Friday, March 12, 2010

A Not So Easy Life

His job was to clean the large parking area in front of the rest stop. Feeling like a chipmunk circling around in a cage, he would move from one end of the area to another, sweeping with his broom. When that was done, he would clean the men's lavatory, and then back again to the parking area--a routine that lasted from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. He was not used to physical labor. With his back hurting and quickly feeling exhausted by the routine, he often wondered, as he rested and munched on his walnut cookies for energy, whether he could go through with the plan.

He was a priest who had decided "to go among his people" and live as the poorest among them had to live. Because he had entered the seminary right out of middle school and had no work experience, he felt he might have missed an important learning experience--an experience that would help him in his ministry, especially with those having work-related problems. So, during his sabbatical leave, he applied for the parking lot job. After one day on the job, he wanted to quit and realized that what he was feeling must be what many others feel every day of their lives, when working at something they dislike. He did stay for the one month he had agreed to, but he also knew, unlike those who have to stay on a job to feed their families, that his days as a sweeper were coming to an end.

After being called "Father" for 27 years, he was getting used to hearing "Uncle," a word that refers to a middle-aged man in Korea. What he found difficult to accept was not being given the respect every person is due simply because of our shared humanity. He learned, in a deeply personal and painful way, how others on the low-end of the economic ladder are often treated. He remembers seeing a woman standing in front of a coffee machine, complaining that the coffee came out so thick she couldn't drink it. He bought her another cup. The woman thanked him, but the words that still echo in mind were the words telling him he could have the coffee she couldn't drink.

Though the priest did not want anyone to know of his unusual work, the story was reported by the press, and was sent to me with the thought that the story would help me and others working in ministry to deepen our understanding of the difficulties many laypersons face in raising a family and living a Christian life.

Thinking back over his experiences, the ex-sweeper and now again functioning Catholic Priest wonders how long his monthly wage as a sweeper of slightly more than a thousand dollars would sustain a man and his family. He also thinks of the T-shirt costing a hundred dollars he once was given. He feels differently about it now. He also feels differently about the sermons he gives, about those who come to hear them, about those who don't throw cigarette butts on the ground and don't litter public places. The word love isn't so abstract to him anymore.