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Monday, February 28, 2005

Bonuses, Pay and Christian Values in the USA

According to a front page story in last Friday's (25 February 2005) edition of The Wall Street Journal, CEO bonuses at 100 major U. S. corporations rose 46.4% to a median of $1.14 million dollars, the largest gain in five years. The report is based on survey information compiled by Mercer Human Resource Consulting in New York City.

The same report noted that the median 2004 bonus amounted to 141% of executive annual salaries.

Interestingly, clerical and technical support staff earmed an average bonus of 5% of salary last year at companies granting bonuses across the board--this according to other surveys.

The gap between the nation's top income earners and its middle and bottom wage earners is increasing as never before in the last 100 years.

Our nation enjoys discussing values and ethics in the public square. Our houses of worship have been turned into classrooms for discussing the moral agenda of the nation. Millions of people of faith feel completely comfortable discussing a rather narrow range of ethical topics that include abortion and homosexuality.

I am wondering how many congregations this past week discussed the ethical ramifications of the accumulation of extreme wealth, a wealth that could not be generated without the efforts of ordinary, underpaid, laboring Americans.

Take a moment and read the amazing words of the brother of Jesus found at James 5:1-6. You may be surprised! His words relate to our current situation in the U. S. when it comes to labor, fair pay and justice.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Poverty and Justice

Not long ago I received a letter from a friend of mine. For almost a decade he has been serving out a sentence in a Texas prison. No need to get into the details of his case, but his comments to me about criminal justice and the poor need to be read by a wider audience. For the record, he did not grow up in poverty. To the contrary, his background is upper middle-class.

I will let him speak for himself:

". . .most people of my race, education, professional background, etc. would never be sent to prison for a first time offense. One would be offered probation and a treatment program.

"On the other hand, those who are poor, uneducated and from a different ethnic background are more likely to be quickly sent to prison. A public defender with an unmanageable case load is appointed and he/she will work with the DA for some sort of plea agreement. More than likely, they will do some time.

"Trust me, in many cases its the worst thing that can happen for both the short and the long term.


"So many of my friends here come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. Many have drug use in their backgrounds. . .most come from families that are so systemically dysfunctional that it's a wonder that they are even alive.

"This environment is not a helpful or healthy thing for most. While there are rehab opportunities, they are few and far between. I did 8 years before I was even eligible for the program that I just completed. I had to be within 2 years of my discharge date or be given a parole date to be considered.

"Unfortunately, this is a place where deviant thought and behavior is reinforced. Unless someone is self-directed and will rigorously pursue every avenue for education and rehabilitation, their chance to come back to this place is increased by leaps and bounds.

"It is also my conclusion that without a faith-based component as a part of the equation, the recidivism rate will continue to increase.


". . . .While prison is a needed option for some, many could (and should) be spared this environment if other services were in place. What we're doing doesn't seem to work all that well. . .there has to be a better way."

Conclusions?

Texas prisons are failing us all. Texas prisons cost too much. Texas prisons and the entire criminal justice system discriminate against the poor. Thousands of Texas prison beds should be replaced by treatment slots and centers.

Everyone would be better. Our society can be more just.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Upside Down Living

A thoughtful friend sent me the following quote recently. As you read it, don't rush. Give it a chance to soak into your soul:

“Taking God’s assignment seriously means that I must learn to look at the world upside down, as Jesus did. Instead of seeking out people who stroke my ego, I find those whose egos need stroking; instead of important people with resources who can do me favors, I find people with few resources; instead of the strong, I look for the weak; instead of the healthy, the sick. Is not this how God reconciles the world to himself?...God’s gifts are best used in the visible world when we give them away in serving those who have less.” (Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World, page 202)

I like Yancey's words and his obvious wisdom. Of course, what he says cuts against almost every impulse we have, doesn't it? It takes conscious effort and determined decisions to move down instead of up.

I catch myself wishing Yancey had gone further in his illustration.

He could have added something like this:

"Looking at the world upside down in a democratic society means my power, my privilege, my self-interest and my vote will be redirected toward an agenda serving the good of the whole, not just that which benefits me.

"Rather than jealously guarding my wealth, I will consider political action that may cost me while it creates opportunity for others.

"Instead of rushing to the head of the line, pushing others aside because of my skills, organizational ability and raw political strength, I will take a minority position, choosing to stand with and among the powerless, the poor and the excluded. And, I will choose to stand there for as long as it takes to affect real, lasting change.

"Rather than buying into a religious system that insures everyone involved will look, think and respond in ways that make me feel comfortable or personally 'at home,' I will decide to move in a larger, richer world of difference, variety and inclusion--a world where others will be given the opportunity to include or exclude me on their own terms and not only on mine.

"I will surrender power, position and potential to embrace the struggle of the others, those who would be considered strangers to my 'normal' world."


This, it seems to me, is consistent with the upside down mindset of the strange and radical man, Jesus.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Charity Is Not Enough

Many people, especially in the church, labor under the false assumption that all of the issues associated with poverty could be solved if those of us with money were more charitable and if those without money exercised more personal responsibility.

