The Transforming Power of Work

Laura: Today’s audio interview is brought to you by the Chalmers Center. I’m your host Laura Hailey. All over the world, people are proclaiming the good news among the poor. They’re taking a stand and living out the kingdom of God in their neighborhoods. Alan Murdock is one of these people. He and his wife Michelle started Project Connect Nashville to bring hope to the herding community of Madison, Tennessee. They provide knowledge, skills, and job training to help people get out—and stay out—of poverty.

Their goal is to develop deep and meaningful relationships and begin to build hope between families in poverty and the body of Christ.

Alan: My name is Alan Murdock and I’m the executive director for Project Connect Nashville.

Laura: Well tell me a little bit about yourself and where you’re from and a little bit of your story.

Alan: So, I’m from Pensacola Florida originally. I came to Nashville with a music scholarship at Belmont University. I was in the music program for a year and decided that I wanted to be in the music business program. So I lost my scholarship as a part of that and I had to go to work. When I went to work, my best friend growing up had a girlfriend who came the year before I did to Belmont, and she said, “My aunt and uncle own a psychiatric hospital and you need to come and you need to help work with us and work with young kids. They go to bed at like 6:00 pm, and the rest of the evening you get to study. It’s a really good school situation.”

It turned out I was really good with the older kids in the unit next to us, who were from the age of 14 to about 24. They had addiction issues, they had abuse issues—in some cases, they had abused somebody. In that context, it was an all-boys unit, and we were right next door. Anytime a problem happened, a blare on the loudspeakers would go and say, “All males come” and I was always among the first responders. And for some reason my voice, my demeanor, something—my size (I’m 6′ 4″) they would already have been calmed down and so they moved me over to that unit.

Well, these kids don’t sleep and so 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the morning-

Laura: You’re like, “Crap, I can’t study!”

Alan: Yes. So, the whole study thing went out the window, but the experience was really valuable in that process. I ended up working there for about five years and then I was in the music industry for about 13. I got involved in ministry again through a flood relief effort here in Nashville. I had left the music industry, was in the process of marrying my wife and I said I wanted to open a garden center with a stage and music and I did that in a historic district and it was a really neat experience but we had this flood. I immediately started organizing, because I’m from Florida. We had hurricanes, and what you do when there’s a hurricane is you organize! That led me down to the path of non-profits.

Laura: Yeah, Temperance said when you first started, you were working out of a van?

Alan: That’s right. We were using our trunks and our vans and whatever we had to meet people, and so that is how I met Temperance in an apartment complex. We still do those things, but now we have a building where people can come to and be ministered to, and it’s a warm building, which is really neat. So in the middle of this pocket of poverty that we’re in, it’s a welcome surprise when they come in the door and it just opens their eyes to possibilities.

Laura: So at the beginning at Project Connect Nashville, did you do a lot of getting to know people in pockets of neighborhoods to build trust?

Alan: Yeah, so we would work with the homeless as we saw them, and those that were ready to really be able to focus on something like classes and Christian education. We would pour into them, but there is a community that is nearby that both Temperance and Casundra had lived in that we particularly wanted to invest in because the owner did not do background checks. While that seems like a huge problem—and it is a problem—it was also good because it allowed people like Temperance and Casundra who had addiction or had gang member activity, had these other things that were in their life, it gave them a really good place to be able to land. For us to be able to come in and go, “Hey, how can we help you? How can we love you? How can we walk with you?” That was disarming and surprising to many of the people that live in this community.

Laura: I got the opportunity to interview Temperance Reddick. She originally came to Project Connect and completed Work Life. Work Life is a biblically integrated job preparedness curriculum designed to give practical job skills specifically for people coming from backgrounds of generational poverty.

Temperance: My name is Temperance Reddick.

Laura: Okay and where are you from Temperance?

Temperance: I’m from Nashville, Tennessee. I actually live in Madison which is a suburb off of Nashville, just a little north of Nashville. I work in Madison so I live in Madison, so a lot of our clients are Madison, so it’s weird where I go somewhere and I don’t see somebody that I know or work with.

Laura: How did you find out about Project Connect originally?

