Celebrate American Labor Day by Remembering the Sacred Nature of Labor

Pope John Paul II visiting Poland in 1983 during the years when his messages inspired the Polish people to rise up. (Photo by Vatican photographer Arturo Mari)

“Created in God’s image, we were given the mandate to transform the earth. By their work people share in God’s creating activity….Awareness that our work is a sharing in God’s work ought to permeate even the most ordinary daily activities. By our labor we are unfolding the Creator’s work and contributing to the realization of God’s plan on earth.”
Pope John Paul II in his landmark encyclical Laborem Exercens in 1981

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3—Amid parades, parties, shopping and travel this Labor Day weekend, consider giving this holiday the merit it really deserves: Take a look at the history and relevance of labor in the lives of American workers. In addition, spend some time considering how our religious traditions have emphasized the sacred nature of human work since the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Labor Day honors a value that has been a part of religious reflection for thousands of years. Psalm 90 in the ancient Hebrew scriptures ends with a prayer that God will “prosper the work of our hands.” In Islam, the Quran talks at length about the nature of our work and the morality of conducting ourselves in the public square. For two centuries, popes have written extensively about the sacred nature of labor. Long before John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens fueled the workers’ movements in Poland, Pope Leo XIII laid the groundwork for modern Christian teaching about labor in Rerum novarum, which called on international efforts to alleviate “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”


Black-and-white photo of people on streets in early 20th century, leisurely gatherings and walking in a built-up downtown

A Labour Day parade in Toronto, Canada, 1900. Labour Day was made an official holiday by Canadian Prime Minister John Thompson in July of 1894; less than one month later, Labor Day became a federal holiday in the United States. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Why do we refer to “American Labor Day” in this column? Because American leaders in the late 1800s feared that a May holiday, which was favored by labor activists, would encourage memories of the tragic Haymarket conflict in Chicago. What began as a peaceful labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square wound up in headlines around the world after a bomb went off, police opened fire and many were killed or wounded. The tragedy continued through subsequent court cases. That May event in Haymarket Square well over a century ago is remembered, to this day, in May 1 labor holidays around the world.

Instead of a May holiday, then, American leaders preferred to remove “our” holiday from that tragedy by four months in our civic calendar. Instead, American holiday planners encouraged street parades and public displays of the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations in each community—including cheerful festivities and recreation for workers and their families. (Wikipedia has details.)

In addition, the Sunday preceding Labor Day is known as “Labor Sunday”—dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

In the late 1800s, leaders in the Knights of Labor worked diligently to spread awareness of this holiday. Terence Vincent Powderly, leader of the Knights’ outreach, wrote on the influence of religion, “Trade-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor.” Powderly’s preamble to the union’s Declaration of Principles quoted Scripture and described the dire challenges of the working class in terms similar to the writings of Leo XIII. That was no accident. Powderly was a devout Catholic, visited the Vatican and for a time had the active support of American Catholic bishops.


Want some recommendations of great books on labor? Our ReadTheSpirit short list of recommended reading echoes other online lists of widely praised books on these issues. We urge readers to pick from the following (the links take you to Amazon):

Click the logo to visit the IWJ website.

Want Religious Resources for Prayer and Discussion?

For more than two decades, the Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) network has been a gathering place for interfaith reflections on the nature of labor—and the needs of workers. The IWJ website offers many free resources under the banner: Labor in/on the Pulpit, Minbar, Bimah. In its resource page, the IWJ also quotes the current Pope Francis:

“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression, or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.”


Grill kabobs Labor DayLooking for the perfect recipe for a picnic or Labor Day gathering?

  • For the home cook, AllRecipes has a great selection of easy-to-follow recipes.
  • To wow guests or friends and family, try making a dish from Food Network.
  • Trying to eat healthier? Try a tantalizing Labor Day recipe from Eating Well.
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So it’s July? Hot Dog! And … Ice Cream, Chocolate and Fried Chicken, too!

Click on this delicious image to visit Joe Grimm’s Author Page on Amazon.


JULY—Farmers and food sellers find all sorts of timely connections celebrating edible delights in every month of our calendar. When July breaks across America, we all brace for the so-called Dog Days, which begin with the rising of the Dog Star, more properly known as Sirius. Over time, that could occur as early as July 3. This year, astronomers tell us, Dog Days begin later—July 22 and extend well into August.

Click to see the Hot Dog Month Planning Guide.

