ONCE UPON A TIME, back in 2006, I found myself suddenly out of my eight-year Quaker job and staring into the blank abyss of unemployment.
It wasn’t a totally new experience. I have always had a fondness for quirky do-gooder jobs in the nonprofit world. The balance sheets of my employers were often rickety, and when a job fell through, I’d find a cheap apartment on the hipster edge of a sketchy neighborhood and cobble together new income. But this time was different: I was a few months shy of 40, married, with two kids and a mortgage to cover. The housing bubble was about to burst and bring a recession that would decimate jobs in the nonprofit sector. I had no choice but to venture out past my comfort zone.
A shrewd older Friend had once cornered me, looked me in the eye, and warned, “Don’t work for Quakers so long that you can only work for Quakers.” Good advice, but it had come too late. As I sent out résumés and fielded follow-up calls, it became clear that most of the human resource screeners didn’t know what to make of my recent job titles. So, like many of my peers in the new economy, I cobbled once more: I started building up a freelance website development business and looked for part-time work that could fill in the gaps until my freelance work was self-sustaining.
To me, my story sounds like one of the journalistic clichés of the last decade: the middle-aged college grad who gets laid off and ends up working for a minimum wage at a box store. For me it was nightshift at ShopRite, at that point the second-largest supermarket chain in the Philadelphia region. At 10:30 PM the store would close, and I would walk in past the last of the evening’s shoppers and start cutting open a dozen or so pallets packed chest-high with groceries. Over the next eight hours, I would carry and rearrange two to three tons of cans, bags, packets, and boxes, methodically arranging them on the shelves of the baking and pet food aisles. Lunch was 3:00 AM, quitting time dawn.
I had fancied myself a class-conscious progressive, but this was a whole new experience. It shouldn’t have startled me to realize that this was simultaneously the hardest and lowest-paying job I had ever had, but it did. In a weird way, it was also my first “honest” job: after years of working in a marketplace of ideas and words, I was doing something tangibly productive. The brownie mix boxes I stacked so carefully were going to become afternoon treats for favorite grandchildren. My spices were bound for family reunion dinners. Even the 20-pound bags of cat litter that strained my muscles were going to support someone’s favorite companion. Despite this knowledge, I suffered through the temptations of self-pity and entitlement every night.
There was a small core of long-time nightshift crew members and a revolving door of new hires. Some of the new people lasted only a day before quitting and some a week or two, but few remained longer. Many of these temporary employees were poster children for the tragedies of modern twenty-something manhood (night crews were almost all male). One twenty-something white guy was just back from Iraq; he shouted to himself, shot angry looks at us, and was full of jerky, twitchy movements. We all instinctively kept our distance. Over one lunch break, he opened up enough to admit he was on probation for an unspecified offense and that loss of this job would mean a return to prison. When he disappeared after two weeks (presumably to jail), we were all visibly relieved. (Our fears weren’t entirely unfounded: a night crew member from a nearby ShopRite helped plan the 2007 Fort Dix terrorist plot.)
Another co-worker lasted a bit longer. He was older and calmer, an African American man in his late forties who biked in. I liked him and during breaks, we sometimes talked about God. One frosty morning, he asked if I could give him a lift home. As he gave directions down a particular road, I thoughtlessly said, “Oh so you live back past Ancora,” referring to a locally-notorious state psychiatric hospital. He paused a moment before quietly telling me that Ancora was our destination and that he lived in its halfway house for vets in recovery. Despite the institutional support, he too was gone after about a month.
The regulars were more stable, but even they were susceptible to the tectonic shifts of the modern workforce. There was a time not so long ago when someone could graduate high school, work hard, be dependable, and earn a decent working-class living. My shift manager was only a few years older than me, but he owned a house and a dependable car, and he had the nightshift luxury of being able to attend all of his son’s Little League games. But that kind of job was disappearing. Few new hires were offered full-time work anymore. The new jobs were part-time, short-term, and throw-away. Even the more stable “part-timers” drifted from one dreary, often dangerous, job to the next.
When dawn brought the end of a Saturday shift, I would sometimes go home, shower, and fight my body’s desire for sleep so I could drive to the Friends meeting I then attended. I knew some of my fellow worshippers had faced economic setbacks, but the mornings still felt wealthy and privileged. We sat together in a 150-year-old building set on expansive suburban grounds and spent an hour in economically unproductive silence. It was calming, but I couldn’t help wondering what my co-workers back at the supermarket would think. I knew they were probably sleeping and that I would pay for the self-indulgence of late-morning worship.
I often took the opportunity of the silence to think back to our spiritual forebears. I had once visited Sedbergh, a northern English town where George Fox had preached. The story in Fox’s Journal was that he showed up on market day and squeezed through the throng to get into the very middle of the crowds of “hiring servants and many young people.” He looked around for a vantage point, and, seeing a tall tree by a church, climbed and preached. Fox recalls that he “declared the everlasting Truth of the Lord and the word of life for several hours.”
It must have been some good preaching because word soon spread of this newcomer. The following First Day, he climbed to another natural vantage point, conspicuously outside a church. This time it was a scheduled meeting of independent spiritual seekers, and his chosen pulpit was a nearby outcrop of rock. He recounts that the sermon lasted three hours and reached over a thousand listeners. This speech on Firbank Fell unofficially marks the beginning of the Religious Society of Friends. Among his listeners were many of the first Quakers that would fan out across Britain and the world preaching the good news of the Christian gospel that Friends had recovered.
His was a message of practical salvation that resonated with a rural working class. He went to the job fairs and talked to people about the world they lived in. His sermons were peppered with stories and parables. His message was direct and simple and seemed to come right out of book of Acts:
I opened the prophets and the figures and shadows and turned them to Christ the substance, and then opened the parables of Christ and the things that had been hid from the beginning, and showed them the estate of the Epistles how they were written to the elect.
One of Fox’s earliest openings was that “being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ,” and his followers took this message to heart. A meetinghouse a few miles from Sedbergh has a dedicated area for members’ sheepdogs. If George Fox were preaching today, he likely would not confine himself to one of our settled suburban meetinghouses. He’d still be looking for a tree to climb. He’d still be seeking out the crowds of “hiring servants” and “young people.”
Were his times so radically different? Or was it I who was different? Perhaps it’s the message of our Religious Society of Friends that has changed. Surely Fox’s good news that “Christ has come to teach his people himself” is eternal. The idea that we can find spiritual truth through inward searching and group discernment still holds up.
Worship would break. I’d share some tea and cookies, head home, catch a few hours of sleep and then go back to work. But this was a different life. In my professional life before ShopRite, it had been both my job and passion to share Quakerism, but it was nearly impossible to imagine doing so over those 3 AM lunch breaks.
Demoralizing as my time in the supermarket aisles was, I knew it was bound to be limited. I still had a degree from a good college. My résumé was solid, if quirky, and I could point to twenty years of respectable work experience. My freelance work was picking up, and every few weeks, I finished my shift to dress in my best suit for a second-round job interview.
But I knew that the questions that had been raised for me in my nightshift work would not go away with an upwardly-mobile new job. Is there room in our meetinghouse for high school grads with low-status jobs? For all our talk of nonviolence, do we have a ministry to veterans returning from war? Much of our outreach material is a hornets’ nest of history and an incomprehensible tangle of acronyms. How can we more fully live out our stated ideals of equality and cast a wider net, to gather seekers to the good news we’ve been given?