“Hey mister, what’s your story?”
I was sitting in traffic at an interminable stoplight. Around me were upscale stores, the kind where I feel a little guilty shopping, and people driving nice cars. This made it all the more difficult to ignore the sunburned man who was crouching at the intersection with a sign: “Homeless and Harmless. Please. Anything Will Help.”
It was the “Harmless” that got to me. I rolled down my window and called to him.
He was a nice looking man in his late 20s. As he came over, I expected him to tell me a sob story. But not at all.
He leaned down until we were eye to eye and sighed deeply. “I have to tell you,” he said, “it’s my own fault I’m here. My mom told me I was making some really bad choices when I was younger, but I didn’t listen to her. Now nobody will give me a job. Nobody will even talk to me.”
He’d done time in prison on drug charges. So, yes, when it came to getting a job he was almost certainly out of luck. He’d paid his debt to society. But his prison record put him last in line in a tight job market.
The signal was about to change. I couldn’t give him a job, so I gave him what I had in my wallet, a whopping $5. And I drove off thinking about the people and programs I know who are working to counter this problem.
I have some friends who own a landscaping business in a small southern town, and who several years ago decided to hire a young woman who’d made mistakes similar to the man I saw begging at the traffic light. She’d done time and been released. She was pleasant and seemingly competent. Why not give her a try?
The young woman turned out to be one of their most reliable, faithful employees. Since then they’ve hired three other employees with prison records. All continue to work with them.
The path is not smooth. There’s a good bit of drama in these employees’ lives—ill family members and shaky childcare arrangements. Plenty of days my friends wish for a more conventional crew.
But knowing that they’ve given four people a leg up in life is ample compensation for these two committed Christians.
Hundreds of miles away, in an impoverished community in Yonkers, New York, a business founded in 1982 by a Zen master is taking a similar approach, on a bigger scale. At Greyston Bakery, you need nothing more than a name and a local address to be considered for employment. Southwest Yonkers residents can ask to be put on a waiting list, and when their names move to the top they’re hired. No questions asked. The founders of the program believe the best way out of poverty and despair is through employment and self-worth—and that everyone deserves a chance. Their motto is "We don't hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people."
The bakery sells gourmet brownies and other sweets that are available by order and at high-end groceries like Whole Foods. Employees must participate in a program called PathMaking, one word, which helps them assess their current situation and set goals for where they want to go. They are encouraged to cultivate their whole being—mind, body, spirit, and heart. You can read more about the bakery and the foundation that runs it here.
In a society with an increasing discrepancy between haves and have-nots, where people without power are overwhelmingly those most frequently arrested and convicted, hiring workers shunned by other businesses strikes me as a game-changing policy. May we each have the bravery and compassion to be as generous, whenever life offers us the chance.