I came to the Church because the Church came to the workers

Recently the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Labor Network hosted an event honoring the legacy of “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. The Catholic Labor Network’s own Chuck Hendricks shared a remarkable story of his faith journey.

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Chuck Hendricks, and I work with the Food Service and Hotel Workers Union, UNITE HERE.  I am also a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Baltimore where my wife is Parish Council President, and I have taught elementary school children Faith Fund and Fellowship. I want to thank you so much for having this gathering, and for inviting me to participate. I have been involved with the labor movement for 24 years and have been part of the Catholic Church for 12 years. For me, the Catholic Church–at least a part of it– has become a place of strength, healing, and justice, which supports me and my family, and holds me firm in my commitment to social justice.

I found my way to the church through my union organizing, learning from the brave workers who led our struggles, and the amazing priests and young Catholics who brought the social teachings of the church to our organizing campaigns. The Church I have joined is one that welcomes the poor, struggles beside them, and stands up to the powerful, bringing the whole Church closer to the image of Christ. We continue to build that church with every action that we take, sometimes finding resistance both outside and inside the doors of the Church.

I was raised Southern Baptist, my grandfather was a Baptist preacher, but when I was fifteen I stopped going to the church of my youth, There was so much fire and brimstone and judgment in that place that I couldn’t see through it to anything else, I could see very little mercy. I did not feel the love of God. So, I left that church behind.

My organizing work became my family and my religion.  I organized my first union at Loyola University of Maryland as a painter and maintenance worker.  While we didn’t try to talk to the priests on campus or the students, they also didn’t try to talk to us. We were isolated and subjected to a horrible antiunion campaign waged by my employer and the anti-union consultants he hired. I was fired for organizing. The experience at Loyola made me more determined to be a union organizer. It certainly didn’t lead me to the Catholic Church.

After joining UNITE HERE, I moved to Palm Springs, California. Our membership was majority Catholic.  They looked to the priest at the largest Catholic Church for solidarity.  Fr. Miquel Ceja could not have been more different than what I had expected from a religious leader. He joined committee meetings to help workers feel strong; conducted blessings when workers spoke publicly, and even engaged in civil disobedience to protest mistreatment. This was the first time I felt myself open up to the Church.

A few years later when I moved to Chicago, I would hear about priests like Fr. Clete Kiley, or Fr. Larry Dowling, who supported housekeepers who lived on the south side. They stood by workers at events, urging them on, or leading in prayer. I saw how moved our members were knowing that these Priest where with them in their moments of weakness and in their moments of strength. My heart was opened even more.

The turning point for me happened during a campaign to organize the subcontracted cafeteria workers at DePaul University who were fighting for a living wage and affordable health care. During the struggle to get a fair contract, I was amazed by the dedication of a community of students who lived at the St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac House. These were young people who committed to living Vincentian Values for a year. These 19- and 20-year-olds were Catholic leaders: they led an Anti-War group, the pro-life group, cooked for people who were homeless and created a movement on campus to end food waste. They embodied the seamless garment of Christ.

They also made it their mission to stand in solidarity with the workers. They understood that subcontracted workers were still part of their community, and that they had a responsibility for the workers’ well-being.

And it was the young people of faith who pressed the administrators, the professors, and the leaders of the university to follow in their footsteps by standing side by side with the workers.  One special moment I will never forget was when Jillian, who ran the Right-to-Life committee on campus, went with workers to the President of the University to ask for his support for family health care: Because for her, access to affordable health care was a right to life issue. Those workers won, in large part I believe, because of people like her.

That year…. watching students and priests and workers moving together led me to explore my own faith. I felt called to go back to Church, any Church but not Southern Baptist. But I never seriously thought about joining the Catholic Church. I felt so distant from how I was raised. I tried the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, but nothing seemed to fit. Until one day I went to the Catholic Church in my neighborhood. It just so happened to be the day one of the DePaul students, Megan, was encouraging people to join the RCIA classes that she was instructing. It felt like a very special invitation. Megan ended up being my sponsor and my RCIA teacher as I joined the church on Easter day ten years ago.

The coalition that was built at DePaul was like a congregation. And that congregation opened the door for my conversion to Catholicism.

But I think that these struggles also open the Church to the world and the world to the Church. They force us to choose between a church that is safe with those in power and one that is challenging to those with privilege. Throughout the years I have seen us rise to this test.  Priests in the administration of Loyola University Chicago intervened to make sure that workers gained the right to organize and achieve a living wage. Here in DC, workers at Trinity University, Catholic University and Georgetown University have been organized through a card check process and have been able to achieve decent wages and benefits.  The campaign at Georgetown university was led by students of all faiths, led by Ignatian values.  Their call of “We are One Georgetown” was a challenge to the professors and the priests and their president to act according to Jesuit principles. And they did.

Priests have worked with us on other campaigns. Recently, Fr. Martin Burnham from the Theological College in DC performed the role of neutral party for Compass Group employees at the US Senate Cafeteria, where he counted cards with workers signatures, certified that workers wanted to have a union and bargain for fair wages and working conditions. Compass, the largest food service company in the world, agreed to this path: to be neutral, to give workers the choice, to agree to bargain in good faith and to have a Priest be the arbiter. The morality, honesty and standards of the priests allowed both sides to see this process as the best path for building a just workplace.

In all of these cases, the Church leaned in and stood with workers and urged the companies to respond to moral imperatives. And I have seen employers respond to this in a way that has led to solutions, allowing workers to organize free from fear, finding paths to life affirming jobs and building positive relationships between Labor and Employers.

When I was in Chicago, before even becoming Catholic I would attend the Rerum Novarum Dinner each year. At that dinner the AFL-CIO and the Church would issue awards to Catholic Labor Leaders and to Catholic Business leaders who exemplified the church’s social teachings. “We are one body,” and “what we do for the least of these”…. These rules applied to the wealthy in our congregations as well. At the time, this blew my mind, but what I have come to understand, through the work of priests, sisters, and lay leaders across this country, is that our faith and our Church can help bring out the best in all of us; together.

We, of course, have more work to do together.  Far too often employers, including those at Catholic institutions, do not meet the spirit of Rerum Novarum.

Some subcontractors at Catholic Institutions have told us they will not agree to a fair and neutral process for worker organization. In some cases, it is because the Company opposes the process and the institution is not urging them to do the moral thing. In others, however, it is the client, the Catholic institution in question, that won’t let them agree to a fair and neutral process. Recently in discussions with Sodexo, the food service employer, we believe, at the Theological College, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Sisters of Maryknoll, I was told by Sodexo that these two of institutions opposed allowing their subcontracted cafeteria workers to have the same process that was used at the US Senate, the World Bank, Georgetown, Loyola, St. Johns and Depaul University to allow the workers to form a union. The third they wouldn’t even discuss with me.

I came to the Church because the Church came to the workers. Every day we continue to take a stand, against the injustice out in the world, and for our Church: The Church that is allied with the workers and has a preferential option for the poor. The Church in which the shepherds smell of their sheep. The Church that prays at rallies, walks on picket lines, asks their subcontractors to support neutral processes for workers’ organizations, and creates life affirming jobs.

I hope to see the Church I was called to join continue this path.  I look forward to walking it with all of you.