Things the Rev. Addie Wyatt taught us

Kim Bobo |

The Apostle Paul, in II Timothy 4:7 says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”   Rev. Addie Wyatt, who died in Chicago on March 28, 2012, left her mark on Chicago and the nation.

Rev. Addie WyattBorn in Mississippi, Rev. Wyatt’s family moved to Chicago during the Great Depression.  As a teenager in 1941, she applied for a typing job in a meat-packing factory.  After being told that Black people need not apply for the office jobs, she went to work on the factory floor, where she earned more than she would have as a typist due to the union contract between Armour and United Packinghouse Workers. Rev. Wyatt jumped right into activism with the union and eventually became the President of her local in the 1950's.

At the same time that she was leading her union, she and her husband, Rev. Claude Wyatt, started the Vernon Park Church of God, initially operating out of a garage. In the 1960's, she became a prominent civil rights leader, actively supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and helping him connect with the labor movement. 

In 1976, Rev. Wyatt became the first female international vice president in the history of her union, which eventually became the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).  She was a founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and served on several national and state commissions on women and labor.    

I didn’t meet Rev. Wyatt until the early 1990's. Even though she had officially retired from the union in 1984, she was still active in labor struggles.  I don’t even remember how I first heard of her, but I immediately wanted to meet her. I was beginning to try to build ties between the religious community and the labor community and here was a woman who epitomized the connection between faith and work.  She was gracious and generous with her time and wisdom, helping me, a complete novice in the partnership work.  When we started Interfaith Worker Justice in 1996, Rev. Wyatt agreed to serve as an advisor to the organization.

Rev. Wyatt was truly a woman of God who used her gifts and talents to bring good news to the poor.  She stood for justice at work, in the church and in the community.  In 2005, when she was 81 years old, she gave a talk in which she declared, “although I’m hopping, I’m not stopping.”

As I think of her life and legacy, here are seven things she taught us:
1) When God calls, you must respond.   Rev. Wyatt had a sense of her own calling by God, but she truly believed that we all are called.   And when we are called, we have a choice whether or not to respond.  
2) Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.   Rev. Wyatt did not waste time and energy focusing on what people might say she couldn’t do.  She focused entirely on what needed to be done and what she could do.  In the process, she broke down racial and gender barriers.
3) Standing for justice can be done kindly.   Rev. Wyatt fought against injustice, but she was always kind, gracious and poised.  She cared for people and her love for them showed through in how she dealt with them.  She showed love and kindness to those in power as well as those in struggle.   As a woman in leadership operating in both the religious and labor worlds, sectors often dominated by men, she demonstrated how to operate effectively and powerfully and yet distinctly in her own style.
4) Unions and religious organizations are key partners.  Rev. Wyatt talked about how people need the union in the workplace to achieve justice and fairness, but the church (and I’d say synagogue and mosque as well) to achieve wholeness and fulfillment in life.  She recognized the power and importance of both institutions working together.
5) Poetry and music can teach us lessons.   Rev. Wyatt was known for her singing and her use of poetic language.   She often quoted great poets or songs in her sermons and presentations.  She recognized the ability of poetry and music to reach to us in ways that traditional words cannot.
6) Strong family relationships enable powerful community work.  Rev. Wyatt and her husband Claude were married for 70 years.  They worked together and ministered together.  They had a beautiful home to which they regularly invited people.
7) Give generously of your time, especially to young people.  Rev. Wyatt gave willingly of her time, especially when asked to train or talk with young people.  Until her health prevented her, Rev. Wyatt would regularly meet with our seminary interns and talk about how her career had unfolded and offer advice for connecting faith and labor.
In recent years, Rev. Wyatt was appalled to see what was happening to workers and unions.  Unfortunately, she is no longer with us.  She fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.  Now it is our turn.  We must learn her lessons and jump into the fight. 

Indeed, we face a fight – a good fight – for the core values of justice and dignity in the workplace.  Let us remember Rev. Wyatt by following her path to justice.