Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Friendship and Poverty

In a meeting I had this week with a very astute foundation executive, she made a comment that stuck with me. She observed just how "lean" our development department staffing is for the size of our annual budget. [Jeremy Gregg, you can't use this against me!]

I explained that we tried very hard to keep our administrative and fundraising costs as low as possible.

She said that she appreciated that and then she said, "I bet there are lots of people here in Dallas who would love to help you with your mission."

I responded that she was correct, there are lots of people who are eager to help us with our mission.

I also explained that raising funds for longterm responses to poverty is not easy work.

For many donors there is still the nagging suspicion that people are poor because of something they have done wrong or haven't done right. That poverty is somehow the fault of the poor.

Raising funds for children who are ill or for hospitals or universities or the arts. . .these funds just seem "cleaner" to many donors.

Raising funds for adults who are hungry, ill, addicted, unemployed and unskilled, homeless, in need of legal counsel or otherwise "indigent," is much harder.

The assessments that feed the difficulty behind the challenges of raising funds for community development among low-income persons can best be addressed by personally introducing donors to those who stand in need of the assistance of a hand up, as opposed to a hand out.

Part of the magic of our place is the simple fact that poor people become our friends. . .real, genuine friendships break out all around this place on a daily basis.

As a result of the understanding that naturally comes from friendships, we just don't regard the men, women and children who face poverty on a daily basis as somehow impositions on our over-booked schedules or nagging problems that won't go away.

Raising money to help in opportunity creation is the best and easiest work of my life.

But, that is not because of some romanticized view of poverty, nor is it because I believe the poor are without personal problems or never make mistakes, but because of my connection to lots of poor people who are simply put, just my friends.


Chris Field said...

Seeing those in poverty as people and knowing them as friends makes all the difference in the world doesn't it, Larry? I know the precious kids at Camp of the Hills have changed my life as I have befriended them and gotten to walk a few steps alongside them in their journeys. I pray all is well.

owldog said...

Treat everyone as if they are Jesus, Great Lesson, but hard to do in daily life and I see you guys at CDM doing it every day.

ps. New grandchild yet???

Larry James said...

owldog. . .no Owen yet! I'll let you know for sure when he arrives. It should be any time now!

Anonymous said...

I love reading your blog, Larry, and never question that you are in the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. I generally agree with you, and often, for the same reasons. But I'm also frustrated when you state and restate the problem at the expense of focusing on solutions.

We all know you love your friends. That's not the issue. The question is how do we transform the hearts and minds of everyone who does not ... or to at least move them along the continuum?

Your blog is a ready-made blueprint for action; you've already stated the obstacles:

>people are often seen as poor due to their own action or inaction
>there is no flash & glamour in helping the indigent, ill, hungry
>humanizing the giver and the recipient makes funding more successful for all
>the focus of CDM is creating opportunities, not hand-outs

The appeal, then, is a combination of facts, figures and story, something you already do online and in print. So what's not getting through? Who's not being reached? What message isn't being said?

Why would you not apply the same innovation here that you described in your (marvelous) Community Development 101 series? As you already know, there are many ways to look at "help" and "support" as there are ways to define currency. And there are many ways to appeal to a potential giver, just by meeting them where they are.

So why not take that bet?("I bet there are lots of people here in Dallas who would love to help you with your mission.")

For any non-profit, low administrative and fundraising costs are both desirable and admirable, but their value is diminished when the need goes underserved. Sometimes, you've just got to spend money to make money.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, I think you don't understand my world or my work. Come see me.

That said, I'll address a couple of your complaints.

First, I do "take the bet" every day. Not a day goes by that I am not meeting with the very funders I speak of. Yesterday it was a foundation CEO and one of our County Commissioners, today another County Commissioner and a foundation leader who is funding one of our efforts.

My only point was to state that once people see each other as friends, the equation changes.

The solution, of course, is for people to get involved in the city with those outside their comfort zones.

You want solutions? Try these:

1) Give 10% of your income to an inner city Community Development Organization, no strings attached.

2) Sell you house and move to the inner city.

3) If they aren't there now, put your kids in public schools and get involved there. Make new friends among the other parents who have children there.

4) Teach your kids that justice is a huge part of your faith walk and that people aren't poor because they are bad, stupid or sinful.