This notion is rooted in a worldview that unduly elevates the importance of individualism while under-valuing the role of collective or community solutions and responsibility. Further, this perspective underestimates the power of systemic forces undergirding and guaranteeing poverty's perpetuation.

Most of the root causes of poverty cannot be overcome by well-intentioned, charitable people.

For example, the housing policy of the federal government affects millions of people. If funding is eliminated, curtailed or frozen for, say, the Section 8 voucher program, the sheer scale of the result would overwhelm any charitable response.

Issues of this magnitude require sound, fair and just public policy responses.

In the case of the Section 8 housing program, cutbacks actually affect affordable housing developers, as well as tenants. If development is not incentivised by initiatives like Section 8, market forces tend to take over, driving developers out of the business of creating this much needed housing stock.

It is curious to watch church folk organize, rally and lobby for pro-life issues related to abortion. It is clear pro-life advocates want a systemic, public solution to protect unborn children.

Many of these same people are quick to criticize government intervention to assure legal and systemic protection from the devastation of extreme poverty for the poor and their children who survive birth.

The problems associated with poverty and inner city communities cannot be adequately addressed without public sector involvement. Charity does not establish justice. Often charity turns out to be a rather sophisticated way for people with most of the power to maintain it while being congratulated for their community service.

Sorry to be so harsh, but I've been watching this awhile now.

At best charity provides a short-term, temporary response to the wounds of injustice.

Church people would do well to read again the book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible. Here we observe a classic public, private partnership resulting in the renewal of an entire city.

Charity, no matter how well-intentioned, is never enough.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Real Must Read

Working in the city with "poor people" definitely affects the way I look at the world and this nation.

An added complication has to do with the fact that for the last forty-five years I have been a serious student of the Bible.

Bad mix.

The pain of the poor coupled with a fairly well-developed understanding of the "value documents" of the American faith can be a maddening combination.

One of the great ironies of the last quarter of the 20th century is how the church has surrendered the high ground in the battle against poverty, injustice and inequality in America. It makes me wonder what Bible is being read in churches today.

But the irony continues.

The church has walked away from the poor in favor of advancing another value-based agenda, one that is much more narrow. The combination of an increasing emphasis on individual salvation, the amassing of greater and greater wealth among conservative Christians and an almost exclusive focus on sexual morality, as defined by the issues of homosexuality and abortion, has resulted in the abandonment of the poor as a moral matter.

Wealth places millions of believers in the upper class. Wealth tends to drive tax policy and domestic budget formation. In such a situation justice fades as a moral concern for believers. The pulpits go silent. Get my drift?

But, religious people are moral and must espouse a moral agenda by definition, right? Concern over abortion and the gay rights movement fill an important void. And wouldn't you know it, such a concern costs tax payers nothing.

Wealth is protected. Morals are championed. The poor are on their own. After all, we all get wealthy and powerful in this nation by hard work, personal responsibility and the blessing of God, right? Surely our advantages had little, if anything, to do with our success!

I can just hear Amos crying out!

All of that to say, read Jim Wallis' new book: God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.

Wallis argues with power that the values debate in the nation must be broadened again. He contends that faith has a place in the public square. Establishing justice and fairness is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith systems.

Further, the faith has been hijacked by a narrow, unjust movement that ignores the fullness of the faith from a moral standpoint.

Things must change. True believers, you know the ones who understand the heart of God as taught by Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus, must re-engage the American political system as that system relates to the poor. And this must happen because such is the clear agenda of the faith itself.

You may not agree with me or with Wallis. But you should give him a hearing. Buy his book and read it.

[Buy Jim Wallis' new book at Amazon.com by going to this site: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0060558288/qid=1109212696/sr=8-1/ref=pd_csp_1/002-9898673-3819238?v=glance&s=books&n=507846]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

LBJ's now infamous "War on Poverty" was not a failure

Popular opinion, beginning over twenty-five years ago, presses me to believe that the domestic policy of President Lyndon Johnson, including the Great Society and his "War on Poverty," was an almost absolute failure.

While the program was not perfect, it was anything but a bust from an historic point of view. No doubt, there were abuses, but not at the scale or extent that the propaganda machine unleashed by Ronald Reagan would have had us believe. Reagan's "welfare Cadillac" image pushed the nation to the right, even though the details of his story turned out to be the stuff of classic urban myth.

The most negative aspect of Johnson's war on the systemic forces that made and kept people poor was the simple fact that it was interrupted by the dramatic escalation of another war--the one in Viet Nam. Budget constraints basically ended the former "conflict" in favor of the latter.

The economic statistics tracking poverty substantiate this picture. While it must be admitted that other economic forces were at work during the period in question, no serious student of the era questions the impact of much of Johnson's work in reigning in poverty both in terms of the actual number of poor people and the percentage of the population trapped in poverty.

In 1963, when LBJ became President, over 35 million Americans were classified as poor. By the time Johnson left office well under 25 million Americans fit the category--a net decline in raw numbers of well over 10 million Americans. Expressed another way, during Johnson's watch, the poverty rolls declined approximately 32%.

Viewed as a percentage of the total population, roughly 20% were poor when he became President and about 12% remained poor when he left the White House.

