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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"I've never had to do anything like this before . . ."

I worked from home all day Wednesday. The snow accumulation was not as much as had been predicted but the ice made it a real driving hazard in our area.

So, I finished my report for our Annual Meeting on Sunday AM, got about 1/4 way through the PowerPoint presentation and even made some headway on my sermon.

So, you're thinking, "What's with the dude smoking the cigarette?"

I was surfing the internet, looking for images of unemployment, and this picture popped up. I was stunned. He looks just like the man I met on Sunday.

"Tom" was his name. I've been haunted all day by him. As I've made my way through my tasks, I've found myself praying for him.

I met Tom this past Sunday when he came into the Library where the Vestry was meeting. It was a special session to vote on the proposed 2009 Budget.

He seemed a regular guy - solid blue collar - smelled of cigarettes and gas and hunger - you know, the way your breath smells when you haven't had breakfast and it's almost time for lunch and all you've been eating is The Bread of Anxiety.

Hospital waiting rooms smell like that a lot. He was anxious and had a hard time looking me in the eye, but when we did make connection, there was no doubting the shame that was there.

While the Vestry was discussing a particularly noncritical point I had stepped out of the room to talk with Tom.

He had been waiting all morning to be paid for "an odd job" he had done, washing buses and cabs in Irvington on Saturday, but "the boss" never showed up with his paycheck.

Tom was convinced "something had happened" that caused "the boss" not to show up and that he would be paid, eventually. He just needed help to get home. Even asked for my card so he could return the $20 I gave him.

I gave him a hot cup of soup from the pot I had made for the Vestry, a couple of slices of french bread, some hot coffee and $20 to get back to Tom's River to stay with his mom. He had lost his apartment in Madison the previous month, he said, two months after he lost his regular job as a packing clerk at Best Buy.

He was falling all over himself with apologies and wanting me to know that "I've never had to do anything like this before." I believed him.

Tonight's news revealed that Starbucks was closing over 300 stores - with 6,700 jobs lost. (They're also going to stop brewing decaff coffee after noon. That's silly. That's when I'm going to need to switch to drinking decaff.)

There's a fear tonight that there well be a need to lay off 15,000 school-based personnel in NYC in the next year.

Meanwhile, the Post Office is offering a "worst case scenario" to cut their budget, suggesting that they move from six required delivery days to five.

It all seems surreal to me. Bizarre, in a way. Especially as I sit here in my cozy home, my tummy full, with a comfortable bed awaiting me.

My thoughts drift back to Sunday: There we were, as the elected leaders of the church, voting on a half million dollar budget, and applauding ourselves for keeping the cost of the Vestry Retreat down to $50 per person, while Tom and I were on the other side of the door, getting him something to eat and $20 for him to get home.

It's going to get worse before it gets better, I fear. Lots of people, good solid blue collar folk, are going to be doing things we never dreamed of doing.

Many of us are - no matter the color of our collar.

It's going to take more than an economic stimulus package to pass on Capitol Hill for us to turn this around. It used to be that Starbucks was a place where you could always find a part time job - with health care benefits - if you were "in between jobs".

That option, along with those at Home Depot or Best Buy, have evaporated in the green haze of greed and mismanagement that have become viral.

We're going to need to start being church in ways that we've never done before - or, at least, haven't done in a long time.

That's not something you can factor as a line item in the budget.

This, my friends, is a matter of the heart.


altar ego said...

Excellent post. My husband and I are in that precarious place between making our way and grasping for ground. My position is half-time, and I have a home-based business that offers supplementary, if irregular, income. He is a self-employed remodeler, and though he has work, the weather in the last few weeks has delayed those projects, which delays his payment. We pay bills as we are able and pray that we at least keep pace with debt, if not reduce it. My once excellent credit rating is in the toilet. And no, I've never been in this place before. It is sobering, frightening, and invites considerable prayer.

PseudoPiskie said...

Tim Hortons doesn't make decaf after 11 am either. I walked out without buying anything and certainly will never darken the door of that new restaurant again. Perhaps decaf drinkers don't go to those places?

So far I don't know anyone who has lost a job locally. Our major employers are in senior and health care and education. We are in the rust belt.

The self-employed contractors like my neighbor are having major troubles, especially if they had to replace expensive equipment recently. If they lose the equipment and their credit rating, they can't easily get back to work when they have an opportunity.

I'm afraid we are far from the bottom of a very long slide into desperation. It is scary, especially with warm weather coming when people can get out to do whatever they believe they need to do to survive.

Joie said...

I know. You have captured the paradox so well. Personally, I haven't felt the anxiety yet with very steady jobs in our household -- especially because Jesse is a regulatory economist with the fed. But I feel anxiety for the people of my parishes and the parishes themselves.

One church is really a chapel of ease in what used to be a rail-stop town and is now really just the post office and a battlefield. They are very small but always collecting things for the poor and taking such things to the larger Episcopal Church and Food Bank -- supporting the ministries in other places but not really having their own. Maybe that is okay. Don't know.

