A few years back, on one of my many trips to Boston for meetings at what was then our association headquarters at the foot of Beacon Hill, I had arrived a half a day early. Which gave me enough time to board a train for Concord, Massachusetts, a kind of pilgrimage Mecca for Unitarians? After the short ride, we disembarked in the midst of a sudden late spring New England squall. Unprepared, umbrella-less, sloshing through muddy streets, we arrived at our sacred destination — Louisa May Alcott’s family home across the road from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a modest cottage, immortalized for generations of girls as the setting for Little Women.
Drenched and shivering, but still eager for our visit, to our dismay, we were informed that the house was temporarily closed to the public. A large group of Japanese teenagers had arranged a private tour, and were due to arrive any moment. That would not do.
We told the woman selling admissions tickets that we were, after all, Unitarian religious leaders who had come all the way from Seattle and Atlanta just to see this holy place, where one of the most exalted Unitarian saints, one of our very own, had once lived.
Which was so not true. This visit to Orchard House was not, truth be told, the reason for our travels — but a fortunately-timed side trip. And, like so many of our “famous” Unitarians, Louisa May Alcott never actually joined a church. Nonetheless, we got the ticket seller’s attention and curt sympathy. She would see what she could do. While she disappeared into an office, we browsed the well-stocked gift shop, filed with copies of Alcott’s books, dolls in the likeness of the four little women, soaps and spoons, and other souvenirs. I settled on a small framed quote by the author:
Work, she wrote, is always my salvation.
Even as I purchased it, I wondered why. I did not recognize the quote as being from any of the eight volumes of the Little Women series that I had either devoured or dutifully made my way through. Because it was not from any of her many novels or collections of serially published short stories. It was extracted from a journal entry, from one of the few surviving pages that — at her request— survived her death. It is not the words of dialogue spoken by a made-up character, but the heartfelt declaration of the author herself.
I did not know then the extent to which the divine purpose of work peppered Louisa May Alcott’s personal writing or that one of the most popular novels she wrote — once considered “lost” and recently found, was Work: A Story of Experience, which she had originally titled Success, the tale of a working girl who both earned her living and intimate standing with God — who she called her Almighty Friend — through “noble labor” and “humble, wholesome duties.”
Which more than any of her other books, Louisa wrote, was modeled after her own life as a 19th century young woman whose sphere of possible work for money was narrowly constricted by gender and class, mostly limited to servant, seamstress, governess, practical nurse, and companion. Unpredictable exhausting labor. Relieved for her, at some points, by the success of her writing, which even brought her some uncomfortable fame.
My colleague and I finally did get a chance for a quick walk through the iconic house before the large tourist bus arrived, and I transported that seemingly odd moral message memento in my carry-on bag back home, where it has stood prominently on one office bookshelf or another.
So then why this particular keepsake and its crisp message? Work is my salvation.
Well of course mom, one of my sons tells me. You have always been all about work. You still are. It must be something more than collecting a paycheck.
It is true that in a couple of years I will have been employed for pay for 50 years, not even counting the babysitting, ice cream scooping, camp counseling jobs of my youth and college years, It is also true — which was made evident to me just a few weeks ago when I attended my 50th high school reunion and through dinner conversation learned that the overwhelming majority of my classmates had retired — had willingly put their paid work lives aside — that I am among the very small percentage of the Boomers my age that was still working at all, under a third, and of the women, around 18 percent fulltime.
Yes, I have worked and am still working, under the presumption that it has significant meaning and purpose. But salvation through work? Beyond the money earned literally saving us from hunger and homelessness, what did it mean to our own religious forebears? And how does it continue to inform and shape us now?
Several UU ministers, including me, sit on a religious coalition, in which our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition has been described as Protestant. To which, as a second generation Jewish Humanist whose parents joined a Unitarian congregation in the mid-20th century, I have been known to express strong objections. No we are not that. We are different, we are so much more.
One of my UU colleagues in this interfaith group has no such objections, maintaining that we quite simply cannot deny the historical fact of the larger Christian Reformation (small R or big R) we were part of in our founding, and the overwhelmingly Protestant environment of the society that surrounded us at our foundings and surrounds us still. Including the Protestant Work Ethic, its path to salvation, and the notion of work as calling that flows from it.
