felt that, because she was doing a valuable job and helping the plant to make a healthy profit, that she should be paid adequately and work in good conditions with benefits and with respect from her supervisors on the job. This woman helped me understand that it isn’t the job itself -- taking chickens and catfish and turning them into packaged foods -- that is demeaning and horrible. Rather it’s the conditions under which a person has to do such a thing.

“This is a powerful reminder and strong argument for the position that God is present in all work, even if much remains to be done to improve the conditions of that work. Certainly, to this woman, like many others I met, her job wasn’t ‘God-less.’

“The individuals that I met that summer didn’t have much of an option in terms of leaving their jobs. Often many of them did because of lay-offs, firings, a sick child or a family emergency or just because they got tired of the terrible conditions and low pay.

“But for many, leaving voluntarily meant giving in to joblessness and hopelessness or facing life under the gaze of the uncaring welfare bureaucracy or the ruthlessness of the criminal economy. Most of the people I met that summer were churchgoers and people of faith and for most of them believing in change and the possibility of things getting better meant believing that they and their jobs were worth something.”

Work can and will be fully valued only when people come together and organize to make it so. Maybe that kind of vision and hope under oppressive conditions is only possible with the presence of God working through our actions.

Gregory F. Pierce is co-publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and the author of Spirituality @ Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job (Loyola Press, 2001). His e-mail address is SpiritualityWork@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002