OPINION: Lent and working people

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By FATHER GERRY KLEBA

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 was highlighted on NPR’s Saturday Morning News on Super Bowl weekend. The perspective of the interviewer wasn’t just the need for a just wage of $15 an hour for the 2,100 union members, but even more focused on the race aspect of the story.

On Jan. 30, there was a march and demonstration in downtown St. Louis where 17 people, including Alderwoman Megan Green, were arrested for sitting in the middle of the street and blocking traffic. Several clergy, Rabbi Susan Talve and Reverend Darryl Gray were in solidarity with these community activists.

It was noted that 90 percent of the union members are people of color. The NPR report compared it to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marching with the sanitation workers in Memphis before the fateful night of his assassination.

THEIR STRUGGLE
Most SEIU members are janitors and maintenance personnel many working for some of the larger companies—U.S. Bank Plaza, Express Scripts, Wells Fargo Building and county facilities. At these places, janitors who provide comfort, convenience, and cleanliness, struggle to support their families on wages as low as $10 an hour which, though inadequate and unjust, is still higher than the scandalously wretched $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage.

This important story of Brother and Sister working people struggling and sacrificing for dignity and justice and a living wage has special importance and challenge for all readers as Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 26.

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LENT?
Many who have grown up with an awareness of this Lenten season might only know it as a time of personal sacrifice, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, chocolates, dessert, and public entertainment like movies or Netflix. 

Some people with a deeper awareness might even challenge themselves to be more generous by donating to charities or the person on the corner with a cardboard sign.

Most of those notions are somewhat isolating and individualistic even deepening the stereotype of Lent as punishment.

A NEW NOTION?
What if we embraced a new notion that Lent is community building neighborliness?

All working people might ponder their level of comfort and recall some aspect of the Labor Movement’s historical struggles.

What do we know about Mother Jones, about John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers in Bloody Williamson County, Ill., about May Day at Haymarket in Chicago, or the very recent GM strike in Wentzville?

IT’S ABOUT SELF-EXAMINATION
Lent can be refreshing because it can be a time to put our small selves aside and opt for the bigger picture. It is a time of enlightenment when we examine who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

We can go someplace where we would never go, like to a union meeting at the SEIU Local 1 (2725 Clifton, St. Louis, MO 63139) and rub elbows with the same people that a St. Louis Alderwoman accompanied in handcuffs.

This might be a Lenten sacrifice and bonding experience. We might even help to pay their fines or court costs.

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