The Dignity of Work

“What is your favorite thing, in less than three sentences, about work?” That was the question Madison Chandler, the co-founder of Purple Door Coffee in north Denver, asked 19 year-old Kaylee, one of her employees.

It’s a good question for any of us, but perhaps even more important considering Kaylee's story. Not only does Purple Door make delightful lattes and work directly with partners in Latin America to source their fair trade coffee beans, but their mission is “to reclaim and sustain the lives of homeless youth and young adults through supportive and meaningful employment.” Kaylee was a teenage mother and homeless, and now she works at Purple Door. She is employed. And this is a gift.

What does this job really mean to her? Check out Kaylee’s response:

Kaylee’s response, in all its simplicity, is profound. (By the way, don’t worry: Madison gave us permission to use this short video.)  In response to, “What is your favorite thing about work?” Kaylee responds:

1. It gives me something to do.

2. I can pay for what I need to pay for. I can support my daughter.

3. It helps me realize my true value as an individual, and as an employee. Just knowing that I’m needed makes me feel really good.

Incredible. Kaylee sees perfectly. (1) A job provides her a way to be productive and provide for the needs of her neighbor. (2) It gives her a way to financially provide for her daughter. Instead of receiving mere charity (as helpful as it was during hard times of her life), she can now know the satisfaction of providing for her loved ones. And (3) It gives her dignity. Work for her is not only a mere job to make money (though it includes that as well); work is a community. Work is where she is drawn into the human family - in our giving and receiving, buying and selling, providing and consuming - it is where her nature as an image-bearer of God shines forth.

So often we underestimate the power of work. We pretend it’s just a necessary evil. But Kaylee would disagree. From homelessness to productive work, she tells us, Here is a way to bring hope and dignity to me. I was in need, and here, among co-workers and customers, I am needed. Here is a family. Here is where I even provide for others.

I can’t help but think she can teach each of us about the intrinsic satisfaction of work. Kaylee’s response remind me of a quote by Alexandre Kojève:

The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.

That is, when Kaylee cleans tables and pours shots of espresso, she sees a part of her own humanity poured out into a cup - a part that was abstract is now concrete through her work. A part of her own image is poured into each cup.

No need to idealize work. It is filled with pain, setbacks and hard days. But nonetheless, it expresses her dignity. Hear how Pope John Paul II says it in Laborem Exercens:

And yet, in spite of all this toil—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonus arduum, in the terminology of St. Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.

That’s it. Work is the expression of Kaylee’s dignity. It is not the source of her dignity - that comes from her identity as being a daughter of God - but it expresses her worth in the physical and social world.

We often talk as if phrases like “business is a holy calling” are trite phrases meant to make Christian business leaders feel better about making money. But look at what business can provide! It can feed both body and spirit, as Kaylee artfully shows. And when done from a heart moved by grace, can business not be a holy act of neighbor love?

This Monday morning, my hat goes off to Madison and to the job creators who provide both the goods and services and the work our bodies and souls need. And hats off to the Kaylees, who have overcome hardship, set back and disappointment, and display to us the glory of God in the humble form of serving others through daily work.