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Photo by James Allen Walker

Work and faith, connected

Effective Compassion | Our South Region winner is full of practical help for former prisoners looking for jobs-and is full of Christ

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

HOUSTON—It's 9:06 a.m. on day five of The WorkFaith Connection's eight-day, early June boot camp. Twelve people ranging in age from 25 to 59 sit around a U-shaped table in a corporate office building. Seven are men, five are women. Eight are black, four are white. All are looking for work.

Most are not confident that they'll get jobs, so instructor Fran Hopkins, a former deputy warden at a state prison, asks for stories about when they've succeeded in previous jobs. It's all part of a six-year-old Christian project to improve the job-hunting skills of ex-prisoners and others among America's least-employables.

And here's what is spectacular: Three-fourths of the 1,560 WorkFaith alumni have snagged jobs soon after graduating from boot camp, with two-thirds of those continuing in that job for at least a year. That achievement makes WorkFaith our 2012 South region Effective Compassion winner.

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A big reason for job placement success, according to WorkFaith CEO Sandy Schultz, is that "they shift from an attitude of entitlement: 'What can you do for me?' becomes 'What can I do for you?'" So on day five the class members recall what they did for previous employers. Myisha Powell emphasizes her time as a medical assistant. Kathi Lakey, unemployed for seven years, talks about how she unjammed a photocopier. Larry Bridgewater, who spent two years in prison for drug possession, recalls a successful meeting with building contractors. Each time the class applauds.

Hopkins asks, "How many of you have ever been corrected on the job?" Most raise their hands. Hopkins says that's nothing to be ashamed of: "Being corrected shows the company thinks you have value." She reminds class members that in the afternoon they will have practice interview sessions with volunteers from Houston companies. She tells them they should meet the interviewers, make eye contact, shake hands, and have questions to ask.

Hopkins asks, "What do you say when the interviewer says, 'Tell me something about yourself'"? The class responds, "Thirty second commercial." ("I grew up in _______. I worked at _______. My strengths include _______. My focus is _______.") Hopkins reminds them: "Admit your past mistakes and poor choices related to convictions, getting fired, or job-hopping. Talk about how you've changed and who you are today."

So far this morning the students have heard good advice that could be offered in all kinds of venues, but now comes something different: Hopkins says, "Pray before going into the interview room," and the class says, "Amen." Hopkins says, "When your hand touches the handle, I want you to say 'Holy Spirit, go in before me.'" The class says, "Amen." Hopkins says, "It is normal for us to be anxious, but the Bible says be anxious about nothing." ("Amen!") "Do everything with prayer and supplication, remembering that God is not a God of confusion." ("Amen.")

Favorite WorkFaith Bible verses include 2 Corinthians 5:17 ("If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation") and Ephesians 4:28 ("Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need"). Hopkins combines biblical explanations with everyday reminders: "Don't look down. Don't roll your eyes. You need to convince them that you're not the person you were." Remember, Hopkins says just before lunch, "THERE IS A JOB FOR YOU."

The students go around the table for one more practice in saying who they are. Near the end, Carrie Johnson confesses that she's "never had confidence because of my criminal background." She weeps and can't go on-and several class members hug her, comfort her, and bring her tissues. She dries her tears and says firmly, "That's who I was. That's not who I am. That's not who I want to be." The class members applaud.

The WorkFaith Connection is different from some other Christian programs because it is full of practical tips. It is different from some secular programs because it is full of Christ.

After lunch Myisha Powell has a rough first mock interview, sitting across from a middle-aged white businessman. She breaks down in tears when talking about her two daughters. When he asks about her criminal background-she stole some money-her eyes shift up and down. But she does better in her second interview, emphasizing her year and a half as a medical assistant during which she took vitals and recorded the medical history of patients. Then comes the toughest question: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" Myisha says, "I made wrong choices. That's who I was then."

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