Saturday, January 9, 2010

Keeping Faith: Our Unemployment Story

“All I know about tomorrow is that God’s providence 
will rise before the sun.”
---Fr. Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, OP

This story has a happy ending: After 16 months of praying and diligently seeking for one, my hubby began a new fulltime job this week, following 13 months of unemployment. We are most grateful and we are thanking God for his providence. Every day.

At the close of summer 2008, the US economy tanked and we were launching our second child into college. It became clear that my husband would soon lose his job in a matter of weeks.  With over 25 years experience in technology, hubby had never been let go by a company before. He always managed to manage his career with confidence and competency, like a boy stepping happily from stone to stone across a brook.  Now that next step seemed a mystery as so many businesses were sinking fast.

Meanwhile, I was already unemployed, recovering from hip replacement surgery. Having recently earned my Masters Degree in theology, I had delayed my next job search until after my recuperation period. (Not exactly the best time to seek a salaried position in belt-tightening churches.)

On December 5, 2008, hubby exited his Boston employer and made the long slow commute home. He would be home for some time to come…  but for us, it would be a momentary blessing, as so much of his employment history had mandated numerous weeks of business travel each year.

Hubby came home with a modest severance package that he added to our savings account… the one we had built up for the college years and for “the rainy days”. Having that umbrella, we were in better shape than most of the unemployed people we already knew. We just had no idea how long the rainy season would last.

We were already three years along into our “paying-for-college” schedule, accustomed to living frugally, yet not austerely. We would gear down even more.

Never a slacker, hubby got right to the work of finding work. And, those of you who have been there know that finding work is, indeed, work.  Countless phone calls, resume rewrites, networking breakfasts-lunches-drinks, support groups, emails, and following up on leads ensued month after month. It’s a fulltime job in itself.

In 13 months, Hubby had numerous nibbles, a few promising “almosts”, but no bites.

It takes faith mixed with fortitude to keep looking and stay optimistic when the job search is fruitless. The downward trending national unemployment figures make you realize that you are not alone, but they are no comfort for the emotions. When three months turns to six months of unemployment, you begin to wonder just how far things will have to stretch. Not to mention what you fear you will feel at 12 months. 

Once my hip was healed, employment in my field of choice was not looking promising either. If you think finding work in the business world is slow, try finding it in a church or Catholic organization in a poor economy.

In the last year, I came across only four fulltime positions that I was qualified to apply.  I did not apply to the first job listing, as it would require a commute of two hours each way. Surely, I thought, something closer to home could be found. The second one, very nearby, would mean I would have to give up seeing my family every weekend, a very rough trade-off for a mother with a teenager alone in the house. The third one never answered my inquiry, despite my follow up. The fourth one really was a lark, and it flew away, though the potential employer was most kind in the process.

What did we do in the meantime as we continued these job hunts?  You mean, besides praying every day, and asking everyone we know to do the same? 

Well, under the category of keeping faith, you could list daily prayer as a must. Plus keeping active in local parish ministries allowed us to give of ourselves in constructive ways.

But besides those basics, we decided it is better to do meaningful work that gave delight to the heart, while working at whatever part-time paying endeavors we could find. 

Hubby paid some bills by finding occasional short-term consulting contracts. But meaningful work for him took the form of pulling the tarpaulin off his rusting MGB out in the yard.  Taking over most of the garage, he hunted down used parts online and began the slow process of restoring the ’77 British convertible, the fifth MG in our marriage. 

Investing in the MG might have seemed frivolous to some, given our tenuous financial circumstances. And yes, it has cost a few bucks. But the money spent in MG restoration came from selling another vehicle, so it was a trade-off. 

I consider it to be the priceless “therapy” of meaningful work: keeping a smile on my hubby’s face as he faced continuing un- and underemployment and ongoing rejections.

The little car is metaphoric: sometimes you can’t see how things are going to work out, but you keep at it, doing your part, using the tools and whatever pieces you have on hand. You keep faith that the thing will turn over someday. You pray and work.

For me, meaningful work meant I continued, as I have for years, to write niche articles at Catholic web portals and elsewhere, looking to plant seeds for the new evangelization that the late great John Paul II prophesized. Writing articles does not pay our mortgage or the college tuitions; it never has. But hubby encouraged me to continue in this curious ministry of encouragement, information, and values-centered entertainment.

