A summer of work?
Down, out, and upward in Houston
Part 2 of a series
This summer, with COVID-19 in the United States appearing to be mostly dead, the mostly dead careers of millions of Americans are coming back to life—yet some still feel in a state of suspended animation. Deshuandra Walker, 51, is one of those. She’s been unemployed for more than a year following a COVID-19 layoff, but she says a Houston ministry “fully vaccinated” her mindset by helping her “continue on in my faith despite rejections.”
Three World Journalism Institute students and I decided to follow five days in the life of that ministry, the WorkFaith Connection. We observed 20 hours of WorkFaith’s Job Search Accelerator (JSA), a boot camp in person or by Zoom for those with long-term unemployment or prison records: While employers in parts of the United States are having trouble filling openings, many are still reluctant to hire applicants with big gaps in their resumés.
The lead instructor, Rosemary P’Pool, became a WorkFaith staff member in 2018 after a career that included 18 years as a corporate trainer with JPMorgan Chase. She and her colleagues are on track to conduct at least 30 JSAs in 2021. She’s seeing a post-COVID change in participants: Fewer have served prison time, and now at least half were imprisoned only in their own homes during the pandemic—“but just as many are in pain.”
Although WorkFaith allowed us full on-the-record access to all sessions and participants in the May 24-28 JSA, we are using only initials for current participants who did not consent to a subsequent interview.
DAY 1: On Monday, P’Pool encouraged those with gaps: “We don’t have to be ashamed about the time we weren’t working, we just have to account for it.” She showed them how to relabel years of care for younger siblings as “home crew leader” and years of incarceration as employment by the state of Texas. The goal is to get an interview: “We don’t just bring the hope, we bring the how.”
P’Pool recommended “progressive disclosure” regarding a troubled background: “Be wise with your honesty” and do not “overshare” past problems. If asked on an application form about felonies or firings, tell the truth but do not write “aggravated assault” or give specifics. Be sure to add, “Please allow me to discuss in the interview.” If a gap is due to addiction or alcoholism, write “Conflicting priorities, now resolved.”
P’Pool said students should emphasize their changed attitudes concerning work. We asked whether she worries about students gaming the curriculum and not experiencing real change. P’Pool replied, “I let the Lord handle that. They’re grown-ups. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.
DAY 2: Instructor Rob Lossman, a former hiring manager and business owner, began Tuesday with a Bible study based on 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Lossman reflected on God’s transformation of the Apostle Paul from persecutor to preacher: We should understand that Christ redeems sinners and removes condemnation. Do not let the past win.
The remaining class time focused on showing awareness of an employer’s needs—Profit, Productivity, Safety—while filling out job applications. Participants learned to “state restrictions in a positive manner. Write what you are available to work instead of what you can’t work: available M-F 8 a.m.–6 p.m.; available 1st and 2nd shift.”
Participant Nubia Cancino, 45, who has a degree in accounting, lost her job on May 5 because of what she called an “alleged procedural infraction.” She developed a concise application statement revealing her experience with Microsoft applications and Oracle software.
DAY 3: Lossman selected a practice interview question from the curriculum’s list of 22: “Can you think of any reason you would not stay in the job for at least one year?” Participant TB, who worked in construction and has a prison record, said, “Maybe if it didn’t have a 401(k).” Lossman cut in, “Think about why the employer is asking the question—to look for commitment. The answer is always ‘no.’” Lossman repeated the question. TB tried again, “No. I would definitely not leave after one year.” Lossman: “Right.”
Participants received advice on looks and manners. No large belt buckles. Only a tiny dab of perfume. Men should avoid long beards or handlebar mustaches. Jewelry: one or two rings, a watch, nothing else. Cover tattoos, if able. Sit up straight. Women may cross their ankles, but not their legs. Lean up toward interviewers when they lean up, lean back in the chair when they lean back. Open the door for others: It is a kindness that demonstrates humility. People are watching what you are doing or not doing.
Crystal De la Cruz, 46, lost her job in April and admitted that her “willful personality” led to problems. She told us how she left an abusive marriage, became an alcoholic, went through a recovery program, and worked six different jobs in eight years. She stayed late after class to pray with P’Pool: “I still had bitterness from losing my last job.” Now she jumped on a practice question, “Tell me about a recent goal and what you did to achieve it.” She described staying extra hours to finish tasks and help the company earn its second-highest profit on record.
DAY 4: As the week wore on, honesty increased. Cancino, who on Tuesday spoke of losing a job for an “alleged” infraction, admitted she lacked initiative at her prior employment: “Part of the procedural infraction was not asking for more work.” She said she’ll “take on more” at a new job to “demonstrate my leadership and skills.”
After the lunch break, seven professionals joined the participants to conduct practice interviews. P’Pool stressed the need to acknowledge crime and punishment to employers or interviewers: “If they do not bring it up, it’s your obligation to do so.”
In her breakout room, BC—a mother of four having trouble finding a job because of a felony conviction for burglary and assault—told how she broke down in tears during a previous job interview while describing her jail time. Now, in her practice interview, she stated, “It’s part of my life that’s no longer a part of me.”
In his breakout room, RF detailed his flexibility and his skills in computer technology and communications. The interviewer asked about his short-term goals: RF said, “Finding a job.” Laughing, the volunteer asked, “Once you have a job, what will your long-term goal be?” RF said he wanted to work in a team, grow his skills, and show that “when I do something, I am very passionate about it.”
We talked with one of the interviewers, Victoria Fradette, a corporate human resources manager. She recalled interviewing via Zoom one WorkFaith participant, a 45-year-old man who came on-screen in suit and tie. He said his career focus is “the laundry industry” and pointed to 25 years of experience with the state of Texas. Fradette praised his level of experience. He said, “No, ma’am, I was behind bars for 25 years.” He had assisted with inmates’ laundry.
