Monday, September 3, 2012


Seeking to understand and stand with workers amid transitions and market shifts is essential for spiritual leadership 

ONE IN FIVE. The news media reports that more than one in five Americans has been laid off work within the past three years. One in five! Look around. See five people? It’s likely one of the folks you know has had the experience of feeling secure about their job, maybe even seeing themselves working unto God, and then losing it through no fault of their own. Some of the given reasons: the housing market crash and bank bust of 2008, downsizing, mergers, consolidations, cutbacks. Somebody may be benefiting from these transitions, but it doesn’t seem to be America’s laborers.

OUT OF WORK AND HOMELESS. It is frequently noted that many Americans are just a few paychecks away from being homeless. I have seen this in my work with homeless individuals and families. Many of the neighbors who turn to Horizon House, a homeless day center in Indianapolis, Indiana, do so because they’ve lost good work. They’ve been downsized, expended, or fired. They are truckers, machinists, factory line laborers, telemarketers, warehouse workers, and hotel and food service workers.

COSTLY TRANSITIONS. Job transitions sometimes lead to homelessness. I recall celebrating with one homeless neighbor, a man in his late forties, who finally landed a job with a trucking company. He had been laid off two years earlier. While he tried to cope with his unexpected and extended homeless experience, Horizon House staff and volunteers had helped him mail and fax his job applications to many companies many times. He’s back in the ranks of the employed, but his work transition was costly to him and to the community.

INDUSTRIAL RE-TOOLING. Before it closed a few years ago, I visited the local Visteon facility. In Indianapolis, Visteon made steering components for Ford and other automakers. Visteon used to be Ford. Then, due to being spun-off in one of Ford’s efforts to be more competitive, Visteon had become a competitive supplier to Ford. Its viability depended on its ability to deliver highest quality parts built to Ford specifications at prices that competed with suppliers using cheaper labor in other countries. These transitions occur in many industries without market eyebrows being raised. But the resentment heard in the voices of laborers whose lives are on the line is deep.

COMPANY FAITHFULNESS PAYS? I talked at length with a colorful fellow who has put in thirty-four years at Ford, er, Visteon. He started at this same Ford plant when I was a child. I told him that I don’t know anyone my age who has held less than three different jobs; many of my peers have changed career areas several times. He pointed out person after person who had logged at least thirty years at the plant. For all their company loyalty and reliability, these are the very people corporations are anxious to coax into early retirement or lop off. Younger laborers can be brought in at lower wages.

DOWNSIZED AND SEEKING. While visiting Visteon, I met a middle-aged woman who was representing a non-profit charitable organization. She was a volunteer, out of work, and actively looking for employment. She was articulate and outgoing. She had been a specialist in parking facilities and equipment, working with engineers and architects. Downsized, she tried consulting. Consulting wasn’t paying the bills. She had decided, she said, that she would like to work with a non-profit organization in community service. I wish her, and all like her, good luck.

SPIRITUAL INTEGRITY AT STAKE. Those of us who claim to care about the souls of people should pay close attention to how work and the lack of work impacts these souls. Loss of work, downturns in the economy, and the way we collectively under value workers are not just economic issues—they are profoundly spiritual issues. Wishing people good luck with that job transition is not enough. It’s spiritually hypocritical to dismiss our worker neighbors with a “keep warm and be well fed” banality.

HOW DOES ONE SAVE A DOWNSIZED SOUL? "Saving souls" may begin with walking with a person through the extended pain and promise of a work transition. Saving souls may equally involve challenging the norms of a corporate and market system that is chewing people up and spitting them out in alarming ways at alarming rates. The soul you save may be your own.

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