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Religious Networks Aid Massachusetts Job Seekers

With the Massachusetts unemployment rate hovering near seven percent, tens of thousands of Bay State workers continue their search for jobs. They're networking with neighbors and former colleagues, through online social networks, and now through spiritual networking as well.

As WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti reports, churches and synagogues across the state are sponsoring "job seekers" groups to support their members on the long road back to work.

At the Needham Presbyterian Church, down the hall from the clacking needles of the knitting group, across the corridor from the pastor's office, a woman sits at a laptop computer, looking for a job.

SHARON: It's not easy out there. We're suffering. We're suffering big time.

With that suffering comes shame, she says. So she says just call her Sharon. Sharon from Needham. Sharon lost her job as a retail cashier in November. Every day for the past three months she's used the computers at the Needham Public Library. It's crowded with fellow job seekers. But Sharon has felt isolated. She says she needs a sanctuary. So when she saw a poster at the library advertising Needham Presbyterian's new Transitions Center, she picked up her packet of resumes and headed to the church.

SHARON: The difference between here and the library is that here, you are in a church. They offer their guidance and understanding and they have an ear to listen to you, and it kind of helps you more.

Sharon isn't Christian. Pastor Eliot Hipp says she doesn't have to be, because proselytizing isn't his purpose. In his eyes, society as a whole no longer views church as a primary place for refuge, anyway. Hipp says the Transitions Center, which opened on Monday, provides wireless internet, computers, weekly job search workshops, and a small cafe to anyone, for free and regardless of faith.

ELIOT HIPP: We know we can't affect large scale economic trends, and we can't give out enough money to make the difference in people's lives and we can't create jobs or give jobs, but what religious institutions have done for centuries is to be places of hospitality, to welcome people when they are in distress.

The economic distress today is so acute, in this town alone, three other churches and synagogues convene regular networking groups. A $12,000 grant from the Needham Community Council, itself founded during the Great Depression, guarantees that Needham Presbyterian's Transitions Center will remain open for the next year and a half.

But for some, dealing with the downturn requires faith.

BONNIE SCOTT JELENICK: You know, we believe in a Christ that came to heal a broken world.

A few miles away at the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church, Reverend Bonnie Scott Jelenick leads a weekly networking group. A dozen people are seated in a circle in the church parlor. More than half have been laid off. Others provide professional advice. But all of them, Jelenick says, come for spiritual support.

JELENICK: Through God, we can hope for more wholeness. And so part of what we do is accept people who are broken, and give them hope to become more whole. And this whole process for looking for a job is certainly a feeling of being broken, isn't it?

Picking up the pieces in her life, is church member Alicia Blatchford.

ALICIA BLATCHFORD: And a big part of what allows you to do that is that you're positively received here.

Blatchford had worked at Bear Stearns for more than two decades before getting laid off last year.

BLATCHFORD: There's clearly a strong nurturing element, and for me feeling that, and trying to contribute to that is part of what the faith element is.

Religious institutions haven't witnessed significant growth in attendance yet in this recession. But with thousands more jobs lost every month, houses of worship around Massachusetts are witnessing a growing need for guidance within their own congregations. So, churches themselves are networking. Two other ministers are at the Wellesley Hills job seekers meeting. They're learning how to build similar support groups for churches in Weston and on the South Shore.

This program aired on February 4, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.

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