People of God in Troubled Economic Times

Straddling a serpentine stretch of the Rock River in southern Wisconsin, the city of Janesville boasts a proud industrial heritage.

The modern fountain pen was developed here, the innovation of George Parker whose mansions still stand as a reminder of the wealth his quality pens and inks brought to the city. Janesville also played a major role at the beginnings of the American auto industry when the Sampson tractor company abandoned manufacturing farm machinery in order to satisfy a nation’s growing appetite for automobiles. Thus began a long love affair between GM and the solid middle class workforce that southern Wisconsin could provide. Residents of Janesville drew their identity from both of these icons of American industry.

Things began to sour for both Janesville industries in the 1980’s. In 1987 the Parker Pen headquarters moved to Sussex, England. After several corporate buyouts, pen production ceased entirely at the Janesville plant. While the fortunes of the Janesville GM plant remained uncertain from decade to decade, the productive workforce attracted new models to the plant until gas prices knocked the bottom out of the large SUV market. Janesville’s plant, the oldest and most outdated in the GM system, tooled to make Chevy Tahoes and the behemoth Suburban, was doomed. The plant will close its doors on December 23rd, 2008.

The proud stone arch that ushered workers into the Parker office building now serves a much humbler role as a gateway to a wedding venue in a local botanical garden. The towering stacks and acres of metal sided factory buildings and storage tanks will soon rust silently on the banks of the river. The final twelve hundred GM workers are left to flee to other plants, enter retirement, or seek new jobs in nearby cities. Other industries which supply parts to GM, such as Lear Seating, are simultaneously closing their doors, spilling their workers into an already glutted labor market. The number of “For Sale” signs began to increase in front of houses well before the final closing.

The Sunday after the first tentative announcement of the plant closure nearly a year ago, I held a listening session after Sunday services. About thirty people assembled around tables in our coffee area to share their feelings and experiences. Much to my surprise, instead of anger and fear, the predominant feelings were optimism and even relief. One person said: “I feel free. I’ve been living with the fear I’d lose my job. Now I’m looking forward to moving on to something else.” Another person added, “It will be hard in the short term, but Janesville will survive.” People were stunned and disoriented, but they were not panicked.

I came away from that meeting with a different sense of how to preach to my community at this time. In addition to preaching on biblical themes aimed at soothing people’s fears and promising God’s presence, my strategy changed to include empowering texts and messages that would speak to people’s hope and help them plot courses of action as they faced an uncertain future. The first thing I needed to do was listen to what people were feeling and how they were acting, instead of assuming that I already knew. My own community of faith taught me that crisis doesn’t destroy hope; it demands it.

A couple of weeks prior to the presidential elections, I preached a sermon which I titled, rather dryly I’m afraid, “Biblical Economics.” I used some of the vineyard texts we had been encountering in the lectionary and other familiar texts dealing with money to draw out three points about the use of wealth in the Bible:

  • The Bible is not anti-business but assumes an ethical use of labor and capital.
  • Economic justice is a central concern of a faithful life.
  • The Gospel of prosperity can lead to a distortion of Jesus’ call to care for the poor and the oppressed.

I urged people to vote in the upcoming election and make personal decisions informed by these principles. It was my intention to provide a small sense of empowerment in the face of overwhelming forces.

As the date of the plant closing drew near, members of First Lutheran in Janesville are seeking ways to help one another through this difficult time. On December 23rd, an hour after the GM plant closes its doors for the final time, First Lutheran will host a community interfaith prayer service. We will hear from God’s word, pray together, sing together and then, I trust, depart to face the future as God’s hope filled people.