The graphs, charts and cold statistics that measure the worst U.S. economic crisis in 70 years don't tell the stories of everyday, middle-class Americans who have lost their jobs during the economy's precipitous decline. At a church-based support group for the unemployed in New York, members talk about about the struggles they're helping one another to face.
The atmosphere was bittersweet but hopeful last week as members of a support group for the recently unemployed said their goodbyes in a classroom at the St. Francis Church in midtown Manhattan. Each of the 15 or so mostly middle-aged men and women had lost their jobs over the past year, and they had been coming to the facility every Tuesday for six weeks to talk about strategies for writing resumes and finding work and to share their often lonely struggles with each other in a safe and caring environment.
"If you don't have the opportunity to talk about what it's like to lose a job, the stress of going out and trying to be confident and upbeat is very difficult," said St. Francis Outreach Director Marie Harrington, who led the group. "You need to deal with those negative emotions and the feeling of insecurity, anger, [and] hurt."
"A lot of people felt the system really failed them," she added. "So we gave them the opportunity to say they can move on."
"Moving on" has been tough for Jaye-Anne Sartoretto. Now in her 50s, Sartoretto had many years of experience as an executive assistant when she became unemployed.
"It makes one feel inadequate, and that you will never work again, that you are unwanted in the work environment," she said with a pained smile. "You start questioning your skills and your abilities. It's scary!"
Sartoretto said her greatest fear was whether she would lose her home or the ability to buy food, often asking herself, "Am I going to be able to survive this and ride this out until I do find something [that will pay my bills]?"
Until his boutique travel agency began to fail - a worsening economy means fewer people can afford the airfares - Indian émigré Noel Lewis was proud of how well he was taking care of his family. But he said being without work has damaged his self-esteem.
"Maybe it's an ethnic thing where the male is the breadwinner… [but] it hurts."
Lewis said he will do any kind of work to feel useful again, even though he holds a university degree that usually makes that unnecessary.
"I have even been to the supermarket trying to get a job bagging groceries. No jobs. I've tried at the local pharmacy. No jobs. It's so frustrating," he sobbed. "I want to work!"
St. Francis support group leaders encourage members to use the hiatus in their employment to gain new skills. Henry Arroyave, who lost his job as a facilities manager due to company cost-cutting measures, has tried, so far without success, to earn a certificate in information technology and computer maintenance. He said the effort has taken a toll on his family life.
"I tend to get snappy at times. I get impatient, or I tend to lose hope. My wife used to tell me, 'Things happen for a reason. This may be your opportunity to pursue your passion for information technology. Just be hopeful!'"
But Arroyave admits that, these days, hope comes hard.
"It gets discouraging at times when you pick up a textbook and try to study. One tends to procrastinate and to give up. But I'm going to give it another go [attempt]."
Arroyave acknowledged that the relaxation and meditation techniques he learned in the support group have helped him to recast his financial struggle in personal and spiritual terms.
"I guess maybe God puts us through this experience for a reason - to challenge ourselves to basically pass this test. If you really want something, you have to go for it out there."
"Going for it" has never been a problem for Bernadette Lazaro. A one-time tourism ambassador for the Philippines government, Lazaro studied to become a securities and investment manager at the height of the recent boom, only to find that Wall Street firms were terminating employees more quickly than they were hiring them.
A committed Catholic, Lazaro combined the benefits of the Saint Francis support group with the moral lessons of her faith.
"Take [the sin of] pride, for example. Like, you are too proud to admit that you need help!"
For Lazaro, faith in God helps a lot.
"You take things one step at a time [and realize that] the whole world will not collapse because you don't' have a job. Enjoy whatever life gives!"
Of course, not all of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in recent months have turned to religion to help them cope with the insecurity they now face. But grassroots support groups like this one, where people come together to offer each other comfort and hope, are likely to proliferate as the nation's economic difficulties continue.