MICHIGAN: Economic crisis hits home for churches

December 17, 2008

People at Trinity Church, Belleville, Michigan, knew the United States was in an economic crisis long before the catastrophe crashed into the consciousness of the rest of the country. During the same week the financial reports confirmed the U.S. economy was officially in a recession, similar data marked Michigan's eighth year of economic downturn. The church shares a ZIP code with the world headquarters of automotive supplier Visteon and air space with both an international airport and one of the largest cargo airports in the country. The latter moves 400 million pounds of supplies a year—or used to. Scores of parishioners work directly with the U.S. automotive giants Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. When Trinity's parishioners hear news about rising economic anxiety, it isn't from reading the Sunday paper; it's from talking to friends at church. The crisis has cut a deep swath through the Trinity congregation in the past year as the unemployment toll—not unlike other Michigan church communities—hit double digits. Rector John Hagan named a dozen people who have lost their jobs in just the past few months. Talk to any of the recently unemployed, who range from a recent college graduate who held (and lost) three temporary jobs to 50-somethings who thought they were closer to retirement than vocational training, and what becomes immediately clear is that one of the deepest injuries is the emotional chaos that comes with losing a job. What's also clear is that they share a common pastime now. Rather than spending time in their professions of choice, they have become unwitting authorities on navigating systems of survival. "It seems like every year for the past five years, the company has been trimming the excess off. It eventually became my turn, which was October 30," said Doug Dubin, a pilot with USA Jet airlines. The company flies auto parts out of Willow Run Airport in nearbyYpsilanti and employed over 150 pilots when Dubin was hired in 2000. The company is down to eight pilots and eight active cargo planes. "When the auto companies were doing good, we were flying every day. When the auto companies started going down, it was a gradual process, but you could tell," he said. Dubin and his fellow pilots noticed a couple of years ago that the company was parking the planes instead of performing maintenance on them. Now, two dozen company planes sit idle and ill-repaired, which only adds to the inertia of a crippled economy.For Dubin—and his wife and three children, ages seven, four and two—job termination means life changes dramatically. "It took a couple of days of asking, 'what are we going to do?' You go through different phases and different ways of thinking as you try to make sense of what's happened," Dubin said. "It's been nine years since I was actively looking for a job. It's like dating again; you have to work your way into it again. And it's tough to get into that mode of rejection." Another shift in thinking hit them more slowly. Rather than a family who could help others, now Dubin's family needs the help. Once the initial shock subsided, Dubin registered for unemployment, food stamps and WIC, and medical insurance for the children. He's grown more at ease looking for clothes at a church donation closet and one of the turkeys Trinity gave them for Thanksgiving is still in the freezer for January. "You find out how hard it is to be poor and all the hoops you have to jump through to get State aid and you're thankful for the things the community does for you," Dubin said. Jane Pearce had a temporary job for a year in accounts payable with an automotive supplier in Taylor. She is experiencing a similar adjustment and the same emotional response that accompanies unemployment. "In that year, you could see things dwindle down," Pearce said. "It's been a nightmare." Laid off last October, she said the entire first month afterward was consumed with the paperwork and frustrations of being unemployed. "I get so disgusted. You try to get help and nobody will help you," Pearce said. "You begin to feel unwanted. You don't have a purpose because you aren't out doing anything." "You feel a little embarrassed and wonder 'did I do something wrong? Why me?'" said Debra Williams, echoing a common feeling among people who suddenly lose their jobs. Williams survived the wave of layoffs at a major pharmaceutical company in Ann Arbor two years ago, but lost her job in October, six weeks shy of 10 years—when she would have qualified for lifetime medical benefits. "It is not something you expect you will have to go through in your life. And now you are doing it because you have to. You have to survive," Williams said. Jim Wangbickler worked in research and development at Ford Motor Company for 14 years when he was laid off last July—two days before he would have hit the 15-year plateau. Since then, Wangbickler has fallen three months behind in his home mortgage. The income Wangbickler counted on from Ford supported a small business—a Biggby coffee shop in Monroe, Mich.—which he opened three years ago and where his wife, 22-year-old son, and nearly a dozen employees work. "It's scary," he said, knowing that with his principal income gone, his home and family business, along with the jobs associated with it, are in jeopardy. Of anyone at Trinity whose job should have been secure, it's Sue Carpenter. She worked with a nonprofit mental health agency and is trained to help families deal with stress. With the crashing Michigan economy, family stress is clearly a growth industry. But because her team's grant proposals were dependent on Wayne County tax revenue—and because tax revenues are plummeting with personal incomes—fewer services are being funded at just the time when they are most needed. "We have no shortage of need for families with multiple difficulties," Carpenter said. "The major stress on families is financial stress. People take it out on kids, people take it out on each other, and it's tough. Our work was to try to intervene." Formerly Trinity's director of children's ministries and interim parish administrator, Carpenter and her team lost the bid on a county contract and her job collapsed. "It's brutal right now. There are so many people out of work that [social service agencies] are not responding very well," Hagan said. "We are used to reaching out and trying to help people; it's new to us to have so many who are struggling." The congregation feels the ripple effect on its own financial planning as well. Trinity has 13 percent fewer pledges for 2009 and the church projects a 16 percent decline in income. Doug Dubin and his wife aren't the only members who say if things don't turn around by spring, his family will be leaving Michigan. The crisis also affects the spiritual and community life of the congregation, Hagan added. "Every sermon is about hope and strength." After the service, even coffee hour chat is changing. The standard salutation "How's work?" might well be avoided, while tips on mastering Monster, Manpower, Michigan Works!, and CareerBuilders now create the currency of casual conversation. In fact, when asked what people talk about at church now, Dubin summed it up succinctly: "Do you know anybody hiring?"

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