At the age of 21 I was made redundant and joined the ranks of the unemployed. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, if entirely unwelcome.
I found myself unprepared for a difficult journey: from being a young engineering apprentice learning skills which ought to have set me up for a long working life, to suddenly being an outcast, reduced to signing on each fortnight, and unjustly regarded by unsympathetic critics as being 'work shy', a 'sponger', etc. As a young Christian I was disappointed by the response of the church to my personal plight, a situation which many of my peers were also experiencing (this was the early 1980s, a hard time for thousands of young and newly-unemployed people). It seemed that church people had little to say, in their sermons, magazines, youth ministry or in personal conversations, about the situation I was in. Little comfort, reassurance, or hope. It was during this period that I left the church.
Fortunately the faith which had nurtured me all my life did not desert me. I knew very little about God, but enough to suspect that he did have some feeling for me in my situation, and that the scriptures probably had quite a lot to say about the state I was in. So, with friends and companions outside the church I embarked on the most significant course of theological learning of my life: self-taught, over many months spent reflecting on our experiences, and drawing on influences from all over society (philosophers, poets, publicans, priests and pop singers amongst them), we discovered that God valued all people equally, regardless of status (the 'ranks' of the unemployed alongside society's generals); we noticed that in the story of Adam and Eve work is a curse - but that elsewhere in scripture God validates and celebrates work (as the Creator of the world - quite a job - and as the carpenter of Nazareth); we read Psalm 104 where work is as much a part of the natural order as the rising and setting of the sun; and we realised to our astonishment that whereas our society belittles and marginalises them, God has a special place for the poor and struggling people of our world.
All of this is fresh and raw to me now in the light of the uncertainty which hangs over the working lives of so many in our area - in the recently announced factory redundancies and in the ongoing challenges faced by many, often hidden, who struggle to make a living in our rural area, where costs (of fuel, transport, accommodation, etc) are so high and resources so stretched. In my years of unemployment I learned something else about our faith - that God demands that his people demonstrate his justice in the world: a justice based on loving compassion, which means helping people in need (such as by contributing to a food bank) and joining them in their struggles (for more and better employment, fair wages, realistic and supportive benefits, and for dignity and equity).
'If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it,' writes Paul (1 Corinthians 12.26). We might embrace these words of empathy with others as we work out how to respond to what is happening to the people of our area at this time.
Revd John Davies