Temperance: I actually was in a relationship with Alan and Michelle Murdock. So before the building came about and classes and all the things that we now offer, Alan used to work out of the trunk of his car. And he was primarily in the community that I lived in at the time. So, that’s how we initially first met.

Temperance: I have a background story. I’m a convicted felon. I have multiple felony offenses and just coming out of Work Life, it taught me that I was made to work. Work isn’t a bad thing and so just gaining the knowledge from that, I started having a sense of I want my work to be beneficial. I don’t want my work just to pay my bills.

So I started looking into different avenues and options of jobs and you meet me and you look at me on paper, I’m qualified, I have an education and things of that nature, but when you run a background check, I’m a felon. So I got shot down from multiple jobs that I had wanted and I went through that for about three months and I got in a rut and I started feeling like if God created me to work, he’s going to provide my work.

I came up with the conclusion in my head that I was done looking for a job. I gave up. Alan had called me one day and he was like, “Hey, you should come in.” So I came in and one of our donors offered to pay my salary for a full year to work here if I would accept the position. And I bawled and bawled and bawled and I struggled with it and I did a lot of praying that night. “If this is where you want me to be, let it be.” And that was three years ago. So I made it, and it was a big joke around here. I’m like, “I only got nine months left of my donated salary so let’s see where this goes.” But three years later I’m still here.

Laura: What did it do to your self-confidence when you were applying to jobs and people would dismiss you despite your good qualifications?

Temperance: It’s heartbreaking. As far as self-confidence, it shoots it down, because in your mind, you have it made up that you are qualified. You know you’re more than capable of performing the job and you could handle every job responsibility that’s listed, but for it to be something just like a background, a decision, a choice that you made 13, 14 years ago to hold you back, to be a roadblock in your life is discouraging. Half of your characters in the Bible, they should be felons, if the law was the law then…so yeah, I’m grateful. I’m very grateful.

As far as second and third chances, that’s a big thing with me and sometimes it gets me in trouble because I think I’m a little too lenient and show too much grace. But I look at it this way: if it wasn’t for the grace that’s been shown upon me, then I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

Laura: What do you think is something people can learn from people below the poverty line?

Temperance: Working with impoverished families, I’ve found the majority of them are the most caring and loving and compassionate people. I’m going to cry just thinking about people, but I just feel like they’ll give it to you when they don’t have it. I tell people all the time I need you just like you need me. So as much as you feel like you come through our doors and we do for you, you do for me. I need you to help me to keep going.

Laura: We have a guy at our church named Michael and I don’t believe he’s homeless, but I believe he lives with his aunt and doesn’t have much to give, but last Sunday he came to our church and when it came time for the offering he dropped in two quarters which might have been all he had literally. Maybe all he had in his pocket and that was just so touching to me because that made me think of the woman in the Bible who gave a few cents in the offering plate and God was like hey, they gave more than any of you combined.

Temperance: Because they gave all they had, not just what they could.

Laura: I think the heart of God is a lot nearer to those experiencing poverty than we give credit for.

Temperance: Yeah, totally agree with that.

Laura: I also got the opportunity to interview Casundra. She works as an office assistant at Project Connect. She originally started as one of the first classes to complete Work Life.

Casundra: My name is Casundra Porter, I am from Savannah Tennessee, West Tennessee. I have been in Nashville since 2010 by way of recovery. I came into this new way of life and I will be celebrating nine years during the next couple of months. I was introduced to Project Connect in 2016. I lived over at Lackston Gardens and it’s a poverty-stricken community. Alan knocked on my door one Sunday when I lived at Lackston Gardens and he was telling us about this Faith & Finances class that they had over at Resonate Church and he told me exactly where they were located. I told him, “I’ll be there.”

I love telling this story, because it has a lot of meaning to me. He kept on telling me, “What we’re going to do is teach you how to be faithful with your money and teach you that we’re stewards, that we have to be stewards over our money and how to budget.” And I was like, “I’ll be there.” And he said, “In this class, I also offer you this.” And I said, “I’ll be there.” And he said, “We also offer this and that and we feed you guys.” I said, “I’ll be there.” I said, “You had me sold when you first just told me that it was a budgeting class because I know I needed help managing and budgeting money!” And after completing that class I went through Work Life. I am one of the graduates of the first Work Life class ever that we had here.

Laura: Wow, and how many years ago was that?

