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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Togetherness

I’ve witnessed the inner workings of a principle, a truth now for over a decade.

Neighborhoods get better, not when the individuals who live there get better personally, but when these individuals get together.

Interestingly, once folks get connected, individual progress breaks out all around.

We’ve been so brainwashed by marketing and an out-of-control consumer culture that we have lost our appreciation for the power and the importance of the group and its collective action.

Mark it down: change happens, reform sets in, progress ramps up when people meet up.

Frankly, this is why so many faith-based initiatives don’t really produce neighborhood change in a sustainable, measurable manner. If our only or even primary focus is on the individual in isolation from others, then predictably community lift will remain minimal. And, progress with individuals will be half-baked and short-lived.

Inner city change will not occur without collective, organized action. It’s just a fact.

The fact that a city’s police department short changes crime-infested, poorer central city areas when it comes to patrols, community policing and focused attention, as compared to the attention more affluent areas receive, comes as no surprise to the people who live there. Improvement in community policing will come only as the citizens of such communities come together to call for, to demand and in some cases to force change in police policy and priorities. This is just how things work.

In the process individuals get stronger. Leaders emerge and things change.

The same could be said for code enforcement, public education, health care, parks and recreation, transportation and environmental concerns.

Change comes as people unite. Poverty need not be a barrier to the renewal of sidewalk, front yard fellowship!

In many cases religion doesn’t really help. Systems of faith and practice focused solely on individual renewal and defined exclusively by individualistic piety may keep people’s noses pressed into the Bible, but will have negligible affect in impoverished and troubled neighborhoods.

Indeed, change may be informed by spiritual teachings and values and it may be sustained by prayer and devotion, but it will come only as community coalesces around issues.

Urban change calls me to be committed to you, your interests and our connection, no matter what our individual differences.

Community development translates into community power and genuine community transformation.

Until people get together nothing much will come together in broken neighborhoods.

Friday, July 29, 2005

A Must Read. . .REALLY!!!


Okay, I’m going to do something now that may not work, may be a complete waste of time—yours and mine.

But, here goes anyway!

Please (don’t make me beg!) go to http://www.harpers.org/ as soon as possible. Or, pick up a copy of Harper’s Magazine from a newsstand today.

Read the August 2005 article by Bill McKibbenThe Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong (pages 31ff).

In my view, McKibben, a self-described Christian environmentalist, sums up the current challenge facing Christians today in the United States.

He also completely and properly reframes an understanding of the culture war raging around us.

Read it.

Let me know what you think!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Let's Talk

She sits on a park bench in Paris, France most afternoons.

People there know her simply as Miss Lilly.

Well past 80-years-old, she is a curious figure.

Every day she arrives carrying a sign printed with a simple message:

"Let's talk."

She sees this as her personal mission in the city.

She describes herself as "perfect" for this unusual work.

She is "safe."

Who could feel threatened by an old woman extending a smile and an open invitation for a conversation?

People of all ages, backgrounds and life circumstances take her up on the offer.

Dreams are shared.

Pain gets unpacked.

Failures are confessed and processed.

Tears flow.

Laughter breaks out.

Friendships emerge.

People come back for more!

Paris grows stronger and better connected--webbed together, if you will, thanks to Miss Lilly.

This old woman reminds me of the pastor I read about years ago. Assigned to a dying congregation in a failing community, the preacher moved his desk out on the sidewalk and worked there everyday.

Moving, unafraid out where the people struggled and lived.

No surprise, the church experienced rebirth.

We need each other.

We all need each other.

Devastated neighborhoods spring to life when people "risk it" and, against the forces of danger, fear and self-absorption come out to connect.

Miss Lilly and the pastor and every successful crime watch group and all powerful renewal efforts discover the same truth.

We've overdosed on soul-numbing individualism.

We've retreated into claustrophobic isolation.

The time for a new way has arrived.

Can we just talk?

[The story of Miss Lilly was overheard on National Public Radio, Tuesday morning, July 26, 2005.]

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dallas and Our Unique Challenges for the Homeless

Dallas is tough on the homeless. Actually, life on our streets can be brutal, inhuman and deadly.

Of course, this could be said of life for the homeless in any American city.

But, what about the unique challenges facing the men, women and children who call our streets home on a daily basis? I think Dallas does present the homeless several very unusual challenges as a city.

Here’s a beginning list of what makes Dallas so uniquely tough to manage if you have no place to call home.

1) The heat. From December to March, with some very cold exceptions, the climate can be a plus, I suppose. But somehow the thought of August cancels whatever advantage our relatively mild winters provide.

The past several days I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to stay outside all of the time. Talk about draining energy, initiative and strength!

How do you get from the blazing heat into a job interview? How do you clean up? Where do you go for refreshment? How do you sleep in the sweltering humidity?

2) The combination of our sprawl and our “transportation system.” Don’t get me wrong. We are making progress in Dallas on public transportation. DART is great and getting better all the time. We just aren’t there yet. But how could we be, given the amazing manner in which the community has fanned out to the ends of the earth?

Many jobs available to very low-income persons are outside the central city where most of these neighbors of ours "reside." The jobs and the more affordable housing are miles away from the home turf of the homeless.

There are plenty of other obstructions to employment beyond how to get to it (see number 1 above). But this one expresses itself in a unique, Dallas way as compared to many other cities.

3) Texas style Calvinism. While I don’t much agree with his theology, I really have nothing against the Protestant Reformation leader from Geneva! I’m sure he was a fine chap. It is just that his followers in North America, and especially here in Dallas, seem to have figured out the difficult issue of “election” in a way that affects poor people.

Calvin was big on the idea of "the elect" people of God. You know, the ones who are predestined and chosen. It’s a great class to be a member of if you can manage to attain it! I mean how do you do better than being tagged “chosen”?

But how do I know if I am a member of this elect delegation? What is the mark or the sign of election? Simply put, it’s money. That’s right, wealth for many of the faithful in Dallas is the proof of God’s favor, the elusive mark of the saved.

This may sound strange, even crazy, but consider the paradigm as you observe our city.

If this is true, then the converse applies as well. If you are poor, well, you know where that leaves you. It is an easy step from this point to the conclusion that the poor are cursed because of their sins and their “un-elect” status. Talk about a tough category in which to make yourself a life! (For more on this intriguing idea see the classic by Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.)

4) Central or core city employment issues. Unlike many cities, jobs located downtown and open to unskilled or “re-entry” workers are few and far between.

Here we confront the unique “chicken or egg” dilemma of Dallas.

If the core city is to be renewed to become a vital center of activity and commerce, it will need an unskilled workforce. That is right, an unskilled workforce to take on the service-sector jobs necessary to support any comprehensive rebound.

Adding to our problem is the rhetoric and the philosophy voiced often by business and community leaders expressing the desire to rid the city’s central business district of the very poor and the homeless.

Vital central cities elsewhere capitalize on the presence of low-wage workers to support their determined revitalization efforts. Somehow Dallas can’t see the benefit.

Put yourself on the street tonight.

Consider these issues.

Make your own list.

Please, just don’t forget.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

My Friend Rock

Yesterday was one of those days.

I was in a rush all day long.

My morning was filled with deadlines bracketed by meetings involving great people who were waiting on me. I hate it when my schedule rolls up on my back and runs me over!

Rushing out of one meeting, realizing that I was already late for my lunch commitment, I ran smack-dab into Rock.

Rock has been my friend for almost ten years.

Where do I begin in my attempt to describe Rock?

If it’s true that a cat has nine lives, then Rock must have 99!

I know for a fact that Rock is now in at least his second life.

He crossed over around the time we first met when he came to our Food Pantry with his "grandkids" to get food assistance. The babies aren’t really his grandchildren, but he has the same as adopted them and he has done his best to care for them in very difficult circumstances. But, that is a story so personal and so touching that I will leave it alone.

In his first life Rock was a successful “business man.” That is, if you count selling crack cocaine as a business. Rock enjoyed wealth, power and lots of respect back “in the day.”

It also almost killed him, literally.

Rock’s body bears the scars of numerous gunshot wounds.

