If I Were Unemployed
I have to admit: it was not until this week that I was struck by the irony of preaching about unemployment right in the middle of ministerial search season! I love congregational life though, and when I feel overwhelmed by the long and complicated hiring process, I turn for perspective to one of the first jobs I had after moving to Atlanta. Not the bartending gig where they fired me before the ink had dried on my W-2. Nor the Haunted House on North Avenue where I played a Zombie Bridegroom. The enduring image for me from my first year in Atlanta, an image that stuck with me at each turn as I prepared this sermon, is of driving in a minivan around the poorly-market streets in a housing project of one-story duplexes in southeast Atlanta at 4:30am, cold rain coming down and an angry dialysis patient yelling unhelpful directions to his house at me over the phone. This moment epitomized for me the stress and despair of having a low-wage job in our current economy. You see, when I moved to Georgia from Eastern Massachusetts after divinity school, with two Ivy League degrees in tow, I took an online EMT training course in order to get an intermediary job while I looked for church work in a new part of the country, having followed my fiance down here to support her completing her medical residency. The EMT certification was less helpful than I had thought, and the only job I could find with health insurance was driving the 4am to 6pm shift for a medicaid transportation company. Turns out, leaving the house at 3:30 is one way to beat traffic in Atlanta; the bitter irony in this of course being that when I arrived at work, my job was then to turn around and drive through it all morning and afternoon. With the caveat that I only did that job for less than a year and never faced the prospect that it was a long-term way of life, that job taught me a good deal about what low-wage work looks and feels like in our country.
It feels like a sore tailbone and back from sitting in the same place for forty hours a week. It feels like constant risk for a migraine from not being able to establish a healthy sleep schedule. It feels like a persistent low-to-medium level of stress from being consistently behind on an unrealistic, assigned schedule. The one upside was that I had time to catch up on my off-season NFL news podcasts. That helped lead to me winning a fantasy football league for the first time this year! It was a UU clergy league, so that’s basically the equivalent of winning Duck Hunt by shooting six inches from the screen, but still counts! I am describing what non-emergency medical transportation felt like for me as a job, but from what I have heard from friends working at Amazon order fulfillment warehouses and different types of call centers, I believe there are millions of jobs in the US that come with these conditions and worse. The friends who I mentioned and myself, we might not have taken them at all if our food stamps, or “electronic balance transfer cards” as they are now called, had been enough to live on.
It was difficult for me in those circumstances, as Kahlil Gibran says, “… to love life through labour (and thereby) to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.” It is in trying to overcome such difficulties that our congregations can perhaps be most helpful. Think back on your life experience with communities of meaning and there are certainly some helpful groups that were there when needed that will come to mind. I would like to tell you for instance about the First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts, and its support group for unemployed and underemployed folks. This support group started in 2010, when I was doing my ministerial internship there, just as it became clear that the effects of the Great Recession were here to stay and not cycling out of the system in a year or two. I’d like to say it started at that time because it was a project of my internship, but in my infinite hubris as a young minister, I said “thanks but no thanks” to the opportunity to help get the group off the ground. Instead, it was spearheaded by my supervisor, Rev. Diane Miller, former Director of Ministry for our UUA. In my defense, downtown Carlisle hardly seemed like a probable spot for that kind of a support group to take off. There are only 5,000 people living in the town to begin with, and a higher percentage of them have PhD.s than any other municipality in the country. But Diane was clever enough to pitch the group as a networking resource as well as a support group, and before the year was through, folks who had been coming for networking purposes to begin with, were testifying to levels of support there that allowed them to be vulnerable in ways they had never been anywhere else in their lives, including with their families. One of the advisors I was working with to support our youth group came to me in tears and told me that he felt able to ponder things in that group he never would have thought possible. He displayed a vulnerability that I would have never pictured from him, a hard-driving MIT grad who had started several of his own businesses.
The unemployed and underemployed group had allowed him and others to be vulnerable in ways that they could not, and probably should not, be on their own. Having an understanding and trustworthy group to open up to helped him and others to admit they were going through a hard time; doing it in a UU context gave them the language to talk about how it was impacting their sense of dignity. In addition to the first principle of Unitarian Universalism telling us that each person has inherent worth and dignity (something that we sometimes need to lose in order to find in ourselves), the seventh principle states we are part of the interdependent web of existence. Again, we don’t always do such a good job of seeing our own dependence, which our interdependence claims we have. We perhaps prefer to see ourselves as those upon whom others are dependent. But conditions like unemployment and underemployment strip away those pretenses and make us acutely aware of our own dependence. Being unemployed during the first five months of cohabitating with my partner taught me real fast what it felt like to depend on someone else to make a family life together. And being a devoted and effective businessman who was out of work for the first time in his adult life taught that youth advisor from our congregation what dependence and vulnerability felt like also, which he was then able to pass on to our congregation’s high-achieving high school students.
