Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Fundamental Quiet

Poor people move in quiet ways that spotlights need, edgy hopelessness and resignation.

I've noticed it again and again.  The struggle to overcome the moment robs folks of voice, agency and hope.  Poverty poses an existential threat to those forced to battle it. 

Few choices emerge beyond daily struggle.  The struggle can seem crushing, sapping energy as well as voice from life after life. 

But poor folks walk on with rare exceptions in the quiet.  Loud voices represent a minority report.  Those determined to overcome, to persevere, save their energy by retreating into almost silent places.  The few boisterous voices signal at least the edges of mental illness and its extreme despair. 

Our large courtyard at the Opportunity Center serves as a laboratory for the study of quiet.  People sit and rest.  Or, they walk about without a sound.  Poverty produces voiceless life. 

Yet, I've noted  many times that when a person feels respected, the desire for conversation returns. Usually the words are found to tell a  personal story, as if even the appearance of appreciation unlocks a room for evaluating options and life once more. 

Still, the volume tends toward the lower settings, but voice can be rediscovered if others seek to hear and to learn out of basic respect for a fellow traveler. 

The silence can lead to deeper depression, unless someone comes seeking to hear the voices of others, extremely important voices. 

When respect interrupts the silence, hope returns. 

How do we take conversation to scale? 

Building spaces for cultivating respect inevitably leads to breaking the hard silence. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Magic of Coffee

Over the past 25 years, and over and over, I've told the story of our "shiny coffee pot" in the Haskell Avenue Food Pantry.  Here's how I told the story in my first book:

". . . I remember that, during my first week or so on the job, I made a trip to a local discount store where I purchased a large, industrial-sized coffee pot.  The next morning as was setting up the new coffee pot in the interview room, a long-time volunteer approached me.  She put her hand on my shoulder and asked me in a tone that mixed disgust with surprise, 'What are you doing, Larry?' I replied with great pride, 'Oh, I bought us a new coffee pot.  I love coffee and the conversation it can start!  New we can make coffee for our guests when they come into the food pantry.'  She looked at me with incredulity and said, ' You can't do that!  Don't you know that, if you serve coffee, these people will never leave?'" (The Wealth of the Poor:  How Valuing Every Neighbor Restores Hope in Our Cities, pages 54-55)

Needless to say, coffee has remained, from those early days, a staple at CitySquare.  We serve it every morning at the Opportunity Center to our friends, many of whom are homeless.  Our students brew it daily in the CitySquare Cafe on that same campus. 

Actually, coffee has taken on a life of its own at CitySquare.

Our culinary arts and hospitality students learn how to make coffee, some even opt for barista training!

Last year our good friends at Highland Park United Methodist Church invited us to open and facilitate a coffee shop in their beautiful building.   Our trainees and interns staff the food and coffee service every Sunday in two locations inside the church--the new Youth Center and more formal coffee shop setting that we've built out in Wesley Hall.  CitySquare reaps the income while learning how to provide food and coffee service on Sunday mornings.  And, the coffee shops always seem packed.  Every table debunks the myths of poverty with "fact cards" revealing the brutal truth about poverty in Dallas and beyond.

More recently, Southern Methodist University graduate students took charge of a Union Coffee popup truck during a market analysis of how a coffee shop might be received in the South Dallas neighborhood around the historic, iconic Forest Theater.  Students and community folks surrounded the truck on two consecutive mornings.  Talk about a winner!  Coffee and its prospects ignited real neighborhood excitement, and connection.

Several years ago a man told me and a group of United Way volunteers that the coffee pot in the Food Pantry "saved his life."  Homeless at the time, the man recalled coming to the food pantry daily for a morning cup of coffee and some friendly conversation.  'That kept me going every day,"  he said.  Today he is employed and doing well.

I tell you, you just can't escape the power of coffee!  Come by anytime.  The aroma feels magnetic!









Thursday, April 04, 2019

THE FORCE

There is a "force" out there in our Opportunity Center courtyard. And, I confess, it always draws me toward it.

Very, very poor people, most without a home, a pillow or a bed, populate this wonderful space most days. Every morning we roll out the sacred coffee pot and serve cups of red hot encouragement.

There can be no glamorizing the poverty resident in the lives of these precious people. Poverty never deserves such a narcissistic response.

It isn't the poverty that draws me.

What pulls me toward the people, one at a time and in their small groups, is the heroic courage lived out day after day as each wages a battle to move on and up and out. Poverty remains a hard go.
The experts fill our courtyard every morning. Want to know poverty? Come here and ask folks about it.

When the air is chilly, as it was this morning, the magnetism feels strongest.

