Thursday, November 30, 2006
Janitors in Houston, Texas ended their month-long strike last week after agreeing to a new contract with the city's major cleaning firms that will deliver wage increases of almost 50% over the next two years. Just as important is the agreement's provision to provide the workers health coverage.
Organizing under the umbrella of the Service Employees International Union, 5,300 janitors celebrated a new labor agreement that will see their hourly wages move up from $5.25 per hour to $7.75 by January 1, 2009.
Employers also agreed to give their employees more daily hours, increasing the typical shift from four hours to six hours. For a 30-hour work week, an employee will earn around $12,000 annually when the agreement is fully realized.
The janitors rightfully celebrated their success.
But think about it. Could you live on $12,000 a year?
No doubt, most of these workers have other jobs, as do their spouses and other family members.
Workers coming together to organize for their rights in the workplace and in the larger economy is a good sign of renewed community hard at work.
And watch it, over the next two years none of the major cleaning firms will go out of business.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
As a matter of fact, everyone around me taught me and all of my friends to get all of the education we possibly could. A good education provided a ticket to success and the development and fulfillment of many dreams.
I think all of us operated on this basic assumption.
I also think that most of us continue to accept the premise and the notion that in this country anyone can progress beyond their origins thanks to the availability of great educational opportunities and options. All you have to do is take advantage of the opportunities that are readily available.
Today, sadly, these notions are naive at best and simply contrary to the facts.
First, the cost of higher education, even at our public institutions, has increased dramatically over the past decade. At the same time, funds for programs like the Pell Grant have been repeatedly slashed. It costs more to pay for a university education at a time when funds for low-income students continue to evaporate.
Second, and even more dramatic, public universities pursue policies today that block access to the poor. A shift away from traditional, need-based assistance to poor students to a "merit formula" that unfairly benefits students from affluent families is making it harder and harder for bright students from low-income families to make it into college life.
The Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation devoted to monitoring education in the nation, recently released a report that should open eyes. Read the entire report at:
The report's executive summary includes this telling paragraph:
"The nationÂs 50 flagship universities serve disproportionately fewer low-income and minority students than in the past, according to a new report by the Education Trust. Students in the entering and graduating classes at these schools look less and less like the state populations those universities were created to serve. The study shows how financial aid choices made by these prestigious public universities result in higher barriers to college enrollment and success among low-income students and students of color."
Public institutions of higher education were founded on the idea that, in exchange for citizen support in the form of tax dollars, they would devote themselves to opening broad access to the advantages andopportunitiess of a higher education for anyone interested in doing the work.
Such policy is virtually gone at major state institutions that now operate like exclusive private universities.
Talk to anyone at one of the major public universities in Texas. You'll likely hear about how many students applied, as compared to the fraction that made it in. You'll also hear about SAT averages--a measure that unduly favors the well-to-do students who have had the advantage of prep courses and prep schools.
The major state universities also compete for students from higher-income families at the expense of the those from poor families, even though their grades and performance make it clear that once in the classroom they do very well.
The sad fact is these poor students don't enjoy the options of the wealthy. For the poor, it is a state university or nothing most of the time. Now, that option is narrowing dramatically.
Here's a real shocker: aid to families earning over $100,000 annually has more than quadrupled at these major state universities. In fact, the average institutional grant tostudentss from high-income families is larger than the average grant to low or middle-income students.
The result? High-performing students from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to attend college than students from affluent backgrounds and they are less likely to complete 4-year degrees if they do attend.
So, if a college education is the price of passage into middle class America, these trends mean that upward mobility for entire groups of people is pretty much a cruel myth attainable by only a comparativehandfull of those who begin well behind the starting line.
Looking for an example of broad based, systemic injustice rooted firmly in current public policy?
Look no further, you've found it!
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Low income people and communities deserve and appreciate beauty.
The trouble is beauty can be expensive.
At times beauty follows people and places of “perceived” value. I know that sounds harsh, but let’s face it: our culture and the operative rules of our civic life evaluate people, often arbitrarily, to determine who deserves what and how much.
Yet, art is essential to life regardless of personal net worth or level of formal educational attainment.
As a result, “poor” people create and express themselves artistically continually. But budget issues often curtail the development of sustainable artistic expression and the community institutions that place art at the forefront of community life for all communities and persons.
Recently, I read a published report commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) entitled The Arts and Civic Engagement. The report establishes the clear connection between participation in the arts and positive individual and civic behaviors.
Even more telling was the difference in behavior and civic engagement between arts participants and non-participants.
Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA sums up the study’s findings, “Arts participants, especially readers, engage in positive civic and individual activities—from exercise to charity work, from hiking to amateur sports league attendance—at strikingly higher rates than non-participants. . . .Healthy communities depend on active citizens. The arts play an irreplaceable role in producing both those citizens and communities.”
The details of the study are interesting. Here are the “10 Key Findings”--
1. Literary readers and classical or jazz radio listeners attend arts events at higher rates (over 3 times as often) than non-readers and non-listeners.
2. Literary readers and arts participants engage in sports more readily than non-readers and non-participants (about twice are frequently).
3. By every other measure, arts participants are more physically active (almost twice as likely to take part in exercise and outdoor activities).
4. People who participate in the arts are almost 3 times more likely to be creative themselves, to take part in creative activities.
5. Readers and arts participants are twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.
6. Performing arts attendance by young adults is waning.
7. Young adult literary reading has dropped dramatically—down 16% since 1982.
8. Young adults listen to classical and jazz radio less than they did ten years ago (down 8 and 12% respectively).
9. Young adults are also less involved in sports and are less physically active over the same period.
10. Volunteerism among young adults has declined by 3.5% since 1992.
The study, conducted by the U. S. Census Bureau, interviewed 17,135 adults, ages 18 and over. The response rate was 70%. The research was not correlated to economic status, a factor that no doubt impacts participation and access to the arts.
As I read over the report, it struck me just how important beauty, artistic expression and participation in the arts are to community health. Social capital gathers around and emerges from the enjoyment of the arts.
And, books are incredibly important to human and community development! Possibly the very best thing parents, neighborhood activists, teachers, and other leaders can do to insure the growth of healthier communities is to promote, endorse and make possible the development and deepening of reading skills and a community-wide commitment to reading.
People need books.
Anything we can do to increase the access of books to children, youth and adults will be a victory for our communities.
Art declares that people really matter, that each of us has a story and that locked inside everyone is genuine treasure just waiting to get out or to be touched and stimulated.
Novels, poetry, non-fiction, painting, sculpture, music (all genres), photography, videography, film, dance, drama, sports, performance—these are the building blocks of civic life and authentic community.
