Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Labor Day

The last time we Franciscan missioners met to have a reflection together (sometimes we check in, sometimes we just eat together, and other times we pray and reflect as a group), I wanted to talk about the Catholic Church's "Labor Day Statement" that was published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. How does the Church's stand on the rights of the worker help us to understand our role as missioners in a poor country? The title of the statement, "Human Costs and Moral Challenges of a Broken Economy," while written in the context of the problems of the United States, elicited a strong response from us as missioners in Bolivia

While in formation in Washington, D.C., all of us had studied the Rerum Novarum enclyclical  by Pope Leo XIII that served as the foundation for over a century of Catholic social teaching and its view on the dignity of workers. In this country where we live now, college graduates drive taxis or find other ways to support themselves, while beggars line the streets of Cochabamba. Of course, the U.S. bishops' Labor Day Statement called to our attention all the problems facing workers in our own country, drawing attention to the failing U.S. economy.

 I have thought a lot recently about unemployment and underemployment in my own country, simply because it is all over the newspapers.  I graduated years ago and experienced a recession that could be construed as just as bad as the one that has hit college graduates in the past few years. My son's graduating class, 2010, was hit hard by the recession as the new graduates sought meaningful work.  I watched anxiously as they looked for work, some taking internships, one going to the Peace Corps, another working for a year before returning to school this year, while others persisted until they found acceptable or even suitable jobs.  I know that the Middlebury graduates were full of optimism, energy, and idealism, desiring to take the values of their college into the workplace. I admired their patience and their trust that they would lead lives of meaning, that they would be able to make their  own contribution to the world.

Similarly, I watch my daughter working in her Ph.D. program and teaching undergraduate classes. Both she and her husband are following their separate career paths, trusting that their professional lives will continue to evolve as they advance in their fields.

This trust that one's life will have purpose, the faith that opportunities will eventually allow one to forge ahead in reaching career or professional goals, as one adapts to the circumstances one finds onself in, is not a mode of thinking for North Americans alone. As one who worked as a campus minister one year at Furman University, besides teaching college for 28 years, and then coming to Bolivia to teach at the Catholic University in the yungas and currently working with the college students at San Simon University,  I find that students here are just as aware as students in the U.S. that jobs will be scarce when they graduate, that it will take time, networking, and strategy to find one's place. These students lead interesting, purposeful lives while going to school, and their optimism and good works will continue as they make their way in an economy with fewer opportunities than those for U.S. graduates.

College students in Bolivia seem to remain in school longer than the four years in the U.S., with the  medical and law students remaining much longer, as expected, although here they begin their professional training in their freshman year. The students whom I have met from San Simon are majoring in law, medicine, communication arts, business or engineering, to name a few majors (or carreras) and I read in the Bolivian Weekly that more trendy, marketable, and relevant (to the needs of Bolivia) majors are being developed. I have been told that younger siblings choose their major  according to the books that their older siblings have bought--books are so costly here. The students at Carmen Pampa (the Catholic University in the yungas) come to school to get an education in nursing, agonomy, eco tourism, education, or veterinary medicine. The students could carry their education and training back to their communities and work there. They could be leaders. Some students from Carmen Pampa eventually come to the larger universities, in La Paz, or here in Cochabamba, at San Simon. The students have hopes that they will get work, and here in Cochabamba, students seem to be selecting majors based on what work is available when they get out. At the Cristo Rey technological school in the city, the administrators believe that the tech students who spend about three years learning a trade, whether in auto mechanics, engineering, or styling and cutting hair, stand a better chance of making a better wage than the college grads.  It should be noted, also, that as all students have to write a thesis to complete their licenciatura (undergraduate degree), which in theory takes four years, many don't finish their thesis to complete their schooling.

