The Workplace: America’s New Church?
We live in a culture of workism where people both define themselves by their work and struggle to find its meaning and purpose. In Part 2 of her blog series on vocation and mission, Tamara Hill Murphy of Church of the Apostles shares firsthand experience that offices can double as confessionals and work-related prayers as benedictions.
By Tamara Hill Murphy
My work life turned a wild corner a few years ago when I found myself employed in a digital marketing agency in the heart of Austin, Texas. The place was buzzing with assured executives and fresh-faced (and inked) marketing new hires. The employee median age was 27, which is probably true of all of Austin’s tech and start-up culture. I skewed the curve, showing up with my white hair and mom slacks. We shared in common the need to work to pay off college loans, their own and my kids’.
I’ve never felt so out of place and, yet, so needed, than in that job. While my co-workers discussed the music scene and dating apps, I sipped tea and listened. While they bristled against Texas red politics and strategized to overthrow the government of their cultural Christianity, I nodded in appreciation and then asked them to please show me how to fix the cells in a spreadsheet.
They stood around my desk applauding me when I received an important job certification as warmly as they offered congratulations the day of my 25th wedding anniversary. They left messages in the poetry magnets on my desk and made me cake on my birthday. I tagged along to the hippest happy hour locations, and quietly worried over the number of times they filled their shot glasses. Every once in a while, they’d tag along with me to church and consider the wine at Eucharist.
Let me be clear: I did not actually enjoy my job. I worked it out of desperation to pay rent in a burgeoning, expensive city while my husband and kids worked toward degrees. The work I did felt, many days, meaningless and soul-sapping. If finding my purpose was the goal of that work, it was a complete failure.
I did find Jesus there on the eighth floor of that downtown high rise, however. He was drawing me into the stories of my colleagues and He was irresistible. Soon, I felt the same way as He does about the people I worked with each day. I loved them. They loved me. We were connected by the thin, steady cable of our work lives.
Over days and weeks of showing up to my little patch of office space, my work friends invited me to know their stories – the sufferings and celebrations and everything in between. The badge of my silver hair seemed to create a safe space for them, and I felt the honor deeply. I carry their stories like gifts to the Father, and (to this day) ask Him to meet their needs for love, security, and redemption.
The closest we ever came to what some might call Gospel conversations usually centered on their desires for good work. Finding secure relationships was a close second, but work was the thing we all shared. I invited them to our family table to talk about the occupational decisions causing them stress, and the topic inevitably expanded to questions of the messages they received from their family growing up and the state of their current relationships. All of it pointed back to their existential questions of identity. Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong?
My offer for prayer was most welcomed over their work lives. One especially memorable conversation took place at a picnic table at a neighborhood deli. With a large pizza cooling between us, my colleague told us her work history and listened quietly as my husband offered an apology on behalf of the key (male) figures in her life who’d disregarded the unique gift she brings to the world. He stood in for Jesus, and while no one said those words, all of us at that table knew it.
In Fairfield County, Connecticut, within the greater metro area of New York City, work stories are often framed by recession, underemployment, unemployment, and a shrinking population of new college graduates who can’t afford to pay off student loans and live in an artificially escalated real estate market. My husband sometimes takes the train into Manhattan with the commuters in order to get a first-hand glimpse of the workday for so many of our neighbors. He rides home with them late in the evening to gain a better understanding of what it means to invite our neighbors to weeknight church events. It’s impossible. If we want to be a faithful presence among the demands of workism we’ll need to meet our neighbors on a different timeframe than our parents’ churches offered.
For our blue-collar neighbors, commuting may not be gobbling up their evening hours as much as the hustle to work whatever hours they can find. During my “Work Stories” blog series, I was disturbed by the realization that I couldn’t find anyone in my social network to share a day in the life of their hourly-wage work. The result was a pool of fairly well-educated and white storytellers. This is reflected in every conversation I’ve ever had about faith and work. Everyone has a work story, but not everyone feels invited into this particular Gospel conversation. I’m not content with that reality. For a helpful evaluation of the the demographic largely excluded in the current faith and work conversation, read God of the Second Shift.
But what a gift we can offer by listening to the stories of the Wall Street commuter as well as the coffee shop barista just coming off the night shift. In the unpredictable anxiety of work, we can offer the benediction of welcome into the faithful, non-anxious presence of Christ any day of the week, in the sanctuary and out.
Clergy far removed from a cubicle-shaped mission field can recommit their calling to neighborhood and parish by entering various workspaces as part of their own weekly habits. Invaluably, getting to know the storyline of our parishes’ work lives connects all of us beyond our worship space to the new sanctuaries of workism, where our neighbors are gathered trying to meet their desire to be seen, heard, and known.
When Jesus called his closest companions, he found them in their workday lives. I think he’s doing the same thing now. With eyes to see and ears to hear, we’ll notice Him among our colleagues, communities and congregations and join him in the faithful, non-anxious listening presence He is offering there.
Tamara Hill Murphy lives with her husband Brian, an Anglican priest, in Bridgeport, CT. Her writing has appeared in Think Christian, Art House America, and Englewood Review of Books. Find her at tamarahillmurphy.com or follow her on Facebook at Tamara Hill Murphy-A Sacramental Life.