We all know the drill about Labor Day. People nod toward the importance and dignity of work, then move quickly to the business at hand: barbecues, maybe one more family trip, relaxing despite our sadness about another summer having flown by.
The origin of the holiday tends to get lost. Since 1996, Arise Chicago, working with the Chicago Federation of Labor, has tried to do something about that, putting effort toward giving labor its due. Each Labor Day weekend, the organization sends volunteers to houses of worship to speak about serving God by supporting justice and decent treatment for workers.
“What I like about this is it gives me a framework that goes beyond the shallow idea of Labor Day,” says Rev. Lindsey Long Joyce, pastor of United Church of Rogers Park, who’s in her third year of supporting the program. “It provides a more robust understanding of what it means to be in solidarity with the working class.”
Joyce says many people know the story of God commanding Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” but forget how that sentence continued with the words “so that they may serve me.”
“We’re talking about setting people free from economic violence so that we are free to serve God and each other,” she says.
Arise’s “Labor in the Pulpit” program is placing speakers this weekend at about 112 services throughout Cook County. In keeping with its expansion into synagogues and mosques, it’s now called “Labor in the Pulpit/on the Bima/in the Minbar.”
The labor federation — which is one of the organized labor groups that has an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times — recruits volunteers, and Arise matches them with congregations. Leaders of each religious site who agree to be part of the program are told what the guests will say at an appropriate time in the service.
Don Villar, secretary-treasurer of the CFL, will be speaking for the third year at a Roman Catholic church. Villar says the program honors a long tradition of religious leaders’ involvement in civil rights and similar causes.
“It’s all about faith in action and how faith directs us in the labor movement,” he says.
Villar says he looks forward to the conversations he has after mass and hearing about people’s jobs and union membership. “It spreads a lot of good will,” he says. “I think we could do more of this.”
Luke Sullivan, Arise’s religious organizer, has coordinated the program for seven years. He sees it as central to the group’s mission of putting the values of faith into service for workers. The program isn’t a fundraiser, though Arise gets support from religious organizations, unions and others for year-round efforts that include recovering workers’ lost wages and advocating for policy changes.
Arise also publishes a workers’ rights manual, which summarizes Illinois labor law in English, Spanish and Polish.
Sullivan says the Labor Day weekend services allow the group to reach perhaps 10,000 people. His work includes collecting Labor Day reflections from leaders of different denominations and including them in worship bulletins.
To Sullivan, there’s a natural connection between worker solidarity and the fellowship of congregations.
“If you think about it,” he says, “where is that someone who’s not in your family is liable to call you a brother or sister? It’s in a union hall and at church.”