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Reflection: Labor Day and the Breadline

As Americans prepare to mark Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 2, a friar who works with the homeless and serves as a chaplain for unionized construction workers shares a story about a recent encounter between the two groups.

In the early morning on Aug. 23, I found a new meaning for Pope Francis’s teaching on “the culture of the encounter.”

I arose at 2:30 a.m. for a twofold purpose. First, I would be greeting a union-friendly construction and paving company from Brooklyn that would be performing badly needed work in the street in front of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the parish house and the friary on West 31st Street in New York City. The workers were scheduled to arrive at 4:30 a.m. to remove the old asphalt in the street, to locate and seal a crack on the curb in front of the parish house, and to repave the entire area with 15 tons of asphalt. This would be at least a three-hour job.

Second, I planned to prepare and help distribute food and coffee for our daily breadline that serves roughly 220 hungry and homeless persons each morning at 7 a.m. Two people who regularly sleep in front of the friary helped me to prevent cars and trucks from parking in front of the designated area. These two sons of Emmaus both inquired why I value union labor. I simply stated that the Catholic Church and labor unions have had a good relationship since the late 19th century.

I pointed to our church and told them it was opened in July 1892. While its final touches were being added, on May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the papal encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” or “Rights and Duties of Capitol and Labor.” This encyclical is the foundational text of contemporary Catholic Social Teaching.

Pope Leo XIII promoted dignity in the workplace, fair and safe conditions for the laborers, and the formation of trade unions and collective bargaining to ensure class harmony and prevent further abuse of workers. That is why I trust and value labor unions then and now. My two colleagues in the street nodded in agreement.

At 4:30 a.m., the union-friendly company arrived with two commercial vehicles and five workers. For an hour and a half, they carefully removed the old asphalt and identified the leak in the curb of the street that allowed water to enter the vault wall of the parish house. They then proceeded to seal and reseal the crack that caused damage.

At 6 a.m., the construction workers noticed the breadline’s guests beginning to arrive. The line began at the church and stretched down the block as far as 7th Avenue, ending opposite Madison Square Garden, America’s best known arena. I explained to the workers that the Franciscans have a preferential option for the poor. This is the oldest continuous breadline in U.S. history, and we are about to observe the 90th anniversary of this historic breadline as the direct result of the stock market crash of 1929. I asserted that respect for the dignity of each human person is essential in Catholic Social Teaching.

The first shift of workers left and at 6 a.m., the second shift of five workers came to lay the asphalt and to redraw white lines around the repaving area. I immediately connected with the second shift foreman, since we are both diehard New York Met fans. We shared our hopes that the Mets will make the playoffs this year.

I also met one of his workers, who joined the union a couple of years ago after serving time in prison for assault and battery. The union took a chance on this repentant sinner, and it has paid off for both sides in dividends.

Like the first shift, the second shift workers were consummate professionals who excelled at their labor. At 7 a.m., the church bell rang, signaling the start of the breadline. As the hungry and homeless went from the food line to the coffee line, they all complimented the workers for their skill and expertise. The workers expressed their gratitude, by either saying thank you or waving their hand with a smile on their face.

Just before 8 a.m., as they completed their tasks, the foreman expressed to me the sentiments of the other workers – why so many homeless women and men? As a typical New Yorker, I answered the question with a question. I asked the foreman, “What year did the Mets last win the World Series?” He replied 1986. I said that he was correct, but another great event occurred that same year.

It was the issuance of the 1986 pastoral letter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops titled “Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the US Economy.” A pivotal teaching of that meaningful pastoral letter was “The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.” These hungry and homeless people deserve dignity like every other person on earth. They all have societal circumstances that brought them to this breadline: homeless veterans with PTSD, those suffering substance abuse, those fired from their jobs without cause, those who came from abusive families, professional people who underwent various psychological episodes – the list goes on.

I also explained that the U.S. bishops came up with the 10-point “Catholic Framework for Economic Life.” This includes support for the family, seeking the common good, and helping the poor and vulnerable with food, shelter, clothing, and – God willing – a good-paying job.

I thanked the foreman and his union-friendly company for taking a chance on one of his workers, who is an ex-con. I then said, “Why can’t our society take a chance and give some of our people on the breadline a new lease on life?” The foreman told me he might drop by in a couple of weeks and look for some new recruits. I gave him a hug of gratitude and profusely thanked all the workers.

The workers left for another job. The breadline members were gradually leaving for their various destinations. I sat and prayed on the church steps.

I began to reflect on Pope Francis’s “culture of encounter.” These union workers just fixed a dangerous crack in the vault wall of our parish house. On the other hand, most of our breadline members have fallen through the cracks of our capitalistic society. With the threat of the reduction of food stamps, who will care for the homeless “anawim” of our society?

What I grasped is that during the early morning of Aug. 23 at 135 West 31st Street, union workers and the homeless encountered each other with the dignity of the human person.

Fr. Brian is chaplain for the NYC union construction workers and friar liaison for the St. Francis Breadline based at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in New York City.

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