Praying for work: Parish groups support the unemployed

BRAINTREE -- Rich Brouillette was among the thousands of people across the country and the state of Massachusetts who lost his job during the current economic downturn.

When he lost his job, he utilized numerous sources to pursue job leads and other helpful job search information -- including unemployment support groups that have formed at local parishes.

"There were a lot of people, including myself, who needed help at the time," said Brouillette, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Westford. "For me, it was important to get the spiritual piece and to have fellowship with the men and women who joined us."

Several parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston, including St. Catherine's have formed networking and support groups that have helped professionals like Brouillette through the job-hunting process. Groups have also formed at parishes such as St. Ignatius Loyola in Newton, St. Athanasius in Reading, and St. Robert Bellarmine in Andover.

These groups help Catholics and non-Catholics alike in coping with unemployment and finding new work. They allow participants to network for new employment, learn about the latest resume-writing and interviewing techniques, discuss the importance of social media such as LinkedIn -- a social networking website for job professionals -- and seek spiritual guidance in their career discernment process.

As of June, the seasonally-adjusted nationwide unemployment rate was near double digits with Massachusetts slightly below the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Brouillette and thousands of other job-seekers were competing in that climate.

Brouillette, a finance professional, attended meetings of the Faith Works Unemployment Support group at St. Catherine's. He cited the group's spiritual component for giving him the strength to cope with unemployment and be able to share his experiences in an environment where he did not feel alone.

Brouillette said that God has a plan for each person, although at times he wondered why it was he who was among the unemployed.

"There are a lot of dark days where you're sitting there saying 'Why me?'," he said.

Though he eventually found a job through another source after nearly four months of searching, he credited the group with giving him the strength to be open with his family about his layoff. He had originally told only his wife.

Faith Works Unemployment Support formed at St. Catherine of Alexandria in Westford in February 2009 when parishioners were exploring how they could help the unemployed.

About 30 people attended the first meeting, according to Bob Cunningham, one of the group's founders.

"This is a really hard time for people," Cunningham said. "People are really hurting."

"We're a faith community," he continued. "We're called to support one another."

Cunningham stressed the role that faith plays in the group.

"We wanted it to be prayerful," he said. "We wanted faith to be a major part of what we did."

The group's monthly meetings delve into typical job-searching strategies such as resume-writing, developing an "elevator speech" -- a brief introduction to present at the beginning of an interview -- and using social networking sites such as LinkedIn.

Additionally, they explore the role of prayer and reflection in the job-hunting process through participating in a form of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a program of meditations, prayer, contemplation, and examinations of conscience.

"It's not just the idea of finding a job, but finding the job that's right for you and the job you want to have," said Terry Drula, another group member.

Drula said that between 30 and 50 people have attended monthly meetings.

"I think it keeps people's spirits up and keeps people focused on what they're doing," Drula said. "That's the utmost success of the thing."

Another professional who was helped by a church-based unemployment support group was Tricia Connors, of Natick.

Connors participated in Transitions, a networking and support group at St. Ignatius in Newton. Both she and her husband, parents of twins, age 3, were laid off recently -- Connors in July 2009 and her husband in April 2010.

Formerly in a group employee benefits sales position, Tricia Connors was seeking a new role that would afford her a work-life balance to pursue a career yet care for her children.

In addition to the St. Ignatius group, Connors went to the Needham Presbyterian Church Transitions Center for networking and support.

Connors started a new job in July 2010 as a sales and marketing professional for a small software company in Framingham.

Though, like Brouillette, Connors did not find her new position directly from the group at her church, she later learned that someone connected to the St. Ignatius group had "put in a good word" with her prospective employer.

Connors credits the church-based group for providing support through the job search process.

"It was great to have that home base to come to every week and help people in whatever their situations were," Connors said.

St. Ignatius' group, Transitions, meets every Wednesday after the parish's noon Mass, though meetings are bi-weekly in the summer.

"It's a support group as well as a help group in terms of finding work," said Frank Faggiano, a program volunteer and longtime human resources professional.

"That's a big piece of the program -- supporting one another during this period of time," he said.

Faggiano, also a St. Ignatius parishioner, said the group has a small group of volunteers, three of which have a human resources background. He said that a total of 85 people are a part of the group, and that meetings average roughly 15 attendees per week.

He pointed out that a large number of participants are over age 40.

"We work hard at just talking through what the week has been like for them and what help do they need," Faggiano said.

Transitions was formed nearly 18 months ago when a group of parishioners who were praying the Ignatian exercises were discussing how they could help the unemployed, according to Anne Murphy, a program founder. She said they decided to resurrect a program that had been at the parish during the last economic recession.

Prayer is a component of Transitions' meetings, Faggiano said.

"We're always looking through inspiring prayers -- either through the liturgy or readings people have seen," he said.

He said the group has had a 23 percent placement ratio.

Dino Cuscuna, who is affiliated with an unemployment support group at St. Athanasius Parish in Reading, said that during the past two weeks, two members of that group found jobs.

That parish's group, Cornerstone, meets on the third Wednesday of every month. The group has existed since February 2009.

Speakers have included program alumni, those who have found jobs, but return to share their strategies and successes.

Cuscuna said some speakers discuss spirituality, and that the virtues of faith and hope are stressed during meetings.

He noted the volunteerism from the parish community that has aided the development of the group. He said parishioners have volunteered job leads and information as well as offered to help with informational interviewing.

He said that the group has spread to nearby towns such as North Reading and Lawrence, and that they helped form a group at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Andover.