Praise the Lord and Pass the Application
The marriage of a neighborhood church and a job placement service seems to be a match made in heaven.
By Grant Pick
Last October, after she'd been out of work for a month, Fay Brown went to the Employment Resource Center, a job-placement office at 79th and South Racine. She was worried about her prospects, but she wrote a five-page profile of herself, talked to a counselor, and went through an orientation session.
"You need to talk to God first," Jayne Jackson, ERC's executive director, told the dozen people attending the orientation. She encouraged them, including Brown, who'd been raised Catholic, to attend Saint Sabina Church nearby.
"I remembered how boring church used to be," says Brown. "You'd always be down on your knees--you'd get so sick of it. But when I went to Saint Sabina it was unbelievably wonderful. There were spiritual dances going on, and the choir was the bomb." She also liked the fiery preaching of Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor.
The Employment Resource Center is a project of Saint Sabina that's partially funded by the city of Chicago, reflecting a Daley-era approach to solving urban woes by uniting private and public entities. But what's most notable about the center is that Jackson and her staff strongly believe that churchgoing can help end the cycle of joblessness--a fact that pushes ERC close to the line that traditionally separates state from church.
The idea for ERC began with Pfleger, who's best known for his protests against ghetto billboards advertising cigarettes and alcohol, stores that sell drug paraphernalia and liquor to minors, and Jerry Springer. He takes credit for forcing Channel 32 to edit out fights on Jerry Springer, and he's behind the move in the City Council to prosecute guests who get into brawls on the show.
But Pfleger says that people like him have to do more than just protest. "We sit out here as churches and community groups, and we tell the mayor and the governor to do this and that. I have a problem with that. I don't think you should ask somebody to do for you what you won't do for yourself."
After two decades at Saint Sabina, Pfleger has made finding and creating work for people his parish's number one priority. "It's one thing for us to talk about homelessness, crime, or gangs, but to correct those ills we must have jobs," he says. Last summer he persuaded his parish council to come up with $45,000 to start ERC. Terry Peterson, 17th Ward alderman and onetime executive assistant to Mayor Daley, got the city to contribute $100,000.
Two years earlier Daley appointed Peterson to replace Allan Streeter, who'd pleaded guilty in the Silver Shovel bribery probe and gone to prison. As alderman, says Pfleger, "Streeter never had the energy to make things happen." But Peterson and Pfleger have become allies in trying to create an economic renaissance in the desolate Auburn Gresham neighborhood, and the priest openly supported Daley in the last election. "Chicago is a city that's locked into stereotypes," says Pfleger. "There's this crazy mentality that if you're an activist you have to be anti-Daley. That's nuts and nonproductive. Daley would be the first to tell you that if I have a beef with him I'll be the first one protesting. But Daley's the mayor. I'd be an ass to say I'd always be against him."
The Illinois attorney general's statewide gang-crime-prevention program, which has an office on 79th Street called Time Out for Unity, contributed three computers to ERC, along with money for supplies and desks. An office-supply store donated more desks, and last September the center opened. "From the beginning people have come in in droves," says Jackson, a former systems analyst, a Saint Sabina parishioner, and a self-described computer geek and born-again Christian.
The center scouts for jobs all over the city, using newspaper classifieds, the Internet, and referrals. But the staff try hardest to find jobs in the neighborhood. There's the new district police station that Peterson has welcomed to his ward. A Walgreens, a Marquette National Bank branch, a restaurant, and a day-care center are going in right near ERC, and Saint Sabina is building an 80-unit, HUD-financed senior-citizen building.
"We're telling businesses that come in to tell us their employment needs," says Pfleger. "The last thing you want in a neighborhood is for a business to have to hire from outside." To help meet those businesses' needs, Wright College is training ERC clients as bank tellers, Saint Sabina is sponsoring computer-training classes, and apprentices are learning the construction trade by expanding the office of Time Out for Unity. Since ERC opened, the staff have screened nearly 1,000 clients and placed 127, 80 percent of whom are still on the job, according to Jackson.
Clients' sins are addressed at ERC as well. Job seekers with drinking or drug habits are directed to rehab programs. People with felony convictions are advised to be open about their record with prospective employers, since a background check would undoubtedly unearth convictions anyway.
The centerpiece of the ERC program is the four-hour orientation, usually conducted by Jackson, during which prospective employees are advised on dealing with coworkers and the public and on the value of dressing for success. "I tell people to leave their glitter and glare at home and be prepared to be an employee," says Jackson. "Leave your personal issues behind too. And just because somebody talks badly to you, that doesn't give you carte blanche to respond in the same way, especially if that person is your boss."
But Jackson also says, "We do come from a God-first point of view. We don't shove this in people's faces, but we definitely say that without God directing your activities things probably aren't going to work out. I don't make a direct connection between finding religion and finding a job, but the more we look inward, to find our purpose, the more useful it is. It's certainly been a factor in my life on this planet#. A lot of people agree wholeheartedly with what I say."
Jackson recommends that clients consider Saint Sabina or some other Bible-based church. "A week doesn't go by that a client doesn't come through the door and say they've gotten back with God," she says.
By February Fay Brown, for instance, had not only a job as a United Airlines reservationist but a new outlook on religion. "I know I've really screwed up on my decisions sometimes," she says, "but now I'll be still and wait for God to take care of things." Robert Ellis, a high school dropout doing construction at Time Out for Unity, attends a Baptist church and Saint Sabina. Mark Craver, who holds two part-time jobs, attends an evangelical ministry, and is learning computers through ERC, says, "I know God has something for me to do. Because I'm being directed by a woman of God [Jackson], I know I won't get directed into the wrong area of business."
The city's funding of ERC came through the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development, which also runs five "one-stop career centers," job-search offices that are jointly funded by the city, the city colleges, and the Illinois Department of Employment Security. MOWD commissioner Jackie Edens says the city frequently cooperates with churches in delivering services, pointing to a long-standing involvement in church-run homeless shelters, but she says the partnership with ERC is a first. She thinks it's a good idea. "What we're looking for is working with anchors across the city, and Saint Sabina is that. A church or a community group can catalyze the movement in a neighborhood."
Edens says her department couldn't work with ERC if it were headquartered on church property or if the staff proselytized among clients. But, she adds, "it's not strictly prohibited that they mention religion. They can raise questions to people about what they should do with their lives--they just can't require things. You can argue when that line is crossed."
Jane Whicher, staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, says, "To encourage someone to come to the church sounds like proselytizing to me." She thinks the city corporation counsel ought to look into the matter.
Craig Chval, executive director of the attorney general's gang-crime-prevention program, doesn't see a problem. "We need to do a better job involving faith communities," he says. "Look, churches are more important to many people than government is." And Alderman Peterson says, "Auburn Gresham is full of slum and blight, and if we're going to rebuild it God has to be in the forefront. God should be in all things--prayer in the schools is fine with me. I would be the first to stand up and witness, just as Jayne Jackson does."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.