Blog  

Dec 1

Reducing the Distances Between Us

Our Catholic community of Holy Cross-Saint John the Baptist is situated in the Garment District of midtown Manhattan. Sidewalk plaques along Seventh Avenue memorialize the great entrepreneurs of the modern fashion industry. A few blocks to the south of the Church of Saint John the Baptist is the Fashion Institute of Technology. Herald Square, site of Macy’s flagship department store and world headquarters, is just as near. Our parish dwells in the global capital of fashion design, manufacturing, and retail.

I think of how the life of our Catholic community and the garment industry converged generations ago. How many of the faithful who worshipped at our churches made their living cutting, pressing, and sewing? German immigrants founded the Church of Saint John the Baptist in 1840 and erected the current church building in 1871. It’s a beautiful Gothic structure with stained glass imported from Innsbruck, Austria. It would be massively expensive to build a church such as this today. Yet somehow, with the treasure these Germans piled from their toil, surely much of it sweated out in the city’s garment factories, they got the job done. And the wages they earned kept the doors of the church open.

Our church is a testament to their faith. It should also be seen as a memorial to their thankless labor. Their unremitting toil enabled generations to come, both residents and pilgrims to the bustling city, to find a sanctuary. Their legacy keeps us clothed in Christ.

With one eye turned to the past and another turned to the present, I feel a special responsibility toward the people who keep us clothed in body. The women in Bangladesh and Honduras who make our shirts and socks are no different from the German immigrants whose meager earnings fed their families and raised the vaults of Saint John the Baptist.

When I learned about The Human Thread campaign from my Capuchin brother Michael Crosby, immediately I was eager to bring its mission to the symbolic center of the global apparel industry. New York City is no longer the manufacturing colossus it was over a century ago. Yet it remains very much a dominant power in merchandising. With Macy’s, a pacesetter for clothing retail, in our parish backyard, how could we refuse the opportunity to make the voices of conscientious Catholic consumers be heard?

Throughout November our parish gathered signatures for the Macy’s postcard campaign. We made announcements at Mass. We invited our neighbors who use our church food pantries—many of whom are Chinese or Latino immigrants and may have relatives who work in garment factories—to sign the postcard. Rather than have individuals mail the postcards, however, we collected all of them and left them unstamped. We decided to make a special delivery, in person, to the Macy’s world headquarters in Herald Square.

On Wednesday morning, Nov. 30, five parishioners active in our justice and peace committee met me in Herald Square. All of them are Macy’s customers; some even have a Macy’s account! We were joined by Rosaline Costa, who organized one of the first women’s garment unions in Bangladesh, and Andrea Reyes, chair of the NYC Fair Trade Coalition. We toted 400 postcards in a Macy’s paper shopping bag to Charles Miller, vice president for social responsibility, who received them from us with appreciation and much courtesy. In our brief exchange we thanked him for accepting the postcards. We invited him to read these postcards, and the thousands more arriving in the mail from around the U.S., as anecdotal evidence of consumers’ desire for a fair-trade apparel alternative.

Encouraged by our positive interaction, we went back outside for a brief prayer service, thanking God for the fruits of all creation and raising petition that all people may receive the just rewards of their labor.

God bless the work of The Human Thread! In the year to come, I look forward to advancing a dialogue between conscientious consumers and the Macy’s executives who select what apparel brands to sell.

The souls of the faithful departed who built our Midtown church are as close to us as the clothes we wear. With God’s help, may we find creative ways to reduce the distance between us and the people who make our clothes. Likewise, let us reduce the distance between us and the people who sell us our clothes. If we can make that happen in New York, we can make it happen anywhere!