Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Life and Times at Uncle Bennie

part one of many, concerning my resignation from the Holland Rescue Mission and subsequent employment at HFC/Beneficial, and the three stressful years I survived there, having been part of the sub-prime fallout as it were...

"Where're you headed?" my neighbor asks. I roll down the window on purpose so she'll do so. I'm so proud of myself, having landed a job in the finance industry: I'm toting the first pieces of a fine new wardrobe my wife and dad helped me pick out and buy. My dad insisted on buying me some clothes, but I objected at first--not until we got to the store, of course--because he had made an ethical, lifestyle decision with which I disagreed and thought went against the principles he espoused from week to week. Nevertheless, I gave in a few weeks later and took the money. Brother needed some clothes, and father is dishing out the cash, so why not take a favor from a good man (despite his sin)? I had bemused myself into thinking I was more righteous, but then the money was too good, so I gave in. Or, if you don't like ending a sentence with a preposition, "in I gave to the money which he hath given."

Back in the driveway (actually, it's an alley). "I'm going to my new job," I say with pride and excitement. "Oh, really?" the standard reply, but she's happy for me. "What kind of work?" I'm going to be a loan officer," I say. If my hand weren't on the wheel, I'd stick my manly thumb in my chest and butt out my freshly shaven chin. Part of the reason for my pride was that it was a sales job, which I had never thought of doing, save 10 years prior when I was selling cell phones (the big blocky ones) and doing well at it. I also sold (sort of) books door-to-door in college. That's an encyclopedia of stories which you will entreat yourselves to in a little bit.

People told me that because of my bold, extroverted personality, I would do great at sales. Having majored in English, writing and journalism, I boned out on luck getting a job at a paper, and I wasn't state certified to teach, so I went to seminary. I figgered the Rapture'd happen before I gradjiated, so why not study somethin' ah lock? Four years later, I had a Greek New Testament, and a Hebrew Old Testament that I owed the government $22,000 for, which I didn't know how to read anymore. The saying holds therefore true: if you don't use it, you lose it.

After seminary, I took the first job available at a factory called Johnson Controls in Holland Michigan. I took the job so I could marry my girlfriend, Monica. She worked 2nd shift at a hospital, so I figured the 2nd shift offer at this place was abso-perfect. Plus, this was a world-wide company, not some shop-rat, backwoods, metal shop full of harley riders who were 100 pounds overweight, had mullets, beards and bad teeth. People dressed nicely, and it was a corporation full of laborers, office workers, nurses, engineers, MBA's and anon. "Chris, with a Master's degree, you have nowhere to move but up with our company!" That sounded perfect to me. I could marry my girl, get a place in west Michigan, and start building a career. And paying off debt. Six months on the floor putting parts in boxes, and then an office job somewhere. What with the training the company provided, I could even study some kindof lightweight engineering, or business management, or whatever. The future is good!

This was exactly one year after 9/11. After 3 months of the job, I started to get frustrated. I had gone to seminary. I had studied theological topics like divine soveriegnty and human responsibility, the covenants, the problem of suffering and evil, creation/evolution, systematic theology, apologetics & arguments for the existence of God. Deep stuff that edifies the life of the mind. Now I am putting plastic parts in boxes and sweating my ass off while wearing ear plugs because of the loud, moaning machines; I've strapped on rubber shock absorbers to prevent the stinging, static electricity from the parts (they didn't even work). My back hurt. My feet hurt. I had no life working 2nd shift. I couldn't play softball, or even go to church stuff. I couldn't get involved with my community or my culture. My 2nd shift was now my culture. I went to work in the middle of the day, and returned when it was pitch black. My wife switched to 1st shift at the hospital, and I hardly ever saw her. We had an apartment, but we had about $30,000 in debt, with old cars and the decade of our 30's already in full swing with plans for a family. How could we possibly achieve our dreams of a family with all this debt and no prospects for a good-paying career?

The promise of "moving up in the company" didn't take a halt; it went in reverse. People were being laid off by the hundreds. Plants were shutting down. Entire plants! Yet profits continued to increase year after year by the billions. That's Billions with a "B." Do you know how much a billion dollars is? That's 1,000 million dollars. Imagine a millionare next door. Now imagine 1,000 of them all together in their sailboats, filling up the shoreline so that you can't see the horizon on Lake Michigan, drinking the best beer, the finest wine and eating thick, juicy steaks that make your mouth water (oh, just a twinch of salt!), entertaining all their guests and friends, dancing and having a good time. And you're sitting on shore watching, while sitting on a ten year old towel with holes in it cuz you don't want to buy a new one. That's a Billion dollars. That's just One Billion dollars. Now imagine 5 or 6 or 20 billion. That's the kidnof profit the company was making. Billions and billions and billions.

I made about $14.00 an hour. I'm not complaining--it's fair for putting parts in boxes. But the shut-downs so soon after my hire-in was depressing. I had no intellectual stimulation. I struggled with the meaning of life. What am I doing here? Is there any purpose in this? According to my theological convictions, indeed there was: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God," (1 Corinthians 10:31). There is a theology of work for the Christian, and it says whether you teach literature at Oxford or clean toilets there, there is purpose and meaning to it, because the person doing can do it as an act of worship.

But I was having a hard time worshiping while sweating like a cool glass on a hot summer day amidst loud, angry machines and among people who weren't interested in intellectual stimuli. It was the dog chasing his/her tail. Finally, I quit.


Jonathan Erdman said...

i like the story

you know, there is also another theology in christianity; it is found in ecclesiastes: "meaningless, meaningless, says the Teacher; all is meaningless!"

chris van allsburg said...

Ha! How true. I found this out in the real existential sense, huh?