So, as usual, I find that I cannot possibly go to my office before sharing a cup with some friends. Several conversations ensued, all pleasant and full of smiles, as well as curiosity about each other. Watching these friends, talking to them, hearing their stories forces tears into my eyes and down my cheeks. . .every time.

As I prepared to leave, I stepped into a serious, intense conversation among four or five men who invited me to join their conversation. The focus of their hilarious conversation: March Madness and the Final Four!

Next year, if things go right, I get these guys to help me fill out my bracket with one change: everybody has a permanent place to live. I'll bring breakfast, and I know "the force" will be present to draw me in.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

BELONGINGS

Possessions.

Properties.

Things.

Stuffs.

Effects.

Paraphernalia.

By about any name, people protect, accumulate, gather, pile, clutch, grasp, drop, trade, discard their "belongings."  

We all do it in our own ways, subject to the norms and necessities of status, class, opportunities and options.  

Rich people usually take great care to secure their stuff.  Most all of their effects rest in safe surroundings.   Banks, funds, accounts, cards, wallets and any number of other secure stations provide protection for my stuff, my belongings. With little thought of a concept like "privileged" or "entitled," the well off , like me, devise philosophies or ideologies to argue their right to protect what they have  worked so hard to earn.  

Belongings often define where it is that I belong.

Poor people often imitate the rich in their own ways.  Only difference is the secure places often end up being on their persons in all sorts of creative ways.  Like their better off brothers and sisters, the  poor don't mind displaying their good fortune from time to time.  They also turn out to be willing to share, even from their meager holdings, just like the wealthy often share freely when given the facts and some measure of security.  


Belongings often define where it is the poor belong.

Just this morning I observed a dozen very poor people displaying, bragging, sharing, withholding, enjoying, organizing, stacking, dropping their belongings.

Belongings, as  in "belongs to me."  I've got something that I'm trying to manage. . . even though its not much.  It is an important part of who I am.  Body language and attitude declares that this collection of my effects belongs to me.

Later in the day we hosted volunteers from Texas Instruments, people with much more in the way of material belongings.  They brought lots of stuff to share.  Belongings changed hands.  Lives connected.  Stories exchanged, people connected.

All of us have belongings.

All of us seek to belong.  

As different as we appear, we all remain the same, pursuing belonging and packing our belongings.  

While I get all of this, more and more often these days I catch myself wishing for more courage to surrender my stuff, my belongings for the sake of a total redefinition of where people actually find belonging.  

There has to be more.  

I suspect I'll find this "more" in belonging with my friends who know poverty like a well-worn blanket carried about from place to place in search of what I need to learn to give up.  






Monday, February 18, 2019

Larry James' Urban Daily: Life under a bedspread

Larry James' Urban Daily: Life under a bedspread: He barely looked up from under the king sized bedspread that covered and contained his life.  I approached him in our service center to ex...

Life under a bedspread

He barely looked up from under the king sized bedspread that covered and contained his life. 

I approached him in our service center to extend my hand in welcome and concern. 

He didn't move. 

He didn't want my hand. 

He was not angry. 

He was rightfully bewildered by my foolish question, "How are you doing?"

Seriously? 

"How are you doing?"  Any fool could see how he  was "doing." 

It took every bit of what little he had left to reply to my nonsensical inquiry, "Man, I'm doing the best I can." 

His answer yanked me back to my childhood.  His retort reminded me of my dad's words whenever I faced a challenge, "Son, just do your best."

At times, my father's open ended advice didn't help.  I mean, what was "my best?"  Kind of a moving target often and actually! 

But my best or my effort at my best proved satisfactory at the end of the day, often because of my dad's support and cheering from the sidelines.  My best was enough, many times more than enough with him. 

My exhausted friend hiding under the bedspread should have known my father.  His best would have been enough for my dad on that day, at that time. 

That evaluation should guide us in our response to him and thousands like  him.  Far too often it does not. 

Face-to-face with this man, I saw mostly sadness, deep sadness in the life of a man who had given up on life, even as he did his best. 


Monday, February 11, 2019

Hate in My Family


My great-grand father, Jackson “Jack” James, murdered an African American freedman in broad daylight in the center of Florence, Texas sometime between the end of the Civil War and 1893. 

My grandfather, John James, told me the story on Thanksgiving 1972 as I tape recorded a part of my family’s oral history. 

Jack James, a Confederate infantryman, believed that the ex-slave insulted his mother, my great-great-grandmother.  Apprehending the man, he marched him into the town and shot him, execution style.  My grandfather, John reported that his father characterized the target of his hatred as “a mean n_____.”

Jack James went to trial and was promptly acquitted by an all-white jury.  In those days Texas juries never convicted white men of crimes against black folks.  Sadly, such verdicts still remain very rare today.

Jack James died in 1893, just eight years after my grandfather was born. 