The anxiety caused by abandoning the Catholic theology which granted salvation from sin (and its resulting judgment and punishment by God in the afterlife) through confession to priests and/or paid indulgences for a more individual and direct relationship — or predestination — led to the notion of hedging one’s bet on Providence or Fate. The odds of God being merciful and generous — or at least having a shot at being right with God at the end — improved mightily by faithful adherence to hard work and the rewards it manifests for those who are deserving. In this faith scenario, our work is not a job or even an occupation, but a calling.
God has already chosen our worldly position, our life’s labor, which we do to God’s glory.
Our status, our success is the highest form of moral activity and proof of our righteousness in the eyes of God and our inevitable salvation.
Some will prosper — a sign of divine favor — and others will be poor — a sign from God of ill favor and moral failing.
This theology of either predestined salvation or damnation, and the callings that reveal in life that is already saved or doomed, were rejected by our earliest American Unitarian ministers and theologians. Louisa May Alcott’s mother, whose family belonged to Kings Chapel and whose brother was the minister of the Unitarian society in Brooklyn, would have heard messages from the pulpit emphatically denouncing the dogmas of original sin and preordained judgment which had separated us from the Congregational and other Protestant denominations of the time.
She would have listened instead to sermons from those pulpits reminding and admonishing her that we work out our own salvation. Work being the operative word. That on this earthly plane, we bear the total responsibility ourselves for discerning God’s ongoing desires for us and responding to our individual callings, preferably with great faith, patience, and good cheer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s views on salvation provided by work had a great impact on Louisa May Alcott personally — she adored him — and others of the early Unitarian circle, with his belief in limitless human potential. Who wrote: “work in very hour… see only though work, and thou cants not escape the reward.”
For him, the achievement of both worldly and spiritual success was placed solidly on each person, to know him or herself, to be self-reliant, to be dedicated to self culture.
For others in that small New England circle, some of whom were beginning to refer to them as Transcendentalists, they believed that God was less a personal deity, punishing or kindly, than a mystic aspiration. That we are each one of us born with a spark of the divine whole. But that creating the conditions within which to find and freely and fully use that spark was the responsibility — was not just an individual but a collective calling.
Within our liberal religious movement of the time — unified as it was against the Calvinist dogmas of divine predestination, of inescapable sinfulness — there were, then, schisms around work. Were we still to trust completely in a relationship with a more benevolent, providential God and in our own faithful and persevering work to navigate our time on earth and whatever lay ahead, no matter the hardships and indignities? Did we selectively second guess God’s timeline and offer direct charity to those for whom worldly success had not or would not ever come?
Or were there conditions, practices, powers, and principalities that no one person could overcome alone in order to truly live into our gifts? That needed changing in the here and now, whether by experiments in utopian living through shared labor and income equality; or by abolishing slavery, gaining voting and other rights for women, and workers’ rights in general.
Louisa May Alcott’s own family mirrored these divisions. Her father Bronson moved his family to Brooks Farm for a time, where they toiled and nearly starved before physical hardships and interpersonal eruptions closed this experiment down, this and other failed Transcendentalist enterprises, including a controversial progressive school, forcing Louisa to be the bread earner, partly through her writing. Her mother worked with shunned and impoverished Irish women in Boston to find them employment and improved living situations.
Louisa pieced her own working life together, this work that was her salvation (always) up to her untimely and painful death, despite the barriers thrown up against her gender’s welfare and progress, and unremitting personal tragedies and illness. But while she supported the causes of abolition and women’s suffrage, she did not join in the cause of workers’ rights.
In fact, though her surrogate character Christie in her Work novel, Louisa May Alcott disavowed the well-to-do activist women who she felt had little or no actual experience of what it was really like to be a low-income working woman. Whose fiery rhetoric she believed offered no practical relief, and caused only despair.
Instead describing labor as her best teacher, comforter, and friend. Leaving it to God to lead her, to lead all workers to the larger liberty they were meant to enjoy. Trust in God, and leave it to providence.
The differing world views within the Alcott family mirrored what was going on in our rancorous Unitarian pews, especially in those congregations where the well-to-do parishioners might have been more than willing to charitably comfort the afflicted, but not pleased at all to have any preacher afflict the comfortable with thoughts of changing the basic economic and social order, whether by ending racial enslavement, or gender oppression, or building opportunities for the poor to do better.
