Since September of 2008, the world has suffered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. During this “Great Recession”, over eleven trillion dollars have evaporated from the economy resulting in millions of lost jobs and countless home foreclosures. For every job lost, there is a family trying to make due with less. For every stock which dropped in value, there is someone who has to put off retirement for a few more years. And for every foreclosure, there are children who have to part with the home they have come to love and the friends they made in the neighborhood. While many of the decisions which led to this crisis were made by corporate and government power-brokers, the costs are borne daily by ordinary, hard-working people. And those people find their way into the pews of our parishes each Sunday looking for hope and help.
What does the gospel have to say to them in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves today? What should the preacher keep in mind when preparing the Sunday homily so that it will more effectively reach those caught in the riptide of the economic downturn?
1. Sense of Identity and Security
Most people, when they introduce themselves, not only mention their name but their occupation. For instance, “Hi, I’m Fred. I’m an X-ray technician.” In our society, our work is tied up with our sense of self. So when we lose our job, we often lose our sense of identity. We can come to feel worthless because so much of our self-esteem has been invested in our occupation.
Besides giving us a sense of identity, our work gives us security. As long as we have a job, we feel as though everything will be all right. No matter what challenges come along, as long as we are employed, we can find a way to meet them. When our work is taken away from us, all our fears about providing for our families and meeting our financial commitments rise to the surface. When there is no source of income, we feel as if our whole lives will soon be crashing down around us.
The current economic crisis, then, can become an opportunity for the preacher to lead the assembly in a re-examination of what values our sense of self and sense of security are grounded in. As Jesus would put it, it is an opportunity to see where our treasure lies. Is there something more permanent than money that we can root our identity in? Is there firmer ground than our occupation upon which to lay a foundation for our lives?
Many successful people have said that the best thing that ever happened to them was losing their job. It helped them to grow in faith and invest more in their relationships. In many cases, it gave them the impetus to take a shot at realizing the dreams they never had the courage to pursue. Telling the stories of such people would be a good way of helping those in the congregation who have lost their jobs uncover the opportunity hidden in their current situation. It can help them to ask themselves in what direction their lives are headed and what they want the rest of their lives to look like. And it can challenge them to examine what role God has to play in the decisions they make about their future.
2. Faith and the Workplace
We know about the millions who have lost their jobs over these past few years. The untold story, however, is about those who have stayed employed but live in constant fear that one day there will be no job waiting for them when they show up at the factory or office. They have seen their co-workers and friends let go one by one and wonder when they will be next. Because of this fear, they feel tremendous pressure to work overtime or take on extra responsibilities without asking for extra pay. They are willing to take any steps necessary to keep their jobs and are often vulnerable to unscrupulous managers or employers who, themselves under pressure to maximize production, call on them to falsify data, do sub par work or commit other ethical breaches. The pressure to cross moral boundaries or even break the law altogether is going on in offices and hospitals all over the country because employees are anxious about keeping their jobs.
It is easy in today’s society to see our faith lives as somehow separate from our work lives. As a result, otherwise good people find ways of justifying unjust and even criminal behavior at their place of work. When they are motivated by the desire to hold on to a job to support their families, the voice of conscience can grow dim. The Sunday homily should never fail to remind us that every area of our lives – including our occupation – is meant to be touched and transformed by the gospel message. The call of the prophet Micah that we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Mic.6:8) must be heeded on the factory floor and the corporate office.
This would also be a good time to be reminded of how this economic crisis came about in the first place. It was a result of grave breaches of ethics not only by corporate executives but also by ordinary people. It was caused by homeowners who lied on their mortgage applications. It was caused by office staff who looked the other way when they saw discrepancies in accounting reports. Our actions can seem insignificant at the time, but they have real consequences for society as a whole. The events of the past year give the preacher an opportunity to reiterate that the responsibility to live as disciples of Christ carries through into our work lives whether we are employers or employees, managers or staff. In particular, employers and managers must be reminded of the grave injustice they cause when they coerce those vulnerable people under them to commit fraud or otherwise break the law. Despite the pressures to do otherwise, we must find ways to get the job done in a manner which is consistent with our values as followers of Christ.
3. Solidarity with the Faith Community
Finally, there is a challenge which must go out to the parish as a whole. How are we as a faith community reaching out to those affected by this economic crisis?
Much of the economic pressure that people are facing today is a result of the lack of an extended family. Because families are smaller and spread over wider distances, we many times have to pay for services such as day-care and nursing which cousins and grandparents would have provided in the past. For instance, many of those who are unemployed find themselves in the situation of having to turn down work because they cannot afford to put their children in daycare. What kind of supports can our parishes provide for such people? What kind of networks and groups could be organized to help those facing such circumstances cope better?
Another factor to consider is the growing isolation that those who lose their jobs experience. Much of their contact with other adults came primarily through their workplace. Even if they keep in touch with their former co-workers, they find that they have less in common now that they are no longer working together. Feeling cut off from others increases the grief and depression that naturally accompany a job loss. The parish can help by organizing support groups for those looking for work where they can meet others in the same situation and express their fears and frustrations. A good way to start such a group would be to ask employers in the parish to organize a job fair as a way of bringing those looking for work together. By meeting one another and sharing experiences, new possibilities may begin to take shape. Then the parish will increasingly become the place where people go not only to meet their religious obligations, but to be of service to one another. This crisis gives the preacher the opportunity to remind the community that, as people of faith, none of us need face our difficulties alone.
Bringing the word of God to a congregation that is enduring the worst downturn in two generations does not require knowledge of complex economic theory but an understanding of what people are experiencing as a result of the financial upheaval. It is a period of transition that challenges every one’s sense of identity and commitment to faith. It also challenges the faith community as a whole to respond in new ways to those who find themselves in the middle of this crisis. If we can each grow closer to Christ because of these challenges and if, as a community, we can be a more effective witness to the gospel message, then we will have gained something much more valuable than the eleven trillion dollars the financial markets have lost. It is the task of the preacher to keep us ever mindful of this profound truth.