Thursday, June 30, 2005

Live 8: The Long Walk to Justice

This Saturday, July 2, 2005, Live 8: The Long Walk to Justice, a massive, worldwide event, will blast out music from the world's top performers. The purpose of Live 8 is to draw attention to the problems associated with poverty in Africa in advance of the G8 Summit in Scotland from July 6-8.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to make a push for more aid dollars for Africa at the economic summit.

Concerts will draw masses in Berlin, Johannesburg, London, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome, Tokyo and near Toronto, with Moscow being a ninth possibility.

Irish rock star Bob Geldof agreed to coordinate the gigantic event. According to an AOL report, "Geldof pulled off a show business sensation 20 years ago, when the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia raised more than $100 million to help fight famine in Ethiopia and an estimated 1.5 billion viewers tuned into watch."

What I found interesting and most encouraging was the fact that Geldof would not agree to be involved in the proposed event until he was convinced that it would have substantive affect on the targeted problems.

Richard Curtis, a film writer and producer who has worked with Geldof on similar events in the past, noted about Geldof, "He always said he wouldn't do it until he believed there was a moment when it could make political change and not just charity. . . .

"There are only weeks to go until these men meet and. . .that's the last G8 for another year. The next one is in Russia where poverty may not be the key issue."

Curtis reported that Live 8 organizers were looking for the fair trade issue to appear on the G8 communique and for a doubling of aid from rich nations.

"What we're trying to do is provide a moment in history."

That is definitely what is needed--a moment in history.

The spirit of Geldof and Curtis reminded me of the words of Rev. William Sloane Coffin from a sermon delivered in Washington, DC in 2002:

"Had I but one wish today for the Christian churches of America, I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice.

"Charity is a matter of personal attributes, justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice, justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it.

"Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.

"Especially I would hope that Christians would see that the compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to act charitably--that same compassion prompted Biblical prophets to confront injustice, to speak truth to power, as did Jesus, who, though more than a prophet, was certainly nothing less.

"Most recently, religious leaders like Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King have seen once again that compassion frequently demands confrontation."

Geldof and Coffin are on point.

Enjoy the music if you have the chance on Saturday.

Visit the Live 8 website at to learn what you can do to be involved.

While you are at, it follow the links to The One Campaign here in the U. S.

Sign the online letter to President Bush asking for his support at the upcoming G8 meeting for an unprecedented debt-aid-trade deal for the people in the poorest countries of our world--mainly in Africa.

Even more important, begin to seriously consider the place of justice in your faith and values system. And, when given the opportunity, insist that others do the same.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I Am A Man!

Recently, while preparing a presentation to share with participants in a summer work camp focused on housing repair in inner city Memphis, Tennessee, my friend and partner, Charles Senteio (check out the link to his blog at right) sent me a copy of Robert Worsham's moving poem, "I Am A Man."

You may recall that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used this poem during his last public action among striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Dr. King's fateful trip to Memphis in April 1968 ended his life, but not his dream.

As I read over the poem again, I can feel the power and the spirit of a movement for justice in our shrinking world's troubled economy.

Don't look at me with disdain,
For I am not a weakling, I am a man.
I stood when to stand
Brought severe reprimand,
I spoke, when to speak
Brought denunciation from the weak,
And brutal attacks from those in power,
But to me this was my greatest hour,
With chin thrust out and head up proud,
I stood up straight and I said out loud,
I am a man!
And I shall always defy
The oppression of mankind
until the day I die.

The photo above was taken during the sanitation workers' strike.

Dr. King stood with his brothers to affirm them in their claim of this more than obvious human reality. Dr. King's involvement also made clear his commitment to work for economic justice in addition to racial equality. For Dr. King both were central to his faith.

When it comes to employment and the day-to-day and year-to-year issues facing laboring people, it seems that the church today has little or nothing to say.

If anything, there appears to be a growing movement among AmericanChristianss in support of public policies which actually widen the economic gap between rich and poor in the nation. Executive pay continues to rise while laboring people slide farther and farther behind. Federal tax policy disproportionately benefits the wealthy at the expense of low-income working people.

Shame on us as people of faith and on our leaders and spokespersons.

Working people deserve fair wages. Working families should be rewarded for their labor.

Included in the rewards that hard working people have a right to expect should be adequate, affordable housing; good health care options; high-quality educational opportunities for themselves and their children and, most of all, respect and voice.

Most of the people we engage here at Central Dallas Ministries work and work hard.Their work just doesn't pay off like it should.

My faith tells me that fairness and justice in matters of labor, production and profit are value issues plain and simple.

I believe Dr. King would have agreed.

That's why he went to Memphis.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Public Education and Poverty

Interested in seeing public schools improve?

Then join the battle today against poverty and its deepening impact on the nation.

Chris and Sarah Lubienski, University of Illinois professors, report in a new study that the money spent to send children to private schools does not insure that students receive a better education than students who study in public classrooms.

The Lubienskis analyzed the math scores of tens of thousands of students who took part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When these scores are reported each year, students from private schools always produce higher scores overall than students in public schools.

But the Lubienskis wondered why.

Were the private school scores higher because the instruction was better, thus justifying the tuition payments? Or were the scores higher for some other reason?

In their research the couple created a grid to control for class and economic status of students and their families. They dug deeper into the family life of the students who took the test. The asked a series of questions to help in determining just who these students were.

How many qualified for free school lunches? How many lived in a household with access to a computer? How many had parents who dropped out of high school or completed college?

With controls in place for socio-economic status, the project compared public and private test scores.

The result?

Public schools out performed private schools nationally. Further, the public school students reported scores higher than private school students at all class or economic levels.

One conclusion seems obvious, as Joshua Benton of The Dallas Morning News puts it, "The reason private schools look better on paper is because they serve more middle- and upper-class kids" ("Can cash buy good schools?" Monday, June 27, pages 1 & 6B).

The bottom line is clear here. The most important indicator for educational success in this country is socio-economic status.

The Lubienski's findings square with the facts. Private schools typically don't have all of the institutional resources of public schools. They do have one thing public schools generally don't have: a more affluent student body.

So, the next time you hear someone touting the superiority of private education from an educational standpoint or when you hear someone comparing the public school district of a more affluent suburban area to a poor urban area, remember what is underneath such comparisons.

Want to see public education improve?

Get involved in the battle against poverty.

Remember as you begin that adult illiteracy, inadequate housing, underemployment/poor wages, inaccessible health care, drug addiction and a lack of community economic development are all extremely important issues for the improvement of public education.

Monday, June 27, 2005 it out!

Working people, I mean people who go to work every day and earn an hourly wage, aren't doing too well in America today.

Our major focus here in inner city Dallas connects us with hard working people who don't earn enough to make life work for themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, their number is growing and, if our numbers are any indication, growing rapidly. Over the past four plus years we have seen the need grow in a sadly amazing manner.

When a friend sent me information about, I discovered interesting ideas and actions! is aligned with the Service Employees International Union, a collective of 1.8 million families who form a large chunk of the service sector in this country. Nurses, custodians, librarians, child care workers, restaurant employees and many other laborers make up the growing membership.

As you might expect, works hard on issues relating to economic justice, labor and fair wages. Important issues among my friends here in Dallas.

Check it out. You will be challenged, even if you don't agree with everything!

Labor and justice--issues of the spirit, matters of faith to me. Let me know what you think.

Meditation from the New Testament--the words of the brother of Jesus: James 5:1-6

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Celebrating An Opportunity In Inner City Dallas

This is not a venue for commercials, but I cannot resist sharing the good news with people who care!

Recently, Central Dallas Ministries reached an agreement with the Dallas Housing Authority that contracts us to manage the new community center located in the midst of the Roseland Homes Public Housing Development here in inner city East Dallas.

For years we have dreamed of building just such a center to better engage and partner with the surrounding community.

Now one of our best public partners has built the center and invited us to manage it and the programming that will be offered to the neighborhood.

What an amazing development and opportunity!

We have been working at Roseland Homes since 1996 when we opened our second summer-long day camp for the children who live there.

Since 1996, the CDM presence has steadily grown inside the Roseland Homes community.

We operate an emergency service center for families in crisis on site.

We operated a medical clinic from 1996 until the HOPE VI rehabilitation project moved us out. We plan to re-open the clinic in a new space next year.