Most of the jobs here are in agriculture, services, and industry, in descending order.  Here, the unployment rate stands at 8.3% , according to the Index Mundi website, but a campesina selling lemons and manzanilla (good for tea or skill ailments) is counted as employed. According to the U.S. Department of State website, Bolivia is an entrepreurial country, where most college grads intend to start their own businesses. The average salary is under $300 a month per person (that equals our stipend and living expenses). The two pervasive problems in Bolivia, according to the Bolivian Weekly, is the percentage of income necessary to buy food, and the deficiencies in access to safe water and sanitary services. ( Next to Haiti, Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, with 2/3 of the population, mostly farmers, living in poverty ( The life expectancy for the average Bolivian is  67.5 years of age, and the median age is 22.5 years old, which accounts for why I often feel that I am the oldest person in the room or on the bus. (

According to the UNICEF report this year,¨ in Bolivia there are 2 million children who live in extreme poverty, 800,000 who work in the street, 6,000 who live in the street, 2,000 who live in pentitentiaries with their parents, and more than 32,000 who live in homes for abandoned children¨ ( ).

The entrepreneurial system accounts for why doctors seem so accessible in Bolivia. Doctors here  have to scramble for business; the simple fact of having an M.D. is not a guarantee of an excellent income. One must develop one's reputation and business. Our anfitrion (host), Henry, a pediatrician, works in a clinic in the mornings and teaches in the university in the evenings. He is not a wealthy man; his wife works as an accountant, they lived frugally, and they take in Maryknoll students as boarders. But he has an excellent reputation in the city, and is a tireless worker.

Further, last week when I stopped in at the medical center on Guayacan, not far from my house, I asked the attendant which medicine I should take for an infected bite on my arm (my arm was swollen from the elbow down). I told the attendant that I was afraid that I had been bitten by a benchuga (a beetle whose bite can lead to Chargas, which eventually enlarges the heart after a period of ten years, unless the disease is intercepted in its early stages). He looked at my arm, declared that I had been bitten by a spider, and proceeded to get me some antibiotics for my injury. When he was counting out the pills, he looked up and informed me that he was not a pharmacist, but a doctor. I had begun to think that I was dealing with a professional, so I was not surprisedto hear that a doctor had waited on me. He did not even charge me for my consultation. But the relief that I felt when I left the medical center was immense: I was terribly afraid of the benchuga beetle, and not so afraid of spider bites.

Dr. Wendy at Carmen Pampa was a mere thirty-year-old whose job was to care for the college students, faculty, and the townspeople. She was astute, energetic, and idealistic about her work. She delivered babies, coaxed mothers into vaccinating their infants, and managed all of the campus healthcare needs. She knew English because her older brother had insisted on her taking English classes. Considered tall (my height), she was athletic, traveling up and down the mountain with ease, and always available. All these examples point out that doctors don't take their clientele for granted and don't always have a receptionist or a nurse who runs interference for them.

I learned before coming to Bolivia that many professionals are out of work, that lawyers and doctors and university professors drive taxis.  In a country of subsidized gasoline, taxi drivers make a good wage, but who would want to drive a taxi if they could be working in their field? Taxi drivers are usually among the friendliest and kindest people in Cochabamba, answering our questions and getting us where we need to go, with benevolence and solicitude.

The job market in Bolivia is an intensified version of what is occuring in the United States: few prospects for new college grads, record underunemployment. More so than in the United States, there is a large gap between the rich and the poor.  And in Bolivia, begging is a business. I would prefer to buy the over-priced peanuts from the woman who holds out her wares to buses and automobiles caught in the afternoon traffic jam than to drop a Boliviano (worth fifteen cents) in the outstretched hand of a beggar. Once while walking down the Prado, I was accosted by a young girl, very bright looking and full of energy, who kept jumping in front of me, demanding that I give her money. I saw that her mother was with her, working the same side of the street. I wanted to shake the girl and tell her to go to school; I wanted to upbraid the mother for teaching her daughter her own trade, begging.

One of the labor issues that is bothering people the most here these days is the problem of Bolivians' migrating to other countries in order to support their families. A Maryknoll sister who has been here for over fifty years informed me that parents with young children will work in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States (I have also heard that Italy is country that employs Bolivians who can't find work in their own country). In these instances, both parents (or the one parent, if the family is a single-parent household) will work in another country and send a lot of money back home to the grandparents or aunts who are caring for the children. I was told that the parents intend to work for only a couple or years in order to straighten out their finances, but wind up working many more years than planned.In these instances, we see children raised by grandparents who cannot control them or cannot connect with them. Some children are left in the incapable hands of their older brother or sister, who may be as young as fourteen. These are only some of the situations that I have heard about. But the instances of children left behind while the parents earn money abroad

But as I read the statistics about the United States--unemployment, underemployment, children living in poverty, college grads with school debt and few prospects of employment, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, economic stagnation, uncertainty for those who are retiring or who are unable to work because of illness, and the government's difficulties in finding solutions for these problems--I see that the United States, although not in as impoverished as Bolivia, had a lot to think about on Labor Day this year.

