Monday, January 30, 2006

Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is serious about poverty and its impact on our country.

As a result, the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was established in response to the fact that millions of hard-working Americans still find themselves living in poverty.

Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, the project's Director puts it this way,

"Poverty is one of the great issues of our time. It cuts to the heart of America's great promise: that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules will have the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their family. I can't think of a better group of people to work on solving this problem than the remarkable students and faculty here at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"The Center brings the best minds in the country together with some of America's best and brightest young people. We do not pretend to have all the answers, but we will ask the hard questions:
  • How can we restore the promise of America for those living in poverty?
  • How can we combat poverty in a way that also honors our core beliefs in hard work, responsibility and family?
  • How can we find ways to build more homes and fewer shelters, more small businesses and fewer minimum wage jobs?
  • How can we find a way for government and charities and religious groups to work as more effective partners and honor America's traditions?

"It may seem like an impossible goal to end poverty, but that's what the skeptics said about all of the other great challenges we've faced as a nation. If we can put a man on the moon, conquer polio, and put libraries of information on a chip, we can end poverty for those who want to work for a better life."

The bipartisan center has convened a series of serious discussions about poverty, its impact and creative new approaches and solutions. Having a major academic institution behind the effort is encouraging and most promising in terms of new policy development.

Interested in finding out more about this promising project?

Visit the center's site at:

I think you will be impressed.

Here's just a portion of what you will discover about the center's mission:

The UNC Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity will create a forum for the best minds in the state and the nation to work on issues of poverty, work and opportunity. The Center has four goals: first, to address the pressing needs of those currently living at or below the poverty level; second, to provide a non-partisan interdisciplinary forum to examine innovative and practical ideas to move more Americans out of poverty; third, to raise public awareness of issues related to work and poverty; and fourth to train a new generation to combat the causes and effects of poverty and to improve the circumstances of working people.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Musing on Sunday Afternoon Resources

"Down time" is what Sundays were for the most part when I was a kid.

Not so much the case these days! Sundays typically turn into a whirlwind for me. It doesn't have to be this way, at least not every week.

I know this--when I find time to stop, read, listen, reflect for even an hour or so, my life just works better.

Here are a few suggestions on some materials that could be useful in centering the soul or agitating the mind during times of pause.

Need a break from standard broadcast media? Check out The webcast can be accessed anytime via this website. Provoke Radio features guests and stories that bring faith to life and the circumstances of life to faith. Interesting to stop and listen without interruption.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here's what promises to be a consistent, reflective way to honor the birthday of this amazing and courageous leader--pick up a copy of The Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a collection of 365 readings drawn from his works. Jim Wallis writes the Forward.

Want to learn something about mysticism and spirituality? For a most readable survey from St. Paul to Thomas Merton, check out Love Burning in the Soul by James Harpur.

[Note: Books may be ordered from the thumbnail to the right and CDM benefits!)

Looking for just one journal dealing with faith, poverty and the issues of justice? A great way to spend an hour in the quiet is with Sojourners Magazine ( Jim Wallis edits the informative and challenging magazine. Be prepared to travel the world as you read!

Here's a major and more than worthwhile Sunday afternoon reading project: Taylor Branch recently completed his 24-year project of chronicling the years of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States using the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the central figure and feature. The latest and final volume of the 3-part study is At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68. The two previous installments were Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965.

I am determined to slow down and soak in the quiet with a little help from thoughtful friends.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Community As Family

On two different occasions this week I received hard news.

Two of my friends and members of our community had "slipped back."

Everyone here understands immediately what those words mean.

One, a mother of three teenaged children, landed in jail, charged with a drug offense that possibly involved a weapon. No one knows for sure at this point. She had been doing very well--working, married, happy. Now this incredibly low point.

It is hard to explain or to understand unless you've been here to hear her story--her life story.

If the charges are true, she must face and accept her responsibility in the matter. She will have hard work to do with her children and her friends.

My other friend, a man whose wife died of cancer toward the end of last year, ended up in jail for some sort of mix-up on a check he tried to cash. He may have been fooled by someone who paid him with a stolen check for some work he had done. Who knows?

To add insult to injury, while in jail, someone stole his old van--his work vehicle.

He dropped by to talk and to work out a small loan for a few things he needed.

He has been a drug abuser for many years, as was his late wife. Their beautiful little girl lives in another part of the state with an aunt and is doing very well there.

Thankfully, he was not using drugs--he is managing to stay clean and sober. But, he was really down. . .and pretty much alone.

He must face his situation realistically and take responsibility as well.

That said, it strikes me again that many people are living out the consequences of not only their own mistakes, but also the abuse and folly of their parents and grandparents. This is true for both of these friends of mine.

The pathologies that dog the poor are often inherited.

Getting out of the pit takes super human effort that most people cannot muster on their own.

This is where community comes in--this is what community, genuine community is all about. Community, no matter what its quality, is much like family.

When community is dysfunctional, lives continue to fail and face grave illness.

But when a community begins to turn and to thrive, people discover new ways to overcome and move beyond the circumstances, scars and blows life has dished out often so unfairly.

People need help--often they need a lot of it! We all need help, don't we?

People can land in some sure enough jams.

People need grace.

People need hope.

People need to know that no matter what, someone or a group of "someones" will never turn away.

People need to experience the security of a culture of consistent accountability that expects great things and will never settle for cop-outs, cons or self-destruction.

My friends have access to this sort of community. Their friends in this community will treat them like a brother and a sister. They will find new hope here, if they decide to embrace it.

They will need help and resources and direction.

All this and more will be made available, just like in any good family.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Katrina and Rita Still Blow Through Lives

Preston Weaver serves as our Chaplain at Community Health Services here at Central Dallas Ministries. He is an excellent pastoral counselor and he serves as the Senior Minister of the Central Dallas Church.

