The Common Good

Unemployed in the New Year

People tend to approach each New Year with optimism, but the latest news about unemployment was not particularly encouraging. We human beings have our predictable resolutions to go to the gym, to eat better, and to improve ourselves in various ways. But in the face of long-term unemployment, many people feel helpless. They have run out of ideas, motivation, and hope.

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In the New Year, many churches and non profits are counting up their donations to see what they will be able to do in the year ahead. In churches like my own, in the suburbs of Chicago, we wait to see what the economy will do to our own budget.

I recently read a church newsletter urging members to get their financial pledges in before they cut staff. The next correspondence I got from that church was an email from a staff member whose job had been cut. She was asking for prayers, and I added her to the growing number of names I keep on my list, as well as all those whose names I don't know. As a pastor, I know that the unemployed can feel invisible if we don't remember them.

Envelopes have been coming into my own church with people's pledges -- their estimates of what they will be able to contribute to the church in the year ahead. There is a place on the pledge card where people can add comments, and, as the pastor, these always get forwarded to me. This year, as in the last two years, I have seen comments like these way too often: "I would like to do more for the church, but I am unemployed;" or "My wife lost her job so we are down to one income;" or "I just don't know what the future holds."

The jobless recovery is wearing down our social fabric, from the non profits and congregations that cut their budgets, to the families that also cut their budgets. All of us are wondering just where the next cut will come from.

That is why congregations need to talk about the unemployment crisis, and not just about how to help, but how to analyze what is going on. Interfaith Worker Justice has organized a jobs project to equip congregations to talk about the larger ethical issues that go beyond the individuals we know personally.

Some corporations took advantage of the economic downturn to cut back on wages and benefits. Making a profit again for their shareholders, they now want to keep the wages deflated and the workloads higher. Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported that clergy and workers at Hyatt Hotels in Chicago joined forces on a boycott. Workers were willing to sacrifice tips and wages in the hope that working conditions could improve for a larger group.

People of faith need to talk about examples like these, and decide where to do business based on these issues. We are not powerless to help one another. Together, we can work for a more hopeful future in 2011. That is a New Year's resolution worth sticking to.

Lillian Daniel is a pastor and a board member of Interfaith Worker Justice. Her most recent book is This Odd and Wondrous Calling: the Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.

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