The Common Good

Putting Some Labor Back in Labor Day Weekend Services

Labor Day weekend is often a slow time for congregations. Members are attending family gatherings. Parents are getting children ready for school. Neglected summer projects are undertaken or (like my garden) abandoned until next summer. Aside from the occasional Labor Day parade, few Labor Day activities seem to have anything to do with honoring labor. Labor Day weekend nonetheless offers congregations an opportunity to lift up the values of work and reflect on our religious teachings on labor.

Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 in New York City. The idea of a labor day spread throughout the nation with 23 states passing laws honoring the occasion. In 1894, Congress made it a national holiday. American Federation of Labor records show a resolution in 1909 proclaiming the Sunday before Labor Day as Labor Sunday, "dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement," though many congregations were holding Labor Sundays at least by 1905.

Work is central to each of our lives. Most of us spend more waking hours at work than we do with our families. We certainly spend more time at work than we do in religious services. Working people and how they fare are central to the development and prosperity of the nation. Tackling poverty requires us to figure out how all workers can earn wages and benefits that can support their families.

Despite the centrality of work to our lives, few of our congregations focus much on values related to work. We don't preach about work, offer classes on integrating religious values into work, train new workers about worker rights, or advocate justice in the workplace. Too many congregations have limited God's purview to the family and congregational life, when in fact fundamental values questions are played out in the workplace each and every day.

Labor in the Pulpits (Labor on the Bimah, Labor in the Minbar) is an organized program in dozens of cities that places labor speakers in congregations to talk about the shared values between the labor movement and the religious community. It is coordinated jointly by Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and the AFL-CIO. Even congregations that don't officially have labor speakers can take advantage of the congregational resources prepared for Labor Day weekend.

Although Labor Day is right around the corner, it's not too late to put some labor back in Labor Day weekend services. Your congregation can:

  • Preach about the value of work. Review your tradition's teachings on labor and work through your faith body's Web site or IWJ's.
  • Invite a labor leader to talk about the shared values between the labor movement and the religious community.
  • Honor its own workers (such as the secretary, custodian) in public ways or through IWJ's Honor a Worker program.
  • Include inserts honoring work in the bulletin. IWJ offers free Labor Day-specific inserts as well as others that can be used throughout the year.
  • Schedule a fall or spring adult study program on worker issues. IWJ offers a congregational study guide to New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse's essential new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. In addition, I have a book coming out in November, Wage Theft in America: A Prevention Manual, which includes a four-session congregational study guide. (E-mail if you'd like to get on the notification list.)

Labor issues may not be discussed much in our congregations, but they should be. Work is central to each of us, to our nation's prosperity, and to the possibility of ending poverty. Use this Labor Day as an opportunity to begin reinserting the core values of work and economic justice into the preaching, teaching, and living out of God's vision in our congregations.

Kim Bobo is the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national network that engages the religious community on issues affecting low-wage workers. A columnist for Religion Dispatches, she is the author of Lives Matter: A Handbook for Christian Organizing and a co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the most widely-used manual on progressive activism in the country.

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