After the Johnson years the poverty index, both in raw numbers and in percentage of the whole, remained fairly stable. Then in mid-1978 the indicators began a sharp ascent. By the end of President Reagan's first term over 35 million Americans knew poverty firsthand. The numbers peaked again to pre-1960 levels in 1993 under President Clinton and then began a sharp descent during the boom of the mid to late-1990s, falling back to just over 30 million and just over 10% of the population.

Since 2001, the poverty numbers have been growing again. At mid-year 2003, 35.9 million or 12.5% of our neighbors were considered poor.

Say what you will about LBJ. His domestic economic programs, coupled with his aggressive civil rights efforts, made a difference in the problem of poverty in the nation.

Not a popular idea these days, but we could do worse than reviewing his strategy to see what value might be rediscovered and applied to our current challenge.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Reality Check: To Learn the Truth

Each year for the past ten years Central Dallas Ministries has hosted what we call our "Annual Urban Ministries Prayer Event." We started very small. The event has now grown into one of the more important community gatherings of the year among people who care about issues associated with poverty, justice and reconciliation.

Past speakers include Carey Dowl, Landon Saunders, John Perkins, George W. Bush, Wilson Goode, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Susan Pace Hamil, and Max Lucado.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the prayer gathering. We have a very special speaker to help us mark the occasion.

Pulitzer Prize winning author and columnist for The New York Times, David K. Shipler will challenge us to think in new and more productive ways about poverty and the pressing, daily struggles facing the working underclass in America.

Shipler's latest book, Working Poor: Invisible in America, is one of the most important studies of poverty in the past half century.

We are hoping to attract attendees from across the southwest and the nation.

In addition to his presentation at the breakfast, Shipler will be involved in a mid-morning conversation at a nearby church. For more information on this added aspect of the morning and for details about sponsorship, tables and individual tickets, go to our website at www.centraldallasministries.org.

Mark your calendar for the breakfast: Thursday, March 10, 2005 beginning at 7:15 a.m. at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel here in Dallas.

I hope to see you!

Monday, February 21, 2005

More on the Dearth of Prophets. . .

It is interesting to read the prophets of Israel when it comes to injustice.

Take the issue of the remarkable housing disparities discovered by archaeologists who unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. strata (see yesterday's blog).

Something the prophets all point toward is the systemic nature of the injustice afoot in the nation of Israel. For this reason preachers like Amos and Isaiah come down hard on the political officials of their day.

So, for these prophets, the major problem (no matter how unconscionable in the face of extreme poverty and suffering), is not the choice of individuals to use their wealth to build opulent housing. The more important issue is the political and economic systems that help create the wide disparities in opportunity and fortune creation leading to the huge gap between the rich and the poor in Israel during this period.

In other words, the prophets of God go after the root cause of the problem rather than the symptoms that signal its presence.

We don't like to look at this biblical reality, but we ignore it to our peril as a people.

The prophets appeared and they spoke an uncomfortable and challenging message whenever they observed socio-political and economic systems stacked against the poor in favor of the rich.

You'd think there would be a voice or two audible today.

I guess the airways are too clogged with messages of salvation, peace, security and how to manage wealth and success. . .and that in our churches.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

America's Silent Prophets

A few years back Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director for Sojourners magazine, shared some striking information during a speech delivered as part of our annual urban ministries prayer breakfast here in Dallas.

Wallis noted that archaeologists had correlated prophetic activity in ancient Israel to the status of housing stock at given periods of the nation's history.

Archaeological digs reveal that when the housing stock of the nation was roughly equivalent and not reflecting great economic disparities, the prophets tended to be silent.

On the other hand, when the archeological material of other historic periods and strata reflected a wide gap in the quality of housing stock, the prophets raged and roared.

So, for instance, during the 8th century B.C.E., Amos, Isaiah and Micah delivered strong, corrective messages about oppression of the poor, the immorality of poverty and a clear call for establishing economic justice in the nation.

For the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, economics was a moral matter.

The quality of housing available and the distribution of resources was a matter of faith.

Those who spoke for God saw economic disparity and injustice as a value issue.

Hmmmm.

I wonder, if he were alive, would Amos be speaking today?

Are there shocking disparities in wealth, housing, health care, education and other quality of life and opportunity issues afoot in America 2005?

Listen for a moment. Hear any prophets?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Urban Reality

From the National Coalition for the Homeless Fact Sheet, September, 2002

Among the causes of homelessness is the loss of SRO housing, the NCH says:

"A housing trend with a particularly severe impact on homelessness is the loss of single room occupancy (SRO) housing. In the past, SRO housing served to house many poor individuals, including poor persons suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. From 1970 to the mid-1980s, an estimated one million SRO units were demolished (Dolbeare, 1996). The demolition of SRO housing was most notable in large cities. . . ."
_______________________________

From The Wall Street Journal (August 26, 2004, pp. B1 B3):

"'Forty-six million people in this country have been convicted of something sometime in their lives and our economy would collapse if none of them could get jobs,' cautioned Lewis Maltby, head of the National WorkRights Institute. That total is based on FBI database information for all individuals convicted of misdemeanors or crimes that are more serious.

