Miners Labored for the Community in a World of Dim Carbide Lamps
[This is Bishop Paul Marshall’s September 1998 column published in local newspapers. It is a rewrite for the secular press of a lengthier column written in 1996 for Diocesan Life.]
My wife, Diana, and I drove to Scranton to visit the Lackawanna County Anthracite Museum a few years ago. I have thought often about that visit and have reviewed impressions it left.
When the coal mine tour guide (whose father died of Black Lung, and whose grandfather died in a cave-in) turned out the lights and showed us the amount of light a carbide lamp (and later a slightly brighter electric lamp) on a helmet provided, and added that this was all the light the miners had from the opening of the mine in the 1850s until its close in 1966, I began to realize what a different world they inhabited.
Long days, mining an eighteen-inch seam on your belly; child labor starting at age seven; water, dirt, and noise; not to mention health, safety, and economic questions. A miner's life is not one I would have wanted. I understood why being sent to the mines in the ancient pre-industrial world was a death sentence for a convict.
The industrial world we enjoy was built by the backbreaking labor of millions of people, supported by the unpaid labor of those who made what homes they could for them, with little hope for something better. We need to acknowledge our debt to them, not because they made some owners and investors wealthy (possibly some who read this today), but because they helped build a country, and for a long time provided much of the economic backbone of our region. May we attend to the grim reminders of what it cost them.
What have we learned? Our workplace is by and large safer and more rewarding than it was for those miners. Most of us have considerably more options about where and for whom we will work. Nonetheless, I think that the basic lessons still apply.
God made humans social creatures. Most of what we do and enjoy depends on what people do for us or with us. People are not to be used, but valued for who they are as God's creatures, and what they give to one another through their work. That gift is a continuing of the Creator's work. How do we teach that to our children so they will continue to build human respect and community? Baptismal vows in the Episcopal Church include one to respect the dignity of every person. How do we help our children realize that faith in action starts here?
We need to be clear in attitudes we model to our children, that while different kinds of work have different levels of responsibility, creativity, and reward, and while social conventions acknowledge this in many ways, everyone has the same personal worth. Our children need to hear us speaking of people from any walk of life with respect -- whether they have more or less education, responsibility, or money than we.
Those of us who have shielded our children from doing volunteer work for the family or in community service may need to rethink that. How else will they learn that among those who follow Jesus, there are no little princes or princesses, but that we are members one of another? How else can they learn that the more privileges one has earned or inherited, the more responsibility one has?
Finally, work cannot be a god. Many species and some human groups simply kill or leave to starve those whose disabilities or age prevents them from contributing, We have learned to respect and care for them and to help them see that there are many ways to participate in the community's life. Japan, a country that does know something about work, marks a Respect for the Elderly day each September. What might a version of that look like in America, brought off with care and without patronizing?
Anyone who knows me knows that I am very far from being a socialist. My politics are independent and highly pragmatic, and I would never pretend to have expertise in labor relations. I am convinced, however, that if we believe that God made us, and made us to work together, we need to act as if that is true, and value one another accordingly. When that is happening, I am willing to trust the experts to do much of the rest.