The Confederate memorial, now located in Dallas’ Pioneer Park, came to our city just three years after the elder James died. 

I’m in favor of the removal of the CSA memorial statues not only because of what they represent and present today, but also and mainly because of the atmosphere, the ambiance they honored, celebrated and perpetuated during the era of their creation--the horrid era of Jim Crow.

The intentions of preservationists might be noble in some cases today.  Those who erected the monuments just 30 years after the Civil War, and about the time of Jack James' crime, had no such noble motivation.  

No, this tribute to the South's Lost Cause sought to embed in our value system the hatred, bias and oppression that sustained slavery and the so-called “Southern Way of Life." 

My grandfather was a hero of mine.  

But he experienced the curse of racism, planted by his father in his soul, ensuring that it captured his entire worldview. 

Indeed, the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. Still, the cycle of hate and ignorance can be broken.  In any case,  these monuments to hatred and white supremacy in the era of Jim Crow serve no good purpose except to offer us all the opportunity to do what is right, faithful and true by everyone in our city. 


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

My Beautiful Day at the DMV!

 So, yesterday, I spent almost five hours waiting for a new driver's license at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Horrible, you say?

Not so fast!

After all, the State of Texas invited to return in person to renew my permit because I had lived so long since I last renewed on line!

Beats the obvious alternative, right?

But, I have to be honest.  The first 90 minutes in that space drove me crazy.  Waiting on a terribly uncomfortable chair as a recorded voice barked out numbers in the queue.  As the announced numbers droned on, I could calculate my wait time, and my reality was not pretty!

Then, something snapped for me.

The people.

The way beyond beauty of that crowded room slapped me in the face.

Old.

Young.

Grandparents and children.

Eager teens.

Working people.

Unemployed.

Professionals.

White.

Black.

Brown.

Every human hue.

Every ethnicity.

So many nationalities, I felt like I was in the middle of Pentecost!  That's right!  If you want to experience modern day Pentecost, go spend a day in the DMV!  You'll have it right there in your face!

I watched as community formed before my eyes as we shared our common plight.  People actually started talking to one another.  Sharing.  Encouraging.  Even, laughing!

People helped each other.  People began to identify with the place, and their presence and position in it.

I saw the hope of the nation displayed in the lives assembled at random in that room.

The USA's power is found in its diversity.  Who would choose uniformity over the richness of our national mixture?

Its hope discovered in how we take care of one another.

Our peace will be unearthed together, never apart.

I say go to the DMV.

You'll find your people waiting for you there!

And who knows. Pentecost might just break out!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Merry Christmas from my hometown!


Love this photo of Downtown Dallas, published in the latest issue of American Infrastructure Magazine, largely due to the fact that CitySquare's building at 511 N. Akard Street can be seen nestled in the middle of the scene just to the left of the Bank of America tower (orangeish/pinkish building!)

 Merry Christmas!!!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Gift

Yesterday, some Good Samaritan placed a $100 bill under my windshield wiper blade. The donor had packaged the treasure in a cellophane wrapper with a note about the gift of the Christ child.  Clearly, I had been blessed for  no good reason.  The implication seemed clear to me:  someone else needed to receive a similar blessing just because.  

As I thought about giving the gift away, or passing it along, my mind raced and I found the anticipation of giving the little treasure to someone who really needed it extremely satisfying. 

Arriving at CitySquare's Opportunity Center this morning, I observed a long line in queue to shop in our grocery store.  Our customers waited patiently to get in the building and out of the cold. 

Possibly my gift should go to one of these lovely persons. 

How would I decide?  There were so many people in need.  Who could know the correct choice?  As I stood almost paralyzed in my confused, elusive discernment, emotions flooded my heart.  Tears filled my eyes. 

Who could choose?

Everyone needed my gift.  The scale of the need just in our center outstripped the capacity of not only my meager offering, but our entire "blessing ecosystem." 

This many precious people, reduced to depending on charity to exist, infuriates me. 

It is so wrong. 

We can do so much better. . .if we decide we want to do better.  

And, oh yes, the $100 bill found its way into the grateful hands of a grandmother who came to "shop" for Christmas dinner. 

Thanks to the special angel who left the gift on my windshield.  It proved to be an eye-opening gift. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Gift from a Friend

Terry's my friend. 

For several years Terry "lived" in the Deep Ellum/Fair Park area. 

Homelessness forced him to the streets. 

Everyone knew him because of his deftness at card tricks and stand-up comedy routines--Terry can tell a mean joke! 

After a long haul, Terry landed an apartment in CitySquare's housing program. He's successfully maintained his housing for several months. 

Thanks to a special  program offered by AARP, Terry is set to join our team as an employee in the Food Pantry. 

As is typical with Terry, he dropped by on Monday to visit.  I was swamped, but finally we got to sit and talk. 