Earlier this week Preston attended a meeting of church leaders and others who have been vitally involved in Katrina and Rita relief efforts here in Dallas. I found his report on that meeting to be important and interesting.

What follows are his words.

It was a most informative meeting that helped dispel much of the misinformation that has been circulating.

Because Pastors and Congregations throughout the Dallas/Ft. Worth area have been partners with FEMA, HUD/DHA and the Community Council of Greater Dallas since evacuees of Katrina and Rita have arrived in the area, much of the information shared was to drive home the fact that the federal, state, and local governments; non-profit relief organizations and the faith-based community need to fortify our concerted effort of meeting the short and long-term needs of the evacuees that want to remain in our communities, as well as those that have a desire to return to New Orleans.

A large population of our business community and media are under the impression that the short-term needs of the evacuees are being met and that their long-term needs are being addressed.

This is, of course, far from the reality many of us assisting evacuees face everyday.

This meeting addressed some of the ongoing problems evacuees are facing(deadlines for temporary housing, qualifications and availability of public housing, awareness of and ability to navigate wrap-around services available, eligibility and ineligibility for FEMA funds, et. al.).

One of the issues that has become quite serious. . .is the lack of mental and physical health care for evacuees that were not on any form of assistance prior to their evacuation. Strategies are being developed to address this serious problem.

Another immediate issue is finding affordable housing for those evacuees residing in Collin County whose assistance expires on February 28. Some housing has been identified, but not enough, as of this date, to avoid a crisis. A collaborative effort is underway to address this issue.

Another meeting is scheduled for February 6. Notices should be circulating soon.

The crisis created by these devastating hurricanes has not gone away. Churches and other civic groups need to explore ways to respond to the needs of these new neighbors all over our metropolitan area. It is clear that suburban communities continue to have opportunities to respond with help and hope.

Churches and other communities of faith can and should step up to be involved in relieving stress and providing hope.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Jesus and Wealth

People use the Bible in unusual ways. This is especially the case when attempting to justify some personal habit, practice or decision.

Recently, I read a review of a new book, a biography written about an important American minister. The author of the review pointed out that the minister had recently purchased a new home costing several million dollars.

When queried about his obvious wealth and material success, the minister said that since Jesus was very wealthy, he had no problem with wealth himself.

Jesus wealthy?

I have to tell you, that was a new one on me.

The minister went on to say that the robe Jesus wore on the way to his execution was the clothing of a rich man, so valuable that those who guarded him entered into a game of chance to see who would take the robe now that Jesus no longer needed it.

The implication here is that Jesus owned the costly robe.


Matthew 27:28 reports that Jesus' captors stripped him and put the robe on him, along with a twisted crown made of thorns, before mocking him as a king. The reading in John 19:1-3 concurs.

Then, there are those pesky words of Jesus himself when he told his followers that, unlike the birds of the air and the foxes of the field, he had nowhere to lay his head, no place to call his own home.

I better not get started on what he said about poverty, the poor and economics!

Let's just leave it here: Jesus was a pauper.

Let's be clear about that.

I don't know about you, but I have less trouble with the big house than I do with twisting the image of Jesus like this.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Labor and Life

Martin Luther King, Jr. lost his life acting on behalf of a group of sanitation workers.

He journeyed back to Memphis, Tennessee against the counsel of his closest advisors because he didn't want to send the wrong message to his supporters, to the nation or to the trash collectors about his mission or his method of non-violent action.

The decision cost him his life.

Part of the "mountain top" experience he described in his last sermon the night before his death involved his commitment to these ordinary, laboring men who cleaned up after everyone in their city. He stood with them as they petitioned their employer for fair wages and better lives.

You can read the sermon at:

King connected the quest for a better life and equity in pay directly to his understanding of faith and religion. (Please re-read the previous sentence.)

As surprising as it may sound to us today, we who have grown so accustomed to pulpits dispensing inspirational pabulum that lifts our spirits but not the purpose of our lives, King read the Bible and then took action based on what he read.

King was a pastor at heart, but a pastor who carved out a revolutionary ministry in the streets of America.

King was not perfect. No one is. He made plenty of mistakes. Who doesn't?

But, he was faithful to his mission.

I couldn't help thinking of Dr. King today when I heard that the Ford Motor Company plans to layoff over 20,000 workers in a cost-cutting, reorganization plan.

At the same time, the major auto manufacturer reported better than expected profits to shareholders.


What does work mean to us today? Where is the value in labor? What do our values teach us about work and the people who perform it?

Do the principles of our faith have anything to say to that question?

I think I know what Dr. King would say.

But, he is gone now.

The more important question today is what do people of faith have to say? What do we say?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dr. King's Birthday Celebration in Dallas

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday turned out to be memorable for me this year.

Dr. Ron Anderson, CEO of the Parkland Health and Hospital System, invited me to speak to his administrative leadership team as a part of their annual celebration of Dr. King's life. It was an honor for me to be involved with this amazing group of community leaders and healers.

Ron Anderson is among the top hospital/health care leaders in the nation.

Dr. Ron is much, much more than an administrator.

He still wears his white coat and makes rounds among his patients.

If you get to know him at all, you realize that his work is accomplished in response to what he regards as a personal call on his life. He is about a mission of faith. Ron describes our public hospital system as the "Samaritan's Inn" of Dallas.

My assignment for the celebration speech was interesting. The invitation e-mail laid out my task in a couple of simple questions:

How did the work of Dr. King affect your career, ministry and leadership style?

How are you addressing the issues of race today as a result?

