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“God’s Tender Mercies”: A Faith-Based Jobs Strategy

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FAITH & DOWN TRODDEN - (Can faith-based groups be engaged more fully in job training and anti-poverty initiatives?)

Donna and I regularly attend the Friday night Sabbath services at our synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El. A few months ago, the synagogue hosted a guest sermon by Reverend Paul Trudeau, founder and CEO of City Hope, an anti-poverty project in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Nearly always, talks by anti-poverty administrators as well as by “poverty experts” devolve into lectures on the need for this or that new government program, or about how Americans need to be more compassionate. But Trudeau’s talk was different. He didn’t default to the “government program” mindset or the “lecture-on-compassion” mindset. Instead, he spoke of God’s love, our roles as individuals in making connections, the impacts each of us could have, and the “radical hospitality” that City Hope is built on. He invited congregants to visit City Hope, see the range of services, and meet the participants and staff—which a number of us have done.

Over the past half century, various efforts have tried to incorporate the power and resources of the faith community into government anti-poverty and job training initiatives. These efforts have met with mixed success and have faded in recent years. Can faith-based groups be more fully incorporated in the anti-poverty/job training world today? What does City Hope’s experience suggest?

“Radical Hospitality”

City Hope, established by Trudeau in 2014, has its roots in City Church, a church founded by members of the evangelical community in San Francisco in the 1990s. After attending a Presbyterian seminary in the early 2000s, Trudeau came to City Church in 2005, joining the Church staff to focus on community outreach. Trudeau spent most of the next eight years in outreach to inmates at the county jail, conducting church services at the jail, and outreach to addicts and recovering addicts. “I found I had skills in mentorship and in connecting inmates and addicts to church members and others,” Trudeau explains.

“By 2013 I began to form a vision of a ministry that would bring a different form of service to those most down-and-out. More than counseling, therapy or job search workshops, they needed God’s love and our love, to know they are part of a community, at least to start their journey to a different type of life.”

With the financial support of City Church, Trudeau rented a large second floor open space at 45 Olive Street, in the heart of the Tenderloin. With volunteers, he turned the space into a restaurant and community gathering venue, which opened in 2015. Hot dinners were served at no cost to all who came, and accompanied by a series of social events—movie nights, karaoke nights, bingo nights.

“The theme of our dinners and events from the start has been ‘radical hospitality/dignified transformation.’ We want anyone who comes through our doors to know that they are valued. Our staff and volunteers are instructed to learn the name of each participant and address them by name, on an ongoing basis, and affirm their value. That is the radical hospitality. The other element, dignified transformation, refers to the growth of both the participant and the staff/volunteers through their interactions.”

City Hope does not seek to convert any of the participants or proselytize. Its message to participants, volunteers, and the broader Tenderloin community is one of fullest life and connection through service.

Since 2016, City Hope has expanded to ventures beyond the restaurant, incorporating its radical hospitality in other forms. It has added a coffee shop providing free breakfasts and lunches, a food delivery service, delivering food twice a week from the area food bank to Tenderloin residents, and a nearby 25 unit residential facility for recovering addicts.

This has done all of this without government funding.

Service as Prayer”

To meet its roughly two million dollar budget, City Hope relies mainly on private donations, from individuals, companies and foundations. It also relies heavily on volunteers, which it has no shortage of. “We have fifteen or so volunteers at each meal. Our volunteers are drawn from all parts of the City: high schools such as St.Ignatius and Sacred Heart, the local colleges, churches and synagogues. There is a hunger for service, young and old. Our volunteers also come from the Tenderloin, from local residents as well as from former clients of City Hope.”

One source of volunteers for the past two years has been Congregation Emanu-El. Cantor Arik Luck met Trudeau in 2021, and soon thereafter with his team began to organize volunteer service activities for the congregation’s Youth and Family Education program. “The City Hope cafe had been closed on Sunday mornings due to the fact that many of their volunteers were attending church services,” Cantor Luck recalls. “We offered to operate the cafe on Sunday mornings with our seventh grade student and parent volunteers. As we are a part of the Jewish community, City Hope staff suggested branding this initiative as our collective ‘Kosher Style Deli in the Tenderloin’. We provide deli food at no cost, with funding from our congregation members.