He presented me with a Christmas gift:  the Snoopy socks pictured here.  I wore them proudly today! 

Terry is my friend. 

I am fortunate to know him. 

Merry Christmas! 

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Lines, Hated Lines

Long lines infuriate me.  Especially when formed by men and women who've spent the night in "the rough" under a freeway bridge or behind some business. 

The fact that fellow human beings live without a home in one of the richest places on earth not only makes me angry, it embarrasses me.

Then, when I walk up on such a line at my place of business, you can add paralysis to my anger and embarrassment. 

Really, what am I to do? 

No way to walk past a line of human misery like this without a word. 

But what word? 

This morning I chose apology mixed with challenge as I shook hands with the two dozen very cold people who stood in line awaiting the opening of our housing center.

I touched each person in some way or another--physically. 

But that could not be the end of it.  I found myself urging them to "stay in CitySquare's  face," "get up in our grill" and demand housing placement. 

Self-incrimination seemed what the doctor ordered in view of this prevailing equation:  X minus 2X equals -X when X is housing units available and 2X  is people needing housing units. 

We brought in hot coffee service this morning. 

Charity gets us nowhere.  But it did cut against the cold this morning. 

And, being charitable of spirit may get us riled up enough to fight the injustice of that damned line in our space. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Respect

Not sure why I'm always surprised.  Maybe "reminded" is the better word.

But every time I have the opportunity to interact with my extremely "poor" neighbors I come away realizing that what is needed most in our relationships is respect--respect that bumps hard up against the kindness of genuine friendship.

It happened again just yesterday.

The United Way of Metropolitan Dallas showed up with maybe a hundred volunteers to serve a "North Texas Giving Day" dinner.  The music blared.  Folks were dancing!  The event chased hunger away for a few hours, as men, women and little ones filled up on a hot meal at the end of a chilly day.  It looked like over 200 passed through the service line.

I decided to walk the line and simply welcome as many individuals as possible.  By the time I had greeted 10 guests, it hit me again:  people need respect, people need to be seen and acknowledged, people need to be the single focus of attention routinely.

As I shook hands, making my way down the line, smiles lit up.  People re-positioned themselves so as not to miss my greeting and handshake.  It was all very natural.  Just an expression to guests that I was glad they came by and their various expressions of gratitude and a bit of surprise that anyone would care or should be grateful for their presence.

Many asked about our housing programs.  [Get ready Bldg. 100--folks will be showing up today to get their names on the priority list!]

But mainly, we all enjoyed a few moments face-to-face with one another.

Respect carried the day.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Tomorrow

Democratic societies and governments depend upon elections for their sustainability.  We all recognize this fundamental truth.  This explains the excitement, turmoil, debate, passion and release of energy so obvious during election season.

But Tuesdays have a way of turning into Wednesdays.

Tomorrow remains extremely important at CitySquare.

Tomorrow. . . no matter what. . .

. . .we will treat and care for the ill.
. . .we will work with families to provide nutritious food for otherwise sparse dinner tables.
. . .we will speak up with clear voices in Dallas County Courts on behalf of women and children.
. . .we will provide classroom training for men and women aspiring to better jobs and income.
. . .we will help someone get a new state ID or drivers license.
. . .we will assist students we train with placement into good, living wage jobs.
. .  .we will "coach" our neighbors/students in wealth management strategies.
. . .we will offer respite and protection to young people with no one to whom to turn.
. . .we will house hundreds of formerly homeless neighbors in permanent housing with friendship.
. . .we will house hundreds of low-income working families in high quality dwellings.
. . .we will house almost 200 senior citizens in affordable, high quality homes.
. . .we will offer support services allowing neighbors to map out a pathway for better lives.
. . .we will deploy AmeriCorps members across the city for deep, enriching, effective service.
. . .we will cry with and comfort the grief-stricken.
. . .we will support our partners with gladness.
. . .we will craft big plans, driven by expansive visions for future tomorrows.
. . .we will pray.
. . .we will work.
. . .we will advocate against the forces that keep people poor.
. . .we will witness to our faith.
. . .we will celebrate the wealth of the poor.
. . .and then, we will resolve to show up again tomorrow.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

The Children, oh, the Children!


Last night we were “invaded” by hundreds of “birthright” children. . .almost all accompanied by beaming parents.  You know, the kind of parents who translate uncontainable pride into pragmatic responsibility for the safety of each of their children. 

As the stream of little ones, and occasionally the not so little, bounded up my sidewalk and onto my porch, questions raced, in a thought stream of my own, across my mind.  Who are these people, parents and kiddos?  How did they get to my house?  How do they fit into my world? 

