Church and City Partnerships Restore Dignity through Work
– July 15, 2021
Shantel had come to a very difficult point in her life, living in her car with her four-year-old child. Through the Hampton (Virginia) Department of Human Services, she found a jobs preparedness class and decided to take a shot at a new start. Within a few class sessions, she had made connections with other participants and told them about her situation. Almost immediately, they took turns hosting her and her child at their homes. When the class leaders found out, they worked quickly to provide her with stable housing.
Through the connection, love, and support she experienced, Shantel completed the class. In June 2021, she started a paid training program through a local hospital to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.
Tabatha was in trouble. She’d been arrested for theft trying to support an addiction. She was referred to this same jobs preparedness class and started working through the material with a supportive community. As a result, leaders in the class went to court with her and secured a reduced sentence based on the positive efforts she was making in the class. After her time served, she told the class hosts that she had begun a new job. “Now I know how to make decisions to get my life back on track,” she said.
Local Churches Working Together
Hampton Roads, Virginia, is a metropolitan area of 1.7 million people on the Atlantic Coast, including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Newport News, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth.
Across this huge urban area, Shantel, Tabatha, and many others have experienced the transformative power of relationship-based training through the Hampton Roads Work Life Network. It’s a diverse, multi-denominational collective of churches and parachurch organizations from across the metro area working together to help people find and keep jobs, using the Chalmers Center’s Work Life curriculum.
New Covenant Church, Open Door Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, Kingdom Celebration Center, Memorial Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church, Emmaus Church HRVA, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and Hampton Baptist Church (as well as the “So All May Eat” program there) have been sharing in this mission together and seeing God transform lives through the gift of work. They’ve already graduated three Work Life classes this year, with a fourth getting underway this summer.
Charles Cheek, network coordinator, said this collective of churches came together specifically to start a jobs ministry to help people make long-term changes and escape material poverty. He said that the beauty of this church network is that it’s a platform, not a set program. They can add learning material based on the needs of a particular class and move quickly to provide immediate relief (like housing for Shantel) in ways that are very hard for government agencies or nonprofits to do because of red tape.
Cheek began his journey in this ministry through volunteering with an organization serving the homeless population but wanted to help people beyond their immediate needs. “There was nothing in place beyond the standard ‘go to the employment office, fill out these forms to apply for these benefits, etc.’ But with people in poverty, this became an impossible task. You’re telling them to go somewhere that they don’t have access to because they lack transportation, and then if they can get there, you’re asking them for information that they don’t have, like addresses and such,” Cheek said.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be something better. And we need to make it better; we need to research. There’s something out there. Let’s find it.’ We knew it couldn’t be just a standard program. It has to be something that deals with the brokenness of the individual. We like Work Life because it has more flexibility in how you go through the class, and that works for the people we’re working with.”
Partnership Drives Success
Even though social services agencies can’t always do what people most need in a given situation, they aren’t competitors. Cheek sees them as key partners for the good of the community.
“Here in Hampton, we’ve developed a partnership with the City of Hampton economic development office and the social services department. We’ve brought all these entities together,” Cheek said. “We are the go-to agency doing the training for work and jobs for these groups.”
The social services department had a pool of about 200 clients in one of their programs and reached out to Cheek looking for a platform that could work toward not just meeting needs but transformation. This department also sends two case workers to participate in each class alongside their clients. The economic development office provides the meeting space (in the Y.H. Thomas Community Center) and supportive services for the classes offered by the Work Life Network. “These social services workers are talking about how they’ve benefited from the classes alongside the participants. These reports are going up to leaders and the mayors, and city councils. We invite them to do a session on accessing benefits and programs within their context for each class as well,” Cheek said.
Additionally, the Work Life Network partners with other nonprofit organizations, such as Transitions Domestic Violence Services, Gordon Wellness, and THRIVE Peninsula. These, along with 15 other agencies—including state, federal, city, and faith-based nonprofits—are part of a regular “Lunch Table Talk” group (for the “Peninsula” side of the metro area) meeting for encouragement and collaboration on serving the community well.
Beyond the importance of working together to get interested participants into Work Life classes, Cheek stressed the value of partnerships for providing wraparound services for the complex issues contributing to someone’s situation.
“When we first started, we saw a lot of mental health issues among our participants, so we added Christian counseling and other support services… Just about anything you can think of that causes brokenness in someone’s life, we set up those partnerships and alliances to address those things,” he said.
“It takes the whole community effort of different services and different areas of expertise and different callings to address all the needs. Build those alliances with what’s already there in the community. It’s too taxing for one church to take on, but once you begin doing it in partnership, they get joy out of it, once they see God working in these ways.”
