2016-06-30
RALEIGH, N.C. (RNS)-- After he was laid off from his job in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, Nick Verna of Apex spent his days at home on the Internet applying for various jobs. But he soon found a better place to hunt down job tips and network with the right people: his church.

Each Tuesday morning, Verna meets with church members who share his predicament. They've all been laid off -- mostly from high-tech jobs -- and are eager to share ideas. They have helped each other update resumes, practice interview skills and polish professional images, all while offering each other emotional and spiritual support.

"It seemed logical," said Verna, a member of St. Michael Catholic Church in Cary, N.C. "Eighty percent of all jobs now are through networking. If we can network through our own church, there are a wealth of people we can tap."

As companies such as Alcatel, Cisco Systems and Nortel downsize, and as the economy drifts closer to a recession, churches are finding that more of their members are out of work. In North Carolina's Triangle region, about 22,100 people were out of work in August. Increasingly, churches are responding to their plight. Some, like St. Michael, have set up weekly support groups. Others have offered job training seminars, or a room equipped with a phone and high-speed Internet connection.

Since so many of those laid off in the Triangle have been white-collar professionals, the church support groups tend to be made up of people with similar career paths. These groups consist of self-motivated suburbanites. They typically include at least one or two with group leadership experience. And invariably they organize a Listserv, a commercial electronic mailing list management system, to exchange ideas.

St. Michael, a suburban parish of about 5,000 families, has been particularly hard-hit. Although church officials don't know how many people are out of work, they estimate it's in the hundreds. About 90 of those people have used the Internet Listserv. Others have participated in its evening job seminar series or Tuesday morning support group.

Economists predict the worst is still to come. North Carolina's unemployment rate rose to 5.2 percent in September. With the dampening of consumer spending following the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes future numbers are expected to be even worse.

Service groups such as Catholic Parish Outreach, a nonprofit organization, say they have already seen increases of 25 percent to 30 percent in the number of people asking for food. Catholic Parish Outreach gives each family a box containing 30 pounds of food, diapers and toiletries.

One small North Raleigh church, Northview Community, has decided to pour its energy into helping the 2,400 Midway Airlines employees who lost their jobs when the Durham-based company ceased operations the day after the terrorist attacks.

Its pastor, the Rev. Derrick Lemons, worked part time as a ticket agent at Midway. After the airline folded, he organized a worship service that drew 80 former co-workers.

Northview Community co-sponsored a two-day employment seminar at Wake Tech's Business and Industry Center. And two weeks ago, church members held a yard sale and donated the proceeds--about $1,000--to Midway families struggling to pay their utility bills.


"Living in a postmodern world, the church has lost touch with many people," Lemons said. "People don't even think of it as offering help during tough times. It's been uplifting to see how much the church can do. It's a confirmation that the church does have a place in helping people with practical needs."

Several Midway employees said they were touched. "I felt very alone and isolated," said Jenny Stovall of Raleigh, a former customer service manager. "For someone to reach out, it was a feeling that we hadn't been forgotten."

Churches can do even more.

A jobs consultant said unemployed people can benefit enormously by having a spiritual discipline. A daily regimen that includes meditation, prayer or worship can help people deal with uncertainty and give them room to contemplate the next step.

"I'm saying treasure, value and enjoy the ambiguity and the process," said William Carver of Nashville, a human resources consultant and the author of "The Job Hunter's Spiritual Companion." "It helps us get to a more peaceful place, and it keeps us open to the possibilities that will be presented through that process."

In most of these support groups, the ordained minister's role is small. Participants "minister to one another," said the Rev. Anne Ahl, associate minister at Apex United Methodist Church, which organized a support group in August.

Christine O'Loughlin of Cary, a member of the St. Michael group, has found that to be true.

"Sometimes we think we need to do this alone," said O'Loughlin, who is looking for a job in communications or writing. "We have a fear of admitting we're not working. I swallowed hard and decided it can do nothing but help me. All these people are going through this at the same time. There are pointers all over the place."

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