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Hector Mira, of Novato, paints benches at San Domenico School in San Anselmo, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 6 2009. Mira found a temporary job after he was laid off in May from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, where he worked as a custodian for 26 years, just two years from retirement. Mira, 57, started a charity program 11 years ago in his native Quetzaltepeque, El Salvador, where he hands out 1,000 baskets of food, toys and clothes to kids and the needy people every year. For this coming Christmas, he is uncertain if he will be able to deliver gifts. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

BERKELEY

When Hector Mira started work as a custodian at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific 26 years ago, he said he didn't believe in God or follow a religion.

But when he lost his job a few months ago, he immediately turned to prayer.

"I just prayed," said Mira, 57, during a recent interview. "I was in shock. I said, 'What happened?' It's only two years before my retirement."

Mira and four other nonfaculty members were laid off from the Berkeley school in May. The cuts were "purely an economic issue and not a reflection of (workers') contributions to the school," according to a letter from President and Dean Donn Morgan.

Within days of the unexpected news, Mira picked up his final paycheck, returned the school's keys and dismantled the elaborate altar of candles, pictures of religious figures, scriptures and an American flag he had set up in his janitorial closet.

It was then that Mira joined the ranks of the millions of unemployed Americans.

"For me," said the native of El Salvador in broken English, "sometimes I can't sleep because I am so worried about finding a job."

More than 14.5 million people are unemployed in the United States, about 9.4 percent, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment percentage is even higher in California and higher still in some urban and rural communities.

Because of the recession, his age, lack of experience in anything but janitorial work, and health problems, Mira and his supporters worry he won't be able to find a good-paying job. He suffered a heart attack 20 years ago and takes medicine for high blood pressure. He has back problems and a lump on his right knee that aches and sometimes slows him down. But by all accounts, he is a dedicated employee who seldom misses a day of work and is known to sing hymns while cleaning shower stalls and toilets.

"He met me every day with a kiss on the cheek and a hug and that beautiful smile," said Judy Lebens, 59, a May graduate of the school. "He would drop what he was doing and open his arms wide and come across the room to give me a hug. We could all rely on that, when we couldn't rely on anything else."

Mira was a municipal accountant in his native El Salvador but may have trouble finding work because he has only worked as a custodian in the United States, said supporter Justin Cannon, a May graduate of the Church Divinity School, who sent several hundred e-mails to friends and students asking for support of Mira.

"We have been really concerned about Hector from a practical perspective," said Cannon, 25.

Because Mira worked for a church-related entity, he has not contributed to the state's unemployment program, making him ineligible to collect unemployment insurance money, which can be upward of $1,600 a month.

Mira was paid about $12,000 on his final paycheck, which included unused vacation time and sick leave and one month's salary, but he already has spent a substantial chunk of that money and said he isn't sure how he will make ends meet for the remainder of the year. His wife works as a housekeeper two days a week.

Mira has done some odd jobs, but what worries him the most is that he will be unable to continue the charitable program he started in 2000. Each December, he returns to El Salvador and distributes about 1,000 baskets of food to elderly people and about 1,000 toys to poor children and orphans.

He said he spends about $6,000 of his own money for the food, which he buys there, and toys.

Why do such a thing in these difficult economic times?

"You cannot carry your Bible under your arm,'"‰" he said. "You must carry it in your heart."

In 2001, Mira was among the 50 people who accepted awards from the Dalai Lama for their "works of compassion." In addition to the pilgrimages he makes to Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, to distribute food and toys, he has helped pay for orphans' education there and has run a program supporting Salvadoran youths and orphans that includes training in computer technology and tailoring, he said.

"Our greatest concern (after the layoff) is helping him sustain his ministry (in El Salvador) while supporting himself and his family," said Cannon, who met him three years ago while living in the dormitories that Mira cleaned.

Mira said interacting with the students was really the best part of his job.

"He's one of those people that when you pass him by in the hall, he's going to say hi to you first or you are going to say hi to him," Cannon said. "He greets everyone with a smile or a hug."

Mira said he has received e-mails and letters of support from former students and friends in Africa, Brazil and Canada.

One supporter is Lebens, who said Mira sang hymns while he cleaned the toilets on his hands and knees.

"He'd always say, 'Do you have any tests today? I'll be praying for you. I know you'll do well, you are so smart.' It was always encouragement from him," Lebens said.

In June, four alumni, including Cannon and Lebens, met with school dean Morgan and gave him a letter from Mira asking the school to consider reinstating him. Three weeks later, Morgan issued a letter saying that because of the school's fiscal situation, Mira would not be rehired.

Morgan declined to comment for this story.

Lebens said it's tragic Mira was let go at a time when the students were not around and with no notice.

"No one got to say goodbye. There is no closure for us or Hector," she said, adding that some alumni are planning a going-away party in the fall for the five laid-off workers.

For the time being, Mira will continue to look for a job with the help of his supporters.

"I really hope we can find someone to hire or support Hector," Cannon said. "Honestly, I'm not sure I'd be lying if I posted a Craigslist job ad for Hector with the title 'Saint for Hire.'"‰"

Hector Mira
  • Age: 57
  • Family: Married 26 years to Mercedes; two daughters, Gissela, 28, and Jenny, 31
  • Profession: Custodian
  • Formerly employed: At the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley for 26 years
  • Unemployed: Since May

    Ray Chavez/Staff
    Hector Mira, of Novato, paints benches Aug. 6 in San Anselmo. He was laid off in May from his job in Berkeley. Mira, 57, started a charity program 11 years ago in his native El Salvador, but is uncertain whether he will be able to continue
    the program this year. Below, Mira gets congratulated for his charity work in May 2001 by the Dalai Lama in San Jose.