5) Teach your kids that much of the poverty that exists in this nation is the result of systemic failure and collective evil that cna be overcome.

6) Once in the city, open your home to the poor.

7) Talk to your affluent friends about inner city renewal. Bring them to your new neighborhood and introduce them to the efforts you have underway.

8) Meet with your minister and ask him how much of your church's budget is devoted to meeting the needs of the poor.

That should do for starters.

By the way, I state the obvious a lot here because it is clear to me that that is how education works when it comes to "foreign subjects."

Now, it's your turn. What are your suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes poverty is the fault of the poor. My husband volunteers in a prison and some of the stories he can tell of lifestyles he has encountered would make your hair stand on end.

Larry James said...

Yes, I agree.

But can you go behind the failure and get in touch with the causes associated with that failure? Is the problem of poverty contributing to these bad decisions and actions?

Reverse it with me for a moment. Have I achieved what I have and done good only because of my actions, motives and decisions? Or, is my life the product of many, many opportunties that were handed to me?

We can be very naive about the impact of poverty on lives and on decisions.

Malcolm Gladewell in his amazing litte book, The Tipping Point, writes that a child raised in a great home in a terrible neighborhood has less chance of success in life than a child reared in a terrible home in a great neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

So if a child raised in a great home in a terrible neighborhood has less chance in life, why would anyone sell his home and move to the inner city?

Larry James said...

To improve the environment and "tip" the neighborhood back to health so that everyone there can have a chance at life!

In such a case, the intentionality of a family would be a factor that most of the time would provide hope and protection to the family and to the children involved.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Larry, things just wouldn't be the same if we had more help around here! :)

There are so many reasons why CDM works. You're a big one, Larry. The fact that we have donors who get what we are doing and who invest in us without requiring us to spend thousands and thousands of dollars convincing them to support us is another.

But, above all, I think this place works because of what you described at the end: because it's not a place to work. The place is the work.

Being here, standing side by side with my new friends, I cannot help but feel that -- despite the pressures of the world, the barriers against which we constantly crash -- we are doing something great.

Anonymous, I know it's hard to understand, but you really do have to be here to get it. Come down and join us in the pantry one day. Come stock the shelves alongside some guys who might spend the night on the street, but who are happy to work alongside you to support their neighbors. This is God's kingdom, and the work of running it is the work we are simply made to do.

Larry James said...

Thanks, Jeremy! You lift my soul, as always. We are very fortunate to have you and Natalie on the team.

Charles Senteio said...

Thanks again for the volume and content of your voice.

Thanks also for offering such a comprehensive blueprint to Anonymous (12:33pm) on solutions. As one who is trained in analysis and understanding the problem before jumping to solve I am still amazed at the energy and thought some put into questioning the messenger and missing the message. Why must we interrogate the articulation of the message when the problem, no matter how it is framed, while offering no apparent quick fix solutions offers all of us the opportunity to do something… an opportunity I think we all will have to one day answer to our efforts in solving.

I also have a recommendation Larry. Let’s talk about mutuality. I get too much of a sense of ‘those people’ amongst the comments, even those from your friends. As you know I’ve made a big change to immerse myself in these issues and I still have to periodically remind myself of the “little lights that shine” in the faces of the poor, and yes certainly some illumination comes from those who have had a significant stake in their lot. But why is interrogation of their story such a focus? Can’t we just help those that need it where they are? When we see a wreck, do we pause to determine how it happened before rendering aid? Boy I hope the ER Doc that I may have to see one day doesn’t do that. We don’t have to look far into scripture to see how wrong this is?

“Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you are also doing.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11

So someone made mistakes, hurt people, killed, raped, maimed… is it my role to condemn? Judge? I’m sure glad my God, and yours too I’ve seen, steers us away from that thinking. I may have 100 years of TDC time in my home when I bring the fellas together again to check out the De La Hoya v. Mayorga fight next Saturday nite. I wouldn’t trade this fellowship for any advanced degree folk or squeaky clean “Christian”. I admire and respect those who have come from such misery, much of which is admittedly self-inflicted, to rise up and carry out the true mission to serve.
“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” – Luke 15:7

Yes Anonymous 3:38p it is indeed hair raising to hear a grown man tell how he’s struggled for years to deal with his uncle raping him repeatedly from age 12 to 14 while his foster dad knew… but didn’t want to know. I’m looking forward to checking out more of these spirits during my Hutchins trip Saturday. Are there some bad dudes there? Of course! Are they all invited to my crib? Hell no. But blanket statements I don’t make, just as I don’t want them made of me.

