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Working In These Times

Thursday, Dec 2, 2010, 3:28 pm

Do Unto Others: Clergy Launch Grassroots Drive to Aid Jobless, Win Jobs Programs

BY Art Levine

Leaders of the liberal religious community, joined by three U.S. Senators and other activists, braved the deficit-cutting political headwinds in Washington on Thursday. They launched a new campaign to help the unemployed find jobs through at least 1,000 congregation-based "employment support committees" —and also mobilize those congregations to fight for major federal jobs programs. 

Even with a pending GOP take-over of the House and the lack of any such ambitious programs so far, the Rev. Paul Sherry, director of the Washington office of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), told In These Times, "We're not naive. We're well aware of the challenge. I happen to think things are going to deteriorate and that out of desperation Congress might well be prepared to advance ideas that are not possible today." He conceded, though, that this organizing and assistance campaign comes quite late in the crisis: "We didn't act quickly enough. There are no excuses."

What's especially new about this initiative is the expansion of an already existing but little-known network of hundreds of congregation-based worker aid programs providing emotional and spiritual support along with practial job-finding assistance. (Local atheists are presumably welcome as well.) But unlike the "thousand points of light" charity programs favored by President George H.W. Bush, the goal to create a thousand congregation-affiliated employment support groups by 2011 is also viewed by religious activists as a vehicle to forge a powerful alliance for change. As Sherry says, "These are  also wonderful points for legislative advocacy. They create an organization structure between the employed and the jobless to pressure politicians to act."

The legislative goals of this Faith Advocates for Jobs campaign are a familiar recipe of more aggressive, New Deal-style stimlus programs that have been on progressives' wish lists for nearly two years. But the continuing high unemployment that economists such as Paul Krugman long predicted without more federal action remains a daily tragedy: nearly 25 million people can't find the full-time jobs they want, with jobless rates as high as 50% in inner-city areas of such cities as Cleveland.

At the press conference, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Pete Casey (D-PA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) underscored the scope of the crisis and the role the faith community can play. As Interfaith Worker Justice reported in a press release:

“Most Members [of Congress] don’t know any unemployed people,” said Senator Brown of Ohio. But, he remarked, unemployed workers are in congregations where they receive support–even food and shelter when necessary.

Senator Casey of Pennsylvania told of unemployed workers coming to Washington to give personal testimony about their experience of living on Unemployment Insurance (UI). “They should not walk alone,” he said.
 
“The world would be a different place if one million unemployed workers said, ‘I need help in my fight for dignity, in my fight for work,’” Senator Sanders of Vermont remarked.

It's possible that the combination of congregation-based job support joined with activism and a public leadership role for at least 250 clergy around the country could help "change the narrative," as Sherry says. He described the outreach game-plan in opening remarks at the morning press conference: "This educational program will include a speaker’s bureau, a nation-wide tour to promote the campaign goals, a range of educational resources and inspirational and educational events."

But the morning event, which drew 60 people and George Packer of The New Yorker, among others, attracted relatively little press coverage outside of a few liberal blog posts. Organizers were also slow to provide basic press materials drawn from the event until very late in the day. If they're to have a chance at winning broad pubic support next year for major federal spending in the new Congress, they'll first have to do a better job of publicizing and promoting their initiatives and their agenda.

Even so, their goals are seen by labor and progressive groups as vital. "With the current crisis of unemployment, which is not predicted to materially improve anytime soon, IWJ’s commitment to organizing congregations to advocate for and support the unemployed couldn’t come at a better time,” said Judy Conti, Federal Advocacy Coordinator for the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

In addition, the local focus on helping the unemployed while spurring awareness and activism brings something fresh to the largely ineffectual earlier progressive campaigns for massive jobs programs. These religiously-oriented groups so far have largely avoided working together to pass federal legislation, but that could very well change while their original mission remains intact. As described by the Christian Post last year in an article headlined, "Dallas Megachurch Helps Unemployed Locals Find Jobs":

It’s job searching with a dose of religion.

That’s what a Dallas megachurch is offering locals in the job market – professional guidance on how to ace job interviews combined with divine intervention through the power of prayer.

Rather than just simply offer sympathy and hand-outs to unemployed congregants and locals, the 12,000-member First Baptist Church is running “pro-active” programs to get people back in the workforce.

Through church-run programs such as Career Solutions, Career Link, and Crown Financial Classes, the church is teaching people how to create attention-grabbing resumes, stand out during interviews, and match employer and potential employees within the church.

“It is not just a support group to offer encouragement – though that is a vital aspect of it,” said the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, to The Christian Post on Wednesday. “But it is helping people be pro-active instead of reactive.”

Many churches, Jeffress said, think that the way to help people is to offer them financial aid such as assistance in paying their rent. But no church is rich enough to support struggling families for a long period of time, he pointed out.

"It is the old adage, 'give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish he’ll eat for a lifetime,'" Jeffress said. "And we think the most important thing the church can do to help its members who are unemployed is help them develop and hone skills that will help them land that next job." 

Will those involved in such local assistance be galvanized to lobby Congress? That's hardly guaranteed, but to activists it's worth trying. As summarized by Rev. Sherry, the legislative agenda includes: "An economic stimulus package, a public jobs program, support for unemployed workers and families, and support for states and municipalities." The AFL-CIO Now blog elaborated on the hoped-for new jobs program with these features:

"A public jobs program that will create vital and sustainable jobs: jobs that will rebuild our nation’s infrastructure; green jobs; mass transit; jobs that the private sector cannot create, such as expanded child care and clean-up of toxic dumps."

Despite the long odds of achieving such legislation, the enormity of the damage to average Americans is prompting the scope of their agenda. Rev. Sherry, the former president of the United Church of Christ and a long-time activist, said at the press conference, "We call for an economy that provides a job for everyone who wants and needs one. All jobs should be good jobs that pay decent wages, provide good benefits, and respect the dignity of the worker.”

It may seem a bit improbable now, but, after all, in the faith community, miracles do happen.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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