The Mop and the Microphone

Reflection by Kathleen Kirk – November 4, 2012

Good morning.  I’m Kathleen Kirk, not the pastor, just the person holding the microphone today, who said yes when Susan Ryder, our real pastor, asked members of the community to speak while she and Bob Ryder, the other real pastor, are away on sabbatical.  I’ve been thinking about something for a while and was freshly reminded of it during one of the speeches in the Democratic National Convention this September.  I’ll quote from that speech, but first I’ll start with readings from Ecclesiastes and by Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist who was trained as a monk.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, wither thou goest.  I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
–Ecclesiastes 9:10-11

A Chinese fable tells of a young man observing a sage at the village well.  The old man was lowering a wooden bucket on a rope and pulling the water up slowly, hand over hand.  The youth disappeared and returned with a pulley.  He approached the old man and showed him how the device worked.  “See, you put your rope around the wheel and draw up the water by cranking the handle.”  The old man resisted.  “If I use a device like this, my mind will think itself clever.  With a cunning mind I will no longer put my heart into what I am doing.  Soon my wrists alone will do the work.  If my heart and whole body are not in my work, my work will become joyless.  When my work is joyless, how do you think the water will taste?”
–Jack Kornfield,  After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

I’ve been thinking about work—loving the work we do, or finding a way to love the work we have to do because it’s how we survive—and also about living in a society that tends to elevate some kinds of work over other kinds of work.  I see danger in that; in a capitalist society like ours, susceptible to recurrent greed issues, there’s a danger of valuing human beings according to the amount of money they make.  But there’s also a subtle ongoing hierarchy of talents or kinds of labor or even spiritual gifts—David Hirst alluded to that in his mosaic-of-talents reflection last week!—that occurs in many cultures and societies, so this issue persists, through time and space, as a constant challenge to us.

In September, I listened to several of the speeches during the Democratic National Convention, including the one by Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, Texas—an inspiring speech in praise of his mother and, especially, his grandmother, who had come from Mexico as a child and worked hard.  Mayor Castro has a twin brother, Joaquin, also in politics—in the Texas House of Representatives and currently running for Congress.  It’s a great success story—the overcoming-of-obstacles kind—and Julian Castro sounds full of gratitude and respect for his grandmother.

This comes from early in the speech:

“The unlikely journey that brought me here tonight began many miles from this podium. My brother Joaquin and I grew up with my mother Rosie and my grandmother Victoria. My grandmother was an orphan. As a young girl, she had to leave her home in Mexico and move to San Antonio, where some relatives had agreed to take her in. She never made it past the fourth grade. She had to drop out and start working to help her family. My grandmother spent her whole life working as a maid, a cook and a babysitter, barely scraping by, but still working hard to give my mother, her only child, a chance in life, so that my mother could give my brother and me an even better one.”

So, as I said, my focus is work, specifically the kind of work Mayor Castro’s grandmother did: manual labor, “menial work,” and “unskilled labor.”  Wage earning labor.  Often minimum wage…or, depending on the circumstances, less than minimum wage.  Working as a maid or a cook or a babysitter is what many women and some men do, unpaid, and was what Victoria foundeth to do, and she did it with her might, making things better for her daughter and, eventually, her grandsons.

Later in the speech, Mayor Castro returned to his admiration of his grandmother to say this:

“In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor. My grandmother never owned a house. She cleaned other people’s houses so she could afford to rent her own. But she saw her daughter become the first in her family to graduate from college. And my mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone.”

There was huge applause.  Now, I heard this phrase in its context and understood Julian Castro’s intentions in saying it, but still, when he said “so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone,” I cringed a little.  I winced.  I thought immediately of a restaurant worker listening intently to the speech on the bar television set while doing his work mopping the floor—yes, holding a mop.  I felt for that fellow.