The inspiration and title of this morning’s message come from an earlier era of high unemployment in American history. A sermon with this same title was preached by John Haynes Holmes at the Community Church of New York during the Great Depression. I mention Holmes at this juncture of our time together, because he had some helpful answers to the question of what to do if you are unemployed or underemployed. Hubristic young minister that I still am, I have some additions of my own to his list! Holmes wrote that there were four things that he would primarily focus on if he were unemployed. First, he said that he would be willing to accept charity. Hard as that may be to do, I advocate pursuing it in all forms. This includes things like a Facebook post that one of my multiple-higher-degree-holding unemployed young adult friends made last summer stating she would accept charity in the form of travel fare for her to come visit you and/or couches to crash on once she was there. Put yourself out there and be willing to accept help! The Minister’s Beneficence Fund is here for those in need. Holmes said in the second place, he would be willing to take any honest work that came along. Re-reading his advice this winter made me feel better about the time I spent during the last few years as a pub trivia DJ.
Holmes’ last two proclamations I have more trouble with. They were: educate oneself about the broader causes of the labor situation, and organize for better conditions with those situations (Holmes was a socialist). It’s not that I disagree those are good things to do, regardless of if one is unemployed or not. I just wonder if the implied judgment that anyone who is not doing those things could be doing more to improve their situation is shaming of those who don’t have the leisure to fulfill them, even when out of work. Food for thought. I also think that without a mature and viable alternative to capitalist dogma, as Socialism was during Holmes’ period, educating oneself about the situation takes on a whole different meaning. Some theorists, including at Strikemag.org and The Atlantic, have begun to ask what adjustment we should make in our attitudes toward work given the severe increases in per hour productivity that technology has made possible over the last generation. My favorite emergent suggestion put forward by some writers and ambitious politicians around the world is a guaranteed minimum income. This would involve giving each adult in the country an amount equal to the poverty level, thereby at least lifting each person above that low bar of income. Progressives are enthusiastic about the possibilities for wealth redistribution, and some conservatives are beginning to make the case for it as a more efficient delivery of welfare than the bureaucratically nightmarish administration of seventy-something “means tested” methods spread out over the country. And we would only have to double our current social welfare spending nationally, so…fingers crossed! Shout-out to Scott Winship, a conservative economist who indirectly supported this idea in the book Room to Grow, and whose parents, Ray and Connie, are my fellow members at the Waterville, Maine UU Church.
A new generation of activists is also addressing the question of income inequality via attempts at mass strikes, like for fast-food workers, asking for higher minimum wages. The #Fightfor15 movement has been quieter than Black Lives Matter the last couple years, but arguably more effective in terms of outcomes, and I hope we as a congregation will find ways to support this worker-led movement for more livable wages. Both these approaches are in nascent forms though for now, and so I choose to give more leeway to folks struggling with those latter two instructions from Holmes.
The part that I would like to add is a plea for empathy on the part of Millennials. The Millennial generation will be affected by the Great Recession more than any other group, thanks to its timing. We are known as folks who need to be doing something that matters, who need praise, who are highly self-reflective. Tons of free time for introspection has only accelerated that latter trend. That intense self-reflection may yet produce some great self-awareness, some great art, some transformative justice-making. For now, much as I love Lena Dunham and Girls, I think the jury is out. But either way, the long-term result of the economy’s swift and sudden downturn in 2008 will be that a whole generation previously well on its way to being over-invested in angstily-assembled and branded Facebook profiles, will have had gads of insecurity and fear thrown into its development. So if you are a Millennial, please take the time this week to intentionally feel safe and secure and pass that feeling along to a friend. If you are not a Millennial, please also take the time to think empathic thoughts about young people who have been buffeted for almost eight years by economic forces outside their control, and to extend those thoughts to them as you are able.
So, those are nice things we can do as individual Unitarian Universalists to live out our values with some of those who need our compassion. But what can we do to make our spiritual communities places of support and nurturance for those in need because of unemployment and underemployment? I think it is important, firstly, to recognize that we are being such a place just by existing in our current forms. I have gotten sustenance from many churches in my life and travels just by being able to worship with them on a Sunday morning. They may have been disappointed to not have been able to offer me the opportunity to serve on a committee or outreach team, but I wasn’t. Too often, we think of our congregations as conveniently assembled recruiting grounds of fellow activists who we just need convince to move in the right direction. The practice of simply being with each other, not needing to move in the “right” direction is an important and difficult one, and it helps us to build the beloved community. We are called to love ourselves and each other as much as the rest of the world, and the more we take the time and energy to do so, the more we will be able to effectively welcome those who would seek us out as a refuge in difficult times. This is one major way in which I believe leadership in justice work has changed since the era of John Haynes Holmes that I spoke about earlier; whereas he was a founding board member of both the NAACP and ACLU, I believe that the highest form of activism in our time involves coalitioning in community. For example, a small group justice ministry model encourages the formation of socially-connected, mutually trusting groups who discover their collective passion for specific social justice goals by working and learning together. National organizations with strong individual leaders will always be important, but the work of living a liberatory call to make the world a better place rests now, as it always has, in our own hands. I will leave us this morning with the words of aboriginal activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Peace, Salaam, Shalom, and may it be so!