Employers at the Table
Connections with employers are also crucial. The Work Life curriculum directs facilitators to cultivate relationships with those who can potentially offer jobs to graduates. Cheek has worked hard to ensure that this happens throughout each class, beginning to end. “Let’s not wait until the end to get them connected to potential employers,” he said. “We don’t want to let them lose context and hope for why they’re in the class.”
Work Life Network classes have brought in staff from local community colleges to share funding opportunities for different certifications. They’ve also featured employers of past graduates to discuss how Work Life gives graduates an edge when they are ready to apply.
“It helps participants so much with completion,” Cheek said. “They’re able to say, ‘I didn’t have to wait to meet potential employers, but you brought them all through the class.’ It’s not a carrot-and-stick situation. If it’s good and encouraging to begin with, people will stick with it to see what else comes through the class later.”
Keeping the Gospel Central
Many churches hesitate to partner with non-Christian or governmental agencies because they fear they won’t be allowed to speak about Jesus. However, Cheek has found the opposite to be the case. For those willing to enter into this work and be straightforward about their motivation, the opportunities to declare and demonstrate Christ’s love abound.
“We have to yield some, and they have to yield some. The city effectively advertises Work Life for us through its economic development office and connections with businesses. As the number of sites we offer has increased and our network has become stronger, we started having great success and retention. Folks at different agencies started noticing that and wondered what was causing that vs. what they were doing. And our answer was ‘It’s called God,'” Cheek said.
“People want to see you live according to the principles of the gospel—if you’re living it, at some point, they’re going to ask you about it. And that gives you an opportunity to expound on that, and they’re going to ask how they can know more, how they can get there. Like Jesus with the woman at the well.”
Many of the Work Life Network’s class facilitators are pastors or church leaders, many of who are retired and can volunteer several days per week. “It’s making a difference,” Cheek said. “The pastors and churches that participate are excited. The city government is jumping head over heels because they’re seeing people’s lives transformed, and they’re getting into the workforce—people who are coming out of incarceration or have tough issues in their backgrounds.”
Cheek said volunteers see God at work in ways they may not have seen Him before. They’re getting to disciple people and be part of something that lets them use their talents and witness the Lord changing people’s lives. Many have told him that serving in this ministry has reinvigorated their faith. “They realize, ‘I’m going to put the gospel in a context where there are people who are really hurting, and work with them solving problems of systemic poverty and other issues that go along with it—racism, classism, etc.—that don’t often get touched from the pulpit,'” Cheek said.
He tells potential volunteers, “These folks don’t cross your door-seal, but that’s who we have, and they’re going to be wanting more and more of that gospel, ready to receive God in ways that your church members don’t often, and they’re ready to act on that.”
Getting Into the Game
I asked Cheek to tell me what challenges he and the network had faced in getting this ministry underway. He laughed and said he didn’t want to sound proud, but “there were no challenges.”
“I’ve always been a community engagement and networking person. I don’t believe in ‘It can’t be done’ or ‘there are barriers to helping people,'” he said. The main barrier people run into is themselves: “When people come to me with an idea or a suggestion about something, my immediate response is, ‘You haven’t started yet. Let’s get going. What’s holding you back?’ I laugh at excuses, all I want to hear is how we’re going to get it accomplished.”
“So in that context, no, ‘there were no challenges.’ When we started thinking about jobs ministry, people were asking, ‘who’s going to do this,’ and I said, ‘I’m going start doing this, and I guarantee you in 6 months, you’ll be doing this yourself.’ That’s what happened, and it just kept multiplying. The snowball has kept rolling. Get people in as allies, and then get them facilitating.”
If people ask, “Why should my church or ministry get started with this?” Cheek would say, “Why not?”
“As a church, are you just an organization, or are you the church of Jesus Christ? If you are the church, you just need to get started. There are hurting people around you, and you need to engage them, instead of driving by them, to heal the community. All of us started somewhere. Someone helped us somehow in life, out of the goodness of their hearts. Sometimes we need to get past that institutional side of our congregations that makes things complicated and just go!”
The best part of Work Life, Cheek says, is how the classes start from and reinforce the importance of relationships. Not only are people being transformed by God through this process, but they are also staying connected through alumni meetings. The Work Life Network has also had some graduates come back to serve as class facilitators.
Cheek said that one recent graduating class of six women formed a tight-knit group, doing activities together with their families outside of class time. “They fed off each other and encouraged each other,” he said. “On the next to the last day of class, they asked, ‘Does it have to end? Can’t we keep going?’ Because they looked forward to getting up in the morning and coming to class. As they gave their testimonies at the end, they talked about how they were able to transition their lives, and their thoughts, and their patterns, some that weren’t even religious before. They understand their purpose for work and their purpose in God’s creation.”
“What’s better than seeing someone’s joy at starting a new job and getting their lives back on track? Can we get excited about people’s joy at accomplishing something in their lives?” he asked. “God created us for work, and this work brings enjoyment not only to me but to everyone around us.”
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