I have to tell you that reflecting on those questions helped me to realize just how much Dr. King has shaped my life, worldview and ministry over the years. As I rehearsed the stages and phases of my life, it was surprising just how deeply I've been touched and changed by Dr. King. Over the next few weeks I will revisit some of his writings and speeches for daily reflection sake. No doubt, some of what I re-discover will most likely show up here.

In the evening I attended a more formal event to honor Dr. King. The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture presented a scholarly symposium, "Leader, Scholar, Theologian: The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr."

Central Dallas Ministries was proud to be listed as a community organization co-sponsor of the event.

Brian Johnson, Associate Professor of English at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, presented a paper dealing with the theological significance of Dr. King.

Dr. Clayborne Carson, History Professor at Stanford University and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project discussed the role of King as leader and scholar.

The evening was fascinating.

Dr. Carson set King in an international context that spanned the entire 20th century. He noted that King's historic work for liberation and justice was rooted in this very pragmatic understanding of the Kingdom of God.

King's hard-nosed pragmatism always led him to action for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.

King's effective and powerful practicality seems to be sadly absent from most of today's expressions of faith and values among our churches, as well as among those who tend to dominate our current national conversation about such matters.

I remain profoundly grateful for Dr. King.

It is a very good thing to stop and to remember his life and his amazing work.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Developing Affordable Housing

One of the reasons there is such a shortage of fit and affordable housing for low-income Americans today is because this type of housing is so difficult to develop.

No one is lining up to help make it easier either!

In addition to being hard/complicated to produce in almost every respect, affordable housing developers must be content with much smaller profit margins, if there is any margin at all!

As a result, lots of affordable housing is being developed today by non-profit developers like the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDCDC). Take a moment to visit our website to learn more:

John Greenan serves as the Executive Director of our CDCDC.

John is on my "top 10 list" for the smartest, hardest working people I have ever known.

He is beyond patient.

With any luck at all we will break ground in February on a 237-unit housing development in inner city East Dallas that will include over 45,000 square feet of new retail development. John has been providing leadership on this project for over 5 years! Only non-profit developers could survive such a long time! Once completed some time in 2007, it will be a neighborhood transforming project.

Today at noon John and I appear before the Dallas City Council's "Quality of Life" committee.

We will have about 15 minutes to explain our vision for another project.

Our plans call for the development of about 200 units of housing for some of our very lowest income neighbors, as well as some moderately low-income folks as well.

We currently control a 15-story building in downtown Dallas (photo above--check out more details at the following site: where we hope to develop this special studio and 1-bedroom housing. We plan to offer 110 studio apartments to men and women who likely will spend tonight on the street or in a shelter. The remainder of the units will cater to persons of modest income and to those who simply want to live in a great place downtown.

We also plan to move several of our administrative and program division offices into the same building. So, in essence, we will be living with the folks day-by-day.

Our meeting with this special subset of the council is to gain their backing for our tax credit application, as well as political support for our efforts.

We anticipate a bit of opposition to our plans from some of the other property owners downtown.

I feel that we will be able to turn our opponents into allies once they understand that our project will make life better for everyone, especially those interested in seeing dynamic street life return to our downtown streets.

Obviously, we have much work to do before we complete this one! We will need many serious partners.

John seems unphased!

It is a real joy and a downright hoot to get to work with him!

Like most days around here, today should be a real trip.

At times I can't believe I get paid to do this job!

Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mike Cope's Blog--Wisdom from a Friend

Mike Cope is a tremendous minister, a great preacher and a dear friend. Mike serves as Senior Minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. I have seldom "lifted" an entire entry from another blog, but, with Mike's permission, that is what I am doing here.

What follows appeared on his blog on Friday, January 20, 2006. You can check out his almost daily posts at:

The idea behind merit pay scales for teachers is that we want the very best teaching possible for our students. We've all known teachers (though, truthfully, I haven't known many) who were failing their children.

However, when the pay increases are tied to students' performance on standardized tests, there is a huge problem. It encourages teachers to gravitate toward classrooms with fewer kids who are challenged--challenged socially, culturally, emotionally, and intellectually. In other words, if you can find a classroom full of kids from gated communities, your chances for increased pay skyrocket.

I like what Denver is doing: tying pay scales to teachers' willingness to teach in classrooms with students who from the poorest families and those who are English-language learners.

Another possibility is to base the performance NOT on standardized tests but on the attainment of goals that have been agreed upon by teachers, parents, and school district representatives.

Having said that, I'm so thankful today for the (mostly) wonderful teachers my three children have had here in Abilene. It was very important to us that our kids go to school with students from other races and other economic situations.

From Ben Witherington III, one of my favorite NT scholars:

We are not owners of this world; we are only stewards and caretakers of it, for God's sake. The Bible does not support either a godless communistic philosophy of property and use of the world's resources, nor does it support a godless capitalistic vision of the same. The Bible suggests there is neither private nor public property, only God's property, of which we are all stewards.

The whole modern theory of ownership is faulty, for we brought nothing with us into this world, and we will take none of it with us. It also follows from this theology of stewardship that since it belongs to God, we have an obligation to use and dispose of it all in a way that glorifies God and helps humankind.

