I had a major landscaping job ahead of me — major for me, that is. A neighborhood eyesore needed some attention. A fire had destroyed a neighbor’s home some months back. The vacant lot was cleared of the larger rubble but tall grass and weeds had taken over, concealing shards of glass, rusted car parts, chunks of concrete, half-melted wire — the sort debris that made mowing impossible. I decided to take on the project — a full day of work, assuming I could round up some labor. I blocked out Monday in my schedule. On my early morning Home Depot run as I was loading grass seed and wheat straw into my pickup, I glanced across the parking lot and saw a group of men, perhaps thirty of them, clustered near the street entrance. Day laborers waiting for work — just what I needed. I headed over toward their assembly area intending to do a little negotiating. The group appeared to be somewhat orderly, snaking in an irregular line, those near the front poised for the next “boss” to arrive and signal for the number of workers he needed for the day. I would need two.
As I drove in the direction of the group, I was immediately aware that every eye was glued on my pickup. I had not come to a full stop when the line of men broke into a running, jostling mob that surrounded my truck. Eager faces pressed against every window, each intent on capturing my attention. “I’m a good worker…me?…me?…I’m a professional landscaper…I work hard…me?…me?…take me” — dozens of loud, urgent voices simultaneously over-talking each other. I scanned the horde of pushing, elbowing humanity — black men with braids protruding beneath stocking caps, unshaven Caucasians in sweat-stained ball caps, raven-haired men speaking broken English — every one desperate for a day’s work.
How to choose two workers from this mob? I randomly pointed to two young Hispanic men who had worked their way to my driver’s side window. “You two, jump in the back” I yelled loud enough to be heard over the clamor. “Me?…me?…me?…” a dozen voices responded. “You two,” I called out again and pointed directly at the two I locked eye contact with. I stepped out of the truck to negotiate a wage with the two who had leapt into the truck and were now sitting on my hay bales. “How much?” I asked. “Ten dollars,” they responded. Agreed. Other men still pressed around me as I jumped back into the driver’s seat. “Me too?…one more worker?…me too?…” A disgruntled African-American, seeing that he had been passed over in favor of Mexicans, indicted me: “You ain’t no American.” As I pulled away I could see in my rear-view mirror the dejected expressions on the faces of two men who followed my truck, clinging to the fading hope that I might change my mind and decide I needed one more worker for the day.
It broke my heart. Strong, able-bodied men, up early I the morning, eager to work, willing to do most any kind of menial labor for minimal pay — I wish I could have hired them all. What inner drive compelled them to endure such a prideless contest? Overdue rent? Child support? Families back in Mexico? Alcohol? The responses would have varied greatly. But none would have revealed the deeper underlying motivation. Meaning. Work is the Creator’s design. Life has no fulfillment without it. That voice I heard in the jostling crowd “I am a professional landscaper” was crying out “I have experience, I have skills, I have worth!”
Work is no human invention. Our earliest glimpse of the cosmos is a creative God at work. The original design of paradise pictures humanity at work. Work is fundamentally a cosmic activity. As Matthew Fox claims (The Reinvention of Work), it is “the” cosmic activity. “There is only one work in the cosmos…that one work is God’s work. Humans are invited to participate…” Rafael and Juan, riding on hay bales in the back of my pickup, wind blowing through their hair, chosen today to participate in God’s good work. No matter the task. Clearing debris from a lot or running a corporation, mopping the kitchen floor or selling a piece of real estate. Work, all work, is an invitation of God to take an active role as co-participants in an ever-unfolding creation. Little wonder that restless men rise early and wait impatiently for their opportunity to respond — even if few are consciously aware that this is their divine calling.