By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 25, 2010
The worst moment for Maria Naranjo came in September 2009. She’d been without a steady job for six months, her savings account was uncomfortably close to empty and the state unemployment check had just been cut. And her goal to become a U.S. citizen was thrown off track.
“All I had was love of family and friends, faith in God and hope that things would get better,” said Naranjo recently.
As the saying goes, if she didn’t have bad luck, Maria wouldn’t have had any luck at all. It wasn’t until five months later that her misfortune turned around. First, she started a job she loves. She took the oath of citizenship.
And she is left with a deeper faith.
“(God) was trying to tell me to rely solely on him,” she said.
At a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high, people with jobs and people who recently started working again are saying thanks as they gather with family and friends.
Naranjo calls the experience “my year in the desert.”
It started in March 2009 when the now 30-year-old was laid off after six years at a nonprofit organization. “I was hoping by July, I’d have a job,” she said. But “there wasn’t much out there.”
Her biggest bill was the mortgage for her Chamblee condominium. She relied on $300 in weekly unemployment checks to help keep her afloat.
“I cut everywhere, including food,” said Naranjo.
She came to be a regular at coffee shops, taking advantage of free Internet access there for job searches.
She figured that after the planned trip to her native Colombia with her family, things would be OK. That idea lifted her spirits.
But on her return, the situation didn’t change.
Naranjo attends St. Jude Church, Sandy Springs, but she’s also a volunteer youth minister at Our Lady of the Americas Mission, Lilburn. She’s active in the young adult ministry of the archdiocese and has been active in the Atlanta Catholic Business Conference.
This “desert” experience helped her connect with other Hispanics in ways she never considered before. Maria has lived in the United States for more than 20 years so she never worried about being arrested over her immigration status. That is until the fall of 2009.
“I was able to empathize with the undocumented people. I knew what it felt like for the first time living in fear (of arrest),” she said.
A mix-up with immigration documents voided her legal residency permit. She didn’t fear getting deported, but without these federal documents she couldn’t renew her driver’s license, which put her at risk for arrest. The state ended its unemployment checks. Those checks kept her head above water for big bills, as she did odd jobs to make ends meet, like translate documents and babysit.
Her birthday in 2009 was unlike any other.
“My birthday is in October. I asked for food. Forget presents—groceries. I saw it as Jesus himself walking in. I was joyful in the little things,” she said.
Through the winter of 2009, she kept the thermostat low and kept plugging away.
“I knew if I was going to make it, I needed to see God’s plan. I’m glad I did,” she said.
Life began to turn around in February of this year when she landed her new job as a manager with Goodwill Industries International. She fell in love with it at the first interview. But when she didn’t hear back for close to three weeks, she feared it was a lost cause. It turned out blizzards shut down Goodwill’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and slowed down the hiring process. But she got the job.
And then on March 7, she became an American citizen.
Maria learned she could take the oath of citizenship during a routine visit to the federal office. Biding her time before the ceremony, she went to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts to recite the rosary. There wasn’t enough time for her friends and family to join her, so she went by herself.
“I didn’t need anybody else. The Holy Spirit would be there,” she said.
Naranjo now looks at the yearlong experience with gratitude.
“We are all challenged. It’s how we face those challenges that we grow. I’m thankful for God and the incredibly rich Catholic community. All of the people that extended a hand, they just supported a sister in need and provided.”