Saturday, December 30, 2006

Made your New Year's resolutions yet?

If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of low-income people who live in urban areas, consider these:

During 2007,

1. I will make the effort necessary to discover what organizations are working in the inner city of my community. I will pay particular attention to those groups who are working from within the community, utilizing the leadership skills of the people who live in the neighborhood being affected.

2. I will develop a working relationship with at least one community development organization working in an inner city neighborhood in my area.

3. I will investigate the place that justice and compassion assume in my own spiritual tradition
. I will read the Bible with "new eyes" this year to discover what the ancient wisdom has to teach me about poverty, the poor and the role of faith in responding to human need.

4. I will determine how my present community of faith regards poor people in its own mission in my community. I will ask questions about how funds are spent. I will listen with a sharper ear to what my church teaches. I will observe what, if any, public stands it takes for and with the urban poor.

5. I will reach out to an urban public school in a manner that makes sense to me and that allows me to use my talents to mentor and to befriend at least one student in either an elementary, middle or high school.

6. I will read my local newspaper with an eye to the issues that affect the poorest, the weakest and the most vulnerable in my community.

7. I will read at least 4 books (one each quarter) that relate to some aspect of poverty and the city.

8. I will consider beginning or joining a small group devoted to learning more about my city, its people and the connection of my spiritual and civic life to these concerns.

9. I will vote in every election. When I do, I will remember the poor.

10. I will visit at least one inner city church.

11. I will do my best to begin or to deepen a friendship with at least one person who lives in the inner city.

12. I will include the poor neighborhoods in my city on my prayer list.

Pick and choose. By all means, add your own ideas.

Just please remember the city and its people during the New Year!

[This post first appeared here on January 1, 2006 and is reprinted this year in hopes of encouraging positive new action in inner city communities around the United States.]

Friday, December 29, 2006

The rights of the poor

Calls for compassion and charity dot the biblical record and inform the faith of most Christians and Jews.

Much less familiar to most believers are directives formed around an understanding of the "rights" or the "cause" of the poor.

Both terms imply that the poor among us are entitled to certain benefits due to life circumstances beyond their control that landed them in the predicament in which they find themselves. Further, the forces keeping them trapped in poverty are not only largely to blame, but should be opposed and, if possible, set aside by people of faith and action.

Consider a few examples.

"The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding." Proverbs 29:7

"It is not for kings. . .to drink wine, not for rulers to drink beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive the oppressed of their rights." Proverbs 31:5-6

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

"They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy." Jeremiah 5:28.

"May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor." Psalm 72:4

"I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor." Psalm 140:12

"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

"'Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?' declares the Lord." Jeremiah 22:15-16

The poor and the needy, the oppressed and the marginalized in a society have a case to present against those people, systems and forces that contribute to their state of need and despair. They have rights and are entitled to be heard.

Even more important, God takes up that case and God defends their rights.

This strong voice coming from the biblical record moves us well beyond charity and simple compassion as we consider our responses to poverty and the injustices that so often create and sustain it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Donors and Walking a Mission "Tightrope"

Recently, I received a letter of denial of funding from a foundation. We wrote this particular foundation because it had awarded us funding for food and emergency assistance in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

In this most recent communication the foundation stated that its "mission has always been to fund organizations with anti-hunger advocacy as a part of their work."

The letter went on to say, "Therefore, we look to support agencies that use their status and visibility to 1) educate their stakeholders. . .about the role and limits of charities in feeding hungry people (i.e. that charitable food distribution alone will not bring an end to hunger); and 2) advocate for public policy and action, beyond those that result in more donations of resources to their own organization."

This letter demonstrates perfectly our dilemma.

Some donors get really uncomfortable when we press for larger, broader, systemic changes that would help eliminate the need for charity while cutting into the forces feeding poverty. Anyone who reads here knows that we try to be advocates. Readers also know that lots of people who post here really prefer charity and have no taste for public policy changes. Many of our supporters fear that our efforts at advocating for systemic change may result in a loss of funding from more conservative supporters.

But then, there are significant funders, like the foundation in question here, who want to see us become much more radical in our approach. Being a non-profit organization based in Dallas, Texas teaches you that the charity approach sure sells better!

Talk about a case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't"!

So, what to do?

Stay on mission. Hear the funders and interested parties on both sides. Weigh their input with respect. But never sell your soul to anyone or any organization or any funder.

At times this is a hard reality to face and manage. It can feel like walking a tightrope of sorts.

After reading the foundation's response to our proposal, I instructed our development director to contact them and inform them of all the systemic, advocacy actions we have taken and are committed to continue here in Dallas, in the state and even at a national level. Further, we have recently taken steps to reorganize our leadership structure to be in a position to speak and to act more directly to the struggle against poverty here in Dallas.

Building community and fighting poverty require compassion, resources, charity and political action. We must work on many fronts to achieve our mission.

One thing is clear to me. The work we do and the decisions we face are never quite as clear or as black and white as funders on either side of this philosophical divide think.

Speaking of donors! Take a look at our growing, green village just to the right!

Click on the info thumbnails to find out how to join the "painting crew" to complete the paint job on the last rows of houses.

Thanks to everyone who has participated so far.

Our goal by December 31 to paint all 100 houses and raise $100,000 for the work done in inner city Dallas by CDM.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Meet the Press

Last Sunday, December 24, 2006, Tim Russert, host of the weekly news program, Meet the Press, interviewed Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and Jon Meacham, Editor of Newsweek and author of American Gospel. The three men discussed faith in America for most of the program.

Check it out at:

I found the program extremely refreshing and most encouraging.

The issues facing American cities require a new coalition of leaders and forces that must include government, private and business sectors and truly motivated faith communities. If new partnerships that include all of these players could be fashioned, real progress could be made.

Warren and Meacham both emphasized the importance of civility in our public discourse as a key to the formation of any new collaborations.

Warren recently demonstrated his commitment to creating such space for productive discourse when he invited both Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) to speak during the same seminar on fighting AIDS in Africa.

The problems are far too large for us to go forward in arrogance or pride. We must work together with any and all who want to help in the struggle to renew our great urban centers.

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Peace on earth?

Ogden Nash puts it something like this--my memory is not perfect and I haven't been able to find the exact quote or citation:

Men can't concentrate on blowing each other up if their minds are poisoned with thoughts of Christmas.

I think that is correct.

In a world of war, conflict, and exploding hatred, thoughts of the arrival of Jesus completely reframe everything, every reality, every plan and every dream.

We would do very well to rest in thoughts informed by the narrative of Advent and Christmas.

It wouldn't hurt us, it would do no harm to let those images and ideas linger on deep into spring.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Children and Christmas. . .What could be better?

Christmas began with the story of a child, a very special child.

Christmas is all about children, isn't it?

It's about my grandchildren, as well as all of the grandchildren in the world.

Nothing could be better.

Still, not every Christmas experience will be positive today.

As I enjoy mine and these amazing little ones, I hope I can find at least a moment to reflect on the children whose day won't be so good.

Maybe thoughts of Christmas should inform our actions throughout the New Year as they relate to the children of those who live in the struggle of continuing need.

So, I'll ponder these questions:

How could anything be better than children at Christmas?

How could things be better for more children this time next year?

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Jesus Child

The following came to me from a regular reader here. Fits my thoughts today.

How about you?

O, Jesus Child
by Owen Burgess

Birthed in county general
Between gunshot wounded
And the last breath of AIDS,
Medi-Cal recipient
Fully human, fully divine,
O, Jesus child!

Nurtured off Cottonwood Road
Countrified ghetto's three-room shack,
Surrounded by sounds of gang warfare
And crack house despair
Enveloped in real world, real time,
O, Jesus child!

On the road with family,
From camp to labor camp,
Just ahead of Immigration
And a step ahead of the law;
Parents working to the bone
To provide in the instability,
O, Jesus child!

Settling down in that Union
Avenue flophouse – one-room motel room –
Working poor, using WIC
And food stamps to make ends meet,
Owner of all – and nothing,
O, Jesus child!

You knew slander despite divine seed,
Filth and unkeptness with the purest of hearts,
Unmatched wealth below the poverty line,
Groundedness with no place to lay your head.