The other parish is in a small town -very blue collar, already economically depressed, and agricultural - and wants to have more of a community presence. Not having decent cash flow, I am dreaming of how we can use the gifts God has given us -- large campus, a furnished rectory (uninhabited) to use as a teaching and gathering area, a parish hall used by various groups in the community, maybe using a piece of non-contiguous land as a community garden. I'm dreaming and trying to get them to dream and see the possibilities and not the limitations. So hard. Let me put it this way. The church that sent me to seminary has a payroll budget of over $3 million. I was then in upper-crust parishes during and after seminary. These are uncharted waters for me. I digress. Again, great post.

Frair John said...

How true.
The days of wine and roses are behind us and we need to start learning to lean on one another again, otherwise we'll end up degrading as a society and as individuals.

I think we may need to reevaluate a lot of things we do as "Church" in order to not look silly in the midst of depravation.

the cajun said...

I know the feeling. I applied at 5 places for extra hours for the Christmas season and not one of them were hiring for Christmas. I've had applications in a various other shops since the new year, and nothing. The economy - such as it is - isn't a time when most people purchase baubles and even the present job is in danger.

I'll keep Tom in prayer. I know others here just like him.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

"... the green haze of greed and mismanagement that have become viral."

Indeed so!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I just want y'all to know that there was an envelope in my mail cubbie this afternoon. Inside was a folded piece of paper with a crisp $20 bill in it. On the paper was written, "Thank you for helping me and believing in me. God Bless You!"

I'm holing the envelope in my hand and weeping uncontrollably.

If someone cues Billy Holiday to sing, "God Bless the child" I'll be a complete, total basket case.

FranIAm said...

The title of the post really hit me hard, which I will explain in a moment. Oh my - what a post... and your comment, he sent the money back as promised.

As you know Elizabeth, I work at a church now and many people come in for help. Fortunately we have a parish that is sound at the moment and with a good St. Vincent de Paul society and the only question ever asked is "how many people in you your family?" That way I can tell the St. Vincent de Paul folks and they can prep the food and the store gift cards.

Last week someone came in for help with heating oil, a couple in their late 30's with 4 kids. They were very ashamed and upset and their words were the same as the title of your post.

JCF said...


Sometimes, I think it's all I'll ever know.

I try to protect myself---make light of the situation---but the SHAME is ALWAYS there.

Growing up in my safe (white) middle-class existence, w/ good grades in school, I NEVER in my wildest dreams figured I would, at 47, be unemployed for almost 2 years (~200 job applications later), existing on the support of the same generous parents (now, just my dad) who had such hopes in my youthful promise.

No health insurance.
No pension (well, almost none: gotta a small IRA when my ex dumped me. Regretfully, I've even dipped into it a couple times, to get by).
And just enough money, from that paternal gift (as long as it lasts), to pay my rent and keep food on the table (gas was real IFFY last summer!).

This just wasn't "what I signed up for" . . . especially, after all that EXPENSIVE education, that's left me hopelessly swamped in SL debt (and had left me wondering, if my abysmal credit rating is itself hindering my employment chances?)

God help me . . . sometimes I wonder if even S/He gives a damn, sometimes. :-(

Behold the shame!

IT said...

This is where all of us have to get out and listen and help.

As some of you may have heard, there was a tragedy here in SoCal where a man shot his wife, their five beautiful young children, and himself. He and his wife had been fired from Kaiser for fraud, because they lied on an application for childcare benefit. They mistated their income very substantially, and Kaiser has a no-tolerance policy for fraud. They were not badly off before that, but living far beyond their means. So when they lost their jobs, they had nothing. And somehow, despite family and loved ones, they (he?) saw no options.

It is so important that we are supportive and nurturing of all those who feel ashamed that they need help at this point.

Elizabeth's hard-working and earnest young man -- I'd hire him if I needed a handyman.

Meanwhile, on a downtown LA street this week, I was stopped at a light. A panhandler, a regular on that corner, was working the cars. A well-dressed young woman was holding a fancy printed "Jesus saves sinners" sign. She, and a couple of others like her, were decorating several corners on this busy street. She was carefully positioned on an island one lane away from the panhandler.

One wonders who she was trying to save, and who needed saving.

Erika Baker said...

I am moved beyond belief.
I was so convinced that this man was a con artist and that you'd be disappointed.
It did happen to me once and I thought that anyone who had to make his living by that kind of con probably truly needed the money from the few who actually fell for it.

But your story.... wow!!!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, my dear JCF. Words fail me. Well, any word that might be meaningful much less helpful. I understand the shame, because that's what our culture teaches us - especially the country of the independent, strong, "Marlboro Man". For me to say that you have nothing to be ashamed of is to say something that you know in your head, but still, you can not quiet the voices that whisper in your heart. All I can offer you is my love and prayers - may you be able to exchange them for some hope.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - Yes, the story was played here on the East Coast. That family was caught in the web of the kind of greed that gets blessed by the gods of the marketing execs on Madison Ave. Isn't it what everyone is supposed to have?

