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Spirit of St. Louis: Christian Programs Aid the Unemployed

  • Angela Lu WORLD Magazine
  • Updated Sep 21, 2011
Spirit of St. Louis: Christian Programs Aid the Unemployed

(WNS)--With 35 years of experience in human resources, Lane Hardier knows a thing or two about how to get a job. “Don’t look at the qualifications of a job, but the tasks that the job requires,” he always tells job seekers. Following his retirement in 2006, Hardier has helped some St. Louis-unemployed find jobs, but it’s tough: Since he began a job-help program at his church, Central Presbyterian, in October 2009, 60 people have gone through the three-month course, but so far only eight have found full-time jobs.

The church’s main campus is in Clayton, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, and Hardier sees the Central Presbyterian congregation as a microcosm of the country, with both high-skilled and entry-level seekers out of work. “Many [of the unemployed] had a job for a long time and don’t have a clue how to get out in this difficult job market,” Hardier said. With many companies tightening budgets, human resource departments are often the first cut, making the process even more impersonal.

Hardier’s church program uses Crossroads Career Network, a Christian job training service that helps job seekers determine their interests and strengths, then teaches them how to find a fitting job. He meets with the students one-on-one every week to discuss the material and mentor them through their job search. “We have had varying levels of success,” he said. “Those who are highly motivated put in the hard work to move through the program quickly, while others struggle and never get through.”

For residents of St. Louis, it’s easy to become frustrated with the job search: The city has lost many of its corporate headquarters and manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Hardier often sees his students losing hope after sending out job applications week after week without hearing back from the companies: “Those people have been employed most of their life, and their self-worth and self-esteem are tied to that.” Hardier prays with them and brings them back to the promises in the Bible—that God is the one in control and that He will provide for those who trust in Him, although not necessarily as we might expect. Hardier also refers them to ministers and other resources at the church.

Christina Mitas, a recent college graduate, read about the program in the church bulletin. The 26-year-old had graduated with a degree in business administration and felt dissatisfied with her job at a dry cleaning store. She started meeting with Hardier after work, and the sessions helped determine what she wanted to do and how to go about achieving it: “Lane had lots of experience with interviews and I learned things that I couldn’t have paid for.”

About two months after she started the program, Hardier encouraged her to attend a job fair where she found a mortgage company that was hiring. She applied for a loan officer position and has worked at the company for a year. Her new work is a big step up from dry cleaning: “It’s hard, but I’ve learned so much here—it’s very beneficial.”

In another part of the St. Louis area, the impoverished Wellston neighborhood, a warehouse filled with scrap metal five years ago is now a woodworking shop, with power saws and woodcutters and the smell of wood shavings in the air. One morning last month at the shop on the corner of Plymouth and Stephen Jones, four men were ending their first-week orientation for 17 more weeks of Bible study, financial management, critical thinking, and job training in carpentry.

Master carpenter Jim McGarry and his wife Tammy started More than Carpentry in Wellston with the goal of helping “the least qualified people that other companies don’t want. We give them more skills, knowledge, and preparation, and send them out.” The “least qualified” have to want to improve their lives: Classes run Monday through Friday from 8 to 4, and attendance is crucial: “We give them more grace than other businesses, but we still hold them to high expectation,” McGarry said.

Almost 40 percent of the residents in the largely African-American neighborhood are poor. Only 60 percent have a high school diploma, and many of the high schools in the area have lost accreditation. The McGarrys had considered doing mission work in Bolivia but saw a greater need in their own backyard. Wellston, the fourth poorest city in Missouri, is just two miles from prestigious Washington University, but with crumbling houses and stretches of empty lots, it seems worlds away. At first Wellston residents saw the McGarrys as outsiders, but after they spent three years cleaning up the lot and moved into a nearby house with their children, the McGarrys became neighbors, not invaders.

In the back of the workshop, Keith Dorsay, one of the first graduates of the cabinet-making class in 2010, now works as a paid apprentice helping McGarry make custom furniture for customers. The income is used to support the program, which offers apprenticeships for all who complete the course. The goal is that with three to four years of experience, More Than Carpentry graduates can earn their journeyman certification and find jobs at other businesses.

Dorsay heard about the program while working to renovate the warehouse as a side job.  McGarry noticed his diligence hanging up drywall and asked if he was interested in carpentry. “It’s in my blood,” Dorsay said—his grandfather and uncle were both carpenters. He learned during the past year that the work is hard but the payoff is worth it: “Seeing finished work ... it’s such a feeling you get when you see it, you sit back and marvel at it.”