Take away whatever is needed,
Remove the privilege that stands between us,
Squander every bit of my wealth,
Evaporate the figment of my stability
If I know You not as you were,
And are, and will ever be,
For I must know you,
O, I must know you,
O, Jesus child!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The cost of friendship

"Never befriend the oppressed unless you are prepared to take on the oppressor."

--Ogden Nash, American poet (1902-1971)

Speaking of friendship: you will notice to the right that our "little village of green houses" now numbers 59!

That's right. Readers here have contributed over $59,000 to our "blog campaign."

Our goal is to see all 100 houses painted.

Each green house represents $1,000 donations to help underwrite the work of Central Dallas Ministries.

If you are planning year-end giving, please keep our little neighborhood in mind!

For details, simply click on the thumbnails embedded at the top of the graphic.

Thanks to all who have given!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Herod was correct to fear this baby. . .

The Christmas narrative found in the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke provide striking contrasts in tone and style. The manner in which we "weave" them together is interesting and, I suppose, our only option in an attempt to gather up as many details as possible about the birth of Jesus.

Matthew's story feels dark and foreboding. Parts are downright frightening--dreams, heavenly beings, visitors from a faraway land, the plot of an evil despot to see the child murdered, flight by night to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents. Quite a story full of action, hope and horror.

Luke's version aims to introduce a new world order! The narrative is much longer. There is a determined emphasis on extended family. A community begins to emerge. The visions feel triumphant and grand. The promises are grounded in a power that refuses to turn back! Music is everywhere--the pregnant women, the angels, the shepherds. Watch that one: the shepherds have front row seats, not a position they are accustomed to occupying. Prophets affirm the unique nature of the child. There is no abiding fear, no flight away in the darkness.

Matthew's Herod sounds like he had read Luke's version of the story! The madman king is scared witless by a new born baby, a baby born to very poor, seemingly powerless parents.

He seeks to kill the child because of his fear.

Herod's fear is well-placed actually.

Somehow the church has lost its appreciation for this fundamental truth concerning the life of Jesus. The loss seems strange to me since the truth is placed at the heart of the story from the very beginning. Here the gospel reveals to us a very dangerous Messiah.

Can you hear this truth?

You'll find the voices of many witnesses throughout Luke's version of the life of Jesus.

However, the truth of the dangerous Messiah appears first as a song that Mary sang when greeted by her kinswoman, Elizabeth. Listen to just a verse or two as Mary sings about the nature of the child she carries and the intentions of God for this special baby's life:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Yes, Herod had good reason to fear this child.

This child, when grown, would go on a mission of turning tables, establishing justice and extending compassion and hope to anyone who did not have it because of leaders like the insane and evil king.

Herod knew exactly what he was doing by going after the baby. Thankfully, he just didn't prevail.

The child reveals what God intends to be about in the world.

For those of us who claim to follow the child, Christmas reminds us of the true nature of our mission and calling.

As we light our candles and sing the carols, we would do well to remember that for some we may even appear a little dangerous ourselves, just like this very special child.

For most though, we will appear to be those who bring hope and promise and great music!

Thursday, December 21, 2006


All week it has been the same.

Long lines of people seeking assistance. Old men and women, mothers with crying babies, homeless men, all races, all cultures, several languages, from all parts of the inner city. . .they lined up to receive what we had to offer.

Monday morning well before 9:00 a.m. people started lining up outside our doors. They waited to receive food for themselves and their families. By day's end, over 350 families had been served.

Hundreds of people passed through our doors and jammed our interview areas and our grocery store.

Aching feet. Fussy kids. Impatient and hungry. Good natured and polite. Calculating how long until they could get inside and find a seat. Wondering about our food supply. Worrying about bills and health and shelter and work. . .with Christmas piled on for good measure.

Lines of people all day long.

Tuesday was no different. . .more lines of people, mostly women and children. Hundreds of people.

Wednesday evening before 6:00 p.m. the lines returned. The first of two large Christmas gift outreach efforts got underway. With so many clothes, toys and other gifts filling our interview space, people were forced to wait outside. . .in line.

It will be the same tomorrow when we repeat the exercise as a part of the church's community outreach. More lines, no doubt.

Lines make me sad and sick and angry and impatient and motivated to see things change and change dramatically.

People shouldn't have to stand in charity lines to provide for their families. It should be different.

I expect that over 80% of the people who stood in line today live in households in which breadwinners get up every day and go to work. That assessment would square with previous surveys we have conducted.

The problem is people can work and still be forced to stand in line to ask for help.

It shouldn't be this way in a nation like ours, in a city like this.

We are doing what we can, but we need different and better approaches.

Mostly, we need change.

I'm hoping the New Year will bring us new and better solutions. Somehow we need to do away with all of these lines.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ann Lott

Ann Lott has been with the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) for well over 20 years. She began as a front office clerk and worked her way up to President and CEO, a position she has held since 2000.

Under her careful and compassionate direction the Dallas Housing Authority has placed on line 2 units of housing every day for the lowest income citizens of the city of Dallas. She has accomplished this during a time when federal funding for low-income housing development was declining.

She is an amazing leader and administrator. She serves on the national public housing board. She has been recognized by her peers as one of the nation's elite public housing directors.

She is a born servant leader.

During the Katrina crisis, I watched Ann stand at a kiosk in the lobby of DHA headquarters for about 8 or 9 hours talking to evacuees from New Orleans one-on-one about the tragedy they had just survived and about how they could begin again in our city. Her stamina is matched only by her deep commitment to assisting individuals and families move up and on toward self-sufficiency.

She was instrumental in our efforts to purchase and redevelop CityWalk@Akard in Downtown Dallas. Ann and DHA have been our partners in human and community development in two challenging neighborhoods in the inner city.

Ann is an amazing person guided by her faith. She does not have a job. She has a life in public service.

Now for a little Dallas politics: Several months ago Ann stood up to leaders in Dallas and members of her own board of commissioners to protect the interests of the low income people in Dallas she is called to serve.

She refused to shift funding from her mission to provide better housing for the lowest income residents of Dallas toward a more politically popular home ownership program.

She objected to the sale of the recently renovated and historic Little Mexico public housing development, a DHA property located on what has become one of the most valuable pieces of Downtown real estate.

She objected to what would have been the illegal transfer of HUD funds to a new non-profit organization that her board chair wanted to see DHA create to facilitate a home ownership program financed at the expense of the poorest residents of our city who cannot afford to purchase housing.

She stood up to do her job and in doing so, at least it seems to me, she inadvertently placed the spotlight on the fact that the City of Dallas is doing far too little to help fund the development of fit and affordable workforce housing that should be offered for sale to people near the bottom of the economic ladder here in Dallas.

Ann knows that her primary job at DHA is to serve the poorest. The City needs to recognize and commit to aggressively serving those residents just above the bottom who could begin to create wealth by owning their own homes. But such a policy can't be carried out "on the cheap."

The city must step up to the challenge, bring in private and not-for-profit developers, provide more soft second mortgage assistance, turn over vacant lots from a beefed-up land bank to builders and help fund the process.

Habitat for Humanity, for all of its good work, cannot provide all that is required here. The churches, synagogues and mosques of Dallas can't rebuild inner city neighborhoods alone.

And our inner city neighborhoods need to receive a diversity of housing stock to foster the secondary economic development that always follows such planned, quality developments. The public sector--DHA and City of Dallas, working with state and federal governments--must rise to the need and the challenge in a coordinated effort to provide better housing in a continuum from the bottom up.

Ann Lott has been doing her part without fanfare and, it seems now, without the kind of board support and leadership she deserves. She has been very clear about her mission.

As a result, she now finds herself caught up in a battle.

Last night, for the second time in a week, the community filled the DHA board room to support Ann against the efforts of her Board Chairman to oust her from her position.

Ironically, the Board Chair did not show up. Thankfully, the community did and so did three of her board members, including newly appointed resident member Marcella Atkinson, a community leader we know well at CDM.

After strong statements of support and calls for accountability from State Senator Royce West, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, former Dallas City Council members Al Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale and several other community leaders, the board agreed to enter into negotiations with Ms. Lott to renew her contract.