"Compared to white males, five times as many Blacks and two times as many Hispanics have been behind bars. A recent study of entry-level applicants conducted at Northwestern University suggests that if a black male applicant has a prison record, the likelihood that the prospective employer will call back diminishes by two-thirds, and for white males, by one-half."
_________________________________

According to the latest C.I.A.World Factbook, Cuba is one of 41 nations that have better infant mortality rates than the United States. Of interest is the fact that America's infant mortality rate improved every year since 1958 until 2002 when the trend line turned up for the first time in 44 years.

"America's children are at greater risk than they've been in for at least a decade," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and President of the Children's Health Fund. "The rising rate of infant mortality is an early warning that we're headed in the wrong direction, with no relief in sight."

Fact: if the U. S. had an infant mortality rate as good as Singapore's, 18,900 babies would be saved annually. Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof put it another way: "Our policy failures in Iraq may be killing Americans at a rate of about 800 a year, but our health care failures at home are resulting in incomparably more deaths--of infants. And their mothers, because women are 70 percent more likely to die in childbirth in America than in Europe." (The New York Times, January 12, 2005)
_____________________________

America's churches have much to consider and pray over tomorrow, wouldn't you agree?

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Worst Sort of Unbelief

Most people who aren't poor don't trust people who are.

The lack of trust of which I speak comes in a number of varieties.

Middle and upper class folks often think low-income people are stupid, lazy, not trustworthy, culturally deficient and/or generally unworthy. Not many will admit to these opinions, but actions speak loudly. When pressed, some will even own up to such ideas.

A tipoff to this attitude or perspective can be seen in how charity works. Often we frame the world in a way that guarantees the poor will be in need of us, our solutions and our superior resources.

"Why, without us where would the poor be?" our attitudes sometimes shout.

Professional people who make a good, middle-class living working among the poor can be among the worst culprits when it comes to not believing in people.

Here's a test to try. Suggest to a service provider that a really good way to organize the delivery of needed services would be in involve the poor in the planning and implementation process. Watch the reactions.

Most people assume the poor have few, if any, assets to bring to the table.

People who provide emergency housing to the homeless sometimes can't bring themselves to believe that, given a safe place to live, a space to control and call home, many homeless people would do just fine without all of the other "necessary" services offered by the experts.

The "poverty industry" is really a major part of the problem, especially in this matter of believing in people and their inherent capacity to solve their own problems.

The fact is the poor are no more likely to be lazy, evil, stupid or unmotivated than the rest of us! Experience teaches me that the poor offer up what they do have more freely than the more well-to-do. Something about a sense of control or ownership comes into play here.

Sometimes the categories created by the people in charge--that is those with the money--box others in and sentence them to nicely manageable categories where people become statistics and the grist for strategic plans. The entire process provides a much needed and convenient reason not to provide what is really called for: genuine opportunity and fair and open access to financial resources.

So much is lost due to this determined brand of faithlessness. So many assets squandered. So many opportunities for creative new solutions and partnerships undiscovered. So much color, variety and creativity surrendered before it is even recognized. So much of the dull, boring, paternalistic, condescending, ineffective, "same old, same old" approach getting us nowhere fast!

I've about decided that the worst kind of unbelief may just be the inability to believe in people no matter what they own or don't own.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Harsh Times in Fantasy Land

A report released yesterday by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness noted a 28% increase during 2004 for emergency food assistance requests. The same study reported a 27% increase in requests for emergency shelter.

Sure fits what I see everyday in my corner of the world.

Twenty-five per cent of emergency food distributors said that they had to turn people away because of scarce resources. When it comes to emergency shelter providers, 75% of these agencies had to refuse service to those in need due to lack of funds and space.

What I am waiting for is a National Politician's Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness.

Or, how about an United Church Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness?

Even better, a National Business Roundtable Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness.

Why are the really important, thoroughly human matters almost always left to students?

The Bush Administration, for all of its spin about "compassionate conservatism," proposes to cut $2 billion from HUD's community development efforts at the very time when low-income communities need help and while cities are tightening belts.

Go figure.

Even programs that reward and encourage people to work are not immune from the federal pin knife. The very successful Earned Income Tax Credit, the program that provides tax refunds to very low-income working people, will lose $81 million in FY2006 and a total of $622 million over the next five years.

Think about it. Where do working people put their refund money? Grocery stores, clothing stores, pharmacies, auto dealerships, housing developments--hmmm, sounds like the poor aren't the only ones hurt by the loss of these work benefits and incentives. Something about being a penny wise and a pound foolish crosses my mind.

Underneath all of this detail lies a troubling reality: these are increasingly harsh times for people at the bottom of our economic ladder.

Even more troubling to me is the illusion of progress that permeates media and the collective popular mind these days. For all our talk about values, morality and national honor, could we be peering through a looking glass that distorts everything in a fantastic manner. Could we be in a fantasy land of denial that simply serves our own pleasure while protecting our positions of advantage?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Institute is Coming to Dallas!