DAY 5: On Friday, 13 of the original 16 participants still showed up, and five others had joined them. P’Pool emphasized attitudinal change and quoted Philippians 2:13: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
P’Pool used Romans 12:1-2 to emphasize the transformation of the mind. Some students showed their own transformations. TA, participating by Zoom, had kept her camera off all week, but today she offered a big smile, pink lip gloss, and a confession: “I had not allowed [God] to be in control of my career journey. … I had never asked Him, ‘What do You want me to do?’”
Participants heard Romans 8:37: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Cancino entered the week expecting, at most, resumé help. She said she left with a strengthened faith—“With Him and in Him I can do anything”—and an understanding of her identity: “It doesn’t come from a job title, but God alone.”
P’Poole asked participants to write down the lies they had believed about themselves: “We’re going to send them back down to that pit of hell where they belong.” Participants crumpled their sheets of paper and threw them into wastebaskets.
In the first article of this series (“Down and out in Austin,” May 8), WORLD profiled the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). One WorkFaith participant, De la Cruz, is thankful to that governmental organization for giving her gas and bus cards along with use of a computer—but she praised the way WorkFaith emphasizes “what’s internal.” At TWC she learned technical skills and expected the same from WorkFaith: “I was wrong. … My work skills are useless without my faith walk. My technical skills are useless without my soft skills.”
During a lunch break, De la Cruz stepped up voluntarily and facilitated a participant exchange of contact information as P’Pool sat back, let her get the experience, and afterward praised her leadership. P’Pool said during the week she had seen members of the course change from “wild horses” into “beautiful stallions.”
JJ spoke about losing her job at the end of 2019 and then finishing a degree. She had registered with the Texas Workforce Commission and “wasn’t expecting much” from WorkFaith that she hadn’t already learned at TWC—but WorkFaith helped her to learn how to “communicate my skills to any potential employer.”
The Friday afternoon graduation ceremony emphasized that workers are assets, not expendable components. The next step for graduates: WorkFaith offers individual or group job coaching. The goal is to develop both skills and spirituality: We “must replace lies with God’s truth.” P’Pool’s metaphor: God can transform us just as He transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly.
THE PROOF of a program is the flight of its butterflies. In late May, Deshuandra Walker still had not found a job, but continued to receive instruction from WorkFaith while volunteering at church and serving as president of her local homeowners association. She remembers WorkFaith’s teaching that her decisions “should be in line with Biblical principles.”
Early in 2020, Dora Hoque, 52, took WorkFaith’s final in-person course before COVID-19 closures hit America. In a folder alongside her resumé, she still keeps Bible verses she wrote down during the course.
Deborah Somuano, 54, took the class with Hoque. She first took a job manufacturing plastic medical gowns for doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients, then worked her way up to quality control and employee training. She now works in the external and employer relations office of Lone Star College and also helps WorkFaith translate its materials into Spanish.
Somuano credits WorkFaith for improving not only her resumé but her emotional stability. On the Monday of her WorkFaith week, Somuano drew a sunflower on one side of a neon orange piece of cardboard and wrote “depressed” and “double-guessing” on its petals. On Friday she showed her new perspective by drawing, on the flip side, a “refreshed” sunflower.
—Elaina Bals, Jonathan Harbour, and Sam Landstra are recent World Journalism Institute graduates
WORLD has updated this story to correct the description of the office where Deborah Somuano works.
Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, has employment development programs and also recovery programs designed to help participants leave behind addiction and alcoholism.
Victory Outreach is one of the best-known recovery programs. It helped Oscar Castellano, 38, who suffered a knee injury and quit his job as grill cook at a Jack in the Box eatery. He sank into alcoholism and spent this past year at a Victory Outreach residential home in San Antonio. Ernest Saldana III, 38, also a current Victory Outreach resident, overcame an addiction to methamphetamines. Both say they will tell potential employers how “the Lord Jesus Christ changed my life.”
Prison Fellowship is also well known. It has an Academy program that prepares prisoners to get jobs quickly after their release. One of its selling points is the correlation between employment and low recidivism rates. One-third to two-thirds of ex-offenders wind up back in prison, but a 2019 study showed only 9.65 percent of Academy graduates re-incarcerated within three years of their release. A 2015 national study by the Manhattan Institute reached a similar conclusion: Reentry programs significantly reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders. The headline on one issue of Inside Journal, Prison Fellowship’s newspaper: “Get Out—And Don’t Come Back.”
Houston’s Adult and Teen Challenge (part of the national recovery organization formerly known as just Teen Challenge) also has success stories: Men’s Rehab Director Rodney Daniels says it helps residents become “sober and free.” WorkFaith participant Crystal De la Cruz remembers graduating from a Challenge program with a new trust and dependence on God. The downside: She had “no car, no house, no job, and no family.” She then lived at Sally’s House, a transitional home, and heard about WorkFaith there.
Jobs for Life, an employment development nonprofit, partners with churches and nonprofits nationally to train community leaders in a job readiness course curriculum that emphasizes a Christian view of work. A secular Houston group, SER Jobs, offers tailored job coaching and job search support along with occupational and financial training. Latasha Alsbrooks, a nonprofit supervisor, uses SER to find employees from among those with long prison records.
WorkFaith was WORLD’s 2012 Hope Award for Effective Compassion winner. In 2021 it operates out of three Houston locations with 20 employees and additional volunteers who have equipped more than 5,300 people with job readiness skills. It tries to meld faith and work fitness: When De la Cruz enrolled in WorkFaith, she expected training in technical skills similar to that offered by the Texas Workforce Commission and SER—but WorkFaith reminded her of God’s sovereignty. —E.B.
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