The theory of charity too often has as its essential premise "what's mine is mine, but I may choose to share it with you." The problem with this thesis is that the earth is the Lord's and all that is therein. We have simply been entrusted with a small portion of it to tend and use for the good of God's dominion while we are here.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Rich Young Ruler

is so hard to see
when it’s only on your TV
or twenty miles across town

where we're all living so good
we've moved out of Jesus' neighborhood
where he's hungry and not feeling so good
from going through our trash

He says more than just
your cash and coin,
I want your time
I want your voice,
I want the things you just can't give me

so what must we do
here in the west we want to follow you
we speak the language and we keep all the rules
even a few we've made up

come on and follow Me
sell your house,
sell your S.U.V.
sell your stocks and your security
and give it to the poor

well what is this?
hey, what's the deal?
I don't sleep around and I don't steal
but I want the things you just can't give me
I want the things you just can't give me

because what you do to the least of these
my brothers you have done it to me
I want the things you just can't give me
I want the things you just can't give me

(from the album by Derek Webb, "Mockingbird")

For context read Luke 18:18-30

Friday, January 20, 2006

Poverty Quiz: Do You Know Poverty?

Check out the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Poverty Quiz" website at:

You will likely learn some surprising facts of life for the poor in the United States.

The site is part of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

After you take the quiz, I would encourage you to explore the larger website. It contains a "wealth" of information (no pun intended!) about poverty in America.

For example, Texas ranks 4th in number of poor people in the U. S.

My state ranks 1st in the number of low-income children who are uninsured.

The site also contains a fascinating and challenging U. S. "Poverty Tour." You can go directly to this multi-media experience at:

Surely action informed by faith, properly understood, could make a difference in this reality, don't you think?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dallas: Among the Most Religious and the Sixth Meanest

The annual "meanness index" report is out from the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The report, A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, ranks Dallas as the 6th "meanest city" in the nation if you are homeless.

This particular report studied 224 cities and tracked the popular urban trend that makes homelessness a criminal matter.

During 2005, like Dallas, city after city enacted ordinances making it illegal to sleep, eat, sit or beg in public spaces.

Why, Dallas even has considered a law making it illegal to give money to people who ask for it on the street. Talk about being innovative! The "can do" city does it again!

The national ranking of cities is based on several factors, including the number of anti-homeless laws in a city, enforcement of those laws, the general political climate regarding homeless people in the city, and the city’s history of criminalization measures.

While more cities, like Dallas, are cracking down on homeless people living in public spaces, cities do not have adequate shelter to meet the need. People are on the street because there are few, if any other options.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors report released in December 2005 revealed that 71% of 24 cities surveyed reported a 6% increase in requests for emergency shelter, with 14% of overall emergency shelter requests going unmet and 32% of emergency shelter requests by homeless families remaining unmet. Very few shelter beds are available that allow families to stay together.

Besides this, shelters are not the answer. Most shelter facilities in Dallas "dump" people back on the streets come dawn or earlier.

At the same time, as I have noted many times, Congress is cutting key social safety net programs that could help reduce homelessness. Legislation passed last month by the House and Senate proposes to cut Medicaid funding by $4.8 billion and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) assistance by $732 million over the next five years.

These cuts are supported by the Bush Administration, despite the Administration’s stated 10-year goal of ending “chronic” homelessness, which is especially prevalent among disabled homeless persons living on the street.

Go figure.

Another trend documented in the report is increased city efforts to target homeless persons indirectly by punishing or placing restrictions on service providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces. Dallas will begin enforcing just such a provision during 2006.

Just grand, huh?

Here in Dallas, Mayor Laura Miller contends that it is unfair to focus just on homeless control ordinances to determine a city's ranking on the "mean list." She points to all that Dallas is doing for the homeless, including the passage of a bond package that provides almost $24 million in new funds to construct a Homeless Assistance Center. She also points to all of the private relief activity being done in the city.

Just this week our homelessness czar, Mike Rawlings hosted a meeting to discuss the development of a "good neighbor" policy for our new Homeless Assistance Center. Before the conversation was over you got the feeling that the new center would be a high-wall, gated community that shuts homeless people in and walls them off from the rest of us.

During that meeting, my good friend and partner here at CDM, Executive Director Gerald Britt, asked a good question,

"If we are working on a 'good neighbor' policy, does this mean that only the homeless need to be good neighbors? What about those of us who aren't homeless? How can we be good neighbors?"

Good questions, Gerald!

Dallas social intelligence test:

Question: If you are rich in Dallas and living behind a wall, what do you call it?

Answer: Gated community

Question: If you are poor in Dallas and living behind a wall, what do you call it?

Answer: Prison or a homeless center/shelter. ______________________________________________

If we are talking about the attitudes of individuals in Dallas, it may be true to say that Dallas isn't any meaner than any other city in the country. Some would and could argue over this point, but folks here are about like everywhere else when it comes to our neighbors who are at the very bottom.

What makes Dallas so curious to me is the fact that it is one of, if not the most religious, "churched-up" place on the planet!

The problem here, as I see it, is that our churches are a collection of wonderfully nice individuals who seldom act in concert to affect the change we need. Further, somehow it seems that our faith never gets translated to the streets or to City Hall in any practical, systemic, comprehensive or change-producing manner.

So, we settle for "no panhandling" laws, rather than bearing down together to change our streets for the good of everyone.

Again, we are back to the same old conclusion. Homeless people will not go away until they have somewhere to go, as in homes. It ain't rocket science.

By the way, here's the entire list of really mean places:

1. Sarasota, FL
2. Lawrence, KS
3. Little Rock, AR
4. Atlanta, GA
5. Las Vegas, NV
6. Dallas, TX
7. Houston, TX
8. San Juan, PR
9. Santa Monica, CA
10. Flagstaff, AZ
11. San Francisco, CA
12. Chicago, IL
13. San Antonio, TX
14. New York City, NY
15. Austin, TX
16. Anchorage, AK
17. Phoenix, AZ
18. Los Angeles, CA
19. St. Louis, MO
20. Pittsburgh, PA

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Gustavo Gutierrez

Almost thirty years ago I discovered Gustavo Gutierrez.