In 1989, Dr. John Perkins provided leadership that resulted in the groundbreaking work for the formation of the Christian Community Development Association. The mission of CCDA is to express the love of Christ in the poorest communities of America.

Over the past several years, CCDA leaders organized the CCDA Institute for the purpose of providing theological and practical training in the core principles of Christian community development. Using seasoned veterans drawn for the ranks of Christian community development organizations from across the country, The Institute moves from city to city delivering day-long training for urban ministry practitioners.

Here’s the good news: The Institute is coming to Dallas! On March 2-4, 2005, The Institute will offer training sessions for urban workers from across the city and around the state. Training sessions will meet here at Central Dallas Ministries (409 N. Haskell Avenue).

Two classes will be offered by The Institute while here in Dallas:

1) The Theology and Practice of Incarnational Ministry with Rev. Noel Castellanos

2) Creating Healthy Communities with Dr. Robert (Bob) Lupton

To learn more about this important urban training opportunity, visit the CCDA website at http://www.ccda.org/.

One of the goals of The Institute is to provide leadership and theological training for indigenous leaders from the communities where we live and work. Consider enrolling yourself and bringing a community leader along with you.

Act now! Space is limited and filling up!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Street or Home?

Yesterday I received an email that contained the following message from a special person I have never met. He wrote in response to an essay of mine published in last Sunday's Dallas Morning News (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/
opinion/viewpoints/stories/020506dnedijames.c3b52.html).

Mr. James

I just read your article "A homeless solution so simple, it works: single room homes"

I'm mentally disabled & on Social Security disability. But when my parents die I fear I'll be homeless. In your article you mentioned that some homeless people would qualify for programs that would get them in housing. Can you tell me how to get in touch with these programs. The Housing Authority is not currently taking new applications , they're full.

He closed by signing his name and providing me with his phone number. We will be in touch with him. But there is more here than just his approaching crisis. He provides a glimpse of what life is like for thousands of people in affluent Dallas, Texas.

Sadly, the answer to his question is far from obvious in this community or state or nation. People in need, real need, find it difficult to patch together a life plan.

We will get involved with him. Hopefully, together we will find a long-term solution. But resources for adequately addressing a dilemma like my new friend faces are basically locked up and inaccessible.

Things need to change. It is a matter of values and civic morality.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Work and Family

Work is noble. Work can be rewarding, satisfying. The right kind of work can bring out the creative best in a person. Even less than ideal work can provide the sort of challenge that pushes a person on to greater personal development.

These days work is certainly popular.

Since the mid-1990s, welfare reform has placed a premium on work, any kind of work. Our national welfare rolls have been drastically reduced as a result of the almost universal call to work for everyone.

Millions of men and women have moved from public assistance into the workforce. Millions of these new workers have children. Millions toil at very low paying service jobs--jobs in the range of $7 to $10 per hour. Jobs that deliver a gross annual income of between $14,000 and $21,000.

This new labor force faces many challenges, what with so many public benefits now removed by a decade of reform and downsizing. Housing, healthcare, transportation, education, child care--all of these necessary commodities have now become major and extremely important challenges for these workers.

Now comes President Bush's FY2006 federal budget.

How will it affect workers with families?

For starters the new budget calls for a 9% cut in programming for the Administration for Children and Families, an agency that provides a wide range of services and opportunities for low-income, working families.

Consider child care for these low-income workers. The budget freezes spending for child care for five years. The result? By 2009, 300,000 children will lose this benefit. Or, should I say, the working parents of these children will lose the advantage provided by affordable child care.

Work is a high-priority, national value. That's right, a value.

Providing adequate care for our children is a high priority, national value. That's right, a value.

Obviously, the present administration operates out of a carefully defined and well-developed value system--one that is short-sighted, if not blind, when it comes to the harsh reality facing millions of families, hard working families who are our neighbors and friends.

Much, much more in coming days. . .
______________________________________
Join Central Dallas Ministries on Thursday, March 10, 2005 at 7:15 a.m. at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel for the 10th Annual Urban Ministries Prayer Event featuring Pulitzer Prize Winner and New York Times columnist, David Shipler, author of Working Poor: Invisible in America. For information call 214.823.8710 ext. 26 or visit the website at www.centraldallasministries.org.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

City Songs

Music, song rock inner city communities, especially in church.

Frankly, I have always been amazed and a bit perplexed by the power and enthusiasm of the music that rattles the walls of inner city churches, especially in view of all the problems and pains so many members face on a daily basis.

Poverty, racism, ill-health, violence, unresponsive political leaders, crime--the list goes on and on. So, what's there to sing about?

During the heyday of the American Civil Rights Movement, it was clear to me that the songs filling churches and meeting halls provided the marching music of moral and spiritual resolve. Powerful music reflected and fueled powerful action at a crucial time. Music was movement.

Frederick Douglass, ex-slave, abolitionist and literary genius, writes about the music of slavery in his amazing personal chronicle, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. What he teaches me here relates, I think, to what I hear so often on Sundays.

"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrows, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion." (pages 26-27)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Church That Painted the Corner

We sat around a makeshift conference table--the kind created by shoving three or four smaller tables of various sizes and shapes together to make room for the group.

