Snow has begun to fall in Philadelphia. After a flurry of morning errands, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, savoring a third cup of coffee. On my campus, only “essential personnel” are working. The people who plow the snow and salt the walks—as well as those who feed our students and who ensure their safety—are all on the job.
Already this morning I’ve interacted with so many working people: the postal service clerk who accepted the package I mailed; the man at Acme who sold me salmon for tonight’s dinner and the lady who rang it up; the woman at the corner bakery where I got some fresh bagels. They are all at jobs from which they will have to make their way home in weather, having provided services which were lovely and convenient for me to receive, though hardly essential.
And that’s not even to mention the largely invisible (to me) network of people hard at work doing all sorts of critical jobs: nurses and doctors and police officers and firefighters and utility workers, to name just a few.
I know that I haven’t posted anything in a while, so this seems like a good moment to share the chapter from my book that addresses the dignity of work and worker. This goes out with my thanks to anyone who’s on the job today. May you be safe, warm, appreciated, and well-compensated!
Finding God at My Feet
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. — John 13:14
“Shine your shoes, lady?”
I was in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just south of Laredo, Texas, where I was leading a week of spring break service. My students and I were headed back to the border after experiencing the infamous bridge crossing—Mexicans going one way to work, Americans going the other way to shop. At the moment, I was busy pretending not to hear the fellow calling out to me from the street corner.
I am not a person who gets shoeshines. Having bad feet, I buy footwear that’s as practical and supportive as a good friend. And because I accept (yet resent) the fact that I am never going to skip around in pretty little flats or sexy stilettos, I generally ignore my shoes unless they hurt. But there was no ignoring this persistent young man.
“Shine your shoes?” he called again, literally running with his shoeshine kit down the block to catch up with me. “Look at your shoes!” he cried. “I’ll shine them fast, good price!” Only then did I glance at my sturdy black boots. Scuffed and dusty, they looked like something I’d fished out of a dumpster. The man had a point. I acquiesced, and he went to work—right in the middle of the sidewalk.
I was mortified. Standing there with four of my students while this young Mexican man knelt at my feet for what seemed like an eternity, I felt as conspicuous as if I had purchased a giant sombrero with the words frivolous American embroidered across the brim. Unaccustomed to being served in this manner, I prayed that no one had a camera.
Then I noticed something. He was doing a really good job. He polished and buffed vigorously; he was in the zone. The man was a professional, doing his job with flair and efficiency. My shoes had never looked better—even right out of the box.
As a further mortification, I needed to borrow money from a student to pay him—a “good price” being higher than I had expected, but worth every peso.
What lingers from that encounter is confusion about my own discomfort. The inequality I experienced as the young man knelt at my feet could have gone either way. On the one hand, I was a tourist “rich” enough to hire someone to do this menial task for me, and he was a laborer stuck hustling business in the street. But to leave it there would be to deny the dignity of work and worker. To be on the receiving end of his skill was humbling, for he was a good shoe-shiner, and I am a crummy one. He deserved his good price, and my respect. I’m glad he got both.
Think of the many people who provide services for you (trash collector, grocery clerk) and hold them in prayer, one by one. How do you show your gratitude for their good work, and respect for their dignity as children of God?