We will see.

Thankfully, the community will continue to watch closely the actions of this Mayor-appointed board to see if it acts for its true constituency--the poorest residents of Dallas, Texas.

Time will tell.

The community will not go away.

I was proud to be there last evening to support our friend and partner, Ann Lott.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"Little Green Houses" Campaign Drawing to a Close

Regular readers have followed our "over-the-top" notion of trying to collect $100,000 for our work here in Dallas.

Take a look at the "village" of little green houses just to the right of this column. Every house represents $1,000 of the fund.

One hundred houses.

One hundred thousand dollars. That's our goal!

One of our major problems--one that lots of folks don't understand or think about--is the lack of "unrestricted" funds.

Central Dallas Ministries has enjoyed a banner year in terms of development plans, growth and funding. The downside is that most of our funding has been given with strings attached. Most notably, these funds are given and devoted to specific projects and can be spent only in the way outlined in the funding agreement, whether from a foundation, a public grant or contract or a donor who is focused on a singular project or need.

At times I fear a headline like, "CDM Receives $12 Million in Tax Credit Housing Award," may leave the impression with donors that we are flush with cash. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Most all of our programs run in the red because of our lack of unrestricted funding.

This challenge played a part in extending our little house campaign beyond our initial needs for the filing fee after we were awarded the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit allocation from the State of Texas.

So, the deadline now is December 31, 2006.

On January 2, 2007, our virtual neighborhood will go away. Just a reminder.

To those who have contributed, let me say again a huge "Thank you!"

To date donations to this unusual, on-line campaign total just over $33,000. I find that amazing!
Still, we are just 1/3 of the way to our goal.

If you have been intending to help us, please do so now.

Your can click on the information thumbnails in our little green village for more details about on-line giving.

Or, just mail your check, made payable to Central Dallas Ministries, to "Larry James' Urban Daily, P. O. Box 710385, Dallas, Texas 75371-0385."

And again, thanks so much!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Animosity toward "the poor"

Let's not kid ourselves.

Let's just face the facts.

Let's decide to be honest with one another.

Lots of people (read "millions" just here) in this nation harbor extremely negative feelings when it comes to "the poor" among us.

Over the past week I've been in several situations where I was reminded of this hard fact of life in America, and particularly here in Dallas.

Reaction to an idea we suggested about another secure, safe and quality housing development for some of the poorest of our fellow citizens hit the news largely due to community opposition to the proposed location. We have not been awarded the development site by the city, but just the thought of having low-income persons, even U. S. Veterans nearby was too much for most people who expressed an opinion.

Participants in a meeting of high level decision makers in Dallas that I attended talked all around the ever-present issues of racism and bias toward the poor. The purpose was to discuss how to energize the Southern Sector of Dallas via new housing development and economic opportunities.

The conversation ranged widely and included analysis of market forces, the profit potential of this neglected section of the city, what public partners could do to incentivize development and a number of other issues.

What no one seemed to want to admit is really very simple and terribly depressing. Namely, the fact that our city regards real progress in the lowest income neighborhoods of Dallas as a very low priority. How do I know this is true? Follow the money! Watch the city's funding priorities and policy decisions. Take a look at where the development occurs in this community.

An attempt to dismiss Ann Lott, the President and CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority, was turned back thanks to last minute community organizing that resulted in a groundswell of support for her contract renewal. The support came from the low-income community here in Dallas.

Her failure? She refused to go along with steps that would have hurt the very poor here in Dallas. And, the battle to save the position for this truly exemplary leader is not over.

Many people who enjoy financial security don't understand the poor.

They often fear the poor.

They espouse policies that continue to segregate the poor and that concentrate poverty in far away corners of our city. You know, out of sight, out of mind. Never mind the extremely negative impact of such public policy and "urban planning/engineering" on children, families, economic progress and human hope.

Bias against the poor that often turns to hatred is just beneath the surface of the most "churched up" city in the United States.

It is far past time to face this ugly fact.

Maybe if we get honest, we can summon the moral strength and the necessary courage to speak the truth so that we can begin to do better by the weakest among us.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Christmas Guest

Helen Steiner Rice wrote the lyrics to "The Christmas Guest," a sentimental song first performed by country music legend, Grandpa Jones back in 1963.

This sort of ballad-like song typified a portion of the country music I grew up on. Yes, my roots are deeply planted in country music and I am proud of that fact!

For some this song will come across as sappy, hillbilly stuff. But, as we prepare for Christmas again this year, it is hard to argue with the message. Faith is all about people, pain, compassion and an abiding commitment to caring or it is useless, at least it seems to me.



It happened one day near December's end,
Two neighbors called on an old-time friend
And they found his shop so meager and mean,
Made gay with a thousand boughs of green,
And Conrad was sitting with face a-shine
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine
And he said, "Old friends, at dawn today,
When the cock was crowing the night away,
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said, 'I am coming your guest to be'.
So I've been busy with feet astir,
Strewing my shop with branches of fir,
The table is spread and the kettle is shined
And over the rafters the holly is twined,
And now I will wait for my Lord to appear
And listen closely so I will hear
His step as He nears my humble place,
And I open the door and look on His face. . ."

So his friends went home and left Conrad alone,
For this was the happiest day he had known,
For, long since, his family had passed away
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day.
But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas guest
This Christmas would be the dearest and best,
So he listened with only joy in his heart.
And with every sound he would rise with a start
And look for the Lord to be at his door
Like the vision he had a few hours before.
So he ran to the window after hearing a sound,
But all that he could see on the snow-covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn.
But Conrad was touched and went to the door
And he said, "Your feet must be frozen and sore,
I have some shoes in my shop for you
And a coat that will keep you warmer, too."
So with grateful heart the man went away,
But Conrad noticed the time of day.
He wondered what made the Lord so late
And how much longer he'd have to wait,
When he heard a knock and ran to the door,
But it was only a stranger once more.
A bent, old lady with a shawl of black,
With a bundle of kindling piled on her back.
She asked for only a place to rest,
But that was reserved for Conrad's Great Guest.
But her voice seemed to plead, "Don't send me away
Let me rest for awhile on Christmas day."
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup
And told her to sit at the table and sup.
But after she left he was filled with dismay
For he saw that the hours were slipping away
And the Lord had not come as He said He would, A
nd Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood.

When out of the stillness he heard a cry,
"Please help me and tell me where am I."
So again he opened his friendly door
And stood disappointed as twice before,
It was only a child who had wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day.
Again Conrad's heart was heavy and sad,
But he knew he should make the litte girl glad,
So he called her in and wiped her tears
And quieted all her childish fears.
Then he led her back to her home once more
But as he entered his own darkened door,
He knew that the Lord was not coming today
For the hours of Christmas had passed away.
So he went to his room and knelt down to pray
And he said, "Dear Lord, why did you delay,
What kept You from coming to call on me,
For I wanted so much Your face to see. . ."

When soft in the silence a voice he heard,
"Lift up your head for I kept My word--
Three times My shadow crossed your floor--
Three times I came to your lowly door--
For I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet,
I was the woman you gave something to eat,
And I was the child on the homeless street.
Three times I knocked and three times I came in,
And each time I found the warmth of a friend.
Of all the gifts, love is the best,
I was honored to be your Christmas guest."

Friday, December 15, 2006

Decency: The Reason for Our Struggle

I FEEL THAT the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred.

People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence. They want to be told about this publicly. . . .

Goodwill longs to be recognized and cultivated. For it to develop and have an impact it must hear that the world does not ridicule it. . . .

I never try to give people practical advice about how to deal with the evil around them, nor could I even if I wanted to -- and yet people want to hear that decency and courage make sense, that something must be risked in the struggle against dirty tricks.

They want to know that they are not alone, forgotten, written off.

Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia, from his book Summer Meditations

[Content for this post "lifted" from Heron Dance's "A Pause for Beauty"]

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Donuts and dancing

At times my life feels like whiplash.

For example, take last Saturday.

My day began fairly early and my first stop was the corner donut shop at Carroll and Gaston Avenues here in my neighborhood. I show up here on lots of Saturday mornings to fetch donuts for my grandchildren!