The room, rather starkly lighted, had once housed one of the families who lived at Lincoln Heights Courts, a public housing project located in a really tough west side neighborhood of San Antonio. Now remodeled and "opened up" to the small apartment next door, the space served as the office for the Residence Council of the development.

"Has anyone talked to the churches in the neighborhood about our needs?" an older woman serving on the advisory board asked hopefully.

Knowing smiles broke across the faces of two or three members of the group.

"The churches here are 'transient,'" one woman said. "By that I mean the members come in on Sundays and maybe Wednesdays, but then they go home out of the neighborhood. They don't seem to want to be involved with the community."

The older woman protested.

"Oh, I don't know about that," she offered, still hopeful.

"You know the church down at the corner," she pointed across the room and through the wall.

The group asked a question or two to get a fix on the church she had in mind.

Once they understood which church, she continued.

"Why, that church painted the two buildings at the corner for us!" she reported with an enthusiastic smile.

"You mean the two building they own next door to the church?" someone asked.

"No, no," the woman explained. "They painted two of the project apartment buildings. You know the ones that are a different color from the rest."

A number of the group seemed surprised.

"That's interesting," someone observed. "Why did they paint those buildings?"

"Well, television people kept showing up at the church and they didn't want people to think their church was in a crummy neighborhood," the woman explained.

Everyone laughed.

And then, the group sat in silence for a few moments before continuing with the business at hand.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Treatment, Not Prison

[See yesterday's blog for the full story on drug abuse and prison reform.]

Almost a decade ago, the citizens of Arizona, employing initiative and referendum, demanded that state courts mandate treatment services for non-violent drug offenders, rather than sending them to prison. The state legislature, in a "tough on crime" political move, overturned citizen will once. Arizonans responded with another grassroots effort and reinstated their treatment versus incarceration plan.

The Arizona statute requires the courts to "sentence" persons convicted of non-violent drug offenses to a mandatory treatment program sanctioned by the state. The law provides that this approach may be taken even up to third time offenders in some cases.

For sure, Arizona has never been accused of being an ultra-liberal state. So, what gives?

The economics of maintaining prison systems explains much of the Arizona reasoning. Courts, shackled by mandatory sentencing requirements, have had no choice in many cases but to fill up the prison cells of state penitentiaries. The costs have skyrocketed in every state. Arizona sought relief for its state budget.

And relief it found.

After using the new system for several years, the results have been telling. Over 70% of those sent to treatment programs have not returned to prison. The majority have gone to work. The savings to the state on an annual basis: $30,000 per person.

Since the Arizona experiment, other states have developed their own programs and many more are on the drawing boards in state after state.

The prison lobby doesn't like the movement that is underway, but communities benefit greatly. Rather than continuing to be a drain on community resources, men and women who return to neighborhoods without a prison record or, worse yet, prison experience find themselves in position to make a positive contribution.

People who have been to treatment for drug abuse stand a much better chance of being employed again. They also need not lie on an employment or rent application.

Lessons learned while facing and dealing with an addiction and an addictive personality prepare a person for a better life. Lessons learned while locked up appear to take most people in an entirely different direction.

Texas needs to take a look at the Arizona model, as well as those now operating in many other states. There is money, lots of money, to be saved.

Even more important, lives don't need to be wasted, nor neighborhoods devastated.

One final idea. Public and non-profit hospital systems, especially in urban areas, continue to take a beating in their Emergency Departments, as more and more uninsured patients receive services for which they cannot pay. Possibly these health care systems could develop in-patient and out-patient services for people who need treatment rather than jail. Sending our tax dollars to hospitals for healing makes more sense than continuing to send them to prisons where the disease only gets worse.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Prison, Drugs, Neighborhoods and My Friends

Many of my friends have used drugs. Many of my friends still use drugs.

Many of my friends have been to prison. Some of my friends are in prision today.

Drugs and prison follow one another almost automatically, especially if you are poor and living in an urban area.

Drugs create a terrible scene in the city. Watching the tragic cycle repeat itself again and again makes me wonder if there might not be a better way.

Here's how the cycle works. A person, from an extremely disadvantaged family, usually under 21, a high school dropout and unemployed or underemployed, begins using drugs with friends in the 'hood. In some cases the young person may have served as a "mule" for drug dealers while still a minor. Eventually, if not initially, crack becomes the drug of choice.

I'm not talking about selling drugs, just using. I'm not talking about violent offenders, just street corner users who look up one day and they are thirty and trapped in a downward spiral.

Somewhere between initial use and age 30, an arrest takes place. The charge relates to the possession of narcotics. Due to the overcrowded court system, a plea is usually entered. Probation for a first offense is almost automatic, if there is no traffiking, violence or some other crime related to simple possession or use.

Now probation meetings must be attended and fees must be paid. In the vast majority of cases for the poor, no treatment is available.

Since nothing of real significance changes in the user's life, the cycle typically repeats itself. The second time around the user receives a sentence and ends up in a state prision. When he or she comes out, the probation process begins again with harsher consequences attached to any violation of the rules, including return to prison.

