Stories of churches that connect to serve their communities
by Emily Enders Odom | Communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency
Career network: ‘The most meaningful thing I’ve ever done’
From an early age, Bill Linton knew just what he wanted to do. Like a lot of other people growing up in South Carolina in the 1940s and 50s, he set his sights on a career in the textile field.
But his goal had to wait. After first serving in the Army, Linton worked briefly for a fishing tackle manufacturer, before he was called back into military service during the Berlin crisis of 1958. Having deferred a previous offer from Blue Bell, a clothing manufacturer later acquired by the VF Corporation, he finally attained his dream.
And then one day, without warning, he lost it.
And along with it—after 23 years as a middle manager in the textile industry—he lost his self-identity and sense of self-worth.
“I can still remember how it impacted me,” Linton says, “After 23 years, I had to come home and tell my family and my wife that I didn’t have a job. I was very angry. When I left Blue Bell, I was given an office, I was given secretarial help, and I was in the same facility that I worked in when I was getting paid, but nobody came to see me because they didn’t know what to say. So it’s not only the job loss; it’s the loss of the connections that you have developed when you’re working that is hurtful.”
Throughout the course of Linton’s vocational journey, as the textile industry has increasingly moved to other countries, he has lost his job five times. “I had a wife who had breast cancer that metastasized, and I lost her along with five jobs,” he says. “When the economic downturn came, there were a lot of people who were hurting. It’s very hard to reinvent your self-confidence and your ability to be positive. But I wanted to give back.”
Linton found a way to give back in his home congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, North Carolina.
Two former church members, Jeff Claypool and Dick Bruce—who died not long ago at the age of 86—offered to help Linton build, publicize, and run a new outreach ministry, which came to life as FPC Jobs. “I’m not very good at waiting, so I just worked with Peggy Matthews, then the pastoral care minister at First Presbyterian,” he says. “We didn’t follow the normal Presbyterian process where you go to the committees; we just started it. Very un-Presbyterian!”
Now known as the Triad Career Network, the group had its first meeting in February 2009, with six people attending. Since then, the network—which meets twice a week—has grown to 288 active members with 79 alumni working full-time. As of March 2016, the network had found 526 full-time jobs for its members. “Those are just the jobs that we know about,” says Linton.
In 2013 the Triad Career Network received a Leadership Greensboro Medal from the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “The focus in the group is not just finding a job,” Linton says. “It’s finding what your passion for living is, what you really like, and who you really are.”
Each meeting follows a simple process. Before various speakers from the community—representing different areas of expertise—address specific aspects of the job-search process, the meeting begins with a faith component.
“We start out every meeting with a motivational or religious video, and then we follow that up with a prayer,” says Linton. “The statement I make is that this is an outreach ministry of First Presbyterian Church and we like to acknowledge the presence of our Lord at every meeting. That’s the first thing they get when they become a part of our group. We didn’t use to do that, but we do that now because the members of our group indicated that’s what they wanted and needed.”
On average, 15 to 25 people attend each meeting. The average age is between 50 and 55. Linton says most who attend had been working for the same company for up to 20 years, “so they’re doubly hurt” because it wasn’t incompetence, but rather something that changed within the organization, such as a restructuring, that necessitated their leaving, as was the case with Linton.
“The really interesting thing about them is that they’re not interested in getting a job like they had before; they want to give back, and are willing to take less money,” says Linton. “It’s a problem for them because most of the people can read their résumé and say they’re overqualified for a job. They have a real problem convincing them that they’re willing to take a different path.”
Mary Eagle, a former Spanish teacher who left the teaching field to work on a master’s degree in Christian education at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now Union Presbyterian Seminary, stopped her studies when she was called to a church in Connecticut as its director of Christian education. When she moved back to her native North Carolina in 2005 to be with family, she found herself jobless for the first time. Eagle, who ended up teaching preschool for a few years, became involved with the network “because [she] wanted to do something else, but didn’t know what.”
“It pointed me in the direction to learn about all the different things that are out there, she says.
“When you’re in education, your world is kind of small.”
Eagle says that of the many ways the network has helped her, its strongest asset has been the networking itself, coupled with the fact that the group is housed at the church where she has been a member since 1983.
“I think that for anybody, particularly for a person of faith, all aspects of life relate back to God and what does God want you to do with your life and why you are who you are,” Eagle says.
