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Blog: Remembering the Legacy of Saint Frances Perkins this Labor Day

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The other day, a colleague wished me luck on my upcoming "Patron Saint Festival." He was joking, of course. He was referring to Labor Day.

It's true, Labor Day is a busy time for labor secretaries. But my friend's comment got me thinking.

I was raised with saints. I always thought it strange that our large, Hispanic-American family belonged to Saint Louis of France parish in La Puente, Calif. Whenever my mother misplaced something--her address book, eye glasses or house keys--she would immediately ask Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things, to intercede. Saint Anthony never failed her.

My father had an even more personal relationship with a saint. In the 1920s, Rafael Guizar Valencia was known as Mexico's "Bishop of the Poor." He cared for the wounded and dying during the Mexican Revolution. But he also baptized my dad, gave him his first communion, confirmed him and sponsored his attendance to seminary school in Mexico City. He was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. When my father died earlier this year, Saint Rafael's picture was on his mass card.

In my youth, I had my own favorite saint, and was introduced to her in a more modern way. I was mesmerized by the actress Jennifer Jones' portrayal of a poor French girl who becomes a saint in the movie "The Song of Bernadette." As a teenager, Bernadette was my personal patron saint. I admired how she kept her faith, even when no one believed her. She showed me how to be faithful to my convictions, even when others doubted me. I still draw strength from her story.

More recently, another saint came into my life.

On a weekend shortly after I became the nation's 25th secretary of labor, I was exploring my new Capitol Hill neighborhood. I came upon a small Episcopal church, St. Monica and St. James, just a few blocks from my home. I decided to check it out.

I liked the services very much. The music was beautiful. The sermons were thought-provoking. The congregation was engaged and friendly. I felt very much at home.

On my third visit, as the service ended, one of the ushers introduced himself and took my hand. He smiled warmly and said, "We know who you are. We're so glad you are here. We knew you'd come." I was taken aback. I had no idea what he was talking about. And then he explained.

It turns out, back when it was just called St. James, the church was the spiritual home of my predecessor and the most influential labor secretary in U.S. history, Frances Perkins. Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, she was the first woman to serve in a president's cabinet. During her 12-year tenure, she was the heart and soul of the New Deal. She led the effort to create Social Security (some say she wrote the legislation in the St. James rectory). Unemployment insurance, minimum wage and overtime pay are just a few examples of her legacy. The federal building where I work is named after her, and her portrait hangs outside my office. She was a woman of great accomplishments, and of great faith--a pioneer in what we now commonly refer to as social justice.

But most extraordinary: Frances Perkins is a saint in the Episcopal Church, welcomed into the calendar of lesser feasts and fasts in 2009. Her commemoration (or day) is May 13.

Frances Perkins knew the power the faith community had in making a difference in the lives of working people, and enlisted their support and involvement during the Great Depression. I think she would be very pleased to see how her department is working with that community today.

For decades, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples across the country have sponsored "job clubs"-- informal and often volunteer efforts to assist unemployed members of their congregations, as well as the wider community. Job clubs provide networking opportunities and employment resources, like resume writing tips, interview coaching and the use of social media in a job search. But they offer something else, too. The emotional and spiritual support they provide to someone who is out of work is critical. They reinforce to job seekers that they are not alone. The prayers, fellowship and hospitality keep them going.

Since May 2011, the Labor Department's Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been working with job clubs in cities across the nation. We're facilitating ways for them to get to know each other and share experiences in ways both high-touch (meetings and conference calls) to high tech (a web portal that shares best practices: www.dol.gov/jobclubs). We're helping new clubs get started in rural and urban communities, and partnering them with our nearly 3,000 job centers, a nationwide network of one-stop career shops. We're giving them tools to expand and extend the state workforce development system to church basements, fellowship halls and synagogue conference rooms.

And our efforts are paying off. We've connected with more than 1,500 job clubs, career ministries, and networking groups in the past year alone, and have developed an online directory so that job seekers can find job clubs, and job clubs can find each other. Our regional symposia and training events across the country are helping faith leaders, practitioners, volunteers and staff better serve their congregations and communities through new connections and partnerships, as well as promising practices. Most important, job clubs are reporting back to us that people are finding jobs and training opportunities. And that's really what it is all about.

In speeches after she left office, Perkins would often make the point that "man has infinite worth." That is as true today as it was when she sat in the labor secretary's chair. It's a common truth among people of goodwill and all faiths. It didn't take her elevation to sainthood to remind me of that. The work of my department reminds me every day. Saint Frances Perkins would be very proud.


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