I always love my visits to this most interesting establishment. The smells are beyond wonderful. The people are my neighbors.

One older gentleman, who is always there, drives an old Cadillac limousine--vintage 1985. Most weeks he arrives before me. Usually he is holding forth about some important subject to several of his buddies and/or to whomever may be in earshot.

Last Saturday the place was packed.

A guy who lives on the street, a young guy reading a Bible--possibly a seminary student, a laboring fellow on the way to work (I couldn't help noticing that he was talking to himself), several kids with their low-income mother eagerly eyeing the donuts, a middle class fellow with his son--folks coming and going.

Like always, I ordered my treasure of sweets and went on my really fun delivery route!

That same night I put on my tuxedo and drove to the Hilton Anatole Hotel for the annual Crystal Charity Ball.

Central Dallas Ministries received a very generous award this year in support of our Transition Resource Action Center (TRAC).

TRAC works with youth who age out of the foster care system each year here in Dallas--over one hundred 18-year-olds each year. We provide preparation for adult living courses, develop life plans, help with advancing educational attainment and broker housing for these special young adults.

We presented a special expansion project to the folks at Crystal Charity Ball and they adopted our plans! The result will increase our ability, in a partnership with Child Protective Services, to "go upstream" to begin working with these young people 2-3 years before they reach adulthood and find themselves on their own.

The folks from Crystal Charity Ball work hard all year in writing grants and securing funding leading up to the grand finale that is the most incredible party in Dallas each year. The event raises millions of dollars to go along with what is raised during the year.

Trying to describe this event in terms of the wealth, the fundraising strategy and the "over-the-top" affluence turns out to be impossible. This is truly one of those experiences that falls in the category of "have to be there to understand."

Sort of like my donut shop. I mean, you "have to be there to understand" it, as well.

I try to keep my focus on the people in both places and circumstances.

Our mission is to somehow bring these two groups together, if not literally very often (though that would really help us all), then virtually.

Significant portions of the wealth of our city needs to be rechanneled to address the growing needs of the poor.

The voice of the poor needs to more adequately inform the plans and aspirations of the rich.

Poor folks need to know and understand that there are many wealthy Dallasites who continue to search for productive ways to "invest" in low-income communities.

In short, we need to keep working on bringing communities of material wealth together with communities of material need.

At the same time, we must recognize the contributions low-income persons and communities have to make to the overall health and well-being of our city.

While low-income, working people don't have much in the way of material wealth to contribute individually, they have more than most people realize when viewed as a collective consumer block.

In addition, they have great reserves of spiritual wealth and creative social capacity that serves our city, as well as everyone who takes the time to listen and learn, very well.

Somehow, bridges must be built, expanded and fortified for the sake of everyone, especially the children.

After all, we are all in this together. What affects one, affects all.

Maybe we need to find new, creative ways to share a donut and a dance!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Central Dallas Ministries' Urban Engagement Book Club meets on the first Thursday of every month. Typically, our partner Randy Mayeux provides a very thorough synopsis of the book of the month. No need to read the book each month. Just come and receive the "book dump," complete with an outline and two or more pages of key quotes.

Our book for December was Studs Terkel's brilliant oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (Pantheon Books, 1972).

Some of the quotes Randy pulled from the book and from his own research are worth repeating here:

"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water." John W. Gardner

"If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted,
or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well
that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who
did his job well." Martin Luther King, Jr.

“A person is due -- at whatever task, in whatever job, by the very fact of their humanity -- both the possibility to survive and the possibility to contribute to the common good. The old adage 'an honest day's work for an honest day's pay' implies a social contract between an employee and employer. It also recognizes the responsibility of employers and society to workers. Society must affirm this contract by ensuring that everyone who can work has the opportunity to do so. On the other hand, every business -- regardless of its size, function, or organization -- must respect the basic human rights of workers which include a living wage sufficient to support a family, old age and unemployment protection, a decent work environment, and the right to organize and bargain collectively.”
(From a Labor Day Statement -- RENEWING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT, RECLAIMING THE DIGNITY OF WORK AND THE RIGHTS OF WORKERS. September, 1995. Bishop John HRichardrd S.S.J., Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, Chairman, United States Catholic Conference Committee on Domestic Policy)

"This book, being about work, is by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us." (Working, p. xi).

Two years ago Central Dallas Ministries hosted Pulitzer Prize winning author, David Shipler for a speech here in Dallas. Among other things, Shipler noted that "working poor" should be seen as a cruel oxymoron in our society.

May his vision become a reality for the millions of hard working men and women who remain trapped in poverty.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Critics keep you focused and honest. . .

Not everyone likes what we do or what we plan to do. [Please mark this down as one of the great understatements of this decade!]

The following letter to the editor appeared in the latest issue of The Dallas Observer in response to an article their reporter, Jesse Hyde, wrote about our CityWalk @ Akard project in Downtown Dallas. I've "cleaned it up" a bit by blocking out a word or two!

Out in the Cold

Poof, problem solved: Larry James ("Old Building, New Lives," by Jesse Hyde, November 30) is an idiot! Instead of building a refuge for the drug addicts and drunks in the area of Lincoln Plaza, why doesn't he move it closer to City Hall so he can gain some real exposure? He's just going to cause the devaluation of every property on Akard Street. I have a better idea, Larry: Build an army barracks-style dwelling on the %$#@*& side of town and teach all of the poor "unfortunates" of the world to bathe and become productive citizens. Rezone downtown and eliminate the stores that sell liquor and beer. Hire 10 agents to arrest panhandlers and after three strikes, they're off to Huntsville.

Institutionalize the rest and poof, problem solved. You liberal %$#@*& make me want to run for mayor.

Over and out from North Dallas.
Richard Krause

[You can view the original, uneditied text of the letter at:]

Fun, huh? Great press, right?

Here's what I sent back to the Editor at The Observer:

Thanks for caring enough to write, Mr. Krause. Of course, I don't agree with you, but I expect that is simply because I have enjoyed the benefit of actually knowing and talking to very, very low-income persons who currently live on the streets of our city.

First, please understand that our CityWalk @ Akard project will not be a shelter filled with unproductive persons as you assume in your analysis.

Second, I invite you to come down and meet some of the people who are such a problem for you. Each first Thursday of every month we host what we call the "Urban Engagement Book Club." I'm sure it would surprise you that 20 or so homeless persons attend every month and get involved in the conversation. We meet at the Highland Park United Methodist Church on the campus of SMU. So, you wouldn't have to venture very far from the safety of North Dallas. I promise you you would leave with a different point of view.

Again, thanks for your opinion.

Best regards,
Larry James
President and CEOCentral Dallas Ministries

Critics have a way of keeping your focused!

They also allow you to work on motives and truth.

At times it feels like a battle around here.

And please, this is no call for sympathy. I just needed to get this out in the midst of a group of trusted friends!

What to do with the naysayers in your life???

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Opportunity, Not Charity

Today's New York Times carries the following report on Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

I decided to post the entire story because of its significance in understanding how poverty should be addressed and overcome. Yunus has a lot to teach the entire world.

Many of his principles find ready application in urban centers like Dallas which has a branch of the Grameen Bank!

Just lending and banking policies that move beyond greed and allow the poor into the marketplace play a key role in lifting the poor.

I found what Yunus says about world poverty and terrorism to be particularly interesting.

Here's the full story:


Nobel Peace Prize Winner Will Urge Banks to Lend to the Poor
by Walter Gibbs

OSLO, Dec. 9 — Bangladesh’s “banker to the poor,” Muhammad Yunus, said he would use his newfound celebrity as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate to urge banking and investment institutions everywhere to make small business loans to the poorest people they can find.

“This is a movement that is going around the world,” he said at a press conference. At a ceremony here Sunday, he and the bank he founded, Grameen Bank, are to be awarded the prize.

Dr. Yunus, 66, is credited with inventing microfinance, or the practice of lending small amounts of money to destitute people, 30 years ago. The idea is for borrowers — almost all of them women — to start or expand money-making enterprises like weaving, rope-making, vegetable farming and holding livestock.

