People who work with "the urban poor" often face confusing choices.
What I have in mind here are not so much the tactical options that arise as a problem or situation is confronted. However, the higher level choices I want to consider here do affect tactical decisions dramatically.
Stated simply, what do low-income persons and neighborhoods need most? Charity or justice?
Most of the inner city enterprises I know best usually drop down on the side of charity, compassion and a smattering of education as empowerment.
I know we administer quite a lot of charity here at Central Dallas Ministries.
We distribute hundreds of thousands of pounds of food stuff annually.
We offer free and extremely reduced cost medical, dental and pharmacy care to thousands of patients.
We provide free or extremely reduced cost legal representation.
We have increasingly sophisticated approaches to employment training, technology education and job placement.
We offer after-school programming and summer day camping for children.
We are building affordable housing units and have plans for many more in the future.
We have homelessness on our radar screen thanks to recent developments in Dallas.
The list could go on and on.
When I look at our work, I feel two emotions.
First, a warmth of gratitude at the good that is being done by some of the best people I have ever known.
Second, a persistent fear that we are in danger of missing an even higher calling.
Don't misunderstand. Compassion is important. At times, charity is the best and only remedy to apply.
Jesus' story of the "good Samaritan" comes to mind.
The man left for dead on the side of the road didn't need a meeting of the city council! He needed medical attention, a ride to town and someone to stop and simply care about him in his dire situation of distress.
Compassion usually works best after the facts of life have played themselves out in someone's experience. Charity feels right when offered and when received in a pinch!
But, compassion is seldom enough, at least not for the long haul.
The city has taught me to read Jesus' story of the Samaritan differently. My new reading wouldn't change the facts of the story.
However, I might add a follow up commentary.
The story makes me wonder how many other people routinely experienced the same kind of mistreatment on that road? How much more charity work did that road create for passersby? Who was responsible for safety on that stretch of highway? What could have been done to make it safer?
In other words, how could the system have made that road better for everyone?
I know that was not the point Jesus was trying to make. He was trying to teach a lesson about what it means to be a neighbor.
I guess I am asking what does it mean to be a real community that sets things up for the benefit and good of as many people as possible?
We seem to have countless outposts of charity. While I am glad about this in one way, in another I wonder what this really says about our society?
In addition to charity and compassion, we need, we must work for justice.
Is the best approach for the long haul to continue to provide tons of supplemental food for hard working families who do not earn enough to support themselves? Or, would it be better to ask why there is such a shortfall, especially in a nation of wealth like ours?
Should we continue to develop community-based medical outposts, complete with pharmacies for the hard working families we serve who do not receive the benefit of health insurance coverage from their employers? Or, would it be better to organize around this disparity in order to seek change?
Is it really a good thing to work with community groups in the inner city to organize neighborhood cleanups and patrols? Or, do we need to organize to compel city government to apply code enforcement in our neighborhoods like it is expected in more affluent parts of town?
Should we continue to visit people who end up in prison because of the very addictions we seek to address on a daily basis? Or, would it be better for us to ask why so many, mainly low-income men and women who need treatment, get prison instead?
At the end of this day the answer likely needs to include both compassion and justice. There is and will always be a place for charity and compassion. We won't get it right, so we will need to compensate.
Having said that, I feel the need to press hard against our prevailing tendency to do only acts of charity while never thinking of ways to embed justice, fairness and equality in the systems that guide our communities.
[More to come on this.]