The recent public policy trends to de-fund arts programs are shortsighted and down right stupid, if community health and adequate education are even any longer among our goals as a people.
In my view, how we regard the arts says a great deal about how we value and regard one another across our various neighborhoods in cities like Dallas.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Pardon me? Say what?
Come on, Krammer (you recall that Richards starred in the hit comedy series, Seinfeld). You can do better than that, surely!
Maybe you heard his "apology" on the Late Show with David Letterman via satellite. Over the weekend he was talking to Rev. Jesse Jackson. Maybe I missed something in the news (tell me if I did), but I'm wondering why he hasn't met the young people he attacked to ask for their forgiveness?
Have you noticed? Stories like this one keep coming up--remember Mel Gibson?
What is interesting to me is the fact that so many folks act so surprised. Richards' remarks were particularly offensive not only because of his selection of words, but also because of the manner in which he used historical references to America's violent, racist past.
Make no mistake about it, racism is alive and well in the U.S.A.
Admitting that is essential. Living in reality, no matter how disappointing at times, is a prerequisite for progress, genuine connection and authenticity.
So, we need to face the facts. Richards' tirade was filled with the language of hate, racism, anger and divisiveness--all forces still very much at work in our society and nation.
Progress in urban, community development depends on our commitment to continuing the struggle to address, acknowledge and move beyond the racism that has dominated our national life and story for far too long.
My faith tells me that the words of Jesus continue to have much to teach us in regard to events like this one.
On one occasion, Jesus told his closest followers, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' . . .But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean'" (Matthew 15:10-11, 18 NIV).
Sunday, November 26, 2006
"O God, we praise and adore you. You are truly without beginning or ending--your reign is eternal and your being all-powerful, and yet you chose to reveal your power in the most powerless and vulnerable manner--as a baby.
As you shared our humanity in Jesus, you gave the world a new understanding of power.
We know now that power is not to be used to dominate, but to serve others as Christ did.
He transformed the love of power by the power of love.
We gather today to celebrate your rule of love in our hearts as we experience it in Jesus and through the enabling gift of your Spirit. We offer this prayer of gratitude for these blessings in the name of Jesus, our Servant King."
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Ready for this news?
Over 12 million households in the U. S. worry about where the next meal is coming from. Of that number, 1.3 million live in Texas.
Actually, this is "good news" for the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that issued the report. The percentage of Americans who are concerned about having enough to feed themselves and their families declined by a bit less than 1% last year, the first decline since 2001, from 11.9% to 11%.
Texas lags behind the national average at 16% of the population facing hunger as a regular part of life. No real surprise there. Only New Mexico and Mississippi recorded higher percentages. The news report noted that the number of Texans worrying about food equals the number of households in Dallas and Collin counties combined.
Lots of folks.
Of course, the USDA devised a way to soften the news this year. No where in the report is the word "hunger" used. Rather, this analysis describes "food insecurity."
I have watched our numbers skyrocket this year in our hunger relief Resource Center here in Dallas. We will finish the year approaching a 50% increase in demand for our food services.
Too many Texans have to depend on others for their food needs. Too many Americans do as well.
So, what's the answer?
Like most community issues, moving in a positive direction will involve a number of determined decisions.
1. People of faith need to get serious about hunger. This will mean that every congregation in the nation will have some plan for responding to the emergency and chronic food needs of its neighbors.
Beyond compassionate first steps, people of faith must put more pressure on elected officials and public policy makers to craft more comprehensive responses to widespread hunger. Faith leaders need to speak out, train their congregants and organize to see things improve. Resource rich congregations should partner across communities with resource poor congregations to form anti-hunger coalitions that speak with one voice to the issue.
2. The USDA's Food Stamp program works when it is made available to low-income, working people. Designed for working families, the program works for everyone--consumers, producers and retailers all benefit from the Food Stamp program.
The problem in Texas is simple. The state refuses to take the steps necessary to make the benefits available to every person and family that needs it. Enter people of faith to apply the necessary political pressure to see our state's performance improve for the sake of the hungry.
3. The minimum wage needs to be increased, the housing voucher program restored to previous levels and the Earned Income Tax Credit needs to be strengthened and expanded. These steps will allow low-income wage earners to more adequately provide for their families. Each of these steps benefit every sector of our economy while rewarding people for their hard work.
No one should be hungry or "food insecure" in Texas or the U. S. No one needs to be. Change is up to us.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
How about you?
One of the reasons Thanksgiving has always been my favority holiday--well, okay, maybe not always, but since I was about 16-years-old at least--has to do with pace and focus.
[By the way: Being a man on Thanksgiving puts me at a definite advantage. In my family, the women work really hard in preparing for the feast day and they work hard during and afterwards as well. Of course, women work hard constantly! So, I begin by being grateful for all the loving effort that goes into preparing and serving such a meal!]
The pace of the day forces me to slow down, to sit down. The pace enables the focus--to actually stop and look at the people closest to me. Thanksgiving is a day of conversation and laughter and tears and memories and, well, grateful reflection. . .or, it can be.
It is a day for family.
It is a day for hope.
It is a day for sharing food and all that goes with that.
And, of course, it doesn't hurt anything, in my opinion, that it is a day of football and catnaps and great, end-of-the-day leftovers!
A good friend of mine came by on Tuesday again this year.
His story is nothing short of miraculous. I'm really not sure how he is even still alive today. Former drug dealer, addict and criminal, today he is about the sweetest guy you'd ever want to meet. His health is poor. His family scattered. He lives on disability, which means he has very limited funds.
He and I have a deal of sorts. He knows that around Thanksgiving, we will get our heads together and plan on how he can host a meal of the family he can manage to gather up.
We worked out the details again this year. He really looks forward to this day. I know that around his table there will be thanks aplenty today. Remember him as you give thanks in whatever way you do that on this special day. He has come a long, long way.
Like I said, the urgent too often kills the significant in my life.
This day provides a much needed "time out."
I'm curious. For what and for whom are you most grateful this Thanksgiving?
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
As we walked out of my favorite, hole-in-the-wall, local beanery--Matt's Ranchero--a few nights ago, we were "bum-rushed" by a very sophisticated con man.
He looked well-to-do. Attired in a brown leather jacket, his hair perfectly slicked back, he approached in a hurry. He told us that his car had been struck by a hit-and-run driver as he backed out of the parking lot. His wife, driving their other car, had left before seeing the accident. He explained that his car was now leaking oil and he was afraid to drive it far without adding a quart or two.
He was so smooth and agitated just enough to be really convincing.
He had a couple of requests. He needed a "few bucks" for oil--his wife had left him without any money in his wallet. He also needed a ride to the local parts store where he could purchase the oil.
As we searched our wallets to help with his request, he grew nervous and a bit more agitated, as if he were in a hurry. He asked for my business card so that he could repay the $20 bill that Brenda handed him with the "at least $30" he would mail us.
As we were discussing my giving him a ride to the parts store (I was now growing a bit more than suspicious of his story), a van flew up to where we were standing and a young man dressed in waiter's garb jumped out and started yelling at the man.
"You scammed me and now you are working on these people!," he yelled. "You stole $30 from me and now you are out after other folks. We aren't going to let you get away with it any more!"
At that point another irate waiter arrived and the three of us "apprehended" the man and got him to sit down on the curb.
The police were called.
The man gave our money back.
As we continued to talk to the man, while waiting on the police, the first waiter continued to challenge the man, "I have a wife and three kids and I am in seminary and last week I gave you $30 and you are a con!"
The man began to plead for forgiveness and release.
When the police arrived, we left. The officer began to talk to the con man and the waiters. I expect that there was nothing much the police officer could do.
The con man was really about the best I've ever seen.
During the entire ordeal that followed the interruption of his hustle, the man seemed most concerned about his leather jacket. It had been pulled off of him as one of the waiters prevented him from leaving the scene. I imagine that the jacket was an invaluable tool in his game. It made him look so successful and "legit."
My feelings since this experience have been conflicted. I find myself feeling sorry for the guy with the game. What does it take to get to such a place in life? On the other hand, I was very angry with the deception and the fact that people like this contribute to persistent and unfair stereotypes of the homeless poor.
I also had to face the fact that the guy's con worked largely because he didn't appear to need anything! Had he looked more like he was living on the street, we likely would have responded differently and his story would have been much different.
Then, there were the two, young hard-working waiters who were justifiably upset with the guy who had worked them for a donation earlier in the week in the same parking lot.
Strange experience. Just when I thought I'd heard them all, I find out there is still a lot to learn about and with people.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
No surprise then after the controversial news broke about the recent actions of the Farmers Branch City Council that Chris sprung into action.
You recall that the council voted a week ago to make it against the law for apartment owners to lease their property to undocumented residents of the town, to allow local police officiers to receive training in enforcing immigration laws and to declare English the official language of the community (see this blog on Thursday, November 16, 2006, "Let's hear it for Farmers Branch!").
Chris called his friend and fellow minister, Vincent Gonzales who leads the North Dallas Family Church and resides in Farmers Branch. Gonzales also authored Beyond the Border: How The Church Must Respond to Immigration Reform.
The two friends organized and co-hosted a joint worship service that included members of their respective churches and others from the community. The bi-lingual service focused on worship, prayer and reconciliation.
These two leaders directed their congregants to face the community's division along socioeconomic and racial lines. They also attempted to raise consciousness about the the plight of the poor among the Hispanic population in Farmers Branch and our entire area.
Chris summed the evening up in a very wise way in an email to me that concluded, "Again, only one evening, but a good step. And I’ve seen things happen with a mustard seed before."
I am grateful for the decisive and determined action of these two fine Christian leaders.
According to The Dallas Morning News yesterday ("Churches aim to ease tension in Farmers Branch--Congregations unite for bilingual services"), the service was the first of a number of bi-lingual gatherings planned by the Farmers Branch Church of Christ, Seidman's church.
"There's tension in the community, but whenever there's tension ... there's an opportunity for God to work," Mr. Gonzales said.
Four of the city council members attend the Farmers Branch Church of Christ, including Tim O'Hare, who brought national attention to the town by suggesting the measures in the first place.
According to the news report, Farmers Branch is today home to the newest chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
"A LULAC chapter hadn't been created before in this area, because people sometimes think they don't need it, but then after things happen, they realize they need support," said Héctor Flores, former LULAC national president. One of the new chapter's tasks will be to fight the ordinances.
At some point I hope the joint worship of the churches involved will turn to action that will include pressing the U. S. Congress to act reasonably to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a guest worker program, serious and high-level negotiations with the new Mexican governmnet and livable wage standards that will begin to actually protect all workers from unfair exploitation in our increasingly one world economy.
My faith tells me the answer is not to ban people or drive them away.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Listen to Shipler's jarring testimony:
"Most of the people I write about in this book do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles. Their wages do not lift them far enough from poverty to improve their lives, and their lives, in turn hold them back. The term by which they are usually described, 'working poor,' should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America (p. ix).
"Workers at the edge of poverty are essential to America's prosperity, but their well-being is not treated as an integral part of the whole. Instead, the forgotten wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed" (p. 300).
Shipler would be proud of the Los Angeles City Council.
The legislative body approved a living wage ordinance for the 3,500 hotel workers employed in the Gateway Improvement District near L. A. International Airport. Eleven of the 14- member City Council voted recently to extend the city's 1997 living wage law to 3,500 workers in the LAX hospitality industry.
The groundbreaking vote makes Los Angeles the largest city in the country to require employers that don't do business directly with the city to pay their workers a living wage.
This extension of the living wage ordinance will affect 13 hotels on Century Boulevard. The law will increase wages for workers to $9.39 per hour with health benefits and $10.64 per hour without health benefits.
In addition, the council passed a worker retention ordinance that insures hotel employees will be able to keep their jobs 90 days after a hotel changes ownership. City lawmakers also enacted rules requiring hotels to give service charges imposed on banquet guests to servers.
The Los Angeles Times reported that current average earnings for Century Boulevard hotel workers is 20% lower than those in downtown hotels and 22 percent lower than in East San Fernando Valley and Burbank hotels. Low wages at Century Boulevard hotels contribute to poverty in the nearby communities of Lennox, Inglewood and Hawthorne, where a large number of these workers live.
Local news media report that in the last two years occupancy rates at Century Boulevard hotels has increased 16 percent -- the highest in L.A. County. The hotels are doing very well.
"Today's historic vote is a win-win for everyone," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl. "The living wage for the hotel workers is a matter of social justice, as well as a matter of good business sense. Treating workers fairly and improving working conditions will benefit hotels and drive economic activity along Century Boulevard. Today's vote will help all boats rise together."
I agree with the Councilman. And, I applaud the hard work of Council member Janice Hahn, one of the driving forces behind the new regulations.
I'm not sure who it was who first said it, but I agree completely with the familiar line, "The very best program of social uplift possible is a job that pays a living wage!"
Like I said, David Shipler should be very pleased.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Here's how bad it is. At 8 a.m. its delivering donuts to the home of our oldest grandchildren, Gracie and Wyatt. Nothing better than those early morning smiles and hugs, followed by sugary fingers and kisses!
Then, it's a drop in to see our newest grandson, Owen. He is serious as a judge and growing like a weed! I managed to coax several smiles out of him. He watched me for the longest time, I am sure trying to figure out who in the world the crazy old guy in the baseball cap might be!
What blessings these children are to everyone who knows them!
Sunday I will speak at the Preston Road Church of Christ (PRCC).
This is the church that led the way in founding Central Dallas Ministries.
Thanks to the dreams and vision of Jim and Betsy Sowell and the pastoral leadership, guidance and teaching of the Senior Minister at the time, one of my very best friends, Randy Mayeux; this church provided the creative space for the formation of the community-based non-profit where I get to work every day.
Obviously, this is a very special group of people to our organization and to me.
Each year about this time, I enjoy the privilege of addressing the church. The church in turn shares a special offering of love and compassion with us. This offering is above and beyond the annual support we receive from the church's operating budget.
I am grateful for every person who is part of this congregation.
Friday, November 17, 2006
On Tuesday, the day after our closing, The Dallas Business Journal posted a report on the progress we've made on our CityWalk @ Akard project.
Before the day was over, John Greenan (Executive Director of the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation) received this email message:
Although I applaud your interest in meeting the needs of Dallas County's poor, I read with horror the news article in the Dallas Business Journal today regarding the purchase of a downtown building to house low income and homeless persons.
Now that we're finally seeing some improvement downtown, including luxury condo development, you want to offer downtown housing to bums, crazies and drug addicts.
I noticed that 9 units will be priced at market value. Who in their right mind would rent an apartment in a tower of homeless people?
You've got to be kidding!
For that matter, how long do you think even moderately poor people will stay in your building?
I guarantee you that the building will be trashed and the project declared a failure within 12 months of opening.
Are you even going to rehabilitate the outside of the building? If so, at least some good will come of this Quixotian nightmare.
Please consider finding another outlet for your altruism before you stop the progress downtown.
As is often the case with critics, this gentleman gets the facts all wrong. CityWalk @ Akard will not be a "tower of homeless people." Fifty units of the 209 will be leased by formerly homeless persons. This ratio is well below some of the best national models. To be clear, we wanted the ratio to be closer to 50%, but the Mayor and City Council had other ideas.
I respect this fellow's right to express his point of view.
But, as I know you would expect, I couldn't disagree more.
It is clear he personally knows no one who is poor or homeless. If he did, his worldview would be much kinder and better informed.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Last Monday evening they voted unanimously to make English the official language of the town of 28,000 and to make it illegal for apartment owners to lease housing to those who could not prove that they were legal residents of the United States. The council also authorized the city's police department to seek special training so that the immigration status of persons in custody could be determined. In essence, Farmers Branch police officers will become immigration agents.
I say courageous because of what they didn't do.
Tim O'Hare, the City Council member who got the ball rolling on this aggressive "reform" movement, wanted his fellow council members to penalize employers who hire undocumented workers. He also wanted funding cut off for youth programs serving undocumented children.
I guess apartment owners--there are only 15 apartment properties in the town--are an easier, less politically volatile group than business owners who have grown accustomed to the hard working, low-cost labor force that lacks nothing but proper documentation and increased opportunity.
And, really now, only the Grinch who stole Christmas would have the gall to crush summer programs for little kids, don't you think?
There is so much to get at here, I truly don't know where to begin.
But, let me give it a shot!
First, I thought municipalities were about potholes, public safety, parks, libraries, economic development and civic pride? When did immigration control become a local issue in a small town like Farmers Branch?
I know, I know, the feds aren't doing their job; but wouldn't it be more productive to lobby the U. S. Congress than to punish a segment of the population inside the city limit signs of just one place?
And by the way, what message has the United States' enforcement policies been sending for well over a decade to persons south of our border who simply seek an opportunity to better life for themselves and their families? How about the message of the millions of employers who have hired these workers, even in Farmers Branch?
In my view, President Bush's comprehensive plan to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants through a guest worker program seems on the mark. Securing the borders going forward with stepped up security and by negotiating with the Mexican government as a part of the plan also seems prudent.
But the notion that we can simply kick out 12 million people is ludicrous. Just here I remember the 500,000 people who march peacefully through Downtown Dallas on Palm Sunday last April.
The politicians who exploit this issue to arouse a fearful, uninformed public for their own political benefit should be ashamed. None of us should pay any attention to them either.
Second, much of what Mr. O'Hare and his colleagues claim is simply not true.
Let's be very, very clear: Undocumented residents of Farmers Branch do pay taxes.
Think about it.
No one escapes sales or property taxes.
Anyone who buys anything pays sales tax.
Anyone who pays rent contributes to the property tax bill paid by the property owner.
Then, there are Social Security taxes that millions of undocumented workers pay into the system annually using bogus Social Security numbers. At last count this amount equaled 10% of the Social Security reserve fund each year.
These are tax dollars from which these workers will never benefit.
As a matter of fact, these dollars will help fund my retirement, not theirs. The Social Security Administration has no interest whatsoever in seeing this flow of income shut off.
Third, what about the economic impact of undocumented workers in a place like Farmers Branch?
The service and construction industries draw large numbers of workers from this growing and readily available pool. According the Inter-American Development Bank, 90% of the wages earned in the U. S. by immigrants stays here. During 2006, immigrants will contribute over $50 billion to the Texas economy--again, dollars that stay here and circulate in our communities, including Farmers Branch.
What about the effect of immigrants on wages for U. S. citizens? According the studies, the impact is negligible. Those most affected are high school dropouts who see wages fall by about 8% because of the competition of immigrant labor, a reality that could be offset by staying in school.
Arguments about the cost of providing public education and healthcare come across as disingenuous to me. Working to assure the future of all of our children seems to be the kind of public, civic investment that ultimately benefits everyone, and for a long time to come.
The labor force is here and it counts in the millions. Making sure every child is learning and growing benefits the whole of our culture and all of our communities. The same can be said for adequate medical care for every resident.
Finally, call it what you will and argue with me all you like, we must face the reality of the racism, classism and xenophobia bound up in this extraordinary move.
The Farmers Branch City Council has taken action to ban an entire group of people. "Move to Garland, stay in Dallas, go to Denton, but understand us: you are not welcome here because of who you are and where you are from."
I find this action shocking and abhorrent.
But on second thought, maybe it's not so surprising, especially for a person like Mr. O'Hare. I'd bet you a dollar to a hole in a donut he has his eye on the Texas House of Representatives and beyond (see comments above about politicians who exploit the fears and prejudices of voters).
Ironically, O'Hare and three of his fellow council members attend the same large and influential church in Farmers Branch. So, I assume they consider themselves to be people of faith. I expect that the other two members of the council also attend church.
It makes me wonder if they are reading the Bibles they likely will carry with them into their houses of worship this Sunday. After all, the message of this book is really fairly clear on the subject of how to treat immigrants.
Just a few examples seem in order:
"Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner; remember that you were foreigners in Egypt." Exodus 22:21.
"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." Leviticus 19:33-34
"God's curse on anyone who deprives foreigners. . .of their rights." Deuteronomy 27:19
"The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. . . .So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with fiery anger, bringing down on them all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord." Ezekiel 22:29, 31
I'm thinking the Farmers Branch City Council needs to reconsider its action.
How about you?
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Reading the report thrashes me every year. I feel ripped back and forth from depression and despair to rage, with lots in between!
Consider just a few facts of life for children who live in Dallas, Texas, one of the most affluent communities in the world.
- Over 17% of the families in Dallas live at or below the poverty line.
- The percentage of our neighbors who live in poverty has risen from 13.5% in 1990 to 17% today, while our population has grown dramatically.
- Dallas has exceeded the state's average for percentage of impoverished families.
- Fully half (50%) of Dallas' impoverished population is under 18.
- One in four (25%) children under 5-years-old are poor in Dallas--up from 1 of 5 (20%) not long ago.
- Twenty-two percent of those in poverty are between ages 5 and 17.
- 39% of female-headed households that have children are living in poverty.
What kind of city accepts such harsh realities for its families?
Upon reading some of these grim facts about life in Dallas, Jeremy Gregg, Central Dallas Ministries' Director of Development, asked me this question, "What kind of community do we live in, where our wives would have nearly a 40% chance of living in poverty if we were not here?"
He went on to say, "I think of my daughter growing up in Dallas, and I imagine the various paths that would lead her to become one of our neighbors. More and more, I realize that her future depends less on the choices that she makes than on the choices that Natalie and I make."
And, I would add, the choices that our community's leaders make. I would also want to discuss just how the opportunities afforded individuals and families are spread out over our community.
The inequities remain absolutely glaring.
Charles Senteio, another colleague of mine here at CDM who directs our Institute for Faith Health Research-Dallas, keeps saying that "people matter." But until we begin to act as if they do, the message is lost, inauthentic and simply a cruel charade.
We have a long ways to go to turn this around. And, there is no time to waste.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Late yesterday the deal closed on 511 N. Akard!
CityWalk @ Akard has been acquired!
As a result, over 200 low-income, working citizens of Dallas, Texas will soon be able to lease high-quality studio apartments very near their Downtown employment.
Of these, 50 individuals who are on the street today will be able to move into homes of their own.
I am grateful to John Greenan, Executive Director of the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation, for his leadership, vision and hard work to see this project through to close on the acquisition. John (along with his team that includes Johnice Woods, Lori Beth Lemmon-Harrison, Tom Milner, Rob Colburn, Mark Joeckel, Central Dallas CDC and CDM Board members and staff, and a number of other community partners, leaders and professionals) worked tirelessly for over a year to guide us to this wonderful moment!
Now we begin the process of closing on the construction loan that must wrap up by the end of March 2007.
Much hard work with our architects and other partners remains to be done.
But, we will get there!
The CityWalk @ Akard initiative will change the landscape in Downtown Dallas for low-income working people.
Today we are much more than grateful!
Thanks to each of you who have been so faithful in remembering us.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Based on everything we learned last week, including a "down-to-the wire" attempt to close on our 511 N. Akard building acquisition last Friday, we are all set to finally wrap up the next step of our largest and most important project to date.
If things go as we hope, by the end of the day the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDCDC) will own the building that we plan to redevelop into 200 units of high-quality, workforce housing for our low-income neighbors, including 50 formerly homeless men and women.
In addition, the project will offer nine market rate apartments, as well as retail and office space for lease.
We've been working on the deal for well over a year. The next incredibly big step is right before us.
Remember us today!
Dallas needs this project to be successful.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
There was the woman early Wednesday morning on her way to work, I suppose--it was still dark. She drove down Peak Street toward Central Expressway at break-neck speed while trying to apply her makeup, including mascara. How do you manage the bumps on a street in such terrible condition with a sharp object that close to your eyeball???
A bit later in the week I drove up behind a guy in an overloaded SUV--looked like the rear was packed with softball equipment. He was driving with one hand down an incredibly crowded service road. In his other hand he sported an electric razor. He was shaving on the way to work or wherever it was that he was headed. He seemed to be doing a great job, though I'm not sure how he could see the road with his head thrown back so far as he worked on his neck!
I'm one to talk.
Multi-tasking is out of control in my life. How about you?
Where is the Sabbath rest we were commanded to observe in childhood? I've never been an advocate of placing the 10 Commandments in public places, but maybe I've been all wrong!
Am I the only one who is facing the fact that we need some down time? Some simple rest?
Why do we keep packing more and more activity into the same, increasingly cramped schedules?
Think about it.
With each new efficiency we don't find a way to rest, we simply shoehorn more into our days.
I think we need to stop it.
How about you?
When you answer, please speak up as I'm listening to Meet the Press, brushing my teeth and glancing at the morning news while typing and getting dressed for church this morning.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Ever feel as if you are walking across a tightrope or on an extremely narrow ridge as you traverse your life?
Do the conflicting challenges and warring obligations sometime seem overwhelming, threatening to throw you completely off balance?
Can you see yourself rolling down the steep embankments to your left and right?
I suppose this is the nature of life for a growing number of us as we rush and struggle our way through day after day.
That is one way to view the image here--a tightrope balancing act.
But, take another look. Can you see something else here?
If you lift your eyes from the very narrow ridgeline to the figure's feet, legs, arms and hands, the image changes, doesn't it? What we are seeing here is balance at its best.
I guess it all depends on how you look at the challenges and the difficulties, what do you think?
When I speak of balance, I am not talking about a comfortable walk down the middle of the road. No, not that. The edge, the sometimes radical edge is still very present. But the balance comes with focus, selflessness and simply allowing oneself to be lost in the walk itself--a walk complete with beauty and conflict, peace and turmoil, growth and decline.
Maybe the secret is to keep our eyes trained on the light just ahead of us.
[Heron Dance provided the watercolor image.]
Friday, November 10, 2006
Is America ready for Cory Booker?
Booker is a Stanford University graduate (where he played on the varsity football team), a Rhodes scholar, a Yale-trained attorney, a former Newark, NJ City Council member and now the Mayor of that city.
Booker comes from upper-middle class roots. The son of two IBM executives, he grew up in the affluence of Harrington Park, NJ. He starred as an all-state football player at two positions in high school. He served as his high school class president. He and his older brother were the only black kids for miles. While at Stanford, he was elected class president again.
He'll tell you that his parents taught him two lessons that have shaped his life and his career choices. One, because of the privilege you enjoy, you have an obligation to give back. Two, the struggle to move into the middle class in racist, white America was no small accomplishment. The combination of these two parental directives explains a lot about Booker today.
While at Yale Law School, Booker moved into a boarding house in the roughest part of Newark so that he could be close to the people of the inner city. Booker spent his summer vacation in 1999 camped out in a tent that he set up in the garbage-strewn parking lot of a Newark housing project to draw attention to the deplorable conditions. As a result of his efforts and the publicity they attracted, the 550-unit Garden Spires apartments were dramatically improved.
In October 2006, Booker published "The First 100 Days," a report on his comprehensive strategy to revitalize Newark that outlines. . .
- Creative approaches to improving public safety that involve community members at the heart of things
- An aggressive economic development plan to revitalize the city's economy for everyone
- Creative new attempts to strengthen families while nurturing children
- A cutting edge commitment to reform local government and how it affects citizens
- A model program to accommodate the city's ex-offender population at re-entry
It is quite a plan.
But then, he is quite the leader.
His unique commitment and perspective have contributed to the passage of strong laws designed to protect the poor. Thanks to his efforts, slumlords do jail time if they repeatedly fail to make their properties habitable.
The following quote comes from Stanford Magazine (March/April 2000) concerning Booker's natural ability to connect with everyone:
Booker does have a way of winning over his skeptics. When he was at Oxford, he stumbled into a meeting of the L'Chaim Society, a Jewish social and political organization. "I felt like I was walking into a scene from Yentl," he says. Within minutes, Booker had joined the discussion. By the end of the evening, he and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach were dancing with the Torah. The following year, Boteach asked Booker to run for president of L'Chaim. "Cory said to me, 'But I'm not Jewish, and I'm black,' " says Boteach. "I said, 'So what? You embody all the ideals that I want to represent.' He has a unique ability to treat everyone with decency and make them feel important." Some of L'Chaim's members objected, vehemently, to a non-Jewish president. But when the election came, Booker had become so popular -- and so serious about Judaism -- that he ran unopposed.
"I found in Judaism that I can touch and feel spiritualism," says Booker, who still considers himself a devout Christian. "You are supposed to shake your fist at God and demand justice in the world. That's so much at the core of who I am and at the core of the African experience in America."
Today, as he provides leadership for Newark, Booker resides in a public housing project among his city's poorest people.
I have a feeling that the public policy coming out of his office and from the Newark City Council under his watch will be groundbreaking and just what his city needs and what the whole country should pay attention to.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
The slight, muscular man with a sharply lined face peddled his old bicycle down the street a block from my house. What was different this time was the old, creatively modified golf cart that he had attached to his bike allowing him to haul a huge plastic bag of aluminum cans he had collected from the street.
The determination on his face impressed me as he transported his treasure to the recycle drop off center where he would cash in what he had amassed.
I remember a conversation I had with this gentleman about this time a couple of years ago. I stopped him on the street and invited him to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with us.
"I don't take handouts," he informed me.
I tried to explain that there was no handout involved, just a community meal.
He would hear nothing of it, continuing to insist that he took care of himself and needed no assistance, thank you very much.
As I watched him ride away, I wondered what it would take to provide this gentleman a better opportunity.
His problem is not that he doesn't want to work. It could be that he has limited skills, or he may be dealing with mental illness or addiction (though I doubt the latter), or he may have a criminal record that blocks his full employment.
I don't know.
What I do know is this, we should be doing better by him and with him for our own sakes.
But our system in Texas and Dallas is so limited, so under-developed, so broken, random and thoughtless.
There should be a way, a port for this guy to dock into, not for a handout, but for a chance to move forward.
He is surviving, and better than most, thanks to his creativity and persistence. I wish him well.
I just think he deserves more.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Everyone makes mistakes.
If you are living in poverty, the impact of your mistakes tend to be magnified, often beyond what the rest of us can comprehend.
A few days ago I had lunch with a very poor man. He lives on the streets of Dallas. He is clean, sober and looking for work.
I first met him several years ago when he appeared at my office door holding the side of his face. An abscessed tooth was about to take him out. He was angry because he had been trying for days to get help. Again and again he had been frustrated. The pain increased his anxiety and fed his growing rage. We were able to get him the relief he needed. We talked about that day over lunch.
His situation got me to thinking. Poverty can make life very, very unforgiving.
What would you do if you woke up tomorrow with a toothache?
I know what I would do. I'd call my dentist and be on the road to recovery before nightfall. I'd come home from my dentist, pain medication and antibiotic in hand, and I'd go to bed. I'd enjoy soup and ice cream and I'd be back at work the next day.
My friend doesn't enjoy such luxuries.
He did get his tooth attended to, but I bet the 24 hours following the extraction was not pleasant for him.
The memory of his toothache made me think about other situations in my own life when I have made really dumb choices, but found almost instant forgiveness thanks to all of my blessings and benefits.
When I was about 16-years-old, me and my best buddy loaded my 1957 Buick (the car my dad had turned over to me when I started driving) with camping gear for a trip to the woods. We also stopped down in Vickery and bought plenty of beer and bourbon! To make a long story short, my ever-vigilant father caught us! He dealt with me in a way that forced me to face my stupidity on my own. He couldn't have handled my failure or my bad choice any better than he did.
My mistake didn't lead me deeper into destructive life choices.
I found life forgiving because of my parents on many occasions. I'm not at all sure that my homeless friend enjoyed such benefits when he was growing up.
Not every benefit is tied to economic status or class. But, many are. The stability of middle class life, played out over several generations, delivers advantage after advantage that can turn many mistakes into opportunities for learning and growth.
A person with a stable family, good options for education, employment prospects and the expectations of success enjoys tremendous advantages.
I have found life to be a fairly forgiving experience, not because of my superior intelligence, wisdom in decision making or personal morality, but because of a number of built-in advantages that have simply been given to me.
Talk about grace!
It is hard for me to withhold forgiveness when I have received so much of it myself.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
I saw the latest report in the papers this past Sunday. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organized the strike that last week shut down one of the busiest intersections in the city.
Obviously, one purpose of the strike is a call for higher wages and more hours. The workers seek wages of $8.50 an hour, more guaranteed work hours and medical benefits.
But, this strike seems to go beyond these traditional aspects of a labor agenda.
Respect for human dignity is central to this labor action.
According to Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU's national Justice for Janitors campaign, "The strike here is about thousands of workers being seen as full human beings, full participants in the life of our country. Are we going to lift the poor up or dig in and start pushing them further into poverty?"
Important question, at least I would think.
Beyond this, the strike is evidence of the growing connection between labor unions and immigrants. SEIU represents over 5,300 janitors in Houston alone. Most of these workers are female immigrants. The union in this case has worked very closely with community organizations and churches that serve this segment of the city's population.
The strike against the five largest cleaning companies began on October 23. Houston janitors make an average of $5.30 per hour, are limited to part-time work and receive no health benefits.
One contention of the union is that employees of the same companies working in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago earn more than twice this amount and receive health care benefits.
A report in The Dallas Morning News ("Houston janitors' strike goes deeper than wages," Sunday, November 5, 2006, 3A) tells the story of Mercedes Herrera.
Ms. Herrera has worked as a janitor for 5 years.
She earns $5.15 an hour and is allowed to work only 4 1/2 hours a day. During her short shift, she is expected to clean nine floors of a downtown office building, including 18 bathrooms!
"This is a struggle we are all involved in because we are working for a cause," she said. "We are not invisible people, ghosts or robots who clean buildings. We have families. We have rights. We are not like toilet tissue that you use and throw away."
Compelling story. Lots of courage here, don't you think?
It has me wondering. . .
What does faith say about labor?
About labor actions and unions?
About fair wages?
Where is the church and its voice on these issues?
Monday, November 06, 2006
This past Thursday, as is always the case on the first Thursday of each month, I attended the November edition of our Urban Engagement Book Club. Randy Mayeux, my longtime friend and "partner in crime,"did his usual masterful job in providing a thorough synopsis of yet another important book, Michelle Kennedy's, Without a Net--Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) In America: My Story. Each month we all leave feeling as if we have read and digested another significant book that addresses some aspect of social justice, public policy and/or chronic poverty.
These meetings are very helpful and extremely unique. I'm not sure there is another group like this anywhere in the country. If you know of one, please let me know. We are exploring plans to offer these meetings in additional locations around the Metroplex and in other cities.
The conversation is always amazing.
The reason is not hard to find: the diversity of our group.
Ministers, business leaders, public officials, teachers, volunteers, social sector workers and the homeless gather for a light meal and for the stimulation of Randy's presentation and our discussion.
I know of no other public space in Dallas where homeless persons take the floor and instruct those with homes about the realities of their lives on the streets of our city. Nothing trumped up here either. Just a meal, a book and a conversation.
It is magic.
It is also community.
We have been doing this for over two years and community is forming.
I know that a number of the studio apartments in our new Downtown building will be taken by some of the participants at our book club. I also know that the intelligence of these very poor persons is informing our plans and the hearts of all who show up each month.
If you live in Dallas or if you are here on a book club day, join us. You won't be disappointed I can assure you.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
Matt Hopkins and his group at Viacom in New York City just won an Emmy!
Matt is the son of my best friend, Dan Hopkins.
For years Dan and I have been running around our neighborhoods and at our common meeting place these days, White Rock Lake. Over all those miles, a common topic of conversation across the years has been our children.
To say that Dan and all of us who know Matt are pretty proud would be the understatement of the century today!
Matt works in marketing for Viacom and he led the team that produced the Public Service Announcments on HIV/AIDS that won this prestigious award this year.
Matt blows the top off when it comes to talent and smarts. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in performing arts or theater--I'm not sure what the folks at BU label it.
Suffice it to say, Matt is a rare talent. He has produced several original plays off Broadway, his latest receiving rave reviews from the New York critics, as well as another important award, the name of which I cannot recall! I had the privilege of attending a play he produced and performed in a couple of years ago and it was amazing--funny and brilliant!
And now, the Emmy. . .
What an accomplishment!
What important, compassionate, relevant work!
Way to go, Matt!
Friday, November 03, 2006
Not long ago a friend sent me a link to an extremely interesting article by Ray Mayhew ("Embezzlement: The Corporate sin of Contemporary Christianity?"). I found Mayhew's ideas compelling. What follows are a few quotes for your consideration.
While reading some patristic documents recently, I was startled to discover that the Church Fathers are univocal in their insistence that the bulk of the revenue collected by a local church belonged by right to the poor. There was no expectation among them that a large percentage of what was collected by a local congregation would be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by them as a misappropriation of funds. . . .
. . .the assumption of most church leaders today is that we have the right to spend our revenue in ways that we believe would be most beneficial to the work for which we are responsible. Budgets are drawn up, employees paid, buildings built and maintained, and missionaries supported. This is the way things are done, and as long as there is an annual audit and no misappropriations of funds, all is well. But is it?
All of the above is built on two assumptions that are rarely, if ever questioned. The first is that revenue collected is "ours," belonging by right to the congregation that gave it and who now, therefore, has the right to spend it. The fact that some churches tithe their income and give away ten percent to other ministries only reflects how deeply we believe it is "ours" to use in the first place. The second assumption is that how this money is spent is a pragmatic decision that varies from congregation to congregation (and culture to culture), depending on the perceived needs and objectives of each local church. I believe that both of these assumptions need to be reexamined in light of scripture and church history. . . .
. . .The record is unambiguous, church revenue, prior to Constantine, was used, both locally and in other parts of the Empire, primarily for the welfare of the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. The local congregation did not expect a large percentage of what was given to be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by most of them as a misappropriation of funds.
In the second century, Tertullian provided us with details of the church services in North Africa. He spoke of every man bringing money. . ."You might call them the trust funds of piety. They are spent on the support and burial of the poor."
Justin Martyr provides us with similar insight from the second century practice of the Roman church. Speaking of the Sunday service he says, "the money thus collected is deposited with the president who takes care of the orphans and widows and those who are in straits because of sickness or any other cause and those in prison, and visitors form other parts. In short, he looks after all who are in need."
. . .Giving in this way was not seen as generosity, it was viewed as an act of restitution. It belonged to the poor by right. Augustine instructed his own church to set aside at least a tenth of all their possessions and income for the poor (not the church). This was actually a concession to what he saw as greed because his congregation was not prepared to give up everything that was "superfluous"!
. . .We should also not miss the obvious: when the Old Testament tithe was given, it was given away to others. It was given to the Levites, a tribe to which those doing the giving did not belong. In contrast, when I give to the church, it is not "given away" at all. I am the church! Revenue given to the church directly benefits me as a believer in providing pastoral care, Bible teaching, family counseling, facilities for my children and a building for me to worship in. In that sense, very little is given away. Most of the money I give to the church is spent by the church on meeting my needs and those of my family. For this I am very grateful. However, I am also suspicious as to whether I am a valid recipient of such expenditure.