Our Cyber Spot technology center is a Neighborhood Network project funded in part by HUD dollars.

Recently, CDM purchased the Washington Street Mission just across the street from Roseland Homes. The Central Dallas Church meets there.

Before the end of the summer our community development corporation will break ground on a 237-unit housing development that will include approximately 45,000 square feet of retail space--a real housing and economic development effort that has CDM in a partnership with the Dallas Housing Authority.

Currently, we have a team working on a community organizing project whose aim is to develop social capital and neighborhood connections as a means of improving community health outcomes while attacking the disparities that we know all too well.

But, back to the community life center.

Take a moment and look at our website to see the details of this opportunity:

We are excited!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

More on churches and "helping the poor"

Years ago my friend, Landon Saunders, told the story of how he and a church leader made a visit to a family in the community where he served as minister.

For whatever reason this particular family had asked the church to help them in a time of financial need.

I can't remember if they needed help with rent, utilities, food or what. I do remember Landon's account of the church leader's agonizing over whether or not the family in question was "worthy" or deserving of the church's assistance.

During the ride out to make the visit, the leader continued to struggle and at times argue with Landon about using church funds to help relieve the family's burden.

Finally, after much talk and no little tension, Landon told his church friend, "You know, brother, if the good Lord feeds and cares for four billion undeserving people every day, it looks like the church could help out every once in a while!"

With that the conversation ended and the family was assisted.

Making judgments about other people is tricky business, isn't it?

The sad fact is that millions of people, including children, go to bed hungry, homeless, ill and in danger every night around our world. Categories like "deserving" or "undeserving" make no sense in situations of severe human need and suffering. This is all the more true when suffering and need are the result of injustice, oppression and the bad decisions of people with power.

Friday, June 24, 2005

"Give to everyone who begs from you. . .," but only after a reference check!

Let me apologize upfront for my attitude and hard to suppress anger on this one.

Recently, I received a high quality mailing from a national, church-based organization offering me their unique services. The really slick, multi-colored brochure promised a lot.

"Taking The Guess Work Out Of Your Benevolent Program. . ." the tag line read.

"How Do You Know That The Individual Seeking Assistance Really Needs It?" the inside heading asked me.

The promotional/sales piece provided the answer:

"That's the question that faces every church as they administer a benevolent program. Times truly have changed from when you could trust everyone that asked for help. Sad but true, it is common place for individuals to use the church. Many times they will travel from church to church receiving multiple help for a single need.

"How can you know where they have been and how much they have already received? Is it a real need, or are they simply living off benevolent organizations. Well, now there is a way that you can be sure."

The information goes on to unveil the web-based screening product that allows a church "benevolent program" 24/7 access to the records of other member organizations. The goal is to eliminate funding "professional beggars," while becoming "a better steward of God's money."

I hardly know how to respond.

This new "technology" tells me that the people behind many church "benevolent programs" don't understand much about poverty or what it means to really engage the so-called poor in a manner that builds relationships and community.

The fear-based control system presented here assumes that the funds being distributed belong to those who have control of them. Talk about building walls between the haves and have nots.

The paradigm underneath the solution to the perceived problem is all wrong.

"Benevolent programs" as a concept cannot move churches beyond paternalism.

Christian compassion should propel us to a much different place. Never mind all that could be noted here about working for a more just economy and society--an endeavor churches could and should pursue with significant success it seems to me. Where is the church leader who will ask why it is that people would resort to such measures to make it through life?

The obvious irony of this entire matter has to do with the scope and scale of church-based benevolent programs in general. Most churches do well to manage a "food closet." In fairness, many do much more than this. But how many churches go beyond programatic thinking when it comes to the poor?

Worrying about being "ripped off" by the poor runs counter to the open-hearted radicalism of Jesus--a challening worldview we need to explore deeply.

Possibly our overblown concerns about being taken advantage of says more about us than it does about "the poor."

"Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."

Jesus (Matthew 5:42)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Poverty, Health and Choice

Poverty is a cruel, but effective teacher.

Materially poor people do not enjoy the same health status as the materially rich.

No surprise there, huh?

But, why?

No doubt a diet limited and defined by available cash plays a role. Convenient and ready access to health care providers or, better, the lack of such access is another factor back of this documented deficiency.

Safe neighborhoods lending themselves to outdoor activities, exercise and routines of physical fitness also play a part in the health outcome disparities that characterize low-income communities when compared to more affluent areas. Accessible parks and health clubs do make a difference.

An even larger factor is often not recognized by most people, including some public health officials and political leaders. Choice, self-determination, options--these are the key determinants of health.

Typically, these factors are all related to income.

But, we are learning.

People with few material resources can find hope in simply getting together.

Collective efficacy matters. Political power and the choice it delivers is a key factor in improving community health.

Poor people who band together, who pool even limited resources and cooperate to achieve community goals, also enjoy improved health outcomes. Connections to and membership in neighborhood groups such as crime watch organizations, PTAs, churches and civic groups contribute to improved health status. These are the sorts of connections that the materially rich take for granted and seldom, if ever, relate to their own health.

At Central Dallas Ministries we operate a large community health ministry complete with doctors, medical assistants, pharmacy, dentists and testing services. However, we are learning that community connections and organizing is likely to be even more important for the long term health of the community than our clinical efforts.

While we will continue to provide highly accessible, community-based clinical services to our low-income neighbors, we know that we must also engage our friends at a deeper, relational level.

Building community among and with "the poor" is the legitimate work of people committed to seeing health status improve in the inner city.

At times this work will offend some who observe us. We will do our best to explain with patience and kindness, but we will not stop.

Improving the health of low-income Americans must involve political mobilization.

For us this work exemplifies not only our most cherished values, but our brand of spirituality.

Meditation for today: Isaiah 65:19-25

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Pastors in the Streets

When I was growing up, preachers had a tendency to hit the streets.

Images of white ministers, most of them "collared," and black ministers, most of them Baptist, marching in the streets of most major, and some not so major, American cities remain etched in my memory.

The life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. included lots of this "street work." His message mobilized the nation and led to significant changes in civil rights legislation, as well as national attitudes concerning race, poverty, fairness and equal opportunity.

His impact also "turned out" the pastors who marched at his side.

Many of the images were extremely impressive. They still affect me.

King's message remained thoroughly biblical from start to finish. Thus, his success with the pastors and thousands from their congregations.

These preachers engaged in fairly radical behaviors.

They organized mass demonstrations, participated in economic boycotts, supported and took part in sit-ins and protested based on their clearly defined, values-based agenda.

These ministers made it very clear as to where they stood on these matters.

Racism was an evil that needed to be challenged and eradicated from American culture, economics and law.

Poverty was an enemy against which the nation's resources could and should be marshaled with determination and moral courage.

War with no moral basis could not be accepted. At the very least, honest, open debate had to be defended and championed as a legitimate and accepted fact of life in our democratic system.

The preachers I watched on television as a young boy were not trying to build their churches. There were no megachurches back then. No, these ministers were attempting to lead their congregations and the nation in the ways of God out in the public square.

The actual results of their actions on American life and policy remain impressive.

These days I find myself longing for those days.

From my point of view it is not for the absence of moral issues that the streets are empty of preachers today.

Our economy and the public policy that sustains it continues to crush the poor while promoting the rich.

We are enmeshed in an unbelievable war with no end in sight.

Here in Texas our legislature left Austin for the second session in a row without passing a school finance plan. They did manage to get a marriage amendment approved for voter consideration in the fall--like Texas needs that! But, they left our children and our teachers hanging. Now our governor has called for a special session. I wonder if the poor children of Texas will fare better at the end of this next round of debate than they did during the first?

Yet, the preachers remain locked away in their churches. The streets remain empty.

It appears to me that the vacuum relates to courage, depth and direction of message and the widening gap between current theology and daily reality, especially for the poor in our nation.

The silence haunting our empty streets may also relate to the growing chasm dividing the poor and the rich in our nation. Speaking out, organizing and taking action may be too costly to consider these days. I don't know.

A few years ago while attending a seminar in Atlanta as part of the Interfaith Health Program at Emory University, I met a Cambodian monk who was the national leader of his part of Buddhism. During the bloodiest part of his nation's recent history that produced the "killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, he risked his own life to walk across Cambodian protesting violence and promoting peace.

