Monday, October 31, 2005

Labor and Wal-Mart

Last week, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told reporters that he is lobbying Congress to consider raising the minimum wage so that his customers wouldn't have to struggle so hard between paychecks.

Obviously, if low-wage workers were paid more, Wal-Mart would benefit as well.

The national minimum wage stands at $5.15 per hour.

An employee working full-time at minimum wage earns $10,700 gross annually.

Given that reality, it is no surprise Mr. Scott is advocating for labor!

"The U. S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour has not been raised in nearly a decade and we believe it is out of date with the times," Scott noted. "We can see first-hand at Wal-Mart how many of our customers are struggling to get by. Our customers simply don't have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks. . . .While it is unusual for us to take a public position on a public policy issue of this kind, we simply believe it is time for Congress to take a responsible look at the minimum wage and other legislation that may help working families."

I gotta tell you, things are out of hand if Wal-Mart, one of the nation's largest employers in the service industry, is lobbying for higher wages!

Scott knows that lifting the minimum is needed, as are other steps to insure that every working American can carve out a decent life.

It is something, isn't it? In the United States a growing number of public leaders in social equity and just policy are emerging from the business sector.

Auto makers and airline executives call for a national health plan.

Last Saturday evening here in Dallas, Bono, the leader of the rock group, U-2, offered a revival-like message concerning world hunger and poverty.

Spiritual messages about real life in the real world.

Will people of faith and their communities of faith join in?

P. S. For those of you who live in North Texas and have access to KERA Channel 13--our PBS affliate--you may want to be aware of the programming for tomorrow evening, November 1:

Life in the Balance: Public Health Care In Texas
Tuesday, November 1 at 10 p.m. on KERA 13
The health care system in Texas is in turmoil — and the impact reaches far beyond indigent patients crowding public hospitals. As health care professionals and policymakers agonize over which patients deserve their attention, resources at public and private hospitals alike are stretched thin by a growing load of patients who can't pay their bills, driving the costs of care ever higher for those who can. This award-winning KERA documentary scrutinizes the system's failures and success as it documents an uninsured young mother of four coping with breast cancer.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Our Entertaining Use of the Bible--Reprise

[The following post first appeared on 18 January 2005. Due to the fact that so many people quote Jesus about the enduring presence of "the poor," it seemed appropriate to bring this one back for the sake of a deeper biblical understanding of Jesus' intentions.]

Paying attention to how people use the Bible in developing a worldview can be downright entertaining.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has quoted Jesus' line to me--"The poor you will have with you always, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7)--I could stop worrying about how to fund our organization!

Jesus made the statement in response to critics who wondered out loud why he allowed a follower to "waste" an expensive gift just to honor him. Of course, he had the good sense to know that the real concern of these critics had nothing to do with the poor. His reply made that clear, as he challenged them and us to understand that poor folks are in abundance and can be assisted whenever those of us with wealth decide to turn loose some of it!

Most people never look "behind" what Jesus says here.

As was usually the case when he spoke with authority, Jesus was quoting scripture here. The text he had in mind was Deuteronomy 15 (fifth from the front cover!).

Now I've noticed across the years that most of the people who throw Jesus' words at me about the poor also have a very high view of the Bible. These Bible believing, sometimes Bible banging folks, are pretty sure Jesus is responsible for the Deuteronomy passage as well.

So, what do we find there?

Well, for starters there is this directive: ". . .there should be no poor among you, . . .if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today" (15:4-5).

That line comes immediately following a commandment to cancel all debts every seven years in the land of Israel.

Talk about things that make you go Hmmm!!!

. . .poverty reduction program based on systemic, public policy that helps level the economic playing field on a scheduled, periodic basis. That would sure make a difference in how many people were poor, remained poor and fell into poverty, wouldn't you think?

But, the text goes on.

The next line reads this way, "If there is a poor man among your brothers. . .do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs" (15:7-8).


Pretty radical, this call to lend without much question. The text continues by prohibiting any calculation as to when the next seventh year of debt forgiveness would mean for this loan (15:9-10)!

You'd think the Creator really knows us, wouldn't you?

Get the picture so far?

First, there should be no poor among the people of God because we are all doing what God says we should do about poverty from a global, macro-economic standpoint.

Second, almost as a beginning concession by God, if there happens to be someone poor, then the solution is to lend freely.

But then, it is as if God says to himself, "Wait what am I thinking! I know how these people are!"

At this point there follows the final line, the one Jesus quoted to his critics who had observed the presentation of a genuinely openhearted gift. The text in the Hebrew Bible reads, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land" (15:11).

Why is this true?

Because of something in the poor that is wrong or faulty or irresponsible? A basic laziness or unworthiness or stupidity? Not according to this text, the one Jesus quotes.

No. The problem is with people who claim to be interested in making God happy. People who love to read and quote the Bible with ease, but who also find ingenious ways to ignore what the good book actually says about poverty, its root causes and those crushed under it.

Like I say, it is really entertaining to watch us use this book.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm" (or Frustration Miscellany)--Part 3

The No Child Left Behind Act reported out last week. If you read the data, the progress was not so encouraging, especially among low-income communities.

Of course, what else should we expect?

Demanding that our schools improve is noble. Testing students to measure progress is likely a necessary step.

Punishing "low performing" schools seems short-sighted, especially in view of urban environments and history.

I came across these words of wisdom recently, ". . .Congress cannot declare that no child be left behind without taking major steps to improve the experience of schooling for the children who have long been left behind, without addressing institutional racism and discrimination against poor children in non-dominant groups, and without directing significant financial resources to these ends" (Whose Child Left Behind? Why?--Final Report of the United Church of Christ Public Education Task Force--2001-2005, page 7).

Many factors figure into the current discouraging status of our public schools.
  • Inadequate school finance
  • Racial and economic segregation
  • Rural isolation and poverty
  • Urban isolation and poverty
  • Language, culture, identity and how the child's expression of each meshes or does not mesh with that of her school
  • Quality of instruction and quality of teacher preparation
  • People of faith being committed to public education and defining faith and morals, at least in part, in such community and social terms


Friday, October 28, 2005

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm" (or Frustration Miscellany)--Part 2

The U. S. Congress has been hard at work this week trying to find places to cut the budget to help offset at least a portion of the record breaking deficit created by four straight years of tax cuts for the wealthy.

The U. S. House of Representatives believes it can save $50 billion over the next decade by "tightening up" on Medicaid, by providing the states much more latitude for making further cuts to various human services benefits and programs and by applying sharp cuts to Food Stamps ($1 billion) and to programs that benefit the elderly.

