Work as a Gift - Part 2

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, December 2004

When another year goes by at The Working Centre, we are really just thankful that everyone has worked so hard to pull together again. The place operates by the natural rhythms of the seasons. The services, projects and even fundraising events, all ebb and flow through the different seasons. By the end of the year, we are well aware that already, the cycle is starting again. It is a hard lesson, but from this unending rhythm we learn the meaning of work.

Christopher Lasch, reflecting on a moral vision that has been lost in our culture, reminds us that meaning in work is not to be found in great plans for progress. Lasch emphasizes that hard work teaches us, “a sense of limits, a respect for accomplishments and aspirations of ordinary people, a realistic appraisal of life’s possibilities, and genuine hope without utopianism which trusts life without denying its tragic character”.

Sometimes, as projects around the Working Centre keep expanding, people wonder about our limits. But these are not the limits that Lasch is talking about. Lasch is not questioning the potential to be explored for the building of community. Rather, this vision of work is one of rootedness, the type of experience repeated in the daily rhythm of work.

It is truly a blessing to witness so many people who contribute to the rhythm and flow of the Working Centre community. Limits, accomplishments, aspirations, realistic appraisals, genuine hope all flow from the community of people who engage the day to day work. Nowhere is this more apparent than the hundred and twenty people who contribute towards producing the daily weekday meal at St. John’s Kitchen. At the Kitchen you can witness the hundreds of small tasks that result in the production of this communal meal in the Kitchener downtown. You see it in the dishwashers who are not daunted by sweltering summer temperatures as they wash every last dish or the gang of helpers who quickly assemble to help empty the Foodbank truck in the cold of winter.

Throughout the projects this same dedication is apparent. The Job Search Resource Centre at 58 Queen is often filled with over 40 people using the computers, job searching, or looking for specific supports such as housing advice. Those who are helping hear and respond to so many crises; people not able to make ends meet, people frustrated by the job market, people losing their apartment, people without any money to afford a bus trip, and others who are facing major illnesses.

And this work continues on so many other levels. Karen has described the St. John’s Kitchen Garden Community that has grown on Kraft Road on property graciously provided by Herb and Barb Quickfall. Kari proudly talks about the 40 volunteers who have been part of Recycle Cycles since May, all of whom learn that it takes up to four hours to make an old bike road ready. Bike building is not fast, it is a skill developed through hard work and patience.

Slow patient work describes the construction project at 66 Queen. It makes sense to slowly renovate using a rhythm that does not over build or over plan. Fantastically expensive quotes were given to recreate the exterior façade. Instead, we chose the path of steady refurbishment that has resulted in an almost completed façade that enhances the beauty of the building and respects its heritage. Most impressive was the feeling of accomplishment that everyone involved gained through this restoration work.

In the Kitchener downtown cooperation is breaking out everywhere and at the root of this cooperation are projects that do small things really well. The Kitchener Downtown Business Association has provided The Working Centre with the ability to create street sweeping jobs through out the spring, summer and fall for those least likely to gain employment. The KDBA has provided a tremendous demonstration of commitment to serve all sectors of the downtown. The psychiatric outreach project is breaking down barriers through a program that operates out of a backpack. The downtown street outreach worker, Gerard has spent his first year walking with those who are pushed to the far edges of our society. This is how mutual respect can be a building block for a community.

The interplay between the importance of good, honest work and what Ken Westhues calls, “Building Relationships Where People Are Real” is at the heart of what The Working Centre is about. We came up with the name of the centre sitting on Anna Hemmendinger and John Chamberlin’s porch in April of 1982. We knew that this project should be a reflection on work in the same way that John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical “On Human Labour” had stressed the dignity of human labour. A year later, Bishop Proulx, reinforced that idea when he spoke at a gathering of unemployed workers in Kitchener stating, “unemployment breaks human dignity, human pride and self-reliance. It sows fears of all kinds in the hearts of those plagued by unemployment”.

At a recent talk Stephanie and I gave at the University Catholic Community Conference, we described the six spiritual principals of The Working Centre as building community, work as gift, community tools, serving others, living simple so others may have more and rejecting status so all may be equal. We felt any one of those topics could entail a daylong workshop.

More likely, what we encounter each day are examples of work as gift. It happens in the ways that people not only support each other but offer concrete skills and abilities, however limited or however great, to contribute to the whole. The teachings of good work provide a message of hope and dignity.

Wendell Berry sums up this knowledge of good work, showing how the rhythm of work is a necessary part of each individual and each community’s well being.

“Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honours nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands.

“It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonour God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for.”

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