His words about the life of monks challenged me when I first read them:

"We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefields will then become our temples. We have so much work to do.

"This will be a slow transformation, for many people throughout Asia have been trained to rely on the traditional monkhood. Many Cambodians tell me, 'Venerable, monks belong in the temple.' It is difficult for them to adjust to this new role, but we monks must answer the increasingly loud cries of suffering. We only need to remember that our temple is with us always. We are our temple."
(Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion, Maha Ghosananda).

My Cambodian friend speaks the truth here.

Life for the poor will not improve until people, and especially leaders, of faith begin to publicly engage and challenge injustice once again.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Institute for Faith Health Research--Dallas

Late in 2003, Central Dallas Ministries formed a subsidiary organization, the Institute for Faith Health Research--Dallas.

The goal was to provide a platform for serious research around the issues of health and faith/spirituality. Our own research was telling us that community health outcomes can be affected by the dynamics of faith individually and collectively.

We also were learning the social capital provides increased power, choice and autonomy to communities. We were eager to see the impact of the creation of social capital measured so that empirical evidence would be accumulated for use in our basic work of community development.

The mission of the Institute is clear to us: Working with Community and Faith Based Organizations (FBOs), the Institute exists to study and develop replicable models of community health improvement; alleviate and prevent unnecessary suffering; and promote community wellness both nationally and internationally.

We divide the focal work of the Institute into three areas or "pillars."

Community Education: To teach theoretical and practical fundamentals in faith-health collaboration to community leaders and students.

Community Research: To study and disseminate information on faith-health collaborations and their contribution to community health improvement.

Community Advocacy: To promote public policy development that encourages individuals, institutions and communities desiring to enter into collaborative relationships to impact community health.

This part of our work has been flying under the radar to this point. But we have attracted the attention and the commitment of several academic partners and we have significant research projects underway.

Please take the time to visit our website at

While you are there notice our partners and current research projects (

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Daddy and the trash men

My parents both grew up dirt poor, the children of West Texas share croppers. My father was a cotton farmer before WWII. He and his family wrested a living out of the dry, red dirt north of Abilene, Texas in Stonewall and Haskell Counties.

After the war my parents moved away from Texas following what they hoped would be a quest for a better life, first in Des Moines, Iowa and then in Spokane, Washington, where I was born. My arrival drove them back home to Texas nearer to family. They settled in Dallas this time, moving out to a sleepy little village at the time, Richardson.

When I was growing up, Richardson was Mayberry. You could ride your bike from one end of town to the other--hitting countryside on both ends! Everyone in town knew you, so there wasn't getting away with much back then!

My dad went to work for the City of Richardson as the City Secretary. His job was demanding and grew more so as the town begin to grow rapidly. As the 1960s got underway, my dad joined a development firm and worked building out the west side of town. He worked hard.

I learned a lot from my dad. But the most important thing I learned from him had to do with how to regard other people, no matter who they were or what they did.

When I was just a little boy, I remember vividly driving through downtown Dallas late one evening on our way home from a visit to my grandparents who lived in Oak Cliff. My grandfather was a night watchman in one of the large office buildings under construction at the time. On this particular evening the rain was pouring down.

Just after dropping Gramps off at his job and as we were making our way up Main Street, a man who was drunk stumbled out into the street and fell down in front of our car. I can remember my dad getting out in the rain to help the fellow. I never forgot that scene for some reason.

I grew up watching my father meet the trash men who collected our garbage at home with cold soft drinks or cold water. To this day the garbage crews who take care of his trash know to expect him waiting for them with something cold to drink. They all know him.

My dad has treated everyone that way all of his life, so far as I can tell.

He never judged others based on status or money or job description. The people who worked for him always loved him because they knew he would be fair, understanding and kind. They knew he was honest and unmixed.

My father joined the church in Richardson when I was about 11-years-old. He has been quietly involved in the same church for the past forty-four years. As a kid, I noticed that my dad didn't like to pray in public. When asked, except on a rare occasion or two that I recall, he always declined that assignment. I think he didn't feel as if he could do as good a job as some others. Or, possibly he felt somehow "unworthy" by church standards to fill this role.

I think he felt bad about it. I remember feeling bad for him, but never about him.

More than once he was asked to consider serving as an elder or deacon in the church. He always declined.

While I don't know all the reasons, I respected him then and I understand even more now.

He is 85-years-old today. My dad's faith remains very strong and simple. His creed runs something like this.

Believe deeply. Love widely. Take care of your own business as you know you should. Care for your family. Treat others just as you would enjoy being treated. And remember, we are all the same and God loves us all.

Not long ago I was at my parents' home. When he heard the trash truck, he excused himself to go and greet his good friends, grabbing a couple of soft drinks on the way out the door.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Heron Dance

Working and living in the middle of the city creates a longing for deeper connections to nature and mystery and life, simple life. Several years ago I discovered a great publication and website, Heron Dance. The little journal combines poetry, prose, and painting in an extremely satisfying manner. I urge you to check it out at

Being Still

She's a quiet clapper in the bell of the prairie,
a girl who likes to be alone.
Today, she's hiked four miles
down ravines' low cool blueness.
Bending under a barbed wire, she's in grass fields.
She's at the edge of the great plains.
Wise to openness, she finds it a similar place.
Her clothes swell like wheat bread.

When she returns to her parents' house,
the foxtails and burrs have come home, too.
The plants seem intent on living in new ground.
She's the carrier. Carrier is a precision
learned in summer's biology class.
She likes to think of ripening seeds,
a cargo inside the bellies of flying birds.
Birds like red-winged blackbirds who skim the air
and land, alert on their cattail stalks.

They allow her a silent manner.
They go about their red-winged businessof
crying to each other, dipping their beaks
into the swampy stand of ditch water,
full of the phantom of green.
The stiller she is, the more everything moves
in the immense vocabulary of being.

- Margaret Hasse, from the book Stars Above, Stars Below published by New Rivers Press (From Issue 24 of the Heron Dance journal)

Friday, June 17, 2005

Stone Soup

Three soldiers trudged down a road in a strange country. they were on their way home from the wars. Besides being tired, they were hungry. In fact, they had eaten nothing for two days.

"How I would like a good dinner tonight," said the first. "And a bed to sleep in," added the second. "But that is impossible," said the third.

On they marched, until suddenly, ahead of them, they saw the lights of a village. "Maybe we'll find a bite to eat and a bed to sleep in," they thought.

Now the peasants of the place feared strangers. When they heard that three soldiers were coming down the road, they talked among themselves. "Here come three soldiers," they said. "Soldiers are always hungry. But we have so little for ourselves." And they hurried to hide their food. They hid the barley in hay lofts, carrots under quilts, and buckets of milk down the wells. They hid all they had to eat. Then they waited.

The soldiers stopped at the first house. "Good evening to you," they said. "Could you spare a bit of food for three hungry soldiers?"

"We have no food for ourselves," the residents lied. "It has been a poor harvest."

The soldiers went to the next house. "Could you spare a bit of food?" they asked. "And do you have a corner where we could sleep for the night?"

"Oh, no," the man said. "We gave all we could spare to the soldiers who came before you."

"And our beds are full," lied the woman.

At each house, the response was the same -- no one had food or a place for the soldiers to stay. The peasants had very good reasons, like feeding the sick and children. The villagers stood in the street and sighed. They looked as hungry as they could.

The soldiers talked together. The first soldier called out, "Good people! We are three hungry soldiers in a strange land. We have asked you for food and you have no food. Well, we will have to make stone soup." The peasants stared.

The soldiers asked for a big iron pot, water to fill it, and a fire to heat it. "And now, if you please, three round smooth stones." The soldiers dropped the stones into the pot.

"Any soup needs salt and pepper," the first soldker said, so children ran to fetch salt and pepper.

"Stones make good soup, but carrots would make it so much better," the second soldier added.

One woman said, "Why, I think I have a carrot or two!" She ran to get the carrots.

"A good stone soup should have some cabbage, but no use asking for what we don't have!" said the third soldier.

Another woman said, "I think I can probably find some cabbage," and off she scurried.

"If only we had a bit of beef and some potatoes, this soup would be fit for a rich man's table." The peasants thought it over, then ran to fetch what they had hidden in their cellars.