The editorial page of The New York Times reported earlier this week (October 26, 2005) that $4 billion would be cut from child support enforcement efforts, a program that returns $4 for every $1 spent on enforcement to protect and secure women and children.

Thankfully, the U. S. Senate version of the work so far is not so extreme, but based on a similar philosophy.

What is amazing is the fact that the motivation for this entire belt-tightening effort is to find a way to pass along another $70 billion in upper-bracket tax cuts.

Let's see now.

Costly foreign war with no end in sight.

Natural disaster upon natural disaster at home and abroad.

Record national deficit.

The ranks of the poor swelling to the tune of over one million annually.

Further tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm" (or Frustration Miscellany)--Part 1

I've noticed that capacity to address the chronic problems associated with poverty and under-employment is not our problem in this country. Our problem is moral will and a commitment to justice.


Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees.

In Dallas the newcomers were able to find housing, food benefits, social services case management, health care, child care, pre-school slots and enrollment in our schools almost overnight, as compared to the experience of typical Dallas residents.

Vouchers for housing were awarded on the spot. Food stamp certification was expedited. Health care issues were handled. Children were lined up and cared for case-by-case in an amazing manner. Everything seemed to turn on a dime for the evacuees.

Churches mobilized like never before! One local minister commented, "We may need a disaster a month to keep the church engaged like this."

What is troubling is the fact that lots of capacity goes unused by those who need to tap into it because our system is not so responsive to the steady wind that blows through the lives of poor people every day in this city. Either by limiting the resources that could be made available to those who need them or by making access so difficult or both, the current system that claims to be designed to lift our most vulnerable citizens, conspires to keep them shut out and held back.

I know it is the same elsewhere.


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ready for Katrina's Lingering Impact?

Last week a person who understands the Dallas rental housing market called Central Dallas Ministries to request our advice.

"How do we get word out to area churches that the needs of Katrina evacuees now living in Dallas are far from over?" he asked.

"The early emergency funding is almost gone for these families. During the next 30 to 90 days, the evictions will begin. Lots of families will need continuing assistance. How do we get the word out? What can we do to be prepared?" he continued, somewhat frantically.

Our friend's concerns are very real. His idea about local churches stepping up to this community challenge is laudable, as well as unrealistic.

Consider his congregation's current commitment to these new neighbors from New Orleans. His group "adopted" 275 families. That is an amazing commitment!

Assuming that these families can find housing with utilities for $500 per month (an extremely conservative estimate of the actual costs), the monthly housing bill for the group will amount to $137,500.00.

Assuming further that some of these families have landed jobs that pay them something toward their own livelihood, we might estimate that this particular church group might not need to come up with the entire amount of the housing costs. If the church was asked to cover only 25% of these costs, the bill would be $34,375 monthly.

Of course, these estimates and projections do not address the costs associated with food, clothing, medical care, transportation, child care or education.

While it is true that a number of local churches responded well and quickly, most have not established in-depth relationships with these new neighbors. No doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of these new Dallasites will be on their own when the financial crunch sets in.

Two conclusions seem clear to me.

First, community-based organizations, such as churches and non-profits like Central Dallas Ministries, need to take whatever steps they can to "gear up" for the coming post-hurricane storm that is on the way. As we have been saying all along, the initial surge of expressed need will settle in and swell the numbers of people in need of assistance over the coming months and years.

Second, everyone needs to realize that communities like Dallas will need help from Washington and Austin. Our community can administer whatever funds are made available. But, more funding will be required for months to come.

Some of these funds should be deployed creatively in the form of public work programs that could contribute to those communities that need to be rebuilt or to the new, relocation communities that need not only additional units of affordable housing, but many other community services and improved public infrastructures as well.

The challenge is of national proportions. Will the nation be up to it?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks died yesterday. She was 92.

Known as the "mother of the American Civil Rights Movement," her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus, now almost fifty years ago on December 1, 1955, sparked the uprising that changed the social, moral and economic landscape of the nation.

Public transit, accommodations and restaurants were thoroughly segregated across the South, as well as in other parts of the nation, when Parks defied custom and Jim Crow law by simply not giving up her seat on the bus. [It might be good for us to remember this terrible reality the next time someone begins to call us back to "the good old days" of the 1950s!]

Misquoted on a number of occasions, Parks had reportedly said at one time that she was "too tired" after a long day at work to relinquish the seat, but she was quick to correct this misinformation by saying, "I wasn't tired, I was just tired of giving in."

She simply acted on what thousands of African Americans believed: citizens deserve better treatment and more respect as human beings no matter what the law might dictate.

Her act of defiance led to her arrest and conviction for violating segregation laws. She was fined $10.

Parks had long resented and resisted the racism of the Montgomery statute. Ironically, James Blake, the same bus driver behind the wheel on the day she refused to give up her seat, had put her off his bus years ealier in 1943 for refusing to give up her seat.

In response to this legal action, the African American citizens of Montgomery organized a 13-month bus boycott. During the boycott, 40,000 black citizens walked, car pooled or took black-owned taxi cabs wherever they traveled.

During the boycott, they successfully challenged Alabama law before the U. S. Supreme Court.

Parks provided the challenge that her young, new pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. (age 26) needed. From the pulpit and the pews of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King served as the spokesperson for the moral and spiritual crusade that changed the nation. His leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association demonstrated the power people of faith can exert in the face of oppression and injustice.

Parks' courageous act of civil disobedience signaled the beginning of the end of legal segregation, though the struggle she set off continued for more than a decade. Thanks to her courage, and to the courage of thousands of her friends and neighbors, the ugly reality of racism was displayed for the entire nation to see and to face.

During the boycott, many were harassed and arrested on trumped up charges. Homes, including Dr. King's, and churches were bombed. Following the ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court that outlawed segregation on the city's buses, the violence escalated. Snipers fired at buses and at King's home. Black residents were beaten and the church bombings continued.

The daughter of Tuskegee, Alabama farmers--her father also a carpenter and her mother a teacher--Parks remained uncomfortable with all the attention her action created.

This morning's Dallas Morning News quotes a woman who visited with Parks during a 1988 voter registration rally in Brooklyn, "When you sat down, our people stood up" (page 2A, Tuesday, October 25, 2005).

Rosa Parks lived and died as a person of deep, active, relevant faith.

Thank God she did.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Tax Policy, War and the Poor

What happens in Washington, DC affects people in Dallas, both rich and poor.

The United Way of Metropolitan Dallas publishes an annual "Community Needs Assessment" that informs its organizational and funding strategy for responding to community reality.

Thumbing through the latest report provides much cause for concern about the quality of life among the urban poor who call Dallas home.