. . .Today, if we are going to teach the tithe as a benchmark of faithful stewardship, we need to also teach how the early church used these trust funds in ministering to the needy.
. . .In the late fourth century, John Chrysostom echoed Matthew 25 in lamenting, "thou hast been bidden to give freely to the hungry. . .but thou dost not count him deserving even of a loaf; but thy dog is fed to fullness while Christ wastes with hunger."
. . .Cyprian maintained that prayer and fasting was of no avail unless accompanied by giving to the poor, while Origen ranked almsgiving third in importance behind baptism and martyrdom. However, their definition of almsgiving went far beyond giving their loose change to the hungry and homeless. It was defined as spending on oneself only that which was absolutely necessary and giving the remainder away. Nothing superfluous should be kept as long as others lacked the necessities of life.
. . .Ignatius characterized heretics as those who had "no care for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the hungry or the thirsty."
Lots to think about here for church people, huh?
Read the essay in its entirety at: http://www.relationaltithe.com/EmbezzlementPaper.PDF?PHPSESSID=a51c2cdedd075fbce8b57263389f9007.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Outsiders find it very easy to focus on "personal responsibility" as the cure-all for most social ills facing inner city communities in the urban centers of our nation.
But, you know what? It is just not that simple.
Recently, I attended the second annual meeting of the J. McDonald Williams Institute here in Dallas. Don Williams, former President and Chair of Trammell Crow Company and founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment (FCE), has done more than any other one person to help our city understand the reality facing individuals living in our poor, depressed, ghetto neighborhoods.
But, Don and FCE have intentionally gone well beyond a limited focus on individuals. That is because they understand the forces controlling urban reality.
FCE is doing in-depth research census tract by census tract in the neighborhoods of the entire Dallas community. The report issued at this year's annual meeting laid out a "wholeness index" delineated along a 12-factor statistical continuum that graphically displays the glaring disparities that exist in our community between the north and the south.
Pick you indicator--SAT scores, graduation rates, income levels, housing, crime, life span, access to retail shopping, voter turnout, wealth, school holding power, occupancy rates in rental properties--the environmental differences created by the disparities that exist between North Dallas and South Dallas is simply overwhelming.
You can find the full report at: http://www.thewilliamsinstitute.org/Portals/10/Wholeness%20Index%202006%20-%20Summary%20Report%20-%20Released.pdf. I urge you to read the full report.
We will never be able to even begin to address poverty, and all of the problems associated with it that adversely affect individuals, until we come to grips with the structural evil resident in our communities that insure its continuation.
It's just not primarily about individuals and their choices.
The environment created by dense, generational poverty severely limits possibilities for individuals. The systemic, structural realities facing poor neighborhoods present challenges that often turn out to be insurmountable for the individuals involved. To turn and blame the victims of this environmental reality for their failure to perform is not only shortsighted and uninformed, it is foolish if our goal is to see our communities renewed.
Malcolm Gladwell noted in his best-seller, The Tipping Point, that a child raised in a great family residing in a terrible neighborhood has a much smaller chance of success in life than does a child raised in a terrible family that resides in a good neighborhood.
If our goal is to move individuals out of poverty and into opportunity, it is simply not enough to focus on the individuals involved. We must learn to attack the disparities that exist across the neighborhoods and in large sections of a city like Dallas.
Don remarked at his conference that the Dallas story is actually "a tale of two cities." He had the hard, undeniable data to back up his analysis. Now we must go to work on establishing equity where it is obviously lacking.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
On Tuesday of last week, the World Affairs Council (WAC) escorted a delegation of guests from Azerbaijan (formerly a state inside the Soviet Union) to Central Dallas Ministries.
I am continually amazed by the opportunities we enjoy here to meet fascinating new friends, literally from around the world!
We enjoyed lunch and what turned out to be a three-hour conversation about poverty relief and the challenges of economic revitalization.
Azerbaijan has a population of approximately 8 million. Of these, 65% live in poverty. One million are refugees who have flooded into the nation because of the war with Armenia. With Iran on the south and Georgia and Russia to the north, Azerbaijan is an important gateway to the Middle East.
The group who visited with us numbered 12, including one translator and the host person from the WAC. All but one of the ten national leaders were Muslim. We enjoyed a lively conversation, to say the least.
As our time drew to a close, I felt myself regretting that my new friends would be leaving so soon. My experience with them impressed me in many ways. Here are just a few of my lingering impressions:
1) These were very gracious people of deep faith and amazing courage. They wanted to understand us and they wanted us to understand them and their challenges.
2) Their faith was extremely important to them, and it was very clear that they respected us for our faith as well. More than once they took pains to make clear that their understanding of religion was all about bringing people together and not tearing people and nations apart. It struck me that any effective conversation with this group or others like it would always need to include the faith dimension.
3) They wanted us to know that they did not believe in terror or terrorist attacks. "Nothing is ever settled by shedding blood," one remarked, as all nodded agreement. They expressed hopes that the United States would soon end the war in Iraq, a conflict that serves no positive purpose from their perspective. They also asked what our opinion was of nations that harbored terrorists or supported states that did.
4) They shared with us their desire to see life improved for all of their people. They shared with us that the U. S. denies them the aid their nation needs, while supplying assistance to Armenia, the nation that invaded their country and displaced a million refugees. At the same time, they expressed appreciation for America and its people. They consider themselves to be our allies.
5) They quoted the Quran frequently in regard to the poor and to their understanding of the responsibility they had to care for them with compassion. One of the best ways to express love for Allah is to serve those in need. They loved the fact that at CDM we find ways to involve low-income persons in leadership and program development.
6) They expressed the desire to begin an on-going, international conversation with us once they return home. Of course, we agreed. The Internet is wonderful!
7) They reported on their experience the night before when they attended a Dallas Stars hockey game. One gentleman told us that he yelled so hard for the Stars he had almost lost his voice! I loved the casual and natural way our conversation played out.
8) They asked us about Native Americans and where they might meet some of these first Americans. When I produced a number of Native American artifacts, they went wild! They took photos and talked about those who first lived in this place. I explained that I kept these items around so that we would never forget our national heritage of oppression, invasion and injustice. Humility is a good thing for individuals, communities and nations.
When they had gone, I sat in my office and reflected on the visit for quite awhile.
In spite of our remarkable diversity, we are all basically the same--we want the same things, long for the same freedoms, work on the same problems and seek the same peace.
Getting to know one another seems the key to progress, the doorway to hope and a better day. I look forward to keeping the conversation going with these wonderful people.