Eagle’s theology of vocation is shared by Linton, who is now retired and remarried following his first wife’s death. Linton now devotes all of his time to his extended family and to the network he founded. “This is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says.
For formerly homeless man, ‘it had to be God that led them to me’
No stranger himself to being jobless—and, even more critically, homeless—Donald Deshauteurs has lived in Fort Worth, Texas, since 2007. Deshauteurs, a native of Biloxi, Mississippi, says his life “was entangled in the penal system for about 27 years,” after which he was homeless off and on for 16 years in different cities.
“Being homeless, I was just totally hopeless,” he says. “It was like living in a black hole. But you have to understand, it was all of my own creation. It was nobody’s fault. It was a drug addiction. It was an alcohol addiction compounded with bipolar mental illness. It got so bad that I wanted to take my own life.”
Hopeless and homeless, Deshauteurs started visiting Community Crossroads, a mission outreach center sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth, about eight years ago. “I used to go there to eat,” he says. “They had a place where you could get clothing, meals on Wednesday, and a couple of days a week they would give you sack lunches. As far as changing the way I was living, that wasn’t happening. I was just there to get what I needed and get out of there. But these ladies got together and decided that they were going to try to help me.”
It was the women of First Presbyterian—especially the volunteers at Community Crossroads—who were determined to get to know Deshauteurs and his story.
“It had to be God that led them to me to start asking about me, because I want you to know I avoided these people for four to five months,” he says. “Robyn [Michalove, associate pastor of mission and family ministries] knew me, and some of the volunteers knew me. I thought they were meddling in my business, which they had no business to meddle in. They didn’t give up on me when I wanted to give up on myself.”
To Michalove, Community Crossroads is a critical ministry of the church, along with the congregation’s annual Homeless Connect event, at which physicians, barbers, optometrists, social workers, and religious ministries provide services to the area’s homeless men and women.
“On the very surface level, the transformation of someone getting their hair cut is just cool to watch,” says Michalove. “It’s immediate and it gives such a boost of confidence. I love to see their smiles. I love the barbers; this is all very new for them, this experience of giving up a day and feeling like they’re really making a difference for people. For me, it’s a witness that we are collaborating with community partners and caring for the most vulnerable. There is always something that congregations can do, no matter your size, or your city. You could figure out a way to do this with other like-minded partners.”
Providing just such a witness, the women of First Presbyterian ensured that Deshauteurs had everything he needed to attain self-sufficiency, including transitional housing. “But there were some requirements for me,” he says. “First of all, I had to get off the drugs and alcohol and that wasn’t immediate. After the first four or five months that they were helping me, I was still in addiction. It wasn’t until I got in enough pain that I decided to do something different. That’s almost 17 months ago. Now I’m clean. No drugs, no alcohol. I’m taking my medication, I’m keeping all my doctors’ appointments, I attend AA six days a week, the Presbyterian Church on Sundays, and I got a Bible study I do on Tuesdays.”
Last year, Deshauteurs, who was not raised in the church, became a member of First Presbyterian. “I never was introduced to God until I was in prison,” he says. “I was one of those guys who for a very long time would go to prison and find God, and then I would get out and leave him in there. I played that game for a while. It was just until I got into pain that I began to know that God was my healer and he was available to me if I would just depend on him.”
Four nights a week, he now visits with the husband of one of the women from the church, who lives in a retirement community. “When his wife wants to go do some things with the women, I sit with him and have dinner,” says Deshauteurs. “He had a stroke; he’s in a wheelchair. We talk. He likes sports; I like sports. It’s fun because it ain’t about me.”
When people at the church tell him that he is a blessing to others, he says that he tries not to think about it. “People tell me that all the time,” he says. “I am receiving so much.”
Mental illness alliance: helping ‘people who are going through this’
Learning to cope with a family member who lives with bipolar disorder—widely misunderstood, often incorrectly diagnosed, and about which Deshauteurs says “people have the wrong attitude”—is also at the heart of Caryn Thompson’s journey.
Thompson’s son, now age 16, was first diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at the age of three. “Even though the doctors kept changing the diagnosis through the years, I knew he had bipolar disorder,” she says. “Since my first husband had bipolar disorder and it’s highly genetic, when my son showed symptoms, I kept asking the doctors, ‘Are you sure this isn’t what it is?’ A lot of doctors said the diagnosis should be high-functioning autism, but I knew that wasn’t his diagnosis.”
