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United Methodist ministry reaching out to the unemployed

11/8/2004 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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A UMNS Feature By Neill Caldwell*

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- On July 30, 2003, Ed Hosack was general manager of the Bed and Bath Division of Pillowtex, with 20 years invested in the textile giant.

The next day he and nearly 6,500 co-workers - almost 4,000 of those in Cabarrus County, N.C.- were unemployed.

That was the day Pillowtex announced it was shutting down, returning to bankruptcy and letting all of its workers go. The company, which made sheets, blankets and rugs under the Cannon, Fieldcrest and Royal Velvet brands, closed the doors to 16 plants in the U.S. and Canada.

It was the largest mass layoff in the history of the state of North Carolina. Overnight the huge 5.8-million-square-foot plant, which dominates downtown Kannapolis, became a symbol of a city's despair, its vast parking lots empty and its machines quiet. The "City of Looms" was now the "City of Looming Disaster."

Hosack did what other people who have lost their jobs do: he dusted off his resume, began scanning the classified ads and going to job interviews. It was not what he expected to be doing after so many successful years in management with a large company.

"My plan was to retire at age 50 and start a non-profit," Hosack said. "The industry left me at age 44. God's timing was different."

After spending time at the local unemployment office, Hosack said he began to see that there were many needs not being met, especially in terms of education for people to get back into the job market. "They don't have two years to get an associate's degree; they need a job right now."

His response was to create LifeBuilder Ministries with his wife. "On the basis of that work, and the work I was already doing at Trinity United Methodist Church, I realized my call is to work with the unemployed and help them."

At the same time Salisbury District Superintendent, the Rev. Sally Langford, was calling area clergy together to examine what could be done.

"A group of concerned pastors and I met soon after the closing of Pillowtex to see what United Methodists might do to respond to the crisis of unemployment in Cabarrus and Rowan counties," Langford said. "We wanted to respond to people's immediate needs, but we also wanted to make a difference over the long haul."

That meeting led to the creation of an "Adopt-A-Family" program, where the churches of the district would work with Cooperative Christian Ministries in Concord and Rowan Helping Ministries in Salisbury to meet the financial needs of families struggling with unemployment. Churches would adopt families suggested by these two agencies, providing money for health insurance, school supplies for the children, and rent money, "as well as giving moral and spiritual support," Langford said.

The district applied for and received money from the Duke Endowment, Charlotte, N.C., to hire a director of a newly created Unemployment Response Ministry. Hosack, an active lay member at Trinity United Methodist Church, was hired, and a board of directors for the group, made up of lay and clergy members from around the district, was created.

Hosack said the district's mission matched up well with what he was already trying to accomplish.

"I was praying 'Lord, what would you have me do?' and the answer from God was that 'you are doing what I want you to do. Stop looking and keep doing it.' That was God's answer to my prayer. My focus then changed from looking for work to looking for people we could help."

Hosack formed the Career Transition Network, a group that meets on Wednesday mornings at Trinity church and across the street at A.L. Brown High School’s cyber campus. The group primarily comprises people who held white-collar jobs at Pillowtex. It’s faith-based, starting with a devotional every week.

"We discuss job opportunities, practice interviewing techniques, work on resumes and cover letters," Hosack said. "We have speakers, including career counselors, accountants, corporate directors of recruitment, small business owners, and people who have gone through similar layoffs and have started their own business."

Classes in computer techniques and other key skills are offered. The group has had as many as 40 attend in a single week, and is successful: Seventy percent of the people who have been active in Career Transition Network have found jobs in other careers.

"Ask employers what they are looking for and you get an amazingly consistent answer," Hosack said. "We wrote a six-week course called 'CLASS' - Competitive Learning and Soft Skills - that teaches job search skills. The ideas is to help people identify their strengths and skills, what they bring to the marketplace, and how to regain their self-esteem."

The job skills group is just one of many areas of emphasis that the ministry has focused its attention. When Hosack talks to congregations within the district, he tries to steer them to meet a specific need.

"We have developed 10 target areas where we as United Methodists can make a difference," he said. "Each church has its own set of resources. I invite each congregation to take a look at these target areas and discover where they can make a difference."

Hosack has stepped in to help resurrect the Cabarrus Literacy Council, which had been idle for several years. With illiteracy rates reaching a quarter of the adult population in Kannapolis and Concord, the need is great.

"As we look at the job market, the high school education or the GED is the very basic requirement. If you can't read, you don't have a chance of getting a job," Hosack said.

The Unemployment Response Ministry has also helped establish a food pantry with Cooperative Christian Ministries in Concord; a member at Trinity donated the building.

About 1,100 of those laid off from Pillowtex have found work, according to estimates from the North Carolina Employment Security Commission. Five hundred have retired. About 1,600 are in school, mostly at Rowan Cabarrus Community College. That leaves approximately 1,600 still looking for work more than a year later.

Many Pillowtex employees began working at the plant in their teens because their parents worked there. Now they are in their 40s or 50s and have no other job skills. Hosack has worked to encourage the creation of jobs with a living wage, jobs that provide health benefits and meet the needs of families. "The largest job growth is in retail and food services," he said. "Typically that's work in the $6 to $7 an hour range, that is not full time and without benefits. By contrast, Pillowtex paid $11 an hour and provided significant benefits."

This is a critical time for those workers laid off in the summer of 2003. Right now there are about 200 Pillowtex people who have exhausted their unemployment insurance and healthcare coverage. By Christmas Day there will be an additional 1,000 people, plus another 200 on Jan. 1.

"The challenge is huge and the need is overwhelming," Hosack says. "There is such a significant need for help. That's where the United Methodist Church is trying to rally the kind of support needed, plus partner with other denominations. So far the response by our churches has been great. But the most encouraging thing is to see individual United Methodists step out in faith and say 'this is what I can do.' We will meet the needs when that happens and it will make a stronger community."

Langford agreed that the response to the huge unemployment crisis has created a real feeling of connection among district churches, which "are doing together what they could not do separately," she said.

She added that she could see this kind of unemployment outreach being duplicated in other places.

"While the Salisbury District's Unemployment Response Ministry grew out of a particular unemployment crisis - the closing of Pillowtex - there is no reason that this ministry would not work in other districts."

"This is a great opportunity for United Methodists," Hosack said. "We want to be a part of the solution. We want to be invested in the community. It speaks well of our church."




*Caldwell is a freelance writer residing in High Point, N.C.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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