Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Economic Crisis: Hard Come, Easy Go (2)

And as I prepare to stitch the next piece into this narrative, I realize that something that happened over the lunch hour today offers a diversionary piece that absolutely must be sewn in here, because it’s not really a diversion at all. It’s more of a narrative frame (to shift metaphors wildly) within which I need to set everything that follows.

Steve picked me up for lunch after I had posted my initial blog statement earlier today. He wanted to go to a Mexican restaurant he likes, and where he’s liked in return.

And what’s not to like? He speaks Spanish with the staff, smiles, tips generously. He knows how to joke, while I sit in stifled self-conscious silence, though I can speak passable restaurant Spanish. He has a heart for working people, and his heart shows. He’s from Minnesota, for goodness’ sake. And as everyone knows, it’s impossible to dislike anyone from Minnesota.

We were escorted today into a kind of backroom where, I felt, we were being given a seat of honor. Alongside us was a table of about twenty Hispanic working men, a cena-style arrangement in which ten or so men sat across from ten others, at a long, narrow, rectangular table.

For the purposes of this narrative about our current national economy—and Steve’s and my place in it—it was important that I see this group of working men today. It was crucial.

Here I am, preparing to go on at length about how being openly gay can affect one’s economic status in professional life, particularly when that professional life unfolds in a church context. And yet, my economic circumstances are in no way comparable to those of the men beside whom I ate lunch today.

I know it. I have eyes to see. These men work harder than I have ever worked a day in my entire life. And they have less to show for their work than I do. I can see the frayed clothes, the sun-darkened skin, even, in some cases, the fatigue of a morning’s labor.

In saying this, I don’t mean to demean or to caricature a group of people I don’t know personally. What I do want to do, however, is to insert into my narrative an important recognition—one that’s important for me to remember, first and foremost—and one that frames everything I am going to say in my subsequent autobiographical statements.

This recognition is that, despite my insistence that my perspective on the national economy is unique in some respects, due to my experiences as an openly gay theologian, the outcome of what I have experienced in my professional life links me to millions of other Americans. Who struggle to make ends meet. Who are, like me, without health coverage, and who worry about not having easy access to adequate healthcare. Who worry about dwindling savings.

Or who, as I suspect is the case with the men beside whom I ate lunch, can only dream of having savings about which to worry. Almost all the Mexicans and Central Americans whom I know in this area, or about whose lives I have more than passing knowledge, send as much as possible of their weekly paycheck home, to help their families get by. To help them prepare to come here eventually.

The troubled circumstances of our current economy affect millions of people who have no choice except to live at the margins, eking out a living on a paycheck that barely covers the week’s or month’s expenses, unable to put savings aside. And the downturn in the economy affects those millions of Americans disproportionately. It is on their backs that the wealth raked in by a minority at the top rests: that wealth is due to their labor.

And, in the case of workers coming to this country from south of the border, largely unacknowledged labor. This is labor we need, all of us. It oils the machinery of big cities and small towns across the nation. This is labor we cannot do without, even as we decry “immigrants” and “illegal aliens” who are taking away “our” jobs (jobs we do not want and would not have if they were offered to us).

I’m doubly sensitive to these recognitions this week because I have spent the last two days working (or "working" might be more accurate) in a home office that looks out on the back yard of our neighbor to the north. When Ike passed through last weekend, a huge oak tree fell in her yard, crushing her back porch and the truck of a friend, and taking out the power lines running to her house.

The local energy company could not restore the power until the tree had been removed. Two days ago, a crew of some eight or ten Latinos arrived early in the day to begin the removal process. I spent two days listening to them work—non-stop. They sawed up the tree, cut it into manageable hunks, loaded the hunks into a truck bed, and hauled them off, a long day’s work in which the same process had to be repeated the next day.

The work went on from daylight to dark. I never saw these working men take a break either day except at lunch. They sometimes sang as they worked, at other times shouted and joked, warning each other of possible danger as they handled the huge chunks of wood.

And now the yard is quiet. The tree’s gone, neatly divided and hauled away. I have no doubt the men who did the work have moved on to a similar project somewhere else in the city. I also have no doubt that they are not paid nearly what they are worth for the work they do skillfully and quickly.

For me. For all of us.

I want to remember that work as I continue with my narrative about Steve’s and my experiences as gay theologians. Our experience surely does have elements of uniqueness, and to the extent that many people do not know or think about such stories, it constitutes a story that needs to be heard.

But the result of the experience—the constant dispossession, the labor taken for granted and unrewarded, the inability to achieve economic security: nothing about this experience is unique. It is the lot of millions of Americans, perhaps of the majority of working people in this nation. I want to bind these words upon my heart as I resume the interrupted narrative of our interrupted vocational lives.

With a final note that—at least to my convoluted narrative sense—binds this “diversionary” piece back to the main narrative line. I want to point out that it’s Steve who has heightened my awareness of the price working people pay in our country.

Steve grew up doing hard work on a farm. Between college and high school, he earned money for college by working on a crew that built silos across Minnesota, the Dakotas, into Montana. At St. John’s in Collegeville, where he began college, he paid his tuition and room and board by digging graves in the monastic cemetery, lighting fires on the ground to be dug when it had become so deeply frozen that digging was otherwise impossible.

Steve spent the winter break of his first year at school working with a company running power lines to reservations of native people in northern Minnesota. When I first met him in New Orleans, he was working—again, to try to make his way through college, now Loyola—to weld and install wrought-iron balconies on apartment buildings being put up along Lake Pontchartrain. He has worked hard all of his life, and understands something of what those who work with their hands feel.

Long-term relationships, when they work (and God knows they don't always work), involve give and take in which the better angels of our partners’ nature sometimes overshadow our own souls. And that’s as true for gay marriages as for straight ones. It’s something I need to say, as I resume my story of how it happens that we approach retirement wondering what the future holds for us economically, even apart from the impending depression—though we have, to our way of seeing things, worked as hard as we can at the jobs we've been given to do.