Frances Perkins: A Saint for Our Times
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Please raise your hand if you know who Frances Perkins is. The Episcopal Church recently named Frances Perkins a saint; her feast day is this Tuesday.
Before I tell you about Frances Perkins, let’s consider the Scripture appointed for this Sunday in Eastertide, from the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles describes the life of the disciples and followers of Jesus, immediately following his resurrection. Now that Jesus was no longer with them, what were they to do? There was no church, no agreed-upon mission, no plan or guidelines. It was a time of new beginning. The Holy Spirit had been poured out upon them, they were filled with zeal… and they had to make it up.
So, we’re told today, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
All who believed, had all things in common, and distributed proceeds to all. Sounds just like the church as we know it, just like society as we know it. Our local prophet from Kensington, Shane Claiborne is fond of asking, what if Jesus actually meant the things he said? What if this really is what those first disciples did? More to the point, what if we actually took these words of Scripture as direction for how we are to believe and how we are to live together? All who believed, had all things in common, and distributed proceeds to all, as any had need. So…
Frances Perkins, 1880-1965, was the United States Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet, and longest serving Secretary of Labor. A close friend and loyal supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under whom she served, Frances Perkins is a principal architect and champion of the New Deal.
She was instrumental in weaving together essential strands of what we now know as our society’s safety net for the most vulnerable among us. She authored legislation that created Social Security, providing unemployment insurance and disability benefits, especially for the elderly. And for legislation introducing safety labor laws and the minimum wage. She put belief into action as disciples who have all things in common, and distribute proceeds to all, as any have need.
Adam Cohen, professor at Yale Law School, has said “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes – as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine.”
The legislation and the federal policies that Frances introduced have had a dramatic and lasting impact on the ways in which subsequent generations understand our accountability to one another.
Holy Women, Holy Men, which is The Episcopal Church’s book of saint’s feast days, says Perkins depended upon “her faith, her life of prayer, and the guidance of her church for the support she needed to assist the United States and its leadership to face the enormous problems” then challenging the country. While Secretary of Labor, Perkins made a monthly retreat at an Episcopal convent.
Stephen Lane, Bishop of Maine, Perkins’ home state, said in a sermon – and I quote at length: “As I’ve considered Frances’ life, it’s struck me that she addressed one of the questions that all of us must answer. To use Cain’s phrasing, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To put the question in more religious terms “Does God have intentions for our relationships as God’s people?” “Are we responsible before God for more than our own lives?”
Bishop Lane continues: “Frances came of age and was nurtured in the Anglo-Catholic culture of New York City of the early 20th century. That culture, influenced by Roman Catholic and Jewish thinking, held a “theology of generosity,” which contrasted sharply with a “theology of righteousness.”
“The theology of righteousness held that people get what they deserve, that their wealth and status are signs of their relationship with God. It was a theology of social Darwinism, a combination of American individualism and Calvinist Predestinarianism. Good, hardworking people get what they deserve. Sinful, lazy people get what they deserve. Good people are not responsible for alleviating poverty, although they may out of their goodness offer charity if they choose.
“In contrast, the theology of generosity held that all we have is a gift from a generous God. The particulars may be influenced by our own effort, but the foundation is the generosity of God who gives to all people without regard to our particular circumstances or merit. If we are wealthy, we are wealthy only by God’s grace. If we are poor, we are poor because the circumstances of our lives have blocked our access to God’s blessings. It is, therefore, the obligation of those who have been blessed to share those blessings with the poor.
“That belief, along with Frances’ direct experience with the grinding poverty of the people who worked in the mills and the factories of the industrial revolution and her witness of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, caused her to work with unrelenting passion for the establishment of what we now call the social safety net, most particularly the regulation of labor and Social Security.” End quote.
The Church’s affirmation of a saint, any saint, is not solely so that we may look back with appreciation and adoration. Rather, the life of a saint is to be for us an inspiration and a challenge. It is good to know who Frances Perkins was, what she believed, and how she incarnated those beliefs in her life. And then to ask, how about us? Am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper?
When I try to recapture and imagine the experience of those earliest followers of Christ, two qualities of their life stand out for me: the potency of their dreams, and their deep trust.
Christ’s presence in their lives had awakened the sense of potential and creative possibility. Christ had called them to love one another and to love one and all. Those earliest disciples dreamed dreams of what this love would look like. So have many others in their generation. This glorious church is here because someone dared to dream that we should build it, that we might praise God. We started a choir school because someone dreamed of teaching to sing children who had no access to a good education. We opened a food cupboard because someone dreamed that we had abundance to share with those who did not. Those first disciples dreamed that if they pooled their own wealth together, the needs of all would be met.
Somewhere behind each of those decisions, dreams awakened our sense of potential. We asked ourselves, “How are we using the gifts that God has given us? What do I believe God is inviting me to do differently?”
Given the magnitude and pervasiveness of economic disparity in our city, nation, and globe, how might our lives be shaped by the spirit of Christ? The problems are daunting. But doesn’t that simply mean that our dreams need to be more far-reaching, more courageous. Frances’ dreams were scaled to address the needs of her day; so might ours.
For those first followers of Christ, the foundation was trust: trust in God and trust in one another. Rarely do we place our trust in God – or in anyone or anything else – all in one moment. Trust grows over time. Through gathering together, the nourishment of bread, and through prayers, those first followers came to trust. Enough trust to share all with all and for all.
What will it take for me to sell all of my possessions, give the proceeds to you, for us to share with any who have need?
“When Frances joined the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she famously said, “I came to Washington to serve God, FDR, and millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.” Her charge came from God and was lived out in her daily life as an educator, administrator and consummate politician. For Frances there was no question that she was accountable to God for the work she did and that her work was to help create the world God intended.” (Lane) This is our day; let us join her.
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