Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Understanding Prisoners. . .

Prison is ugly.

If rehabilitation is truly the goal/objective/mission of prison, then literally millions of people who end up there really should be elsewhere.

If you have ever carried on correspondence with prisoners, you know that what I am saying here is true.

Addiction, mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, learning disabilities and stupid choices land people in jail. To be sure, some prisoners need to remain behind bars.

But, I'm coming to the conclusion that a significant portion of our current prison population should be cared for in much less expensive environments that offer the promise of much more positive outcomes. I have a number of reasons for saying this--the experience of a number of states who seem committed to changing the system for non-violent offenders, the amazing strength of the "prison lobby" in this country, the terrible recidivism rates for ex-incarcerated persons, and personal experience with inmates and former inmates.

Today I want to introduce you to "Tony" (not his real name).

He is becoming my friend. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated robbery.

Maybe the best way for you to "get inside his head" would be to look over my shoulder at his latest letter to me. Here it is, exactly as he wrote it.

March 14, 2006

I Received your Letter A Few days ago and It WAS good to hear FROM YOU. I also would like to Thank you For The small The Deposit that you said you would send to my inmate trust Fund.
I also Appreciate your concern over The distress That I'M having in my Family. I don't know if my uncle has passed yet because know one has written and said anything. My uncle's NAMe is ____________. He's in parkland Hospital I donot No is Room number. I Really HAte to say This MR. LARRY James I Rather see him pass on Then to see him layed up in The hospital suffering like That he's Around Fifty or FiFty one and That's pretty young. he needed A kidney badly. Apparently it's to late to say him now.
You ask me could I Tell you what got me to The TDCJ? And you also ask me when I Expected to be Release?
First MR. LARRY James
Let me Explain how I ended up AT The TDC?
IT First Started After I loss A Very good Job That I had For Almost Ten years. From Then I begin to Turn to bad Things That I didnot need in my life I began to Drink and use drugs. I lost everything That I ever had I TRIed to Fight For My life but I wasn't strong enough to over come most of my problems on my own, which meant I got worser I began to drink and drugs more I guess because I have so much to happen to me all at one time That I just let it get the best of me. One night I was so drunk and drug out That I Robbed A little old lady Over By Baylor hospital I don't know what made me do such a Thing. There IS A day That passes That I don't Regret What I done. I ended up being sentence Ten Years For Aggravated Robbery. I've been lock up now For Almost eight years now. You ask me when was I Expected to be Released, I come back up For my pARole Next Year NOV 2007 If I don't make parole in Nov 2007 I will Discharged Sept 17, 2008
I'm so EMbarrASSed For Sharing This with you. but I Felt in my heart that I could share this with you. I know I made some terrible choices in my life. I plan to Try And Turn My life Around once I'm Released. I know it wont be easy but nothing is easy in life, I Think I learn something From all This MR. James
I don't Think I ever Told you This befor. I grew up near The Centeral DALLAS Ministries. I also so Volunteer at Centeral Dallas Ministries A Few times in your Food Pantry. I plan to come and Volunteer agan For All The help you provided me with. In the mean Time MR. LARRy James I'M Still waiting on a Half Way house some where to Except Me.
MR. LARRy James
I wish That There were A Way That you could send me a small Deposit every month. My Family Isn't in Any Shape to send me any Funds especially After buring A Aunt A Few months ago and now they are trying to RAISe Money to burie my uncle who didn't have any insurance I know You can only do so much For Me because You have other People to help. Whatever you can do For me will be appreciated MR. Larry James


My friend needs something that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not currently offer.

On at least one occasion, Jesus told his followers that when they visited those who were suffering in prison, they were in fact visiting him. He identified with criminals.

Of course, he died the death of a criminal, the victim of capital punishment.

Funny how this works. Thinking of "Tony" causes me to remember Jesus. . .and vice versa.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Lesson from Yonkers. . .Will We Ever Learn?

I've come to the conclusion that we always do better together than apart in this nation.

The latest evidence comes from a report published on Sunday in The New York Times ("In Yonkers, a Mixed Success," A-22, May 28, 2006). The story by Fernanda Santos describes the experience of the residents of an Eastside neighborhood in Yonkers, New York. Of particular interest are the town houses developed on Gaffney Place and Trenchard Street--the Andrew Smith Townhouses.