The answers aren’t so hard to ascertain. Virtually all of the little ones, having been born in the United States, belong to this nation as citizens.  The same is true for many of the parents I engaged at my front door.  Of course, many are not citizens. . . yet.  

The children fill our public schools, adding a rich, unsurprising, qualitative diversity to classrooms across the city.  The ancestry of many dates back to colonial days and beyond.  They represent the hope and the future of our nation.  More and more, these children add the priority of academics to a deeply engrained expectation of and appreciation for hard work. 

But, what about the parents?  Who are these people?

·         They are the laborers who build our highways and bridges.
·         They work construction projects that result in the changing skyline of our city.
·         They clean our homes and businesses and hotels. 
·         They maintain our properties.
·         They prepare and serve our meals.
·         They teach and care for our children.
       They work in our hospitals and provide love and care when we are ill.
·         They conceive breakthrough products and processes.
·         They park our cars.
·         They apply their craftsmanship to our homes and buildings.
·         They remodel houses, maintain plumbing, make bricklaying look fun!
·         They love music.
·         They are community organizers and political leaders.
·         They care for one another.
·         They love their families.
·         
In short, they are just people like the rest of us.  

And like the vast, vast bulk of the rest of us, they are not rapists, thieves, drug dealers, violent murderers or gang members.  

The majority of those I saw last evening likely are citizens.  Those who aren’t seek only a better life for themselves and their children.  Kinda like me and my children and grandchildren.

So, I’m thinking, why would anyone want to get rid of these wonderful people?  Especially since our nation is aging, and it’s population is not growing outside the immigrant community. 

No, for me I’m feeling appreciation, gratitude and great hope as I think about who paid me a visit last evening on Halloween.  Frankly, I’m pretty sold on the so-called “browning of America!”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Jesus said, "Welcome, my beloved! Enter what God has prepared for you--

for I was a black man and you automatically welcomed me without hesitation or thought;

for I was a child living with the toxic stress of my extremely poor neighborhood and you intervened with just economic renewal efforts;

for I was a student in an impoverished public school and you insisted that my school was fully funded and filled with hope and genuine opportunity;

for I was a child without parents and you gave me your love and a home;

for I was homosexual and you accepted me as a true friend;

for I was an immigrant seeking what all immigrants seek in coming to the USA--better life, asylum, peace, and you took me in and welcomed me with joy and fairness;

for I was homeless and you housed me and got to know me as a friend;

for I was woefully under-skilled and you helped me learn new skills;

for I was sick, uninsured, isolated and dying and you brought me to a doctor, and worked to create a "medical home" with adequate coverage;

for I was your employee and you paid me a living wage in return for my work;

for I was mentally ill and you insisted that I be welcomed and cared for;

for I was in prison and you visited me, advocated for me and helped me with work and a home when I was paroled;

for I was a single mother and you helped me find child care and transportation and healthy groceries;

for I was confused, afraid, and depressed and you became a real friend;

for I was far from home and you reminded me of goodness left behind and bought me a ticket to go back.

[Matthew 25 adapted]

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Divide

For almost 40 years I've witnessed the expanding, deepening equity divide in this nation.  Much like a canyon dividing people on either side, this gaping crevice separates people and communities from one another. 

Life on either side presents drastic differences for the people involved.  Whats-more, the divide keeps us from knowing one another.  Consider for a moment the fundamental institutions that exist wherever people are free and working on the realization of better lives for themselves and their families.

  • Education
  • Employment/Career/Earnings
  • Housing
  • Health Care
  • Nutrition 
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Public Safety
  • Civic Live/Culure
  • Entertainment
  • Spiritual Life
  • Family
In every case how people experience these basic, necessary institutions for productive life turns out to be quite different, depending on which side of the equity divide you occupy.  

Every day I see "the poor" just trying their best to make it through to something better.  Surprisingly, there is real joy to behold where I move about.  

But, a deep, deep sadness and recognition lives here as well. 

Over the years, steady sadness creases faces.  

It dims eyes.  

Such sadness presses people into the resignation of humility, but a humble spirit overdone.   

I know about the equity canyon.  It is very real.  

I see it every day.  

Friday, January 12, 2018

Time for Revival!

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II will be speaking in Dallas Monday evening at 7:00 p.m. at Moody Performance Hall, thanks to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.


 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

His tear broke my heart


I try really hard to avoid stepping into any ongoing, in-progress, encounter between a CitySquare staff member and a neighbor. 

Occasionally, I fail.  At times I fail miserably by injecting myself where I shouldn't.

Yesterday, I ended up in the between position completely unintentionally. As I approached my JEEP to leave the Opportunity Center with a partner from Paris, Texas, I found myself in the middle of a dispute.  One of our most competent team members had dealt with a gentleman who brings with him a reputation for anger and temper flairs. 

