DURHAM, N.C. — Landing in jail threatened to end Joseph's promising career. But he befriended the warden, won release from Pharaoh, and emerged, as the Bible tells it, to save Egypt from starvation.
It's the kind of journey line that, more or less, Willie Jones is hoping to walk, too. Just released from 16 years in state prison for drug trafficking, Mr. Jones faces employment prospects that he calls insurmountable. But the story of the famous Israelite gives him hope. "I can certainly relate to Joseph - and more," says the heavyset man with a cane and a pale beard.
At Durham's Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jones is one of eight prospective hires - ex-cons and ex-homemakers dressed in their best - learning how to gain confidence and break through personal roadblocks with a biblical bent: a bit of Jeremiah for the jitters, some Noah for uplift, and Joseph for perspective.
They are here because of Jobs for Life, a group based in nearby Raleigh that helps churches and faith-based organizations provide practical job training from a spiritual perspective.
Today, as part of its first national "Bible-to-work" program, Jobs for Life founder Skip Long wants to put 52,000 such tough hires into the workplace next year.
Experts say the decision by Mr. Long to not seek federal money to help chronically unemployed Americans also shows the limits of the White House's efforts to use church groups to help the 15-million-strong US "underclass."
"Religion is very useful in these sorts of life-change programs, because it's saying you're not alone, you get a second chance, and Jesus is with you in that second chance," says University of Michigan economist Rebecca Blank, author of "Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life."
"That's pretty powerful when people are feeling very lonely and down and not sure they can make it," she adds.
A Mennonite minister with a gap-toothed smile and a passion for social justice, Long wants to invoke in job-seekers a deeper faith in God's power, and ultimately themselves, in order to overcome employment obstacles - whether a behavioral flaw, a long-time absence from the job market, or a criminal past.
"The cornerstone of a healthy life is gainful employment," says Long. "It's not only letting them know they're valued by God as individuals, but by putting that value in their life and helping them believe that about themselves, it's going to take them a lot further [in the workplace]."
To be sure, while talking the religious talk, some students in the Durham class are desperate simply to meet someone who can open doors for them, says Jones.
Still, research shows that faith-based antipoverty programs tend to outperform secular ones. The Washington-based Jobs Partnership, the model for Jobs for Life, placed 80 percent of its 220 graduates in jobs in 2004. Similar, but secular, job-coach programs tend to have success rates in the 60 percent range.
But even after Long met privately with President Bush earlier this year, he says the prospect of receiving federal money is souring as groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation step up the legal fight against public funding of Bible-based "life-change" programs.
Jobs for Life "might be something [separationists] would take a close look at," says Bryan Jackson, a spokesman at the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy in New York. "Some organizations feel that perhaps they might come under legal scrutiny and [therefore] tend to shy away from accepting public money."
But cutting out Bible passages from its program to meet federal standards would certainly emasculate the Jobs for Life curriculum. Instead, Jobs for Life is marketing its $499 curriculum kits to more than 2,000 ministries across the nation.
From dos and don'ts to the prayerful, students learn the 47 most-asked interview questions - "What are the three things you like best about yourself?" - and peruse Jeremiah 29:11: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' " [New International Version]
Long-time homemaker Elaine Grenon says she's trying to turn a volunteer position at a local church into a full-time job. But first she has to figure out how to write a proper résumé, make friendly eye contact, and give thoughtful answers to tough interview questions.
"A lot of what Joseph and Noah went through, we go through in everyday life," she says. "Instead of going off the handle, there are better ways to handle things, and if you obey God's word and believe in him, you can make it."
Such faith is not naive, hiring experts say, especially in a tightening labor market where employers are often giving marginal candidates a second look.
"People make mistakes that may show up on background checks, but most employers would give them serious thought if they have the right personality and behavioral makeup," says Robert Cameron, a hiring consultant based in Weston, Fla.
"And I'd think for what these people are trying to accomplish, [a Bible-to-work program] could work for them."