According to one commentating participant of Lent Madness 2013, “For the people who comprise the parish of St. Monica and St. James Episcopal, Frances Perkins is not just a New Deal bureaucrat, but is a living, breathing saint who worshipped with their predecessors and put the incarnational theology of their Anglo-Catholic liturgy into concrete social action.”[i]
Yes, it was often in their rooms and sanctuary that she stayed, prayed and made plans to champion a social safety net for the elderly, eliminate child labor, fix a minimum wage, create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), provide disability for those hurt on the job, create unemployment insurance, a shorter work week, and worker safety regulations. She was an important person of her time, and her actions still help shape our nation. For some, these programs remain a lifeline.
Frances believed faith “served as a bedrock and a way to seek meaning in life when so much seemed inexplicable.”[ii] In her young adult life, she attended Mount Holyoke College, whose founder, Mary Lyon said, “Mount Holyoke women should live for God and do something.” A Baptist turned Congregationalist, she also is known to have advised, “When you choose your fields of labor go where nobody else is willing to go.” She knew the needs of the world.
Within that legacy, one of Frances’ teachers took her to look at the hard realities found in the nearby textile mills and factories.[iii] From affluence herself, Frances discovered a vocation to do something for the poor, the immigrant, and all others in need. Like today, many young women had come to the United States for promised jobs, but instead, they were forced into prostitution. Working with police and other institutions, Frances fought against this plight, the frequent drug and alcohol addiction, and the abusers of others.
Having been a cop in such communities, I know this to be no small task. Indeed, it is frightening in our seeming powerlessness over such issues as well as to stand in the face of real and potential violence. Thanks to her faith, Frances wasn’t afraid to enter relationship with the poor or anyone in need. She went where too few are willing to go.
Nominated as the first woman cabinet member as Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, she continued to care about “the least of these”[iv] among us. She actively sought to protect Jewish and other refugees facing persecution in Europe under the Nazis. Until 1940, the Labor Department controlled the Immigration Service. She never got the quotas she desired, but a number of our Jewish neighbors owe their lives partly to her efforts, as do the famous Von Trapp family of Sound of Music fame.[v]
Writing this during this Passover holiday, I am reminded how Frances sought to echo God’s own love as reported in Deuteronomy 10, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[vi] Reflecting previous teachings of the prophets, Jesus, the Son of God, called us to concretely live out Deuteronomy 6, to love God with all that we our and our neighbor as ourselves.[vii] Frances heard and understood rightly that our neighbor includes all those around us. We are created and called to be God’s ambassadors to the world.[viii]
Most certainly, Frances Perkins lived within the concrete reality of amazing grace. Once when asked “Don’t you think it’s wrong for people to get things they don’t pay for?” “Why no,” Frances Perkins responded. “I find I get so much more than I pay for. Don’t you?”[ix] She understood that assisting the poor wasn’t just the work of government, and so she enlisted the help of church communities from across the United States to help respond to the upheavals of the Great Depression. She served the poor and needy directly as well, despite her station, throughout her life.
In a fallen world with fallen people, some today take advantage of such “grace,” do not appreciate it, or even intentionally abuse it. As humans, that’s the way it has always been. Even though the poor and undeserving will always be with us, we are to feed, clothe, train, and love them anyway. People will die, but we are to seek their healing and comfort. We are a people of hope and grace, and not ultimately one of reason. In fact, as Philp Yancey professes in his book What’s so amazing about grace (2002), life isn’t fair but neither is grace. God utilizes a totally different scale of justice than we do where love overflows.
Still, some might have very sound political and economic reasons to disagree with how Florence concretely tried to share God’s love, the system that has came about in more recent time, or even aspects of her theology. Yet speaking from a Lutheran perspective, we don’t expect perfection in God’s saints or require mystical miracles. Among the greatest mystery is that love can be found at all in a world that rejected the love of Christ and often still does. Even more so, we imperfect people are the means God has chosen to make love known since Jesus ascended.[x]
With Frances’ win of the Golden Halo, some will likely gnash their teeth at the “political correctness” of it all. If her last competitor, the evangelist Luke, had won, some others would have likely bristled at the patriarchal or mythical aspects of his victory. (I was happy either way for this matchup is at its corps just a silly way to promote Christian formation, and all saints share in the most import thing – Christ’s victory.) The truth remains that both saints remind us of our own call to be saints in our own context. We are to use the gifts that God gave us to the best of our ability – for God’s glory and not our own.
