It's changed the way I leave hotel rooms. It has increased the amount I tip waiters and waitresses. It will stir me to greater carefulness when returning items to store racks and to greater praise of salesclerks. Most of all, it motivates me to advocate for higher wages for service jobs.
The it I'm referring to is Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich is a social critic and author. She writes articles for magazines such as Time and Harper's and books that win critics awards and make The New York Times best-seller list.
For three separate months she hid her identity and tried to make ends meet as a day laborer in Florida, Maine and Minnesota. She wanted to see if it was possible to survive on $6 to $7 per hour, so she lived in the cheapest places available and worked responsibly as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing home dining-room helper, cleaning woman and salesclerk.
She discovered many things, such as the skill, strength, generosity — and sometimes the meanness — of her co-workers. But she also discovered that people in those jobs can't make it unless they take a second job (which she did twice), have a spouse or live in their car. Most of her co-workers went without medical care.
Two sections in her account especially stand out for Christians. The first arose out of her waitressing. About horrible customers, she wrote: "The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians — like the 10-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill." She gives another example of someone with a Christian T-shirt who complained about everything and left no tip.
Her final comment horrified me: "As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene's original profession."
Apart from Ehrenreich's confusion of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus, surely she is right about the offensive witness Christians can give. I discovered the same when I was a waitress during college. Some Christians tipped poorly but liked to give tracts. Let's remember that for waiters and waitresses, tips are usually the main source of their income, especially in less expensive restaurants.
Do we know how hard on the body and mind waiting tables is, how heavy and unmanageable are the vacuum cleaners maids use, how disgusting it is to clean up after us in bathrooms? I've always gathered my towels in hotel rooms, but I could strip the bed and leave a tip — now that Ehrenreich has awakened me to how hard it is for hotel maids to make bed after bed.
Ehrenreich relates a more encouraging account related to Christians. She meets her friend's aunt, "Caroline," who had, with two children and no husband, managed to move far from home and make it on her own. Ehrenreich asks her how she got by, and Caroline describes a gracious cab driver who took her from the bus to an inexpensive hotel, and then, "the next step was to find a church: ‘Always find a church.’ ' The parishioners connected her with social agencies, schools, a day-care center for her children and sometimes helped with groceries.
Would the same be true if Caroline had come to our churches?
I know many congregations where members help new people in the community find what they need. Some have good social outreach programs to provide assistance when finances aren't sufficient. I want to underscore how important these ministries are and urge us all to devote ourselves to such work more extensively.
An enormously large number of the "working poor" live in the United States. Their wages aren't sufficient; their nutrition is inadequate; their health care is minimal or nonexistent; and their housing is substandard.
What will we do about it?
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers