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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Billie Jo's Rest

Exhaustion won out at last,
Throwing her to the brick staircase
Ascending to a church whose door is locked against her kind
And the noise of the busy, hustling street below;
Fitting couch for a much too weary pilgrim.

Dirty face pressed almost softly against concrete steps,
Leading no where, except to more of her endless routine--
Forgotten life, surrounded, yet completely alone;
But sound sleep, rest for aching feet and back and limbs,
No one seems to see, no one acts, Billie Jo sleeps.

She, a well-known wanderer,
Up and down these same streets,
Pacing, as if in search of something lost so long ago,
Finding satisfaction in an easy conversation with herself,
Being that no one else seems to have the time, not for her.

All she owns, her special treasure, nestled in a worn plastic bag,
Straining against the weight of forgotten meds and socks,
A sweater even in the festering humidity;
Simple, almost barren life,
Uncluttered by annoying invitations to join friends or anyone.

"Oh, yes, efforts have been made,"
As much as is now allowed for citizens of the street;
But the game has been a long one,
Played well by rules no one understands,
So now, she prefers her brand of freedom, no matter how unforgiving.

Billie Jo sleeps peacefully as angels watch,
And preachers pass by,
And professionals schedule times to try to help yet again
This one lingering soul who fell and now lives beneath gapping cracks;
She knows us better than we know ourselves.

[I have known Billie Jo for most of the past ten years. A decade is quite a long time. Her story is as complex as the city and as simple as the words of Jesus. She is my friend. I pray that I am hers. LJ]

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sunday Morning Musings

As I ran around White Rock Lake this morning, evidence of yesterday's rainfall appeared everywhere. The spillway, normally just a trickle, roared, as the overflow poured into the creek system below. Fishing birds and humans fought for the best spots to take advantage of the boiling water and the disturbed fish just below the surface.

It occurred to me, as I observed the lake, that we are all very much connected.

Exhibit A: trash that literally covered the surface of the placid lake.

That's correct.

Trash.

Here's how the flood control system works in Dallas. A bag of trash or a paper cup or a bottle tossed out carelessly into the street or thrown into a sanitary sewer inlet gets washed away, or better, moved downstream when it rains.

Often I hear people, who don't understand the interconnected ecosphere of the lake and the city, blame the lake users for trash that ends up in the water. The fact is the problem begins far away from the lake, out in the suburbs. With every heavy rainfall the trash from above the lake gets washed into the water where it drifts into the shoreline. The parks and recreation folks, along with loyal volunteers, clean it up again and again.

We are all very much connected in this city. Much more than we even realize.

I am sure there are lessons here. Maybe you can think on this image and come up with some useful ideas.
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Speaking of "upstream" thinking. I am wondering what two or three ideas, that could inform the development of better public policy, might have the most positive affect on the urban poor in the United States?

My ideas may seem to be a real reach in terms of their direct connection to my main concern. But, I don't think so. Long term solutions call for broader thinking that will work change in the systemic reality that keeps poor people poor.

Try these notions.

Idea 1: Our nation should develop, as quickly as possible, strategies that would free us from dependence on foreign sources of energy. Alternative fuels, more efficient means of transportation and reduced consumption of energy in general are all attainable goals. The connection to bettering the lives of the urban poor isn't hard to discover. Such efforts would generate new jobs, improve our failing environment (reducing the impact of a number of urban health challenges) and save funds now directed to an extremely costly foreign conflict. At the same time, such movement would further spur the developing network of public transportation that offers access to better employment opportunities outside the city's core.

Idea 2: We need to accept "outsourcing" as a permanent fact of life in our economy. What we cannot continue to do is to remain paralyzed in the face of this worldwide reality. Funds need to be redirected in a serious and strategic manner to take advantage of the great resting capacity of the largely idle or underutilized urban workforce. One thing my experience in the city has taught me is that people want to work. There is an opportunity for American corporations to take advantage of this growing, urban workforce and to develop new "insourcing" strategies. Companies currently housed in exurban and suburban areas need to consider expansion through satelittle workforce locations or "labor pods" to take advantage of the available workforce resources.

Idea 3: Our nation needs to radically beef up its diplomatic corps. The United States needs to reestablish itself as a nation of compassion and fairness. We need to become known as the nation that will talk, negotiate and work hard to hammer out settlements to the various conflicts without violence. Our slumping foreign aid budget and our current foreign policy should be re-vamped. The savings would be enormous. The growth in international stature invaluable. With what could be saved and gained, life for our own poor would improve dramatically. A nation concerned, really concerned for its neighbors around the world, is also a nation committed to seeing life improve for all of its citizens.
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Tomorrow is Memorial Day in the United States.

On this special day for remembering all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, we should also reflect on the current war in Iraq. Lives are being offered up on a daily basis. Lives of our soldiers and civilians. Lives of the Iraqi people. The conflict seems to be a senseless engagement in light of all that we know about our world--terror, radical fundamentalism of all brands (including Christian), hunger, disease, natural disaster, and poverty.

I remember my own college days. The Veit Nam War dragged on to its frustrating end. I recall the heated and important debates about that conflict and whether or not it met any of the standards of "just war."

Today the church is largely silent on the current conflict. I find that strange and very disappointing.

I went to church this morning.

I prayed for peace.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Community Reborn

Recently, a group of CDM leaders, along with an architect and a couple of commercial realtors “explored” the inside of an old and cavernous building that sits empty in downtown Dallas.

