Laboring with Grace

Karen Scribano   -  

When Al Womble made the decision to take a construction job after being manager of a series of bookstores, he had no idea that the road ahead would offer the kinds of challenges that would ultimately strengthen his faith and provide opportunities to share God’s grace with others. He is particularly honored to be able to use his faith as a compass in his current position advocating for union workers, but the path has not always been easy. 

“Sometimes I run into things that are very difficult,” shares Al, “but my faith helps me power through. I try to look at my blessings more than my setbacks.”  

“I went into construction because someone suggested that since I was a big strong guy, I should try it. I have two degrees from a private university, but I believed what Dr. Martin Luther King had preached: that all labor has dignity. I ended up getting better pay and benefits than I’d ever had before,” says Al. “And I was blessed with lots of strength and endurance, both physical and mental. I knew part of that fortitude came from my belief in Jesus Christ.”  

He started by working in boots and a hard hat doing hard, dirty work on some large-scale projects. “We were working on a tunnel once about 100 feet underground. I was at the front of a construction shield that pushed into the dirt, and then we’d dig out the dirt. We’d be down in that dark tunnel 12-16 hours a day. My hands were bloody and sore, my back was sore, I was surrounded by a lot of tough language, and I missed my family. Eventually I began to feel despair and depression from working through the pain and darkness. It made me feel almost like being in hell,” remembers Al. “But then one day, when I truly felt I was at one of the lowest moments of my life, the lyrics from one of the St. Mark praise band songs started going through my head: Lord, I need you, how I need you. And in that moment, I felt as if the Holy Spirit moved through me as I realized that the Lord was my shelter, my shining light, and He would protect me. That song lifted me up and almost made me feel invincible!” 

Knowing God was present helped him get through some of those tough days. “On some of my jobs I carried a little copy of the New Testament with me, and I would read it during my breaks,” he recalls. “Other guys would be like, ‘what are you doing?’ but that time with the Gospel lifted me to a different plane.” 

After a few years in the field, Al was promoted to become a safety administrator. His experience in the field gave him credibility with those he was now teaching.  “With safety, we are talking about ensuring that everyone gets to go home every night. I’ve seen some serious repercussions from not following proper safety measures,” says Al. “I didn’t lecture these men and women; I had to work with grace, because we in the union call each other sisters and brothers, just like in the church we are sisters and brothers in Christ. I had to approach them in a way that let them know I cared.” 

The safety job required lots of travel. Al began to feel the weariness of being gone so much, and again faced some depression. “I will never forget one time when I specifically felt that God was looking down on me, and sent his grace to lift me up. I had been on the road all over the U.S. for more than 6 weeks and still had several weeks to go. One Sunday afternoon I decided to hike to see a local waterfall and take some pictures.  But even in that beautiful place, I was overcome with loneliness. I was missing my family and my home. I was praying to God to help me get through. Suddenly around the bend came three nuns, wearing khaki shorts and hiking boots with their habits. I was so surprised to see them! I said, ‘Sisters, I’m missing my family, would you please pray for me?’ So they gathered around me by the stream. I offered them energy bars and we ‘broke bread’ together. It was such an uplifting moment. I needed the Lord, and there He was in a most unexpected way.”  

Being helped in his hours of need inspires Al to do the same for others. “The Bible is all about caring for one another. I love the words Jesus shares about loving your fellow man — love as you have loved me. That’s really the whole purpose of a union – we are supposed to love and protect one another.” 

Three years ago, Al was in the right place at the right time to be offered his current position as political director for the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, a non-partisan organization that looks out for and defends those in the labor movement. Al adds, “Whether you are part of a union or not, we try to look out for workers’ rights. My faith and experience have helped me realize that every worker, no matter who they are, deserves a fair wage and proper working conditions.”  

Throughout his years with the union, Al has had to work through multiple situations that required his patience and understanding with difficult people, but he challenges himself and others with these thoughts, “Look for Christ in your work and in your life. See how he would really want you to treat your sisters and your brothers, and look for those moments of grace, because even though we may not always recognize them, they are there.”