I must say, I'm a bit nervous about the standard of life being touted as 'normal' for the Obama girls. Why are we, I wonder, treating them like 'little princess' - as we did for Chelsea, the Bush Twins, Amy Carter, etc.? So much so that their mothers feel compelled to apologize and say they want to bring up those girls "as normal as possible."

Which, I suppose, is a start to getting the message out that THAT kind of life ISN'T 'normal'.

Too late for the family in SoCA.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ericka - Well, my dear, I've certainly been snookered more than once in my life. Here's the thing: I rarely give out cash. I usually go to MacDonald's or the Subway with the person who is hungry, or fix them something from the church kitchen. I'll pay the pharmacist or or landlord or insurance bill directly.

If I think I'm being scammed, I have no trouble sending them packing. If I'm a bit dubious about the story, I usually don't give more than $5 - a little something for their creativity - which is sometimes the first thing poverty steals.

But, I read this guy, "Tom", as coming from his heart. I could have been wrong which is why, when he said, "I don't know how people can try to scam the church." My response was, "Well, you know, if they do - if you do - as my grandmother used to say, 'It's on your soul'." The horror in his eyes in reaction to that statement told me that he was not lying.

I didn't care about the return of the $20. Frankly, I didn't give it to him with that contingency. He did it because it was on his soul.

Suzer said...

JCF -- you are certainly not alone in your situation. Too many of us bought the promise of higher education, only to be failed by a glutted job market in the end, and are now trying to find a way to repay the student loans that we were promised would be a cinch to pay off with that high-paying job. The shame and embarrassment of having to return to our hard-working now retired parents to ask for help is often more than some can bear. I'm afraid I've heard too many stories of suicide of relatively young, promising adults for whom the shame became too great.

I don't know if it helps, but know there are others who are in the same boat, and understand more than you may know.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Well you did right, Elizabeth - and was proven right.

Good for you, good for us all.

Jim said...


No shame. Pain, and anger, dissapoiontment perhaps but no shame to you. There are lots of us.

Here I am, 63, degreed, good record and great recomendations. My health care will expire in a week, we will loose the house in a quarter or two, I have no prospects, not even any ideas. I worked for the single best company in my industry and they are laying people off -- the lesser companies are in worse shape.

It is not who you are, it is what has happened to a marketplace devestated by greed and dishonesty. Please, do not blame yourself for it.

There will be a turning: there is change in the wind. We are called to more, and it will be possible.


Scott R. Davis said...

Elizabeth. You definitely did what Jesus would do. When I first read your post, I thought that a man was writing without looking at the author title. May God bless you with your heart of action and your feminine heart of compassion.

peace in your relationships with God as a minister breaking the common view of who a minister may be.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

We are all one paycheck away from disaster. All of us. I got a big dose of it a couple months ago, when I realized that, because of more and more people being "no insurance" and people dragging their feet in the insurance companies paying what they owe us, that my practice almost didn't make payroll b/c of cash flow issues. We were generating the billing but the cash flow got quirky. I came this close to not paying myself my full wage to make payroll for everyone else. I could get by missing part of a month's salary, but not my office help.

These are scary times.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, what a moving story. We will see more and more folks in Tom's situation and in yours, JCF, and yours, Jim. My heart goes out to you. I wish I could do more than pray. There is no cause for shame, but I know with our culture of "get going, pull yourself up from your bootstraps, work hard, get an education, and you can make it, and if you're not prospering, it's your fault", it's hard to avoid feelings of shame.

Lord, have mercy, and all of us must have mercy, too.

Counterlight said...

That's the worst part of being out of work in this country, that completely pointless sense of shame that everyone expects the unemployed to feel.

JCF, you know what you've got to be ashamed of?

I've been in your shoes complete with the checks from home. I still have the massive SL debt and the black-hole credit rating. You have my complete sympathy and are always in my prayers. I can't tell you what to do, or anything to make you feel better, except the motto of Cole Porter;

Never apologize and never explain.

Hang in there.

SCG said...

I came here via Wounded Bird. This is excellent, and I believe the church will have to become more vocal and more active in light of the "green haze of greed". The people are hurting. And there are many of us who are hanging on by our fingertips. I'm glad you were there for Tom. God bless you.

JCF said...

I thank everyone for their prayers.

The hardest part?

I put off calling my father for a week---and I know he lives to hear from me---out of this sense of shame. "Oh I can't talk to him now, because I'm ashamed (too depressed to have applied for any jobs for a month!)"

It sucks.

(I did finally call him today though---a quick little "just before Super Bowl kick-off call", which felt safe to me)

Please keep those prayers a' comin: a new month, and THIS month, I WILL "get back on the horse" of applying for jobs...

Marc and Ned said...

You've got it! Greed and mismanagement have become viral. I believe the Almighty will deal with those evil-doers fairly, but what about the here and now? Greed is at all levels, but seems especially prevalent and egregious at the top.