In Praise of Public Servants and Taxi Drivers

In the past months, as I assumed the position of General Secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C., there have been numerous surprises.

I am not fond of flying. I am even less fond of it when I see lightning out the window. Reading, refining writing projects, suduko and reflecting on the problems of the day, are ways to distract myself from anxiety. Recently, I sat beside a quiet woman. Flying through a turbulent summer storm, gripping the arm rest, we struck up a conversation. We talked about our respective work with all of our joys and curiosities.

Having grown up in a rural town in Texas, now for more than two decades she years as a civil servant for the U.S. Bureau of the Census. I was fascinated by what one does at the Census Bureau particularly between decades marked by "0". She described her responsibilities. I asked how she liked it. She said she loved it, and how for these decades she has found it important and engaging. She sees where population growth is happening; where congressional lines are and might be redrawn; where ethnic communities live and where populations of new people move. When invited she shared her views of what she thought about the future of the United States.

This dedicated woman, having worked hard to put her daughter through college, is active in her AME Church and community, and is dedicated to the study and movement of populations in the United States and territories. I was inspired by her unassuming devotion, her insight, analysis and her global consciousness.

She volunteered to drop me off. Normally, I would never ride with a stranger. But on this dark, stormy night, I accepted this generous offer of a woman who had given me a glimpse into her life and work as a devout Christian, a dedicated public servant committed to the commonweal and welfare of these United States. I found her quietly inspiring. I shall never forget her kindness to me and devotion to the public good.

Another afternoon, on the way to a meeting with Shaun Casey, Special Adviser for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives at the State Department, Abebe was my taxi driver. Forever curious about the lives of others, I struck up a conversation with him. Handsome and learned Ethiopian, Abebe has lived in the United States for 20 years, is happily married with two children. He loves driving a taxi, and expressed gratitude for his life and his work. His dashboard was decorated with a Christian Orthodox cross and pictures of his beautiful children. I asked about the schools in Virginia (where his wife works), the best places to find Ethiopian food, and any tips on driving in D.C. He gladly responded.

With erudite and sensitive thoughtfulness he discussed political, social, economic situations of Ethiopia, North Africa, Egypt, the children at the border between Mexico and the U.S. and the conflict in Gaza. I shared my work with a group of religious leaders steadfast in doing all we can to promote peace-making in these and other parts of the world. He offered sound advice about ways that I might help U.S. lawmakers understand the issues of the world. He quickly added it is important to help the people of the U.S. know how much he, his family and those who have immigrated to the U.S. love this country.

I arrived late at the airport, a Nigerian man, who turned out to be Muslim, got me home before he went to pray on the first night of Ramadan. He regaled me with stories of his mother and sisters in Nigeria. Ironically, his mother called from Nigeria while we were en route reminding him that he must pray.

The learned Indonesian man, holding a Ph.D., who works in a university research lab doing menial tasks by day and driving a taxi at night to earn enough to send his children to college. I asked about scholarly research. Wistfully, he commented that he longed for the time when he could return to his research on HIV/AIDS. Not wanting to sound disappointed he commented with honesty saying, in driving a taxi he loved the chance to meet people, hear about their work and their lives. It gives him great hope in humanity and the values for which America really stands.

I have met hundreds of new people. In a world too often jaded, cynical and mistrustful, I have encountered and been inspired by devoted people of faith, dedicated public servants who love their jobs, believe in the principles of democracy, the virtue of the public square, protecting freedom of speech, upholding the rights for religious minorities, caring for children and they themselves finding meaning in their work.

I have found in taxi drivers, restaurant owners and wait staff, municipal workers, police officers, firemen and women, "migrants" and immigrants from many states, a variety of countries of most continents, generous people who love the democratic principles and virtues of these United States.

These persons work hard, contribute to the commonweal, support schools, and help the government run on behalf of all the people of these United States. They care about retired and elderly persons, children caught in the cross-fires of violence, the cost of higher education, conflicts around the world, mental illness, health care, parks and recreation, good infrastructures and the environment. These persons, sometimes carry the burdens of criticism and cynicism all the while believing in the goodness and virtues of humankind.

These persons work hard, serve the public, rear their children to have the best possible education and become contributing citizens, and represent the noblest and best of what a country founded on democratic principles should be.

On this Labor Day 2014 -- with wars raging, rampant mistrust, unbridled greed and sinfulness galore -- here's to public servants and taxi drivers. Often overlooked, you nonetheless represent the best of who we are all called to be!

Views on the dignity of labor and the rights of workers are fundamental teachings
of the world's religious traditions. Michael Perry in Labor Rights in Jewish Traditions says
respect for the dignity of labor has been an important theme in Jewish religious writings for centuries. A legacy of support for worker rights stems in part from the broad social justice imperative found in Jewish religious sources.

Methodists from the time of John Wesley, in 1908 upon the adoption of the Methodist Social Creed and until today have strongly held rights of workers, elimination of child labor and sweatshops, and a system of providing living wages along standing principles.

Roman Catholicism teaches:

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative. (The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers)

Islam teaches:

The Holy Qur'an calls on all of humanity to stand for justice and to work together to ensure that people are treated fairly. "This alliance that we're working to build, reinforcing a traditional relationship between labor and religion, is needed now probably more than ever," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the Muslim chaplain at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The Reverend Susan Henry-Crowe is the General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society at the United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.