A rich man's soup, and all from a few stones! It seemed like magic!

The soldiers said, "If only we had a bit of barley and some milk, this soup would be fit for a king!" And so the peasants managed to retrieve some barley and milk.

"The soup is ready," said the cooks, "and all will taste it, but first we need to set the tables." Tables and torches were set up in the square, and all sat down to eat.

Some of the peasants said, "Such a great soup would be better with bread and cider," so they brought forth the last two items and the banquet was enjoyed by all.

Never had there been such a feast. Never had the peasants tasted such delicious soup, and all made from stones! They ate and drank and danced well into the night.

The soldiers asked again if there was a loft where they might sleep for the night.

"Oh, no!" said the townfolk. "You wise men must have the best beds in the village!" So one soldier spent the night in the priest's house, one in the baker's house, and one in the mayor's house.

In the morning, the villagers gathered to say goodbye. "Many thanks to you," the people said, "for we shall never go hungry now that you have taught us how to make soup from stones!"

[Shared with me by John Greenan, found partner of Central Dallas Ministries' LAW Center, General Counsel for CDM and Executive Director of Central Dallas Community Development Corporation. Found on a great website:]

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Working and Hungry in America

The following comes from Sojourners Magazine (June 2005), "Am Working and Hungry," by Claire McKeever.

Low-income persons and families across the United States will increasingly need more services to enable them to meet acceptable standards of living, according to a 2004 report on hunger and homelessness by U.S. mayors.

"The president and other political leaders should be focused on rewarding work with living wages, not accepting that 34 percent of adults needing food are employed," Yonce Shelton, director of public policy for Call to Renewal in Washington, D.C., told Sojourners.

In Cleveland, more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, and these numbers are predicted to get worse in the next year.

"While government is not the only solution to poverty," says Shelton, "right now ours is not just ignoring poor families, it is knowingly hurting them."

56% of people requesting food assistance in the U.S. during the past year were children.

70% of the 27 cities surveyed report an increase in requests for emergency shelter.
An applicant for public housing waits an average of 20 months for assistance.
Low-income households spend up to 45% of their income on housing.

48 education programs have been cut in the Bush administration’s budget, and support for food stamps has been reduced.

Source: "The U.S. Conference of Mayors: Hunger and Homelessness Survey 2004."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Children Are More Than Their Tests

Marian Wright Edelman's Child Watch ColumnJune 4, 2005


I talked recently with a Black grandmother with a second grade grandson who asked me to pray for him. He was in the middle of testing for the week in his exclusive private school and was stressed out. A smart child, she feared he might not be the quickest responder on the tests and thought the week long process was a lot of pressure for such a young child. He and she felt extra pressure because he was the only Black child in the room and she did not want him to feel or appear to be dumb if he didn't do as well as his privileged White peers.

So many children are weighed down by the expectations and needs of adults - good and bad. Parents, teachers and administrators need to have high expectations for all children, but they also need to be mindful of trying to judge children's intelligence and talents just on the basis of tests or fit our children into a single label, simple box, and the convenience of school systems. Schools exist to teach and help children learn and develop the whole self: mind, body and spirit. Appropriate tests should identify children's strengths and weaknesses in order to better help not stigmatize them.

I strongly support holding schools accountable for educating every child and support the disaggregation of children's academic progress by race and income. But the do or die testing underway under the No Child Left Behind Act is causing many children great harm.

Too many schools are teaching to the tests rather than teaching to the child. Too many educators are over labeling children as special needs children to exempt them from regular testing procedures so their school will look better. Too many children are being retained in a grade without getting the extra help they need which increases the risk of them dropping out of school and puts them at greater risk of being sucked into the prison pipeline. And too many schools are transmitting their fears of being labeled a failing school if children don't do well on the tests by pushing them out of school for behaviors that are often a cry for help.

We need to remember that each child is an individual. Policymakers, parents and teachers need to see and respect the various ways and paces children learn and develop even as we try to make sure that they gain all the basic competencies they need to succeed in life. Reading , computing, writing and thinking are crucial, but creativity and different talents in our children must also be honored.

I love a wonderful parable I first read in a book by the distinguished Black theologian Howard Thurman that I found again in an Outward Bound reader.

"Once upon a time, the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a 'new world.' So they organized a school. They adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent n swimming, in fact better than his instructor, but he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his web feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class, where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. He also developed 'charlie horses' from overexertion and got C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class he beat all the others to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year an abnormal eel that could swim exceedingly well, and also run, climb, and fly a little, had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their child to a badger and later joined the groundhog and gophers to start a successful private school."

Is there a lesson here for how we treat our children in too many schools?

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission strives to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. Visit

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Talk about each of us being connected to one another! Take a look at the material recently released as a part of A Report from Families USA
(June 8, 2005) entitled, "Paying a Premium: The Added Cost of Care for the Uninsured."

What follows here are the "key findings" of the study.

Health insurance premiums for families who have insurance through their private employers, on average, are $922 higher in 2005 due to the cost of health care for the uninsured that is not paid for by the uninsured themselves or by other sources of reimbursement.

In six states, health insurance premiums for families are at least $1,500 higher due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured in 2005. These states are New Mexico ($1,875); West Virginia ($1,796); Oklahoma ($1,781); Montana ($1,578); Texas ($1,551); and Arkansas ($1,514).

Health insurance premiums for individuals who have insurance through their private employers, on average, are $341 higher in 2005 due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured.

In eight states, health insurance premiums for individuals are at least $500 higher due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured in 2005. These states are New Mexico ($726); Oklahoma ($680); West Virginia ($660); Montana ($594); Alaska ($565); Arkansas ($560); Idaho ($551); and Texas ($550).

Health Insurance Premiums in 2010

By 2010, health insurance premiums for families who have insurance through their private employers, on average, will be $1,502 higher in 2010 due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured.

In 11 states, health insurance premiums for families will be at least $2,000 higher due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured in 2010. These states are New Mexico ($3,169); West Virginia ($2,940); Oklahoma ($2,911); Texas ($2,786); Arkansas ($2,748); Alaska ($2,248); Florida ($2,248); Montana ($2,190); Idaho ($2,152); Washington ($2,144); and Arizona ($2,028).

Health insurance premiums for individuals who have insurance through their private employers, on average, will be $532 higher in 2010 due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured.

In eight states, health insurance premiums for individuals will be at least $800 higher due to the unreimbursed cost of health care for the uninsured in 2010. These states are New Mexico ($1,192); Oklahoma ($1,127); West Virginia ($1,037); Arkansas ($943); Texas ($922); Alaska ($857); Idaho ($820); and Montana ($807) (Table 2).

Costs of Uncompensated Care

In 2005, the cost of health care provided to people without insurance that is not paid out-of-pocket by the uninsured themselves will exceed $43 billion nationally

In 11 states, the cost of care that the uninsured cannot pay will exceed $1 billion in 2005. These states are California ($5.8 billion); Texas ($4.6 billion); Florida ($2.9 billion); New York ($2.7 billion); Illinois ($1.8 billion); Ohio ($1.4 billion); Pennsylvania ($1.4 billion); North Carolina ($1.3 billion); Georgia ($1.3 billion); New Jersey ($1.2 billion); and Michigan ($1.1 billion).

By 2010, the cost of health care provided to people without health insurance that is not paid out-of-pocket by the uninsured will exceed $60 billion (Table 3).In 17 states, the cost of care that the uninsured cannot pay will exceed $1 billion in 2010. These states are California ($8.2 billion); Texas ($6.5 billion); Florida ($4.1 billion); New York ($3.8 billion); Illinois ($2.6 billion); Ohio ($2.0 billion); Pennsylvania ($2.0 billion); North Carolina ($1.9 billion); Georgia ($1.8 billion); New Jersey ($1.6 billion); Michigan ($1.6 billion); Virginia ($1.4 billion); Louisiana ($1.4 billion); Washington ($1.3 billion); Indiana ($1.3 billion); Arizona ($1.3 billion); and Tennessee ($1.2 billion).

Uninsured People

In 2005, nearly 48 million Americans will be uninsured for the entire year.

California is the state with the largest number of uninsured people in 2005 (7.8 million people are uninsured for the entire year), followed by Texas (4.8 million); New York (3.5 million); Florida (3.2 million); and Illinois (2.1 million).