By the time I got into the mix and realized where I stood, the man seemed calm.  He even told me he understood our basic inability to solve every problem or to respond to every request. 

We have limits.

"I understand what they are saying," he told me.  "I just need to wash my clothes."

What happened next felt like a blow to the head.

As we talked, he repeated, "I just need soap to wash my clothes."

As he spoke, a over-sized tear rolled down his cheek.  Both of us were silenced by that tear. 

We found detergent, but I'll never forget this man's tear, one more reminder of how fundamental my lack of understanding remains after all these years.


Monday, September 18, 2017

2017 Hunger Summit: Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions

When Evening Arrives and There Is No Bread
Matthew 14:15-21
Dallas Hunger Summit     September 15, 2017
Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions 

Introduction:
·        It is an honor to stand with you today
·        Knowing your work, your tenacity, your commitment and your faith, I am truly humbled to be with you
·        You guys happen to be my heroes! 
____________________________

·        I also know that none of you are satisfied with where we are today
·        When we get together, we typically hear the dismal, disheartening, depressing numbers—I’m sure we’ll hear them again today
·        I trust and hope that the numbers will bring challenge and renewed determination.
·        But, we’ve got issues, don’t we?
--runaway obesity
--malnutrition
--toxic stress related to food insecurity
--life in food deserts all across this great, wealthy city
--hunger
_____________________________________

What are we going to do?  

Forgive me, but I’m going to tell a “Jesus story”!

Not a church story. . .

Not a proselytizing story. . .

But a story of mystery, power and fulfillment!

Is that Okay? 
_____________________________________

Here it is:

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Now what might we observe here?

1.      At the end of the day hungry people too often find themselves in a desert without food!

2.     At the end of the day hungry people too often are dismissed by their leaders. . .those with resources and authority who now claim they have no remedy for hunger in the desert!

3.     At the end of the day hungry people, including children, find it normal to be “on their own” to find food to satisfy their hunger—not only “send them away,” but also let them buy food for themselves in the surrounding villages.

4.     At the end of the day, those with power face the hunger issue with a well-developed “scarcity mindset”—look how little we have here, 5 loaves and two fish! 

But in the story, Jesus represents something so amazing:  intervention, innovation, insistence, direct action

1.      You are responsible! 
--Bring what you have!
--Here is where I get lost, frankly—but the mystery of the miracle answers our need perfectly—I’m lost, but I feel right at home!  I’ve been lost for 40 years when it comes to hunger and affluent America!
--We’re in a desert with not enough resources
--We’re underfunded for the challenge
--We’re ineffective much of the time

2.      I notice that Jesus gets them organized—he has them sit on the ground in groups—Mark’s version has them in groups of 100s and 50s:  I wonder how much community organizing might have been going on here?  Something about folk getting’ together over food!

3.     At the end of the day, there was more than enough thanks to faith and action—I expect a lesson for Jesus’ followers!
___________________________________________

For me, this story forces and inspires a new conversation about the challenge of hunger in our community and our nation:
·        We need new strategies
·        We need empowering impatience
·        We need to ask hard questions

For example:

► Why can’t we develop plans for strategically located, full-service grocery stores in our food deserts that includes whatever subsidy is necessary to attract and retain these merchants? 

► Today we can calculate the economic impact of notorious food on community health.  Why not take some public health $$$ and apply to the preventative work of the availability of good grocery stores? 

► Why can’t we mobilize and deploy all of our SNAP benefits in Texas and in Dallas?  Full mobilization of food benefits would help fund grocery markets in the places where most needed. 

► Why not reward community gardeners with supply grants and other field to market cost supports to ensure these endeavors survive and thrive? 

► Why can food centers and neighborhood pantries better coordinate their work to increase impact? Why can’t we replace competition with cooperation? 

Conclusion:
1.     I’ve been watching, knowing, hearing hungry and poor folks for over 4 decades—I’ve got so many memories:
--Mr. Adrian in New Orleans
--The precious folks who line up outside our food center daily. . .waiting so patiently for our groceries
--Almost 25 years ago in East Dallas, the little boy and his younger brother with the single banana
--The kids we see after school and all summer long

2.     Your work is hard. 

Please don’t give up—you are in good company!


Embrace the challenge—you’ll likely find and encounter the mystery.  

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

We don't often think deeply or clearly enough about the language, the routine practices and the institutions supporting the continuation of "white supremacy" as a world view.

This chart challenged me.

How about you?

Monday, August 07, 2017

Criticism

[What follows is a chapter from my new book set for publication in 2018, House Rules:  Considerations for Leaders.  Recent criticism prompts this post.  I really do love my critics, especially the honest ones.]