For a mid-morning break, the new students gathered around a table in an adjacent classroom with Dorsay and the instructors to discuss their experience so far and expectations. Wesley Tyler, a quiet 20-something with dreadlocks, says he joined More Than Carpentry to make changes in the right direction: “This is more than a job, it’s a new avenue—working with tools and wood and individual techniques, the Bible study, mentoring—it’s good stuff.” His routine has changed: “My personal life was crazy, but now I’m pretty boring. Now I’m home at 6 p.m. and I’m like ‘What am I doing?’ But I love it.”

Titus Maclin, who has worked in construction for 10-15 years, wanted to get to the roots of carpentry. He’s now learning about finishing wood but much more: “The spiritual aspect of [the class] grounds you, to the point where you know what it’s like to stay prayed up. It feels like family, it’s a family; we stick together and encourage one another.” Joining the class was a big change for Maclin: “I’m no spring chicken anymore. My kids are at school, and now I’m coming back home to read a book—I never do that.”

Tammy McGarry has learned that most residents of Wellston aren’t familiar with the concept of hard work. She says many of the men in the area choose instead to make quick money selling drugs—sometimes thousands of dollars in just a few hours. Most don’t have father figures in their lives to model hard work. Many have committed crimes and done jail time, and know that companies don’t want to risk hiring an ex-felon. “They are filled with rejection and feeling like they can’t contribute to society,” Tammy said. “You gain dignity by supporting yourself.”

An older woman in Wellston once told Tammy that all their men are either headed to the grave or to jail, with no dreams or goals for their future. McGarry tries to instill in these men a vision of what their life could be like. He took one class on a field trip to a local commercial cabinet-making business. It’s now shown interest in hiring More Than Carpentry graduates.   

Five miles south in St. Louis’ Tower Grove neighborhood, 21-year-old Darren Jackson is trying to improve his part of the neighborhood. Currently the director of Jobs for Life with the Christian nonprofit Mission: St. Louis (MSTL), Jackson moved into the neighborhood and started striking up conversations with other young men on the street corner. The men quickly accepted him because “I look like them and we have a lot of the same background experience.”

Jackson started a discipleship group that met at McDonald’s on Thursdays. The group grew from two to 15 men who met weekly at MSTL executive director Josh Wilson’s house, where they would open up about problems. But after a while more than half of them drifted away or slipped back to their old lifestyle. When Jackson asked why, they said that as much as they liked the group, they had more pressing needs—to eat, to support their kids, and to pay rent.

Jackson thought about starting a business to hire these men, but realized that wasn’t a solution: “We realized, man, these dudes aren’t employable, we would be serving them an injustice if we were to give them jobs. That’s not empowering them.”

Last spring he started a job-training program that created a support group for these men—mentors, instructors, and small groups that would be there for them even after the eight-week program finished. Jobs for Life helps them work through emotional roadblocks, teaches them “soft skills,” and also prepares them to apply for jobs and attend interviews. Each class ends with a good news message—a Bible verse, video, spoken word, or testimony—that explains why the class exists.

Jobs for Life will be starting its third class this September, this time partnering with the board of probation and parole so that clients can choose Jobs for Life to fulfill their requirement of looking for a job after being released.

So far, none of the Jobs for Life students has graduated from the course, but two have been able to find jobs. Wilson says the age group Jobs for Life deals with—males between 17 and 25—is known for being “unreachable.” He says they are “really lazy, they don’t want to work. They haven’t lived life long enough to figure out if they want to change it or not.” Often, looking for a career instead of another quick fix is a huge cultural shift. Many drop out when difficulties develop. That’s why support groups and relationships are so important, according to Jackson:

“This isn’t just a program for you to get through. We live here, we are here all the time ... and we care about you.”

Jarred Banks, a student of the second class, used his relationships in Jobs for Life to find a job. The soft-spoken 19-year-old dropped out of high school in 11th grade and had recently been laid off from his job at the St. Louis Science Center when he met Jackson on his block earlier this summer. Banks started coming to Jobs for Life, where he overcame his shyness, started connecting with his small group leader, Leonard Johnson, and gave up his former lifestyle because of a strict no drugs policy.

Banks’ perspective: “I didn’t really have to give nothing up but sitting down ... it was worth it, because before I’d be sitting down and broke, but now I’m talking and actually enjoying myself.” Johnson, who owns a contracting construction business, hired Banks after seeing him make great strides in his first month in the program. Banks now works full-time gutting houses, painting, and doing other minor work. Johnson praises Banks as a hard worker and a fast learner. Banks sees Johnson as his “best friend” and says, ”In the future I’ll look back at myself and like, I actually accomplished something, because I never accomplished nothing.”

The greatest help to the program has been the buy-in from local businesses, MSTL’s Wilson said. A housing developer has come by the class, teaching students how to fill out applications. The owner of a used car lot has hired Jobs for Life men to detail cars, but has also fired them—rightly so, Wilson said. He believes sometimes the best way to love these men is to give them a realistic expectation of what the workforce demands.