Twenty-two stories of abandoned stone and steel, it rises from the street with no current purpose or utility.

As I walked through the building, climbing dark stairways with a flashlight, making my way through office areas and peering out from the upper floors through grimy windows, I could see community lost.

On the ground floor a staircase sweeps smartly up to the mezzanine level where a once busy coffee shop, surrounded by novelty stores, overheard the banter and conversation of hundreds of urban workers. Around lunch tables, across office desks, in conference rooms and even down in the engine rooms, this building housed a thriving community years ago.

Today it is dead.

Completely dead.

Empty.

Quiet.

Spooky, frankly.

But, I have to tell you; we can see community rising from the ashes of this place, or one much like it.

We continue to explore a radical, but very possible dream of bringing life to such a place again. We can see two hundred single room occupancy (SRO) apartments carved out on the upper floors of such an abandoned place. New homes for very low-income persons who simply need just that—a place to call home.

We can see thriving offices down below where our administrative and development functions could be housed alongside our law firm, the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation and CDMWorks, our employment training arm. We see other community development partners housed with our team in such a space.

I can see, better, I can smell the coffee brewing and I can hear the conversations ignited again in the restaurant and in the shops.

Best of all, I can observe folks getting life together after long journeys into far countries of confusion and isolation!

Home at last!

Community lost.

Community rediscovered!

Stay tuned for the details.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Get Political Today!

Please read the following press release regarding a bill currently in the U. S. Congress to assist in the elimination of hunger in the nation by 2015.

The goal here is not as unreasonable as it may first sound.

Central Dallas Ministries partners with the North Texas Food Bank, a Second Harvest organization, to provide food to thousands of families each month.

Consider writing your U. S. Senators to sign on as co-sponsors of this bill. While you are at it, drop a note to your U. S. Representative to consider sponsoring a companion bill in the House so that this vision can become law as soon as possible.

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SENATOR DURBIN INTRODUCES HUNGER-FREE COMMUNITIES ACT OF 2005

Legislation Establishes Goal to End Hunger in America by 2015

CHICAGO, May 25, 2005 —Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Hunger-Free Communities Act of 2005 today to increase federal funding available to local organizations working to reduce hunger in communities nationwide and establishing an ambitious commitment to end hunger in the United States by 2015 . The bill has bipartisan support with Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and Gordon Smith (R-OR) as cosponsors.

According to the USDA, hunger and food insecurity in the United States has increased for the fourth straight year. In 2004, more than 36 million Americans—including 13 million children—lived with hunger or on the brink of hunger.

"This critical legislation will enable our Member food banks and food-rescue organizations to better meet the needs of low-income Americans, particularly through enhanced facilities," said Robert Forney, President and CEO of America's Second Harvest--The Nation's Food Bank Network. "We commend Senator Durbin and his colleagues for their leadership and commitment to addressing hunger in America."

The Hunger-Free Communities Act preserves current funding levels for federal food programs and protects nutrition and hunger-relief initiatives. Additionally, it directs the Census Bureau to collect annual data on food insecurity in the United States and the United States Department of Agriculture to prepare annual reports on the status of efforts to eliminate domestic hunger and recommendations for reducing hunger.

“Hunger is not a partisan issue, and we now have the opportunity to forge a new bipartisan partnership, committed to addressing hunger in communities all across our country,” Durbin said. “During the 1960s and 1970s, under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, our country put in place programs that substantially reduced the number of people who struggle to feed their families. Unfortunately, today hunger and food insecurity has been on the rise. That is why we introduced The Hunger-Free Communities Act.”

The Hunger-Free Communities Act enables Congress to establish a first of its kind grant program authorizing up to $50 million a year for five years to help hunger-relief organizations reduce hunger locally through efforts such as infrastructure improvements, training and technical assistance, and expanding access to more nutritious food including protein and produce. This public-private partnership focuses on addressing hunger at the local level while promoting collaboration among groups with mutual visions.

In 2000, as part of the Healthy People 2010 initiative, the United States government established a goal of cutting food insecurity in half by 2010. In June 2004, the National Anti-Hunger Organization (NAHO) comprised of 13 national hunger organizations, including America's Second Harvest, issued the Blueprint to End Hunger—a roadmap to end hunger in America—which supports a strategy for reducing hunger in half by 2010. The Hunger-Free Communities Act reaffirms this commitment.

# # #

America's Second Harvest -- The Nation's Food Bank Network is the nation's largest charitable hunger-relief organization with a Network of more than 200 regional member food banks and food - rescue programs serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The America's Second Harvest Network secures and distributes nearly two billion pounds of donated food and grocery products annually. The America's Second Harvest Network supports approximately 50,000 local charitable agencies operating more than 94,000 programs including food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters, after-school programs, and Kids Cafes. Each year, the America's Second Harvest Network provides food assistance to more than 23 million low-income hungry people in the United States, including more than nine million children and nearly three million seniors. For more on America's Second Harvest, please visit www.secondharvest.org.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Justifying Tax "Abatements" for Churches

Years ago when I visited people hospitalized at Baylor University Medical Center, I would occasionally see a rather eccentric gentleman picketing on the sidewalk in front of Criswell College on Gaston Avenue. The guy always carried a sign that read, "Churches Should Pay Taxes," or something to that effect.

I suppose he didn't realize that Criswell college was not a church, but a private, Bible college. However, he was correct that it enjoyed tax exempt status as a non-profit organization.

Forgive me for bringing it up again, but you know, the guy raises a good question with his little protest.

What if churches had to justify or prove up the legitimacy of their tax exempt status? What if there were forms to fill out and accountability standards to achieve in order to maintain what amounts to a tax abatement on the real estate churches own and operate?

Non-profit hospital systems are required to pass such tests to maintain their non-profit, tax exempt status.

For-profit businesses that receive tax abatements from taxing authorities, be they city, county, state or federal, do so because of the public benefit that they generate in the form of jobs, economic development, tourism, etc.

Why not churches?

What if churches had to account for their actions in the community?

What would the reports reveal? Would anything change in the community if churches had to report on substantive work accomplished in the neighborhoods where they work?

There is lots of talk and press these days out of the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives about the important role of churches and other communities of faith in the hard work of transforming communities. You would think the time might be right for every congregation in the nation to offer a full accounting of the work being done in, for and with the community that would merit what under current policy amounts to a permanent tax abatement without review.

Now that would be a faith-based initiative with some real punch!

I know we have to submit a Form 990 annually to the IRS. It is our tax form as a non-profit. We list all revenue. We list the top salaries in the organization. We report on what our activities were for the year. It is an accounting to justify our tax exempt status.

Hmmm. What would the IRS reporting form look like for churches?

Possibly a modified Form 990 would work. Same reporting standards: revenue, top salaries, and report on activities. How about a line item on assistance extended to persons in need? How about the number of homeless persons housed either by the church directly through programs or members or via cooperation with a partner organization? How about children cared for in day car and after school activities? How about leadership development? How hunger relief? Hours spent mentoring students? Number of latch-key kids cared for in safe environments? Dollars donated to organizations who do make all of this and more their standard operating mission on a daily basis.

I am not suggesting that churches don't do good work.

I am just wondering what if they had to think it all through and report it out to community leaders?

I wonder what would happen if finance committees and pastoral leadership had to really think about every dollar spent in view of the challenges facing our cities?

I guess I am wondering about the benefit of churches becoming fully-functioning members of the community as institutions.

What about your church? Would such reporting requirements change anything in your congregation?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Kids, Crime and the City

Earlier this week I was in the Roseland Community Center for a meeting. Just last week Central Dallas Ministries finalized a contract agreement with the Dallas Housing Authority that gives us the opportunity to manage the new community center at Roseland Homes, a public housing property owned and operated by DHA.

The new center is a much-needed and amazing community asset. The new gymnasium comes complete with a hardwood floor that manages to put spring in even my legs!

The challenge of operating the new center will be large, but what a gift to us and, more importantly, to a part of the city that we are devoted to completely. Roseland Homes is one of "our places."

While I was there, a group of young men piled out of a van and entered the center. They ranged in age from about 14 to 17. They all wore the same basic pants and white tees. They were all a bit subdued, but polite as I greeted them.

A couple of older guys (no more than 25-years-old) appeared to be their coaches.

I overheard them ask our center director for a basketball.

She razzed them a bit: "What's y'all comin' over here without a ball? I ain't got no ball!"

When they hesitated without an answer, she broke into a big smile and produced basketballs they could use.

Everyone laughed and the game began.

Stupid me asked them if they were "a team."

"No," one of the leaders said. "We're from the juvenile center."

Finally, I got it.

These kids were on a supervised field trip out of the facility where the courts had placed them for some criminal action.

The game was part of their daily routine. They were using our new center because our director there, like all of our directors, is constantly reaching out to connect with folks who are a vital part of the inner city where we work.

Kids in trouble--definitely a part of the texture, the story of our neighborhood.

As I spoke to these young men, I welcomed them into our "new house." I told them they were going to help us "break it in." I didn't really know who they were or why they were there.

Reflecting on the group after I understood there reason for being there, I didn't change my mind.

These young men need what my children needed and still need. Respect. Adults who care, who will listen and who will help with connections. They need a safe place to play, to hang out and to be kids. They need education. They need jobs. They need space for self-discovery, as well as self-revelation. They need to know that others value them simply for their unique humanity.

They need adults who love them without condition and who will not give up on them.

As I left, it made me feel really good that they were sweating it out on the gym floor.

But, I've got to tell you, I can't stop thinking about all of the other needs they have that if fulfilled, will make all the difference in the world in their lives and futures.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Public Schools and the Inner City

Controversy swirls around public schools these days. Few, if any, institutions more directly affect the lives of children from low-income families than do our public schools.

Recently, Janet Morrison, Director of Children's Education here at Central Dallas Ministries, sent me the following provocative statement from Reg Weaver, President of the National Education Association, of the "10 Commandments for Public Education." Some of the "commandments" have been adapted by the National Association of Multicultural Educators.

Whatever your opinions as you read, I think you'll find Weaver's ideas stimulating. Our schools here in the city are incredibly important to the future of our children.

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Commandment #1: Thou shalt not pretend to reform schools by passing some spurious law where the intent is only to perpetuate the continued marginalization of this nation's children of color, the poor, and the different.

Commandment #2: Thou shalt not say that children are America's top priority when 20 percent of America's children live in poverty, 15 percent have no health insurance, and 13 children are killed by gunfire every single day.

Commandment #3: Thou shalt recognize that only public education has the potential to provide every child in America with a quality education. Therefore, thou shalt not abandon public schools, but redeem and strengthen them.

Commandment #4: Thou shalt not spend more money on prisons than on schools. The more quality schools you have the fewer prisons you'll need.

Commandment #5: Thou shalt not kid thyself that paying starting teachers $20,000 a year is any way to attract and retain the best and the brightest educators for our children. Thou shalt support future teachers--not insult them.

Commandment #6: Thou shalt respect every child as precious and capable of learning--inclusive of all areas of diversity including, race, ethnicity, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, socioeconomic status, language, disability, or immigration status.

Commandment #7: Thou shalt not attack teachers, especially when thou has not been in a classroom thyself for the last 35 years.

Commandment #8: Thou shalt honor not only teachers, but the people who drive the buses, clean the hallways, serve the lunches, counsel the students, take the attendance, nurse the injured, assist in the classrooms, teach the teachers and run our nation's schools with dignity and dedication and grace.

Commandment #9: Thou shalt recognize that quality education requires everybody in the multicultural education community to struggle against all forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, classism, linguicism, ablism, ageism, heterosexism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia.

Commandment #10: Thou shalt remember that public education must always be an immediate priority and a long-term investment. Schools must not be subjected to quick fixes or get-rich-quick schemes.

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The same people who can deny others everything are famous for refusing themselves nothing."
--Leigh Hunt

Monday, May 23, 2005

Bobby, Me and Jesus

I can't tell why it happens to me so often. It has become a joke in my family.

It happened to me just now.

My car was loaded down with recycle paper and clothing donations, so I decided to run up to our building on Haskell Avenue and clean out my vehicle before another week gets underway.

As I am unloading, "Bobby" walks up. Homeless, disabled, desperate--Bobby tries to communicate through his very challenging speech impediment.

I've talked to him several times before this evening. I know his story most likely as well as anyone in Dallas. Take it from me, that fact alone is enough to make me cry because I barely know Bobby.

Bobby has been on the street for many years. He has been beaten up, robbed, cast aside, chased away from just about everywhere and basically "flushed" by the larger community.

Bobby has a hard time just walking. He has a pin in one leg, the result of a severe beating by a group of young thugs.

I suspect Bobby has a substance abuse problem or has had one at some point in the past. I've never talked to him when he was drunk or "high."

I do know that Bobby has not received what he needs.

So, tonight Bobby hobbles up as I am unloading my car. I notice he is carrying everything he owns in a giant, unorganized wad.

"Hey, man," he half yells my way as he approaches. "Remember me?"

"Sure. I remember you, Bobby," I reply. "How are things with you?"

"I'm making it, man, with God's help," he answered. "But, I'm needing some change to get something to eat. I'm hungry, man."

Taking care of that request is easy. Thinking about what to do is the tough part.

I invited him to sleep behind our building under the protected parking cover. Why don't I have a better to offer him? Why don't I just take him home with me? Why don't I just "camp" here with him?

I have this feeling Jesus would have. Jesus lived a lot more like Bobby than like I live.

Of course, I've got all the right and respectable answers lined up on those questions. Only problem is, these are the questions that keep coming up for me.

It is true, we are working on this issue. Dallas needs to provide a livable space for Bobby and others like him. I am learning that as far as I am concerned, "Dallas" means me and my friends at Central Dallas Ministries. That is how we have to look at the matter.

I just hope we get it done in time. Bobby will die out on the streets of my hometown if we delay much longer. I know that for a fact.

I gave Bobby ten bucks for a meal knowing that he needed so much more. I think I know that Jesus would agree and he would look to me and many others like me who claim to be following him for some action and answers.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Class and American Mobility

If you read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, likely you have noticed the recent articles on class in the United States and the impact it has on just about every aspect of life in our nation.

John Greenan, one of our lawyers and the Executive Director of our Community Development Corportation, pointed me to an extremely interesting web address that looks at the issues of class and mobility.

To take a look go to:

http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/national/
20050515_CLASS_GRAPHIC/index_03.html


As always, I would benefit from your responses.
_____________________________________

Personal note: a combination of factors have prevented me from writing on a daily basis this week. I hope to get back to the schedule next week. Thanks for hanging with me!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

John Wiley Price, Civil Disobedience, Liquor Ads and Stores in the 'Hood

Several years ago Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price mounted a virtual one-man campaign in his South Dallas district against liquor billboards that pushed alcohol in the neighborhoods he represented.

I recall that the white folks in my north Dallas County, suburban church didn't get his point, nor did they appreciate his actions, even though few, if any, of them drank themselves.

Mr. Price "assaulted" the billboards with whitewash. That's right. He literally painted over the ads in protest.

Now, you must understand. Mr. Price is not anti-first amendment. He believes in our free market capitalism. He is not against advertisers, as far as I can ascertain.

His problem was proportion, density and placement.

He correctly noted that a disproportionate number of the liquor ads were placed in his part of the community. What would never have been allowed in such density in North Dallas seemed to be running unchecked among the people who elected him. Having exhausted all other channels of honest, reasonable dialogue, he took matters into his own hands. As I recall, he suffered the legal consequences gladly.

While you may not agree with his tactics (I actually saw him as a brave and savvy leader at the time), you must admire what he understood.

A recent study of 82 neighborhoods in four northern/central California cities revealed that the most economically deprived communities contained more places that sold alcohol than the least deprived, even though the more affluent areas housed more heavy drinkers (Marilyn Winkleby, Stanford Prevention Research Center).

This disproportionate clustering of such negative forces affects quality of life and health outcomes. The practice is also patently racist.

Mr. Price was right.