He said Bangladesh, with its population of 145 million, was en route to halving the number of people classified as extremely poor by 2015, thanks in part to the availability of microloans as small as $12 and averaging $200. “If Bangladesh can do it, anyone can do it,” he said.

The prize is to be awarded in equal parts to Dr. Yunus and the Dhaka-based bank, 90 percent of which is owned cooperatively by the 6.7 million people who currently owe it money. The bank’s half of the peace prize will be given to board member Mosammat Taslima Begum, who said today that she first borrowed money from Grameen to buy a goat, then borrowed more to buy three goats. Now she owns a plot of land with an income-producing mango patch.

Dr. Yunus urged the United States to recalibrate its strategy for fighting terrorism and to address what he said were its “root causes”: poverty and injustice. He said microfinance was a tool for peace as well as prosperity, and lauded the Norwegian Nobel Committee for making the connection.

“Poverty is a threat to peace,” said Dr. Yunus, a native Bangladeshi with a Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “This has been talked about before but never in such a resounding manner.”

In the 30 years since he started lending money to the poor more than 3,000 other institutions have emerged to provide loans of a similar nature. Grameen Bank requires no collateral of its borrowers but charges most of them interest of about 30 percent per year. Currently there are 85,000 beggars in the portfolio who are exempt from interest charges, Dr. Yunus said. The high payback rate — estimated at 99 percent — has drawn banks like Citigroup, ABN Ambro and Deutsche Bank into the microcredit market, though Dr. Yunus has criticized them for largely ignoring the poorest of the poor, whose goal may be no more than a tin roof.

“Nobody should be left out of the financial system,” he said today, adding than two-thirds of the global population has no access to banking.

Resistance by conservative Muslims who originally opposed Grameen Bank’s business dealings with women and its reliance on interest charges has largely evaporated, Dr. Yunus said. He characterized the remaining opponents as a “fringe.”

He said female loan recipients were far better than men at saving and using proceeds to benefit all family members. And without the ability to charge interest, he said, there would be bank.

“This is a self-sustaining system,” he said. “If we didn’t take interest, the whole system would become dependent on somebody’s charity. To reach billions of people, this has to be a business.”

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Edd Eason, I need you!

Edd Eason is one of my dearest friends. We have played and worked together across the past almost 40 years. . .man, we are getting old!

Among Edd's many talents is his amazing ability with a camera.

I needed Edd last night as we enjoyed our annual staff Christmas party. It was an amazing time.
The meal was great, but simple.

Most of the program was a riot--a fully participatory game show like competition that got everyone involved.

We honored several people for their long tenure with CDM and we recognized Minnie Rodriguez as "Employee of the Year."

We got to hear Mr. Lloyd, Ms. Ransom's dear friend, play the piano.

Imtiaz filled the role of disc-jockey for us.

Keith orchestrated the entire affair with the able assistance of our Employee Relations Committee.

It was a wonderful evening.

But, I needed Edd because I left wishing I had a group photo of our team. I'm going to make arrangements to get one.

There are almost 100 of us now. We don't see each other every day, so we tend to forget who we actually are. It is an amazing group.

As we played and celebrated last night, it hit me that this is the way the whole world should work. Our group is so incredibly diverse. Our backgrounds bring us to CDM from many parts of the world it seems. Individually we represent just about every difference you could imagine. But we get along and we come together and we work hard and we change things.

I am so proud to be part of this amazing team of wonderful people who all share one thing in common: a commitment to keeping hope alive in individuals and in the communities where we live and work.

Edd, I need you, man! When can we get a group shot?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Checking in on poverty

Forty years ago or so, the U. S. government created a poverty index related to household food costs--the measure originated with the Department of Agriculture. This index became the basis for the "federal poverty guidelines."

Indexing poverty to food costs resulted in the income levels being set artificially low as a standard measure of what constitutes poverty. Nevertheless, the index stuck and we continue to work with it as a benchmark.

The 2006 federal poverty guidelines define a family as living in poverty if. . .

. . .the family has 2 members and the annual household income is no more than $13,200 ($1,100 monthly) or $6.35 an hour.

. . .the family has 3 members and the annual household income is no more than $16,600 ($1,383 monthly) or $7.98 an hour.

. . .the family has 4 members and the annual household income is no more than $20,000 ($1,667 monthly) or $9.62 an hour.

In the United States today 35.9 million people (12.5% of the population) live in poverty--3.6 million reside in Texas (16.2% of the population).

Of these, 12.9 million are children between the ages of birth and 17 or 17.6% of this age grouping--in Texas it is 22.8% or 1.4 million children.

Among children from birth to five-years-old, 4 million live at or below the poverty line nationally (20.3% of this age group--in Texas it is 26.9%).

Texas is not a friendly place for the poor, especially the children. In 2003, the percentage of children living in poverty rose for the fourth consecutive year and the poverty rate among children outpaced the national average by 27%!

Nearly one in 4 children in Texas lives in poverty. Tragically, 1 in 10 children in Texas lives in extreme poverty (family income below 50% of the Federal Poverty Line). In one of the neighborhoods here in Dallas where we work every day, the average family income is something under $10,000 annually.

The impact of childhood poverty on little boys and little girls, just like my grandchildren, can be lifelong. Texans need to be awakened to the harsh reality facing millions of our neighbors and their families.

What should churches be doing?

What should we demand that our public, elected officials do now?

What will you do to make a difference?

It is far past time for waiting patiently. The questions and the pain behind them demand an answer. . .now!

[Source: "The State of Texas Children 2006: Texas KIDS COUNT Annual Data Book," published by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Visit them at]

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Trucker Wisdom

A few days back an "Anonymous" commented on one of my posts. In part his message read,

"Being a Truck Driver for over 20 Years I've seen alot out on the Road. How bad the Homeless are treated and the way People ignore them when they walk by. I made a Video to try and make a little difference the best way I could. Check it out:"

I can tell you it will be well worth your time!

Everything that matters boils down to whether or not we relate to and treat others as if they matter. . .every single one of them.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rick Warren speaks. . .

"Jesus loved and accepted others without approving of everything they did. That's our position too, but it upsets a lot of people ...."

Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, responding to conservatives who criticized his invitation to Sen. Barack Obama to attend an HIV/AIDS conference Warren hosted at his church. (Source: ABC News)

Rick Warren and his critics

Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, drew lots of fire from fellow Evangelicals last week.

His sin?

He invited Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) to speak during an AIDS summit he hosted at Saddleback for pastors and other faith leaders. The summit's title: "We Must Work Together."

A group of prominent conservative church leaders sent an open letter to Warren demanding that he rescind the invitation to the Senator because of Obama's position on abortion rights. Their strongly worded letter went on to say that despite the summit's invitation, they could never work with the likes of the Senator.

Warren's church responded with a statement that acknowledged the opposition but also made the case for reaching out to "new allies" in the war on AIDS.

The church's letter read in part, "We do not expect all participants in the summit discussion to agree with all our evangelical beliefs. The HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by evangelicals alone. It will take the cooperation of all."

Warren, who has strongly opposed abortion rights, noted that the goal of the summit was "to put people together who normally won't even speak to each other."

Warren sounds like a guy who knows something about how to actually set in motion steps to change the world.

What has a person's "position" on abortion got to do with attacking the AIDS pandemic in Africa? How does inviting a powerful Senator into the mix of this conference increase the number of abortions performed each year in this country? How does shutting him out reduce the number of abortions or help slow the spread of HIV infection or come to the aid of African children who have been orphaned by parents who died of AIDS?

Is everything always a matter of "either/or"?

Can honest people of goodwill disagree and still decide to work together on the common ground they might find they do share, if they worked together?

We experienced this same phenomenon last spring when we invited former North Carolina Senator and Vice-presidential candidate John Edwards to speak at our Annual Urban Ministries Prayer Event.

Because the Senator was a Democrat and because of his position on abortion and other matters, we set off an uproar among some of our supporters, or more accurately today, former supporters! [Edwards actually believes in taking steps to curtail the number of abortions performed in the nation.]

Never mind that the Senator was coming to our event to talk about poverty in America or that he now directs the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina's School of Law, an enterprise focused on the same critical issues we try to address here in Dallas.