New Mexico is the state with the highest percentage of uninsured people in 2005 (24.0 percent uninsured for the entire year), followed by California (21.6 percent); Texas (21.4 percent); Arizona (19.1 percent); and Florida (18.5 percent).

In 2010, the number of Americans who will be uninsured for the entire year will be nearly 53 million.

California is projected to have the largest number of uninsured people in 2010 (8.6 million uninsured for the entire year), followed by Texas (5.3 million); New York (3.9 million); Florida (3.6 million); and Illinois (2.3 million). New Mexico is projected to have the highest percentage of uninsured people in 2010 (25.3 percent were uninsured for the entire year), followed by California (22.6 percent); Texas (22.5 percent); Arizona (20.4 percent); and Florida (20.0 percent).

[Blogger note: You think we need some change? Possibly it is time for bold, smart, new leadership. We are all in this together. LJ]

Monday, June 13, 2005

Health Care Discrimination

[A website you need to explore is Recently, Maya Rockeymoore published the following provocative essay, "Health Discrimination: A 21st Century Civil Rights Issue," on this site. You'll be challenged by her words. LJ]

Recent efforts by various groups to shift the U.S. health care system to one that provides health coverage for all should be of vital concern to African Americans, other racial and ethnic minorities, and lower income families. After all, it is in the area of healthcare where we can clearly see evidence of the “separate and unequal” philosophy still at work.

Although only 29 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans were a majority (52 percent) of the nation’s 45 million individuals who were uninsured year-round in 2003. In that same year, 20 percent of African Americans, 33 percent of Hispanics, and 19 percent of Asians were without health insurance year round compared to 11 percent of Whites. In 2003, 24 percent of those in households that made less than $25,000 were uninsured compared to 8 percent of those in households making more than $75,000.

Health disparity statistics reinforce that lives are unnecessarily cut short each year largely due to preventable chronic diseases. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the age-adjusted death rate for African Americans was higher than that of whites by 41 percent for stroke, 30 percent for heart disease, 25 percent for cancer, and more than 750 percent for HIV disease in 2002.

It could be tempting to place the blame for these disparities squarely within the realm of personal responsibility, since many of these death-inducing chronic conditions are exacerbated by the common condition of overweight and obesity. Yet, there is ample evidence to suggest that personal behaviors cannot fully explain why the low-income, African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities end up with the short end of the health stick.

Structural Bias in the U.S. Health Insurance System

The U.S. health insurance system is largely employer-based, meaning that the quality of health insurance one receives or whether health insurance is received at all is primarily dependent upon the type of employer an individual has. According to the Census Bureau, 60 percent of non-elderly Americans were covered by health insurance related to employment in 2003. Yet within this group, a recent article in Health Affairs reported that 70 percent of whites received health insurance through their employer compared to only 49 percent of African Americans and 41 percent of Hispanics.

Conversely, the government is the second largest provider of health insurance, providing coverage for 27 percent of Americans through Medicaid, Medicare, and military health care. Yet of those 65 and under in this group, it is low-income racial and ethnic minorities that are most heavily reliant on government plans. Twenty five percent and 21 percent of African Americans and Hispanics respectively received Medicaid as their source of health insurance coverage in 2003 compared to only 9 percent of Whites.

From employer-based to government-provided health coverage, racial and ethnic minority populations are ill served by the current structure of the U.S. health care system. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the likelihood of employer provided health coverage increases if an individual is a high wage earner, employed full time, and/or works in certain business sectors known for providing coverage such as the financial services industry.

Put another way, it can also be said that structural racism, ethnocentrism and classism are inherent in the U.S. employer-based health care system since it stacks the deck heavily in favor of higher income, better educated individuals who are able to get and hold on to the white-collar or union protected full-time jobs that are most likely to provide their employees with quality health coverage.

Indeed, the data shows that racial and ethnic minorities have higher unemployment rates, are more likely to work in part-time jobs, and/or are in those sectors that are not prone to provide health coverage such at the construction, service, and wholesale and retail trade industries. As a result of this labor market conundrum (which is also a function of where you grew up and what type of education you received), racial and ethnic minorities comprise a majority of the nation’s year round uninsured, meaning that they are unable to afford access to a doctor either for regular check ups or for emergency care services. The combined effect of this lack of access contributes to their poorer health status and higher rates of disability and early death.

Unfortunately, a 2003 study by the National Institutes of Medicine found that minorities were more likely to receive a poorer quality of care even when they had the same level of health insurance access as Whites. The report concluded that this could be a result of stereotyping and bias as well as the negative effects of financial and institutional health system arrangements.

On the flip side of the coin, racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately benefit from Medicaid. But as a health insurance coverage program of last resort for those who are very poor, the quality of care Medicaid provides is compromised because services are limited in scope, providers often do not accept its patients due to low reimbursement rates, and benefit levels and the number of people served are subject to be cut at the whim of policymakers seeking to close federal and state budget deficits.

To make matters worse, a new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities demonstrates that adult Medicaid beneficiaries spend more than three times as much of their income on out-of-pocket health care costs than do middle class adults with private health insurance. So, those who are least able to afford it pay more: go figure.

Towards a New HealthCare Paradigm

Where can vulnerable populations turn to help them escape the current trap called the U.S. health care system? Ironically, these groups could actually benefit from the health care crisis currently brewing. Skyrocketing health care costs, growing concern about health care quality, and the increasing number of uninsured are taking a heavy financial toll on employers, hospitals, providers, state and federal governments, and American families.

In their desperate attempt to save corporate profit margins, small and large businesses are cutting back on health care benefits and some are also joining with nontraditional allies to seek new ways of insuring the American public. It is becoming increasingly clear to many that traditionally championed coverage measures, such as ad hoc efforts to enhance smaller employers’ ability to provide coverage and the provision of health insurance tax credits for unemployed individuals, are not sufficient for offsetting the magnitude or nature of the uninsured problem in America. A total paradigm shift is now necessary in the way U.S. health care is financed and administered.

Throughout the years there have been a number of legislative initiatives and studies calling for universal health care. The effort with the highest recent profile was led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton circa 1994. Since that time legislators have introduced bills such as the “Health Security for All Americans” Act (H.R. 2133) and the “United States Health Insurance Act” Act (H.R. 676), offered by Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. John Conyers respectively, which call for quality health coverage for all. Within the past month, two additional voices have joined the chorus with the release of separate reports by the National Coalition on Health Care and The Century Foundation detailing proposals for structuring a universal health plan for America.

Civil Rights groups and other concerned organizations must begin to add their voices to this debate so as to address the factors that cause us to have less access and poorer health outcomes. Measures that should be embraced by these groups include: pursuing aggressive minority health worker recruitment efforts, de-linking health insurance from employment, encouraging physician diversity training and expanded data collection based on race, income, and other important variables, and providing administrative incentives for the promotion of equal health outcomes among other valid proposals.


Ultimately, we must all be concerned about improving the health care system as current inefficiencies are costing the country dearly not only in terms of higher costs for low quality health care services, but also in terms of lost productivity and wages and increased social insurance and welfare costs due to poor health, disability and higher mortality rates experienced by American workers who lack consistent access to quality care.

Of course, this issue also has a direct impact on the Social Security debate since improving health care for all will increase life expectancies for African Americans and others who are presently more likely to die before receiving retirement benefits.
For a new generation of Americans who believe that there are no civil rights issues left to be addressed: think again. A lack of access to quality health care is one of the biggest and most egregious civil rights issues of our time and it is hidden in plain view.

Maya Rockeymoore, PhD., is of Research and Programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She is the author of The Political Action Handbook: A How To Guide for the Hip Hop Generation and co-editor of Strengthening Communities: Social Insurance in a Diverse America.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Another Sunday in America

Forgive me, but I am weary of the church.

Possibly I need to see a therapist. I expect a good one could help me sort out all the reasons for my persistent discontent. My feelings run up and down a range from sympathetic disappointment to outraged disgust.

Understand now, I have been a "churchman" for the past 45 years! It stands to reason that much of my disillusionment arises from my own failures and inconsistencies.

Still, the older I grow the more uneasy I become about the whole church enterprise as I observe it today.

There is no doubt that my feelings and my angst arise from my daily experience in the city among very poor people. But these emotions also come as a result of my movement in and among the church and church people.