Of course, Americans have come to associate hot dogs with July, particularly because of our love of July 4 Independence Day cookouts. As always, industry groups have a host of hot dog promotions rolling out this month. The mother lode comes from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC). No kidding! It’s a real institution with a nine-page PDF of ideas for celebrating July as National Hot Dog Month.

The Council has details in this PDF for applicants who want to be named official NHDSC Hot Dog Ambassadors. Here is part of the group’s invitation to would-be ambassadors:

The state of Hot Dog Nation is strong and while the Hot Dog Top Dog and Queen of Wien lead the way at the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, it’s time for us to enlist official Hot Dog Ambassadors. … Everyone who enters will be classified as a Wiener Warrior with their own Wiener Warrior card.

Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, our own resident hot dog expert is author Joe Grimm, who brought the world Coney Detroit, a colorful homage to Michigan’s favorite version of this all-American treat. Check out Joe Grimm’s books on his Amazon Author Page.

Had enough hot dog news?

Take the Washington Post ice cream quiz.

July also is National Ice Cream Month. Again, no kidding! President Ronald Reagan signed a joint resolution of Congress into law in 1984. That included declaring a National Ice Cream Day in the middle of the month, which tends to move around the calendar because retailers prefer a weekend holiday. One hub of ice cream activism is the International Dairy Foods Association. But our best newsy clip about the observance comes from The Washington Post with a fun ice cream quiz. Throughout the month, various industry groups have declared other special days related to ice cream. For example, there’s often a national day for peach ice cream and another for plain vanilla. There’s even a day in July promoted by some trade groups as National Milk Shake Day. Those “holidays” tend to be driven by industry advertisers but keep an eye out this month—and you might find some tasty treats on sale at local eateries and ice cream shops.

Chocolate is a messier celebration—that is, it’s messier to identify clearly on the calendar. All around the world, there are lots of declarations about when to celebrate chocolate, apparently because people love the stuff so much. One of these occasions falls on July 7 and is called World Chocolate Day. We say: Hey, if you love chocolate, celebrate whenever you can!

July 6 is National Fried Chicken Day. Watch your favorite national chicken chain for special deals and discounts in early July. Kentucky Fried Chicken usually marks this special occasion in some way, each year.




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Plan ahead to celebrate Jewish and Asian Pacific history in May


For more than a decade, Jewish American History Month has been an official national observance. President W. Bush proclaimed the special focus in 2006 after bi-partisan congressional support. Various receptions, events and special exhibits are usually held each May and the Library of Congress set up this extensive website to provide photos, documents and historical background in general. Within that larger site, on this page, librarians link to a long list of historical materials that relate to American Jews over the last four centuries. There’s even a special section of the site welcoming teachers who are looking for classroom materials.



President Jimmy Carter launched this special observance in 1978, following a congressional resolution. The declaration called this a commemoration of “the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.” The Library of Congress also hosts a resource-rich website. The librarians offer these links to exhibits and collections. They also offer materials for teachers.



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National Day of Unplugging and Screen-Free Week

Click the image to visit the group’s website.

FRIDAY-to-SATURDAY, MARCH 9-10—National Day of Unplugging.

MONDAY APRIL 30-to-SUNDAY MAY 6—Screen-Free Week.

Two national organizations are chiming in on a message shared by ReadTheSpirit and educators nationwide: We should help children to reduce their current levels of screen time! In fact, all of us should consider how much time we spend focused on screens—and devote ourselves to more human contact.

That’s the message of the new book Sadie Sees Trouble by Linda Jarkey and Julie Jarkey-Kozlowski. You can read more about this innovative project that invites children to begin reading and creating their own illustrations with substances found in most kitchens. The sisters who created this remarkable book are both veteran educators. Linda says, “It’s an attractive option: Give a child a tablet or a smart phone and many children will sit quietly while you’re free to do other things around the home. But, very quickly that technology can replace interaction with your children.”

“We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our devices,” say the folks behind the National Day of Unplugging campaign. Visit their website to learn more about this annual effort. There’s even a direct religious connection, in this case. The Unplugging day is scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath. The effort is sponsored by Reboot, which describes itself this way: “Inspired by Jewish ritual and embracing the arts, humor, food, philosophy, and social justice, we produce creative projects that spark the interest of young Jews and the larger community.”

We say: This is a great idea that draws from ancient religious wisdom!

Click the logo to visit the website.

The other effort, national Screen-Free Week has its own website where you can register local events and network with other folks planning to take part in this effort. This week is sponsored by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhoodwhich describes its mission as “supporting parents’ efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing.”

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February is Black History Month

Frederick Douglass composite of images from Wikimedia Commons.


THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1—We have a rich array of resources to recommend for your reflections on Black History Month this year. Let’s start with a question:

Why is Black History Month in February?

Carter G. Woodson

The “father of black history” was historian and author Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) who co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 as well as The Journal of Negro History in 1916.

A decade later, in 1926, Woodson capitalized on two milestones that were widely observed each year among African American families: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14. He wisely scheduled his new Negro History Week to appeal naturally to those communities already looking to the past in early February.

However, Woodson had a far larger vision for his observance: He wanted to encourage organized programs to teach African American history in public schools. At first, he could find only a handful of early adopters in schools in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Woodson was a prolific author and argued that establishing a well-known body of history was crucial to the survival of black culture and the potential for African-American progress. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” he wrote. In particular, Woodson admired Jewish leaders who had kept their culture, tradition and communities alive despite many historic threats to their survival.

He started with two birthdays that already were popular in African-American communities and, around those two dates, he built a national movement of educators that expanded into a month-long focus.

2018 Theme is ‘African Americans in Times of War’

Click on this cover to visit the ASALH website.

The organization Woodson co-founded, ASALH, calls on educators to focus this year on “African Americans in Times of War.” In choosing that theme, the group’s leaders say they hope schools—and anyone else observing this month—will look into a host of issues related to military service. ASALH writes:

“These issues include opportunities for advancement and repression of opportunities during wartime; the struggle to integrate the military and experiences during segregation/apartheid and successful integration; veterans experiences once they returned home; the creation of African American Veteran of Foreign War posts; cultures and aesthetics of dissent; global/international discourse, including impact and influence of the Pan African Congresses; the impact of migration and urban development; educational opportunities; health care development; the roles of civil rights and Black liberation organizations, including the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party; the roles of African American businesses, women, religious institutions, and the Black press in the struggle abroad and at home; the topographies and spaces of Black military struggle, resistance and rebellion; and how Black soldiers and/veterans are documented and memorialized within public and private spaces. These diverse stories reveal war’s impact not only on men and women in uniform but on the larger African American community.”

Confront Racism with … accurate information

100 Questions and Answers about African Americans

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The Michigan State University School of Journalism has published a very helpful guidebook, 100 Questions and Answers About African Americans.

Why does racism continue to throw up so many tragic barriers in the U.S.? Part of the problem could be that we just don’t know each other very well. The Public Religion Research Institute asked people about their closest networks. About 75 percent of White Americans said all their closest confidants were White. About 65 percent of Black respondents said all their confidants were African American. Among Hispanics, the number was 46 percent.

In the Michigan State University School of Journalism, students are trying to take make cross-cultural conversations less awkward. Students start this process by asking people what questions they get about themselves, or wish others knew the answers to. Then, the guides answer those common questions. The students hope that these guides answer baseline questions people are curious about, but might be reluctant to ask because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or offend others.

100 Questions and Answers About African Americans answers potentially awkward questions:

• Should I say Black or African American?
• Why is slavery still an issue for some people?
• Why is it that White people can’t say the n-word, but some Black people do?
• What is the Black National Anthem?
• Do Black people get sunburns?

The guide answers some common misperceptions:
• Is it true there are more Black men in prison than in college?
• Are African Americans the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action?
• Does most federal food assistance go to African Americans?
• Did Abraham Lincoln end slavery?

And the guide explains achievement in rising educational and health levels, high voter turnout and accomplishments in science, technology and the arts.

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Christians love to laugh in Bright Week and even Holy Humor Sunday

Bright Week Procession in Jordanville New York

Bright Week Procession at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, USA.

MONDAY-SUNDAY, APRIL 17-23—If someone in your Christian community is making merry in this week after Easter—they may be tapping into traditions that stretch back nearly two millennia.

“Originally this idea of good humor in the week after Easter came from the early Greek Christians, way back in the third century or so. They called this period after Easter Bright Week and the first Sunday after Easter is Bright Sunday,” said Cal Samra, this week, the nation’s leading expert on adding a dose of laughter to services in the week after Easter.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I’m still alive and well and going strong,” Cal said in an interview. Visitors to Cal’s website, the Joyful Noiseletter, had been concerned about Cal’s status, these days. Some of the coverage on Cal’s homepage looks a little dated. A Google search of news stories about congregations scheduling Holy Humor Sundays, Cal’s trademark program, also look a little dated in 2017. One of the most popular online articles about the practice is from the U.S. Catholic, still showing up prominently on Google even though it originally was published in 2000.