During 2003, 16.4% of Dallas County residents were living in poverty--up from 13.4% in 2000. Data for the City of Dallas would reflect an even higher percentage of those living at or below the poverty line.

Families with children reported a poverty rate of 22.8% for 2003--up from 18% in 2000 in the county. Again, the city would report even higher rates of poverty among families.
In a section titled "Priorities By Impact Area," the United Way reaches a number of sobering conclusions.
  • The Government has reduced its role in meeting health and human services needs across the board since 1996--this is the given with which we work--some of the implications are horrific.
  • Funding for mental health services have been scaled back drastically.
  • Recent policy changes--at federal and state levels--have led to stricter eligibility and enrollment requirements resulting in fewer benefits and more individuals and families going without services or care.
  • There is a grave shortage in affordable housing for very low-income individuals and families.
  • An increasing percent of homeless citizens are women and children.
  • With one of four residents without health insurance, our state and our community leads the nation in this negative category.
  • Race matters when it comes to health care coverage: 13% of Anglos have no health insurance compared to 39% of Hispanics and 24% of African Americans who have no coverage.
  • The rising cost of our "market-based" approach to health care coverage has placed health care beyond the reach of a growing number of low and moderate-income families in Dallas.
  • Growing numbers of low-income citizens of Dallas resort to Emergency Departments at local hospitals for health care--the most expensive and least effective place from a preventive perspective to obtain routine care. Both patients and hospitals suffer as a result.
  • African Americans continue to report a higher prevalence of chronic illnesses than other racial/ethnic groups--heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
  • The number of health care providers who accept Medicare (the federal insurance coverage for the elderly) is steadily shrinking, making access to health care harder to locate.
  • The cost of prescription medicines is increasing, making it difficult for low-income seniors to fill their prescription drug needs.
  • The number of child care centers meeting high quality standards is declining.
  • Child care costs in Dallas County range from $73 to $200 per week--paying for child care is a growing challenge for low-income families, especially those with more than one child.
  • Early childhood and pre-kindergarten educational programs have proven their value in the development of long-term educational and social capacity of children--funding for many of these programs has been cut with further cuts threatened.
  • Texas still has no equitable, comprehensive and aggressive funding strategy for our local public schools that server the majority of our children.

The U. S. Congress is currently working to finalize plans for the FY2006-2007 appropriations legislation. What happens in Washington, and every other year in Austin, affects what occurs here in Dallas.

A combination of massive tax cuts for the most affluent Americans and the continuing war in Iraq (currently counting costs so far and forward from $203 billion!) translate to cuts in funding for our poorest, weakest, youngest and oldest fellow citizens.

As Jim Wallis often says, "Budgets are moral documents."

In addition to serving and working with the poor, we also need to speak out for those who suffer with little or no voice in the process.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Weekend Meditation: God's Politics

God cares about the politics of economics.

God embeds this commitment into the national law and wisdom of ancient Israel, a political state.

Listen to Isaiah:

"Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their
and withhold justice from the
oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

What will you do on the day of
when disaster comes from

To whom will you run for help?

Where will you leave your

Nothing will remain but to
cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain." (10:1-4a)

God cares for the poor.

God cares about justice.

God's values do not change.

God expects us to care as well.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Student Energy, Hope Alive

This has been, by every measure, a most unique week for me.

A few years ago Pepperdine University and its dynamic Center for Faith and Learning received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to underwrite the costs of a "Minister in Residence" program.

Each fall semester, the university arranges for a week-long visit by some fortunate person who works full-time in ministry. This year I was invited to enjoy this experience.

So, I've spent the week teaching classes in several university departments, including social work, religion, university interdisciplinary studies, history and even one session at the Law School. I've enjoyed stimulating conversations with numerous faculty members and administrators.

My time with students, both in the classroom and one-on-one, has been incredibly encouraging. So many of these extremely bright young men and women have very clear visions about how they want to spend "the capital" of their lives. Most are trying to determine how to serve their communities as effectively as possible.

In every conversation, we discussed the needs of the poor in America and around the world.

Our nation's need to rediscover the priority of justice and equity in every part of our national life seemed to be front and center for these students--and that, believe it or not, unprompted by anything I said.

I leave this beautiful campus pretty much exhausted and battling a worsening cold. But, my soul is renewed by the youthful expressions of faith and fairness that I enjoyed among these incredible students.

Hope lives.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Poverty Facts

Consider the following facts of life in America:

Today, 37 million Americans live in poverty, including nearly 13 million children.

The number of Americans living in poverty rose from 35.9 million in 2003 to 37 million in 2004, an increase of 1.1 million Americans.

12.7 percent of Americans are living in poverty today. This figure includes 7.9 million families, an increase from 7.6 million families in 2003. Today, 13 million children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. That's 17.6 percent of all children in America.

Both the number of Americans living in poverty and the official poverty rate have risen for four straight years from 2000 to 2004.

2004 marked the second consecutive year in which real median household income showed no change.

Between 2002 and 2003, the number of uninsured Americans rose by 1.4 million. In 2004, the number of uninsured American rose by another 800,000, leaving 45.8 million Americans without health care coverage.

More than 8.3 million children under the age of 18 remained uninsured in 2004.

18.9 percent of children living in poverty are uninsured.

The proportion of people who receive health insurance from their employer continued to drop between 2003 and 2004, from 60.4 percent to 59.8 percent, the lowest levels in a decade.

Meanwhile, the number of people receiving assistance through government health insurance programs continues to rise. In 2004, 27.2 percent of Americans received some sort of government-sponsored health insurance, an increase from 26.6 in 2003.

24.7 percent of African Americans are living in poverty, making the poverty rate among African Americans nearly twice the national rate.

21.9 percent of Hispanics live in poverty.

24.3 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty.

Women are nearly 40 percent more likely to live in poverty than men.

In 2004 women's wages declined in comparison to men's for the second straight year. Before 2003, women's wages had not seen an annual decline since 1995. Women make 77 cents for every dollar made by men.

There is much to consider here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Don't Miss Hearing Jim Wallis!

Mark your calendar, especially if you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, is coming to town!

You may know Jim best from his latest book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Now a New York Times Bestseller, the book is shaping discussions across the nation.

Jim spoke at our annual urban ministries prayer event a few years ago. He is a great speaker with a vital and relevant message.

As I said, he will be in Dallas on Thursday evening, October 27 to speak at an event being hosted by King of Glory Lutheran Church (located on LBJ Freeway and Hillcrest Road in North Dallas). Central Dallas Ministries is a sponsor of the event that begins at 7:00 p.m.

If you need tickets, I have plenty and for you they will be free!

Spread the word about the event. Call (214.823.8710 ext 16) or email me ( and I’ll get your tickets to you. Please include your mailing address in any message you leave me.