My white, tee-totaling friends who wrote him off as some sort of a lunatic just didn't get it.

Weak, unorganized communities routinely fall prey to mounting negative influences and powers that destine them to remain weak, ill and unhealthy.

Somehow communities need to come together across all the lines that divide us to insure that such marketing pathology is ended for the good of us all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"Built Environment" and Health Realities (Disparities)

Where you live determines, in large measure, how well and how long you will live.

Over the past decade or so, substantive, scientific research has tackled the relationship between health outcomes and health disparities and the various realities of "built environments."

Built environment is simply how things are arranged, constructed and included in the spaces where we live.

For example, the presence or absence of sidewalks, bike paths, recreational areas, and parks determines influential health factors such as physical activity and the prevalence of diabetes, obesity, asthma, hypertension and depression.

". . .in those low-income areas that do not have such amenities, the threat of crime keeps people inside. Income segregation--the practice of housing the poor in discrete areas of a city--has also been linked with obesity and adverse mental health outcomes" (from Ernie Hood, "Dwelling Disparities: How Poor Housing Leads to Poor Health," in Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 113, Number 5, May 2005).

Most poor communities, especially in inner city areas, suffer (literally) for a want of supermarkets and access to healthy foods at affordable prices.

Instead, convenience stores encourage smoking, fast food restaurants feed obesity and diabetes, and liquor stores drive up teen drinking and addiction.

Add in low-quality, often dilapidated housing with the accompanying lead poisoning, asthma triggers and mental health stressors, including violence and social isolation, and you have a formula for disease well above the norm of the larger community.

Hood concludes in the introduction to his important and distressing essay, "Low-income and/or ethnic minority communities--already burdened with greater rates of disease, limited access to health care, and other health disparities--are also the populations living with the worst built environment conditions. Studies have shown that negative aspects of the built environment tend to interact with and magnify health disparities, compounding already distressing conditions."

Lots here to ponder, huh?

One thing seems very clear: we can reasonably expect that dollars invested properly, strategically and wisely in urban environments will pay off not only in terms of improved aesthetics, but also in concrete community health outcomes, and that over the long haul.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Thinking about Jesus

So, today I'm thinking about Jesus.

Hang with me here. My thoughts aren't all "holy" or filled with images of church or choirs or angels.

No, I'm thinking of the Jesus who seemed to specialize in "hanging out" with all sorts of people.

So much so that he made lots of powerful people nervous. Powerful religious people. Powerful political people. Powerful rich people.

The fact is you'd never really acquire an accurate understanding of Jesus by watching or listening to most churches.

Churches and their programs don't major in "hanging out." Most church members on their own don't either. Churches certainly don't encourage their members to spend time with the sort of folks Jesus did.

I'll take it a step further.

You'll never really arrive at a complete or true picture of Jesus by reading the apostle Paul.

Paul wrote more of the New Testament than any other author--at least that is the traditional claim. Paul writes lots about what he thought the life of Jesus meant. He doesn't spend much time on how Jesus spent his days.

If you read the gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--you get at least a glimpse of who Jesus was, what he did and who he spent his time with.

Most people who claim to follow him don't act much like he did.

Oh, they depend on him for their personal ticket to eternal life. But, as far as shaping their days as he did his, well, you can forget it.

Maybe that is okay.

But it would be refreshing to at least allow the very radical life of Jesus to inform the values and the attitudes of those who follow him, especially when it comes to how people should be treated, valued and heard.

Jesus was a radical dude.

Far out, off the charts radical.

He wasn't too comfortable in church. Or, maybe its more accurate to say when he was in church, most other folks weren't too comfortable!

He wasn't into the status quo.

He was far too inclusive not to raise eyebrows. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was welcome to be with him.

If he were alive today, he wouldn't be welcome in most churches. As a matter of fact, he wouldn't be recognized for who he really is.

I expect he would be ushered outside on a regular basis, especially when he started talking!

As my friend, James Walters (Professor of New Testament at Boston University) says, Jesus was a charismatic, itinerant revolutionary.

That's why he hung out so much!

He talked to everyone.

He reserved his judgment only for those who insisted on judging others and for those who felt self-sufficient before God and the pain of the world.

He touched everyone--including those declared by the powerful to be "untouchables." Lepers come to mind here, as do all the people and groups considered "outsiders" by the religious among us these days.

He elevated women, remembered widows, cherished children and argued for the poor as a very poor man himself.

He wasn't much into things . Fact of the matter is, he owned nothing.

Have you noticed? Jesus was always borrowing stuff. Food from the edges of grain fields, fish from lakes, meals at the tables of others, rooms and beds in the houses of others, a ride into Jerusalem on his last trip, even his final resting place was borrowed!

Yes, I'm thinking about Jesus today.

When I get discouraged, thinking about how he lived, who he was and what he was really like; well, it just keeps me going.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Cut the Deficit, Crush the Weak

Thanks to recent decisions in Washington, DC, the federal deficit is at an all-time high. The Congress wants to remedy that reality.

How to proceed?

You don't have to read further to know the answer, do you?

Cut the budget. Cut spending.

More specifically, cut spending on programs and benefits that touch those at the bottom of our society.

First up on the chopping block: Medicaid.

In Texas, Medicaid serves one of every three children.

The administration refuses to call its FY2006 budget plan for Medicaid a cut. They prefer to refer to their approach as an attempt to "slow the program's growth."

Semantics aside, the bottom line is clear. By 2010 Medicaid spending will decline by $10 billion.