Fourteen years ago, and following an extended court battle charging that the City of Yonkers had intentionally segregated public housing and schools on the basis of race, black families, who had lived in public housing projects, began moving into the middle of a white working class neighborhood. The action was seen as an experiment in enforcing civil rights law in housing and education.

White residents of Yonkers objected with anger and organization. Many feared that property values would decline drastically and that crime would escalate.

The outcome?

Eight hundred new housing units, the last to be built this summer, have been developed for low-income families.

Crime has not gone up in the community.

Home prices have not dropped.

Hispanic and black families who formerly lived in public housing have been able to raise their children in a much better environment. One of the themes heard again and again by these new residents is how much safer they have felt living in their homes in Yonkers.

While detailed studies have not been conducted by academics, it appears that the new families made real progress economically and educationally.

Bottom line: what the white community feared did not occur.

The community not only survived, it improved.

Sadly, the new residents report feeling isolated from their new neighbors. Socially there has not been the kind of acceptance that would make the neighborhood better for everyone.

Sad commentary, huh?

All that is lacking in Yonkers for the community to really thrive is a commitment to become neighbors, real neighbors.

I've noticed here in Dallas that when people get together, things work better for everyone.

The things we fear the most have the most power over us until we face our fears and get together with other people.

Will we ever learn?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Racism and the "N" Word

We fool ourselves if we believe racism is no longer a problem in our communities, our nation and, yes, even in our churches.

I run into evidence of persistent racism and racist attitudes frequently.

The "N" word is alive and well in our culture.

I watched a debate last Saturday on CNN about the use of that offensive term. The debate arose in response to a defense attorney's argument that his white client, on trial for beating an African American person, could not be accused of committing a hate crime simply because he was shouting the term during the attack. The man's lawyer referenced the frequent use of the term by black people in daily speech and in popular music, calling it a "term of endearment."

As a white person, I can never see the term as anything but evil. When I hear it, I cannot remain silent, nor can I ignore it.

I know and I remember where the word came from.

There was nothing endearing about Jim Crow laws and culture.

Racism is evil. Always.

And, let's be clear. Racism is not the same as simple prejudice.

Racism is personal prejudice coupled with the power to impose the determinations of that prejudice on others and on the community. This is the story of Jim Crow.

It is out of this power matrix that the "N" word originates. It is around hateful power that it does its unjust and evil work. Don't be fooled about the importance of this word.

Take a look at this very powerful website:

Be sure to view the photographic "Intro."

Be prepared to be reminded of the reality of America's past. And, remember the powerful images the next time you hear the ugly word.

There is never a joke here.

I pray you won't tolerate its utterance.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sunday Meditation: Marcus Borg

The following quotes are from The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, by Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University.

The Bible is political as well as personal. It contains sharp political criticism and passionate political advocacy: radical criticism of systems of domination and impassioned advocacy of an alternative social vision. Protesting the nightmare of injustice, its central voices proclaim God's dream of justice, a dream for the earth. Criticism and advocacy are grounded in their understanding of the character and passion of God: a God of love and justice whose passion for our life together is the Kingdom of God.

The claim that the Bible is political and that the God of the Bible is passionate about justice is surprising, even startling, to many Christians. We have often overlooked it; and when it is pointed out, we often resist seeing it. . . .

One reason is the long period of time during which Christianity was the religion of the dominant culture. It began with the Roman emperor Constantine's embrace of Christianity in the fourth century and lasted until recently. During these centuries the "powers that be" were Christian. So long as the wedding of Christianity and dominant culture continued, Christians seldom engaged in radical criticism of the social order. Instead, personal salvation in the hereafter was the primary message, an emphasis that continues to this day in many parts of the church. This emphasis incidentally (or not so incidentally) mutes the political voices of the Bible, thereby domesticating its political passion. . . .

So what is the political meaning of the Kingdom of God? In a sentence: it is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of the world were not. The Kingdom of God is about God's justice in contrast to the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems of this world.

Significantly, the Kingdom of God for Jesus was something for the earth. . . .the Kingdom of God is not about heaven; it is for the earth. . . .

To cite one of John Dominic Crossan's memorable serious quips: "Heaven's in great shape; earth is where the problems are."

(from chapter seven, The Kingdom of God--The Heart of Justice, pages 126, 127, 132-133.)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Celebrity Who "Gets It"

Evidently, Bono left Dallas a few weeks ago and headed back to Africa.

