Church helps its own through trying times

By Eric Aasen, The Dallas Morning News…

DALLAS—The pastor asked the Bible study group: “Does anybody need any special prayers?”

After many months of not saying anything to anyone at Lake Highlands United Methodist Church, Danielle Lawhorn finally spoke up.

“I need a job,” she said. “I haven’t had a job in a year.”

Pablo Velazquez prays before a Sunday service at Lake Highlands United Methodist Church in Dallas. The church helped him through tough times after a job loss. PHOTO BY KYE R. LEE, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

The Great Recession has tested churches such as Lake Highlands United Methodist as never before. Members have lost jobs, and those who have jobs wonder if they’ll be next to get a pink slip. And the sour economy has put a strain on some families whose finances were already unstable.

At Lake Highlands United Methodist, members have rallied to help their church family. They set up an online job board. They established an emergency food pantry. They networked with their Sunday school groups. They offered to baby-sit when church members were looking for jobs.

Church members helped Paul Ott find job leads. They helped Pablo Velazquez when he couldn’t afford to hire someone to haul away his dilapidated garage. They helped Joy Martin get a computer when she was heading off to college.

After Ms. Lawhorn spoke up, they helped her, too. Church members asked for her resume. One family invited her over to their house so she could use the Internet. Ms. Lawhorn quickly found a job at a shoe store.

Asking for help from her church, she said, “was the best thing I could have done.”

Since 2007, when the economy started tanking, there’s been much soul-searching at the 1,700-member church, which serves a mix of prosperous families and lower-income residents who live in apartments.

Lake Highland UMC held a Back to School Splash on Sept. 9, attended by some 4,000 people. The church’s contemporary music leader, Eric Czechowski, second from right, led a band that played for the event. PHOTO COURTESY LAKE HIGHLANDS UMC

As some church members have rebuilt their lives, they’ve asked themselves: What really matters?

“What are you basing your life on?” said the Rev. John Thornton, the senior pastor. “My relationships with God and my family and my friends are much more important, ultimately, than making enough money to have the right house and the right car.”

‘Here for people’

In the fall of 2007, just as the economy was starting to sour, job losses hit Lake Highlands United Methodist particularly hard, affecting a congregation that includes bankers, financial planners, lawyers and others in the upper middle class.

The church felt the impact almost immediately.

“It was almost like people stopped giving for a month,” Mr. Thornton said.

Church leaders issued an appeal. Members loosened the grip on their checkbooks and started donating again.

“We’re going to be here for people,” Mr. Thornton said. “We’re going to counsel them. . . . Jesus would have said: ‘How do we care for the people who are hurting?’”

The Rev. John Thornton is senior pastor of Lake Highlands UMC. “We’re going to be here for people,” he said. “We’re going to counsel them. . . . Jesus would have said: ‘How do we care for the people who are hurting?’” PHOTO COURTESY LAKE HIGHLANDS UMC

The church launched a sermon series about living as a Christian, as well as a class about how to better spend money.

“They ultimately brought people back around that not only God is there for them, but that if you put God in the forefront in your life, that shows the way you use your financial resources,” Mr. Thornton said.

The church developed a policy about how it would help people who weren’t church members but who came in requesting food, gas money and other assistance. The church estimates it’s helped up to 1,000 people throughout Lake Highlands in recent years.

Then there are the dozens of church members who have met with pastors to discuss their job loss or to request assistance. In recent years, pastors have had to spend more time counseling their church members who were going through tough times.

The Rev. Pamela Clark, an associate pastor, calls it the deer-in-the-headlights look. Worshippers, often women, arrived in her office to share sad news: A spouse had been laid off.

“They did everything they were supposed to do,” Ms. Clark said. “They had high grades in high school, went to a good college, got a good job, got married, had kids, bought the house, got the cars.”

They prepared for life’s uncertainties with health insurance and life insurance.

“They never expected to lose a job.”

Ms. Clark offered encouraging words but felt sad after meeting with so many members. She spent extra time reading Scripture for comfort. Psalm 46:10 resonated with her: “Be still and know that I am God.”

When Pablo Velazquez lost a six-figure job, Lake Highlands UMC helped him keep going. He now works as a general manager at Chick-Fil-A at the Town East Mall in Mesquite, Texas. PHOTO BY KYE R. LEE, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

“If I was going to remind them that it was their faith that was going to keep them going,” she said, “I had to remind myself that God is in control of all things—even these situations.”

But it’s a different story for another group of worshippers—those who attend off-campus ministries, including the New Room. They are poorer and more likely to live in apartments.

Many of the New Room worshippers are familiar with what it’s like to lose a job, said Ms. Clark, who is the director of off-campus ministries.

“They’re not totally shocked,” she said. “Losing a job isn’t a rarity for them. . . . They’ve had so many different jobs. They’re used to working at McDonald’s or taking a part-time job.”

Church connections

Still, though, those who worship at the New Room need help.