Fifty-three million Americans use Medicaid as their insurance product.

Medicaid serves low-income people, uninsured children, pregnant women, low-income elderly and persons with chronic diseases and disabilities. The program pays for 50% of all nursing home care (35% of the program's spending) and 55% of all HIV/AIDS long-term care.

In Texas, 70% of the enrollees are children. Medicaid pays for 50% of all births in the state.

In other words, the weakest among us.

Enrollment has grown by 40% since 2000.

The Congress must find ways to trim the budget and its spending in order to protect and to make permanent the President's tax cuts. Our representatives will most likely leave $70 billion on the table by extending Mr. Bush's capital gains and dividend tax cuts alone.

To compensate for this loss of revenue, they will most likely cut health benefits to those who need it most and can afford it least.

The problem is complex, formidable and, unfortunately, enduring. As more and more Americans lose health care benefits and as the working, underclass grows, the problem escalates.

Current national health care policy pummels the urban poor. I see the results on a daily basis. They are not pretty.

As a people, we dig the ditch of poverty deeper.

Luke 10:25-37

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Old, Ill or Hungry, and Poor. . .A Cruel "Balancing of the Books"

Just as the federal government gets a recruiting effort underway to convince low-income, elderly Americans to enroll in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit program, we receive a news flash from the Bush administration. You know, the "compassionate conservative" crowd.

The news is simple, harsh and, in many cases, downright cruel.

Seniors who sign up for the drug program will likely see their Food Stamps cut back.

Rationale: since these older Americans will spend less of their limited funds on medication, they will have more to spend on food and will not need the same level of support as before on grocery store purchases.

Does anyone in Washington understand poverty, even a little bit?

Does anyone know what life is like for low-income grandparents? How about widows and widowers whose income is just above, at or below the poverty level?

I think not.

Fact: elderly Americans--millions of them--choose each week whether to purchase food or medication.

Fact: an increased prescription drug benefit will not lessen the need for funds to buy food among this part of our population. The help with their meds will actually allow them to buy enough food to survive on, in some cases for the first time in years. If they realize a gain in net, basic benefit, is that really a bad thing? In this case value, health and hope is being added to lives!

Fact: more and more inner city residents who use our services here at Central Dallas Ministries are elderly. On the days we offer our monthly programs designed for this part of the community, our center is jammed packed with retired and aging Dallasites.

Come on, Mr. President. You can do better than this. I can promise you one thing for certain. The guy you are always claiming to follow as "Savior and Lord" understood compassion much differently than you do. As a matter of fact, he was never conservative with it. Not once.

After all, how many houses, cars, yachts, vacation escapes and dividends do the people at the top of our economy. . .you know, the ones made rich by the labor of some of these same elderly people. . .how much more do they really need?

James 1:27

Sunday, May 08, 2005

A Mother's Day Story

Since the link posted yesterday to The Dallas Morning News' Viewpoints page didn't seem to be working for everyone, I decided to post the entire essay written by my friend and co-worker, Daisy Rivera.

The essay appeared in Saturday's edition of the paper (7 May 2005).

Daisy's story is amazing. I believe it will inspire you as it does me.
__________________________________

Mothers and role models

Growing up as a poor Latina in inner-city Dallas, I was expected by many to take one of two paths. The first involved getting a boyfriend and becoming pregnant by about age 16, then dropping out of school to care for the baby while my parents supported me. The other commonly assumed path for young, poor Latinas – and Latinos – is to begin skipping school in junior high to get high with friends, then eventually drop out.

I chose neither path. As an 18-year-old enrolled part-time in college and working full-time as the main breadwinner for myself, my mother and my sisters, you could say I prevailed against the tide that has swept many of my Latina friends into adult lives of poverty, single motherhood and lack of education. Rates of poverty for single Latinas are very high in Dallas, and dropout rates are the highest among Latinos, compared to blacks and whites.

But my choice not to go down a destructive path did not happen on my own. Without several key mentors and the support of an East Dallas social justice organization, I might have easily made the wrong choice. It would have been very easy.

As a 12-year-old, I lived with my family in extreme poverty, which explains how I ended up working as a dishwasher to help Mom make the rent. Poverty makes it tough to get bills paid and food on the table – and it magnifies the usual family problems by 10. The difficulties that my mom had with our stepfathers quickly spread into the lives of my sisters and me, with violence that no children – let alone my mother – should ever have to endure.

Watching severe alcoholism and physical abuse happen in front of your face, and trying to stop it, matures a kid fast. I recall at the age of 7 caring for my three sisters by changing diapers, making bottles and teaching them right from wrong.

It was after our home burned down that my mother, sisters and I went to Central Dallas Ministries, a community development and social justice organization in East Dallas. We went for clothes and food. We came away with enough compassion and concern to pull us through our tough times.

One CDM volunteer who became my mentor found out that I was washing dishes and, when I turned 15, offered me a part-time job at the CDM food pantry, making more money and learning computer skills. The pantry director was flexible on my hours so I could work around my school schedule to earn the money my family and I needed.

Several strong Hispanic and black women on the CDM staff were role models to me. Besides showing me that women who looked like me could be professional and respected, they asked me about my future school and career plans in a way that made me want to succeed. It wasn't "If you graduate from high school and go to college." It was "When you graduate from high school and go to college."

While working at the pantry throughout high school, I excelled in school, earning good grades, becoming a leader in Junior ROTC and being voted into student council.