“In the Jewish tradition, ‘Tikkun Olam’ refers to the repairing of the world. I had been searching for a local organization where our pre-teens could explore this concept, not only through advocacy or fundraising, but also by “rolling up their sleeves” and repeatedly showing up, as opposed to a ‘one off’ experience. Our congregants are getting a far more realistic picture of the Tenderloin, the unhoused and housed population, addicts, and others, than is presented in the media, left and right. Additionally, through City Hope’s practice of radical hospitality, we explore for ourselves the value of direct service, rather than theory or ideology, as a catalyst to our own growth as human beings.”

And Cantor Luck adds: “Before being ordained as a cantor, I was an actor in New York, who waited tables for some years. So as a bonus, each Sunday I also get to help Paul give our young students a crash course on the basics of being a high end waiter. It never would have occurred to me all those years ago, waiting tables in Manhattan, how much meaning I would one day find in passing this skill set along, teaching young people how to treat their Tenderloin resident customers with extreme dignity. It is sacred work for me, no different than leading the music at our services.”

“Work as Dignity”

City Hope does not think of itself as a job training program per se. But it functions as one in several ways, both related to its efforts of building individual confidence and self-esteem, and its direct employment of community members in its enterprises.

A first principle of job training is that for many jobs, employers are not looking for workers with specific vocational skills. They are willing to teach these specific skills—in, say, security services, or property management, or home care for the elderly. They are looking for workers who have the basics of coming to work regularly and on time, and who have the soft skills of customer relations, problem solving, taking directions.

“We don’t approach our participants in the mode of a job placement agency. We know we need to earn their trust and respect first, before we can provide other services,” Trudeau notes. “But there is no question that many of them would like to find their way to the dignity of employment, even if it may not be reachable in the immediate future. And I have been thinking for some time on how we can build out our employment services.”

“In our restaurant and coffee shop, our workers do learn customer-service skills, and at our residential facility, some are involved in property management tasks. What still remains to be built is our connection to more mainstream employment. We do have connections with major employers in the area, who now provide volunteer teams, so that could be a starting point.”

Faith and the Job Training World

City Hope is exceptional, but not unique. There are City Hopes in all major cities and in many suburbs and small towns: faith-based enterprises feeding the hungry and ministering to the addicts, ex-offenders and the mentally ill, with no bureaucracies or grand anti-poverty theories beyond Love Thy Neighbor.

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to integrate these groups and the religious entities they are connected to, into the government system of job training. Some of these attempts have floundered due to shoddy bookkeeping or financial improprieties on the part of grant recipients. In other cases, the groups and their religious partners have not had basic job training or job placement expertise. The Urban Institute in the early 2000s reviewed faith-based organizations providing workforce services, as did a University of California, Davis study a few years later, focused on faith-related organizations and the public sector workforce system. The latter study acknowledged the diversity of faith-related organizations, the limitations common to many, while also singling out strengths of “building self-esteem and self-motivation” and “affinity-based mentoring” in serving the hardest-to-employ individuals.

It may be that City Hope continues best in its present form outside of the public workforce system, as an extra-governmental group, relying on private funding and volunteers. But City Hope’s experiences suggest a number of values that it and other faith-based groups can bring to the job training system.

The volunteer base cannot replace job placement staff at government and community-based agencies. But volunteers, especially volunteers arising from a faith nexus, can augment these efforts, through on-going (”high touch”) encouragement and check-ins.

Individuals and companies who participate as volunteers in City Hope’s direct service activities, can also be a source of job referrals. And if a job placement is made, they might offer a mentorship role, to assist in job retention and success.

Additionally, City Hope already serves as a form of pre-employment program, as it seeks to build (rebuild) the confidence and motivation of its participants. Its impact might be increased as it is linked to workforce intermediaries with more structured job placement teams.

So, as the public workforce system continues to struggle with limited success in integrating the homeless, ex-addicts and persons with mental health challenges, why not look to the City Hopes that are already up and going. Why not bring them more fully into the workforce conversation.

In the more than four decades I’ve been involved with job training, I’ve grown less and less confident of what is being accomplished by a number of the main government anti-poverty strategies. But one thing I know for certain is that the one-to-one service, like that being provided by City Hope, freely given without reservation or politics, is always of value. It is true and honest, and we need to consider ways to expand its reach.

God’s tender mercies.

(Michael Bernick served as Director of the state labor department, the Employment Development Department, following eight years as a Board member of the BART transit system. He currently is an employment counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, Milken Institute Fellow and Fellow with Burning Glass Institute. His newest book is The Autism Full Employment Act.”)

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