Casundra: And I graduated in 2015.

Laura: Wow, so you went through Faith & Finances and Work Life. How long after that did Alan ask you about working here?

Casundra: Well, he told me we’re going to get a location and we’re considering hiring you. I was nervous as a kid and I was like, “What in the world do I have to offer? What job could I possibly get?” because I’ve never had an office job. I always did manual labor and I always worked in waiting tables. But when he told me that Casundra we are going to give you the job then I was like, “Okay God, they’re offering me this job. I don’t have any experience here, but I know if you put it on their hearts to offer me this job then you’re going to give me what I need to do it.” And I have learned so much since I started working here.

Laura: How important is it for businesses do you think to give that opportunity to train people up into a skill?

Casundra: I think it is very, very, very important. I understand on an application they ask you do you have any experience. However, what about a person’s drive? If you got somebody pushing you and backing you and training you and you got that drive, there’s absolutely nothing you cannot do. Because my drive to learn how to be an office assistant, that was my main thing was like God help me to be the office assistant that you want me to be and be good for Project Connect. When people come through the door, they need to know that they are loved, that we are Christians here and we are here to serve them. I wish that there were more businesses that would say okay, we have these positions open and we’re willing to train you.

Alan: People that come into our program are people that are coming out of generational poverty. They’re coming out of situational poverty so something’s happened in their life. But it’s also it is school teachers that have fallen to addiction. We’ve had social workers that have come into our program. We’ve had people who have had very high paying jobs at some point of times in their lives that have come into our program because something has gone awry—in most cases, we’ve found that it’s trauma. So the majority of families that live in poverty, at least in our community and most of our city, have experienced deep trauma in their lives.

For some people, that didn’t happen until they’re older. Maybe it happened in a relationship. Or maybe it was a death that has sent somebody spiraling. Or they’ve graduated from college, started a job, and all of a sudden they find themselves with bipolar disorder or with schizophrenia or both. Or addiction crops up on them because they were in an accident and they started taking pain pills and then they couldn’t stop, and that led to other drugs and so they’re coming out of drug recovery communities but they don’t know what the next step is because they did some awful things under the influence that now makes them difficult to hire. And so through the Work Life program we are able to help them get back on their feet.

When employers come in and they hear what they’re learning, they’ll come in and sit and be a part of a class. They go, “Man, if they’re learning this stuff, I need to hear this stuff.” And so they go we’ll hire them and so we have companies that are not even necessarily felony friendly that will hire people coming out of our program to work with them because I know they’re hearing really good information through the Work Life material. So, it’s been a really exciting journey in that way.

Laura: Yeah, have you been able to communicate that vision to other companies that might be skeptical about hiring someone with a criminal background potentially?

Alan: Yeah, it’s not an easy chore. It’s a difficult chore, takes time. But by getting them to come in observe, there’s somebody to greet you, it’s very warm. There is an exciting element to it so it’s very fun for volunteers and allies to come in and participate. We do have businesses that will come in and go, “Okay I’ve heard about this, but I want to see it with my own eyes.” They’ll come in and they’ll see it and go wow this is good information.

It’s difficult to get them here. Once we get them here, then their mind starts changing. So, for example, we have a national jewelry chain who is calling us going, “Hey, we want to be connected to the work that you guys are doing in the Middle Tennessee area and we know your people have struggles. We probably can’t have anybody who’s been convicted of theft, but beyond that, we were interested in this.” So this is the information that we’ve received back is that this is really helpful to the community and we need people.

Laura: I remember I got to sit in the one Work Life class and I know afterward you take each participant and give them a time of just complimenting them and asking them if they could have any job what would that be. And I remember you mentioning a story about someone who wanted to do work in fashion.

Alan: Yes.

Laura: Can you tell more about that story?

Alan: So you’re talking about the round table and so it’s really interesting because we’ve had husbands and wives in our program that started at different times and have had their round table scheduled, everybody’s really nervous, what is the round table. And we’ve had a wife that went through the round table and her husband said what is this round table thing? You did it last year, obviously, I’m really nervous about it. She goes, I’m not going to tell you.

