Ministering to the Unemployed

Ministering to the Unemployed January 31, 2011

Last week I was in Pendleton to meet with a prosecutor.

No. I’m not in trouble. Not yet, anyway.

We were just chatting about some people we knew and stories we’d heard. While we were talking, the Guv’ner slipped into the coffee house. I didn’t notice him at first, what with the storytelling that was going on at my table and all.

It wasn’t until the prosecutor left that I happened to move tables and saw the Guv’ner there with our state Rep. Bob Jensen. Bob’s a retired educator. He doesn’t create too much noise. In fact, I can’t recall anything of note that he’s done. He stands for all the right things and people are comfortable with him, and that may in itself be a testament to a job well done.

The Guv’ner on the other hand, well, he and I go way back.

He nodded as I walked by. I suppose he would have spoken to me if I had said something but I didn’t. I wasn’t being snotty, I just didn’t want to interrupt him or Bob. So, it was out of respect, not ugliness, that I didn’t speak.

The last time the Guv’ner and I spoke was years ago. He flew into town to do the obligatory tour of the Army Depot — that place 10 miles up the road where a private contractor (Washing Demil, aka Raytheon) is burning tons of VX, Sarin, and other highly explosive and chemically toxic materials.

The Guv’ner likes to pride himself on his environmental integrity. He talks a lot about it. He’s from Bend where they grow their trees tall and their mountains taller. But a lot of people were worried about the burning going on out at the Depot because of the “collateral damage” that would result because of the burning. Specifically, people were worried about the increase in cancer rates that such an environmental hazard would create. Nothing to say of just the sheer stupid things the private contract employees did — like the fellow who took vials of sarin home with him in his pocket.

But the Depot was going to employ lots of people and pay them big bucks. You can’t get people to work around toxic stuff  — a pindrop of VX will kill a horse — without paying them some hefty wages. Of course, at the time they were selling the burn to Oregonians on the promise of those jobs, altho, the truth is that 40 percent of those who work at the Depot are coming in from across the river in Washington. Former Hanford employees.

I never wanted to report on the Depot because of the incestuous nature of the relationship between the U. S. Army and its private contractor and the Guv’nr and the Department of Environmental Quality.  Orgies have never held much appeal for me either as a spectator or a participator. So when I took the job across the river, I made the news editors promise that I would never ever have to do the Depot beat. They promised.

And broke it 18 months later.

Newspapers are notorious for their lack of integrity when it comes to managing their own employees but who’s going to report on that?

So, by gum, if they were going to stick me on the Depot beat, I was going to do my job. And I did. I busted their balls.  Every time they turned around there was some headline story about some foolishness they were doing. Like the guard who shot himself in the arm. Or the man who sat in sarin and ended up dead 9 months later. Or the time they accidentally set off the alarms and families throughout the region, who didn’t know it was an accident, duct-taped themselves in the bathroom for hours.

What they hadn’t all counted on was that I have lived in this area for so long even the pheasants talk to me. So when the Guv’ner did that obligatory tour, I asked him some tough questions in front of God and everybody and he gave me some flippant answer which I used to lead the story with and that’s how these lasting relationships are formed.

So when I was at the coffeehouse last week, sitting right near the Guv’ner, I heard him ask Mr. Bob who I was.  Oh. Yeah, he said, then walked out the door without so much as acknowledging me, which is fine with me. Goes to show I did my job well if the Guv’ner takes to avoiding me in public places.

But Mr. Bob, well, he walked over to the table where I was sitting and said, “Where have you been? Haven’t seen you in forever.”

I told him I try and keep a low profile these days.

Then he spoke to a friend who had joined me. He said he remembered when I wrote all that nasty column about him.

“I don’t recall writing any column about you, Bob.”

I didn’t. Honestly. I can’t imagine what I would have written about him. He didn’t do enough of anything to capture anyone’s attention.

“Well maybe you just got some wrong information,” he said.

“No, Bob,” I said. “That would never have happened.”

I hate that. When politicians begin to fictionalize their own history.

“By the way,” I said. “I hope the Guv’nr does a better job this go round than he did the last.”

You see our Guv’nr is John Kitzhaber. He’s the same guy that was Guv’nr back when the Oregon National Guard wrote a report saying that they didn’t have trouble recruiting in Oregon, even though we have no military installations and are notoriously anti-military, because the unemployment rate was so high people were clamoring to become part of the National Guard. He was Guv’ner in 1995-2003 and now is Guv’ner again because Oregonians are if anything nostalgic and the rain on the West-side leaves mold in the noggin.

They’ve forgotten that long before the economic collapse of 2008, Oregon was leading the nation in unemployment based on per capita calculations. Which is why in 2005, Oregon, along with Louisiana, had the highest per capita number of people deployed with the National Guard. That state that gave us Mark Hatfield — the sole courageous Senator speaking out against Vietnam before it was popular to do so — was now leading the nation in military service.

Mostly because 18 and 19 year old kids couldn’t get a college education otherwise. And dads who once pulled the green chain in the local mills, needed some way to support their  young families, now that the mills were taking hiatus.

Unemployment was a problem in Oregon long before it was a problem nationwide.

So it would stand to reason that in states like ours there would be plenty of wonderful ministries that serve the unemployed, right? Only Oregon also prides itself on being the most unchurched state in the nation. Not sure if we still hold that title but we did for many years.

Now, you’d think any Guv’ner who has been resurrected like Lazarus would be a Bible-thumping Believer but that doesn’t exactly describe our Guv’ner. That kind of politician is way up yonder to the North  and West of us.

