So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. (Ecclesiastes 3: 22)
December 18th marked a year since the last shift at a British deep coal mine ended at Kellingley Colliery. Centuries of work below ground came to end. Those of us who have visited mines opened as museums and tourist attractions gained some small idea of the tough work which generations of miners had pursued. I have worked as a clergyman in a former mining area, and I could appreciate something of the danger which they faced day by day.
And yet, at the time that Kellingley closed, when interviewed by newspapers, the workers spoke positively of their work and the relationships which they had formed. “When they come out of the mine,” Keith Poulson, the National Union of Mineworkers representative said, “what they’ll be wanting to do is shake each other’s hands, because they might never see each other again.”
Mark Phelan, a miner, told reporters, “It’s like losing part of your family, like grieving. You watch each other’s backs down pit and you wash each other’s backs when you come out.”
In the Black Country, Round Oak Steel Works closed 34 years ago, on 23 December 1982. Clergy working in the area today still detect a sense of grief about an industry which, hard, noisy and hot as it may have been, formed strong communities of people. Once again, it was the relationships with others at work which provided strength for people, especially in the hard times, and brought some pleasure even to the toughest of jobs.
Hard manual work has been replaced in many areas by service sector jobs, including retail work. Near the site of Round Oak, we now have Merry Hill Shopping Centre, one of the country’s biggest retail developments. Now we see the closures of shops there, most recently British Home stores and, in two week’s time, it will be the turn the Sainsbury’s at the centre.
As a chaplain, I have been privileged to draw alongside some of these people. Many of them have worked in the stores for twenty or more years. Like the miners, they speak affectionately of the friendships which they have formed at work. Sainsbury’s have been very helpful in preparing the staff for this change, but people have said how much they will miss the people they have worked with.
Work can be enjoyable. There is enjoyment in creating things or providing a service for people. But there can be a real enjoyment in working with others, an experience which can help people through the inevitable stress and problems which accompany every job. Work is a place where people of different ethnic backgrounds can meet one another and find much in common as they work together. This is something which is often forgotten or ignored by those who make decisions that affect people’s working lives. It is hard to put a value upon it when economically based decisions are being made.
The early churches drew together people from different races and backgrounds, and quickly discovered how they could work together. Letters written to them by leaders such as St Paul emphasise the potential of valuing one another, encouraging one another and helping one another. Churches still provide opportunities for developing positive relationships, based on a shared purpose, often for people who have retired from the work which offered regular contacts with others.
It is important to recognise and affirm the importance of relationships in creating the context in which people can enjoy work, and as they do so, do a good job and fulfil one aspect of God’s intention of creating us as workers.