Martin Luther King and work

April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King. Jr., was assasinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember the night well.

I also remember the night I saw and heard him speak,

About 1965,  a friend and I went to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in North Philadelphia. It was a moving experience and we were some of the few whites in the crowd. But I remember clearly one of his quotes, which I found in another speech. (King like many good speakers, often recycled his best ideas.)

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

In societies that undervalue or demean manual labor or look down upon those who work on the land, these words of King speak clearly.

Until a few months ago I was unaware of one the reasons why I bristle when people speak poorly of campesinos here, especially those who have not studied much – or at all.

I realized that my roots are in blue collar workers. In addition, neither of my parents finished high school. Dad didn’t go to high school but went to work. He was a man with a good heart for others and he also had a good head; he could work out complicated math problems in his head! And Mom had to quit school to go to work because of the depression. Yet she continued to love to read. (I guess I get my taste for reading from her.)

They were both blue collar workers who suffered in the depression. And thus Martin Luther King’s quote echoes deeply in my heart.

May our world recognize the value of all work and may all workers see how their work can be a part of God’s work of living as signs of the Kingdom of God here on earth.



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