But now things are different. As an ex-offender with time served, a person faces a real challenge finding a place to live and work. Many people try hard to break out of the old pattern, some manage it. Many, many others don't. With no real job and no decent place to reside, many of my friends have found themselves back at the same old corners, with the same old friends.

During the entire process, in most cases, no one has addressed the matter of addiction directly. In the vast majority of cases no treatment has been offered or accepted.

From a economic standpoint we need to think in new ways. Today in the U.S. 2.1 million people are behind bars. Corrections costs have risen over the past twenty years from $9 billion to over $60 billion annually, making prison costs the second-fasting growing expense in state budgets, after Medicaid. Prisons have become an industry fueling the economic life of many rural areas.

Practically speaking, from the standpoint of community development and stability in urban areas, our current approach removes males from neighborhoods, exposes them to the harsh realities of prison life, dumps them back on the streets and does little or nothing to challenge the addiction and poverty that got them started in the first place.

There must be a better way.

(More to follow.)

Friday, February 04, 2005

Can the City Count on the Church?

Since the mid-1990s and the advent of then Senator John Ashcroft's "Charitable Choice" legislation, politicians, pundits and preachers have been trying to convince us that communities of faith (usually that means churches) can make an extremely significant contribution to solving the nation's numerous and growing social problems.

The Clinton administration encouraged the idea. The current administration gave the movement institutional life by creating the White House Office for Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. Each year since 2001, funds earmarked for this new agency have grown. Even more significant is the open door the new cabinet level office creates for faith-based groups seeking funding from federal agencies and departments.

During the last two Presidential campaigns, a lively debate ensued concerning the role and effectiveness of faith-based organizations in addressing the social needs of the nation. The conversation has been interesting to say the least.

No doubt communities of faith have much to offer when it comes to addressing issues associated with poverty, addiction, community development, child care and health and wellness, to mention but a few. While very little empirical evidence is available, the anecdotal testimony can be moving and inspirational.

But, what about questions of scale and the real capacity of faith communities to act alone?

I cannot count the times I have been told that the government should simply get out of the social services business and turn such concerns over to the churches where they belong. Often those who make this argument point back to an earlier day (well over one hundred years ago) in the United States when churches performed almost all social service.

"Why, if the government would allow it, the church could take care of all of these matters," one adamant gentleman told me not long ago.

A serious look at the numbers--both of those in need and of the dollars contributed--is important just here.

Consider the data on offerings in religious communities. Between 1968 and 1990, the percentage of annual income donated by the average church member fell from 3.1% to 2.66%. If we compare mainline Protestant denominations to Evangelical denominations in the Christian world, we discover that mainline donations fell from 3.3% in 1968 to 3.17% in 2001. Evangelical donations declined from 6.15% to 4.27% over the same period. Neither of these Christian groupings reach the level of a tithe (10%) in average annual giving.

Interestingly, as members of both groups grew richer personally, contributions as a percentage of income declined.

It is also interesting to note that an examination of the public agendas of Evangelical churches reveals that almost never does the issue of justice for the poor show up as a serious priority or concern.

A recent study conducted by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle ("The State of Christian Giving") reports that if Christians in the U. S. simply tithed, their communities of faith would receive an additional $143 billion annually. Interestingly, the United Nations estimates that an additional $70-$80 billion a year would provide the support needed to open access to essential health care and education to every poor person on earth!

What are we to make of this? What does this all mean for urban revitalization and overcoming poverty in the city?

An amazing pool of assets are available to faith communities. So how do we turn the pool into a river for the poor? There is the challenge and the reality.

All sorts of questions come to mind.

Will people of faith ever have the spiritual will to offer gifts at this level? If they do, will their organized communities have the will to direct the increased funding toward the poor of our great urban areas?

Do communities of faith have the capacity to organize delivery systems that truly benefit the oppressed?

Will new kinds of leaders arise who devote themselves to understanding urban reality?

In short, are people of faith in the United States focused on the issues that impact the city in such a negative manner?

The claims we hear these days are interesting. Watching the outcomes may be even more so. For now and for me it is clear that our most effective solutions will emerge from public/private partnerships involving faith groups, community groups and government at all levels.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Anyone Else Feeling the Slide?

Here we go again!

Just now I picked up the monthly report from Terry Beer, Director of Central Dallas Ministries' large Resource Center here in East Dallas. During January 2005, Terry and his amazing community building staff and volunteers (almost all low-income neighborhood residents) saw demand for services (food, clothing, rental and utility assistance, etc.) rise by 9% over January of last year. I know without looking that these trends will match up with reports from other parts of our expanding organization.

Please note: Poor people aren't doing very well in Dallas or across this extremely wealthy nation.

Many of our neighbors who come seeking help are elderly.

Not many of us realize or remember, but in 1960 in the United States, 50% of our elderly citizens fell below the poverty line. When their working days were done, millions of Americans found that they had to make do the best way they could find on very meager resources. Food, housing, medical care and overall standard of living for the aging were far, far from adequate.

Yet, by 2003, only 10.2% of elderly Americans fell into that category.