Jim has a message that needs to be heard, considered and discussed in as many forums as possible.

He is all about values.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Misguided Misgivings About the Homeless

The "Heart of Dallas Partnership" doesn't want to see the City of Dallas build the proposed new, Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) downtown.

The group is signing up business owners, leaders and political types to oppose the upcoming November ballot initiative that would authorize bonds to the tune of $23.8 million for the new construction.

These community leaders are more than willing to see the HAC built outside downtown's Central Business District across I-30, over in North Oak Cliff or up Harry Hines Blvd. somewhere, but not in downtown.

Shoot, even your friendly neighborhood would offer a better site to this group! Any takers out there?

In a recent letter the "Heart of Dallas" group mailed all over town, they site an economic impact study authored by Bernard Weinstein, economics professor at the University of North Texas.

Weinstein claims that locating the HAC downtown would be something like, oh, I don't know, say removing electric service from the Central Business District!

While I am sure there is validity to some of what the well-intentioned professor reports, his analysis and the folks at the "Heart of Dallas Partnership" overlooks one simple, common sense reality:

No matter what we say or do or plan, the homeless are going to be in our downtown area.

No matter where we build the HAC--and I believe voters should and will approve the bond proposal because we desperately need this community tool to better face the challenge of homelessness in the city--homeless persons will migrate back into the Central Business District every day.

If the HAC is downtown, the problems associated with loitering and panhandling will be more easily addressed and managed.

Place the HAC anywhere else this side of the Red River and ironically, the very thing the "Heart of Dallas Partnership" folks fear most will certainly keep happening, but with a much less satisfactory outcome than if the center is located "where the action is," so to speak.

Fear is a powerful emotion.

Tied to investments and capital and it becomes overwhelming.

The Mayor's Taskforce on Homelessness, led by Tom Dunning and populated with smart, devoted citizen volunteers, produced a well-reasoned report that identified the best available site for the HAC.

We should follow their advice.

And not primarily for the sake of the homeless of Dallas.

The real benefit will be to the urban investors who are most eager to see our downtown revitalized economically. Put the HAC outside the inner circle and no one will be happy for long.

Other urban centers have proved this up through their experience. We should go to school on the evidence provided by other communities.

The HAC that is being planned will be a marvelous tool to begin challenging the growing problems surrounding homelessness in Dallas.

More on what the HAC could and should be later.

Interestingly, the "Heart of Dallas Partnership" has developed an eye-catching logo, complete with the Dallas skyline and a big red heart hovering over the city.

Real irony there.

As a good friend of mine would say, "all hat and no cattle" in this case when it comes to genuine community heart.

The bond issue should and, I believe, will pass in November when the citizens of Dallas form an electoral partnership that displays our true heart as a community.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sunday Experiences

Early on Sunday morning I stopped by my office to pick up some things and to drop off donated clothes, as well as newspapers for our recycle bins.

As I approached the back of the building, I noticed someone peeking out from inside one of the trash dumpsters. When he heard me pull up, he ducked down so that I would not see him there.

When I got out of my car to unload my donation, I simply said, "Good morning!"

At my greeting, my new friend's head popped up and he replied, "Good morning to you!"

At that point he went about his business of examining a shirt someone had thrown away, before continuing to dig for cans among the trash in the bin.

It was clear that he was relieved to find me basically harmless and it was also clear that he wanted nothing from me beyond the recognition of my greeting.

Later in the morning, as I sat in a pew at the beginning of the service in a downtown church , we heard the loud and disturbing crash, crush and sickening thud of an auto accident just outside the sanctuary walls on the street. Our singing and praying went on without interruption, but the expected noise and commotion of an accident continued. Sirens and the rushing sound of emergency and fire vehicles soon drew near us.

It was an eerie feeling to sit in the church and to be able to hear the sounds of disappointment, hurt, pain, distractionction just outside. Toward the end of the ordeal, I know I heard the wail of a person in the onset of a fierce grief.

Two very different experiences on my Sunday morning.

The intersection of my world with two very different worlds.

One the result of homelessness, possibly addiction and/or mental illness and a combination of terrible circumstances, bad choices and most likely a dose of sustained injustice. I don't know his story, but I've heard the broad outlines many times. The details don't really matter. Here was a brother in trouble who needed my friendship no matter what the reasons for his current location in life.

The other most likely an unfortunate accident that may have ended very tragically. At this point, I have no way to know. But pain was there and a need for hope and comfort and healing.

In both cases the church was positioned very nearby. That could be fortunate or ironically irrelevant.

Of course, that all depends on how the proximity is engaged.

I'll see my new friend again, I know. And, I expect that a number of folks leaving the church after Sunday School encountered the accident that I heard. There could be ongoing connection.

But beyond the details of my experiences, both seem to symbolize the choice communities of faith face today in America. To remain safely cloistered behind our walls of comfort and familiar friendship. Or, to step out into the streets to confront the painful reality that is very close at hand.

I'll think of this Sunday often in the coming days.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Faith, Health and Justice

Yesterday, I spoke at the “Values, Vision and the via media—a path to action national conference 2005” in Washington, DC. Sponsored by the Episcopal Church in America and organized by people who really care about communities and quality of life issues in the nation, the 4-day conference convened on the grounds of the National Cathedral. The setting was amazing.

The conversation was even better.

I flew up early and back late on the same day, but the time was rich and my trip worth the effort.

One conversation that ensued as a result of a question from the crowd stuck with me.

A woman from Houston, Texas described the public health situation in her city.

“When I go into the Third Ward in Houston,” she said, “I see faith-based organizations providing high-quality, high-touch health care services for the poor. The other alternative is an 11-hour wait in our public hospital where they don’t receive the same dignified treatment.”

Her point was founded in some personal confusion.

She wanted to support the public health institution, but she saw the smaller, community-based organizations “doing a better job.”

“Maybe if all the church people contributed more of their wealth we wouldn’t need the government,” she concluded.

Here at CDM we operate a first-class, high-touch, user-friendly health center. We will provide care during 20,000 patient visits this year. I shared this with the group.

Parkland Health and Hospital System, our public health facility, will care for hundreds of thousands of patients. They will do so on a strained budget. Their facility will be overwhelmed by the numbers. The care will be some of the best in Dallas and the cost per unit of service will be the most efficient anywhere.

If there is a problem with our public health system, it is with the support it receives to do its work. I have a hunch it is the same in Houston.

While the woman’s intent was pure and her idea noble, the facts are clear.

The church will not give significantly more of its treasure next year to care for the poor than it did this year. And, even if it did, the church could not possibly manage to give enough to cover the needs of the nation just in the public health arena alone.

My audience seemed to understand.

People of faith need to support sound, moral, comprehensive, equitable public policy that will lead us to a health care system that meets the needs of all of our citizens, while improving return on the incredible national investment in health care we are already making.

I sense a growing movement among people of faith who are longing for a new day in this country. It gives me hope.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The tears of those who harvest our crops

Poverty is not just about cities.

Rural agricultural workers take it on the chin daily, especially during harvest time.

My hunch is that most of the people who visit this site have never investigated the work of the United Farm Workers.

I hope you'll take the time to visit the group's website at

The organization has been at the vanguard of labor and civil rights activities for over a generation among farm laborers.

As I look at the photos and read the white papers posted on this educational site, I am reminded of what James, the brother of Jesus, wrote a long, long time ago:

"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you."
(James 5:1-6 NIV)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Jesus, the Unlikeable

It hit me recently, actually while I was speaking before a large group of people, that to most people nowadays Jesus would not be a very likeable person.

So, as I often do, I just came out with it before my listeners.

"You know what?" I asked them.

"I have a hunch that if you didn't believe that Jesus died to keep you out of hell, you really wouldn't much like him."

My audience was very kind. I even heard an "Amen" or two.

Most looked at me with a strange, thoughtful gaze moving across their faces.

I mean really, what's to like about Jesus?

Think about it. Think about his life, his words, his actions, his companions and his whereabouts.

He said such uncomfortable things about wealth, greed, forgiveness, peace, turning cheeks, giving to the poor, who you should invite to dinner, faith, government, sex and religion.

I mean, he hit all the polite dinner conversation, must-avoid, hot buttons.

He was the kind of guy who could split a church in one service!

And the people he hung out with, oh my goodness!

Prostitutes--think about that for a moment. What could the media do with his little black book?

Drunks--I mean the guy went where the riff-raff gathered and he didn't sound particularly 12-stepish in his conversations there! Actually, he used these dinner parties to castigate the moral majority!

He ate with Gentiles, for heaven's sake! He drank after Samaritans! He touched the rotting flesh of lepers and taught those who followed him to do the same.

Can you translate his actions into today's language?

He ate with Muslims, treating them as fast friends.

He drank after immigrant laborers who were "illegal" and he made it clear in the process that no one God made could ever be considered "illegal."

He touched the bleeding sores of homosexual males who were dying of AIDS.

He owned nothing and told his followers that they should divest for the sake of the poor.

He lived dependent on others and on God.

He rattled the bureaucratic hierarchies of organized religion.

He wouldn't have liked church much, if at all. I expect church wouldn't have appreciated him much either!

With Jesus, people always trumped tradition, and in some cases even the black and white, book chapter and verse of the Law of Moses!

He included, front and center as key players in his movement, the poor, the oppressed, the left out and left behind. I mean, he brought the scandalous to church!

He forgave those who were dead-to-rights, without a doubt guilty. A convicted thief at the hour of his execution. A woman from the street, with a reputation to match, who came to wash his feet.

A woman caught in bed with a man who was not her husband was excused, while her accusers were sent home to consider their own issues!

He talked about setting the prisoners free, liberating the captives, turning the economic system upside-down.

He elevated woman, considered to be not much more than chattel, to positions of leadership and importance.

He did not discriminate.

He consistently spoke truth to power.

And, they killed him because of who he was, what he said, where he went and who he loved.

Jesus was lots of things, but to his world and to the powers that ran it, he was anything but likeable.

Like I say, if we didn't think he died to save our souls from hell, I'm not really sure who would like the guy either.

Strange savior. Or, was he?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Bennett, Abortion, Crime and Race

Former Secretary of Education William Bennett was back in the news last week.

YouÂ’ll remember Bennett as the moralist who published the best-selling Book of Virtues. A year or so later he confirmed that he had a personal problem with gambling.

No problem there. I hope he has overcome his addiction.

As an aside, while I am very sympathetic, IÂ’ve noticed across the years that people who push morals with unctuous fervor should be observed carefully.

BennettÂ’s latest came during this radio program. Referring to the controversial and fascinating new book, Freakonomics (by Steven D. Levitt and co-author, Stephen J. Dubner), Bennett commented that if we wanted to be most efficient in controlling crime, we would abort all of the African American babies conceived in the country.

Levitt and Dubner had observed that one plausible explanation for the dramatic drop in crime during the 1990s likely was related to the increased number of abortions taking place following Roe v. Wade (1973) among low-income women twenty or so years earlier.

Babies who would have been born at that time to very poor women would have had an increased likelihood of falling into criminal activity. Since so many were aborted, the crime rate took an unexpected dip about the time these young people would have entered their late teens and early twenties.

Bennett was speaking in hypothetical terms, but his words proved highly offensive, as one would expect, especially from such a “moral authority.” No doubt, Bennett’s personal track record on social matters in general didn’t help him much in this latest controversy.

Even President Bush issued a statement condemning Bennett’s comments as “highly inappropriate.”

But the whole matter has me thinking.

Who is asking serious questions about crime and race in America today?

Incarceration rates for African America males are far out of proportion to their number in the general population. What’s up with this reality—a reality that negatively affects the health and well-being of inner city communities?

Law enforcement and criminal justice institutions need to take a look at how they relate to persons of color in terms of profiling, apprehension and prosecution.

For example, the consequences for using or trafficking cocaine in its powdered form are far less onerous than using or selling crack cocaine in its rock form.

Interestingly, and not accidentally it seems to me, the powdered form is the choice of whites, while cocaine “rocks” are the form of choice in the African American community. Congress is very aware of this glaring injustice, but continues to refuse corrective legislative action.

Of course, funds for treatment, as an aincarceration incarseration, are almost non-existent for the poor.

Much work and reform needs to take place around this single issue.

While many of the assumptions about black America that orbit around BennettÂ’s statement are ridiculous to the extreme, his comments should pose a much more important question demanding national attention.

What is life like for children who grow up in poverty? Black, brown, white—what does poverty do to a child before his or her eighteenth birthday?

[Lots of people who read this blog and who often post here speak with the authority of persons who really know what poverty does to individuals and families. But frankly, I wonder.]

Of ocurse, Bennett doesnÂ’t believe that abortion is an answer.

But what are the answers?

The most horrifying reality to be faced here is the fact that our state and national policy makers continue to be incapable of crafting plans to adequately address the important questions forced on all of us by the continuing spread of poverty into more American neighborhoods and families.

No doubt moral clarity should play an important part in challenging poverty.

What Mr. Bennett and his comrades have yet to understand is that public responses to systemic, community challenges such as poverty are matters of morality calling for moral responses of the first order from our public leaders.

