When I was living in Northern Virginia and attending Wesley seminary in Washington DC, I was enrolled in a class that started at the God-awful hour of 8 a.m. That meant I was up at daybreak, and on the road by 7:15. No time to eat breakfast or even fix myself a cup of coffee. Sometimes in my drive in to DC, I stopped in at a 7-11 to buy a donut and coffee. In 7-11’s parking lot, near the parking lot’s entrance and fronting a busy street, a group of Spanish speaking men huddled—always. They wore jeans, T-shirts and work boots. They were to me then, just part of the landscape I assumed that they were on their way to work. Where? How? I didn’t know.
I began to wonder about them, though, when after seminary, I had a preaching assignment—one of my first. The scripture I was assigned to preach from was the text before us. Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
Was it, as I suspected, that the men at that 7-11 were like the men in today’s parable? Was it perhaps known in Northern Virginia as probably it was known at town and village squares in Judah back 2000 years ago—that there were gathering places to go to, if you wanted to hire someone or several someones to plant trees or put up a fence?
It occurred to me then, that if there WAS a clear parallel between those men at the 7-11 and the men in Jesus’ parable, I might be able to make the parable relevant to today. I could pull it into the present, so to speak. But, I needed to find out more in order to do that.
A member in the congregation I was serving, knew someone who worked at Legal Aid for Social Justice. And just so you know Legal Aid is a non-profit organization that provides legal services for low income communities—including immigrant communities. I got the phone number for lawyer Tim, who speaks fluent Spanish and works mostly with the immigrant community in the DC area. I made the call.
I am always wary of talking religion to someone I don’t know. It’s not really politically correct, you know? But I plunged in. Told him I am a pastor. Glory be! Tim had just put the finishing touches to a big project. He was ready to take a breather. Not only that! Tim identified himself as a fellow Christian AND he was familiar with Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard! So, in what follows, I am filling you in on what Tim told me then—that is, 20 years ago. I’m getting this from notes I took at that time.
Tim said, “Those Spanish speaking day laborers are mostly undocumented. They arrive in the parking lot between 7 and 7:30 in the morning. They do not own cars. They use public transportation or they bum a ride to get there. A manager type from a landscaping company, say, pulls up in his truck, and offers to pay the men $8 an hour—something like that. The men who accept the wage, jump into the back of the truck and off they go. Their work day is long—10, 12 hours maybe.”
So, at $8 an hour—that was back in 2007, 10 hours a day—that’s $80, or $450 dollars a week, if the worker works every day. Not bad. Tim said, though, “The greater part of a day-laborers’ wages goes toward housing and in the DC area, housing is expensive.” Tim actually knew a day laborer who rented a reclining chair—He had chair privileges at a DC apartment from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. That’s how tight cheap housing was, and probably still is in the DC area. Tim stressed though, that besides paying for housing, many of these men are sending money “home” to Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries South of the border.
I asked Tim what happens to those men who do NOT get a job first thing in the morning. He said, “Well, some of them wait around. They might go to a different parking lot. Sometimes employers make another round before lunch, and then there is another wind after school lets out—that’s around 3 p.m.” That sounded so like our parable that I said, “Wow! Are you surprised that what happens at 7-11’s in this country has been going on since Jesus’ day?” Tim laughed and said, “Well, not at all! It’s been happening for a long time and it happens all over the world. Arnold Schwartznegger was a day laborer and so was Pope John Paul the Second.”
I had one more question for Tim. “What would happen if this parable actually played out? I mean, what would happen if some lucky Miguel or José spent nine hours sitting around the 7-11 parking lot and then was picked up at the end of the day? What if he worked one hour and was paid an entire day’s wages? Would his fellow day laborers, those who had worked a full day, be envious? Would they grumble and swear and would the braver, angrier ones demand justice from the boss man—a justice based on equal pay for equal work?”
Surprising for me, and maybe for you, too, to Tim’s mind, this is where the parallel breaks down—the parallel between Jesus’ parable and the real life stories of the day laborers at 7-11.
Tim said, “I really don’t see that happening. The immigrant day laborers I know are really close knit. For instance, I’ve seen what happens when one of them dies. They pool their money together so that their buddy’s body can be sent home to receive a family burial. I think these men would rejoice in the one’s good fortune.”
They would rejoice and not grumble? Could that possibly be? Doesn’t that seem like a stretch? It did to me.
Our conversation came to an end soon after. I wrote my sermon. It was based in part on my conversation with Tim. I remember having conflicted feelings then, even though though I didn’t share my con conflicted feelings with the congregation. I was conflicted because I was not so certain that Eye would rejoice at another’s good fortune—particularly if I had put in nine hours of backbreaking labor, walking away from the work site dirty and tired, while my fellow worker walked away after an hour of work—clean and fresh and with a spring in his step. Was that so wrong?
Now, twenty years later, and I’m still wrestling with the Day Laborers in the Vineyard. Such is the nature of Jesus’ parables.
Some things, though, have changed. Today the US does not take so kindly to undocumented workers. This week as I sat at my desk, I wondered if day laborers from places South of the border even dare to congregate in the open. Like I did 20 years ago, I thought about people I might contact to find out more. Lana Heath de Martinez! She and I work together on a Presbytery Committee. She is married to a Mexican immigrant. They live in Richmond. She preached here a couple of years back. Lana is now employed by the Virginia Interfaith Center. She and her husband are active in Virginia’s sanctuary movement.
So, on Tuesday of this week, I phoned Lana. Like Tim, she was generous with her time. My first question for Lana: “Do Spanish speaking day labors still gather in parking lots hoping to snag jobs? Or is that too risky in today’s political climate?”
Lana said, “It may be risky, but they still gather. I know some of them. One of their favorite gathering places in Richmond is the parking lot at Lowes Hardware Store.” Lana said that undocumented workers are willing to take risks because of the dire poverty in their home countries. “In Venezuela for example?” Lana said, “Inflation is making it impossible to buy even necessities. Toilet paper sells for $40 a roll. And in Mexico? Hard work gets you no where—there is so much corruption that even if you have a job, and you make money, you end up giving it away to cartels.”
And then I asked her the question I had asked Tim, thinking this time, I might get a different, or at least a more nuanced answer. “What if the parable of the Day laborers in the Vineyard was actually played out among the men you know in Richmond? What if a day laborer who worked one hour got the same pay as a day laborer who worked ten hours?”
Surely LANA would affirm that Jesus’ parable rings true. I wrote down Lana’s answer so that I could be sure to share it with you word for word. She said this: “Honestly, Gay Lee, the men I know would celebrate that one of their own got paid a full day’s wage for only working one hour.”
Surely this could not be right. I argued with her, some. I said, “Don’t you think MOST people would be angry? Don’t you think most people abide by the idea of equal pay for equal work?” And then I admitted, finally, out loud, that I feared in similar circumstances, I myself would be angry.
Lana, was sympathetic, but she explained. “You’ve got to understand. These men depend on each other. They lean on each other. Undocumented workers, they can’t get a loan from a bank. If a crisis happens, and they need money? They borrow money from a fellow immigrant in their immigrant community. Good fortune for one is good fortune for all.”
And that is where we left it. With me still trying to wrap my mind around how poor immigrant workers could be more generous than, well, more generous than I am.
They are more generous than I am. Isn’t that a marvel. I have a good job, or rather jobs, money in the bank, a car and health insurance. Yet, they are more generous than I am. Could it be? Jesus ends his parable with this insight: The last will be first and the first will be last. If that really is true in the kingdom of God, I’ve got some serious soul work to do. Amen