Some of the stories he has to share will curdle your blood and make your hair stand on end. The amazing thing is he can talk about these experiences today with laughter, now that he has survived them.

His health is not the best, but he is working on it.

He called me last week and asked if he could come by to discuss a personal matter. I said sure and he told me he would be by at some point.

Rock arrived during my first meeting and decided to wait on me. He caught me in a dead run to my car as I tried to get to my lunch meeting.

Rock just couldn’t understand my rush.

He followed me out the door as we made arrangements for him to come back the next day to finish up on the personal matter that I assured him we could work through.

As I made it to my car, trying not to be overly rude, Rock looked me in the eye and said, “Larry, this place is getting too corporate.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“You know, we been through a lot together, man,” he continued.

“You need to slow down and catch up with me. We need to talk. This place has meant too much to me for us to lose touch!”

I told him he was correct. We talked for a moment, promised each other to “hook up” tomorrow and I was off.

At lunch I shared his wisdom with my friends who understood completely—both my crazy day and my friend’s advice and plea.

But all day I’ve been thinking about Rock.

He is correct, of course.

I need to simply accept his counsel and make time for what is really important—no excuses or explanations. When you’re busted, you’re busted!

No matter how much our organization grows, no matter what we do or think we need to do to improve on our performance, it will all be a waste if we can’t see, hear and connect with one another at the level of the street and the sidewalk.

Rock is right.

He is a dear and wise friend.

And I still have a lot to learn.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Does Dallas Really Want a "Solution" to Homelessness?


Kim Horner, reporter with The Dallas Morning News, offers up another excellent analysis of the situation facing homeless persons here in Dallas, Texas.

Take a look at her reports by going to http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/
latestnews/stories/072405dnmethomeless.2d4ec70.html
and the additional links you will find there.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, we've enjoyed detailed reporting on the problem. Thank God for journalists like Ms. Horner who keep the grim reality before us.

Our problem is not knowledge.

Our problem is leadership and political will.

The people in this city with the authority and the power to take positive action have a long history of, well, sitting on their hands. The rest of us dutifully wring ours while waiting for the next update from the media. Meanwhile, nothing changes.

The picture Horner paints in her reports ought to sadden and shame us all.

The situation does not need to remain as it is today.

We've all hidden behind our lame, but typical, "blame the victim" responses for so long that we now believe our own lies about the poorest of the poor in Dallas.

If you live here, you know our now standard lines.

"The homeless suffer from mental illness and are so hard-core that it is nearly impossible to help them off the streets."

"Most of the homeless are hopeless alcoholics and addicts who choose the life they live. They prefer the streets."

"The state has cut back so far on mental health dollars that our current mess is really not the city's fault."

"We need to get this problem out of downtown and fast! These people are ruining our every attempt to revitalize the core of our city."

And on and on we go.

Frankly, it is enough to make a person sick, especially if you really care about the homeless and the city.

You see, when it comes to progress, the city and the homeless are joined at the hip.

Granted, people on the streets of Dallas (and of every other city in America) face tough, personal problems. Clearly, many find themselves in desperate situations due to bad choices.

Still, the larger community has a responsibility to act to relieve the problem in a humane, comprehensive and strategic manner for the sake of everyone who resides in our community.

What can Dallas do beginning today to address this continuing and worsening problem?

1) Appoint a "homelessness czar" who has the necessary special authority to direct the Mayor, the Council and yes, even the City Manager toward a viable solution. It is more than obvious that the current city bureaucracy cannot handle the issue.

Therefore, this special leader should have authority outside typical City Hall channels. He or she should report directly and only to the Mayor and the Council.

The office of this special leader must be independent, adequately funded and properly staffed. The czar should have the power to build a brand new system for addressing the issue of homelessness for and in the city of Dallas. Nothing about current policy or practice should be above this new leader's reach. Nothing about the present system should be considered sacred or off limits to reform.

2) Incentivize development of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartments. What is needed in Dallas is not a more elaborate shelter system. Ms. Horner's description of life in and around shelters comes as no surprise to anyone who understands homelessness.

People should not be forced to live in temporary quarters for months and years on end. Shelters provide no solution to the problem.

People need homes, permanent housing. Developers will step up to meet this market need if assisted, or at the very least not discouraged by public sector officials and processes.

We have a shortage of SRO housing in Dallas today because city leadership has not encouraged or supported its development. Tax credits, property donations, grants, low-interest loans, tax abatements and other creative kinds of public support should be marshaled to activate an aggressive, coordinated, civic plan for SRO development in and around the city.

3) Take seriously the national experience of other major cities. Other communities have made great strides while Dallas remains content to sit back and talk.

The "place first" movement has demonstrated empirically that once homeless persons obtain housing of their own, many of the seemingly chronic problems they face dissipate.

Let's stop reporting on all of the fact-finding trips we've made and get started with concrete implementation here in Dallas. It is time to apply what we have learned from the experience and success of other communities. . .NOW!

4) Find the funds necessary to provide mental health treatment for the people who need these services. Dallas leaders need to put on a "full-court press" in lobbying State and Federal leaders to direct more funds toward these needs.

Why not invite the state and the feds to fund an innovative "pilot" strategy that would link the funding of adequate mental health services directly to our larger vision for the revitalization of our city's core? What we demonstrate in Dallas could serve as a model for development and human uplift elsewhere.

At the same time, the new czar should go to work coordinating the efforts of local foundations and faith communities while challenging them to step up to do their part in addressing what has become a community crisis. We need a new brand of creative resolve and an out-of-the-box funding strategy.

5) Business interests downtown need to be challenged to think differently about the issue of homelessness. Frankly, these leaders might respond more positively if they felt they were getting new solutions out of City Hall.

Since we have no real plan for getting people off the streets, it is hard to question the current attitude of the downtown business pioneers who want to see the core of the city thrive again.

Once an action plan is drafted, complete with short and long term strategies, our elected leaders should employ their political and regulatory powers to urge business leaders to cooperate, rather than obstruct.

6) Regard the solutions to the challenges surrounding homelessness as a part of the larger challenge of downtown revitalization. By this, I don't mean the removal of the homeless, as we so often read from our leaders in reports like Ms. Horner's.

What I have in mind is actually quite different. I am suggesting a just solution that has as its centerpiece homes--some of them downtown--for the homeless. As we know from other urban centers, such an approach will be a key component in any successful downtown renaissance.

There is no reason to delay another day.

We've had enough reporting.

What we need is action. Bold, creative, decisive action. . .today!

[Photo by Hal Samples, www.herotozero.org)

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunday Meditation & "Values-Based" Public Policy Formation

These days lots of people argue for using the Bible to shape public policy and national morality.

Not long ago the Governor of Texas appeared in a megachurch to sign a protection of marriage act that among other things puts a constitutional amendment before voters in the next election. The guest preacher during the service pressed hard for the imposition of Christian moral standards, at least as he understood them, upon citizens of the entire nation.

Things like this have me thinking.

What would happen if the state of Texas or, better yet, the entire nation took the words of Jesus to heart when it comes to social policy?

Consider these words attributed to Jesus by Matthew:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Matthew 25:31-40)

Much to consider here, huh?

Actually, the practical breakdown is fairly simple in terms of applying this moral challenge to community life and public policy.

I was hungry. . .rather than cutting food assistance programs, you made sure I had enough to eat.

I was thirsty. . .you made sure I had something to drink, including clean water and milk for the babies.

I was a stranger, a newcomer, an alien. . . instead of enacting laws to lock me out or send me back where I came from, you welcomed me and made a place for me in your world.

I needed clothing, something to wear. . .you gave me clothes so that I could function without shame and attempt to do better for myself.

I was sick. . .you didn't look for ways to cut back or disqualify me, you took care of my health needs.

I was in prison. . .you didn't lock me up, throw away the key and me with it; instead of that, you came to visit me to encourage me and give me hope for a better life in days ahead.

No doubt Jesus meant for his followers to live and take action in these ways as they lived out their faith in him individually.

But, if we insist on taking the words of the Bible as our guide for public policy development, we best not forget words like these.

By the way, there are a lot more statements like this about the poor, the oppressed and those who live in chronic need than there are words about marriage.

Interesting too is the fact that Jesus personally identifies with the people at the bottom who hurt, who are cast aside and who live in need.

In other words if you are looking for Jesus today, search among the poor. There is where you will find him. There is where our tithes and our taxes ought to be invested.

Just something to think about today on your way to or from church.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Prison, Unemployment and Communities

Many American companies have adopted a "zero tolerance" policy regarding criminal conviction and incarceration when it comes to hiring new employees.

Forty-six million people in the U. S. have been convicted of something at some time in their lives, this according to FBI records. If all of these workers were removed from the economy, the impact would be huge.

The fact is many of these ex-incarcerated individuals have been removed from the economy.

The statistical story breaks sharply along racial lines. 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." (Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2004, pages B1, B3)

It is clear the current system is not working.

On any given day 2.1 million Americans are behind bars--nearly seven times as many as thirty years ago. The vast majority are there because of some drug-related offense. A large majority now locked up will return to prison after their next release.

The costs associated with maintaining this extremely ineffective system is second only to Medicaid in terms of annual growth of expenses for state budgets. The current system soaks up billions of dollars that could be directed toward more productive purposes.

Nearly half of those locked up for the first time were barely employable before being convicted. According to a recent report nearly half earned less than $600 a month. A criminal record makes these workers even less likely to be able to earn a living.

Add in the problems of mental illness, addiction and the almost complete lack of post-release social services, and we have a situation guaranteed to continue producing failure after failure.

Worst of all, the outcome in the neighborhoods of cities like Dallas is tragic. Male leadership is lost to our communities. Families are crushed. Children are left fatherless. Crime escalates. The economy suffers. Our educational system is adversely affected. And nothing improves.

There must be a better way.

We should demand a better way.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Materialism, Poverty and Community Disintegration


For most of the past 35 years I have been staring poverty in the face.

I have never been poor. But my professional life has led me into settings where poverty and the problems associated with poverty dominated the social, cultural and economic landscape (or better, wasteland).

At the same time, I have spent most of my time surrounded by religious people--members of the American church bent toward Fundamentalism.

To say the least, the juxtaposition can be very interesting.

Invariably, whenever I visit with religious people about poverty and the work we attempt to do with low-income people, someone will raise the question of spirituality.

Usually it goes something like this:

"So, Larry, how do you evangelize as you do your work?"

Or, "Larry, what role does evangelism play in your efforts?"

Or, "Is there any place in what you do for addressing matters of the soul and spirit?"

Underneath these questions, and often right out on the table for discussion, is the idea that the real problem with poverty is a spiritual one. Thus, the real solution, the only remedy possible must be spiritual as well.

I agree.

The problem back of poverty in the United States today is most definitely spiritual.

Poverty is a problem of the soul.

But, understood correctly, the nature of the problem is not what you would think or normally hear today.

Low-income neighborhoods are fragmented, disconnected, disengaged and largely without collective power or organized class action. There is a palpable resignation to the way things are.

What is the reason underlying this almost intractable reality?

Any viable explanation must include several factors including the general acceptance of the categories of class, wealth and personal meaning as defined by a culture of radical individualism.

This overwhelmingly dominant culture promotes and sustains itself by the powerful use of advertising, marketing and a wide variety of mass communications in service of materialism.

Ironically, poor folks, as a class, are defined by the categories of our dominate consumer culture.

Tragically, most low-income people accept the definitions provided by the dominant culture while holding out hope as individuals in the great American dream (read myth just here) that someday they too will make it to the top.

Community disintegrates all around us as individualism runs rampant and turns cancerous.

Individuals at the top of the class heap promote and enact policies that enhance their own dominance while reducing the capacity of the underclass.

Amazingly, masses of people in the middle and even near the bottom of the class hierarchy join in electing leaders who actually work against the self-interests of these same voters, as well as those of the communities of which they are a part!

All the while, media continues to sell the wares of perceived success to individuals up and down the class spectrum. As individual consumers, we are all in this together!

Unfortunately, this is where the togetherness usually stops.

A powerful, glitzy pseudo-community--shaped by slick ads, great music and messages from every quarter--replaces the real thing.

The power of community and the collective efficacy that once sustained low-income, laboring groups, today evaporates in the heat generated by a pounding media hype that calls me apart to consume and to achieve on my own.

Surveys reveal that most middle class people believe that they are in the top 10% of the population in terms of standard of living. A large part of the underclass believes that they can make it there with enough hard work and a little luck, sometimes mediated by prayer.

The truth is, communities continue to fail.

Frankly, the message of the church today does not help.

Most pulpits deliver messages about individual salvation, improvement, happiness and responsibility. Messages focusing on the power of the group or the importance of solidarity or collective action can seldom be heard.

Individuals sell out to the "values" of consumerism.

Acceptance of the way things are sets in.

The gap between rich and poor widens and, by the way, the numbers on poverty's side of this divide are growing while those on the other side shrink year-by-year.

We do have a spiritual problem in this nation. It needs to be addressed.

However, the correct message to the poor is not "Believe in Jesus and be saved."

The overwhelming majority of the poor in this nation already believe that and have all of their lives.

No. The poor need to hear and struggle with a different message.

One that goes something like this, "Look around at your poor brothers and sisters in your failing community and unite before all is lost!"

We need a new spirituality. We need new marching orders for our souls.

We need to wake up and get together.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

White Man Dozing


Tuesday evening I sat down at the bar of a nearby Chili's restaurant. I placed a "to go" order and turned my attention to the baseball game underway between the Yankees and the Rangers.

Somehow I struck up a conversation with the guy seated next to me.

We talked about the Rangers' lack of pitching and the failure of the organization to do much about it.

The guy told me he graduated from a local Dallas high school in 1978. That made him about ten years my junior. High school football came up.

He seemed a nice enough sort of fellow.

But then, he began talking about African Americans. Some of the things he said should never be repeated. Anywhere. Ever.

I was shocked, startled and amazed.

His comments were so offensive that I felt paralyzed. . .as my family and friends will tell you, a very strange feeling for me.

When my food arrived, I uttered my protest and excused myself.

"I can't believe this guy!" I said to myself as I made my way to my car.

"Where has he been for the past forty years?"

The answer hit me hard: he's been right here.

My mind moved automatically to a meeting I had attended earlier in the day. John Greenan, the leader of our community development corporation, and I met with a committee from a public entity here in Dallas that owns a piece of property we are trying to acquire for housing development.

The group had a list of questions for us as they considered our development plans.

An African American man serving on the committee pressed us hard about our policy and practices regarding discrimination in hiring, purchasing and programming. We welcomed his questions because they gave us--two white guys--the opportunity to talk more about one of our core values and objectives in Dallas: racial reconciliation and justice.

As I reflected on the comments of the guy at the bar, I realized the man on the committee had to ask the questions, not because he was being politically correct, but because of what he understood about racism and discrimination in Dallas, most likely by personal experience.

As I continued to unpack my thoughts and feelings, I realized that the most disturbing part of the experience for me was the fact that I was surprised by the guy at the bar.

Somehow I have been lulled to sleep.

I'm a white man dozing while the insanity and the hatred continue.

A trusted friend of mine put it this way, "Larry, you have to learn to live with an edge because it is not going away and you have to be prepared for battle."

Sadly, I know he is correct.

But at least today I am awake.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Power of the "Broken" and the "Unknown"

I delivered the eulogy at a dear friend's memorial service several years ago. For some reason the experience came back to me this past week.

People packed the small, upstairs, inner-city sanctuary. Folding chairs lined up wall-to-wall, front-to-back. The audience provided a rich study in diversity. Black, brown, white, young, old, poor, well-off--the crowd reminded me of a cross-section slice of the city my late friend had loved so much.

His name was Ed.

He spent most of his life living hard, chasing women, running cons, and doing and dealing drugs. He knew the inside of prison. He knew racism. He knew the pain of broken relationships, disappointed children, and violence.

He knew addiction most intimately.

Ed could "do" hair! He enjoyed the reputation of an accomplished stylist. He died of brain cancer.

Most people would dismiss Ed as a lost life--a person racked by needs and empty of positive capacity. Unknown, powerless, and broken, he would be judged by most a failure with nothing much to offer anyone.

Nothing could be farther from the truth about Ed.

When I first met Ed about four years before his death, he volunteered in the inner-city center I managed. Ed stepped up as one of our very first community leaders. He helped transform our outreach center from a place of charity to an outpost of community and hope.

Most days Ed spent his time walking back and forth between our building and Narcotics Anonymous Central, then located just down the block. He literally dragged volunteer after volunteer into our community center, most of them recovering addicts who needed to contribute.

These friends filled the seats of the sanctuary the day of his memorial service.

But Ed touched the "rich cats," too. Addicts from well-to-do suburban enclaves like University Park, Plano, and Richardson counted on him as their friend and mentor in recovery.

Ed connected the mental health/recovery community to our beleaguered neighborhood. Ed perfected the fine art of networking, but with him the process always focused on lifting people out of the pit.

Person by person, well over twenty of them, stepped to the podium to share memories and gratitude concerning Ed's influence in their lives.

One man I will never forget.

Tall, well-dressed, articulate, and engaged at the heart level, this gentleman told of the day he had stood at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards trying to decide which way to go with his life. Just out of prison with no money, no job, and little hope--then, he told the funeral audience, "Eddie drove up with a white guy in a Cadillac and told me to get in. He said he would take me to a place of life, not death."

As he spoke, tears welled up in my eyes and a lump rose in my throat. I had been the "white guy." The Cadillac was my father's, borrowed when my car had broken down.

Now here he stood--doing well, employed, full of purpose and hope. What a reunion we enjoyed after the service!

Yes, Ed was largely "unknown."

For sure, Ed's life was tough, and not all of his decisions served him or his family very well. Ed eagerly, and with little reserve, admitted his failures. He found himself and his God before his journey ended. And he made a huge difference in his world.

He taught me many lessons. The one I remember today is simple: Everyone has something to offer for the good of the community.

No one should be written off before his or her script ends.

Everyone deserves to be taken seriously.

No one can claim perfection.

Everyone matters.

To give up on a person is to take a tragic, very wrong turn.

Thankfully, our inner-city community enjoyed the good sense and spiritual maturity to allow Ed to find his place in our midst on his own terms.

Thanks, Ed. Your life mattered to me and to so many others. And, it still does now years later.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I'm loving "Neon" Deion!

If you are a Dallas Cowboys fan at all, you know who I'm talking about already.

Deion Sanders, the flamboyant free safety for the team back in the glory days of the 1990s, has always fancied himself as a "Prime Time" player.

In my opinion he made his case big time recently when he announced plans to lend his name and his backing to a housing and economic development venture in the heart of Fair Park--South Dallas.

Deion's company, Prime Time Development Corporation, will enter a partnership with the SouthFair Community Development Corporation, a highly respected non-profit with whom we at Central Dallas Ministries have cooperated in the past.

Sanders intends to build approximately 200 single-family homes in the Jefferies Meyers neighborhood. In addition, the plan will include two retail and business centers. Sanders and his team hope that the retail portion of the plan will offer a "wider-than-neighborhood" regional appeal to consumers.

Homes in the new endeavor will start at between $108,000 and $115,000. The hope here is to attract middle class wage earners to bring economic diversity back to the South Dallas community.

Sanders is thinking correctly.

Economic segregation is one of the most challenging obstacles to neighborhood health in Dallas, as well as in every major inner city area in the nation. The concentration of low-income families in neighborhoods above a density proportion of 40% dooms such areas to intractable poverty, unemployment and generations of difficulty (see Paul Jargowsky, Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City, 1997).

Public policy makers need to do more to incentivize developers like Sanders to accomplish more of what actually will bring neighborhoods back.

Sanders' notion is correct.

In fact, it is so informed by common sense that it escapes most folks.

Low-income communities can do better if infused with residents and consumers who operate with more capital than has been true of the majority of residents for many years. Once development begins, surprising rejuvenation often follows as inner city markets are given a new opportunity to work.

No doubt the proposition seems risky. Few for-profit developers are rushing into this part of our city to make deals.

Deion "Neon" Sanders played football with risky and reckless abandon.

The game he finds himself in now involves higher stakes.

I'm betting he picks off an opportunity and scores big for the community.

Whatever the final score, I'm a bigger fan now than ever before.

Go Deion, go!

Monday, July 18, 2005

So, what did you hear in church yesterday?

Forgive me in advance.

I really don't mean to keep needling.

But, I've got to ask.

What did you hear in church yesterday? [If you are Jewish or Muslim, please substitute "synagogue" or "mosque" for "church" here and think of the weekend past and not just
Sunday--I guess I tend toward equal opportunity needling these days.]

I think the question needs to be asked. It is a serious and important inquiry given the number of people who attend religious services each weekend in this nation.

On top of that, we constantly hear these days that religious communities serve as the fountain of national values.

So, you can see that I had to ask.

What are we hearing when we go? What did you hear yesterday?

Was there any word about "the poor"? You know, the folks at the bottom of the heap today in the United States--the ones who will line up this morning all across the nation in places like our resource center downstairs to receive groceries for their families because their paychecks simply will not cover all of their expenses. Did anyone where you attended ask a question as to why their number is growing?

Did you hear anything about the health of the community or the nation? Did anyone raise a hand or speak a word on behalf of the 45 million-plus citizens of this country who have no health insurance? Any concern voiced over the disparities in health care delivery or access along racial and economic lines?

Did your preacher mention the children of low-income America? Was there a word of challenge or opportunity to engage our schools, to help as a community to see that they improve? Did anyone offer a word of encouragement to the public school teachers in the audience?

Did you learn anything about the homeless who wander the streets of your city this morning? Was anything said about the way our current system discourages the development of affordable housing or permanent shelter for those who have none today?

What verses were read from the Bible? Did someone stand up and read a text about fair wages for workers? Or, was there a moving passage regarding God's identification with the poor whom the Bible reveals God prefers?

Did anyone call you to remember the "strangers" among us? You know, the immigrants who find their way here looking for exactly the same thing our ancestors sought when they came--unless they were black slaves forced here against their will and even these Americans have made incredible contributions and have sought improved lives like everyone else.

Did anyone speak out for "justice"?

How about "compassion" or "civic responsibility" as people of faith?

Did you hear a word about "community" or was the morning line more about individualism? Was the message mostly concerned with personal matters that affect you? You know, how you can improve your life, how you can be happier, more successful and more fulfilled, etc.

Did anyone mention the concerns of "peace" in this time of terrible war and violence? Did anyone ask an honest question about where we are as a people in the world? Did anyone venture to ask if the billions now spent on making war might better be spent on making life happen for people on the margins of our world?

How about the city? Did you hear anything about the needs of the city and its people?

Did your experience direct your energy more toward the next life or did you find yourself eager to move out into your world to make a difference in your here and now?

Think about what you heard and sang and prayed.


Saturday, July 16, 2005

Myths Regarding Uninsured Americans

Recently, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, under the auspices of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, published a white paper entitled, "Myths about the Uninsured."

The study clearly revealed that the American public operates with misunderstandings and numerous myths regarding the uninsured in our nation. The Kaiser Commission study debunks the most prominent of the myths.

Here they are!

Myth #1: The uninsured go without coverage because they believe they do not need it or don't want it.

Fact: The majority of uninsured, regardless of how young they are, say they forgo coverage because they cannot afford it, not because they don't need it.

Only 7% of the uninsured report that they don't have health insurance because they don't feel they need it.

Myth #2: Most of the uninsured do not have health insurance because they are not working and so don't have access to health benefits through an employer.

Fact: Most of the uninsured are either working full-time or have someone in their immediate family who does--the problem is that the majority of the uninsured are not offered benefits through their employers.

Eight in ten uninsured Americans come from working families; even at lower income levels, the majority of the uninsured have workers in their families. Eighty-one percent of uninsured workers are employed by firms that do not sponsor health benefits or are not eligible for their employer's plan. Few workers, even low wage workers, turn down health benefits when available.

Myth #3: Most of the growth in the uninsured has been among those with higher incomes.

Fact: The majority of the growth in the uninsured since 2000 has been among people earning less than $38,000 a year for a family of four (commonly considered low-income).

Since 2000, the number of uninsured adults has grown by over 5 million. Nearly 75% of these adults were from low-income families.

Myth #4: Most of the uninsured are new immigrants who are not U. S. citizens.

Fact: The majority of the uninsured (79%) are American citizens.

New immigrants (immigrating less than six years ago) account for only 10% of the uninsured population. New immigrants are at a higher risk of being uninsured compared to citizens, but make up just 3% of the U. S. population, so their contribution to the size of the uninsured population is relatively small.

Myth #5: The uninsured often receive health services for free or at reduced charge.

Fact: Free or even discounted health services are not common and when the uninsured are unable to pay the full costs, the unpaid medical bills add to the providers' costs.

Less than 25% of families with at least one uninsured member report having received care for free or at reduced rates. Charges may actually be higher for the uninsured in comparison to fees negotiated by managed care organizations or set by public payers. The uninsured pay over 40% of the costs for their care out-of-pocket.

Myth #6: The uninsured can get the care they need when they really need it and are able to avoid serious health problems.

Fact: The uninsured are more likely to postpone and forgo care with serious consequences that increase their chances of preventable health problems, disability, and premature death.

Over 33% of the uninsured report needing care in the previous year but not getting it and nearly half of the uninsured report postponing care--rates three times higher than those with insurance. The Institute of Medicine estimates that at least 18,000 Americans die prematurely each year simply because they lack health coverage.

Myth #7: Buying health insurance coverage on your own is always an option.

Fact: Individually purchased policies--vs. job-based group policies with similar benefits--are more expensive and coverage can be limited or even denied to persons with less than good health.

Myth #8: We don't really know how large the uninsured problem is and many are only uninsured for brief periods.

Fact: Depending on whether we count the number of people who are uninsured during a specific month, for an entire year, or just for short periods, the numbers will differ; and all measures are useful.

Experts agree that on any given day of the year the number of uninsured is now about 45 million Americans. Of these, over 75% have been without insurance for more than 12 months. The number of people ever uninsured over the course of a year is much greater than 45 million--by as much as 40%.

Myth #9: The health care the uninsured receive, but do not pay for, results in higher insurance premiums.

Fact: The large majority of uncompensated care is subsidized through a mix of federal and state government dollars not cost shifts to private payers.

Myth #10: Expanding health insurance coverage to all, or even a large share of the uninsured, will cost far more than the country currently spends on health care.

Fact: Because both the uninsured and government subsidies pay for a good share of their health care costs already, the amount of additional health spending to cover all of the uninsured is relatively small.

Most proposals to expand health insurance do not account for the tax dollars currently being used for the care of the uninsured. Best estimates place the additional funds needed to cover all of the uninsured at $48 billion annually.

Health should be seen as an inviolate spiritual value in this nation. Apparently we have a ways to go in this regard.

Friday, July 15, 2005

H.R. 1461

The nation needs an additional 1.6 million units of low-income housing for use by its workforce.

The 2003 American Housing Survey reports that 7.5 million households spend more than half of their income on rent or mortgage payments making them "severely burdened" by definition (see "Hope for Affordable Housing," by David S. Broder, The Washington Post, Thursday, June 2, 2005).

Looking for something you can do right now to help improve the affordable housing situation in the United States?

Read on.

The U. S. House of Representatives is considering a bill (H. R. 1461) that would designate 5% of after-tax profits earned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs or government sponsored enterprises) to an Affordable Housing Fund.

The fund could generate between $400 million and $1 billion annually for preserving, rehabilitating and developing affordable, workforce housing.

Such a fund would mean the development of between 4,000 and 14,000 units each year.

Lawmakers will vote on the Affordable Housing Fund very soon.

I am supporting this measure because of the overwhelming need for affordable housing among my low-income friends and neighbors here in inner city Dallas, Texas. But the need is national and this measure will affect every area of the country.

You can help today by contacting your member of Congress and your two Senators (there will eventually be a companion bill in the Senate) expressing your support for the legislation, H. R. 1461.

Your action today could help make an incredible difference in the lives of thousands of low-income families, as well as in the quality of inner city neighborhoods.

Please act.

_______________________________________

Helpful addresses:

U. S. Representative (you provide his/her name here)
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Senator (you provide his/her name here--you have two!)
U. S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510
_________________________________________

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Treatment for Life

Andre Willis reminds me of several of the friends I've made over the past eleven years here in the city. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike shares his story in her recent front page article ["Helping Inmates Kick Drugs (and the Prison Habit)," Sunday, June 26, 2005].

Mr. Willis got into the drug trade and habit in Chicago when he was 14-years-old. By the time he turned 25, he had been to prison four times.

Like some of my friends, he vowed to go straight each time he was released. His problem was no one wanted to hire him. Unable to find legal employment, he returned to selling and using drugs.

But during his last incarceration, something different happened. The court sentenced him to one year in a new kind of state prison. The facility and all of its programs were designed to deliver treatment to the addicts sent there.

Willis received employment training and counseling for his addiction. Once out on parole, these services continued for him. The state helped him find a half-way house to transition back into the community. His parole director stuck with him during the three months it took for him to find a job.

The goal of the Sheridan Correctional Center, where Willis received this new kind of imprisonment, is to reduce the high recidivism rates in the Illinois prison system. Amazingly, 69% of all inmates are locked up for drug-related offenses.

According to Zernike, of the over 600,000 prisoners released annually from prisons across the country, approximately 2/3 are locked up again within three years. Seven of 10 are jailed for drug offenses and 40% of those who return do so thanks to their problems with narcotics.

The national "get tough on crime" approach has failed. In the process it is taxing the budgets of state governments who see few positive outcomes from the current system.

Because of the escalating costs with no good result to report, Illinois state officials are taking this new approach in an attempt to cut into the real problem: addiction and drug abuse.

Think about it for a moment. Well over half a million people are released from prison annually. Most have serious drug-related issues. They are coming back into our cities and towns. To continue the "prison only" approach is lunacy for all of us.

Inside this new kind of prison, inmates "begin preparing to leave the day they arrive at prison." Now there is a novel strategy!

Prison officials have crafted creative partnerships with corporations and trade associations to insure that upon release their inmates will be ready to work.

In addition, the state is working with local groups to make sure those released can find, not only housing, but supportive community groups to help with maintaining sobriety and building new lives.

Results have been promising so far. Of the first 150 "graduates" of the program, only 27% were arrested within the first nine months of release, compared to 46% of a group of inmates in a more conventional setting but with the same background and criminal records.

Other states are reported to be watching Illinois carefully. Sounds smart to me.

When will Texas take a look?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Taking a Look at Metro America

The Brookings Institution recently released a report entitled "The State of American Cities and First Suburbs" (May 2005). The findings should be interesting to anyone concerned about urban America and life in large metropolitan areas.

I thought I would pass along some of the report's details for thought and discussion.
_____________________________

During the 1990s, the U. S. population presented stronger growth than at any time in the past forty years, growing by 33 million. Of this growth, 34.7% was the result of immigration.

At the same time, the share of the U. S. population that is foreign born is lower today as a percentage of the population than it was in 1900 (11.1% as compared to 13.6%).

While the U. S. population is aging, minority groups have younger age structures than do whites.

Demographic trends break down regionally in the U. S. "New Sunbelt" states (like Washington and Georgia) have grown largely due to domestic migration. "Melting Pot" states (like Texas, New York and California) have grown largely due to immigration. "Heartland" states (like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa) have remained fairly static.

The nation's ethnic distribution is interesting. Hispanics are concentrated in Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and in "isolated urban pockets." Asians are concentrated in California and "isolated urban pockets." African Americans are concentrated in the South and industrial cities of the North. Whites are principally concentrated in the "heartland."

Imported goods outstripped exported goods by over $400 billion annually by 2000. In 1990, the totals were almost even.

U. S. investment in "new economy" industries is steadily rising. As innovation speeds up, "time-to-market" continues to fall rapidly for new products. These market factors make higher education more important today than ever before.

Large cities grew at a pace of 9.8% during the 1990s, faster than in the previous two decades. As a result, several large cities grew during the 1990s after losing population during the 1980s (among these were Atlanta, Chicago, Denver and Memphis). Interestingly, cities located in growing metro areas grew, while those in slow growth metro areas generally declined.

Population is decentralizing in nearly every U. S. metropolitan area. As the cities have grown by 8.8% nationally, the suburbs have experienced a 17% rate of growth through the 1990s. Every household type grew faster in the suburbs than in cities. First Suburbs are growing much slower than all other suburbs and at a rate about like that of cities.

Central city growth was fueled largely by Asians and Hispanics from 1990 to 2000. Without immigration, several of the nation's largest cities would not have grown during the 1990s, including Dallas, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago and Boston. During the decade, immigration increased by 49% in both cities and First Suburbs.

The racial makeup of the 100 largest U. S. cities has shifted. In 1990 53% of those living in these cities were white, 24% were black, 17% were Hispanic, 6% were other. By 2000, 44% were white, 24% were black, 23% were Hispanic, 7% were Asian and the remainder multi-racial.

In many areas the locus of immigration is shifting from the central city to the suburbs. The percentage of each racial/ethnic groups living in the suburbs increased substantially (39% of blacks, 55% of Asians and 50% of Hispanics). Every minority group grew at faster rates in the suburbs than in the central cities. More than 1 in 4 suburban families are minority. A third of First Suburb residents are racial minorities.

Nationally, 78% of the jobs are found over 3 miles outside the central business district with 35% found over 10 miles away.

Poverty is on the rise in our metropolitan areas, growing from 19.3% in 1980 to 25.8% in 2000.

Surprisingly, poverty rates have declined in our central cities over the decade, while rates in the suburbs have grown slightly. The share of suburban residents living in poor suburbs increased by almost 10% over the past two decades.

The number of people living in high poverty neighborhoods declined in the 1990s. For example, the number of high-poverty census tracts in Chicago dropped from 187 to 114, with 178,000 fewer people living in high poverty areas.

Predictably, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty increased in First Suburbs.

The report asks what all of this might mean for the U. S. housing market and housing development.

A few conclusions about housing:

Do not cluster affordable homes in low-income neighborhoods, especially at the core of the city.

Find ways to enable low-income households to live closer to the employment centers and better schools.

Realize that income policy is housing policy.

Local leaders should take steps to impact household incomes that will stimulate the housing market. Leaders should work to raise the incomes of working families through the Earned Income Tax Credit, nutrition assistance, health care and child care.

We need to think of affordable housing as workforce housing. Eliminate or moderate regulatory barriers to workforce housing development. Provide incentives to developers to produce more affordable housing. Create inclusionary housing policies to improve the supply of workforce housing.

Implement policies that do not reinforce patterns of segregation and discrimination.

Be aware that "color blind" policies may not work as intended if segregation and ethnic economic inequalities are ignored by public policy leaders.

Lots to think about here. Much work to be done.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Class, Mobility and Opportunity


So, how do we, as a nation, build an economic system that stimulates growth while providing opportunity for as many of our citizens as possible to move up and out of poverty?

According to all the data, we are rapidly moving toward an economic system that, from a class standpoint, "freezes" folks in place, especially at the bottom.

The notion that anyone in America can pull themselves up by hard work, determination and persistence just doesn't hold up under the weight of the evidence now available. Even worse, it is now clear that class status is inherited and further solidified as it moves from one generation to the next.

Can nothing be done?

Are there no alternatives?

While it is obvious that not everyone in a capitalist economic system will be able to reach the upper echelon of wealth, it is simply untrue that public policy can have no affect on the status and prospects of the very poor and those positioned today toward the bottom of the economic pecking order.

The history of our nation reveals that public policy can impact economic status for large segments of the population. Consider, for example, recent chapters in American history.

Post-Depression economic and social policy lifted almost the entire nation out of economic despair and set millions on a path toward what would become middle-class America.

In the aftermath of World War II the GI Bill provided educational opportunity to a large segment of the population returning from national service.

For all of the criticism and revisionist history directed toward Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," his public policy strategy, coupled with historic Civil Rights legislation passed during his watch, produced positive results for millions of very poor Americans of all races. The hard data from this period does not lie nor mislead.

The fact is we can do better as a nation and as people of faith.

It is no accident that American class mobility has been curtailed. Economic policy since 1980 has produced its intended results. Supply side economics, with its much heralded "trickle-down" effect that promised new jobs, new markets and new opportunities, has failed and failed miserably. The gap between rich and poor in our nation continues to widen.

What can be done to restore the legitimate and realistic prospect of economic mobility for those at the bottom?

Obviously, we must grow the economy. What does that mean for public policy makers as they consider what is needed at the bottom among low-income and very low-income Americans?

Here are just a few rather obvious steps we could begin taking today that would have great, long-term affect on our economy while establishing a more just system for everyone.

1. Don't just restore, but increase dramatically funding for PELL grants aimed at assisting low-income students to go on to college. Further, simplify the process for obtaining these important educational grants. Currently, the nation has turned back and away from students who seek support for higher education. This is not only morally wrong, it is stupid.

2. Increase the appropriation for the Earned Income Tax Credit program. This initiative rewards working people by providing a tax refund annually. Research reveals that most families and individuals use these funds to pay off debt, obtain transportation or take other actions that help stabilize their lives financially.

3. Extend healthcare coverage to more working people. Rather than cutting programs like Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), we should be increasing funding for low-income workers. In the process we would be assisting small business owners who can no longer afford to provide health benefits to their employees.

4. Reverse recent cuts made by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD) to the Section 8 housing choice voucher program. This creative and highly effective effort allows low-income working families to choose rental property anywhere vouchers are received as payment by landlords. Rather than cutting this program, we should be finding more funding to allow our working citizens to secure fit and affordable housing as they work for better futures. Currently, thousands of working Americans find themselves on long waiting lists to receive voucher assistance. Refusal to allow the voucher initiative to grow curtails affordable housing development and impacts the nation's economy.

5. Encourage skills training programs that result in workforce development for jobs that cannot be outsourced to foreign countries. The nation needs tradesmen and women. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, transportation workers, environmental experts and foundation specialists will be needed in any growing national economy. Funding training programs that meet this need will be smart for the nation and for those at or near the bottom of our economy.

6. Do not make permanent the current tax cut strategy for those at the top. Do not eliminate the Estate Tax. Work to make our nation's tax code less regressive and more equitable, especially for low-income persons. Use the increase in funding to underwrite the initiatives discussed above, as well as others.

Establishing justice and fairness in the economy will involve political will and the courage to face tough choices, some of which will not be popular in all quarters.

Getting the nation--all of the nation--moving upward again calls for sacrifice, political will and a kind of practical faithfulness few leaders have considered.

[Photo by Hal Samples--www.herotozero--"Everything"]

Monday, July 11, 2005

Ole Anthony

Ole Anthony subsists on "earnings" of $55 per week.

What's remarkable about that is the fact that he chooses to do so.

Anthony heads the Trinity Foundation located here in Dallas, Texas.

Nationally, Anthony's foundation is best known for its work in monitoring and exposing unethical and illegal televangelists. You may have seen Anthony's expose that aired on Dateline recently concerning faith healer Benny Hinn. The foundation has a long history of exposing frauds in religious media.

Anthony will tell you that one of his motivations in going after these religious leaders has to do with how many of his own homeless friends report being ripped off by them as they decided to use their last few dollars to play religious lotto! You know, "Send me your money and God will reward you 100 fold!"

Anthony also publishes the satirical Wittenburg Door (see link to right here).

Anyone who knows Anthony or The Door immediately gets the logical connection!

Anthony has a reputation for being straight, challenging and tough on organized religion and the church in general.

But, back to the $55 per week.

Anthony and his friends live in a community arrangement here in East Dallas. The community includes successful professionals (Anthony made it financially big time in the 1970s) living literally side-by-side with formerly homeless persons.

Want a memorable and provocative experience? Drop in on the community for lunch any day. You will be welcomed and you will see a community at work.

