Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Lord Giveth and The Lord Taketh Away
When I moved to Goshen, Indiana in late 1999, the community was growing like it was going out of style. The population boom, made up mainly by Hispanics migrating to a town with so many jobs locals couldn't fill them all, was fueled by growth in the RV and manufactured housing industry. I remember when my former boss, the late Dick Lyndon, was trying to sell me on moving to the community, part of the sell was that local economy was so diversified that historically recessions didn't hit it as hard as other communities. There is no one big employer in Elkhart county, just a bunch of small factories that make just about everything you can imagine. Those factories were turning out products as fast as they could make them, and the local community prospered.
I thought after 9/11, when gas first took off above $2 a gallon that it would spell doom for the local economy. RV's get, what... 6 or 7 miles to the gallon, at best. But the fear of flying, coupled with the steady trickle of Baby Boomers looking for a pleasant diversion, and even a new home, kept RV sales sky high. Not even natural disasters could touch the local economy. Hurricanes in the south spurred production of mobile homes and manufactured housing. Remember those trailers that rotted, unused after Katrina? They were made in Elkhart County. It appeared that truly Goshen's economy was recession-proof.
Fast forward to 2009. The credit bubble bursting, after a season of high commodity prices, did what Hurricanes and 9/11 couldn't. Elkhart County is now in real trouble.
It was announced yesterday that Elkhart County has the highest unemployment rate in Indiana, and one of the highest in the nation. 15.3% in the county, and over 17% in the city of Elkhart. On Facebook last night, a friend, Jerry, revealed that his last day of work at his current job ends tomorrow. Now, he writes, he faces the prospect of standing in long-lines at the unemployment office.
Another friend, Merv, faced with fewer RV's and box trucks to deliver, is one of two guys who now shuttle what meager production local plants are turning out, to a staging yard for the company that will deliver them to customers or dealers, and is happy to have the work. Merv used to be able to deliver two units in one day, mostly to the Chicago suburbs. Now, with many people who deliver units sitting at home with nothing to deliver, Merv considers himself fortunate, even as his income has dropped.
The crowning blow though, and the thing that really raised my alarm today, though, was this article in the Goshen News. Much like Jesse Lowe last winter, who got so fed up that he made a sign (Drugs Bring Death) and stood out on a street corner where drug dealers across the street threatened his life, Mike Grant made his own sign and posted it outside of his house. Five months of unemployment just pushed him past his breaking point, causing him to etch, "Will Work 4 Job" and prop it up in his front yard. What hit home was that his front yard was in my old neighborhood. The recession has reached Yorktown Drive, and with a vengence.
As jobs disappear at a pace that's making heads spin, the downward spiral of the economy seems to be picking up steam. The bottoming out everyone hoped would come in the days leading up to the inauguration still hasn't come. No one knows where the bottom is on this thing. And it seems that in certain corners of the country, like my old stomping grounds in the Hoosier state, state action curtailing foreclosures is the only thing from creating new Hoovervilles... renamed, I suspect, Bushvilles from turning up in city parks or empty lots. Not-so-slowly, we are sliding into a deep recession, that without the social safety net put in place by the New Deal, would probably look a whole lot more like the depression my fraternal grandmother described in great detail when I was child. Older people, who now enjoy Social Security and Medicare, may not be living like royalty, but aren't being forced out into the streets like they were in droves in 1929 and 1930. Unemployment is at least, for now, keeping people from starvation. Rush Limbaugh may not like socialism, but in times like these social program show their true merit by alleviating wide-spread suffering.
But folks taking unemployment are now your neighbors, who once took great pride in being able to make their mortgage payments on a nice home with a well manicured lawn, and in the process they're taking a spiritual beating. Prayers for a turnaround in the economy, or an upswing in hours at the local plant, or increased sales on the floor are seemingly being met with silence. In Goshen, one of my favorite places to eat, The Backyard Bar-b-Que, which was the brain child of a couple in our congregation, was finally forced to close its doors last month. This couple are two of the of praying-iest people you'll ever meet but their business was not spared. I mean it's hard to keep a restaurant open when there's 15% unemployment. Now the site of their dream is nothing but a vacant storefront in Linway Plaza, awaiting a new tenant. Their story, and others like it, are becoming more common, and in a place like Goshen, can be found on just about every block.
And so, I ask the question I'm sure is being asked a lot of places right now: "Lord, where are you?"
Part of me thinks that during the boom times, the Lord was screaming as loudly as he possible could. Begging people to be prudent with their money. Coaxing those on Wall Street to think of the bigger picture. Speaking to politicians who avoided taking on big issues because it was easier to stick with the status quo. And dare I say it, wondering why pastors, including this one, were more focused on building bigger buildings with coffee bars than warning people that love of money is the root of all evil.
Not money, mind you, but the love of it.
Now, though, I suspect the Good Lord, just as he called us to prudence, integrity, and mercy for those in need as the stock market boomed, are calling us to humility, hope, and mutual concern in these difficult days. To remind us that blessings in this life are neither eternal, nor a birthright for any of us. They are gifts, to be treasured, but not to be trusted as measures of self-worth. There are no short cuts or guarantees, and as such we need to build our lives on that which really matters. God doesn't love and reward us according to the size of our paycheck. The Lord's love isn't contingent on what we do or don't do... it just "is", in abundance. The Lord's reward is in the depth of our connection to him, and between us and our neighbor. We're just so focused on the moment, that we often forget these things, and it usually takes a sickness, tragedy, or even our own mortality to shake us out of our malaise.
The depth of our honesty and integrity. A concern for our neighbor. Elevating our focus above crass consumeristic goals to a quality of life which is defined by intangibles: love, grace, mercy, justice, and peace. A satisfaction in doing what God has called us to - love justice, show mercy, and be righteous - in alignment with the teachings of the One who as he washed the feet of his disciples commanded us to serve others as He was serving them. It's these things that really matter, in good times, and bad.
In any event, pray for people who live in a town that showed us great love and acceptance, and for all those suffering right now. And where you can, make a difference.