Never mind that a few years earlier we invited then Texas Governor George W. Bush to speak at the same event, which he did.

Attitudes that exclude, block and discourage honest conversation and discourse cannot be good for any of us.

I know for a fact that any time discussion is cut off or limited in the city, people suffer and things do not improve. In fact, things get worse.

So, I say, "Way to go Pastor Warren! Thanks for being courageous and committed. May leaders like you multiply and may we learn something from you!"

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Our Post Office

You wouldn't believe our Post Office.

It sits right across the street from our headquarters building on Haskell Avenue here in Dallas. It looks like a normal Post Office Sub-Station.

But, I have a feeling it is anything but "normal."

Of course, the center of the action is our Postmaster, Frazier Forman.

Frazier is part community organizer, part ring-leader, part comedian, part political pundant, part evangelist, part counselor and a great, great friend! He keeps things "real" and very alive in his shop.

Buying stamps can be great comedy or, at times, real drama.

Everyone talks to everyone in the P. O. across the street. Perfect strangers often leave engaged in meaningful, connected conversations, usually thanks to something Frazier has said or done.

I see lots of friends over at the P. O. across the street--friends I made there and friends I've met elsewhere who come by to take care of some business.

I've noticed that people are not in any real hurry to leave our P. O. Ever heard of anything so crazy as that?

No reason to be in a hurry over there. The pace is what it is. I've learned across the past 12-plus years that there is a reason for the pace and it is best to just settle in, keep my eyes and ears open and enjoy the place!

The secret to P. O. across the street is really very simple. Frazier and his team have managed to carve out a very important (I would say "sacred") space for community to be expressed, worked out and realized. . .right there in the stamp line!

Our Post Office serves as a very vital community crossroads.

What a blessing! The ordinary miracle of our P. O. just across the street.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"I am Larry's colon. . ."

"So, at 56-years-old and with colon cancer in my family history, I enjoyed my first colonoscopy last Thursday morning.

Before I reflect on my experience a bit, let me give you some good, but free, advice.

If you are 50 or older and if you have not had the procedure, schedule it now. Colon cancer is not only highly responsive to treatment leading to a cure, it is also preventable. Talk to your doctor if you are in my age bracket.

Back to my experience.

Those who say the “preparation” for the exam is the worst part of the deal are absolutely correct! Different physicians approach the pre-test “cleansing” differently. Mine prescribed two 1.5 ounce bottles of "magic" fleet. From late afternoon until midnight I was focused on drinking the medication and following it with lots and lots of clear liquid. And, of course, dealing with the delightful brew’s effects! Let’s just say that by sunrise I was completely purged and ready for step two.

Of course, I was scared as I headed into the test itself.

My mom had colon cancer in her late 60s. Thankfully, she is still with us at 85! So, I suppose I had reason to be concerned about what the doc might find.

Lying there waiting to be wheeled off into the “procedure room,” allowed my mind to range wide and wild. The experience forced me to come to grips with my age, my mortality and with the fact that life is lived one second at a time and we all must live into the moments.

The test itself was a breeze.

The new meds they have perfected to let you snooze while the medical team is checking you out are wonderful! I fell asleep quickly—about 10 seconds! Next thing I know, I am back in a holding area talking to a nurse who informed me that I was “clean as a whistle”—no polyps, no tumors, no more of this until 2011.

I am very fortunate. Very fortunate.

And, I am thankful. Or, as one witty friend said, "Good to have it behind you, huh?" Terrible pun! Thankfully, I can smile.

I came out of the experience with a number of impressions.

For one thing, racism is not only morally reprehensible, evil and always offensive, it is downright stupid and fundamentally unworkable. Of course, that has always been true, but it is so easy to experience personally these days. The medical staff from check-in to wheelchair out looked just like. . .er, . . .America! You thought I was going to say the United Nations, didn’t you?

Wonderful, devoted, talented, compassionate, generous human beings from every background and nationality taking care of me. It was wonderful. I needed the help and they delivered it. It was a community of caring. Why would anyone want to miss out on the wonderful human diversity available to us in this country today?

On the “patient satisfaction/exit” survey I filled out, the last question was something like, “What one thing do you think we should work on based on your experience.”

That was easy to answer: “See to it that everyone gets this kind of efficient, tender, kind, high-quality care as standard operating procedure.”

My wait time was very short, though it took several weeks to get an appointment; but then, my test was routine and preventative in nature rather than urgent.

My insurance card opened every door. I even deferred having to satisfy the annual deductible a second time by informing the check-in person that I had paid that to the physician several weeks earlier. She took my word for it and I paid a very small fee.

The medical staff took care of everything with a smile and good cheer. Even the needles didn’t hurt and I received a blanket for the ice-cold exam room that came fresh out of a heated storage cabinet!

I could go on and on. My point is real simple. If I received this kind of care, so should everyone else. I am not special.

I planned to upload the digital photos of the inside of my colon for your inspection. But, Brenda thought that might be a bit much. My motive for doing that would have been to encourage you to go get you a set of these delightful photos of your own colon. You won’t regret it.

In the meantime, I hope we can continue to work on a movement to see that everyone in our nation receives the kind of health care we are capable of delivering—just like what I enjoyed last Thursday.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

If Texas were a town with 100 children. . .

44 would be Hispanic

40 would be White

13 would be Black

3 would be another race or ethnicity

49 would live in a low-income household (200% of federal poverty level)
--Of these, 23 would live in poverty (at federal poverty level)
--For 10, this poverty would be extreme (at 50% of federal poverty level)

21 would lack health insurance

25 would lack childhood immunizations

Something to meditate and prayer over in church tomorrow, don't you think?

[Source: "The State of Texas Children 2006: Texas KIDS COUNT Annual Data Book," published by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Visit them at]

Friday, December 01, 2006

Recommendations for Community Development Leaders (Revolutionaries). . .

Be quiet.
Tear down.
Drive out.
Work hard.
Move on.
Go back.
Move in.
Speak up.
Stand firm.
Show up.
Start over.
Fade out.
Step up.
Stand out.
Laugh. . .a lot.
Wipe out.
Fill in.
Get away.
Listen some more.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Victory for janitors. . .victory for labor. . .victory for community

Janitors in Houston, Texas ended their month-long strike last week after agreeing to a new contract with the city's major cleaning firms that will deliver wage increases of almost 50% over the next two years. Just as important is the agreement's provision to provide the workers health coverage.

Organizing under the umbrella of the Service Employees International Union, 5,300 janitors celebrated a new labor agreement that will see their hourly wages move up from $5.25 per hour to $7.75 by January 1, 2009.

Employers also agreed to give their employees more daily hours, increasing the typical shift from four hours to six hours. For a 30-hour work week, an employee will earn around $12,000 annually when the agreement is fully realized.

The janitors rightfully celebrated their success.

But think about it. Could you live on $12,000 a year?

No doubt, most of these workers have other jobs, as do their spouses and other family members.

Workers coming together to organize for their rights in the workplace and in the larger economy is a good sign of renewed community hard at work.

And watch it, over the next two years none of the major cleaning firms will go out of business.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Injustice shapes higher education in the U. S.

As I grew up, I heard one consistent mantra when it came to success in life: get an education!

As a matter of fact, everyone around me taught me and all of my friends to get all of the education we possibly could. A good education provided a ticket to success and the development and fulfillment of many dreams.

I think all of us operated on this basic assumption.

I also think that most of us continue to accept the premise and the notion that in this country anyone can progress beyond their origins thanks to the availability of great educational opportunities and options. All you have to do is take advantage of the opportunities that are readily available.

Today, sadly, these notions are naive at best and simply contrary to the facts.

First, the cost of higher education, even at our public institutions, has increased dramatically over the past decade. At the same time, funds for programs like the Pell Grant have been repeatedly slashed. It costs more to pay for a university education at a time when funds for low-income students continue to evaporate.

Second, and even more dramatic, public universities pursue policies today that block access to the poor. A shift away from traditional, need-based assistance to poor students to a "merit formula" that unfairly benefits students from affluent families is making it harder and harder for bright students from low-income families to make it into college life.

The Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation devoted to monitoring education in the nation, recently released a report that should open eyes. Read the entire report at:

The report's executive summary includes this telling paragraph:

"The nationÂ’s 50 flagship universities serve disproportionately fewer low-income and minority students than in the past, according to a new report by the Education Trust. Students in the entering and graduating classes at these schools look less and less like the state populations those universities were created to serve. The study shows how financial aid choices made by these prestigious public universities result in higher barriers to college enrollment and success among low-income students and students of color."

Public institutions of higher education were founded on the idea that, in exchange for citizen support in the form of tax dollars, they would devote themselves to opening broad access to the advantages andopportunitiess of a higher education for anyone interested in doing the work.

Such policy is virtually gone at major state institutions that now operate like exclusive private universities.

Talk to anyone at one of the major public universities in Texas. You'll likely hear about how many students applied, as compared to the fraction that made it in. You'll also hear about SAT averages--a measure that unduly favors the well-to-do students who have had the advantage of prep courses and prep schools.

The major state universities also compete for students from higher-income families at the expense of the those from poor families, even though their grades and performance make it clear that once in the classroom they do very well.

The sad fact is these poor students don't enjoy the options of the wealthy. For the poor, it is a state university or nothing most of the time. Now, that option is narrowing dramatically.

Here's a real shocker: aid to families earning over $100,000 annually has more than quadrupled at these major state universities. In fact, the average institutional grant tostudentss from high-income families is larger than the average grant to low or middle-income students.

The result? High-performing students from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to attend college than students from affluent backgrounds and they are less likely to complete 4-year degrees if they do attend.

So, if a college education is the price of passage into middle class America, these trends mean that upward mobility for entire groups of people is pretty much a cruel myth attainable by only a comparativehandfull of those who begin well behind the starting line.

Looking for an example of broad based, systemic injustice rooted firmly in current public policy?
Look no further, you've found it!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Arts and Civic Health

Low income people and communities deserve and appreciate beauty.

The trouble is beauty can be expensive.

At times beauty follows people and places of “perceived” value. I know that sounds harsh, but let’s face it: our culture and the operative rules of our civic life evaluate people, often arbitrarily, to determine who deserves what and how much.

Yet, art is essential to life regardless of personal net worth or level of formal educational attainment.

As a result, “poor” people create and express themselves artistically continually. But budget issues often curtail the development of sustainable artistic expression and the community institutions that place art at the forefront of community life for all communities and persons.

Recently, I read a published report commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) entitled The Arts and Civic Engagement. The report establishes the clear connection between participation in the arts and positive individual and civic behaviors.

Even more telling was the difference in behavior and civic engagement between arts participants and non-participants.

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA sums up the study’s findings, “Arts participants, especially readers, engage in positive civic and individual activities—from exercise to charity work, from hiking to amateur sports league attendance—at strikingly higher rates than non-participants. . . .Healthy communities depend on active citizens. The arts play an irreplaceable role in producing both those citizens and communities.”

The details of the study are interesting. Here are the “10 Key Findings”--

1. Literary readers and classical or jazz radio listeners attend arts events at higher rates (over 3 times as often) than non-readers and non-listeners.

2. Literary readers and arts participants engage in sports more readily than non-readers and non-participants (about twice are frequently).

3. By every other measure, arts participants are more physically active (almost twice as likely to take part in exercise and outdoor activities).

4. People who participate in the arts are almost 3 times more likely to be creative themselves, to take part in creative activities.

5. Readers and arts participants are twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.

6. Performing arts attendance by young adults is waning.

7. Young adult literary reading has dropped dramatically—down 16% since 1982.

8. Young adults listen to classical and jazz radio less than they did ten years ago (down 8 and 12% respectively).

9. Young adults are also less involved in sports and are less physically active over the same period.

10. Volunteerism among young adults has declined by 3.5% since 1992.

The study, conducted by the U. S. Census Bureau, interviewed 17,135 adults, ages 18 and over. The response rate was 70%. The research was not correlated to economic status, a factor that no doubt impacts participation and access to the arts.

As I read over the report, it struck me just how important beauty, artistic expression and participation in the arts are to community health. Social capital gathers around and emerges from the enjoyment of the arts.

And, books are incredibly important to human and community development! Possibly the very best thing parents, neighborhood activists, teachers, and other leaders can do to insure the growth of healthier communities is to promote, endorse and make possible the development and deepening of reading skills and a community-wide commitment to reading.

People need books.

Anything we can do to increase the access of books to children, youth and adults will be a victory for our communities.

Art declares that people really matter, that each of us has a story and that locked inside everyone is genuine treasure just waiting to get out or to be touched and stimulated.

Novels, poetry, non-fiction, painting, sculpture, music (all genres), photography, videography, film, dance, drama, sports, performance—these are the building blocks of civic life and authentic community.

The recent public policy trends to de-fund arts programs are shortsighted and down right stupid, if community health and adequate education are even any longer among our goals as a people.

In my view, how we regard the arts says a great deal about how we value and regard one another across our various neighborhoods in cities like Dallas.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Michael Richards said last Monday and again over the weekend that he spewed racial epithets during a stand-up comedy routine because he lost his cool while being heckled and not because he's a bigot.

Pardon me? Say what?

Come on, Krammer (you recall that Richards starred in the hit comedy series, Seinfeld). You can do better than that, surely!

Maybe you heard his "apology" on the Late Show with David Letterman via satellite. Over the weekend he was talking to Rev. Jesse Jackson. Maybe I missed something in the news (tell me if I did), but I'm wondering why he hasn't met the young people he attacked to ask for their forgiveness?

Have you noticed? Stories like this one keep coming up--remember Mel Gibson?

What is interesting to me is the fact that so many folks act so surprised. Richards' remarks were particularly offensive not only because of his selection of words, but also because of the manner in which he used historical references to America's violent, racist past.

Make no mistake about it, racism is alive and well in the U.S.A.

Admitting that is essential. Living in reality, no matter how disappointing at times, is a prerequisite for progress, genuine connection and authenticity.

So, we need to face the facts. Richards' tirade was filled with the language of hate, racism, anger and divisiveness--all forces still very much at work in our society and nation.

Progress in urban, community development depends on our commitment to continuing the struggle to address, acknowledge and move beyond the racism that has dominated our national life and story for far too long.

My faith tells me that the words of Jesus continue to have much to teach us in regard to events like this one.

On one occasion, Jesus told his closest followers, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' . . .But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean'" (Matthew 15:10-11, 18 NIV).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A prayer

The opening prayer we prayed in church this morning touched me deeply.

"O God, we praise and adore you. You are truly without beginning or ending--your reign is eternal and your being all-powerful, and yet you chose to reveal your power in the most powerless and vulnerable manner--as a baby.

As you shared our humanity in Jesus, you gave the world a new understanding of power.

We know now that power is not to be used to dominate, but to serve others as Christ did.

He transformed the love of power by the power of love.

We gather today to celebrate your rule of love in our hearts as we experience it in Jesus and through the enabling gift of your Spirit. We offer this prayer of gratitude for these blessings in the name of Jesus, our Servant King."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Call it what you will, hunger still a big problem

Timely headline on Thursday's Metro section of The Dallas Morning News: "Hunger hits home in Texas," (November 23, 2006, pages B1, 22), what with me preparing to do my annual, over-the-top, Thanksgiving Day "pig out!"

Ready for this news?

Over 12 million households in the U. S. worry about where the next meal is coming from. Of that number, 1.3 million live in Texas.

Actually, this is "good news" for the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that issued the report. The percentage of Americans who are concerned about having enough to feed themselves and their families declined by a bit less than 1% last year, the first decline since 2001, from 11.9% to 11%.

Texas lags behind the national average at 16% of the population facing hunger as a regular part of life. No real surprise there. Only New Mexico and Mississippi recorded higher percentages. The news report noted that the number of Texans worrying about food equals the number of households in Dallas and Collin counties combined.

Lots of folks.

Of course, the USDA devised a way to soften the news this year. No where in the report is the word "hunger" used. Rather, this analysis describes "food insecurity."

Feel better?

I don't.

