Pizza and Pigeons at the Presentation of our Lord

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!  Psalm 84:1

One by one, and in twos and threes they come—young and mostly Mexican– seeking a safe space to share their stories of worker abuse out of earshot of their employers. Our church basement has become their sanctuary of choice on Friday mornings.  There is Carlos who worked 65 hours a week delivering pizza for Dominos, but was paid for only 45 of those hours; and Anatole who worked from 10am to 8pm one Saturday while his pay stub noted just five hours. Many find themselves doing inside work as well— sweeping, washing and unloading supplies, for which they receive no bump in a delivery wage intended to be subsidized by tips. This counts as business as usual at more than one Dominos franchise.

Besides commiserating with one another, the workers meet with labor organizers and lawyers to figure out ways to improve their plight. When Carlos dared to ask his boss for the back pay that was rightly owed, he was fired on the spot. This was not an encouraging sign for Anatole whose children live in Burkina Faso, a small West African nation with one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes. I have to admit, that when I’ve ordered pizza for my family, and rummaged around for a tip, I did not consider that children in Burkina Faso were waiting to see how much I might come up with.

Upstairs in our other sanctuary we are preparing for Sunday’s celebration of the Presentation of Jesus that took place according to the Jewish law that required a firstborn male child to be presented at the temple with an animal sacrifice. This would usually be a lamb and a pigeon, but if a family was too poor for a lamb, another pigeon could be substituted.  Jesus came from a two-pigeon family. The law was put on the books to counter the cultural practice of actually sacrificing firstborn baby boys. The idea seemed to be that if you sacrificed your firstborn, this would somehow appease any greedy, murderous powers in the universe and the rest of your children would have a better chance of survival. There are many denunciations against this practice in the Bible and then came the law—sacrifice an animal instead of a child. This bloody business may all seem rather gruesome to us, but the two-pigeon option meant that even the poorest babies were entitled to the same protection afforded the more affluent–something the fathers and uncles in our basement sanctuary did not have for their children, but they were determined to get it.

Our congregation had already participated in a Sweatshop Free campaign that demanded fair labor practices in local restaurants but taking on a commercial giant was something else. Carlos and Anatole filed a lawsuit against Dominos and were then joined by dozens of other workers who deliver pizzas around our city. When they asked the church to support them and sign-on to a boycott, there was no hesitation. I knew we were on to something when I got a letter from the Dominos corporate headquarters threatening to sue me and another local pastor if we continued to voice our public support of a boycott.  Not to belittle myself and my colleague, but just how much influence do they think we have? I can’t get the youth in our shelter to stop eating so much bacon much less direct the eating habits of enough New Yorkers to make a serious dent in Dominos’ billion dollar bottom-line.

In some quarters, the Presentation of our Lord (February 2) is also Candlemas, a day for blessing candles to be used throughout the year. This comes from an ancient ritual born at the crux of winter. February 2 falls right at the turning point between the darkest day of the year and the spring equinox.  We don’t celebrate Candlemas in my church but the smile on Carlos’ face as he stood in my office last Friday was its own glorious turning point. After three years, the workers had just won a $1.3 million dollar settlement from Dominos for 63 deliverymen who will receive between $61,000 and $400 each. Enough for number of celebratory lambs.

On Sunday, we celebrated the Presentation of our Lord who was carried to the temple when he was six-weeks old. There, Jesus was taken into the arms of old Simeon and older Anna and proclaimed to be a light for all nations. We welcomed three-week old Lucas bundled against the cold on his first trip to church with his radiant, happy-tired mothers. Lucas was instantly surrounded, lighting up the faces of young and old alike. And we remembered all the two-pigeon families whose children deserve no less.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. Psalm 84:3