‘Faith At Work’ in a Time of Unemployment

May 15, 2019
(From left) Rabbi David Wolpe, Najeeba Syeed, Shi Zhiru, Jonathan L. Walton and Father Allan Figueroa Deck.

For several years, venture capitalist and philanthropist Art Bilger has been hosting town hall-style workshops across the country to address what he views as a looming catastrophe: an imminent unemployment crisis. 

Bilger offers guidance on how to stay relevant in a rapidly changing economy fueled by automation. He has covered many topics, including the emergence of data and analytics; the growth of the cybersecurity sector; retraining and redeveloping an aging workforce; the importance of mentorship; and veterans’ workforce-related issues. 

But at two roundtable discussions of faith leaders  at the Skirball Center on May 8, Bilger said bringing leaders to a discussion about rising fears of unemployment “is clearly a bit different.” 

The event was hosted by Working Nation, Bilger’s nonprofit media company that he founded in 2016. Working Nation is dedicated to finding solutions to structural unemployment. Close to 100 people attended the event, which was filmed as part of its “The Table” video series, with the episode dubbed “Faith at Work.” 

“A theme I’ve been thinking about a lot in my own life and beyond is the relationship between employment and purpose in life,” Bilger said. “I just thought that would be a great piece to the equation, especially with leaders here representing so many different faiths.” 

The first panel comprised a diverse collection of clergy: Shi Zhiru, professor of religious studies and coordinator of Asian Studies at Pomona College; Jonathan L. Walton, a minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University; Najeeba Syeed, a Muslim professor at the Claremont School of Theology; Father Allan Figueroa Deck, rector of Loyola Marymount University; and Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. 

“In theory, all of our religions teach that a person and their being gives purpose as opposed to their doing. You have to try and remind people of that.” — Rabbi David Wolpe

The panel focused mostly on how to provide spiritual support to congregants dealing with employment issues, such as feeling purposeless at work, underemployment, or fears of being aged or skilled out of the job market. 

Wolpe said some of his congregants have expressed feelings of worthlessness as it relates to unemployment and worries about salaries and working conditions. “In theory, all of our religions teach that a person and their being gives purpose as opposed to their doing,” he said. “You have to try and remind people of that. And yet, it’s almost impossible for any of us to separate how we feel about ourselves from the role we play in society.” 

Syeed said religious communities must feel a “moral imperative” to discuss issues of unemployment. “One of the themes religious leaders bring to the table is the rehumanizing of the conversation around unemployment and automation,” she said. 

Walton spoke about how he counsels people on finding meaning in everyday work. “Whatever it is that becomes your lot in life to do, that’s God’s call to you,” he said. “Therefore, you do it and you live out your innate dignity through that labor. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a physician or cleaning up the operating room — both are contributing.”

Figueroa Deck then added: “Instead of looking for meaning, always remember you’re making meaning.” 

A second panel focused more on practical solutions and faith-based programming to combat unemployment. 

Katherine Moore, senior vice president of communications with Jobs Vision Success SoCal, a nonprofit grounded in Jewish values that offers programs in job seeking, career planning, skills assessment, training and retraining, spoke about her organization’s guiding principle of tikkun olam. 

“What that means to me is empowering people, giving them the tools, giving them the resources so they can create for themselves,” she said.

Kathleen Buckley Domingo, senior director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, spoke about her Catholic church’s job fairs held every few months that frequently draw 400-500 visitors. She said she believes faith institutions have a powerful role to play inside communities and beyond the four walls of houses of worship.  

“Whether you’re a person of faith or not, if you start wishing, praying and hoping for these people, it builds that sense of community and awareness that our brothers and sisters are struggling in our own neighborhoods,” she said. “There’s something very tangible that we can do and we want them to know our faith compels us to do that.” 

Fifty-seven-year-old Kathleen High drove all the way from Chino Hills to attend the event. A career counselor who works independently and at Mt. San Antonio College, a community college in Walnut, Ca., High called Working Nation’s mission her “life’s work.” A devout Christian, she said that when she found out about this event, she knew she had to attend. 

“[Unemployment] is something I’ve been wanting to see faith communities get behind for a long time,” she told the Journal after the event. “When people are dealing with challenges around employment, there’s a lot of psychological and spiritual stuff at play. During the recession, in my local church, a lot of people were dealing with feelings of worthlessness and there was a lot of spiritual condemnation. It’s interrelated with faith issues.” 

Kory Chaman, 68, a freelance screenwriter and member of Sinai Temple, came in part to hear Wolpe speak. He left feeling hopeful. 

“I believe God created us all alike,” he said. “It’s very good to see people of the world’s different religions coming together to solve the big problems we all face today, tomorrow and in the future. It’s heartening.”  

Aaron Eshman, 92, who lives in Santa Monica, praised Bilger. 

“There’s not enough attention being paid to all of this,” he said. “I think [Bilger] is doing a fabulous job of making everybody aware of what a critical problem this is. It’s going to be even more critical in the years ahead.”

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