My discovery turned out to be priceless. The Roman Catholic priest and theologian from Peru changed my heart and, then, my worldview forever.

Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation, now a classic, largely defined the continuing, worldwide discussion of liberation theology for more than a generation. His ideas informed Latin American, African American, Asian and Middle Eastern theologies, as well as those interested in issues related to feminism, racism, Third World development and economics, political freedom movements and poverty.

Gutierrez set off a firestorm in his own church where his thought has not been well received by those responsible for maintaining orthodox doctrine. Gutierrez believed that the heart of God could best be understood through the struggle and in the voices of the poor who stand at the margins of society .

I believe he speaks much, much truth.

Gutierrez asks all of the correct questions of a world like ours.

For example, in a speech delivered in Chimbote, Peru in July 1968 ("Toward A Theology of Liberation," in Gustavo Gutierrez Essential Writings, edited by James B. Nickoloff), he asks,

"Is there any connection between constructing the world and saving it?"

He goes on, "If we understand salvation as something with merely 'religious' or 'spiritual' value for my soul, then it would not have much to contribute to concrete human life. But if salvation is understood as passing from less human condition to more human condition, it means that messianism brings about the freedom of captives and the oppressed and liberates humans from slavery. . . .

"The sign of the coming of the messiah is the suppression of oppression: the messiah arrives when injustice is overcome. . . .An intimate relationship exists between the kingdom and the elimination of poverty and misery. The kingdom comes to suppress injustice. . . .

"To believe in Christ, this, is to believe that God has made a commitment to the historical development of the human race.

"To have faith in Christ is to see the history in which we are living as the progressive revelation of the human face of God"
(pages 26-27).

Our work in the world is clear: we are called to love, to serve and to stand with those who suffer injustice.

Our spiritual life is rooted in the suffering and the joy of this world and it is about this world.

Our work is about the kingdom for which Jesus taught his followers to pray.

As we enter the pain of the world, we display and we discover the very human face of God.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poverty's Generations

Why does poverty breed so much "negative life," including more poverty?

Anyone who works among low-income persons and communities understands the oppressive, usually intractable nature of generational poverty. History helps our understanding as to why certain groups and cultures face more challenges than others.

We tend to focus on and then to celebrate the victories of those who "break out," who escape the life path inherited from their parents and ancestors. Such celebration is understandable, but anecdotal by comparison to the numbers still trapped in horribly predictable life outcomes.

Assuming that every individual has equal opportunity for success is not only a naive social perspective, it is so untrue as to be extremely damaging to individuals and to our larger society, especially when it over-informs public policy.

All men and women may be created equal, but all do not arrive in equal circumstances that provide equal opportunities for success, productivity and fulfillment. I know this realization flies in the face of a long-cherished part of American mythology.

The fact is poor, inner city children encounter challenges unique to their birth families, their communities and their cultural histories. Identifying these challenges and facing them with courage, honesty and intelligence will be key to seeing them mastered at a scale that can actually affect change among entire population groups.

W. H. Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939," contains this chilling line,

"I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return."

Fortunately, this is not always the case. In fact, and thankfully, most of the time it is not true if we are thinking of individual actions in response to evil experienced.

But evil done to people and to communities does have a way of continuing among the injured for a long time--often for generations. Auden speaks an important truth to those who really want to understand why the problems we know so well persist so often without interruption.

Significant social, public, political, emotional, educational, spiritual, community interventions and investments will be required to break the cycle. These interventions must be well-funded, patient, wise and long-term. Everyone must be involved in making the required investment in the future of our children, our cities and our nation.

There is no other way.

Monday, January 16, 2006

If Dr. King Were Alive Today

I was five-years-old when Rosa Parks and Dr. King began their heroic quest to break the back of the Jim Crow South of which I was a part. I grew up watching with amazement the unfolding liberation events we refer to as the American Civil Rights Movement.

I remember exactly what I was doing on April 4, 1968 when the news came that Dr. King had been gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. I often wonder what America would be like today had he not been murdered.

If he were alive, we would have celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday.

Remembering Dr. King, his work and his legacy in view of life in the urban centers of our nation today forces me to conclude that we need a new and continuing movement for liberation and justice.

So, on the national holiday set aside to honor Dr. King, I am wondering, what would he be doing if he were still alive and with us in today's America?

Actually, I think I know.

If Dr. King was working today, he would. . .

. . .speak out on behalf of working people in America. When he died, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting the strike of Memphis sanitation workers. He would be calling for justice in pay and wages for working Americans who almost forty years later find themselves in an even weaker position than in 1968. His concern would include full funding for training resources to assist American workers in enhancing their skills so that they could earn more for their work.

. . .call our leaders to find a solution to our national health and wellness crisis. At the center of his argument would be a call for fairness and justice in the arena of health care delivery and outcomes. He would be speak forcefully to the glaring and undeniable disparities, cutting along racial lines, that are a national shame.

. . .challenge us to provide decent, affordable housing for every individual and family in America. He would call us to account about the growing problem of homelessness. He would insist that working families deserve fit, affordable places in which to live and raise their families.

. . .question the current rhetoric about our national commitment to high-quality public education. Dr. King would be concerned about our return to segregation in the public schools and he would insist on providing what our schools need to prepare our children for life in our changing, shrinking, high-tech world. He would not allow us to leave any child behind.

. . .rebuke our leaders for their support of the current tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of programs designed to lift the poor. He would clearly, truthfully contextualize the so-called gains in employment and job creation, pointing out the fact that the jobs created over the past 5 years have been lower paying than the jobs lost. He would let us know that earnings for American working families have declined annually since 2000, while our wealthiest citizens have enjoyed amazing income growth.

