I didn’t realise until yesterday that International Workers’ Day on 1st May started in the aftermath of a protest in the United States. Known as the Haymarket Massacre, a peaceful protest in Chicago in the late 19th century, campaigning for an eight-hour working day, was bombed, killing and injuring many police and protesters. I grew up during the Cold War, and remember the grandiose May Day parades beamed from Red Square in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union and the centre of international Marxist-Leninism. As members of the Politburo looked on, battalions of goose-stepping troops and huge missile launchers made their way past Lenin’s tomb to demonstrate the power of the workers’ collective. Meanwhile, hundreds of red flags fluttered in the spring breeze.
The quirks of the liturgical calendar mean that Vocations Sunday (the 4th Sunday of Easter) coincides with the May Day weekend this year. All this whilst our focus is directed towards the fight against a deadly pandemic when many, many workers find themselves on furlough or on the brink of redundancy. This crisis has brought into sharp relief the place that work occupies in our own lives and in the world around us. We are suddenly aware of our reliance on those who have previously flown under our radars: shelf-stackers, delivery people, warehouse workers, grave-diggers, bin collectors, care workers, fruit-pickers, food packers, bus drivers, cleaners, corner shop workers. Without their service our lockdown lives would be unbearable, if not impossible, and yet they receive little reward. Whilst we hope their lives (and pay) will improve as a result of their willingness to continue turning up, in all likelihood their status as ‘key workers’ will probably fade in the rush to normal post-virus.
One of the questions that I am left with this weekend is: what constitutes vocation? I think, as Christians, we have become accustomed to seeing vocational work as skilled, if not professional; badly paid but well-regarded; and, most importantly, freely chosen by the one who is called. So, how are those who are holding our society together at the minute supposed to view what they do? Are those who have travelled thousands of miles to do these minimum wage jobs, leaving behind professional qualifications and skills in order to join the ranks of the unseen, less called because they did not freely choose their current roles? They desire a better life for their families and so they face extreme sacrifice to send as much money back where it will do so much good. They endure racism and xenophobia from their colleagues and neighbours, whipped up by middle-class journalists who decry illegal immigrants but continue to pay them (cash in hand) to clean their houses and look after their children. How could they endure without a reason, a vision for what they do?
The title of this post is taken from the Methodist Covenant Prayer, traditionally said at the beginning of each year. ‘Let me be employed for you’ takes on a very different complexion in the light of current circumstances. The aftermath of the lockdown will involve millions around the world pleading: ‘Let me be employed!’ I remember a speech I heard nearly thirty years ago from Dr Mary Robinson, then President of Ireland, on the value of work. She spoke of her experience of meeting many folk across Ireland, as their Head of State, and listening to the stories of those who had found work after long periods of unemployment. She often asked them what difference it had made to their lives. ‘I have something to talk about at the dinner table at last,’ she heard one man say.
As someone who grew up in a ‘workless’ household, that comment struck home and remains with me. I was born when my father was in his early thirties and I have no memory of his ever having a job. When I was fourteen, he suffered a major heart-attack which moved him (and us, his family) from ‘Supplementary Benefit’ to ‘Invalidity’. His status changed from not working, to not being able to work. The family income from benefits fell as a result and we lost the ability to have free school meals. On our council estate, a man with a (real, legitimate) job was a rarity. This experience shaped me in profound ways, especially the feelings of shame and humiliation when school friends began to talk about what their parents did. Fear of that humiliation still, to a certain extent, drives me to always be employed, no matter what.
Whatever work we do, whether it is valued or well-rewarded, skilled or not, high profile or invisible, can be a vocation. It is not dependent on the spiritual or ecclesiastical value - being employed, as we have seen, can bring deep spiritual reward to the worker - but on the motivation. When Methodists pray ‘Let me be employed for you’, we are not seeking a church job. Rather, we are committing our working lives to God and asking that, whatever we do, it is infused with the necessary passion, skill, thoroughness and sacrifice to ensure a job well done.
In a comfortable, middle-class Church, sometimes it feels that vocation is a process where a professional moves from one institution to another, mid-career. In order to prevent that transition from being too smooth, one seminary in India insists that its students take their families and spend one year living in a slum, experiencing the same conditions as the very poorest. It aims to remind students of their relative privilege, but I want to suggest that it also reinterprets the notion of vocation for them. It ceases to be focussed on a particular job, ministry or form of service and instead becomes the liberating call to enter more fully into life. In being with those for whom life is utterly precarious with no guarantee that tomorrow will come, vocation becomes the absolute priority to nurture life and help others to flourish in the gift of each day.