I have a friend named Bob. I know him primarily from the worship band at First Trinity Lutheran where I go to church, and all of us that play with Bob on Sundays will quickly admit that he's the glue that keeps the band together. Bob also plays sousaphone at various protests in Chicagoland with his anarchist marching band, and he organizes concerts at the church's community for the nicest punks you could ever hope to meet. On a personal level, I know Bob as a guy who just plain cares for people. That point was driven home when he stayed all night at Grant Park and then the police station on 18th and State until I came out with fellow Chicago Occupiers early in the morning.
And Bob is officially unemployed.
At this point there shouldn't be any shame at that fact when so many millions of Americans are in the same boat. While Department of Labor statistics showed that the unemployment rate went under 9 percent for the first time in few years, the announcement was accompanied with the clarification that unemployment was down because so many people have officially stopped looking for jobs. Whether young people just entering the job market or overqualified veterans who fetch salaries that companies are looking to shed, the workers of the United States are in the middle of the toughest times since at least when my parents were getting their undergraduate degrees, and perhaps not since my grandparents were growing up.
With the incredible advances of technology in the second half of the 20th century and the deregulation of global trade, the United States has lost the manufacturing jobs that gave us the mid-century economic boom. We now have a service-based economy, and only 8% of private-sector jobs come with the protection of labor unions. Global capital moves as quickly as a high-speed internet connection, and a missed keystroke can mean a drop of nearly a thousand points in markets.
All that is to say that we live in very unstable times.
That was why a year ago Interfaith Worker Justice, the organization I work for as a 2-year missionary and organizer, started the Faith Advocates for Jobs campaign. The campaign has three basic goals: create a national network of faith communities that directly serve unemployed workers, use that network to advocate for public policies that assist the unemployed, and develop a speakers' bureau that can educate the public about the jobs crisis in the United States. I have personally been helping to organize Chicago faith communities to serve, advocate for, and minister with unemployed workers in and around the City of Big Shoulders. As I've worked, I've found just how daunting the task is.
On the South Side of Chicago where I live, the unemployment crisis is especially crushing. So many former factories and warehouses stand empty, eerily reminding us of a not-quite-forgotten past. In my neighborhood, the most stable jobs used to be city jobs, but as companies kept moving their business further and further away from Chicago, the tax revenue dried up. And let's face it--Chicago, the Windy City, isn't exactly known for dealing with money in a fair way to begin with.
Which brings me back to my friend, Bob. He was a music teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system, but he was laid off along with hundreds of other teachers. I saw what Bob can do with kids and instruments and the most minimal of resources. They had an amazing concert back in August. All I could think as I watched and listened to these kids from the West Side was, "how the hell does CPS not have a place for this man?"
Friends, we, as citizens of this country, must ask that same question of our entire nation. How is it that we don't have jobs for so many of our neighbors? We must re-evaluate our current government policies. What are our tax-dollars doing? Are we funding infrastructure projects, or funding both sides of the war in Afghanistan? Are we promoting nutrition and health through local education programs and grocery stores, or are we helping agribusiness to flood foreign markets with unimaginably cheap grains? And can it be a just a strange coincidence that as we have deregulated trade, income inequality has sky-rocketed?
As we come to grips with the answers to these questions, consider these actions. First, check out and join Faith Advocates for Jobs. Next, call or visit your congressperson, and tell them to extend unemployment benefits. You can find out who your congressperson is by following this link. Lastly, pray, preferably with other people, for guidance and strength, especially during the Advent season, which is both liturgically and realistically a season of stress and anxiety.
My friend, Bob, has said that he doesn't really like talking about unemployment because he doesn't enjoy receiving people's sympathy. And he doesn't consider himself a music teacher; he's a music enabler. Bob still looks to help other people, even when times are tough.
We can all learn a lot from Bob, and it's just not just about music.