. . .offer alternative solutions and responses other than incarceration for dealing with non-violent drug offenders who are found disproportionately among the urban poor. He would challenge the "prison industry" that costs our states billions with terrible and counter-productive outcomes, especially for inner city neighborhoods. He would remind us that treatment is what is needed, not imprisonment for the poor.

. . .insist that the nation take a long, hard look at our foreign policy and how our actions abroad affect our people here at home. At the top of his list would be the current war in Iraq.

. . .remind us of the values of the faiths we confess and of just how those values relate to growing American poverty. Dr. King was a prophet. He would point us to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus in an effort to re-tool our national conscience. In the process he would issue a clear, unrelenting call to the churches, the synagogues, the temples and the mosques of America to stand up, speak out and become involved in shaping a fairer, more just response to the problems of the urban poor.

. . .provoke a much more honest, better informed, less partisan national debate about public policy, justice, poverty, economic development and freedom in the United States.

. . .model love for all people.

How I wish he was still alive.

But, he is not.

We who celebrate his life and work must continue to follow his example and his call. We must complete what he and many others began.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Sunday Meditation: On Being "Social"

John Wesley, on social action:

"The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness.

"You cannot be holy except as you are engaged in making the world a better place.

"You do not become holy by keeping yourself pure and clean from the world but by plunging into ministry on behalf of the world's hurting ones."

(Posted on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Racism's Ugly Face and Our Wonderful Children

Janet Morrison leads our children's education efforts here at Central Dallas Ministries. Recently, Janet completed work on her Ed. D. from Texas A & M Commerce in education. She graduated in December.

She is a whiz and a devoted mentor, leader, coach and teacher of children.

Across the years I've hired lots of amazing people. Our staff numbers over 100 today. But, I must say, I've never hired anyone better than Janet. Many equally as talented in their various areas of expertise and passion, but Janet ranks among the top in my book.

Let me give you a piece of friendly advice: don't be messin' with "Miss Janet's kids"!

Earlier this week Janet received the following email message from one of "her kids." The young woman who wrote these words is 14-years-old, Latina and very involved in Janet's civil rights education program.

As Janet told me, "she wants so badly to believe that race doesn't matter." The young woman's experience is forcing her to deal with some ugly facts of life in our nation. I'll let her speak for herself.

Ms. Janet,

I wanted to tell you something that caught my attention and still hasn`t let go.

Well I was chosen to represent my school in the Magnet fair on Saturday.

I had to talk to many parents and explain how Atwell [a DISD public school] will benefit their children and all the other good stuff.

Well I had many parents who did not speak English. I met this lady named Maria, a mother of two 6th grade girls. Everything was going great, questions were being answered and a good conversation was being held until she asked "What kind of people attend Atwell?"

I responded 7th and 8th grade students.

She was like, "No, I mean race like."

I asked, ''Why does it matter, if we all get along fine?"

She just looked at me, so I answered the question.

"There's more blacks than Hispanics, and more Hispanics than Anglos."

Then she responded, "Oh then, Atwell isn't what my daughters need."

I just said, "Okay. Have a nice day."

Later that night all I could think of was that small comment.

So, I started thinking, yeah we might be different color, but were all equal. We were made by one creator GOD. So,why do we think we're more than others, when we're really not?

And, if we think about it, we make others who think they're less than us feel bad. I mean, God gave us a mind of our own, put us on Earth where we have everything we need. All we need to do is use our creativity.

No matter if we're black, red, or even green, we were put here by the same person for one purpose. So why should we take so much from others who are just like us?

As I read her words, my mind shifted backwards to the days following the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and to the discussion about race and poverty in America. A number of people argued with me--some very heatedly!--that racism was no longer a problem in our country. How naive.

We have so much work to do.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Confirming a Well-Founded Bias

Last evening confirmed another inner city bias for me.

Actually, now that I think of it, I received two confirmations.

On my way home, well after dark, my front tire blew out. I wasn't going fast, but I was on a fairly dark, deserted side street not far from my office.

I hate it when that happens.

I don't enjoy changing tires, especially when I am already running late with take-out ordered from one of my favorite local "joints."

Of course I shouldn't complain because until last evening I had never had to change a tire on the car I'm driving these days. Have had a flat or two--after all, this is East Dallas!--but all within driving distance of our local tire shop that specializes in fixing East Dallas flats.

The flat confirmed my first bias--a negative one. The streets of my neighborhood have more nails per square foot than any where on earth!

My second confirmation was much more important.

As I was down on my knees trying to figure out my wonderful, compact jack system, a man appeared from nowhere. Just sort of emerged from the dark street. He was there so quickly that he startled me a bit.

He had a flashlight, a smile and a simple question, "Need some help?"

I love it when that happens!

My car had come to a stop in front of his house.

"I thought I heard someone bangin' around out here," he continued. "I can see you got trouble. Didn't want you to have it alone!"

Turns out that my new friend works in a used car lot and has daily experience with flats, blow-outs, brakes and auto finance!

We worked as a team for about 15 minutes and the job was done.

In that brief time lapse I find out that his birthday is today--mine is tomorrow! He is going to be 53, I'll be 56--where do the years go?

When I had the tools stowed and my friend thanked properly, we talked a bit more.

As I was getting into my car, he invited to come back and visit sometime soon.

Oh, and he gave me a brief lecture about getting on down to the tire shop for a new spare.

"Don't be driving around here without a solid spare now!"

My new buddy confirmed my bias: the vast majority of the people I know in the city are just great folks. Lots of good people living tough lives.

Nothing much to fear here, except missing the opportunity to meet as many neighbors as possible.

I hope your neighborhood is like mine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

President Carter. . .A New Book Worth Reading

Pick up former President Jimmy Carter's new book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis. It will be well worth your time.