Then, I must admit, it is not really the people of the church individually, at least not for the most part (!), with whom I have an ongoing beef.

It is something about how the church determines to use its resources, including its time, its talent, its public voice and its material wealth. My observations around these matters trouble me greatly, especially in view of the reality facing so many poor, struggling people in this country and around the world.

Rock stars, actors and sports personalities have more to say and are up to more in terms of actively addressing the issues facing suffering people than are church leaders and church folks.

This is not to say that there is no interest in the church about these challenges. It is just that the church spins its wheels and so quickly loses its focus. Its considerable creativity and energy ends up, more often than not, being spent on itself and its members.

Why is this the case? How can the church remain so immobilized in the face of so much human misery, much of which could be alleviated with just a little more effort?

So, today we will march off to church one more time, won't we?

What will happen there?

What will be said? What will we sing? About what will we pray?

Where will our tithes and offerings go?

What will it all matter?

We claim to be there to "worship God," to "praise God's name."

But, what will our God think? How will God regard our exercises today in view of what God knows about this world?

Meditation for today: Amos 5:18-24

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Blogging and Vacation

For the next 10 days I will be out-of-town and basically away from civilization!

In preparation I have written several posts in advance and I have selected some material from "guest" bloggers. I know that you will find the ideas of these guests stimulating.

What follows is an article that appeared in the Friday, June 10, 2005 edition of The New York Times written by columnist Paul Krugman.

(I know, I know. Some folks who live south of Kentucky believe this paper is in fact "the Devil's rag." I find it to be a great paper that attempts to report in depth on issues that matter in the urban context.)

What Krugman argues here is not good news for inner city communities where low-income citizens live.

Let everyone know what you think of it and if you feel the urge, pass it along to others!

June 10, 2005

Losing Our Country

Baby boomers like me grew up in a relatively equal society. In the 1960's America was a place in which very few people were extremely wealthy, many blue-collar workers earned wages that placed them comfortably in the middle class, and working families could expect steadily rising living standards and a reasonable degree of economic security.

But as The Times's series on class in America reminds us, that was another country. The middle-class society I grew up in no longer exists.

Working families have seen little if any progress over the past 30 years. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the median family doubled between 1947 and 1973. But it rose only 22 percent from 1973 to 2003, and much of that gain was the result of wives' entering the paid labor force or working longer hours, not rising wages.

Meanwhile, economic security is a thing of the past: year-to-year fluctuations in the incomes of working families are far larger than they were a generation ago. All it takes is a bit of bad luck in employment or health to plunge a family that seems solidly middle-class into poverty.

But the wealthy have done very well indeed. Since 1973 the average income of the top 1 percent of Americans has doubled, and the income of the top 0.1 percent has tripled.

Why is this happening? I'll have more to say on that another day, but for now let me just point out that middle-class America didn't emerge by accident. It was created by what has been called the Great Compression of incomes that took place during World War II, and sustained for a generation by social norms that favored equality, strong labor unions and progressive taxation. Since the 1970's, all of those sustaining forces have lost their power.

Since 1980 in particular, U.S. government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families - and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless. From tax cuts that favor the rich to bankruptcy "reform" that punishes the unlucky, almost every domestic policy seems intended to accelerate our march back to the robber baron era.

It's not a pretty picture - which is why right-wing partisans try so hard to discredit anyone who tries to explain to the public what's going on.

These partisans rely in part on obfuscation: shaping, slicing and selectively presenting data in an attempt to mislead. For example, it's a plain fact that the Bush tax cuts heavily favor the rich, especially those who derive most of their income from inherited wealth. Yet this year's Economic Report of the President, in a bravura demonstration of how to lie with statistics, claimed that the cuts "increased the overall progressivity of the federal tax system."

The partisans also rely in part on scare tactics, insisting that any attempt to limit inequality would undermine economic incentives and reduce all of us to shared misery. That claim ignores the fact of U.S. economic success after World War II. It also ignores the lesson we should have learned from recent corporate scandals: sometimes the prospect of great wealth for those who succeed provides an incentive not for high performance, but for fraud.

Above all, the partisans engage in name-calling. To suggest that sustaining programs like Social Security, which protects working Americans from economic risk, should have priority over tax cuts for the rich is to practice "class warfare." To show concern over the growing inequality is to engage in the "politics of envy."

But the real reasons to worry about the explosion of inequality since the 1970's have nothing to do with envy. The fact is that working families aren't sharing in the economy's growth, and face growing economic insecurity. And there's good reason to believe that a society in which most people can reasonably be considered middle class is a better society - and more likely to be a functioning democracy - than one in which there are great extremes of wealth and poverty.

Reversing the rise in inequality and economic insecurity won't be easy: the middle-class society we have lost emerged only after the country was shaken by depression and war. But we can make a start by calling attention to the politicians who systematically make things worse in catering to their contributors. Never mind that straw man, the politics of envy. Let's try to do something about the politics of greed.


Friday, June 10, 2005

Collaborate Or Die

On a small bulletin board in my office I have posted a full page ad from a magazine. The photo captures a smartly dressed man, briefcase in tow, standing on a busy street in a downtown area.

He holds up a sign much like a protester or a street preacher might placard about.

The message on his sign is bold, simple and right to the point:

"Collaborate or DIE"

Ironic, don't you think? At a time when radical individualism enjoys what may be an unsurpassed heyday in our culture, the prophets of the world of profit call us to rethink how we are living.

The message made its way to every major front page in the nation last Wednesday with General Motors' grim announcement that it would phase out 25,000 jobs by the end of 2008. Many of these jobs will involve retirement. Still, the point is they will not be replaced as GM seeks to stabilize its core business.

Interesting that one of the challenges GM faces and that drives their decision on workforce reduction is the increasing costs associated with health insurance for its employees. GM spends approximately $1,500 per auto unit produced on health care costs for its workforce.

The layoff represents about 22% of the auto makers hourly workforce.

The nation needs GM to survive. GM provides health insurance coverage to 1.1 million Americans and is the nation's largest private sector provider.

We are arriving at a moment in our national life when large corporations like GM will likely begin to ask why we haven't made more progress on establishing a national health insurance plan like every other industrialized nation in the world.

With jobs being outsourced daily across the country and the costs of health insurance and health care escalating rapidly, it is clear new approaches must be formulated and put into place.

The economic forces affecting American business interests obviously impact low-income residents of our inner cities.

We need to find a new way.

Collaboration comes to mind.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Cultivating new hope and healthier lives and living conditions in poverty ravaged inner city neighborhoods depends on the formation of significant, enduring relationships among residents.

In neighborhoods where people know each other life works better.

The concept sounds almost too simple. Yet, a growing body of empirical data and our own experiences here in Dallas confirm this important truth.

One of the tragic deficiencies of poor communities has to do with the disappearance of institutional life. Middle class neighborhoods take many human connections for granted. Active PTAs, organized Crime Watch groups, homeowners associations, service clubs, public schools doubling as community hubs, churches and other organizations remain active in many, if not most, middle class communities.

In most low-income neighborhoods you'll be hard pressed to find any evidence of organized community life. Churches are everywhere in these areas, but most are "drive in" congregations that enjoy little meaningful contact with the people living around them. Local barber shops and beauty salons, once the center of lots of community life, have simply disappeared in many parts of town. The grocery stores are gone.

In many neighborhoods even the pubs have disappeared to be replaced by package stores. Unfortunately, the sort of unorganized "community life" that tends to spring up around these establishments is usually not very desirable.

Social scientists are producing a growing body of evidence that tells us social capital and community connectedness are likely key elements in any community's quest for better health and well-being.

Communities possessing a sense of choice and self-determination report better health outcomes. People living in neighborhoods that are organized and politically engaged enjoy greater feelings of stability, hope, power and progress. Notions of collective efficacy can be powerful psychological forces fueling change and increased involvement in the community at numerous levels.

Connected communities just work better, no matter what their socio-economic status.

Predictably, faith-based approaches to community outreach that focus solely on individuals, with no or little thought of relationships inside target communities, bypass significant opportunities to improve life for everyone. The growing emphasis on the importance of the individual as the primary unit of significance for the church and the nation is a major liability in any quest for community renewal.

To renew communities the focus must shift to the creation and maintenance of dynamic connections among people who live near one another.