How do you explain such dramatic progress in such a short time--just a bit over four decades?

Simple really.

First, during the 1960s and 1970s, Congress voted significant increases in Social Security benefits to older people. In 1959, the average Social Security check was only $70 a month. In 1958, 60% of American seniors had annual incomes under $1,000 in an era in which three times that much was required for seniors to enjoy the basics of life.

Second, these benefits were indexed to average wage growth to assure that seniors' income would keep pace with national economic realities.

Remember, these elderly Americans had formed the labor backbone of the nation. They had worked hard, paid their dues and, thanks to a just and enlightened civic value system, their hard work paid off. To be sure, no one was getting rich on the benefits, but vast numbers were secured against a kind of poverty that had been the norm for generations.

Justice. Fairness. Equity. National values to be proud of.

President Bush believes that indexing these benefits needs to end. He has a formula in mind that will greatly reduce the benefits seniors receive over the coming decades. Many of us will not be affected by such policy changes at all, but millions of our children will be touched directly and dramatically.

Today only 21% of American workers have defined pension plans. Employers today opt for 401 (k) investment plans based on stock market performance.

Wall Street will win big in the proposed new strategy.

Elderly Americans in the future, especially those who earn in lower paying jobs today, will experience a slide back to the days before 1960.

Contrary to popular belief, some government programs produce stellar civic results. Fiddling with the future of masses of retiring Americans is not only risky, it is unfair.

Just as homes offer a solution for homelessness, money tends to keep people out of poverty.

What do we really value today in this country?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Comic Relief at the Expense of Some Good Friends of Mine

My sister-in-law has reminded me for years that, as she puts it, "Many a truth is said in jest."

I thought of her when a good friend sent me a report on the "comic relief" dished up by comedian Rich Little at the Constitution Ball at the Hilton Washington on Inauguration night week before last.

While I won't repeat all that the impressionist shared with the festive crowd, one story really got to me.

At one point Little said that he missed and adored the late President Ronald Reagan. He continued, "I wish he was here tonight, but as a matter of fact, he is."

Of course, as one would expect and appreciate, the crowd loved it.

Then he went on to say something "funny," but terribly disturbing to me.

Impersonating Mr. Reagan, Little continued, "You know, somebody asked me, 'Do you think the war on poverty is over?'

"I said, 'Yes, the poor lost.'"

The crowd went wild.

Our nation seems to love the Bible these days, what with our passionate concern over values and all.

Maybe we need to rest with this passage for a day or two:

"Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished." Proverbs 17:5

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Values and Poverty

True or False? Abortion rates were higher during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan than during the Clinton Administration.

The correct answer is "True."

Fact: When poverty declines, so do the abortion rates.

The Clinton era witnessed a decline in poverty. Along with that fall came a rather dramatic decline (32%) in the frequency of abortion.

Fact: During the administration of President George W. Bush, both the poverty rate and abortion rates have begun to climb upward again.

During the campaign leading up to the 2004 election, I heard and read interviews with many voters for whom religion was extremely important. We all know that the "values debate" played a critical role in the outcome of the election.

Over and over again, right leaning religious folks reported that two issues determined their vote: abortion and homosexuality/gay marriage.

This was true even for many religious people who cared deeply about the plight of the poor. The struggle surrounding these two sentinel issues "trumped" every other issue for this large bloc of voters.

I find this very interesting, especially in view of the facts of life in the United States today, to say nothing of the content of scripture on the subjects at hand.

Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and will not be overturned without a Constitutional Amendment--a very unlikely prospect.

The individual sexuality of gay and lesbian citizens will not be affected, nor their behavior modified, by who happens to be President of the United States. Gay marriage is not going to be institutionalized by the states, though civil unions will most likely become the norm in many. Nor will our President support a constitutional amendment to define marriage in only traditional terms.

Both abortion and issues associated with homosexuality definitely should be discussed in a civil and rational manner in this democracy. Both have a place in the national "values debate."

Neither have anything to do with a much wider and more far-reaching national and worldwide reality that should be included in any on-going values discussion.

Poverty, hunger, children, homelessness and housing, health care, education, access to opportunity--these are all issues to be considered as a part of the American "values agenda."

As my friend Jim Wallis puts it, "Budgets are moral documents."

Forty-five millions U. S. citizens have no health insurance--over 14 million are children. Does this not relate to national values?

Even though working harder than ever, almost 1.5 million additional Americans fell below the poverty line between 2002 and 2003. Does this not relate to our national values?

In the North Texas area, Dallas County bears practically all of the expense associated with providing public health care to the entire region. Collin County, the richest county in Texas, provides public health care only to those residents whose gross annual income totals 25% of the national poverty level or just over $4,000--literally a handfull of people annually. When asked, one commissioner commented that while it was "a nice thing" that Dallas County was doing for the poor, Collin County would never join in the process.

Question: Is this not a issue of public morality and values?

Question: Where are the churches in Collin County on this matter?

Question: Where are the outraged voters? Where is the movement for a values-based health care solution among religious people?

We would do well to rethink this entire matter of values.

An "upgrade" in this part of our civic discourse and action would be most welcome.