Just Work

Just Work February 12, 2014

Today’s guest post comes from Abbie Borchers, one of an excellent class of students from Bethel Seminary who recently studied the intersection between faith, vocation and work.

NPR reported a story out of Japan a recently: sixty years ago two boys–one born to a rich family, the other to a poor family–were switched at birth. One boy grew up to be the president of a real estate company and the other grew up to be a truck driver. The truck driver born to rich parents but raised in poverty sued the organization that ran the hospital in order to hold them accountable for his resulting loss of privilege.

The context in which I heard the story was not the initial report, but rather NPR’s response to a listener’s complaint. When NPR had originally aired the story, you see, they used the phrase “just a truck driver” to talk about the man raised in poverty. At least one truck driver who listened to the story let his feelings about this phrase be known.

This got me thinking about how occupations are perceived as relatively worth-giving or worth-degrading to the worker. Clearly the “just” in front of truck driver worked to communicate dismissiveness–whether intended or not–to the truck driver who responded to the report. If I value all people as image-bearers of God, is there ever a time I should label someone’s work with the diminutive “just”?

Is there such a thing as just a cashier? Just a trash collector? Just a mom?

What about just a doctor? Just a pastor?

I imagine each person has some unexpressed list of “just” occupations. Perhaps many would even include or exclude the same occupations. But I wonder too, what of the person doing a job who internalizes the degradation of “just”?

The truth is, I have been that person. I’ve earned my money for the past five years by answering the phones at a large hospital, and it takes real effort not to talk and think about my job as “just” a phone operator. My concern about this instinct toward diminishment is multifaceted.

I may not intend to continue working in that job after I graduate, but what of my coworkers who will retire from being “just” phone operators after decades of service? Why do I feel that I have to call myself a student in the same breath that I call myself a phone operator?

What system of injustice has so devalued service work that the customer care skills involved tend to be neither recognized nor lauded? Does the prestige of a job follow or predict monetary compensation? Are the customer service skills needed to be just a phone operator less valued because the occupation is women’s work?

This thought train reminded me of a story told me by my friends who recently returned from mission work in the Philippines. As they walked through the Eastwood section of Manila, they came upon a statue. The statue stood in the middle of a square, tall and well-crafted. It featured a cluster of about five Filipino men and women. Wearing headsets.

The statue honors the telecommunications service workers, an occupation, according to my friends, of high status in that country.

Let’s liberate ourselves from being “just” anything, and hope that the refusal to self-marginalize will reproduce self-acceptance in others. And maybe, in such an environment, work will become more just—in the best sense of the word.

So I’ll start: I am Abbie, and I am a phone operator.

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