Anthony had an idea several years ago about how to solve the problem of homelessness in Dallas. He calculated that the homeless population at the time was equivalent to the number of faith communities in the city. If each church, synagogue and mosque would simply "adopt" a homeless person, the problem could be addressed effectively.

By "adopt" Anthony did not mean give a handout and then be done with the persons who needed housing. Rather, he intended the development of relationships, caring to whatever depth necessary and the extension of respect along with the real expectation that the homeless had much to offer the non-homeless.

He also is clear that the commitment would be unconditional. "We know that some people take advantage of us and mess up," he shared in a recent speech. "But, we keep on anyway."

Having watched Anthony now for well over a decade, I can begin to connect the dots in his amazing life.

A very successful, but empty business man, Anthony encountered Jesus. Everything changed as he read after his new leader. He could easily see the emphasis of Jesus on people in need--"the least of these." He took the words of Jesus to heart.

He observed that lots of people and groups claiming to follow the same Jesus did not. Some even used their positions to rip off the weak and the vulnerable.

Now Anthony lives among the poor as a poor man himself. He challenges the forces of organized religion through his fascinating journal. He exposes the thieves among the faithful.

And, he continues to challenge the church in Dallas to get its act together about the poor and the homeless. We need to listen.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Purpose

"If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for. Between those two answers you can determine the identity of any person."
- Thomas Merton, from The Man in the Sycamore Tree (taken from Heron Dance on-line newsletter)

Merton's words run deep, don't they?

Ironically, religion and the trappings of religious traditions can serve as barriers between who I am today and who it is that I truly desire to be.

For some of us, religion serves us well as a neat, manageable hedge, protecting us from the radical nature of life's call to our true selves. If I can safely occupy myself with covering all of the arbitrary bases of the traditions of religion and following precisely all of the agreed upon rules of "the faith," I may find it easier to avoid or simply miss many of the real issues life wants to open up before me or press upon me.

Jesus bumped into these same forces.

The system of religion he confronted with its various authorities and "enforcers" found his radical approach to life and, more importantly, to people unacceptable most of the time.

The folks caught up in that system of faith and thought found ingenious ways to neatly explain away human suffering and political injustice, while defending the status quo in pursuit of a rather narrow, self-serving, moralistic worldview.

Jesus called people to a different place.

He invited those who followed him to live for something far beyond selfish desire, materialism and the moralistic "cover" that provided personal, self-justification.

When it came to people, he encouraged inclusion rather than exclusion. When asked to interpret the law, he always explained that the rules in question were best understood as servants of people.

Ever wonder why Jesus identified so closely with the poor? Why did he spend so much time "hanging out" with them?

Many reasons, I am sure. But clearly he understood that the faith and values he wanted to communicate and clearly model would stand over against the values and the religious system that continued to "prop up" a social system of injustice, unfairness and oppression. His life was a one-person campaign for what Moses and the prophets referred to as a "Year of Jubilee."

Obviously, he was not popular with those he challenged and resisted.

But, he knew and lived his purpose. He resisted every force that stood between him and the completion of his mission, including the objections of the religious who remained blind to the fundamental connection between justice and the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

It's All About Class

You may have read the recent series in the New York Times focusing on the fact that Americans today have less class mobility than in the past.

Against the evidence, most of us actually believe just the opposite.

We still ascribe to the great American myth of the "self-made man."

This is important at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor widens every month. In spite of this growing chasm, an opinion poll conducted in 2000 reported that almost 40% of us believe that we are either members of the wealthiest 1% or that we are soon to be!

The fact that financial inequality is a fact of life today doesn't really get to me if I think I'm already at the top or will be able to get there soon.

As income disparity grows, social mobility tends to lock up.

Most of us underestimate the place of class in determining where a person ends up economically in life. We prefer to ignore factors such as social status at birth and the inherent privilege of some groups when compared to others.

We like to talk about genius, hard work as the determinants of success and economic status.

Turned around, we also buy into the notion that people who fail (i. e. the poor) do so because they lack intelligence or are lazy.

Very naive, to say nothing of self-serving.

Class at birth, something none of us had anything to do with, usually dictates where we end up in adulthood. Class status also is a reliable predictor for education, access to health care resources, housing, transportation, employment and power.

We need to set the "self-made man" myth aside, along with the idea that anybody can get to the top today.

Here's a fact to chew on: between 1980 and 2002, the bottom 90% of us experienced a decline in real income. On the other hand, those at the top watched their income double.

Amazing. Frightening.

We need not be surprised to see poverty grow and immobility solidify and deepen inequities in the U. S. No wonder we have so much work to do!

[These ideas flow from an interesting piece by David Moberg, "Class Consciousness Matters: What's Missing from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal" In These Times found at http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2175/.]

Friday, July 08, 2005

Housing: Facing the Facts


I had lunch yesterday with around a dozen men and women who live on the streets of Dallas, when not bunking in a shelter. No way to do that and not think about housing.

People are homeless because we don't have enough housing.

Simple.

Tragic.

Immoral.

In 2001, ninety-five million people in the U. S. (one third of us) had housing problems (high cost burden, overcrowding, poor quality or homelessness).

Sixty-five million Americans with housing problems are low income as defined by the federal government (household income less than 80% of the area median).

Seventy-eight percent of extremely low-income people (household income at or less than 30% of the area median) have housing problems. This group totals 23 million people.

Here in Dallas County, an extremely low-income household (earning $19,530 or 30% of the median income) can afford monthly rent of no more than $488, while Fair Market Value for a two-bedroom unit is $868.

A minimum wage earner ($5.15 per hour) can afford monthly rent of no more than $268. In Dallas County a minimum wage worker would need to work 130 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market rent.

A person receiving Supplemental Security Income ($564 monthly) can afford monthly rent of no more than $169, though Fair Market rent for a one-bedroom unit is $713.

The so-called "housing wage" here in Dallas stands at $16.69 per hour. That is the amount a 40 hour-a-week wage earner must earn to afford a two-bedroom unit at the area's Fair Market Value.

As rents soar, people at the bottom are pushed out onto the streets. . . literally.

Homelessness is growing.

We don't have enough affordable units for working people who need them.

It is a fact.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Knowing God

It can be a curious exercise to watch the ongoing battle over faith and values.

What does faith mean in the public square?

How are our public values to be informed and shaped?

Do values have to do with only matters of human sexuality? Or, should we broaden the conversation to include other crucial community matters?

Anyone who has been reading here for any time at all knows where I come down on these questions.

Yesterday I enjoyed a very unusual experience. I had been invited to meet with a group of teenagers from the Lake Highlands Church here in Dallas.

The group was on their annual summer mission trip. The unique thing about their "trip" this summer was that they stayed in town to explore as many mission possibilities right here in Dallas as they could find.

I was extremely impressed with this group of wonderful young people. I was amazed by their focus, their praise and worship time and their incredibly mature view of what life purpose involved.

After I spoke, several of the teens approached me to share their insights and, as they put it, "what the Lord had said to them" in the morning's events.

One young woman pointed me to an ancient Hebrew text found in Jeremiah 22:16.

Speaking of King Josiah of Judah, the prophet said,

"He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord."

I find those words both gripping and telling for people in search of direction when it comes to civic values and faith.

The Judeo-Christian faith and value system addresses many matters.

The cause and the harsh reality of the poor are never left out by those who really understand.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Drugs, Prison and Neighborhood Decline


I've seen the cycle swirl again and again. It is sickening to watch.

A young man in Dallas, Texas, using drugs--in this part of town usually crack cocaine--is arrested for possession. No violence nor trafficking is involved during this first sequence. The court appoints an attorney and a plea is worked out that involves probation on the first offense and no prison time.

What the kid needs is treatment. Thanks to the fact that he is poor, what he gets is unemployment with the added challenge of finding a place to live.

Without treatment or a support group he falls behind on his probation fees and/or he is caught using again. Long story short, he ends up back in court. This time he faces prison time, usually in the range of 30 months or so depending on the amount of narcotics, if any, in his possession at the time of his arrest.