I believe it is a must-read for anyone who cares about the cities of America, not to mention the soul of the nation itself.

Carter's prose may not be the most exciting that you'll ever read, but his passion will move you and the facts he establishes may startle you.

His chapter on "political fundamentalism" is worth the price of the book.

His summary on this theme that pops up throughout the book is helpful,

"There are obviously sincere differences of opinion within the religious and political life of our nation, and this is to be expected. It is the unprecedented combined impact of fundamentalism in religion and politics that has helped to create the deep and increasingly disturbing divisions among our people. This is a basic challenge that the citizens of our country will have to meet and resolve, in order to shape the future heart and soul of America" (page 101).

Carter identifies the "world's greatest challenge" as "the growing chasm between the rich and the poor people on earth. There is not only a great disparity between the two, but the gap is steadily widening" (page 179).

The former President avoids none of the hot button topics so familiar to our current debate: abortion, homosexuality, poverty, church and state, science and religion, terrorism, foreign policy, gun control, the environment.

This is a book I hope you will read and recommend to others.

Once you've read it, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Children, Always Think of the Children

We can debate methods, public policy, politics, theology. . .you name it. But in all our conversations, we must never forget the children.

Children can't help it.

Children aren't responsible for their position, plight or parents.

For the most part, children are all the same when they get here.

It's where they call "home" that often determines the path of their lives.

Economic status is not the only determinate of destiny in life.

But, it is a gigantic factor.

Make no mistake about it, poor children have huge mountains to climb that middle class and upper class kids just don't face.

When I think of the city, I think of children.

I see faces of children I've known personally.

I think of all that so many have overcome.

I think of a growing number from our community who go on to college or trade schools.

I can't get their smiles, their energy, their foul-ups, their victories and their creativity out of my mind.

Unless you've been in a place like this, you just cannot image how powerful, how wonderful and how amazing the children are!

So, forgive me. Whenever subjects come up like public policy or church mission or economic development or housing or health care or personal and organizational priorities, I always think of the children.

And frankly, that changes everything. . .I mean, everything.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

How to Build a Community

To change cities and neighborhoods you must build authentic communities of people.

That is one of our fundamental operating principles here in Dallas. Even when we are not successful or when we simply fail, we never forget the goal because of its absolute importance.

For years I have been ordering materials from the Syracuse Cultural Workers. I recently came across a poster with a tremendous message. We now have two posters hanging in our headquarters building--one in English, the other in Spanish. The message is worth sharing here.

Titled, "How to Build Community," the poster reads:

Turn off your TV. Leave your home. Know your neighbors. Look up when you are walking. Greet people. Sit on your stoop. Plant flowers. Use your library.

Play together. Buy from local merchants. Share what you have. Help a lost dog. Take children to the park. Garden together. Support neighborhood schools. Fix it even if you didn't break it.

Have pot lucks. Honor elders. Pick up litter. Read stories aloud. Dance in the street. Talk to the mail carrier. Listen to the birds. Put up a swing. Help carry something heavy.

Barter for your goods. Start a tradition. Ask a question. Hire young people for odd jobs. Organize a block party. Bake extra and share. Ask for help when you need it. Open your shades.

Sing together. Share your skills.

Take back the night. Turn up the music. Turn down the music.

Listen before you react to anger. Mediate a conflict. Seek to understand.

Learn from new and uncomfortable angles.

Know that no one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Stiff the Poor. . .One More Time--Hats Off to Our Leaders in Congress!

I hate to keep banging on the same drum, but the situation is so ridiculous that I cannot ignore it again today.

The U. S. Congress likely will approve, with only slight changes, a national budget (800 pages is the document!) that will cut about $40 billion in spending over the next five years.

The savings will be achieved by hammering the poor.

Sick people who are poor will suffer more, while paying more for Medicaid. The changes will cause many poor people to forego treatment. The Congress knows this and plans on the savings from deferred treatment to be at about $4.8 billion over the five year period.

Let me repeat that. Your Congress is counting on people not using Medicaid to achieve this savings. Put another way, if you are poor and sick, this Congress expects you to not seek treatment and it knows that some will die as a result.

Over the next ten years, $8.4 billion in child support owed to single mothers and their children who have been left by husbands and/or fathers will go uncollected due to de-funding of the enforcement process. Way to go fearless leaders! The children thank you, as do their deadbeat dads!

Oh, and don't forget Supplemental Security Income. This is disability income for people who are physically or mentally disabled. The new plan is to systematically (see the post on yesterday!) delay payments for up to a year for those who are determined to be eligible.

Do you know how hard it is to qualify for SSI already? Now comes our Congress to add insult to injury with a policy that says, "Yes, we know you are disabled, but you'll just have to deal with it on your own for another year before your approved benefits kick in."

The largest "saving" or cuts come from college loan programs--the largest cuts in the history of the federal student loan program. Two-thirds of the savings will be carried on the backs of students and their families.

This should be great for improving the quality of our national workforce, don't you think?

If education is one of the essential ingredients for escaping poverty, this Congress is doing all it can to insure that more and more students from low-income families never escape.

I say we need new leaders with a larger, more inclusive vision for the future of this country.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Setting Up a Fair System

Entrenched, generational poverty results when a nation's economic system is unfair.

Most of us don't like to think in systemic terms.

We prefer stories about individual achievement and the "self-made" man or woman. Most of us don't even recognize how systems affect individual and group outcomes.

We ignore the systemic to our peril.

The manner in which wealth is created and distributed in the United States makes it imperative that we continually look at the systemic forces at work in our economy. Any serious concern about overcoming poverty will lead us to analyze these forces and attempt to develop responses that bring more fairness to our national economy.