“I like criticism. It makes you strong.” LeBron James 

“Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld 

"You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.” 
 John Wooden 

“The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without out resentment.” 
Elbert Hubbard 

“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with 
the bricks that others throw at him.” 
David Brinkley

_____________________________________________

Chapter 12 

 Pay Attention to Critics 

Criticism.

Few of us like to hear it directed at us. In fact, most of us don’t even enjoy it when leveled against another person, do we?

I know that I don’t like it at all. It is somewhat amusing to consider the lengths to which I often go to sidestep criticism. I find all sorts of creative ways to justify my actions in the face of the critic.

You know what I mean:

“Well, that’s not what I really intended!”

“You’ve got to understand me here. I had no choice but to defend myself.”

“The fact is no one really understands me. If they did, they wouldn’t criticize me for this.”

“If you were in my shoes, you’d react just like me!”

“No way was I going to let him get away with that sort of thing!”

“If you knew all the facts, you wouldn’t be so quick to criticize me.”

“I saw the red light. You started yelling at me a hundred yards away from it!”

“I intended to pick up the office, but I just go too busy. Give me a break, already!”

“I did the best I could. Obviously, that’s not good enough for you!”

“No one cares if I go ahead without asking. Why would they?”

My lists of reactions can go on and on! I become a master excuse-maker when faced with even an honest critic.

Sadly, at times, it doesn’t stop with my rationalizing to critics or to innocent by-standers. What comes next is even uglier. I begin a conversation with myself! I actually carry on an argument internally, a debate within my own mind and heart! Somehow it’s just important for me to establish to myself that I am not deserving of the criticism that I’ve received.

Often this internal argument gives way to external arguments with both my critics and my allies. How easy to divide people up into groups along the fault line of an honest, but negative piece of feedback!

So, note the progression.

Criticism heard and “received,” sort of.

Excuse making and the initial explanation and rationalization.

Fuming.

More detailed and articulate (sometimes, at least!) rationale explained.

Gathering allies to hear and bolster my case.

Development of a more comprehensive list as to why and how I am right and my critic or critics are wrong.

Shameless attempts to explain away a mistake or a failure or a weakness. Blood pressure may rise at some point along this continuum. Or, I may “stuff” all of the emotions generated by my critic so that it emerges sort of sideways at some strategic point in the future—immediate or distant, depending on my memory.

Depending on where and why this escalation of defensiveness occurs, other people may be brought into the fray. At the extreme, I create a situation where I and others expend and waste a lot of energy that could be directed toward mission and purpose, all because I don’t want to honestly accept and evaluate a word of criticism from someone near me.

If this repeats itself as my normal response to criticism, I can expect really sub-par results no matter what I tackle.

Every effort worth your time and energy likely will spawn some negative reactions, evaluations and appraisals. It’s just a fact that of work and of life I’ve had to face. The truth is, any honest critic who is moved by a desire to see things improve is worthy of my attention. The honest critic should be regarded as a very important and necessary alley. Critics who care about what you care about will tell you the truth almost all of the time, and they should be given an honest, open hearing.

We all need the honest critic. And, I must learn to respect, appreciate and listen to the voices and opinions of such people. Critics, rather than enemies, should be considered highly regarded assets. 

Any critic just “out to get you,” your project or your team should be treated with respect, given a hearing and then dismissed. That assignment is actually very manageable after a while.

Not long ago, I ran into a vociferous critic who attacked my organization, my personal philosophy concerning a central portion of our work product and my basic motivation for championing a particular approach to a difficult, but not impossible social challenge.

I reached out to him, attempting to establish meaningful conversation about the issue, as well as our differences. He seemed very open to a meeting, which I arranged. We met at his place of business, a very interesting place. We had a long and spirited discussion. I took him a book that I had found very instructive in regard to our point of contention. We talked for about an hour. I left feeling that we made progress and that, even though we still disagreed on several things, we could work together.

I was wrong. At the next large, public gathering of our work group he stepped up his attack on our solution to the vexing problem we met to address. At that point, I simply checked him off of my “helpful to engage” list.

No disrespect.

No elevated blood pressure.

No arguments or attempts to defend, justify or persuade.

He had staked out a clear position. I knew what I believed and I knew what worked in my hometown and across the nation. No reason for further argument with his gentleman.

I was kind.

I was honest.

I tried.

I respected him. I heard his critique.

I evaluated it.

I rejected it.

There are just times when that is the best option.

Notice, I did not reject the messenger. I rejected the message.

If that same person raises another criticism about another subject unrelated to our first engagement, I feel it is important that I hear him out again. I have found that I take care of myself by going the extra mile and by not prejudging or stereotyping based on past experiences. Besides that, I’m looking for the truth about what works, what is effective and what will make us all successful. Once a rejected critic does not mean always a rejected critic!