I also began producing and hosting a Catholic podcast for women. It doesn’t generate any income, but it is creative work for the writer and former radio broadcaster that I am. The “Among Women” podcast allows me to participate in a one-to-one faith-sharing ministry with Catholic women around the world – something I have long enjoyed on the parish level. Not only that, it has stretched my own technology muscles.  Today, I am less afraid of traversing the vast digital frontier that comes with the new evangelization’s terrain.

An unexpected benefit to my technology investment is that it has eased me back into the voice-over and production market in a meaningful way after years of hiatus. And while it is not a church ministry position, it is another part-time revenue stream. And every little bit helps.

Now and again, I speak in person at local churches doing adult education, retreats, or whatever is needed. Ultimately, it’s the content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that I want to teach, but I’ve got other ideas too. But it all boils down to that. That’s where my passion lies.

I learned what I learned in theology in order to give it away. Not to keep it locked up in my brain or in my library.

So I’ll continue to write and produce and teach as the Lord sees fit to use me. I guess you could say that in some ways, I am already doing what I was trained for. It’s just that my expectation of it does not fit the traditional model of faith formation that I had in my mind.  Yet, astonishingly, thanks to Catholic websites, my writing and podcasting is reaching more people with Catholic content than I might ever meet face to face in one parish.

And yet, while digital media is exciting, I can only pray and hope that good Catholic content online will draw people “home” to their local parish churches. For, truly, the parish is the place of first-person encounters both with Jesus and with one another.

At Thanksgiving, after 12 months of unemployment, we were still digging in prayerfully and emotionally. But honestly, it was getting tougher to stay optimistic. Another 6 months of unemployment and we would be in crisis mode. 

The “less is more” paradox was certainly coming into play. We’ve had to give up some material things, yet we exchanged them for much perspective along the way. Still, we count ourselves fortunate compared to countless families who have suffered so much more in this struggling economy.

Christmas came and went with minimum outlays. Our family embraced the joy of little things. We toasted God’s providence at Christmas dinner, for a second year in a row, and the part-time jobs that each family member had.

It was strange when the new job offer came. A few days before it did, hubby told me he had a sense someone might offer him a job soon. Turns out it he was right.  The offer resulted from one of the consulting projects he had done in recent months.

And so, he started his new employment this week. And again, we are very grateful.

Our story is not one of extreme hardship, deprivation, or devastation.  It is just about keeping faith, and a little about saving when the times are good and hunkering down when the times are bad. God’s providence for our family included the stewardship plan to put those savings away when we did. Some people call it self-sufficiency. We know better. God supplies all our needs. (See 2 Cor 9:6-15 and Phil 4:19.)

St. Paul said best: For I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content… in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4: 11-13).”

We will continue to be on a tight budget, but somehow, the breathing seems easier. We are still working out our healthcare and insurance costs. And, naturally, it will take a very long time to rebuild the savings we have lived on.  We recently calculated that as of now, we are at the halfway point of seeing our three through college.  And for that we are grateful, too.

Hubby’s new job will keep us afloat as I continue to stay open to what God’s will is for my fulltime employment. Lately, I think God wants me to just keep that posture of openness, and to keep stoking the flames of my part-time pursuits. From my mother’s perspective, there’s still one more son at home who will launch into college next year. And my extended family has needs that must be tended.

The MG is not yet on the road. Like our lives, it is a work in progress. Now that hubby is back working fulltime, the MG may return to hobby status, but perhaps when the New England snow melts, it’ll be ready for a test drive. 

In the meanwhile, hubby and I will share the same home office space. Most of his new work will be from home, with travel as needed. There’s no more “his” space or “her” space. (Good thing that we really do get along!)

There are positives and negatives in working from home. Prayer and a strict calendar will help to keep it balanced. And, I expect, occasional escapes-to-come in a certain little two-seater ragtop.

As a couple we’ll endure fewer goodbyes demanded by business travel as we have for so many years. For now our lives will remain intertwined daily, as they have been during this long employment search.  And, frankly, that is a luxury I could get used to.

And that’s God’s providence too.

©2010 Patricia W. Gohn

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