Building strong neighborhoods in impoverished areas depends on the rediscovery of the importance of neighborliness.

It really is that simple.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Working on Poverty. . .Aiming for Justice

The tension existing between the impulse to respond to pressing human need with charitable compassion and the desire to change the system that so often creates the need is very real for people concerned about poverty and its impact on inner city communities.

Most people who act against the symptoms of poverty move most naturally toward charity.

I think I understand why that is true. Acts of charity and compassion usually seem obvious. If a person is hungry, compassion provides food. If someone is ill, charity calls for a doctor.

Usually, charity is not too complicated. It can be demanding, but it is seldom all that complex.

Providing charity feels good.

If I can meet a need, lift a load or ease some pain, the benefit flows in two directions, doesn't it? After all, "it is more blessed to give than to receive."

Forgive me, but my cynicism needs to be heard at this point.

Charity is also a very nifty way for people with economic power to maintain control of that power while performing good work that often leads to their being recognized as good people in a community. Charity, on its own, seldom, if ever, challenges existing power structures, even when these power structures are responsible for much of the poverty being addressed by donor largesse.

So, it is not hard to see why most of us gravitate toward charitable responses to poverty in inner city communities.

Philanthropic institutions, such as local, state and national foundations, both public and private; usually don't think "outside the box" of charity. For example, large foundations seldom cooperate with one another to develop community-wide strategies for attacking poverty. Foundations normally do not consult with community-based organizations to seek counsel on just how resources could best be allocated. Rather, the community groups usually try to figure out what foundations want to fund and then tailor requests in that direction.

The unintended consequence of a good deal of our charitable activity is the creation of an unhealthy dependence among the poor on services that do not lead people out of their pressing need.

Paternalism becomes a cruel structural reality when charity continues in a thoughtless manner.

We know that charity has its place. We also are very aware of the limits of its benefit to people who live in poverty.

So, what's a non-profit to do?

All I can tell you is where we are here in Dallas.

Several years ago the question of a good friend prompted us to define more carefully what it is that we actually do as a community building organization.

Here's a summary of what we came up with.

1. We do a lot of "Good Samaritan" stuff. You can read the story in Luke 10. If you are found stretched out on an East or South Dallas sidewalk, we will reach out to you, stay with you, and address your needs as best we can for as long as we need to. Your only responsibility is to keep breathing! Much of this work feels like charity. We intend for it to go further for your benefit and for that of your community.

2. We focus on your talents. Once you are up on your feet, we will remind you that you have something to contribute to the community. You are a person of talent, ability and great potential. This is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25). Here you will be offered training. You will be taught how to play the game of Dallas by the current rules. If you indicate that you would rather take your talents and bury them in a local crack house, we will challenge you to re-think your plans. If you don't, we will show you to the door, but we will leave it open for your return if you so choose.

3. We challenge unfair rules. We know from experience and observation that the rules aren't fair for everyone. Like Jesus, we have been known to turn over a few tables, make an angry speech or two and call rule-makers to task (John 2). We do this with the community and among the community.

Everyone likes us when we do number one! Like I say, charity is a "feel good" deal. Lots of volunteers show up and lots of people are helped temporarily.

Number two is harder, but again, people love it, especially those who are learning to identify and maximize their talents. We witness movement to better lives and hope for improved futures. Business people love us at this point.

Number three makes people nervous. Some folks tell us that we should leave this alone. It is hard, complicated, tedious, time-consuming work. The payoff is slow coming. Often the best we can do is raise questions and hopefully educate the people involved.

In this spectrum we do our work and find our purpose.

Poverty is a cruel and evil reality. Thoughtful, comprehensive strategies are demanded.

Something beyond charity must be our goal.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Charity or Justice?

People who work with "the urban poor" often face confusing choices.

What I have in mind here are not so much the tactical options that arise as a problem or situation is confronted. However, the higher level choices I want to consider here do affect tactical decisions dramatically.

Stated simply, what do low-income persons and neighborhoods need most? Charity or justice?

Most of the inner city enterprises I know best usually drop down on the side of charity, compassion and a smattering of education as empowerment.

I know we administer quite a lot of charity here at Central Dallas Ministries.

We distribute hundreds of thousands of pounds of food stuff annually.

We offer free and extremely reduced cost medical, dental and pharmacy care to thousands of patients.

We provide free or extremely reduced cost legal representation.

We have increasingly sophisticated approaches to employment training, technology education and job placement.

We offer after-school programming and summer day camping for children.

We are building affordable housing units and have plans for many more in the future.

We have homelessness on our radar screen thanks to recent developments in Dallas.

The list could go on and on.

When I look at our work, I feel two emotions.

First, a warmth of gratitude at the good that is being done by some of the best people I have ever known.

Second, a persistent fear that we are in danger of missing an even higher calling.

Don't misunderstand. Compassion is important. At times, charity is the best and only remedy to apply.

Jesus' story of the "good Samaritan" comes to mind.

The man left for dead on the side of the road didn't need a meeting of the city council! He needed medical attention, a ride to town and someone to stop and simply care about him in his dire situation of distress.

Compassion usually works best after the facts of life have played themselves out in someone's experience. Charity feels right when offered and when received in a pinch!

But, compassion is seldom enough, at least not for the long haul.

The city has taught me to read Jesus' story of the Samaritan differently. My new reading wouldn't change the facts of the story.

However, I might add a follow up commentary.

The story makes me wonder how many other people routinely experienced the same kind of mistreatment on that road? How much more charity work did that road create for passersby? Who was responsible for safety on that stretch of highway? What could have been done to make it safer?

In other words, how could the system have made that road better for everyone?

I know that was not the point Jesus was trying to make. He was trying to teach a lesson about what it means to be a neighbor.

I guess I am asking what does it mean to be a real community that sets things up for the benefit and good of as many people as possible?

We seem to have countless outposts of charity. While I am glad about this in one way, in another I wonder what this really says about our society?

In addition to charity and compassion, we need, we must work for justice.

Is the best approach for the long haul to continue to provide tons of supplemental food for hard working families who do not earn enough to support themselves? Or, would it be better to ask why there is such a shortfall, especially in a nation of wealth like ours?

Should we continue to develop community-based medical outposts, complete with pharmacies for the hard working families we serve who do not receive the benefit of health insurance coverage from their employers? Or, would it be better to organize around this disparity in order to seek change?

Is it really a good thing to work with community groups in the inner city to organize neighborhood cleanups and patrols? Or, do we need to organize to compel city government to apply code enforcement in our neighborhoods like it is expected in more affluent parts of town?

Should we continue to visit people who end up in prison because of the very addictions we seek to address on a daily basis? Or, would it be better for us to ask why so many, mainly low-income men and women who need treatment, get prison instead?

At the end of this day the answer likely needs to include both compassion and justice. There is and will always be a place for charity and compassion. We won't get it right, so we will need to compensate.

Having said that, I feel the need to press hard against our prevailing tendency to do only acts of charity while never thinking of ways to embed justice, fairness and equality in the systems that guide our communities.

[More to come on this.]

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Voters and Values. . .Again

When I saw the front page headline on Friday's edition of The Dallas Morning News ("Pastors' voter drive has Perry's blessing"), I had a fairly good idea what the article beneath it contained.

The report described a well-organized network of Evangelical pastors with a goal of registering at least 300,000 new "values voters" before November 2005. The coalition of church leaders calls itself the "Texas Restoration Project."

Of course, the group bills itself and its efforts as non-partisan. Right.

In May around 500 pastors associated with the project met with Governor Rick Perry in Austin. The closed-door meeting gave the Governor an opportunity to encourage the ministers in their work of involving their congregations in the political process. All expenses to the two-day event that included the spouses of many of the pastors (around 800 persons) were paid for with private, but Republican-related funds.

In addition to registering new lay persons to vote, the "Texas Restoration Project" intends to sign up what it calls 1,000 "Patriot Pastors" to assist in the effort, as well as in pushing the group's political and social agenda. Similar efforts have been underway in other states. The project will convene six "Pastor Policy Briefings" before the fall elections.

"The mission is the mobilization of pastors and pews as a way to restore Texas and America to our Judeo-Christian heritage," said spokesman and network organizer David Lane.

How does the group define a "values voter"?

No surprise here. The issues are clear and few: abortion, homosexuality/gay marriage and religious expression in the public square.