Larry, isn’t it very cool that those who come to help just for the sake of helping are so easy to spot? They don’t judge. They don’t question. They just do.

So where does mutuality enter in? Can we beat this drum for a bit please?

“I am my brother’s keeper because I am my brother’s brother. What affects one directly affects us all indirectly.” – MLK

How do we get some folk, at least the ‘friends’ that can be advocates with some guidance, to see that we are the poor. We are the disenfranchised… and yes even those that make very bad choices and created their current reality.

Larry James said...

Profound stuff, Charles!

You have said it so well on mutuality. I will bring this up again soon, along with reciprocity.

Thanks for your thoughts, your heart and your life of action.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Charles and Larry, I am not the biblical scholar that you both are, and hardly the scholar I should be after a lifetime of education in Christian schools. Therefore, my understanding of Christ's message is pretty simple... but it seems very clear to me:

He lives in the hearts of each of us. The pain felt in the heart of my neighbor is pain felt in the heart of Christ, and the pain that rises in my heart as a result is the love of Christ commanding me to ease my neighbor's pain.

Maybe I'm more Buddhist than Christian. But I happen to believe that we are all part and parcel of the same God, manifesting His glory in very limited degrees, but either moving closer to joining Him every day or moving further away from His heaven.

Charles, I think you are absolutely right about seeing the poor as "other." My challenge has been to see my self as "other," and to look for the common Christ within both myself and my neighbor. It's been the hardest work I've ever known, requiring not only humility (not exactly my defining characteristic), but also self-forgivenesss.

It's good to be alongside the two of you in this struggle.

MarkS said...

Anonymous asked, "So if a child raised in a great home in a terrible neighborhood has less chance in life, why would anyone sell his home and move to the inner city?"

One answer might be, "Because that's what God did." Jesus did not count equality with God (a heavenly home among friendly cohorts in a perfect environment) something to be held onto but...

You know the rest. He left the comforts of home for the discomforts of life among the likes of us. It's the only way he could connect and "tip the scales" so that we all could have a chance of making a life against the odds. I truly don't think we need any other reason for moving among the poor than the model Jesus left for us...although there are plenty of other reasons for doing so.

Keep it up, Larry. We'll eventually get the point.

Anonymous said...

Hello Larry,

Anonymous 12:33 here…

What I read in your original post was that lots of people are willing to help CDM but raising funds to stem long term poverty is difficult, whereas creating opportunity is not; when donors personally meet those in need, things click. This led me to ask if there are more givers - and of what kind - than your lean development staff can secure. I wondered what would help. New, different, or revised approaches? More manpower? Changing hearts is often a long process; how does one keep funds flowing? This led to the bet I was suggesting you take, namely, to think differently. That's all.

By your response -- defensive? angry? -- I see how poorly I communicated my message.

I found your list of solutions agreeable, but directed at someone other whom you characterized as affluent, elitist and disconnected. Your colleague, Mr. Senteio, then piled on with Mr. Gregg moderating. I realized I couldn't take this personally, since my family and I are none of these.

My family is a product of inner-city public schools and institutions where we live and work. Our seven children bridge all races and ethnic groups and we all work and/or volunteer in nonprofits, primarily for the urban poor and homeless. Our small, sloppy home is known as a safe haven for adults in transition; we have informal bible studies and pot lucks routinely. Your suggestion that we are affluent gave us all a good chuckle. (Rich in spirit maybe, but not dollars.)

I'm sorry my well-intentioned message generated such heat. I interpreted your message about the power of friends to break down barriers as a message about the challenges of funding; the "bet" I suggested you take was to think differently. It seems we both missed the message.

Larry James said...

Anonymous 12:33, you likely caught me at a time of fatigue. I am sorry I missed your message--give me anohter chance!

Let me admit that you are obviously a better person than I. Spending time trying to convince people claim such a high place for the Bible in their lives gets wearisome for me, but I expect you have been through this phase and are beyond me.

So, help!

I think you are the one who may have the better and new ideas about this problem. Please share them with me! You will help us all and me inparticular!

Thanks for your patience with me in my weakness and impatience with others.