While in prison, he receives limited or no counseling services. Most productive opportunities come only at the end of his prison stay and aren't offered in enough concentration to do much good by the time he gets involved.

Once out of prison, he finds himself in an even deeper hole. Employment is now harder--actually, almost impossible to find. Housing presents a similar challenge.

What's a guy to do?

While I can think of several things he "ought" to do, the fact is he will likely try to do the right thing until it seems totally futile.

So, back he goes to the old corners of his life in the old neighborhood that got him started down this road in the first place.

The cycle repeats itself until he learns to sell dope, finds himself to be the father of a child or two or three, and decides that this is simply how his life is going to go.

He hardens. He resorts to violence. The journey turns bad, often tragic for him and everyone else.

The end result for his community is not pretty. Not only is he a crime statistic, he is no longer a potential leader or a positive force for change and renewal. The process appears to be a systematic "harvesting" of male leadership right under our noses in this community.

In Texas, as in far too many other states, drug use and addiction (even psychological as with crack) leads to prison, not treatment.

Prison doesn't work.

Prison is incredibly expensive.

But prison has become an industry with lobbying groups and power brokers to insure that it is fully funded going forward.

There has got to be a better, smarter, more humane way to address this unbelievable community problem.

And, of course, there is.

All across the nation states are waking up to the fact that sending non-violent drug users to prison is not only expensive, it is simply counter-productive.

As an example, for almost a decade now states like Arizona (not exactly Massachusetts from a social policy standpoint!) have decided to create court- mandated treatment programs to replace incarceration as the fundamental approach for dealing with these drug users.

The outcomes have been phenomenal. Recidivism has declined sharply. People leave the program to actually go to work on their way to assuming a positive role in their communities.

The last time I checked the stats for Arizona, the state was saving approximately $30,000 annually per inmate as compared to the cost of keeping a person locked up without treatment!

Recently, I read a report on a prison in Illinois that was converted entirely to a treatment center. Those involved received what they needed most--treatment rather than a criminal record.

It is way past time for this national movement of sanity, compassion and good sense to come to Texas, as well as to many other parts of the country.

Again, it seems to me that this involves important moral issues. People of faith should lead the way in seeing that this happens for the good of us all.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Reality Check: Poverty and Education


The connection between poverty and failure in our urban public schools needs to be placed in a community spotlight.

I was moved and challenged by two responses to a recent post on public education. What makes these words so important is that they come from teachers who understand the problem and observe, on a daily basis, the connection between poverty and poor performance in the classroom.

Here's what the teachers reported:

"My first year teaching public school I learned a difficult lesson about that very thing. One of my students was a 16-year-old girl who was raised by her mother. She had 3 sisters and 4 cousins, all younger. Her grades were average and she tried to sleep a lot in class. When I took the time to find out what was going on, I discovered that her mom worked two jobs while she took care of everything else. By the time she had made dinner, helped with bath time and got everyone else to bed, she was too tired to do her homework. I guess, what I saw in her case (which I suppose is true in many) is that students in poverty have many more things that weigh heavily on them that middle-class kids don't. When you're struggling just to stay fed and clothed, it puts your education lower on the list of priorities."
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"Thank you for your comments on public education. I am a committed Christian educator teaching in a public school, and believe that my calling is to be right where I am - not separated and cloistered away from the world, but right in the middle of the circumstances that young people face each day. Sometimes I grow very discouraged - the political climate of education is stressing me out! We are charged with making all society's ills go away while parents frequently abdicate their role to educators. Other parents are unable to respond to the needs of their children because they are ill equipped to do so, being overly busy trying to make ends meet, to provide for their families. This past year, I had a young man who was more than just difficult... when I spoke to his mother, I found out that she was working 2 jobs just so they could have a place to live and food to eat - she did not have health care, and was desperate to know what she could do to support me and her son. My heart goes out to this dear woman. I made her son a special project, and we made progress. Nevertheless, this dear lady was in need - we must advocate for people such as this woman."
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Many people who criticize public education simply don't understand what is going on inside our schools and in the neighborhoods surrounding them. Bad public policy affects our schools and the children who attend them. Possibly our apathy is the result of our lack of understanding about the connection between poverty and the challenges of public education today, especially in urban centers.

If we really want to understand, listening to our teachers may be a good place to start.

Any action taken to undermine poverty and its spread will also be a move toward improved public schools. There is a connection. We need more people exploring and understanding it.

Monday, July 04, 2005

We the people. . .


Yesterday in his pastoral prayer, Dr. John Fiedler, Senior Minister at First United Methodist Church here in Dallas, confessed that "freedom is not necessarily a great thing unless it is used to do great things."

The founders of our nation seemed to have understood this truth.

A little more than a decade after signing the Declaration of Independence, the founders went back to work on perfecting a plan for establishing the new nation on a solid constitutional foundation. It was not an accident nor an arbitrary choice of words that led the framers of this sacred national document to begin with the phrase "We the people."

The revolutionary struggle had been about independence and freedom. Freedom for individual colonists and freedom for the various groups and constituencies that populated the American colonies. After winning liberty and struggling with a government ordered by the inadequate Articles of Confederation, the new nation adopted a collective approach that launched the incredible American experiment in freedom and unity.

"We the people" is a phrase we need to remember on this the two hundred and twenty-ninth anniversary of the nation's independence. Freedom is not just about my individual liberty to do as I please.

I am free as a citizen of the United States, just as are all of my fellow citizens.

But, we are members of one American family that has been diverse and amazing from the beginning. We are all in this national experiment and journey together. The nation is an amazing collective of persons, interests, values, perspectives, traditions, assets and needs.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

In the "Preamble" to this original vision we discover exactly what is needed to renew our nation today.

Today millions of our fellow citizens and their children who live in the inner cities of our nation find themselves mired in a devastating, unforgiving poverty. Where is the hope for them on this day of national celebration? How do we find a way through the current situation to a better America for everyone?

I believe the answer is in the minister's prayer and in those first three familiar words of our Constitution, "We the people."

We enjoy freedom. Now what will we do with it as a people?

As a people we must find creative and sustainable ways to guarantee basic American rights to all of our people.

People who work hard in this nation should not have to want for a livable wage, decent housing, accessible health care, adequate and nutritional food, fair and equal treatment under the law or meaningful voice in the affairs of their various communities.

All of our children are entitled to a quality education in our public schools. Those who desire to go on to college should be able to do so with our assistance when it is needed. Those who opt for entering the labor market after high school should be prepared for work that will sustain them and their families. Our fellow citizens who need and desire training to properly fill positions of employment should be able to receive such training.

We the people should see to it that no one is limited, shut out or held back because of race, color, ethnicity, gender, religion, political philosophy, sexual preference or national origin.

The weakest among us--the children, the aged, the sick and the disabled--should be a constant national priority.

If we as a people decided to pursue such a path together, our cities would flourish again with health, hope and opportunity.

But, it's like the preacher prayed. Freedom is only great if it is used to do great things.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sunday Meditations

Hal Samples, my friend and talented photographer, produced this image. He calls it "Wasted Space." It hangs in my office as a reminder that the inner city contains much space that could be put to better, more productive use for people and families. I appreciate Hal for the constant reminder of my responsibility to partner with people who have been left out. Visit Hal's website at www.herotozero.org.

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"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that time is always ripe to do right."


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
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World Bank Fact: In the United States, the poorest 10% of the population holds 1.9% of the nation's wealth, while the richest 10% controls 29.9%.
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"Anticipate charity by preventing poverty; assist the reduced fellowman, either by a considerable gift, or a sum of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood, and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and the summit of charity's golden ladder."

Maimonides, b. 1135
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"We must never claim that those who disagree with our judgments are not people of real faith."

Jim Wallis, editor Sojourners magazine
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Lectionary reflection for Sunday, July 3:

"A delighted, dancing response to a generous God ought not produce a faith that is so bent on controlling ourselves that we must crusade against others to subdue an unruly world. There is another way, says Jesus: 'Take my yoke. . .learn. . .for I am gentle' (Matthew 11:29). Dance on--it will change the world."

Robert Roth, Sojourners magazine, July 2005, page 48