Our nation's economic crisis is constantly mentioned in our media. Critical economic issues are lead stories for most of our news. We are continually beset by forecasts and an array of alphabetic indexes that take our nation's temperature.
As a nation we hope that some kind of economic recovery is occurring and that we will feel it soon. For the moment it appears that this financial malaise is of great epidemic proportions.
There are a variety of economic forecasts and commentaries. Some speculation is more helpful than others. One alarming comment strikes at the center of our concern about the human tale of our crisis. The observation goes: ''We are experiencing an economic recovery without a heart.''
Corporations are doing their best to cut expenses to survive. Unfortunately, the cutting of jobs is the way that considerable change is happening. After a lifetime of work, many are being let go. This presents a terrible crisis for families, communities, and parishes.
When people lose their jobs, life is never the same. Issues of self-esteem anger, feelings of abandonment affect them and their families. Domestic violence, depression, increased addiction, divorce and homelessness are ramifications of this job crisis. Many people realize that the trust they had in their jobs was misplaced. They feel rejected on an emotional level. No matter how aware they are of the economic necessities in this day, they still feel rejection. This is especially difficult when some are let go. Each of us tends to think on an emotional level that we are more important and won't be let go when others are. When the worst happens, trust is shattered. Life loses meaning, and fulfillment is something to seek elsewhere. A black pall settles over our lives, coloring everything and everyone.
The lack of meaning or fulfillment is evident when we realize that millions are working fewer hours or part time. At the same time there are many thousands who have simply given up and who fall outside the charts or monthly job-loss statistics. All of what is happening indicates that a considerable amount of our country's labor force is either unemployed or underemployed.
How can parishes respond to the needs of people who experience job loss? Do we appreciate the importance of work in people's lives? An empathic response is necessary by parishes for those who are suffering from job loss.
Work in the Scriptural Perspective
Throughout Sacred Scripture, work is considered as a divine ordinance for human life. This was clearly evident among rabbis during New Testament times. Every rabbi had to learn a trade and support himself by honest toil.
St. Paul was a tentmaker, and like Aquila (Acts 18:3), the rabbi, he followed the rabbinical practice of self-support. He did this even though he held that missionaries of the Gospel could be supported by the Church (see 1 Cor 9:4-15; 2 Thes 3:7-10). Christians, according to Paul's teachings, were not exempt from working. ''If any will not work, neither let him eat'' (2 Thes 3:10).
In the scriptural perspective, work is noted as a necessary and wholesome aspect of being human. On the seventh day, there is the necessity of rest. This similarly reflects the Creator's rest within creation (see Gn 2:1-3; Ex 20:11; Heb 4:9-11).
We realize through revelation how significant work is for all people. The imposing pastoral question remains: what happens when someone loses this constitutive part of life?
Pastoral Psychology and Job Loss
When parishioners lose jobs, more than financial security is taken away. Pastoral leaders have to become very aware of the psychological ramifications. Self-esteem and achievement are affected by job loss. Very often, the unemployed withdraw and feel excluded from society. This translates often into feeling estranged from even their parish church. The feelings of exclusion originate in over-identifying with jobs. For many of us, we are what we do.
This identification is especially evident in our culture where we may say: ''John Jones the stock broker rather than saying: ''a stock broker who happens to be John Jones.'' No matter how we may feel about the over-identification with a job or role, the result remains. The loss of work diminishes the personality. Our worldview is shattered.
When a job loss is sudden or unexpected, the initial response is that of shock, numbness and disbelief. The reactions are akin to people's experiences of grief. There is a real disorientation for the fired or laid-off worker. There is a sense of unreality and even denial that this happened to them. This results in a temporary paralysis. The worker feels totally helpless and has considerable difficulty in accepting the harsh fact of unemployment. It is a humiliating experience that colors the image of one's self and one's relationship with friends, family and God. It drains away the ability to start the much needed job search. The savage reality of today's job market is something people are not prepared to face.
Our society is insensitive and impersonal enough without making people feel even less human through loss of employment. There is a definite need for intervention with the unemployed. These people need a forum to express their feelings at a very critical time. They need to feel that they are still members of society with definite worth. This is where the parish can play a vital role.
The growing army of the unemployed need assistance with the chaos in their lives. Parishes can utilize resources to assist them, not only with possible jobs, but also with purpose in life. This can be done in a variety of ways.
Steps to Help theUnemployed
Some of the following steps can be taken by parishes to include the underemployed and unemployed.
1. The Parish Pastoral Council may discuss how they can make the jobless realize that the parish cares.
This may be done through sponsoring forums or work fairs. Most parishes have places where meetings can be held. The Council could appoint members to research who would be willing to speak at a job fair. There are often personnel people and others who would be willing to talk about the unemployment crisis. For many, the most basic skills, such as resume- writing and tips for interview, can be extremely helpful.
Through the publicity committee, the Council could use the parish bulletin and other means, such as cable TV, to reach out to the jobless. Cable television stations are becoming an increasingly effective tool for parishes. People who won't show up for meetings at night will watch a broadcast at home. This is especially important for those jobless who feel isolated or are too paralyzed to do anything.
2. Workshops needn't be limited to a specific parish. A cluster of parishes, or even a citywide presentation, would be even more effective. It would broaden the base of interest and include even more resources.
3. Parishes ought to consider ongoing support groups for the unemployed and the underemployed.
The groups can help the jobless by providing a place to go to become reoriented. Groups can do everything from bringing in speakers, helping participants work on resumes, discussing job interviews and sorting out feelings associated with their present situation.
4. Parishes need to keep in mind that they are not meant to fix the crisis of joblessness. Rather, they are there to help people manage a very real life crisis. By managing the losses and the associated emotional turmoil, there is the hope that something better will happen.
5. Assist the jobless to look at their skills and interests.
This will address many issues of self-worth. A facilitator trained in personal development theories, often a counselor, is the best person to lead a group. Unfortunately the recession is tightening its grip on our businesses and consumers. We are facing the worst job losses in almost 60 years. This is touching our parishioners in ways we never thought possible just a short time ago.
There is a need for our parishes to respond. The parish has many healing resources to confront this crisis. The parish adds the religious dimension to the search for meaning as parishioners seek to reorient themselves in a changed world.
The unemployed are very much in need of pastoral care. This care ranges from informal coffees to more involved workshops. Recruiting other parishioners with skills to relate to them is a healing activity. Every parish has parishioners who can help the unemployed regain a sense of self-worth. Stimulating programs can be developed to help lift the present sadness being felt in so many parts of our country.
When parishes take the initiative to do what they can to help people in crisis, some very beneficial results will occur. This is the type of pastoral care that affects not only individuals but also the entire parish. This is an opportunity for parishes to do what we do very well. That is, provide pastoral care to those suffering with specific needs. Our reaching out is very much in keeping with St. Paul who instructs us ''If one member suffers in the body of Christ which is the Church, all members suffer with that member'' (1 Cor 12:26). TP
FATHER CURLEY is the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Nahant, Mass. He has written numerous articles and books in the area of separation and loss. He is a faculty member for the Master of Arts in Ministry Program at St. John Seminary, Brighton, Mass., where he teaches pastoral studies. His latest book is The Ministry of Consolers, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 2004.