By Tim Høiland

[This is the fourth article in a series on first jobs. You can read the previous three articles here, here, and here.]

On a typical day at my first real job, it would not have been outside the realm of possibility to find me carrying a loveseat up a fire escape and through a second-floor living room window. Or to find me sitting in the waiting room at the Social Security office, alternately watching the ticket counter and reading a book (these were, at least for me, pre-smartphone days). Or I’d be driving a van full of children and adults listening to—and singing along with—the local Spanish radio station. Otherwise I was usually at the office, taking care of paperwork or talking clients through the ins and outs of paying their rent.

This was my routine as a caseworker in the Cuban/Haitian refugee resettlement program at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania office of Church World Service, the relief and development arm of the National Council of Churches.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania office of Church World Service

Lancaster, Pennsylvania office of Church World Service

Having graduated from a nearby state university a year and a half earlier, I’d interned at my church and then spent a few months living in Cambodia, serving as a photojournalist with World Relief. Then, before I knew it, I was back in Pennsylvania in the dead of winter, in search of a “real job.”

In the end I found said job on Craigslist, of all places, after a months-long job hunt that included innumerable applications but to that point only three actual interviews—one for an inside sales position at the local newspaper; one for a customer service position with a rental car company; and another with some sort of advocacy group targeting college campuses for a cause I’ve long since forgotten. In each of those interviews, it occurred to me it was probably not a good sign I was working just as hard to convince myself I could tolerate the job as I was trying to convince them to hire me. I didn’t get any second interviews.

When I finally got hired to work with Cuban refugees, I was under no illusion that I’d suddenly found my life’s work. But I had a hunch that after months of wacky sleep schedules, hours of searching, and countless afternoons spent with my journal and copious amounts of caffeine, “making sense of life” at Prince Street Café, this was at least a step in the right direction. And that hunch was right.

Though I’d grown up in Guatemala, at the time of the hiring my Spanish ability had devolved to the point of, shall we say, rustiness. Nonetheless, on day one I found myself in the living room of a frail yet feisty elderly Cuban woman who’d recently undergone open-heart surgery. She did not understand English, the language used in all the mail from the hospital, which she’d been dutifully collecting in a stack on the dining room table. I deciphered these letters for her, reassuringly setting aside the ones that needed no action, and talking through the implications of the ones that required follow-up. Conversations with her and others became common, and before long I was more or less bilingual—something that would come in handy later in interviews for writing projects throughout Central America.

Cuban client of Church World Service opening his own business

Cuban client of Church World Service opening his own business

This job brought me up close and personal with the clear desperation and unfiltered frustrations of people without a lot of options. It gave me a whole new perspective on what it’s like to be poor and vulnerable, yet determined to create a better life in a strange new world. It attached names and faces to the conviction that human flourishing requires good public policy, even though policy is also of course responsible, at times, for precisely the opposite.

It is a scary, sobering, strange, and yes—at times rewarding—thing to be in large part responsible for the wellbeing of someone who has left her homeland and household for a land she was never guaranteed to reach in the first place. According to the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” agreement the two nations signed during the Clinton years, those intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard are promptly returned to Cuba, while those who reach the Florida Keys are given the chance to remain, pursuing legal channels to eventually gain residency and even citizenship. Those discovered by sharks, meanwhile, are on their own.

In good times—when government paperwork came through on time—I would feel as if I were a client’s best friend. In bad times—say, when rent was due—I’d feel like his worst enemy. Fortunately, as time went on with each client there would inevitably be far more good times than bad, until eventually, our services were simply no longer needed.

Learning English

Learning English

Our clients would take steps to learn English. They’d get jobs and driver’s licenses. They would enroll their kids in school. They’d get in the habit of taking their kids to the park. They would get promotions at work, or at least the opportunity to work the day shift. Their kids would start making friends, even among those who weren’t Cuban. I remember the day when a former client pulled up beside me at a stoplight. He smiled proudly and we greeted each other. His car was nicer than mine; that much was obvious. But a crucial, unspoken threshold had been crossed. No longer was he a needy beneficiary; he was now a peer, a neighbor, a friend.

These days, I no longer work in the field of refugee resettlement, nor do I have many occasions to carry loveseats up fire escapes and through living room windows. But I’m told by reliable sources that when I speak Spanish, my accent is now a confusing mix of gringo, Guatemalan, and Cuban. In other words, my first real job succeeded in leaving its mark, and for that I’m grateful.

(Photo credits: CWS/Lancaster.)

Tim Høiland now lives in Tempe, Arizona where he works for changegoat, a creative consultancy that advises high-impact businesses, nonprofits, and thought leaders. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @tjhoiland.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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