Don’t hear me saying that this will be automatic or easy. Responding with respect to those who challenge you, especially publicly, is not an easy assignment. But, taking the high road in search of objectivity is always the good road, even when you discover your critic was correct.

Honest, openness to other points of view endears me to observers.

In my former life I served as a pastor in four congregations over a span of almost twenty-five years. Along the way, I attracted a nice group of critics. Nothing all that bad, but just the normal experiences with those who found me lacking in one area or another, and believe me there was a lot lacking to point out!

Most of the critics were kind. Many wanted to help me out, and they did. Anyone who stands up every week and has to say something, no matter if they have anything to say or not, is a set up for critics! I’ve made so many awful gaffs while preaching. Most are really funny. Some mistakes had to be ironed out the following Sunday morning after a week of stewing on my own stupidity.

After a while, I came to realize that most folks who point out the mistakes are really good friends who want to see you grow and do better. The critics with the more substantive issues, they are the ones who cause the heart burn and headache. These are the good people, almost all honest, who simply believe that you are wrong, possibly heretical and maybe just evil. These folks are much harder to manage because their concerns often come down to a win/lose struggle, with the loser going away.

I had such a critic at my last church where I served for over 14 years. He determined that my view of the Bible was anything but Evangelical. He regarded me as neo-orthodox, and possibly downright liberal. He picked that up from my preaching, from the sources I read and studied and from my community agenda in the church. So incensed was he that finally, he wrote a personal letter to every member of the church in which he called me out for heresy, literally. He had not given me any advance notice, nor had he shared his letter with me before it showed up in my mailbox at about the same time it arrived at the home of every other member of our church.

I can remember vividly crafting a letter of response to everyone in my church. The uproar necessitated the response. I remember speaking to his charges while doing my best to respect him as my critic.

I confess: the situation was very hard.

I was supported by the church’s leadership board. The critic and his family left the church, as did several others. It was a painful time.

Ironically, it was a time of growth as well, both personally and as a church. My critic was honest and good. He did what he felt he had to do. Somehow, I came to that conclusion rather quickly. I realized that the criticism, though its delivery rather dramatic and a real blindside, made me stronger and our group closer and more effective.

And, all these years later, I’ll tell you what I told those who stayed with us, in part my critic was exactly right. I am not an Evangelical in my approach to the Bible. Things just aren’t that simple. And, I’m more of a Liberal than even he or I discerned at the time. By embracing the truth about myself as defined by a harsh critic, I experienced personal growth and genuine inner peace. I know I found it easier to pray! And, the struggle made me stronger in faith and in perseverance.

There are situations and circumstances guaranteeing criticism will arise.

At one point in our housing development for homeless persons, we attempted to gain control of an old hotel property at the corner of Akard Street and I-30 on the south side of Downtown Dallas. I recall attending a number of meetings with the local neighborhood association to discuss the project. 

We hosted a design charrette. We briefed everyone on numerous occasions. We answered questions again and again. Finally, the neighbors banned together and threw us, the mayor at the time and the council member form the district out on our ear, almost literally.

Nothing personal you understand. Just not in our back yard! Not here, not now, not ever!

This one made me fighting mad, until I calmed down and realized that people often want different things. In this case our critics were property owners. They had the support of elected officials, whom they elected and re-elected. We were beat before we even showed up. And, it wasn’t our fault. We arrived well prepared, but preparation made it worse because it seemed that we might prevail. We had done our homework.

At the end we were defeated by an organized group of democracy-exploiters. The well-presented self-interests of the property owners prevailed over the pressing needs of the voiceless homeless.

We had to gather up our maps, our renderings and our big plans and hightail it back to where we came from!

What a valuable lesson.

 Critics can be fact tellers.

They warned us. We didn’t listen carefully enough. There may have been a way to win them over, but I really don’t think so. Our critics won. Game over. Respect maintained. We’ll do battle elsewhere another day.

Ironically, years later our housing company (CitySquare Housing) entered a partnership with a for-profit developer, helped capture the same old hotel property and redeveloped it as a convention hotel with a mid-range nightly price point. This time our plan worked, and we got paid for it. We put the funds earned back into our community development corporation to be used in building more affordable housing in Dallas. So, our critics didn’t stop us. They just diverted us toward a new, practical approach around a real opportunity.

Guess who some of our loudest cheerleaders for the project are today?

You guessed it, the same group that opposed our original plan.

It just works this way if you take the long view on the high road, while working hard to respect your critics, no matter what.

One final note.

Determine to be a positive, constructive critic yourself.

People who are determined to get things done will take seriously the challenge of growing into the kind of critic that others appreciate and seek out. Some of your best work likely will involve you in assisting allies and new friends by offering an honest, concerned word of critique in a manner in which it can be received more easily by those to whom you offer it.