Calling to Collect
Regret and irony braid whenever I talk about the two years we lived in Tennessee, the time I call my “wilderness years.”
While my wife bettered herself in graduate school, I bided my time.
At the place where an eagerness to do anything, an abundance of naïvete, and a lack of reading comprehension met, I answered a want ad. A national mortgage company, situated in the heart of my downtown, needed financial counselors. The job, as explained to me, involved engaging customers and exercising creative problem-solving skills, helping them stay current on payments.
I earnestly translated the job description into the language of service. Waking up to the tangled web that is American poverty, I heard a chance to help.
Maybe you see where this is going. In the words of comedian Mike Birbiglia, “I’m also in the future,” and recognize the neon warning signs.
The position, I quickly learned, called for collections agents in more cosmopolitan clothes. More than a decade later, the mismatch of this job and my personality elicits laughs from those who know me for more than five minutes. I laugh about the situation too, but barely. The sense of burden rushes back to me, and I remember days and nights that felt like a hell of my own making.
Working through an automated queue of names and account numbers eight hours a day—most living out of state and seriously delinquent—I faced several choices. Call the borrower, makes a plan to follow up or, when the situation warranted, sign and send a thinly veiled threat of legal action through the U.S. mail.
I danced around and away from phone calls as often as possible. I moved to the beat of my own drum, even if it meant turning in a subpar performance night after night, week after week. On the rare occasion I dialed the phone, I fumbled words, played down the gravity of the situation and took easy ways out that proved harder for everyone in the long run. Anything to avoid conflict.
Work followed me home. Names and numbers soaked my mind in the shower, as I tried to wash myself clean. My stomach hurt at the thought of waking up and working the next day. Once I fell asleep, I dreamed up situations like those I dealt with during the workday.
Co-workers fared much better before these tensions—or at least formed better poker faces. I heard yelling on a daily basis, the most indignant among us lighting into the unwilling or unable to pay. The customer was almost never right.
I eventually bid my job goodbye, in hasty Hollywood fashion. Walking in one day like the lead in a coming-into-your-own movie, I flipped to the end of the script, heard the soundtrack swell and quit with zero notice.
I made my move with little concern for the good people there, the begrudging HR representative who administered my exit survey, or my wife. I expected a hero’s welcome at home; she held up an X-ray instead, revealing the hairline fracture in her trust which took time to heal and reset.
The end of my daily dread catalyzed a beginning. Thoughtful Christians testify that we are free to glorify God in any work we do, and I still think that’s right. But my days as a “financial counselor”—a title that deserves scare quotes—opened my eyes to certain types of jobs that place high, hard barriers in the way of soli Deo gloria.
Once you see certain shapes and patterns, you can’t unsee them. And my eyes widen to recognize the many systems centered around unsustainable models of interacting with money, home, and neighbor.
At the time, I only knew something wasn’t right. Now I wonder if my customers also visualized names and figures—of people they owed, and ungodly dollar amounts—at the most inconvenient times of day. I wonder if they startled at the sound of the phone, dreaded the walk to the mailbox, if their stomachs hurt too as they faced sleeping, then waking up to do it all again the next day. Although I lacked proper language at the time, this job laid a foundation for loving my neighbor as myself.
Every semester, I enjoy the opportunity to talk craft with a class full of journalism students. The big idea I float is that journalism, like any worthwhile pursuit, must fight to be relational, not transactional. My time in collections planted the seed of this idea, though I’m only now realizing it. The idea that you enter someone’s life, talk them into doing what you want, then exit as quickly as you came might be good business but it sits a great distance from the way of Christ.
No matter who stood before him, every one of Jesus’s interactions was an offer of relationship. Practicing what he preached as only he could, he loved his neighbor as much as he loved God, that is himself. We will never inch our way toward abundant life by making demands or taking what we need in the loudest, most persuasive way possible.
Instead, we perpetuate the life of Jesus when we make every moment an invitation into something deeper, something lasting, something with skin on it.