I have watched our numbers skyrocket this year in our hunger relief Resource Center here in Dallas. We will finish the year approaching a 50% increase in demand for our food services.

Too many Texans have to depend on others for their food needs. Too many Americans do as well.

So, what's the answer?

Like most community issues, moving in a positive direction will involve a number of determined decisions.

1. People of faith need to get serious about hunger. This will mean that every congregation in the nation will have some plan for responding to the emergency and chronic food needs of its neighbors.

Beyond compassionate first steps, people of faith must put more pressure on elected officials and public policy makers to craft more comprehensive responses to widespread hunger. Faith leaders need to speak out, train their congregants and organize to see things improve. Resource rich congregations should partner across communities with resource poor congregations to form anti-hunger coalitions that speak with one voice to the issue.

2. The USDA's Food Stamp program works when it is made available to low-income, working people. Designed for working families, the program works for everyone--consumers, producers and retailers all benefit from the Food Stamp program.

The problem in Texas is simple. The state refuses to take the steps necessary to make the benefits available to every person and family that needs it. Enter people of faith to apply the necessary political pressure to see our state's performance improve for the sake of the hungry.

3. The minimum wage needs to be increased, the housing voucher program restored to previous levels and the Earned Income Tax Credit needs to be strengthened and expanded. These steps will allow low-income wage earners to more adequately provide for their families. Each of these steps benefit every sector of our economy while rewarding people for their hard work.

No one should be hungry or "food insecure" in Texas or the U. S. No one needs to be. Change is up to us.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Gratitude has suffered at the hands of urgency in my life.

How about you?

One of the reasons Thanksgiving has always been my favority holiday--well, okay, maybe not always, but since I was about 16-years-old at least--has to do with pace and focus.

[By the way: Being a man on Thanksgiving puts me at a definite advantage. In my family, the women work really hard in preparing for the feast day and they work hard during and afterwards as well. Of course, women work hard constantly! So, I begin by being grateful for all the loving effort that goes into preparing and serving such a meal!]

The pace of the day forces me to slow down, to sit down. The pace enables the focus--to actually stop and look at the people closest to me. Thanksgiving is a day of conversation and laughter and tears and memories and, well, grateful reflection. . .or, it can be.

It is a day for family.

It is a day for hope.

It is a day for sharing food and all that goes with that.

And, of course, it doesn't hurt anything, in my opinion, that it is a day of football and catnaps and great, end-of-the-day leftovers!

A good friend of mine came by on Tuesday again this year.

His story is nothing short of miraculous. I'm really not sure how he is even still alive today. Former drug dealer, addict and criminal, today he is about the sweetest guy you'd ever want to meet. His health is poor. His family scattered. He lives on disability, which means he has very limited funds.

He and I have a deal of sorts. He knows that around Thanksgiving, we will get our heads together and plan on how he can host a meal of the family he can manage to gather up.

We worked out the details again this year. He really looks forward to this day. I know that around his table there will be thanks aplenty today. Remember him as you give thanks in whatever way you do that on this special day. He has come a long, long way.

Like I said, the urgent too often kills the significant in my life.

This day provides a much needed "time out."

I'm curious. For what and for whom are you most grateful this Thanksgiving?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Strange, wild night in the neighborhood.

As we walked out of my favorite, hole-in-the-wall, local beanery--Matt's Ranchero--a few nights ago, we were "bum-rushed" by a very sophisticated con man.

He looked well-to-do. Attired in a brown leather jacket, his hair perfectly slicked back, he approached in a hurry. He told us that his car had been struck by a hit-and-run driver as he backed out of the parking lot. His wife, driving their other car, had left before seeing the accident. He explained that his car was now leaking oil and he was afraid to drive it far without adding a quart or two.

He was so smooth and agitated just enough to be really convincing.

He had a couple of requests. He needed a "few bucks" for oil--his wife had left him without any money in his wallet. He also needed a ride to the local parts store where he could purchase the oil.

As we searched our wallets to help with his request, he grew nervous and a bit more agitated, as if he were in a hurry. He asked for my business card so that he could repay the $20 bill that Brenda handed him with the "at least $30" he would mail us.

As we were discussing my giving him a ride to the parts store (I was now growing a bit more than suspicious of his story), a van flew up to where we were standing and a young man dressed in waiter's garb jumped out and started yelling at the man.

"You scammed me and now you are working on these people!," he yelled. "You stole $30 from me and now you are out after other folks. We aren't going to let you get away with it any more!"

At that point another irate waiter arrived and the three of us "apprehended" the man and got him to sit down on the curb.

The police were called.

The man gave our money back.

As we continued to talk to the man, while waiting on the police, the first waiter continued to challenge the man, "I have a wife and three kids and I am in seminary and last week I gave you $30 and you are a con!"

The man began to plead for forgiveness and release.

When the police arrived, we left. The officer began to talk to the con man and the waiters. I expect that there was nothing much the police officer could do.

The con man was really about the best I've ever seen.

During the entire ordeal that followed the interruption of his hustle, the man seemed most concerned about his leather jacket. It had been pulled off of him as one of the waiters prevented him from leaving the scene. I imagine that the jacket was an invaluable tool in his game. It made him look so successful and "legit."

My feelings since this experience have been conflicted. I find myself feeling sorry for the guy with the game. What does it take to get to such a place in life? On the other hand, I was very angry with the deception and the fact that people like this contribute to persistent and unfair stereotypes of the homeless poor.

I also had to face the fact that the guy's con worked largely because he didn't appear to need anything! Had he looked more like he was living on the street, we likely would have responded differently and his story would have been much different.

Then, there were the two, young hard-working waiters who were justifiably upset with the guy who had worked them for a donation earlier in the week in the same parking lot.

Strange experience. Just when I thought I'd heard them all, I find out there is still a lot to learn about and with people.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Farmers Branch Churches Respond

Chris Seidman is a dear friend, a great pastor and an excellent communicator. He also has a heart as big as Texas!

No surprise then after the controversial news broke about the recent actions of the Farmers Branch City Council that Chris sprung into action.

You recall that the council voted a week ago to make it against the law for apartment owners to lease their property to undocumented residents of the town, to allow local police officiers to receive training in enforcing immigration laws and to declare English the official language of the community (see this blog on Thursday, November 16, 2006, "Let's hear it for Farmers Branch!").

Chris called his friend and fellow minister, Vincent Gonzales who leads the North Dallas Family Church and resides in Farmers Branch. Gonzales also authored Beyond the Border: How The Church Must Respond to Immigration Reform.

The two friends organized and co-hosted a joint worship service that included members of their respective churches and others from the community. The bi-lingual service focused on worship, prayer and reconciliation.

These two leaders directed their congregants to face the community's division along socioeconomic and racial lines. They also attempted to raise consciousness about the the plight of the poor among the Hispanic population in Farmers Branch and our entire area.

Chris summed the evening up in a very wise way in an email to me that concluded, "Again, only one evening, but a good step. And I’ve seen things happen with a mustard seed before."

I am grateful for the decisive and determined action of these two fine Christian leaders.

According to The Dallas Morning News yesterday ("Churches aim to ease tension in Farmers Branch--Congregations unite for bilingual services"), the service was the first of a number of bi-lingual gatherings planned by the Farmers Branch Church of Christ, Seidman's church.

"There's tension in the community, but whenever there's tension ... there's an opportunity for God to work," Mr. Gonzales said.

Four of the city council members attend the Farmers Branch Church of Christ, including Tim O'Hare, who brought national attention to the town by suggesting the measures in the first place.

According to the news report, Farmers Branch is today home to the newest chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

"A LULAC chapter hadn't been created before in this area, because people sometimes think they don't need it, but then after things happen, they realize they need support," said Héctor Flores, former LULAC national president. One of the new chapter's tasks will be to fight the ordinances.

At some point I hope the joint worship of the churches involved will turn to action that will include pressing the U. S. Congress to act reasonably to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a guest worker program, serious and high-level negotiations with the new Mexican governmnet and livable wage standards that will begin to actually protect all workers from unfair exploitation in our increasingly one world economy.

My faith tells me the answer is not to ban people or drive them away.