If I Can’t Work, Maybe My Theology Degree Can

Photo of a collection plate in a church.
Photo of a collection plate in a church.

We hear about the power of story everywhere. I’ve already mentioned one of my issues with that, but I’ve got a few more. The first is simply that hearing stories about a lucky break – which nearly every writer who’s been invited to speak before other writers and give advice on how to succeed in that isolating, rejection-packed, dehumanizing world has – are not helpful. Sure, there’s definitely jealousy there, but I want to hear stories from people who didn’t get a lucky break, who didn’t get discovered, who didn’t have contacts either at all or who were willing to help them, who found success without the chance encounter or surprise discovery by an editor or recruiter. I can’t replicate someone else’s luck and, since I don’t seem to have much of my own, I need to learn how to succeed in the world without it. Or is that not possible and that’s why there aren’t stories out there like that? (My invitation to share stories of hardship was a serious one.)

The second is that sharing personal stories is not this magic bullet for connection or finding help. This truly has been the hardest year of my life, as it was prophesied on New Year’s Eve last year to me that it would be, but I’ve not found that sharing my story – yes, it has been more than simply a list of complaints or bad things that happened this year; it has been real, terrifying vulnerability – has helped. The mountains of career advice I’ve been seeking vehemently are either too vague to be helpful or stuff I already know and have tried but didn’t work or can’t financially afford to try. I have asked and asked and asked and asked for help and I’ve not gotten it from the people who make a living – recruiters, disability service workers, churches – helping people. I am confused and frustrated by the incompetence, lack of follow through on commitments and general lack of functionality in the secular service sector, not least because the claim that we live in a meritocracy would mean that people who know how to do their jobs would have them while people who don’t would not and that, in my experience, has been far from the case. But I want to focus on that last example – churches – here.

During the indefinite amount of time that my husband and I will be separated while we try to work toward a functional marriage (I am clawing myself apart trying to heal here – asking for help in that area has mostly not gone well, either), I need a place to stay that isn’t in an unsafe neighborhood four blocks from where I was assaulted the day after the election in the name of Donald Trump – one, preferably, that doesn’t have wearying and avoid-worthy roommate dynamics and isn’t so far away from things and people I go to a lot. There is a complicating factor:

I was laid off two months ago this week. This culture makes it extremely shameful to be unemployed, which makes networking even more of a struggle than it already is for this socially anxious introvert. I feel my experience only qualifies me to do more things I don’t enjoy and find painfully meaningless and my degree (theology) has not been an asset. I have spent too much time wishing I had been supported and seen by adults as a child rather than left totally alone to figure out what I wanted to do with my life (this lack of clarity has been and continues to be a major roadblock in moving beyond reception/office assistant/entry-level jobs that I can’t build on and have never felt valued at).

So I realize finding a place to live while jobless is difficult. But that’s exactly where the church should come in, at least in the Bible I read and studied while getting my theology degree. I regret this decision – the school I got it from has, to my knowledge, virtually no support for its alums, plus I have been asked in every interview I’ve had since graduating in 2010 what theology even is and why I majored in it; the answer to the first makes me sound like a flaming evangelical, which is not a good thing in the city I’m in and is not true anyway and I have no good answer to the second at the moment. But one thing I learned while studying theology is that God cares about the poor and those in need and makes serving them the main evidence for one’s love of God.

There is a common argument against funding state or federal programs of social aid that claims, basically, that the government shouldn’t be responsible for caring for the poor. Actually, as a person who cares deeply about homelessness, income inequality, racial and gender injustice and all the ways capitalism produces poverty and deprivation, I agree. It isn’t the government’s job to provide for its citizens. The only reason it’s doing so (generally very badly in this country) is because the Church has completely failed to. And it was always and ever the Church’s job.

If I’m not wanted in the work force, as I fear I’m not, maybe I can at least put my otherwise seemingly useless (in a non-neutral way) degree to work here. It’s All. Over. Scripture. Both Testaments. Jesus Himself. The Apostle’s teachings. Care for the poor. This does not mean a warm meal on Sunday mornings. This does not mean preaching to your congregation about caring for the poor “out there.” It does not mean missions. Or, let me say it this way – and I know church bashing is fashionable among members of my generation, but just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean it’s always wrong – none of those things, evangelism, prophecy, preaching, missions, mean anything if you are not taking care of your own first.

Why? “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV). It’s not by going out with megaphones and REPENT OR ELSE signs and harassing people on the streets to turn to Christ or burn forever. It’s not by approaching strangers at the grocery store and asking if you can pray for them, which is a one-time encounter that doesn’t require relationship or the walking-with Jesus modeled but is a show-offy advertisement (sorry, I just spent some time down in Redding, visiting the famous church, Bethel, there, but more on that later). It’s by the love congregants have for each other. If I can’t find someone to sit with consistently on Sunday mornings even after attending a church for eight months, how is the church going to do anything close to what it’s actually called to do, which is help people who are kind of exactly in my situation? If leaders in the church don’t follow up on things they say multiple times they will do or have to be asked multiple times to do or flat-out ignore requests for help, how are they going to support members of their congregation who are struggling to find safe housing, jobs, community while going through marital strife or all three at once?

At this point, I’m simply too tired from a) hopelessness that I will ever break out of the cycles that are trapping me, especially since I’ve had to do most of my life alone, b) fear about how I will get my basic needs net, and c) asking for help (including from the church I attend) over and over again from organizations whose purpose it is to provide it and having to continually search for other possibilities since I’ve not found it to keep playing the church game, showing up expecting to give to a community who I don’t feel supported by, or even really seen by when I am barely hanging on and trying to scrounge up any help I can get. It isn’t enough for me, not after what studying theology has shown me the Church is supposed to be doing, to simply believe God is Provider. People aren’t perfect, but actually, that has nothing to do with their ability to love (more on that later, too) and I’m tired of “I’m not God” as an excuse not to do what God has clearly called anyone who calls herself a Christian to do.

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