WILMINGTON, Ohio (BP)–In Wilmington, Ohio, a town of 12,000 people where 8,000 had been employed by DHL, a series of extensive layoffs at the shipping company have left the community experiencing what has been called the trauma of Hurricane Katrina without the physical damage.
The two Southern Baptists churches in Wilmington have members who are feeling the direct effects of the layoffs, and the congregations are scurrying to meet needs wherever they can.
Years ago, Wilmington was home to an Air Force base that closed down and was rehabilitated into the headquarters for Airborne Express, a shipping company that ranked just behind UPS and FedEx. In 2003, the Germany-based DHL bought Airborne, but the venture struggled, and with the economic crash of last year, DHL began laying people off by the hundreds.
Now workers in the town who gave decades of their lives to the shipping industry are finding themselves unemployed, unable to pay tuition bills and seeing their homes foreclosed, according to a segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes” Jan. 25.
“I remember people with scarves breathing through ice in just unreal [temperatures], … eyelashes frozen, and I started in ’81. And when you worked, you worked. Why weren’t we bailed out?” Morris Deufemia, a former employee, told CBS in describing the harsh conditions the workers endured to make sure people received their packages on time.
Dennis Humphreys has been pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Wilmington for 17 years, arriving in the town when Airborne was flourishing. Now he is encountering in fellow residents the emotions associated with a failed business.
“We’ve seen that kind of frustration because they were the largest employer,” Humphreys told Baptist Press. “That’s where lots of people worked. That’s been the hardest thing because it was a foreign company coming in and taking over an American company based right here.”
In his church of about 200 people, Humphreys said about 30 families had been employed by DHL.
“We have everywhere from people that work the night sort to those who work in the offices or fly the planes,” he said. “We have a wide variety of people that do different jobs out there — or did different jobs out there. Quite a few of them have been laid off already.”
Surprisingly, Humphreys said none of his church members have moved to other towns yet in search of employment. One church member told him he got a job in Lexington, Ky., but wasn’t necessarily going to move because his new employer is letting him work a four-day week given the long commute. The man said he was waiting to see if that plan would work for his family.
“A couple other families have begun to put resumes out and that type of thing, and they’re just waiting to see what God does or what doors God opens,” Humphreys said. “People have gotten other jobs already in the area. We’ve been taking it a day at a time and praying for one another and helping each other where we can. That’s pretty much how we’ve been handling it.
“Everybody has been very upbeat and most people have just said, ‘God’s allowing us to go through this, so we’re just going to take it a day at a time and let Him lead us through it.’ That’s kind of the attitude that the majority of our people anyway have taken,” the pastor said.
Calvary has been collecting coats, hats and gloves for children this winter as more families find it harder to provide for basic needs.
“We did help one family at Christmastime and pretty much just gave them whatever they needed,” Humphreys said. “We took a bedroom suite in, lots of food and got presents for the kids and all that kind of stuff. We’re just trying to do whatever we can as we hear about different individuals and families.”
At Immanuel Baptist Church in Wilmington, church members are collecting food for a pantry they’ve opened to people in the community who are struggling financially in the wake of the layoffs.
“We’re trying to help them be able to take some of their grocery money and apply it to other bills,” the church’s pastor, Wayne Woody, told BP. “We’re a smaller church, so we can’t help directly financially, but we try to help out any way possible and we found that a food pantry is one way of doing it. I’ve passed on information to anybody that would like to get in with Crown Financial Resources to help with budgeting and lifestyle changes.”
Immanuel has 15-20 families, Woody said, and at least a third of them are directly affected by the layoffs.
“One of the families is a young family, a husband and wife with two kids,” he said. “The closing is not only affecting his job in the third shift sorting, but his wife works at a daycare/preschool and a lot of the kids that are enrolled there, their parents work at DHL. So when their parents lose their jobs, they have to pull their kids out of preschool and that can affect her job as well. So it’s affecting more than just the jobs of the people there at DHL.”
The husband in that family recently graduated from electronics school, the pastor said, but he has had a hard time finding another job even in the surrounding region. Any available jobs are being snatched up fast by other laid-off workers.
“In fact, just for curiosity’s sake, I went on to one of the major search engines for job postings, monster.com, and searched for any job listings in the Wilmington area for a 20-mile radius,” Woody said. “There were only six jobs posted for the Wilmington area, and they were management positions.”
The problem with management jobs, he said, is that workers who have never held such positions aren’t going to be hired for them, and many DHL workers have no previous management experience.
As a local pastor, Woody said he tries to make Immanuel a place where people can seek refuge in uncertain times.
“We’ve talked about how this seems like a very big bump in the road, but it is just a small bump in the road in comparison to life, and God’s going to continue us on that path when the road gets a little bumpy,” he said. “We’ve tried to minister individually and do our worship services and try to put a positive outlook on all the things that are going on in society right now.
“But with the loss of a lot of jobs, that really hits home quicker than anything else, so we try to be an uplifting ministry as much as we can.”
Woody said his congregation of about 40 people had been growing, but he expects the massive layoffs to mean major changes for his church and others in the community as people relocate.
“It can affect them dramatically because just like when that facility was the Air Force base and it shut down, a lot of people got relocated. That’s something the community is worried will happen here is when those jobs are totally gone, people are going to start moving out of the area because of finding other jobs elsewhere,” Woody said. “That’s a major prayer request and a concern that not only the churches have but even people who live in the community — how quickly the community might downsize.”
Personally, Woody said he thinks the situation eventually will turn around. Wilmington’s mayor predicted the shipping facility will not stay dormant and another business ultimately will buy it.
“It just might take some time,” Woody said. “Wilmington is a wonderful community, a wonderful city, and it’s growing in other ways than just because of DHL, but DHL leaving is going to make a major hit.
“I keep telling people to keep looking upward. A lot of times we have a tendency as our human nature to look forward, but when we’re talking about wanting God-sized miracles, we’ve got to be looking upward,” he said.
Humphreys, Calvary’s pastor, said Southern Baptists as a whole need to remember how the economy is affecting individual lives in more places than Wilmington.
“I know we’re not the only ones facing layoffs. I heard this morning that Caterpillar is going to lay off 20,000 people,” he said. “As a convention we need to make sure we’re praying for one another and praying for those communities that are hard hit by layoffs, and just continue to trust God.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.