Ms. Lawhorn was making about $50,000 a year in her marketing job. After she was laid off, she lost her townhouse and her cars. She sold her clothes and her daughter’s clothes to earn cash.

She and her daughter, Jada, moved into an apartment across the street from the New Room. She checked it out. Soon, she was a regular.

The Rev. Pamela Clark, center, has a fun time with young members of the church after their Sunday service at Lake Highlands UMC in Dallas. From left to right, Joy Martin, Myrse Palacios, 13, Ms. Clark and Perla Gonzalez. PHOTO BY KYE R. LEE, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

After Ms. Lawhorn told church friends that she was without a job, they helped with her job search.

She landed at a shoe store and eventually became an assistant manager, making $9.25 an hour.

“When I did open up, that’s when I started getting results,” Ms. Lawhorn said.

But Ms. Lawhorn, 28, had to work on weekends and was missing out on church services. She wasn’t able to do as much at the church.

“I have to be careful what I pray for,” she said.

This past summer, church connections led her to a new job with better hours—working as a teacher’s aide in the Richardson school district.

“Walking across the street to the New Room is one of the best things I could have ever done,” Ms. Lawhorn said.

While some church members shy away from talking about job loss, Paul Ott hasn’t.

“I’m not embarrassed to tell you I don’t have a job,” said Mr. Ott, who was laid off in March from his financial services job. “I’ve told pastors here, and other friends.”

Mr. Ott, who attends the main church, talked with another church member who works at a local hospital and told him about job openings. She encouraged Mr. Ott to pass along his resume—and got him in touch with the recruiter, who spent 45 minutes on the phone fine-tuning his resume.

“That’s networking,” he said. “The key to this is networking.”

Church members heard that he had been without a job and approached him, telling him that they or their spouses were unemployed. Mr. Ott, 63, tells his church family about the networking groups that he attends—two of the three are held at churches—and encourages them to join. He even brought a jobless church member to one of the groups.

“You’ve got to get dressed, you’ve got to get out there,” Mr. Ott said. “It keeps you doing things. It’s an accountability group. . . . It shows that we’re all in this together.”

Coming together

Sometimes, during these tough times, a church goes beyond just helping out—it takes in one of its own.

A few years ago, Joy Martin showed up at the church with her mother, a drug addict, looking for help.

Ms. Clark invited Ms. Martin to move in with her and her husband.

“I never want a child to be left behind,” Ms. Clark said.

On March 12, Lake Highlands UMC cancelled worship and sent the congregation out into the community to spend all day doing service projects. The Rev. Monty Moore, who leads the church’s contemporary worship, rebuilt a swing set for a shelter for battered women with children. PHOTO COURTESY LAKE HIGHLANDS UMC

Ms. Martin, now 20, appreciated the chance to live in a stable environment. Her mother, Jo Ann, died last November.

Ms. Clark helped Ms. Martin fill out federal financial application forms and enroll at Collin College. Ms. Martin plans to pursue a career in geriatric social work.

Church members gave Ms. Martin a laptop and printer. One church member connected her with a group that awarded her a scholarship.

Her church family has motivated her to stay in school.

“The Bible is clear when it says the church is not just the building, it’s the people,” Ms. Martin said. “There is fellowship there—they help in times of need.”

The Great Recession has caused worshippers like Pablo Velazquez to ask themselves: What’s really important in life?

After Mr. Velazquez lost his nearly six-figure financial planning job at Neiman Marcus in 2009, church members pitched in by offering money, lending him a car and buying his belongings so he could make some extra cash.

Church members helped clear away his dilapidated garage.

“I hesitated to ask for help,” Mr. Velazquez said. “I had some notion that ‘Yeah, you should be self-sufficient.’ That’s the American dream. . . . That’s not the Christian way. The Christian way is community. We were never called to be independent.”

Mr. Velazquez decided he wanted to work for a company with Christian values. Chick-fil-A intrigued him.

“I wanted to make a positive impact in my community,” he said.

Mr. Velazquez landed a job at a local restaurant, starting off at $8.50 an hour. He traded in his expensive Italian suits for a polyester shirt and hat. He took orders and worked the cash register. He cleaned bathrooms. Now he’s general manager of the Chick-fil-A at Town East Mall. His wife, who had been a stay-at-home mom, found a job as a school nurse. He and his family have cut back on spending.

Mr. Velazquez, 38, enjoys getting to know the workers, many of whom are immigrants. He’s mentoring the younger ones. He tells them: “Just try to find something that you love and go for it.”

For the first time in a long time, Mr. Velazquez says he feels satisfaction. He gets to spend more time with his family. He says he’s a better father and a better husband.

“I enjoy life more because it’s simpler,” he said. “We don’t worry about as many things as we used to. I’m more at peace. There’s no struggle. There’s no heartache. . . .

“Thank God that I did lose my job.”

Reprinted by permission of The Dallas Morning News

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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