We prayed for the unemployed today during the prayers of the faithful. In the wake of Friday’s employment report, the prayer took on greater urgency for me.
It seems likely that we are in for an extended period of slow growth and high unemployment. Even if job growth were to pick up to something close to the rate seen in other recent recessions it would still take many years for unemployment to fall back to what it was in the latter part of the last decade.
Whether personally unemployed or not, I think all of us have been touched by this crisis in one way or another. In my small church group, of the five men of working, two were laid off from their jobs. One, an engineer, has been—except for a brief spate of contract work—unemployed for almost two years. The other, a software project manager, has found a good contract position, but it is only guaranteed through the end of the year.
I’ve also been reflecting on my own complicity in what is happening to the unemployed. Four years ago, I was hiring for a position in my department and interviewed a man who had lost his job in the banking industry. He was a nice guy, eager to show he could manage the change of industry. In the end, though, I went with a candidate who seemed a better fit. Two years later, that young man headed off to graduate school and I met with our recruiter again. She told me that the losing candidate from the last round was still out of work and had been in touch with her. I’m uncomfortable admitting that his continued unemployment was a “red flag” that was difficult for me to get past. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t his fault. There were so many good applicants out there. Emotionally, though, I began ranking him lower than some of the new candidates whose resumes I was reviewing. In the end, I decided not to interview him.
Stories like these are playing out all across the country right now. When people are unemployed for a long time, their skills begin to atrophy and they become less attractive—for good reasons and bad—to employers. Long-term unemployment takes a toll on physical and mental health and places families under great stress. There are roughly 8 million people who have been unemployed for four months or more (financial planners generally urge you have an “emergency fund” that can last three months). Three million more are only marginally attached to the labor force.
The scale of economic pain certainly calls for a policy response by elected officials. But it also calls for a ministerial response from the churches. Church and state should collaborate to meet the material needs of the unemployed. But there are deeper needs that religious communities are uniquely positioned to address. In a society where value is often reduced to economic value, unemployment is a form of deep social isolation. It severs many of the ties that bind us to others outside our immediate families. Religious communities (the root of the word is ligare, to bind) can reweave bonds of community that are rooted not in economic value, but in the conviction that each person is an imago dei, an image of God and precious to Him.
From a Christian perspective, the unemployed need to be able to place their suffering in the context of the paschal mystery, to understand how the Father who raised His Son from is speaking to them through these events and offering hope and new life where it seems none can be found. They need to be able to make the words of the De Profundis their own: “from out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Let your years be attentive to the voice of my pleading.”
To that end, I am curious whether anyone here is aware of parishes that have developed ministries or outreach programs aimed specifically at the unemployed. I’m particularly interested in the spiritual component of such programs and how they might help the unemployed deepen their prayer lives as a source of strength in difficult times. How can we draw more deeply on the resources of our tradition to meet the unique needs of this population?