Two things bother me about all of this.

First, political leaders exploit this narrow list of highly charged issues to stir the emotions of a large segment of the population leaving no space for rational conversation and no option about how to vote or where to line up politically.

Second, groups like the "Texas Restoration Project" leave the impression that their issues of concern are the only issues allowed in what should be a lively discussion about the true nature of Christian values.

One of the tragic results of this narrow, emotional and limiting worldview is that the poor of our nation and the world suffer greatly.

If abortion, homosexuality and the right to pray in public schools occupy the only high ground, that fairly well excludes consideration of other human issues as matters worthy of inclusion in any values discussion. Then, if one party focuses most of its attention there, the matter is basically closed, don't you think?

How different the words of the Bible sound.

The "values" teaching found there would surprise some folks. As an ex-pastor, I can't much blame the people who sit in the pews. Many ministers, especially those of the fundamentalist bent, don't spend much time on the more prevalent themes I have in mind.

If you are interested in going deeper, find an exhaustive concordance (on-line or in print) and run searches on words like "poor," "poverty," "oppression," "sick," "greed," "justice," "misery," "mercy," "compassion" and "hungry."

Or, sit down and read through the Gospel of Luke. Watch Jesus. Listen to him. Note his focus. What would you say were his key values?

My study of the Bible over the past thirty-something years leads me to believe that eliminating poverty and discrimination, providing adequate housing and health care, establishing justice in national life, educating all of our children regardless of class status, insuring that people who work hard receive all that they need to make a life for themselves and their families, working tirelessly for peace and reconciliation among peoples and wiping out hunger are all extremely important and fundamental "values issues."

And, let me hasten to add, these values are rooted in my understanding of faith and faithfulness.
Today though, the way things are currently framed for us, hard choices have to be made.

In Texas the majority of policy makers are pushing forward with the determined destruction of every public effort to bring assistance, relief, hope and sustained opportunity to the poor. The state budget is balanced every two years on the backs of those at the bottom. The policies of the current national political leadership and that of many other states basically reflect the same narrow "values system."

True "values voters" will recognize that the list of issues to consider when going to the polls is neither short or narrow.

No voter whose values are shaped by the Bible will be able to forget the poor when marking a ballot.

Bonus "values" question: Who can tell us why Sodom was destroyed?

Answer: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49)

Friday, June 03, 2005

On Being Kind to the Poor

The wisdom of Proverbs tends to be incredibly simple in a radically disarming manner. I realize I need to spend more time camped among these words that combine wisdom with clear calls to precise action.

Take this short gem unearthed at Proverbs 19:17:

"Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full."

For starters, this advice assumes that those of us with material resources actually encounter those who have very limited resources of this kind.

Sadly, many of us don't cross paths with the poor very often at all. This is the result of how it is that we have arranged our communities and our lives. Make no mistake about it, our communities are the result of intentional design and the forces of economics. All of us are poorer as a result.

Still, we all do encounter those who are economically impoverished.

What does it mean to be kind to someone who is poor?

What does unkindness look and feel like?

Good questions for us to ask ourselves these days, or so it seems to me.

Kindness does not ignore or avoid others.

Kindness takes the time necessary to respond with humanity, grace and humility.

Kindness views others with openness, fairness and optimism.

Kindness does not write people off. Kindness is not into judgment, rejection or dismissal.

Kindness communicates.

Kindness finds the eyes of another person.

Kindness knows how to shake hands.

Kindness takes time for others.

Kindness does not wring its hands, nor does it investigate or over-evaluate a simple request like, "Hey, mister, do you have a little change so I can get a sandwich?"

Kindness will lead us to approach others even before they approach us.

There has been a big "flap" here in Dallas over the past year or so about panhandlers begging on our city streets, especially downtown and at busy intersections. We now have ordinances against such activity.

Predictably, the practice continues at about the same pace as before the new laws were enacted.

I've found a great way to deal with street beggars. Speak to them before they can speak to you! A smile and a warm handshake really makes for a different kind of conversation. Most likely, it will cost you a buck or two, but I have to tell you, the human interaction is well worth the price.

Being kind--read "human" here--to the poor is exactly like lending to the Lord.

Here is another one of those amazing and thoroughly radical statements describing the one-for-one identification of God with the street corner panhandler.

If I am kind to the poor, it is as if I am making a loan to God. Whoa. . .

In other words, God is found in the poor.

An obvious corrollary lesson here is that most people are looking for God in all the wrong places.

The clincher for me is in the promise: whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and the loan will always be repaid in full.

Nothing is lost when kindness is extended to someone who is poor. As a matter of fact, everything is gained. Everything.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

On Robbing the Poor

Large concentrations of low-income or "poor people" populate the inner cities of the United States. It is not that there are no poor folks in rural areas, it is just that there are so many in our urban settings.

This concentration of members of the so called underclass in large population centers creates a dynamic that does not serve the interests of the poor or of the larger community. For one thing, the problems can appear so daunting, so unrelenting that even concerned people are paralyzed. The "no one knows what to do" syndrome is at work in most American cities around the issues associated with poverty and its myriad causes.

Then there are the not so nice people who take advantage of the concentrations of poverty on the one hand and the "what can be done?" resignation on the other to structure things to benefit themselves at the expense of the very people who desperately need a hand up.

This principle can be seen at work in public policy development every time our legislature meets. The 140-day session that just ended down in Austin produced more than ample evidence to substantiate my thesis. Lots of budget balancing occurred at the expense of the poorest Texans. Nothing new here! No surprises.

All of that to say, this repetitive theme in Texas and in national politics, built on the seemingly intractable problems of poverty and the vast numbers of Americans trapped in a low-income whirlpool of sorts, stands over against the faith and religious value system of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

We need to be reminded that morality is not just about sex and human reproduction. Morality is about life, justice, fairness and opportunity.

Back to Proverbs one more time.

"Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them" (Proverbs 22:22-23)

Message? Don't take advantage of those who are weak who have no real recourse against your power.

And remember whose side the Creator happens to be on. God is not like CNN--God is not neutral!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Let Them Drink Beer

I've been known to buy a drunk a drink.

It happened first on the street in New Orleans almost thirty years ago. My now, how time gets away!

The man approached me and said, "I'm not going to lie to you. I need a drink."

Taken back by his total honesty, I congratulated him for his truthfulness and stepped off the street into a bar and bought him a beer. And yes, I was a preacher at the time.

I've always been partial to people who tell me the truth about themselves, no matter where that takes us. So, across the years I've invested time and money in relieving the thirst of more than a few folks who honestly just needed a drink.

Too bad I hadn't discovered earlier the wisdom of Proverbs on this subject. Not that I share this tendency of mine with everyone, at least not until now. But, the wisdom of ancient Israel does help me just here.

When you have time, take a look at Proverbs 31:4-9.

What you'll find is guidance on who should drink and who shouldn't.

To cut to the conclusion: political leaders should avoid alcohol, but the poor should be given a drink from time to time to relieve their misery and help them forget their poverty. I promise that is what the passage says.

You see, rulers, the politicos need clear heads just to remember all the laws they have passed. If they drink, they may forget the good public policy they've crafted while sober. The results of such stupor would not be good for the oppressed and the poor (see verse 5 especially).

Interesting, huh?

The clear implication is that leaders enact laws that protect the weak.

Now there is a novel idea!

In Texas and in Washington far too often our leaders approve legislation designed to crush the poor, or so it seems out here in reality land. Only after passing laws that do nothing to assist the poor and needy do they hit the pubs. Maybe they reverse the order so they won't have to think about what they've actually done!

The poor, on the other hand, should be given "strong drink" (verse 6). This counsel assumes that a drink helps when you are perishing or in distress. If you need insight for interpreting "perishing" or "distress," drive downtown and look around.

Evidently the Jewish wise man who wrote this understood that beer and wine help poor folks forget their poverty and their misery (verse 7).

I guess that's why lots of crushed people with no real options feel the need for a drink. I don't think I'm being unkind when I observe that many religious people don't understand very well the world of the poor.

The wise man of Proverbs wraps up his homily on strong drink with clear, direct words about the work of leaders and, I would assume, people of faith who know the heart of God:

"Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" (31:8-9).

At the risk of really being written off, let me add, I'll drink to that!