Catholicism

The Flight into the Dakotas

The story I am about to chronicle for you has been described by my friends as one of trust and obedience. Some of them say it was an example of how to endure a great burden, a burden that seemed insurmountable at times; a story of surrendering, dying to oneself, suffering, and at times, despair.

On February 20, 2020, I was called into my Pastor’s office at the parish and was notified that I was being laid off due to budget cuts. Although my wife and I had a feeling this was coming based on some rumblings I sensed, it was still incredibly difficult news to bear, especially since I had worked at the parish since November 2013. I was asked to stay on through the end of March to help with the transition, which I did. At this point, from late February to late March, my job search went into hyperdrive.

To fully understand the length of my job search, I feel I should briefly explain one point. In April 2018, I was asked to take on a different position at the parish and, although I was qualified to do it, it was not a position I could see myself doing long term, however, my wedding was five months away and we needed me to have an income. After returning from our honeymoon, I started looking for something new. That was September 2018.

So, although I was laid off in March of this year, I have been looking for a new position for over two years. Searching for a job is difficult enough but what made it even more difficult was the economic situation caused by COVID. The hiring came to a screeching stop. Nothing was open in the Phoenix area, and if there was something, I never got past the initial online application. I reached out to every connection I had in Phoenix Metro for 18 months and unfortunately those did not provide any fruit for me either.

It was difficult for me and my family, but as the father and leader of our family, the burden of not being able to find a job began to weigh on me heavily. I started to doubt myself and my ability to find a new job. I started to see myself as useless. I have been unemployed in the past but never for this length of time [overall it would be a total of 9 months] and not with a family to support. Furthermore, the stress of being locked down was also taking its toll.

At this point, I did all that I could to keep myself busy. I looked for work every day and was applying for positions where I had experience and qualifications. I knew I wanted to make a career change. Some jobs I knew I was qualified for but wasn’t given a chance and other positions I was not qualified for but still applied.

During this trying time, my prayer life did increase. My wife and I would often watch daily mass streamed via social media, we would pray multiple times a day and always prayed at night with our child. Although I was praying, I was still doubting myself and my ability to find work. As restrictions eased, we went back to public Mass and have not missed a Sunday.

It was around the beginning of the summer where stress and despair really started to set in for me. I remember thinking that the degrees I had earned over the years were completely useless and that I should have majored in better subjects like Communications, General Business, and/or Marketing. I even started to question why I did not go into the insurance business when I had the chance with my Dad. These feelings towards my degrees continued for months, although I tried not to express my frustrations outwardly towards my wife, more often than not, I failed her and myself. Often at night, I would stay awake wondering when this personal suffering would cease.

After traveling to South Dakota at the beginning of July and enduring some fraternal nudging from my wife, we began to pray the Surrender Novena together. We had prayed individually but not as a married couple. By the end of the novena, I uttered words I never thought I would say – “I think it’s time I start looking for work in other places.” I couldn’t believe what I was saying. I love Arizona and it’s a good place to raise a family. I had no desire to leave Arizona, but was God calling us somewhere else? Did the Surrender Novena start to open up my heart to other places? Was I starting to hear God’s voice in a different way? Lord, are you kidding me?! These were the types of questions I asked myself and God.

We continued to pray multiple novenas including one for employment to St. Jose Maria Escriva and one to the Thirteen Blessed Souls – Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. I realized one important thing during this time – it was not just about me anymore. I had to die to myself and live for my family. Every decision I was to make was for the betterment of my family. If this means that we have to leave Arizona, then we leave Arizona.

We knew that we wanted to be near family, but all of my wife’s family resides in states that have cold winters, and my wife and I were not fans of the cold. My entire family lived in Arizona. After applying to places nowhere near family, we started to think about a city where we had family and I had some connections – Bismarck, North Dakota [and yes, it is very cold there in the winter!]. There was an appeal to this city for many reasons even though I had never been to North Dakota and my wife had only visited once.

After applying for one position in Bismarck that I did not get, I reached out to a person that I knew had connections in Bismarck. He was more than willing to help me and put me in contact with quite a few people in the business community. The idea of moving to Bismarck became more and more of a reality, but like Phoenix, I needed to find a job. Like Phoenix, I applied for positions that I was qualified for and some that I had no business applying for, but I thought at this point – what the heck!

In late August, two positions came to my attention that I about jumped out of my shoes for at the University of Mary in Bismarck. I briefly worked for the university as an adjunct theology teacher back in 2013 at their Tempe campus. One was a writing position in the marketing department and the other position was the Director of Student Life. I had multiple interviews for both but eventually, the student life position continued with interviews through the upcoming months. More on this shortly.