Let alone self-actualizing. Let alone thriving.
As an inheritor of this jumbled American Unitarian theology of work, I came into a faith tradition and larger society (and particularly, in the vocational pressure cooker already of what would become the Silicon Valley) where work was unquestionably always to be my salvation, not just being trained and educated for work, but finding my unique inner spark. Not just seeking and getting work, but imbuing it with transcendent meaning and purpose.
In my economically privileged community and schools, all the aptitude and achievement and personality trait tests that could be created and marketed. And tried out on me and my classmates.
As I entered adulthood, all the books on finding the perfect match between gifts and calling, including the very first and subsequent 44 editions of What Color is Your Parachute, which has promised millions of readers a fulfilling and prosperous life’s work.
There were then and are now books on working with passion, working with grit. Books on the best jobs for your skills, your personality. Best low stress jobs, best jobs for introverts.
I was, we are surrounded by the publication of inspiring individual stories of people who have found purpose and passion in their work, no matter how unexpected or untraditional, notably the encyclopedic Working by oral historian Studs Terkel, which was praised as a path breaking exploration of the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people from hookers to gravediggers. And the recently published Storycorp book Callings (the purpose and passion of work), another collection of stories from people doing what they love, from an ink removal specialist to a salmon slicer.
The spark. The tools. The models. The pressure. The moral imperative.
No wonder that a half century after I graduated, having been thoroughly prepped, tested, and vetted for a fully actualized working life, there are high school students in my hometown committing suicide in alarming numbers, under the pressure to prepare and perform and find their spark as early and fully as inhumanly possible.
As a minister in this liberal religious tradition and inheritor of our theology of calling and work, I spent a great deal of my formation time (which began 20 year ago this week) listing out my previous vocations (and there were several), explaining how they had led or not led me to this “ultimate” calling. And crafting a personal mission statement, my saving message.
To bear courageous and authentic witness.
Which I had done or tried to do as a journalist. Which I had done or tried to do as a secular advocate for women and children, especially around what we now call reproductive justice.
But all the reporting and speechifying had led to little.
While I was not naïve and knew that progress would be slow, it was an economic justice issue around women and work — or more accurately not working — that turned me toward ministry in this faith tradition, with the hope and faith in our theology as I had come to understand it.
In 1995, what was described as a landmark welfare reform bill was introduced in Congress.
Under this legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program which had originally been created to give cash assistance to widowed mothers was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. In exchange for a few hundred dollars a month this so-called reform bill introduced strict, nearly impossible work requirements for the mothers of all but the youngest children and a maximum of 60 months of assistance over a lifetime. It severely limited access to benefits for non-citizens and the formerly incarcerated.
The national child advocates I knew despaired of its possible passage and enactment. Yet the racially charged visuals of cigarette smoking welfare queens, the dog whistle message in them, overwhelmed our data and our warnings of the consequences, most especially to the children whose health and welfare would be most damaged. Which came to pass.
Our warnings were for naught, and more than the cynical stances of the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that voted for it and the president who signed this measure, my despair arose from the apparent willingness of my local secular colleagues to go along, to blithely count on a reversal of this at some future date, no matter how unlikely.
Work as my salvation. To bear courageous and authentic witness. I needed to match my calling to right livelihood.
By the time TANF became the law of the land, I had applied to and been accepted into theology school, on my way to becoming a professional minister.
It was, you see, my deep hope and expectation that our rejection as a faith movement those many years ago of the doctrine of predestination, which religious sociologists have found has served as an inspiration and rationalization for condemning the poor even up to today, would provide the solid ethical underpinning my continued social justice work required.
That affluence and success are not divinely decreed. That poverty is not an indication of inescapable failure. Ripe for punishment.
That our belief in individual giftedness and grit does not preclude our commitment to collective support, and recognition and remedying of the structures and systems that block the way forward for so many.
That our religion, our tradition, does not exist to support the status quo, but to be prophetic as well. To affirm and promote justice and compassion.
My spark, my calling.
Our spark, our calling.
On this Labor Day, 2016, I share the words of Rev. Kendyl Gibbons:
In the memory of sacrifice and enduring hope-liberation.
In the dignity and worth of every soul — our salvation!
In the power of love and the human spirit — transformation.
May this be our work today and every day.