Monday, October 10, 2005

I've Always Appreciated Steve Blow!

Take a look at Dallas Morning News' columnist Steve Blow's article that appeared in Sunday's paper (10/9/05). You can access it at:

The title gets you to the main point: "Doctor prescribing national health plan."

We are way past due for a just, common sense response to what is becoming a national health crisis. What we need is a comprehensive, national health care program.

Recently, someone posted to this blog the retort that everyone can find health care in the United States, what with all of the free/charity clinics and the emergency rooms of hospitals.

What was not mentioned was the quality of care, the cost of care under our current system and the almost complete lack of attention to preventive medicine among the poor.

Blow's article nails the issue by drawing an experienced healthcare provider to the debate.

Read the article.

Not only is our current system unfair, it is not smart.

Consider a fact and a myth.

First the myth.

Lots of people contend that the government cannot efficiently administer anything.

Simply not true.

Currently, the U. S. government administers Medicaid, Medicare and Veterans Administation health care products, and it does so very efficiently.

Now the fact.

Administrative costs for Medicare, the national health plan for senior citizens, amounts to 3 cents of every dollar spent.

Care to venture a guess as to the administrative costs associated with private insurance?

Twenty-five cents of every dollar paid in private insurance premiums goes to administrative expenses.

Let's be honest.

What we have in this country is health care viewed as a consumable, a market commodity. Not only is our approach not cost effective, it is not right.

Our results in terms of overall national health and wellness measures, as compared to the rest of the world, are pathetic.

We need a comprehensive national plan for everyone. I can see the need daily in the heart of the city.

Once that plan is in place, if the ultra-wealthy want to buy more, let them.

But for now, let's step up and do the moral thing.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Worship Via Doing Justice

Thursday and Friday of last week I spoke at a “leadership conference” presented by the Zoe Group based in Nashville, Tennessee.

My good friend Mike Cope linked me into this group of really nice people.

I must admit that it took me a day to “find my place” in the conference. I battle cynicism about churches in general and “praise and worship” in particular. Please understand. I am confessing my sins at this point.

What is a guy like me, who feels as if the church has walked away from its essential work of establishing justice, equity and fairness in our nation’s urban centers, doing at a conference of “worship leaders”?

What I discovered was a group of people who, just like me, are trying to find their way in a rather confusing world of need, prejudice and alienation.

It was a most interesting two days for me.

I was fortunate to be able to team up with Leonard Sweet in four of my five seminar sessions. Leonard has written more full-length books than I have blog posts! Prolific doesn’t come close to capturing the breadth and scope of his amazing work product. A United Methodist by religious “tribe,” to use his word, Leonard likes to talk about the necessity for change in order to insure the maintenance of life.

After being with this really bright group of caring people, I have decided that most churches don’t have a clue about how to respond to poverty or to the people caught in its ever-widening web. While filled with well-intentioned, middleclass folks, the church is paralyzed in the face of America’s most embarrassing, yet undeniable reality.

What can be done?

First, communities of faith must “reframe” their understanding of their purpose in the world. If we are to take the documents of the Christian faith seriously, then it is clear the church must care about and devote itself to the issues of poverty and injustice. Worship needs to be redefined to include consistent and determined efforts to work for and among the poor. These efforts, if biblical, will progress beyond charity toward the establishment of systemic fairness both in their own systems, as well as in the larger world of public policy.

Second, people of faith need to be challenged to dream bigger dreams. Nothing but will and organizational priorities stop local churches from engaging the need for more fit and affordable workforce housing in cities like Dallas. Only a narrowness of vision prevents our churches from getting busy addressing the real and pressing needs of thousands of our fellow citizens. Many churches control the property and have the wherewithal to act for the poor. All that is missing is a compelling vision and leadership to point the way.

For several years now we have been asking churches to consider setting aside just half a tithe from every capital improvement building campaign to be deposited in a renewable community development loan fund that could be utilized by competent community development corporations for pre-development funds to bring new housing to depressed and rebounding communities. Business people in the churches where we have “floated” the idea tend to really “lean into” such notions. But church leaders never seem to get the point. Maybe we need to try harder!

Third, churches need to “get outside themselves” for the good of the community. Far too many churches need to undergo a hard-nosed, evaluative audit about how resources are utilized. Churches that take a fair look will find that they exist largely to care for their own members. Resources set aside for work and activity outside the church’s own interests usually are motivated in part by a desire to provide members “meaningful volunteer opportunities." Such concerns are not the work of establishing justice.

My conference time was not a waste. I came home feeling renewed about the possibilities of working with thoughtful church leaders to make a difference in communities across the country.

Time will tell if my new found hope is naïve.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I Talk to Strangers

I talk to strangers. I can’t help myself.

Yesterday, as I was checking baggage before boarding a flight back to Dallas from Nashville, I stuck up a conversation with a “sky cap” at curbside check-in.

“Do you work for American or are you a contractor,” I asked the gentleman who took my bag.

“Oh, I am a contractor. That all changed awhile back,” he informed me.

“Is that good for you or bad?” I replied.

“Bad, real bad,” he answered quickly.

“I lost all my flight benefits when I lost American and I lost all my benefits, including health care,” he volunteered.

“I buy my own health care coverage now,” he continued, "And I make less money."

“It seems like everyone is working harder these days and earning less,” I said.

“You got that right,” my new friend agreed. “We work harder and longer and have less to show for our efforts.”

The middle class is losing power. It is distracted by shrinking wages, declining benefits and the day-to-day stress and press to make ends meet.

All the while, class becomes increasingly important in our nation. The competition and the strain on working families contributes to the declining interest in the rapidly expanding underclass.

The gap between those at the top and those at the bottom continues to widen, as more families in the middle class fall off into poverty.

Here’s an idea.

If you want to talk about tax cuts, instead of continuing to drive all the benefit up the economic food chain to those at the very top, let’s have an “industrial tax cut” so that corporations like American Airlines can pass on benefits to their hard working employees.

What if Congress passed tax reduction legislation for all corporations that agreed in advance to use the increased revenue to rehire their former employees and to restore their lost benefits?

It has been interesting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that Congress has postponed a vote on eliminating the estate tax. Congressional leaders have also delayed extending the life or making permanent current legislation that cuts taxes for the wealthiest Americans. I guess it is a bit embarrassing to do so with so much human suffering and need iright up in our face as a nation.

What affects the middle class affects those at the bottom and vice versa.

It is time for a new strategy.

My new friend at the curb and I agreed on that without debate.

My faith tells me that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible would have added a hearty “Amen!”