Consider this fact. In 2004 the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay in large American companies was 431 to 1.

If the national minimum wage had grown at the same pace as executive pay since 1990, the legal minimum hourly wage would be $23.03 instead of the current anemic rate of $5.15 per hour.

No one is suggesting that minimum wage be set that high. Our federal leaders have been so slow to adjust the wage level that several states are now doing so on their own.

However, it does make sense for everyone when state and national governments take steps to compensate low-income working Americans in other ways through fair and sound public policy decisions. Such policy moves (including fair tax policy, Earned Income Tax Credits, child care subsidies, educational funding and assistance with decent housing) result in changes to our system that benefit those at or near the bottom of our economy.

Why do critics object to redistribution of assets to benefit the bottom, but never complain about systemic policy decisions that redistribute wealth for the benefit of those at the top?

Critics always object that those at the top are earning their way, while those at the bottom pay little no federal taxes and thus, deserve no consideration.

Few ask questions about the systemic advantages built into our economy that are enjoyed by the rich and that promote the inordinate growth of their wealth.

We need to take our eyes off individuals and pay more attention to how the system works for some and fails for others.

Faith and fairness demand no less.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Vindicating New Orleans

Ancient cities had a way of disappearing.

Many factors could be responsible for the demise of a city in biblical times. Famine, war, pestilence, invasion and captivity, to name a few.

During the period of Babylonian exile, Jerusalem basically disappeared.

Oh, there were a few stalwart souls who managed to evade their captors. Some weren't wanted for the journey to Babylon. Others came along later to take up residence in the abandoned city. Squatters and boudoins.

But, for all practical purposes, Jerusalem disappeared for about two generations beginning in the 6th century B.C.E.

The last third or so of the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah is devoted to hope-filled words about urban renewal in the abandoned city of David. At least two distinct voices seem to take up the cause of championing the rebuilding and renovation of the ancient city left in ruins.

As I listened to my preacher on Sunday reading from Isaiah 62, my mind moved quickly to my recent observations of New Orleans, America's lost city.

The words of the prophet provided me a vision of hope.

Maybe if you read the words with my modern adaptation thrown in for good measure, you'll see what I mean.

"For New Orleans' sake I will not keep silent,
and for New Orleans' sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out
like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

"The nations shall see your
and all the world leaders and politicians your glory;
and you shall be called by a
new name
that the mouth of the Lord
will give.

"You shall be a crown of beauty in
the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand
of your God.

"You shall no more be termed
and your region shall no more be
termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight
Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.

"For as a young man marries a
young woman,
so shall your builders marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices
over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice
over you.

"Upon your city limits, O New Orleans,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the Lord,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes New Orleans
and makes it renowned
throughout the earth." (Isaiah 62:1-6)

Like Jerusalem, New Orleans can be vindicated if at least three things happen.

1) People of vision and faith must take courageous, risky action for the now "forsaken" and "desolate" city. Had people of vision and faith not taken action, Jerusalem would not have been re-populated or renewed. New Orleans waits for brave leaders to step up and take over.

2) People with power, influence and political and economic capital must invest sacrificially in the city's renewal. Again, in the case of Jerusalem, had the powerful of the day not taken decisive action, the city would not have come back.

3) People who love the city must become engaged at the level of the heart and soul. In other words, New Orleans will not be vindicated nor given a new name (read "lease on life" and "new identity") unless people who recognize the power of the spiritual get involved.

I am praying for the vindication of this great city.

I invite you to do so as well.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Katrina's Missed Opportunity???

Hurricane Katrina, recently voted by the Associated Press as "the story of the year," offered us an opportunity. It appears that as a nation we took a brief look and then said, "No thanks" before turning back to business as usual.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the entire nation seemed mesmerized by the brief, microscopic look we had at the horrible reality of long-term, entrenched poverty in a major American city.

News reports and commentary, social scientists, politicians, urban planners, religious leaders and ordinary people--everyone shared the same sense of horror, dismay at the plight of the poor in New Orleans.

For a brief moment it appeared that the ugly reality unveiled by the fierce storm would turn the nation's longer term attention to attacking poverty, not only in New Orleans, but in every major urban area in the nation.

But that hope soon proved unfounded.

Within days the conversation shifted to our general lack of preparedness in the face of national disasters. Heads rolled at FEMA. The President, the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans all took tough shots concerning their ineffectiveness.

Serious, national, concerted attention to the poor, beyond the details of this particular disaster, evaporated quickly.

Several weeks ago, the Foundation for Community Empowerment (FCE) here in Dallas did an analysis of life in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans as compared to the larger urban region along three social measures--education, wealth and employment. Predictably, the gap between this very poor part of New Orleans and the general population was wide.

But, FCE didn't stop there.

They ran a comparison of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dallas, the Frazier community in South Dallas, with the larger community. The gaps turned out to be about twice as wide here in Dallas. Their analysis also revealed that the disparities here cannot be explained by the fact that Dallas is a richer community than New Orleans.

Shortly after the storm ravaged New Orleans, I heard one commentator say that Katrina had "peeled back the cover" on the harsh reality of systemic, generational poverty in the United States.

He was correct.

Now four months later, the nation has gone back to taking care of its business.

Congress has cut long-term programs designed to lift poor children into better lives. Ongoing tax cuts that benefit the rich only signal that more cuts should be expected for those programs that benefit our weakest neighbors through efforts such as education, skill training, child care, and housing.

So much for a long-term view.

So much for the disease festering just beneath the surface in every American city.

Our greatest national security issue just may be our callous indifference to people who live and struggle every day in poverty's unrelenting grip.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Resolutions For the Sake of Our Cities

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 2006,

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 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.