I graduated last year and attend El Centro Community College while still working full-time at the pantry. I enjoy reaching out to people who remind me of myself and my mother when we came to the organization.

I have an apartment, where my mother and sister also live, and I am proud to be able to support them. I even manage to save a little, which will help me when I attend a four-year college next year.

Some of my savings are going toward a special gift for Mother's Day, which we Latinos will celebrate Tuesday. My mother's "dream" has been to have a large, framed photo of me at last year's graduation.

I cannot wait to give her that special gift. To her, it is a symbol of me finding the right path. And I have no doubt that one day, if I have children, they will, too – because I did.

But it might have been impossible without the right help. That's easy for people who don't understand where I come from to forget.

[Eighteen-year-old college student Daisy Rivera works at the Central Dallas Ministries food pantry and resource center. Her e-mail address is azulcielo04@yahoo.com. ]

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Poverty, Mother's Day and Hope

Need a lift this Mother's Day weekend?

Take the time to read the essay in The Dallas Morning News (Viewpoints page, Saturday, May 7, 2005) written by my friend and co-worker, Daisy Rivera.

I promise it will touch your heart, lift your soul and give you real hope.

Here's the link:

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/
viewpoints/stories/050705dnedirivera.816d85e8.html

It will be worth your time to read her words.

The power of genuine community is a wonder to behold!

Great work, Daisy!

Friday, May 06, 2005

More Truth from Archbishop Romero

A 20th centruy martyr, Oscar Romero spoke the truth of Jesus to the power of the world, his world in El Salvador.

Romero always spoke with his people, out of their pain. He surprised his superiors in the church because he was controlled only by the word of the Gospel.

People who answer only to the Gospel turn out to be dangerous people.

Romero was a dangerous man. He was a man of liberation speaking to a world of material, political and social bondage.

Today people wonder how it is that we can draw near to God. Yet, few ask how it is that God might draw near to us.

Romero always got the questions right. No wonder his answers followed naturally.

_______________________________________

There is one rule by which to judge if God is near us
or is far away--
the rule that God's word is giving us today:
everyone concerned for the hungry, the naked, the poor,
for those who have vanished in police custody,
for the tortured,
for prisoners,
for all flesh that suffers,
has God close at hand.


Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

(February 5, 1978, The Violence of Love, page 34)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Marriage As Economic Development???

Last week Michael Leavitt, U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, visited Central Dallas Ministries' Transition Resource Action Center (TRAC)--our program area that works with youth in Dallas who "age out" of the foster care system annually. We've established working relationships with over 600 of these special young people in the last year.

Leavitt chose our center as the location for a press conference of sorts to announce the next round of funding for the Compassion Capital Fund.

Next year Health and Human Services in cooperation with the White House Office for Faith-based and Community Initiatives will offer capacity building grants totaling over $31 million to organizations like ours. Last year CDM received a small sub-grant award to improve our website and to strengthen our organizational infrastructure. Helpful, but not revolutionary by any means.

Mr. Leavitt seemed to be a really nice guy. He was moved by the stories and the progress of the youth he met at the center.

Still, as he spoke, I wondered just how much a person from Utah (actually, the former governor) can understand about urban America. I wondered how he was selected as the head of one of the most important government agencies to poor, urban people--1 out of every 4 federal dollars spent comes from his shop.

Seemed strange to me.

Among other things the Secretary informed us that next year the President is asking Congress for an additional $100 million for efforts with faith-based organizations. What he failed to fully explain is the fact that much of the new funding will be devoted to programs to encourage and strengthen marriages in America.

Most of this work will be done by churches and other faith-based organizations.

Think about that for a moment.

What's new here? Churches have always taught their members about marriage and the importance of family life. Right?

One thing that is new is the fact that the government will be paying churches and faith groups to do what they have always done for free--or almost free.

I guess the assumption is that churches will be able to attract lots of new people with programs so that marriages can be made stronger, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Is this a good use of tax dollars?

What church would turn away people from the community who wanted to attend a class or seminar on marriage? Seems to me that good churches will offer this service whether you pay them to or not.

Another seldom appreciated reality is the fact that churches typically just don't reach poor people with their programs. No matter what the location of the neighborhood, but especially in low-income communities, the poor just don't come to church. So, where will these instructional sessions be staged to actually reach low-income folks who we assume will have the time to devote to improving their marriages?

As I am thinking about the city I know best, I begin to wonder if people are poor because they don't know enough about marriage? Or, are people who are poor often in troubled relationships--marriages and parenting--because they are financially swamped?

My experience tells me it is the latter.

Think about it.

Let's say that I am a working father with a wife and two children.

Together our annual gross wages are under $30,000. That is what a couple would earn before taxes with one minimum wage job and one job paying just under twice the minimum wage.

We pay right at 35% of our income for housing. Transportation, clothing, food, health costs, and education expenses gobble up what's left.

In short, we live on the edge all of the time.

What would be most effective at strengthening our marriage and family life?

Twelve sessions at a church on how to be a better husband or wife, complete with a notebook, outside reading and take-home, relationship-building assignments?

Or, the opportunity to improve our employment skills and increase our earning power?

Would it be a marriage enrichment weekend three times a year?

Or, would it be better to have an opportunity to enroll in community college in special evening and weekend classes that allowed me to keep my day job while working on technology certification that would increase my take home pay by 30-40% over the next three years?

Is what I really need a series of taped sermons on fatherhood and marriage?