If you recall, I wanted to run for Guv’ner only Tim wouldn’t let me. He said I couldn’t win. I told him I didn’t want to win, I just wanted to run. Somethings are worth doing just for the fun of it.

Tim lacks a sense of humor sometimes.

(It just occurred to me that Mike Hyatt CEO of Thomas Nelson won’t like this post. He says people don’t read long posts. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you, sweetie. I do have a point.)

There has been a lot of talk about unemployment over the past two years. I’ve been in churches that hold a weekly meeting for the unemployed.They also offer seminars for building resumes, and computer skills, etc.

But I’m wondering, what about you? What kind of things have you done to help out friends or family who are unemployed? Or if you are unemployed, what sorts of things have others done that have ministered to you? Does your church have a ministry for the unemployed? Tell us about it.

Maybe I can pass your ideas along to the Guv’ner.

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  • A couple of years ago, another man named Tim came up with a plan to focus on outreach to our city (Arlington TX). His brainchild was a website called Arlington Answers. We’d have several things for several people. None of it was overtly faith-based. We never meet in churches. Just love people in practical ways. No one church would be in charge, but several would take part. No political agenda would ever be allowed. The focus is always on serving the community, with the hope that people would see Jesus when we did, but that’s up to Him, not us.

    We got not only other churches involved, but the YMCA and some businesses. We sat down to share the vision with the mayor, and he got excited and is supporting us.

    Tim’s vision was, after this takes off in Arlington, spread the vision to other cities, let their local churches run it, and see what happens. So eventually, there’d be a Pittsburgh Answers, Los Angeles Answers, etc. It all starts with the website. I helped with the original design, but others are running it now.

    I say this to answer your question. One of the ways that Arlington Answers has ministered is we have held a huge job fair, with a second one planned this April. The first time, we had 2000 applicants, and 300 of them got job offers. But that’s just one part of the ministry.

    Sadly, Tim died last September. But his vision lives on.

  • You know I am reading this with great interest, Karen. I suppose one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from my husband’s ongoing unemployment is that, as amazing as our church is in so many ways, there is no practical help at all in this regard, either for members or for members of the community at large. We’ve a large congregation, full of business owners and business professionals who could become part of a ministry to help with the practical decisions that need to be made in a hurry, often by people (as is our case) who don’t have personal accountants or lawyers to turn to for guidance. Sure, a job offer would be great, too — but those first few weeks when you are emotionally paralyzed it would have been great to have a preacher say something other than, “You are in our prayers.” (And the silence since that time has been deafening, as you also know.)

    This is the scariest thing we have faced together — and that includes his heart attack and my head injury — and we are well and truly scrambling.

    When we are on the other side of this I am going to make use of what those who will respond with what their faith communities are doing to figure out a way to make it possible for so many others just like us to get through this whole soul-breaking phase of their lives.

    Thank you for providing a forum for ideas.

  • Mike Hyatt has it wrong. People don’t read long, poorly-written posts.

    Good word, as always!

  • Diane

    Way to go Ken, that’s what I was gonna say…I don’t usually read long posts, so Mike is somewhat correct…my as a devote fan of Karen’s writing, I know it will be worth it, so I read til the end no matter what the length.

  • Diane

    OOPS, don’t know how that “my” got in there I meant to say “but” …that’s why Karen is the writer and I’m not!

  • Karen: You really are doing the prophet’s work here. There are a host of shor-term things that we must be about in our churches and communities that would help some struggling folks right now. These efforts, such as what James W has described, might also be the groundwork for what could become a gigantic effort in the near future. Michael T. Klare sounds a warning for the globally connected world that affects all of us locally: .

  • Marla

    My own church doesn’t have a large program, although the church office and congregation does a lot of passing around names and resumes behind the scenes. But a couple of our sister churches in Tulsa have really jumped into the gap. One holds monthly Job Transition Workshops and hosts an online jobs board with local job openings and keeps records of how many job offers have been made. The other church hosts a weekly brown bag lunch meeting for job seekers to network and support each other. These are both large congregations and members of each church are working with the other church’s program, so they are doubling their networking potential.

    I think more churches should be doing things exactly like this, even if they don’t have the technology for an online site.

  • Really, really impressed by the work reported by JamesW and Marla. I hope neither of you will mind if I borrow these ideas to present to my own church leadership!

    • Marla

      El, the one thing I know needs to be done in addition to practical job-hunting help is developing a support system for the laid-off employee *and* the employee’s family, especially in that first couple of months. Most people are going through this for the first time and have no clue what kind of logistical or emotional nightmares they’re going to face in that first month or so. My husband and I had several chances to practice, both in his career and mine, so we learned in the school of hard knocks (and with an assist from several good self-help books). The corporate outplacement systems didn’t begin to address the emotional and psychological stress of the situations–we had to struggle through it ourselves.

      For churches that offer support groups or counseling centers it could be a huge outreach.

  • Yes, I read the whole thing, and I appreciate your courage and forthrightness to attempt to get at the truth and then speak/write it. We do have the beginnings of a ministry at our church started by one of our members, which is more like a county wide, but church based ministry. To try to help the unemployed here in Michigan to become employable in the current climate, and I think to help them in more immediate ways as well. It is just at the beginning stage at our church, though our church is known for service in the community, including a food pantry. Anyhow, good for you in being willing to be put down for truth and what is really just and right and good.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ted: Can you be more specific about things the group is doing? What special challenges you face pastoring the unemployed?