My experience tells me that some of my readers here will offer strong protests about my ideas. Ironically, many will do so against their own self-interests.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Moving from Charity to Community After the Storm

Now that Katrina’s initial onslaught is past us and local evacuees are settling in as our new neighbors, churches are calling to ask, “What now?”

It is a wise question.

One extremely involved leader told me in a recent email, “Something tells me that driving a bus out to pick up our new friends and bring them to church is really not the answer for us. What should we do now? How do we know what is needed and wanted by these folks?”

Going deeper with people who are trying to craft and re-make life in extremely challenging situations is exactly what is required.

But, it is not easy.

The pathway is not self-evident to people who understand compassion and charity, but have never considered what long-term equity in a community populated by the poor will mean or look like.

Congregations of all sorts stepped up to provide aid, shelter and a helping hand to thousands of evacuees after Katrina and Rita blew through. The response amazed me and, I know, gratified everyone involved.

Now these active groups have an opportunity to take next steps—steps that could be even more important than the acts of charity that have brought them to this point.

For most groups though, this next phase is largely uncharted territory.

Talk about an exciting opportunity.

But, where to begin?

Here are a few ideas that emerge from our experience with low-income friends who live in inner city neighborhoods here in Dallas.

First, everyone needs to continue to work on becoming genuine friends. It is one thing to assume the much-needed role of Good Samaritan in a crisis. It is quite another to become a true friend.

Friends listen to each other. They work hard at understanding one another.

The blessings of friendship flow in at least two directions rather than in just one. Material assistance in one form or another helped establish these new relationships. Now other factors and resources need to be valued and added to the mix.

Time together that is “non-programmatic” is essential to building genuine friendships. It will be a bit awkward at first, but with honest communication and a commitment to stay at it, amazing things can happen.

Second, times for intentional conversation about the issues involved need to be planned and executed. Learning circles or focus groups should become a part of the plan for going forward. While planned and intentional, these experiences need to be informal and natural.

The honest question, “What now?” needs to be discussed in-depth among the partners involved.

Personal stories should be shared.

Honesty will be essential.

Asking new friends what they hope for, what they want to achieve and what they face will be important.

Likewise, those who are positioned at a lower place economically need to ask questions of their wealthier new friends. The exchange of information needs to flow back and forth.

The use of “house meetings” where one-on-one or family-to-family conversations and fellowship could be enjoyed will be essential. In private, relationship-building visits, people become better acquainted with one another. At the same time, community and individual problems can be identified for the larger group to tackle together.

No doubt, individual issues of a more personal nature will manifest themselves.

A sign that real community is forming will be when the “host” participants begin to lay out their personal and family issues to the newcomers. As with resources, so vulnerability and need should be expressed by everyone involved.

Third, small groups could be formed for on-going work. Issues such as difficulties finding work, effective entry into new public schools, adequate housing resources, health care concerns, transportation and child care—these will be the subjects that will most likely come up as real communications begin.

As the new community—those who have been here for years and those who are recently arrived—develops, the pressing realities of shared life will suggest various actions, some within the community and some outside in the public square.

Fourth, in the public gatherings of the larger congregation, newcomers should be invited to participate publicly and in ways that have nothing to do with the disaster that brought the two groups together originally. The new friends should be invited to share faith and worship and service as their contribution to their new community.

The older, host group must come to genuinely value and depend on the contributions of their new brothers and sisters. Until and unless this transition occurs, no real sense of community will exist and participants will remain in a "charity mode" that will eventually end in a very unsatisfying manner.

What is needed is a simple commitment to share life together as fellow travelers who recognize that everyone has something important to contribute to the process.

Along the way the strengthened and empowered new family will find exciting and fresh ways to express shared faith—politically, socially, theologically, and personally.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Government and Democratic Tradition

It has become very clear to me that lots of people don't appreciate government.

Every time political discussions break out here, we enjoy a good fight!

At the risk of provoking another one, I want to share a passage from Cornel West's challenging book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004).

This reading, excerpted from the chapter entitled "The Deep Democratic Tradition in America," is important it seems to me, especially in view of the manner in which Katrina tore away the blinders protecting mainstream America from a reality check about urban poverty.

To many, our democratic system seems so broken that they have simply lost faith that their participation could really matter. The politics of self-interest and catering to narrow special interests is so dominant that so many ask themselves, Why vote?

The disaffection stems both from the all-too-true reality of the corruptions of our system and from a deeper psychic disillusionment and disappointment. The political discourse is so formulaic, so tailored into poll-driven, focus-group-approved slogans that don't really say anything substantive or strike at the core of our lived experience; the lack of authenticity of discourse--and the underlying lack of gravitas, of penetrating insight and wisdom on the part of politicians--is numbing. But we must keep in mind that the disgust so many feel comes from a deep desire to hear more authentic expressions of insights about our lives and more genuine commitments to improving them. Many of us long for expressions of real concern both about the pain of our individual lives and about the common good. . . as opposed to the blatant catering to base interests and to narrow elite constituencies. We long for a politics that is not about winning a political game but about producing better lives. . . .

Our national focus has become so dominated by narrow us-versus-them discourse that it has all but drowned out authentic debate over issues. Though many voters are mobilized by the increased polarization of our party politics, there is an underlying disgust about the preoccupation of our political leaders with partisan warfare.

The uninspiring nature of our national political culture has only enhanced the seductiveness of the pursuit of pleasure and of diverting entertainments, and too many of us have turned inward to a disconnected, narrowly circumscribed family and social life. White suburbanites and middle-class blacks (and others) are preoccupied with the daily pursuit of the comfort of their material lives. In many cases they literally wall themselves off into comfortable communities, both physical and social, in which they can safely avert their eyes from the ugly realities that afflict so many of our people. Because they are able to buy the cars and take the vacations they want, they are all too willing to either disregard the political and social dysfunctions afflicting the country or accept facile explanations for them.

The black community is increasingly divided, the upper and middle classes as against the feeble institutions of the inner cities. Too much of the black political leadership has become caught up in the mainstream political game and has been turning away from the deep commitment to a more profound advocacy for poor blacks. Meanwhile a generation of blacks who have suffered from the cataclysmic breakdown of the civic and social structure in inner cities are consigned to lives of extreme alienation and empty pursuit of short-term gratification.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Simple Matters, Important Realities

My car "blew up" on me yesterday. Not literally, but it ended up in the shop.

As a result, when the end of my day arrived, I found myself on foot.

I walked home from my office through the neighborhood where we live--five or six rather long blocks. No big deal.

But, then again, it was a very "big deal."

Funny, isn't it, how a change in routine or pace or method or speed puts things in a different perspective?