Thompson, who relocated to Georgia in 2012 with her second husband, Michael, recalls that her son—in the first week of starting his new school—made a suicide threat on the school’s front steps. He was taken to the emergency room and then to a psychiatric hospital, where he was first formally diagnosed at the age of 12 with bipolar disorder and acute anxiety disorder. Thompson had been trying to get him into a hospital for years. “I know that a lot of parents don’t like that thought, but for me it was a lifesaver,” she says.
Although “things settled down pretty well” once Thompson’s son was released from the hospital, she says that with the stress of living in a temporary apartment and having to search for a house, his behavior again “started to get a bit intense.” “My husband and I said we need to find a way to help other people who are going through this,” she says.
After meeting the parents of one of her son’s friend’s—a boy with high-functioning autism—Thompson was inspired to take action. “His mother and I found that we had so much in common, and that it just helped to talk,” she says. “I’d never had anybody in my life that understood that. I said to my husband we need to do something where we can maybe start a support group because there are other people like us.”
Through the president of their local homeowners’ association, they learned about a support group—a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots organization for people affected by mental illness—that was meeting at a local church, Epiphany Lutheran, in Conyers. Thompson and her husband started participating in that group before deciding to expand the program last year to their church, First Presbyterian of Covington, where Michael Thompson is clerk of session. Along with other core members, they ultimately created an official chapter of NAMI for two counties, covering both family support groups at Epiphany Lutheran and First Presbyterian, plus a new support group for people with mental illness, at a local facility. After about a year of having met with the original group at Epiphany Lutheran, Caryn Thompson trained to become a NAMI facilitator in order to be able to run the support group that meets at their home church. She was trained to teach NAMI Basics, one of the NAMI signature programs to teach parents and caregivers of children and adolescents who have been recently diagnosed with a mental illness.
“Each month, we participate in networking opportunities with other nonprofits and medical organizations in both counties,” says Michael Thompson. “We are planning educational opportunities—both NAMI signature programs and our own seminars—for churches and schools. We are also engaged in legislative advocacy at local, state, and federal levels. Our goals include supporting families, addressing stigma surrounding mental illness, and advocating for people with mental illness in the community and through legislation.”
In 2014, Caryn Thompson began writing a blog, “Parenting a Teenage Tornado: Navigating Life with a Bipolar Teenager.” Through their broad communication, outreach, and educational efforts, the Thompsons have met many others in the community who knew nothing about their church or NAMI.
Susan Boteler, also a member of First Presbyterian, was herself unfamiliar with the work of NAMI. She sought out the church’s group—and the Thompsons’ support—in her efforts to advocate for her nephew, who as a young adult was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.
Adopted as a newborn by Boteler’s younger sister and brother-in-law, Boteler’s nephew was diagnosed early on with ADHD. He also exhibited serious anger control and behavioral issues. In order to provide her sister some much-needed respite, Boteler and her husband would often take their nephew on weekends to their summer place on a lake. With them, Boteler says, her nephew was always “sweet, kind, and mannerly.”
While in his late teens, Boteler’s nephew, who had been expelled from several middle and high schools due to ongoing episodes of inappropriate behavior, said he wanted to go to Indiana to find his birth mother. He lasted with her only a couple of days. Throughout his subsequent struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, his having fathered a child out of wedlock, being expelled from several homes, and landing in jail, Boteler remained determined to help him find the help he needed. But first she needed help for herself, which she found through a meeting of her church’s NAMI group.
“As we went around the room, I was given quite a bit of time to share my story,” she says. “It was cathartic to relate to this group, but even more than that, I was given the best piece of advice, that my nephew would qualify for SSI [Supplemental Security Income].” Boteler is currently helping her nephew apply for SSI in Indiana.
Through a long career as a nurse and her care for her nephew, Boteler has seen and learned a lot about mental illness.
“There are two diseases that are still perfectly acceptable to laugh about, mental illness and obesity,” she says. “We don’t realize there are millions of people out there hurting. It breaks my heart.”
In the last few years since she retired from nursing, Boteler has been struggling to identify who Christians are and how they live out their faith, a goal toward which she aspires.
“I am trying to reach out,” she says. “That’s God working on earth.”
- Blog “Parenting a Teenage Tornado: Navigating Life with a Bipolar Teenager”: parentingteenagetornados.wordpress.com
- Community Crossroads, Fort Worth, TX: fpcfw.org/servce/community-crossroads
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: nami.org
- Triad Career Network, Greensboro, NC: triadcareernetwork.org
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.