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featuring guest blogger John Houk

[Note: This reflection was written on September 7, 2020 -- Labor Day. Mr. Houk shared it via email with a group of parishioners at St. Augustine's Catholic Church (South Bend), and I asked for permission to reproduce it here. -- Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program]

Our home has seen a steady procession of people who work with their hands. Masks were worn and doors and windows were open, and I stayed upstairs in the chapel to avoid exposure to COVID-19. Joan became project manager for the weeks-long unscheduled mitigation and restoration of our moldy kitchen.  I liked being able to watch and celebrate Joan’s work. I even bought her a white hard hat with her name on it. If you know Joan you know this could never be just about replacing walls and cabinets. It was all about people.

She knew everyone by name. The sheet rock men and painters were George, Fernando, and Pedro, the cabinet man was Jerry, and the hard work was done by Howard, Jr. and Ed. Not only did she know their names, but their pets, their wives, how much they spend on rent; and when they didn’t have the right tool, she lent them mine. But that’s not the only people she knew by first name. There was the mitigation manager, Chuck, and crew chief, Jack, and restoration manager, Steve, site manager, Howard, Sr., the secretary, Amber, the USAA Insurance adjusters, Alexander and Victoria, the plumbers, Greg, Matt, Dave, Bryce, and Lee, and their office manager, Bonita. She knew everyone by name and used their names often, along with many thank you’s. Why is this important on our annual celebration of labor?  It’s because there is dignity in the work of our hands that deserves respect and thanks.

People who work with their hands are not second-class people, repeat not. They are not those who were not smart enough to go into college, repeat not. These are the people who make our world actually happen. Most obvious right now is that they are the people who put our world back together when it is destroyed by mold (our kitchen) or by storms (as on the Gulf Coast). The people who do the work not only deserve to be treated with dignity and respect because they are real human persons, but because we couldn’t live without them.

As Catholics we can take pride in remembering Pope Leo XIII, who in 1891 wrote Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), which set our Church on the path of respect for the person who works with their hands. Here is where we find the official teaching on the dignity of labor: workers’ rights, including the right to organize and even strike; condemnation of child labor; arguments for just wages, just hours of work, and much more. Pope Leo set our Church on the pro -abor path. Thanks, Pope Leo.

Joan grew up in Pittsburgh with working-class people and with a family memory of union members in its mills and factories fighting the Pinkerton hired guns for the right to organize and even strike for just wages. She didn’t need Pope Leo to learn respect for the people who do our work, but today our country does. So, in thanks for labor on Labor Day and a reminder of our Catholic positive history toward labor, let us celebrate this special day. Celebrate especially by calling people by name wherever they work and whatever work they are doing for us, for us. Oh, and many thanks again to Pope Leo, and thank God we have our kitchen back!  Amen.

John and Joan Houk have been married for fifty-nine years and have six children and eight grandchildren. John is a retired civil engineer and is presently avoiding people as he receives chemo treatment. Joan has a Masters in Divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame and has held a variety of positions, including pastoring parishes with no resident priest. More info on her ministry is found on her web site, joanclarkhouk.com. In their senior years they enjoy writing stories together, which are posted on Joan’s web site. They miss regular attendance at St. Augustine's and volunteering at Our Lady of the Road, and look forward to the end of COVID-19, which keeps them mostly in the home. Discovering mold in their kitchen was not a welcome intrusion, but the remedy is now complete.

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