It wasn’t that Mayor Castro was insulting mop holders on purpose.  He had just praised his grandmother for doing the same kind of work.  It was that he was insulting mop holders by accident, implying that one kind of work is better than another, that one kind of work is meant to be left behind.  As unworthy.  And, by extension, that one kind of worker—thus, one kind of person—is better than another kind of person, more valuable, more worthy of our esteem.

Not too long after that, I attended a fundraiser for Dr. David Gill, an emergency room doctor who, like Joaquin Castro, is running for Congress.  As it happens, David Gill also held a mop for a time, working in a grocery store mopping floors while he was growing up.  Now he’s moved on to other things—some would say “better” things: doctoring, public service—things that require higher education and special training or expertise, as well as plenty of dedication.  Interestingly, I didn’t cringe or wince when Dr. Gill spoke informally to us, in a bar downtown, mentioning his background.  I heard gratitude for work and respect for other hardworking people in his tone, and acceptance of his own past jobs as a path to the work he did later and the work he wants to do now.  I’m not sure how to explain or even whether I understand the difference in these two political speeches—both with a mop in them—but it seemed important to try to understand.  In calling this reflection “The Mop and the Microphone,” I’m trying to look at work, on the one hand, and what we say about it, on the other, how we talk about it, our speech.

It could be argued that Mayor Castro was saying something very similar to what Dr. Gill was saying, or that he was advocating a “follow your bliss” philosophy: find the work you are meant to do, or that you love to do.  But I think I heard—in how he chose to phrase it—a fairly common dismissal of “the mop” in favor of “the microphone” in that climactic moment of his speech.  A valuing of one kind of work—“head work,” public service, or salaried work—over another kind of work—wage-earning physical labor, “unskilled” labor, or menial (meaning household) labor.

I don’t know how many times I have heard in casual conversation and in movie dialogue things like:  “You have to go college!  Do you want to sling hamburgers for the rest of your life?”  What does that say about all the people working in food service? Food-service workers go to the movies, too, don’t they, spending their hard-earned cash?  What about people in retail—who aren’t “public servants” but who serve us every day?  What about the people who clean our houses and our motel rooms? We are those people!

How, as a church community, for instance, can we be fulfilling our mission “to continue in our time what Jesus began in his—working for the healing of our world as an inclusive, compassionate, and joyful community,” if we are casually excluding a number of our fellow human beings in everyday speech, or in our attitudes about what people choose or are able to do for a living? If we make people feel bad about their work, how are we being compassionate, how are we contributing to a joyful community?

It’s a delicate thing I’m discussing here.  I know the gratitude and relief somebody feels coming home from work to a house cleaned by Molly Maid is of a different sort than the gratitude and relief a parent feels when an emergency room doctor saves her child’s life.  I’m just saying we don’t have to put down the people who do the kind of work we don’t like to do, the “dirty work,” the serving work, the often very-hard-work-that-doesn’t-pay-so-well.  We don’t have to despise those people, and we don’t have to despise that work.  Somebody has to do it, right?  If not us, who?  Robots?  Elaborate pulley systems?  Genetically-engineered sub-races of human beings?  Slaves?  Oppressed social classes?  It’s possible that, by despising certain kinds of work constantly and casually in our speech, we keep the oppression going, whether we intend to or not.

There’s a book out, Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and a movie based on it, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, in theatres now, in which a character, Sonmi, is a fabricant, a member of a subclass of human beings genetically engineered to work in a fast food restaurant.  Somebody has to do it, right?  But if you read the book or see the movie, you will recognize her as a Christ figure, someone who is reminding us we are all human and to recognize each other as such.  Not to oppress or enslave or despise or exploit or insult certain classes or kinds of people—not for the way they are, not for the kind of work they do.

And here’s another way of seeing some of the “dirty work” we tend to despise or avoid. In After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield interviewed a western lama—a spiritual teacher—who had just returned from a three-year retreat in Tibet.  I know from going on the 3-day NCC Women’s Retreat that we often wish we could take our insight and sense of peace and wellbeing home with us, back into our daily lives, and Kornfield was asking this spiritual master how to do that.

