Hope. My community sometimes feels as if hope is in short supply. There are beautiful people in my neighborhood. Older residents who have lived here for decades. Younger residents taking their first steps or pushed along in strollers by moms and dads. Teenagers doing what teenagers do. And a great many young adults trying to figure out life and make ends meet. But a low cloud of despair hangs over the community.
Compared to other communities in our city, we have few opportunities for these beautiful people. Schools try heroically, but they’re underfunded and overwhelmed. A few non-profit organizations root in the trenches serving families. Church buildings dot the landscape, but many of their members live outside the city. Jobs are scarce. It’s a recipe for hopelessness that daily confronts the Christian claim to hope. How does the gospel address these realities? Does it?
The Bible puts work squarely on the agenda of Christian discipleship. The apostle Paul writes, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thes. 3:10). Indeed, providing for one’s family is so basic a part of common grace that a Christian who fails to do so “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Work and provision become ways of either authenticating one’s faith claim or committing apostasy. So in neighborhoods like mine, where employment is not only an aspect of discipleship but also a severe everyday challenge, a faithful disciple-making church needs a strategy for addressing this need.
Once we realize the need for churches to disciple people in work and work-related living, we likely notice a couple of problems. First, few churches have the resources and expertise to become employment agencies. Second, most churches minister too far downstream from the employment problem, providing food pantries, clothing, and assistance with various bills. These are all good things, but they are stop-gap measures with little potential for getting people and families on their feet. How do we change our investments so that we’re working upstream on the employment problem and seeing gainful employment then resolve the downstream problems of food and housing security, disposable income, and even longer-term investment?
Our church wasn’t any better skilled than other churches. We were a two-year old church plant still getting our feet on the ground in our community. That’s when we met staff from Better Together.
Better Together is a Christian non-profit that focuses on two things: keeping families together and helping adults flourish with work opportunities. They work with churches to organize volunteers who provide respite care and support so children might stay out of the foster care system and with their families. They also organize job fairs to connect employment-seeking communities with potential employers.
I won’t soon forget the day I received a call from Leah Hughey of Better Together, asking if we would be interested to partner in organizing a job fair. In God’s providence, a few members in our church family had just begun daydreaming and casually researching employment ministries we could implement. With that call from Leah, Better Together provided a tremendous infusion of hope for us and many of our neighbors. Their partnership with a couple of churches and a neighborhood non-profits brought a job fair to the neighborhood. We didn’t know quite what to expect, only that a lot of our neighbors need jobs and don’t have the social networks that help most people find employment. We also knew many of our neighbors would face the immediate obstacle of some criminal background. But the Better Together team walked hand-in-hand with us, providing planning expertise, resources, and a healthy dose of encouragement.
Our church and other partners had responsibility for connecting with the community and inviting them to the job fair. This division of labor freed us up to do what we care about most–meet and serve our neighbors with gospel hope. We went door-to-door and downtown with flyers. From the time we began to pass out flyers announcing the job fair, our neighbors lit up with hope. Many eagerly took the leaflets and began asking questions. “Will employers actually hire?” We could answer a confident “yes.” “How about returning citizens?” The hope grew as we replied, “Yes, there will be employers there for them too.” The enthusiastic response made it clear that our neighbors felt both remembered and also helped where they needed it most.
That sense of hope grew palpable on the day of the job fair. Residents lined up around the block waiting to seize hope! By the time the day was over, nearly 400 members of our inner-city community came for an opportunity to enter the workforce and change their lives!
Throughout the day the hope mounted. You could see it as residents sat through a short interview skills presentation. You could feel it as many residents received prayer and encouragement. You witnessed hope in the relief in faces and shoulders when volunteer ushers made sure shy people talked with employers. Then there was the surge in hope each time the bell rang to signal someone was hired on the spot!
In conversation after conversation as people left the job fair we discovered something far deeper than a job fair had taken place. People were lifted. Hearts were strengthened. Attenders found encouragement even if they had not found a job. Hope was stirred. Even some of the seasoned HR pros who set up tables representing their employers reported that this was by far the most humane and positive job fair experience they’d had. And as a new church community, we had learned something more about our neighbors, ourselves, and how to serve Christ a little more effectively.
In a poor inner-city community, the greatest asset or currency is hope. Honestly, participating in the job fair ranks as one of the top two or three ministry experiences I’ve ever had. We’re excited to partner again to see if we can’t give hope to many more of our neighbors!
If I could encourage every church to do this I certainly would. If I’ve stirred any interest for you, here are a couple of things you might consider:
- Pray about how the Lord might use you and your church to meet the employment needs of your neighbors.
- Connect with a couple of like-minded churches and interest non-profits about partnering together. Don’t go it alone.
- Call up Better Together about the possibility of partnering with them to learn how to bring a job fair to your community.
- Organize a team of volunteers to both pull off the job fair and to follow up with attendees.
- Pray some more!