And nobody ever knows and they through classes, we have other classes that happen in our building, nobody will ever tell each other because it’s a really special time. And so we do this round table and we go through and we say hey, we want to tell you the beautiful things that we see about you and so we want you to be able to name those things so you can claim those things and then build on that as you go out to look for a job. As you go to be successful in life.

And it’s so interesting because there are amazing tears and tears of joy that fall. They go, “You see that in me?” We go, “Yeah, don’t you see that in yourself?” And then we go to where we say, “Hey, so now we want to talk about some things that may be tough, but we want you to take the things that you learned in Work Life and think through those things. That this is not meant to harm you, but this is meant to encourage you.”

So we want to say some things that we noticed that you could work on. We want you to name those things so you can tame those things in your life. And so they through that and then they cry again and they go yes, yes I do those things. And then we say, “Hey, now we want to know what your dreams are.” So if you could be whatever you want to be, you can’t say like a cowboy or cowgirl or I want to be an astronaut, princess all those things. But what was your dream? What did you imagine at the back of the corner of your mind, what would you want to be in?

So one of our students said I’m probably going to be a sitter, a CNA, CNT, somebody that is going to assist the elderly or people with disabilities. Because that’s what people in my community if they get a job, that’s what they get a job doing. But my dream would be to be in the fashion industry and she just went on this huge explanation of why and how she loved to put colors together and textures and she would design her purses.

She’d go to Goodwill and get a purse and find fabrics and put them together and she did. The way she had dressed always from Goodwill, but she looked really well put together. She goes I want to be in the fashion industry but I’m in Nashville. There’s not a fashion industry here and who would take me? And we were like this is really interesting because a week ago, the fashion industry called and they said,”Hey, we’re looking for somebody who is coming out of a difficult place and would be interested in working in the fashion industry.” And we did know at the time, but right then we knew this is our person.

What we didn’t know was that there were going to be 40 other people applying for that position and that they had reached to other non-profits in other community, but because of her training with Work Life, she got the job.

Laura: Wow. We interviewed this one company it was like a trucking company where they loan trucks out to different industries and they strategically only hire people who come from hard backgrounds. And we got the owner on interview and he said it’s not always easy, but it’s so worth it. In a millennial world, most people are changing jobs every year, but you get someone who you worked and you trained up to that position is the most faithful employee that you’ll ever have.

Alan: Yeah, could be your lifelong employee. Could be your next manager. Could be, you never know. We have one of our gentlemen, one of our volunteers here who is a manager, upper-level management at a local industry in the Madison community. We’re just north of a poverty suburb with Nashville. And our people have applied there before but turned down because of their background. But now he’s like, no go through me because I’ve got a background and he said I worked my way up to the top in this company. They were musicians in the music industry, had huge addiction issues and had made really bad mistakes in their life.

Became believers, their lives changed. He was able to get a job so he was able to go to his boss and go hey look, you guys took a risk on me and so well we knew you from church and we knew you’re from these circumstances so we knew that you were a changed person. He goes well, it took people pouring into me to get me to that point. I want to hire people from this organization. So where we connect to them on employment, so if they’ve gone and applied before and they said I’m sorry we don’t hire felons. But now we go through an individual that works there that says hey, we’re going to hire this person I just interviewed and they’re going to be really valuable to them.

And so he just came to office the other day and said hey I just want to say thank you for sending Charles. Charles is the best employee we have ever had in this part of our company. And just beamed and was like we’ve just never seen anything like it so thank you.

Laura: That’s amazing. Today, Alan and his wife serve as leaders of Project Connect Nashville. Developing deep and meaningful relationships. Building hope and providing a real and unified connection between families in poverty and the body of Christ. If you want to learn more about Project Connect, visit their website at projectconnectnashville.org. Alan and his team rely on the Chalmers center to provide biblical and effective tools like our faith and finances financial education program and our Work Life job preparedness program. Check out our new faith and finances online training course available for churches and non-profits. Go to chalmers.org/finances. You can find the link in the episode description.

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Laura Haley

Laura Haley

Laura earned a B.A. in Graphic Design from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Following graduation, she had the opportunity to work on marketing teams with other non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity, Unifi-Ed, and Young Life. Her work is guided by the belief that meaningful innovation requires a deep understanding of the people who use design. Away from work, Laura loves running, exploring national parks, and swing dancing.

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