Our Economic Watergate

By Don Rollins

I don’t know anybody who makes real money doing what I do for a living. Sure, the cable-channel pulpit pounders and smiling faces make out pretty well but trust me, those cats are the exception. No sir, I’m talking about women and men who retain a strange sense that they didn’t really choose ministry; ministry chose them, lousy pay and crazy hours be damned. We wouldn’t be caught dead with pinky rings or $20,000 hair weaves or God-wants-you-to-be-stinkin’-rich bestsellers. Based on our average career incomes, I suspect that our most realistic retirement plans include asking you if you want paper or plastic.

Another occupational hazard is the fact that most of us move around like Army brats. We’re about one bishop or vocal, discontented gaggle of the faithful away from a U-Haul truck. Me, I’m a true ministerial frequent flyer. Take my recent relocation from the prairie cornfields to the great unwashed suburbs of the Twin Cities. Bigger church. Better money. A good “career” move, I suppose.

But rotten pay and hours are pretty small potatoes in the real world. In my last parish, I watched as this gathering, straight-from-hell economic crisis began draining the soul from some of America’s finest small-farm families. What the ungodly price of equipment and crop insurance couldn’t kill, the distant political and economic elite did. It’s a situation none of those farmers deserve and few understand.

Sadly, cornfield ministry means helping those who help feed the world feed themselves. It means downcast eyes and hushed voices as the poorer farmers ask about tapping the church discretionary fund for just a couple of weeks’ worth of food. Right now, ministry to those folks is mighty tangible: medical bills, gas vouchers and groceries.

The face of the failing economy is different here in the ’burbs, but not much prettier. Foreclosure seminars are the order of the day in neighborhoods where sit-down restaurants are cutting staff and once immaculate city parks are looking mighty shabby. Outwardly wealthy college kids are transferring from private schools to state. And bicycle accidents are way up as more people peddle to work.

I know that suburban economic suffering may strike some as sheer whining. But close up, I’m less judgmental. “Susan” wants to know if I can be part of the crew that will help her move from an upscale condo to a tiny apartment. “Rick” tells me that he and “Tim”, his partner of two decades, have never fought over money. Until now. And “Courtney,” a single mom, lights a candle in church because her new job — the one that replaced the old one, from which she was laid-off — was just eliminated.

From where I sit — farm fields behind me, suburbs before me — this economic thing is real. The media pieces devoted to explaining its probable causes and possible outcomes cannot assuage the uncertainty and growing shame inflicted upon everyday people here in the Heartland. And Brothers Bush and Rove notwithstanding, those of us on the frontlines of the once highly touted “faith-based initiatives” wonder where in the hell the feds are now. Nonprofits, faith-based and otherwise, are being utilized beyond their resources while the bailout bill (yet another trickle-down style transfer of wealth) gets the congressional stamp of approval. The fact is that my colleagues and I feel inadequate to the task because we are inadequate to the task. We’re anecdotal proof that yet another conservative darling is dead on arrival.

Bottom line: the raw suffering is real. By itself, the suffering tells us little about how to stop the free fall, but it does lay bare the fact that the bulk of blue-collar Americans are woefully ignorant about the economy’s fundamental machinations. Unless and until that changes, those of us of a certain age can’t help but wonder if this is our economic Watergate—our moment of total disillusionment, our immanently rude entrée into the globalized, post-sub-prime world where damn near everybody “holds paper” on damn near everybody else.

Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email minister@mnvalleyuu.org.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2008

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