Worship through work
Program helps prepare the homeless for life on the job
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RALEIGH, N.C. - On Boyer Street in the heart of urban Raleigh a month ago, four police cars surrounded a dilapidated wooden house, its cornflower blue paint peeling and its sagging roof showing gaping holes where shingles are long gone. Around the corner, decades-old cars filled the parking lot of a chicken-and-biscuits restaurant next to an overgrown baseball field. Rap music drowned out the shriek of an alarm nearby, the bass of the music pulsing so that it shook the cracked concrete.
Down the road, a steady stream of job seekers poured into the open doors of Wesleyan First Church of Deliverance. This summer the church completed its first semester of classes with Jobs for Life, a national organization providing a biblically based job-training curriculum. Program participants celebrated the milestone by hosting a community job fair.
Jobs for Life began a decade ago over lunch in Raleigh, N.C. Chris Mangum, the head of the construction company C.C. Mangum, first met Rev. Donald McCoy in 1995 when McCoy commissioned Mangum's company to repave the parking lot of Pleasant Hill United Church of Christ. The two men remained friends long after the completion of the project, and during lunch one day Mangum casually shared some of his business frustrations with McCoy.
"I told Donald, 'I've got a whole fleet of trucks that are just parked due to lack of a driver, and I don't know what to do about it,'" said Mangum. "Well, he just looked at me and said, 'Chris, I've got a church full of people who are effectively parked due to lack of a job.' That's when we decided to create something to meet each other's needs."
Mangum and McCoy launched the first Jobs for Life class (then called Jobs Partnership) in February 1996. They put together a steering committee of eight pastors from different races and denominations, as well as seven local business leaders. Since those early days, 38 cities in 19 states have adopted the Jobs for Life program and have purchased tool kits to use in churches, community ministries, and prison re-entry programs.
Volunteers are key to the success of Jobs for Life. At each location a site leader is in charge of the leadership team, which includes student-relations, mentor, business-relations, and prayer-team leaders. The leadership team finds course instructors for job-skills training and small-group leaders for Bible studies. Other volunteers provide students with transportation and childcare.
"It doesn't take specific training or social service training, or any kind of unique training for a neighbor to be able to help another neighbor to succeed in the arena of employment," said co-founder Mangum. "What's required is more passion and diligence to be able to put your hands to the plow and follow it through."
Staff member James Roberson said the nonprofit helps with more than the short-term needs of unemployed persons: "A lot of volunteers aren't enticed by the idea of walking with people in poverty. That's not sexy. They'll give money or help out at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, but ultimately that doesn't amount to life change." His goal is to mobilize "an already existing infrastructure, the church, to provide the skills people need to incite life change."
Jobs for Life president and CEO David Spickard, who has been with the organization since 1999, points to Nashville, Tenn., as a perfect example of the many contexts in which the program effects change. Five sites in Nashville-from a 5,000-member church to inner-city ministries to youth community nonprofits-use Jobs for Life toolkits that contain the standard leadership manuals, instructor guides, and workbooks needed to run an effective 16-session Jobs for Life class.
Quality control is often a problem for organizations that start locally and expand nationally, so Jobs for Life staff member Paula Bryan designed the curriculum to operate in a turnkey fashion. With those materials, it became possible for Nashville's Metro Davidson County Detention Facility to host a prison re-entry program, Men of Valor, that is running the Jobs for Life class inside the prison to help participants adjust to the free world. Fourteen men graduated from the program Aug. 3, and all of them will be released from prison before the end of September.
Spickard sees the organization and its teaching of practical job skills as a way to reach people who have been churchless for years: "In the course of the class, they come into an environment where there are people there who want to see them win." That's how it works at Raleigh's Wesleyan First Church of Deliverance, where lessons such as "How Do I Know I Am Going in the Right Direction?" use the lives of biblical characters like Joseph to illustrate patience, pursuing a goal, and peace. Each participant attends two-hour training sessions and meets with a mentor, called a "Champion," outside the class at least once a week.
Six job-seekers graduated this summer at Wesleyan. Site leaders at the church wanted to keep the first class small in order to give one-on-one attention to spiritual growth and skills assessment. The church will begin its second round of classes this fall.
Kathy Richardson, a single mother of two teenage boys, completed that first semester and visited the job fair to talk with recruiters about finding a part-time clerical position. Richardson hopes to become a chemical dependency counselor. She was released from prison a few months ago after serving six years for selling drugs, and she said that her personal experience with addiction will help her "detour others from hurting themselves."
"Before I started the [Jobs for Life] sessions, I was looking for a job to no avail," said Richardson. "The job market has changed in the last six years, and no one wanted to hire me on account of my felony conviction, but over the last couple months, I've learned how to do my resumé, how to dress, improve my vocabulary, and overcome the obstacles in my life."
Jobs for Life maintains a network of "Business Partners," companies that have agreed to give priority consideration for employment to program graduates. Kim Baston, a recruiter with the staffing agency Greene Resources, Inc. in Raleigh, said that the enthusiasm of Jobs for Life graduates sets them apart from other applicants.
"We have the opportunity to capture the talent of these graduates who are at this point job-ready as far as technical skills, work ethic, life skills, and decision-making skills," said Baston. "The partnership with Jobs for Life is ideal in that everyone benefits: We hire excellent candidates and the community is stronger because of it."
As more ministries and organizations adopt the Jobs for Life curriculum-Raleigh's large Crossroads Fellowship will do so this fall-success stories already abound. Don Turner, a bearded, middle-aged man of imposing stature but soft demeanor, grew up with two alcoholic parents and said he used to be an "enemy of God." After years of suffering abuse at the hands of his father, Turner decided to leave home in favor of living in the piney woods of North Carolina. "I became homeless, but not the kind of homeless guys you see on the street," said Turner. "I didn't want to be around people. I had no faith in them and even less in me."
Turner spent a little over a year in the woods alone before freezing temperatures finally caused him to emerge. Without knowing the day of the week, Turner sat down on the steps of a church and discovered it was Sunday. He entered the chapel, sat through his first church service, prayed to God for a change, and spent seven months at a rescue mission. He met David Spickard, who became his friend and mentor.
Turner then went through a Jobs for Life semester in Raleigh and landed a job at an art supply store, where he began to purchase art materials. Today Turner is an award-winning professional artist who volunteers with homeless youth. "Jobs for Life taught me that one of the ways we can worship God is through the work that we do," said Turner.
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