“It was the hardest thing to keep my spiritual life alive in the stream of so many daily activities, and the enormous, unnecessary complexity of Western life.  …I was afraid I would forget what I learned, so I relied on…physical work to stabilize my practice and mind.  I did a huge amount of cleaning.  I specialized in washing, mopping, laundry.  Nobody around me wanted to clean anyway.  Everybody was happy to have someone else doing it.

“I used to quietly sing a mantra of compassion with each dish that I washed, each floor I cleaned.  And I included the prayer that as I clean, may the eyes and hearts of all beings around me be clean and purified, made innocent and clear.  Time would stop as if I was part of the earth cleaning itself in spring.  It was a beautiful way to work.  The simple physical tasks are the entry to learn to be with this world in a sacred manner.”

I was struck here by how physical labor and menial tasks became a main part of this human being’s spiritual practice.  And I’d like to repeat this part:  “Nobody around me wanted to clean anyway.  Everybody was happy to have someone else doing it.”  If we are happy to have somebody else do it, why aren’t we constantly praising and thanking that person?  And, if we are taking care to praise, thank, and (sometimes) pay that person, why are we so often dismissing that person’s work in casual speech?

Trying to get a handle on this, though not a pulley handle, I watched Meet John Doe, a movie that stars Gary Cooper as an out-of-work-baseball-player tramping across the country on foot and in boxcars with a buddy, looking for work, any kind of work.  He gets hired to play “John Doe”—a fictional everyman—and becomes a sincere grassroots leader of a movement to be neighborly to one another, to help each other out in hard economic times.  Trouble is, a rich guy is financing the movement and wants to steal the upcoming election by having John tell all his followers, who fill a huge stadium, to vote for him, the greedy politician money guy.  Of course, Gary Cooper won’t do this!  There’s even a scene where the help—in this era, black domestic servants—stand outside the door, listening to John Doe speak up for the little guy, just like the mop holder I imagined listening to Julian Castro’s speech, though, with my sense of cosmic irony, I imagined a Mexican-American restaurant worker.  Money is power, though, and John Doe has to see his reputation ruined, his followers disappointed, and say goodbye to his job.  And how does this happen?  Just as John is about to confess all, explain the truth behind the truth, and restore the hearts of his listeners, the bad guys cut the cord to his microphone.

But it’s Gary Cooper!  So there’s a little more to the story.

And there’s a little more to my story, too.  John Doe tried to speak up for the masses, but Mother Teresa cared for one person at a time.  Jack Kornfield quotes Mother Teresa on caring by way of nursing, and caring by way of carrying, by way of physical labor.  Mother Teresa was known for her relentless and brave caring in the world and also for building a hospital without elevators, so each patient would have to be carried, in the arms, up the stairs.

“I never look at the masses as my responsibility,” said Mother Teresa.  “I look at the individual.  I can only love one person at a time—just one, one, one.  So you begin.  I began—I picked up one person.  Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand.  …The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community.  Just begin—one, one, one.”

I’d like to begin now to pass the microphone to anyone who wishes to speak.  What I’d like us to do is speak of hard work—physical and menial—that we do now or did at some time that made us feel joyful, productive, glad and proud.  Or tell about someone you know and admire who does, or did, this kind of work.  Work that is like drawing a bucket of cool, sweet water up from the well, hand over hand.  When you are ready to tell me about some work you enjoy doing, with your whole heart and whole body, or about someone you admire, who does that kind of work, let me know, and I’ll hand you the microphone!


  1. Ronald Bell says

    Thank you Kathleen! 

    Your reflection felt like warm sunshine and evoked sustaining thoughtful light during the New Covenant Community service. 
    Everybody wants to be somebody … and is somebody.  

    Again, thank you.

    Ron Bell

    “What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. 
    These are but trifles, to be sure; but, scattered along life’s pathway, 
    the good they do is inconceivable.”
    – Joseph Addison