Sunday, July 30, 2006

Deference

Every time it happens I hate it.

Last Thursday morning I walked into Crossroads Community Services (CCS), a very important, partnership ministry supported by First United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church, both located in the heart of Downtown Dallas. CCS does amazing work among thousands of low-income and, in many cases, homeless individuals and families.

I parked across the street and walked over to the CCS building that houses a food relief center, a medical facility and the Stewpot, a meal delivery service for the homeless.

People were everywhere, both outside on the sidewalks and inside in every room and lined up the staircase to the clinic.

I was looking for my friend, Jay Cole. Jay serves as director of the center.

What I hate to experience is what I call "automatic deference."

I didn't meet a single person I knew while I was there.

I wasn't dressed up really--pair of slacks and a polo-type shirt, pair of lace shoes.

But everyone knew. From their perspective I didn't "belong" there.

Everyone was very nice. But everyone was deferring to me.

One woman asked if I "ran the place."

Lots of people had a familiar look on their faces, looks like I see around Central Dallas Ministries everyday. A look that camped somewhere between fatigue and resignation.

I also noticed that when I spoke to people with respect and warmth, faces brightened, as if hit by an unexpected surprise. I know that people who come to CCS receive respectful treatment routinely, but it was as if they didn't expect it from me, a guy who walked in off the street.

I am white.

I am rich.

Regretably, to them I am "the man."

Everyone deferred without reason, without an experience of my heart, my soul, my life.

Maybe the fact that I was there surprised people, I don't know.

I had the urge to shout to everyone in the building and on the sidewalks. I wanted to gather everyone up in a crowd and discuss the fact that we are all in this together. I wanted to convey my shame that this city of wealth can't do any better than create acceptable places where begging can take place.

I wanted to confess that, as a collective, Dallas has decided to do it this way and that we are content with little to no real progress among and for our poorest citizens.

Why defer to me? Given the way things are on the streets and out in many of our neighborhoods, why defer to anyone who seemingly possesses the power and the ability to influence decisions?

Oh, we've got our Calatrava Bridge designs. Our new opera hall is in sight. We're even going to build an urban park across the canyon of Woodall Rogers Freeway! And, yes, we will finally construct a new Homeless Assistance Center for some of the people into whose faces I looked last week.

Frankly, I'm excited about each of those projects!

But, what about other real solutions to other community, quality of life issues?

Solutions that would actually allow people to rise up from their entrenched despair? What about permanent housing, education, health care, employment, transportation and all of the other factors that would do away with "automatic deference"--what about those matters?

11 comments:

Dr. Harriet Boorhem said...

Larry: Feeling bad about who you are doesn't help the situation. Unfortunately, we are NOT all in this together, as the people in the center know. You (and I) are apart, and trying to not be, in my opinion comes across as disengenuous (SP?)

You are white, you are male, and you are rich compared to most of the people you serve. And, like it or not, you have more power to influence outcomes than most of your neighbors. It behooves you, then, just as it behooves me as an advocate for disenfranchised youth (white female, and richer than all the kids I serve), to use your power in the most responsible way to help the plight of those who cannot speak for themselves (which I happen to think you do!)

You must stand fully into who you are and use yourself to make good things happen. As frightening as this is sometimes (at least for me), it comes with the territory of being a leader. One of my former board chairs once told me to quit apologizing for being the boss.

Likewise, I'm asking you to quit apologizing for being white, male, and "rich". Use who you are to continue to make great things happen for your constituency.

Harriet Boorhem
Promise House
http://promisetokeep.blogspot.com

Larry James said...

Harriet, thanks for your post.

I wish it were as simple as you suggest. In my view until we reach a place where genuine reciprocity among and between people can occur, we will never achieve the sort of community we all desire.

I don't mind being "the boss" in a context in which everyone understands and agrees upon the rules and the lines of authority.

What I do resent and will continue to resist is a system that creates a "client class" based upon material categories and measurements and unbridled, unmerited privilege.

It is almost impossible in such a system to relate to one another as human beings and as fellows in community. A big part of my "leadership" will be to challenge that system and its rules.

It seems to me that people with power need to become bridge builders and at the same time students of those who are challenged due to matreial inequities.

If I come across as disengenuous, that is not my intention I can assure you. We all suffer when the out of control material considerations of our current culture define everything and even lure the oppressed to embrace the very system that oppresses them.

In such a system the assets of the poor go almost unrecognized, even to themselves. "Service providers" perpetuate a system that keeps things basically as they are. We sit and discuss clients and classes. We could be getting to know one another and organizing to foment some much needed systems changes.

We can do better.

And, by the way, I don't feel bad about who I am. I feel bad about how these seemingly locked in categories make other people feel.

institutedallas said...

It seems to me that one of the key levers to overcome the inertia of our day is for the "classically" described people in power (i.e. white rich males)to identify and proclaim the injustice surrounding the power differentials that exist in society. This acknowledgement, by those who have the most to lose in the proposition of sharing power, can be catalytic while demonstrating the metaphysical force of God's spirit on our society.

Thanks for keeping your eyes open, Larry.

Anonymous said...

There's that word "injustice" again. Do you want a street person to run your company? One can rise as high as his abilities can take him.

Larry James said...

Thanks for your comment, institute!

Anonymous, by injustice I don't intend to imply that everyone would be able to do the same things or fill the same functions. I would insist though, that everyone have the same opportunties and that the opportunities guaranteed by privilege alone would be accorded in some fashion to everyone who was willing to take advantage of such opportunities.

Anonymous said...

The truth is, not everyone is willing to take advantage of opportunities

Larry James said...

Anonymous, you are exactly right. That is not my point at all. My point has to do with the systemic removal of opportunities or the limitiing of opportunities based on economic status (i.e. recent cuts in college ad programs, cuts in housing programs, cuts in skill development programs, etc.). I am not saying everyone who is poor is above blame or criticism. I am saying we could easily do more in the realm of opportunity creation, to say nothing of helping people who are down and out who desire to do better.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I think that LJ is saying that you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you ain't got no boots!

middle years said...

I've been subscribed to Google Alerts for a week or two, and my heart has gotten heavier and heavier as I've followed events in Orlando and Las Vegas, where they vie to raise their ranking in the "10 meanest cities" contest.

When I read Larry's heartfelt cry, I feel exactly the same way almost every day. Still in there pitching, though.

Larry James said...

Middle years, it is amazing to realize how really mean and evil groups can become. How terrible. Christian nation, right?

MommyHAM said...

LJ -

I know that deference, and hate it too. It's one of the reasons why I've not corrected my snaggly teeth (that and I just plain haven't had the dough), but as I read this I thought, "That's one thing that has bridged that deference for me," so maybe I never will get braces?!?