Or, would it be better if Congress decided to restore funding for the Earned Income Credit program that rewards me for work, provides me a tax return and encourages me to get more education, pay off some debt or move to a better housing situation?

The trend today in the United States is to champion what upper middle class church folks believe would solve all the problems of the poor and of the cities.

People in the day-to-day thick of life at or near the bottom know and understand a completely different reality.

Politicians would do well to listen to the experts in this case.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Oscar Romero

Maria-Jose Recinos serves Central Dallas Ministries as Chief Operating Officer. She is a visionary leader who understands the community and its struggle.

Maria-Jose was well-prepared for the work she is doing today by the pastor of her youth in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero. She listened to him preach every week as a young girl. She was in the community the day he was assassinated, struck down by guns paid for by American tax dollars.

As the government death squads ravaged her beloved country, she literally fled for her life.

She has many stories to tell about this great leader of her people.

It is important to understand the meaning behind some of Romero's words, as well as the emphasis of his message. For example, when he speaks of sin and the gospel, he does not have in mind the use of four-letter words or drinking alcohol! No, for him sin has to do with breaking the great commandment by not loving God or our fellows. Sin is about violence, injustice and oppression. It has to do with the misuse of power, the temptations of selfishness and the unfair manipulation of circumstances and people.

From time to time I will be sharing from the homolies and sermons of Romero. His message is important. It is true. This explains why it still sounds so relevant today.
______________________________________________

A preaching that does not point out sin
is not the preaching of the gospel.
A preaching that makes sinners feel good,
so that they become entrenched in their sinful state,
betrays the gospel's call.
A preaching that does not discomfit sinners
but lulls them in their sin
leaves Zebulun and Naphtali
in the shadow of death.*

A preaching that awakens,
a preaching that enlightens--
as when a light turned on
awakens and of course annoys a sleeper--
that is the preaching of Christ, calling:
Wake up! Be converted!

That is the church's authentic preaching.
Naturally, such preaching must meet conflict,
must spoil what is miscalled prestige,
must disturb,
must be persecuted.
It cannot get along with the powers of darkness and sin.

(January 22, 1978,The Violence of Love, page 32)

*To understand this reference see Matthew 4:15-16 and Isaiah 9:1-2

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

When Charity Doesn't Work Anymore. . .

Recently, at a rather large community meeting, I happen to be seated by one of the most important and influential foundation leaders in Texas.

As we visited before the meeting got underway, the issue of affordable housing and community development came up.

Seated in front of me and to my other side were two of the most successful low-income, workforce housing developers in Dallas. Both work their hearts out to see that as many low-income families here in Dallas as possible have a decent place to call home.

My foundation friend commented, "When non-profit organizations become real estate developers, I just don't understand. I never know how to react or what to say."

At that point, I didn't know what to say.

"Well, community development organizations go where market rate developers just won't go," I tried to begin an explanation.

I turned to my friend on my right and asked him how many units he had developed in his target area in one of the toughest parts of inner city South Dallas.

He reported that they had built almost 500 units in an area where new development just never happened until he began.

I continued by asking him if market-rate developers were showing up now that he had done so much new work.

He smiled and answered simply, "You bet!"

I continued explaining to my foundation friend that community development organizations often "seeded" neighborhoods with hope and promise by developing new housing so that others would follow, drawn in by new and recovering markets.

He seemed to like that, but he was still concerned that such non-profits may be "losing their" way by abandoning more "traditional charity" for the work of community and economic development.

I hurriedly agreed that there was a huge and demonstrable difference between charity and community development. Charity alone will never renew a neighborhood and seldom will change a life. Much more is required.

After a long pause, he changed the subject.

At that point I found myself sitting there wondering how the leader of one of the most important foundations in the state didn't understand the basics of community development or the cutting edge learning going on in cities all across the nation.

Possibly I have stumbled upon part of the problem we are having in Dallas.

What are the "take aways" here for people who are serious about changing communities and renewing neighborhoods?

1) Funders and donors love charity. "Helping people" is the name of the most popular game in town. Think about it. People with problems continue to present their "issues." People with money and, thus, power maintain control of both, parceling it out at a rate in keeping with their good judgment. At the same time they get a tax break for doing so!

2) Inner city communities need and desire much more than charity. What is needed is structural change. Market forces must be harnessed for the good of devastated areas, that is if we really want to see things change.

Public policy decisions need to be made to reward pioneer, for-profit developers--after all, we do it all the time in other parts of town!

The same public rules need to incentivize non-profit developers who are willing to go where no sane market developers are prepared to go, at least not at the beginning edges of renewal.

3) At some point we just need to apply the "golden rule." If you were very poor, what would you desire? Another handout--just one more in an endless stream of handouts that justified the work of some foundation? Or would you want a chance to see life be better, thanks to your hard work and to systemic change in how opportunity works in a community? The answer is pretty obvious, huh?

4) We must move from a "do-good, give away" model to a community investment model. People who have lots of money to give away need to re-think their strategy. Foundations need to invest their funds where they will do the most good, enjoy sustainable results and change life for as many people as possible.

For years foundations and donors have been telling organizations like Central Dallas Ministries that we must find ways to insure that our work will continue.

So, don't get upset with us when we do it!

Developing affordable housing can actually work from an economic standpoint. Our deals cash flow!

The only difference in our work and those in the for-profit sector is that our "profit" goes back into the organization to do more good work while we wait for the market developers to catch up and catch on to the real opportunities that await them in the inner city!

Isaiah 58:12