To this end,with both the United States and Bolivia in mind,  I want to offer some words from the  "Labor Day Statement" from the chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

"Our faith gives us a particular way of looking at this broken economy. From the prophets of the Old Testament to the example of the early Church recorded in the New Testament, we learn that God cares for the poor and vulnerable, and he measures the faith of the community by the treatment of those on the margins of life. . . .

"This long tradition places work at the center of economic and social life. In Catholic teaching, work has an inherent dignity because work helps us not only to meet our needs and provide for our families, but also to share in God’s creation and contribute to the common good. People need work not only to pay bills, put food on the table, and stay in their homes, but also to express their human dignity and to enrich and strengthen the larger community (Gaudium et Spes, no. 34). Human labor represents "the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 378).

"Over the last century, the Church has repeatedly warned about the moral, spiritual, and economic dangers of widespread unemployment. According to the Catechism, "Unemployment almost always wounds its victim’s dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. Besides the harm done to him personally, it entails many risks for his family" (no. 2436). One of the most disturbing aspects of current public discussion is how little focus there is on massive unemployment and what to do to get people back to work. In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council declared that 'It is the duty of society to see to it that, according to prevailing circumstances, all citizens have the opportunity of finding employment' (no. 67). As Pope Benedict warns, "Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering" (Caritas in Veritate, no. 25). A society that cannot use the work and creativity of so many of its members is failing both economically and ethically."

These were strong words for me, as I reviewed my efforts since graduating from college years ago with a "useless" English degree. I had always felt bad when I could not find meaningful work, and always wondered why it made me feel degraded when was between jobs. The church's teachings that work "expresses human dignity and enrichess and strengthens the larger community" helped me to understand that we are made to do work, that it makes us feel a part of the whole, even to the extent that we are collaborating with God to perfect God's visible creation." And the church also warns about the harm done to people who are out of work and dependent upon others, private or public: they suffer great psychological and spiritual harm.

As our Franciscan group meditated on the Labor Day Statement, we compared our findings on work in Bolivia. One missioner pointed out that a talented and well-educated teacher could not get work in a school because she belonged to the wrong political party; hence, she worked in an after-school center. This would no occur in the United States, but again, there are many well-educated workers who do not have jobs simply because there aren't enough to go around.

So on this labor day, I see the problems of a broken economy in both Bolivia and in my own country. I see the many vendors in the cancha, and wonder who is going to buy all the goods displayed for blocks and blocks for consumers. I rejoice when a young person who has just graduated from college, either here or in the U.S., finally lands a decent job.

As a missioner, I have the ability to choose where I work. My question is where will I do the most good with my education, training, and ability to speak Spanish. I feel lucky to have my job, a job where my purpose is to supply what the people want and need. So far, people here in Bolivia need English teachers. Yes, I can do that. I taught English for twenty-eight years at the college level. I am also trained as a college chaplain. Yes, there seems to be a need for chaplains here. Other opportunities emerge: writing, singing in the choir, running a film series, and I hope many more chances to work here in Bolivia.

I am grateful to those who have supported me financially here; I am also grateful to those of you who are reading my blog; I need to have friends from home to be with me on this mission. Emerson said, "Do your work that I may know you." I know enough about the Victorian work ethic, as well as the Puritan work ethic, to know that work itself can be over-emphasized. But work is indeed our way of collaborating with God.It is one means by which we express ourselves,use our talents, and feel that we are making a difference in our world. It gives us a sense of communty. Work also, in the most expedient sense, is the means by which we can support ourselves, our families, and maintain self respect in being self-sufficient. If we are paid a living wage, we may then eat healthy food, live in decent housing, have adequate healthcare, and provide for an education for our children and even provide for ourselves in retirement .

I am glad that the Catholic church has a history of addressing the ideals of the dignity of work and the inherent rights of workers. I understand better my own drive to engage in meaningful work, and will strive to advace its ideals in the real world.

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