As the sun began to set on the summer months and with the additional unemployment pay beginning to end, my wife and I started to wonder how we were going to pay our bills. We knew we had to do something. We started to float the idea of selling our home. Just as we started to ponder this idea, my wife’s parents suggested us moving in with them in Rapid City, South Dakota. For a guy who does not make big decisions lightly, or quickly, I was pretty quick to say yes to the idea. I was completely at peace with the move and knew that it was the best decision for our family. I put my trust in Jesus Christ, His Blessed Mother, and here is where the flight into the Dakotas began.

Moving from Arizona to South Dakota in 1 of 2 trucks.

On September 29, we met with our realtor. The house went on the market on October 9 and by the following Monday, we had seven offers on the house. I knew at this point that God was in control and he would take care of us now that we surrendered ourselves to His will, again which is not easy for me to do. Now, I am not going sugarcoat it for you – it was stressful! Moving stinks. It is hard work. Although the Director of Student Life position at the University of Mary seemed to be moving forward, I knew it was not a certainty but was hoping that something would come from it. It was also a big leap of faith moving without a job, but at this point, we were out of options and believed that Jesus was taking care of us.

By the last week of October, we were living in Rapid City, SD. Our house in Arizona closed within weeks. All of our belongings minus our clothes and a few small items were in storage. We had done something I never thought we would do, and still, I was at peace with the move, however, the stress of not having stable work was still weighing heavily on my shoulders. Unfortunately, everyone in the house knew how I was feeling because I really can’t disguise my frustrations.

On November 16, I was invited to an in-person interview at the University of Mary for the Director of Student Life.  It was an all-day affair where I met with numerous people in student life, eventually interviewing with the Executive Vice-President and President. In the end, although I was 1 of 2 finalists out of over 50 candidates, they chose the other candidate.

On December 2, the President and Executive Vice-President of the University of Mary called me to propose a completely new position. The dialogue was rather humorous since the position is outside of my wheelhouse although I do have some of the experience they are seeking. After two more interviews, the final one being in-person with my soon-to-be supervisor, I was offered the position on December 11.

After nine months of unemployment and just over two years of looking for a new job, I am happy to announce that I am the new Director of Mission and Hospitality in Dining Services at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND. My position is a brand-new position that has certain objectives including the enhancement and development of Catholic culture in the multiple dining options at the university. My first day is January 4, 2021.

The lesson of this whole experience for me is faith and trust. It was through concentrated prayer and surrendering to God’s will that we were able to do the things we did so quickly. Like Our Lady at the Annunciation, we were open to God’s will and surrendered ourselves to it without questioning it. We sought some clarification as she did, but were always at peace with the idea and know the eventual outcome has come to fruition – The flight into the Dakotas. Like the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt, we too will experience life that is new, exciting, and at times foreign. The one thing that encourages me is the strong Catholic culture that resides in this Upper Midwest city.

Thank you to all my family members on both sides of the family, all of our friends, and many of my readers and followers who prayed for us during this difficult time. Your prayers and words of encouragement got me through so much of my daily despair and suffering.

Please pray for our transition to Bismarck, my first days of work, and for us to find a new home that will be suitable for our growing family to live in.

I leave you with the words of the Surrender Novena; words we pray every night –

O Jesus, I surrender myself to You, take care of everything!

8 replies »

  1. I thank you for sharing your story and for the Surrender prayer. I believe your story is representative for lots of people. Your story is kind of my worst nightmare, I have to admit, because it could happen to my family. Like you did, we live in the suburbs of Phoenix and have been here for 12 years. It doesn’t look like my husband would ever lie laid off (fired, yes…but not laid off) but we think about it, and what we would have to do. The stress of moving weighs heavily on my mind (we have done it 5 times, cross country, since 1999) and we are not spring chickens anymore, with 5 daughters, the youngest being 11. Every day I say, “Jesus, I trust in You” so someday, we may be asked to surrender just like you had to. I will keep your story sorted in a file on my computer desktop so that I may look back upon it if and when needed as well as to pass on to someone who may be in need of hearing it.

  2. An inspiring story which I hope helps many others at this dreadful time.
    May God bless you and your family with a happy and successful New
    Year in 2021

  3. Tom, I love your post. So sincere and full of hope. Many blessings to you and your beautiful family. May the Lord protect you on this new chapter of your life.

  4. Wow Mr Perna what a Story!! (It was 9 months NOT 9 Days like a Novena) Your story is Encouraging. I have for 1yr and 4 mo. Been going through alot my Husband fell off a 9ft 9in Roof and is hurt really bad, from Brain Injury to Almost every part of his body. It’s like you say It’s our Faith that keeps us going Jesus and Mary still walk besides us!! Thank You for sharing Rebecca your old Theology Student..

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