Some may never know our doubts and darkness, seeing only our public “mythic” face. Some may disagree with our attempts to love or even aspects of our faith and theology. Most of us will never be recognized or lauded for loving others. Still, I firmly believe that we are saints nonetheless; part of a great cloud of witnesses[xi], and God will make our love matter.
If we are indeed Christ’s saints (and we are through faith), we can’t just sit here as if faith without works is ok. A living faith infers we need to love – always imperfect even at our best, but love nonetheless; prudently certainly, but not with so much prudence that we are frozen to inaction from fear of error or consequences.
As Jesus said approaching his own suffering and death, the poor will be with us always, but in saying this, he alluded to Deuteronomy 15, “Give generously to [those in need] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
Br. Roger of Taizé used to remind those of us in discernment for vocations there or in other parts of the church that Jesus is awaiting us in that dark chasm of our future. We must go forward to him with trust. We must seek to love, for Christ will meet us then and there. You see, God will use all things (even our failures and sin) for the good of those who love him.[xii]
As a theological descendent of Martin Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, I do indeed trust, understand, and demand that government has to be part of the solution to address poverty and other social ills. Yet, I acknowledge that we have to be smarter and demand more accountability and care. Government is a bureaucracy after all. People are imperfect. I also sometimes wonder if some of us rely on government as a solution to social ills way too much or (worse?) would rather pay taxes to support such programs than be in relationship with the poor. (As I often teach, a personal relationship with Jesus infers a relationship with others, including those in his church and without; those who have plenty and those who lack.) Too often, we attack one another rather than wrestle with the problem at hand. We get angry at the possibility of change or what we percieve as an attack on our precious viewpoints.
Now is the acceptable time…a time to be truly charitable – seeking to serve all those suffering, listening with respect and patience to one another, forging new relationships to seek God’s will and do it, forgiving error when it occurs. (And it certainly will come!) In humility, we must also remain aware that the worst error might prove to be our own, known or unknown.
True, Frances Perkins isn’t yet on our Lutheran (ELCA) Liturgical Calendar, but perhaps she should be – and not just because the ELCA has a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church. We believe we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (by trusting in what he has done for our sake) – not our own works. In Frances’ historic context, she was remarkable and helped shaped our modern nation. More importantly, her witness was a faithful one. She has inspired many others to loving service at Mount Holyoke and elsewhere, yet she was never perfect nor are we. She could yet serve to inspire others to serve and hold discussions to evaluate how we could love our neighbor most effectively through government, church, and as individuals.
Maybe that’s a great miracle we should always trust in and act upon. We are truly Christ’s saints – all of us who believe even if with doubts – and we need to seek to live as his saints, his body in the world. Perhaps it is a happy coincidence that Frances Perkins won the Golden Halo on this Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum, meaning command). Her imperfect but faithful life reminds us of the command Jesus left us as our inheritance during his Last Supper. The Gospel of John (13:34) reports that Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that we love one another; as I have loved you.”
Without fear, without hesitation, without our preconceived political notions or human expectations, may we heed Christ’s great command to love God and one another. Whether we view ourselves more left or right or anywhere in the middle, we shaare the family name of Christian. May Christ help us live as his saints each day in our own context – using our time, treasure and talent to the best of our ability.
Heaven knows, this real world needs all the saints it can get. We will never love perfectly. Our work will seem to never end, but do not be afraid. As Frances believed and scripture promises, Christ “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”[xiii] Thanks to Jesus, inspite of and because of our sin, we will share in a victory beyond our hopes and dreams.
Jesus will do what we cannot. All things will be made perfect and new. His justice and love will reign fully at last.
To read of Lent Madness and the awarding of the 2013 Lent Madness Golden Halo visit:
This year, Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts and alma Marta of Frances Perkins, celebrates its 175th anniversary. (There alumni, staff and students caused a large spike in turnout for Frances each round, thanks to use of social media.) Congrats to them! (If only VMI had done the same for Jonathan Daniels!) You might like to visit their special anniversary website celebrating women of influence:
The United States Labor Department is also celebrating their 100th anniversary. Learn more here:
You can learn more of Francies Perkins by visiting the Frances Perkins Center on the internet or in person:
Watch this short excerpt of “You may call me her Madam Secretary”
From the Washington Post, March 28, 2013 edition, you can read about Frances’ win and the reaction in the Labor Department. I hope and pray all government employees view their service as a sacred vocation, loving their neighbor, as she did: http://wapo.st/165chTZ
[ii] The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins (2010), Kirstin Downey, as quoted at http://lentmadness.org
[v] Source: the Frances Perkins essay at http://www.lentmadness.org/2013/03/martin-luther-king-jr-vs-frances-perkins-2/