Good Sunday morning, good people of the mid-summer. It is a glorious, foggy morning here on the Delmarva Penninsula. The present temperature is 70 degrees, with the high expected to reach the low 80s. Air quality is good at 27, the UV index is as low as it's going to get at zero, and the wind is coming from the NNE at a lazy summer 2 mph.
There is still a fog advisory for our area so the driving is slow going but, I'm told by those who know, that the fishing will be grand. Apparently, fish like the fog. Who knew? It does explain why the boats have been going slowly by my house since just before dawn.
I know there's a lot going on in the world but I'm going to jump right into the lectionary page. There's something about the woman with a severe disability in Luke's gospel that has been sitting with me all week - whispering to me, calling to me - but the preacher has a completely different pastoral task over at the congregation she serves so she's gone in a very different direction.
Let me explain. As many of you know, I'm from New England. I was born and brought up in one of what became known as one of the Mill Towns of the Industrial Age.
These were places of manufacturing "Making What America Needs" - mostly the things that supported the relentless pursuit of the future - a better future - and modernity as the means to the end.
The genius of modernity was thought to be the assembly line. One, Mr. Ransom Olds, invented the concept but it took Henry Ford in 1913 to put it to practical use in his factories. He was able to take the time to produce an automobile from more than 12 hours to one hour and 33 minutes.
This, it was said, was a revolution that put the capital I in Industry.
The same theory was applied to the making of dresses. The process of the ancient art of dressmaking was deconstructed into distinct parts with certain people making certain parts in great quantity and other people sewing the parts together until, in rapid time, a dress (or skirt, or shirt) was produced, also in great quantity and in a fraction of the time.
Men worked in the factories that made the metal and rubber of cars and machines. Women worked in the factories that made dresses and shirts and coats. They were immigrants, all of them. First brought over from the poor, mean backstreets and farming villages of England and then Ireland. Then, they were brought down from Canada.
All of them were blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and English-speaking. The women were known as "The Mill Girls", working long, monotonous hours, doing the same task over and over again on the assembly line, often in crowded, unsafe conditions, with poor ventilation and no escape routes, and for pennies a day - a few dollars in an envelope on Friday.
Modernity came at the expense of humanity. It was demeaning, monotonous, dangerous, work that was poorly compensated. It was enough to have broken the backs of most human beings. It certainly broke many spirits.
Not in the women of my family.
I grew up the granddaughter, daughter, and niece of Mill Girls. They were immigrants from Portugal and the Azores who couldn't speak the language when they first arrived. They were also dark-skinned with thick, dark, curly hair.
A pecking order - a hierarchy of oppression - soon emerged. As the daughters and granddaughters and nieces of the original Mill Girls had gotten an education and become teachers and librarians, or had simply moved "up" from the factory floor to the factory office to be secretaries, the Portuguese immigrants took their place.
Since they were not of fair complexion and did not speak the language, they were easy marks for the cruelty of those who had forgotten what it was to work in the mills. Or, perhaps it was, in fact, because they remembered and were "doing unto others as had been done unto them."
It was brutal. And yet, the women in my family, in my neighborhood didn't get mad. They got even. They were part of the founding of the ILGWU (International Lady Garment Workers Union), local chapter 178, which eventually built its headquarters at No. 38 Third Street in Fall River, MA.
While many of the women in my family and neighborhood suffered from disabilities common to assembly line workers: painful, debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome or plantar fasciitis, arthritis, respiratory illness, deafness, cancer, and asbestos-related illnesses, and although the burdens they carried were enormous, no one was stooped or bent over, not even in their old age.
Mind you, these women worked hard, long, monotonous days in the factory and then came home to their husbands and children and cooked meals and cleaned the house and did the laundry and slept with their husbands, and, because they were mostly Roman Catholic with no access to birth control (and abortion, if available was illegal and unthinkable and most likely meant that they would die), they had more babies.
Even so, the Mill Girls always stood tall and proud, even when they were weary and exhausted. I remember my mother falling asleep standing at the counter, stirring her coffee or tea.
What was the difference, I wondered, between the disabled woman in this morning scripture and all those mill girls? Clearly, she must have had a medical condition. She was probably not old but after so many years of living in debilitating pain, she looked older than her years.
Or maybe, just maybe, she was bent over by her burdens. Her shame at being less than. Her poverty. Her lack of opportunity. Her life in antiquity was without any hope of a better life for herself or whatever family she had.
Something happens, I think, when women help women. When women work together in community. A spirit emerges. Something ignites them that keeps the flame in them flickering through yet another dark night and allows them to get up again in the morning, after tending to the children in the middle of the night and feeding them in the morning before work and school. A mini-resurrection, day after day.
There's safety in numbers, my mother and aunts used to call out to us as youngsters when we went out to ride our bikes or to catch the matinee at the theater. Stay together, they warned. Keep an eye on each other.
Yes, they were talking about safety and they had reason to worry (some things never change for girls and women), but they were also relating a philosophy that had gotten them through life standing straight and tall even though their work was back-breakingly hard.
I wonder what really bent the back of that nameless woman in the Temple that Sabbath Day. I'm thinking it was a dis-ease called hopelessness. I'm thinking that, without a dream, without a vision of a better day, a better future, a person's spirit can get worn down to a raw nub, which doubles her over in pain.
I'm thinking that the greatest gift Jesus gave to the world, besides unconditional love, was hope. I'm thinking that Jesus may have physically healed that woman, but what helped her to stand up straight was hope.
I've been thinking a lot of the Mill Girls. The woman with the disability in Luke's Gospel has brought back their memories and with them, enormous gratitude. I would not be where I am today without them. I continue on through modern adversities - which pale in comparison - with their spirit within me.
They allow me to stand straight and tall and demand respect. They help me not to get mad but to get even by getting help. They give me hope for the future. The strength of my faith is part of their legacy which I hope to pass on to my daughters and all the women in my life.
Well, it appears I've gone on a bit, haven't I? It's time for me to get ready for church. We'll be broadcasting live from Sirach 26:10 around 10 AM. Join us, if you've a mind to.
Please be safe. COVID is still lurking about and its variants are highly contagious but, if you are vaccinated, not as deadly. You know the drill: Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Wait a safe distance.
And as the Portuguese immigrants used to say on the streets of the Mill Towns of New England, "Bom dia!".
Make it a great day, everybody.