The journalists who produce ReadTheSpirit are among many religion newswriters nationwide who covered the impact of Cal’s newsletter in prompting mainly Protestant churches to organize laugh-out-loud services of celebration on the Sunday after Easter. One of the most influential journalists to cover Cal’s impact in his early years was David Briggs, who was Associated Press Religion Writer when he published this landmark story in 1996: Christian Merrymakers Don’t Put Gloomy Face on Lent.

For more than a decade, newspaper stories about Holy Humor Sunday services popped up coast to coast. In 2017, we’re not seeing as many—but clearly that’s not because Cal has lost his festive spirit.


St Isaacs cathedral St Petersburg during Bright Week with doors open

During Bright Week, the doors of the iconostasis are open at the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Photo by Joonas Lyytinen, shared courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For nearly 2,000 years, Eastern Orthodox Christians have called the days after Easter “Bright Week” (Wikipedia has an extensive article). In Eastern tradition, special Bright Week customs range from processions and a special focus on joyful music—to a practice of keeping the holy doors in a church’s iconostasis open to symbolize the stone rolled away from Jesus’s tomb in Gospel accounts.

There are many cultural variants on the general theme. On “Wet Monday” 2017, the New York Times published this column from a neighborhood in Brooklyn, also known as Little Poland.

At least one leading Catholic writer, in recent years, has argued that the Orthodox don’t have a corner on holy humor. This should be regarded as a universal Christian custom, says best-selling author Fr. James Martin SJ. You can read more in our earlier ReadTheSpirit interviewed with Martin about his book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.

Some Protestant denominations also have staked their claim to a good laugh post-Easter. The United Methodist Church recommends the practice—along with a link to Cal’s resources—on its Discipleship Ministries website.


At age 86, Cal told us, “I still play tennis four times a week and I try to eat natural, organic foods. I’ve stayed halfway in good shape, for my age.”

That is why, over the past couple of years, Cal’s work has shifted toward a message closely linked to Christian ministry in many denominations: promoting healthy ways of living. “I’m still very much into humor, but I’ve spent a lot of time working on health and prevention, looking back into the early work of people like John Wesley, who wrote a lot about health care. My newest book is The Physically Fit Messiah.”


Cal opens his new book with his familiar message: Jesus is “a joyful spirit with a keen sense of humor who used humor, as well as prayer, in his healing ministry. He was not the sad-sack Messiah portrayed in many old icons and contemporary Christian paintings. He kept exhorting his followers to ‘Be of good cheer!’”

Then, he explains why he is spending more time researching and writing about health, these days. “Looking back on the last 30 years of Joyful Noiseletter issues, we were astonished at the number of articles that focused on physical fitness, good nutrition and health.”

Want to sample some of Cal Samra’s gentle humor? Check out this sample page on his Joyful Noiseletter website.

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St. Patrick’s Day: History, recipes and his famous Breastplate prayer

Girl with red hair in traditional Irish dress in dark blue

An Irish dancer at an earlier St. Patrick’s Day Parade in San Francisco. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr.

FRIDAY, MARCH 17: So, what’s a good Irish Catholic to do on this convergence of St. Patrick’s day with the Church’s tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent?

After all, tender corned beef is a traditional staple of the holiday! That’s not to mention plenty of beer—and Lenten Fridays are meant to be a time of prayerful self-denial.

Well, since this collision of observances rolls around approximately every seven years, many Catholic bishops anticipated the dilemma and already have issued 2017 dispensations to allow a hearty holiday meal. But, consider: Bishops like Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, also are cautioning Catholics to “exercise due moderation and temperance in festivities and celebrations of the memorial of St. Patrick, in keeping with the solemnity and honor that is due to so great a saint and his tireless efforts to inspire holiness in the Christian faithful.” That’s according to a report on the corned beef dilemma by Catholic News Service.

If you are concerned, check local news reports. More bishops are chiming in with dispensations as the holiday approaches.


The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, the young man who would become known as St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. (Wikipedia has details.) Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

St Patrick in stained glassSurprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval.


One of the most popular posts in the decade-long history of ReadTheSpirit is a collection of three versions of the famous prayer known as The Breastplate. Start here for a Gaelic version and follow the link to find two more English versions, one as poetry and one as refashioned for a hymn.

Nonetheless, St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

Skillet pan with pot pie vegetables and meat in gravy and potatoes braised and mashed on top

Beef and lamb shepherd’s pie for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr


Who doesn’t dream of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks on St. Patrick’s Day? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, to boot):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from PBS and Parenting.com.
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