Normally, I drive home in a rush.

Yesterday, I walked home in the late afternoon, Texas heat.

I saw all the same things I always see, except this time I really noticed my surroundings.

My neighborhood is extremely diverse. All kinds of people live where I live. Pick the human classification, we have a bit of everything along these streets.

Lots of my neighbors walk everywhere. Many don't have cars. I saw people on bicycles--children and adults. I also noticed a large sample of thirty-year-old Chevrolets!

My neighborhood is poor and middle class.

It is old in years--my house, for example, is about 85, as are many of the surrounding homes.

I walked past single-family housing--large and small. Mixed in are a number of more recently constructed multi-family dwellings. Some of the housing was well-kept. Other homes needed varying degrees of attention.

The sidewalks are in pretty rough shape--many stretches need to be torn out and replaced. Not much chance that will happen in my part of the city anytime soon. The streets need sweeping and some trash needs picking up.

At the same time, I observed a young mother busily sweeping the porch and sidewalk of her small home, no doubt a rental property jammed up against several others. She seemed determined to keep her corner of the community in top shape. She reminded me of another woman I notice almost every morning on my way to work who sweeps the street in front of her apartment building.

The trees in our neighborhood are magnificent. It is as if the earth shouts, "I'm not giving up on this part of Dallas! You shouldn't either! Sit here in my shade awhile and see what you can learn!"

I set out on my walk home too late in the day to catch many kids on the way home from school, but I did see a few teenagers walking home. Some were friendly, some seemed to wonder what an old guy like me was so happy about!

I walked past a school; a great, old park; a well-worn tennis court; a basketball court; a baseball diamond whose outfield doubles as a soccer field that is in almost constant use; lots of barking dogs and numerous children playing, playing, playing.

I wasn't the only one getting home from work. Walking, driving, arriving--mothers and fathers, with and without children--folks were coming home after a day of labor.

My neighborhood has lots of challenges.

But my walk home gave me time to remember--this is a good place to live.

I am lucky to be surrounded by these good people.

What we need here is more time to get acquainted, more reasons to cooperate and a commitment to slow down more often and introduce ourselves to one another.

Lots of things need attention here. Many things aren't working as they should.

But, yesterday by just walking home and opening my eyes, I gained new hope.

People, attempting to simply live their lives, are amazing.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Poverty's "Instructive" Movement Out of New Orleans

Late last week I spoke with my best friend from New Orleans.

Our family lived in the Crescent City for five years (1975-1980). I completed seminary while there. I also enjoyed (and I do mean enjoyed!) graduate work at Tulane University while we were there.

My ministry in those years was with a downtown church located just 3 blocks off Canal Street.

We loved the city.

Recent events break my heart.

But, back to my friend.

He traveled back to the city for a brief visit week before last. He returned to his temporary home in Arkansas in a state of shock. He couldn't believe the devastation and loss.

"Larry, if you were addicted to material things, Katrina sure helps you get over that!" he told me, trying to bring a laugh even in tough circumstances, his typical reaction to his own loss.

Several times during our brief conversation, my buddy found it difficult to speak. Tears overcame him. Emotion stopped his tongue.

"Larry, we left behind the same people we have been leaving behind for years. The poor were basically on their own," he reflected with tears mixed in his words. "The churches in the city have been unresponsive across the years to the poor. It is terrible to realize now."

"You know, it is as if the Lord said, 'If you won't come to them in their persistent need, I will send them out everywhere to you across the nation so that you will see what is going on in this country," my friend concluded.

You may want to argue the point with him.

For me, I simply listened and shared in his tears.

It is curious, isn't it? The poor from New Orleans have resettled in every one of our fifty states.

I pray the nation will get the message.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Sunday School Questions

(For "texture" on this post you may want to read what I posted on Monday, September 19.)

Stay with me here.

I'm still stuck in my experience on a recent Sunday.

What I cannot get out of my mind are the questions that came from the class after my presentation.

The class invited me to talk about our work at Central Dallas Ministries. I was glad to do so. In fact, I have visited with this group on several occasions.

I gave a brief report on most of the initiatives that we have underway. I concluded by updating them on our efforts to address housing needs among the very poor in Dallas, many of whom live on our streets or in shelters. The group seemed eager to hear about our single room occupancy (SRO) projects.

When the Q & A portion of our time arrived, several hands went up. All of the questions were provocative and important. I enjoyed the conversation.

Some of the questions stuck with me.

They remain with me.

"How do you screen these people? How do you make sure that you aren't helping drunks and winos?" a rather stern looking gentleman asked.

I explained that to understand our process one really needed to visit and sit in our Resource Center and observe the people. I went over our interview process. I pointed out that since 99.9% of our volunteers are low-income people from the community, we have no trouble at all sniffing out "cons" and identifying "game."

Another man told of a good friend who owned a business downtown. He rehearsed in some detail the "clean up" process that occurred every morning after the "street bums" had spent the night in front of his building.

"How do you plan to deal with that in what you are suggesting?" he asked--come to think of it, he seemed stern as well.

I asked the class not to give me a show of hands, but to think about how many alcoholics they had in their families. I went on to describe a plan that includes treatment, housing and strong accountability.

"Tell me, Larry, what do you think about this FEMA policy of issuing $2,000 cash payments to every Katrina victim? I've heard that some of the debit card expenditures are ending up in all sorts of places, including 'strip clubs' and the like. Is this good policy?" another not so stern fellow asked.

After making a few comments about how "strip clubs" aren't staying in business on the limited income of the poor, I went on to explain that it was my strong belief that the vast majority of the emergency dollars were being spent as intended.

The problems with the emergency situation has more to do with the untenable plight of the poor before the storm that led to such disaster for so many during and after the storm.

I'm not sure I satisfied everyone, but the group remained polite and supportive.

In retrospect though, I find the conversation unnerving.

Nowhere in the texts of the Christian faith (we were in a Sunday School class with adults who have been reading the Bible a long time) do I find interview criteria for working with the poor, the homeless or the weak. No text in all of the Bible, that I can recall, questions the poor about their poverty so as to eliminate or exclude them from the works of compassion or justice.

Someone will pipe up just here with Paul's words "if a man will not work, neither shall he eat." That text was written to a specific Christian community so completely convinced that the second coming was emanate that work was no longer necessary, so it does not apply to the poor.

On the other hand, there are countless texts that challenge the rich and the well-off to stand with the poor, speak up for the poor and defend the poor against those forces that help make and keep them poor. Hundreds of passages speak to compassion for the poor. I could go on and on here.

The questions asked in class Sunday were fine.

Considering the extreme affluence of this church , it is the questions that were not asked that really bother now that I think about it.