You may have caught his interviews with Brian Williams on NBC's evening news broadcasts earlier this week. I found his insights not only inspiring, but right in truth's sweet spot.

As they walked down a road in a village, Williams asked about his faith and about his view of God.

"I know you have said you welcome the involvement of faith-based groups in the work you are doing here, " Williams noted.

"But how do you see God?" he continued.

Bono struggled a moment for the words saying that such an important and complex question couldn't be answered quickly or easily.

Then he said, "One thing we know for certain about God: God is found among the poor. Those who have little else have God. I come here for this. I get something from this because God is here." My recollection of the quote may not be exact, but my words here are very close to his.

Earlier in the interview Williams had said, "Tell me something positive that is going on here. What has changed that is for the better?"

Without hesitation Bono said, "When I come here, I see the American Dream at work."

He went on to say that the people are hard working, intelligent and simply desiring a better life for themselves and their families. As he spoke the camera panned across several scenes of obvious industry at work, mothers with children and the beaming faces of a couple of little kids hamming it up for the photographers.

I came away from the interview realizing that the truth here works everywhere. In Africa and here at home.

It really is true. . .

God can be found out, discovered most easily among the poor, the broken, the needy and the outsiders.

People really are trying to pursue the "American Dream" of a better life through work and effort and seizing opportunity. I see this every single day in the city.

Our ministries, our policies and our lives could be and should be shaped around these two very important defining realities.

Bono is definitely a celebrity who "gets it."

Friday, May 26, 2006

My Neighbors

Not long ago as I was leaving a neighborhood restaurant near my home, I was approached by a "panhandler." This happens all of the time in this particular place, I suppose because the little shopping center is positioned on the edge of a more affluent community.

As the beggar drew closer, I was surprised to recognize him.

He is my neighbor.

He didn't recognize me, until it was too late to back away.

I shook his hand and reminded him that I lived next door.

He was embarrassed.

A couple of weeks later, in the same location, I was approached again. This time by another neighbor--the first gent's cousin who lives with him.

This encounter wasn't so strained, because the second man recognized me immediately and approached for that reason. Possibly he knew of my earlier encounter with his roommate.

I've followed up with them at home now a few times. We had a long talk last Saturday.

Both of these guys have unique situations and challenges. Both are disabled. One is a veteran. The other has major health problems, complete with seizures and other tough complications.

They rent a small garage apartment in back of the house next door. Their means are meager, to say the least. They have no transportation. They cannot work. They struggle to pay the rent to the property owner who lives across the street.

They are trying to get by.

One is attempting to receive Social Security Supplemental Income--by definition and design an unnecessarily long process, complete with several delaying, automatic denials of claims. I am trying to convince him to see our lawyers, as well as our doctors.

I am sure these guys have not been choir boys through the years! But then, neither have I, come to think of it!

But, they need a hand up right now.

I am trying to be a friend and neighbor.

However, they represent a growing group of Americans who need more sustained, systematic assistance than any one individual can provide. Some of what they need, I just don't have.

Then there is what I call "the shame factor" of their depending on me for longterm support and assistance. We don't talk about this much. Most of the time we don't even consider it because we have so little experience with the poor. But these men don't need to be forced to beg on the streets and they don't need to be forced to beg from me, their next door neighbor.

I am more than happy to provide what help I can. But over the long haul the arrangement will not work for them.

In my view, due to their circumstances and their health and employment prospects, they are entitled to a much more dependable, formalized living arrangement than the ad hoc help I and others might provide. This is true of millions of our fellow citizens today.

Through it all, we will become friends, I know. That is a very good thing.

But being a friend, in this case, must mean more than providing a little extra cash along the way.
These guys need advocates.

How can a such a dilemma be sad, maddening and hopeful all at once?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Deepening Need, Growing Poverty

Forgive the unintended pun, but here's the story in graphic terms when it comes to food insecurity here in Dallas, Texas.

Compared to this time last year, our Resource Center on Haskell Avenue has experienced a 31% increase in the number of individuals who come to Central Dallas Ministries for assistance with food needs.

This increased demand represents a 34% increase in the number of families who visit our center seeking assistance with their household nutrition needs.

Terry Beer, Resource Center Director, and his team of volunteers do an amazing job in moving what will total at year's end over 1 million pounds of groceries out into the community. But the growth cannot be explained by our increased efficiencies or by our stellar customer service, as good as both of those are.

No, the basic explanation is simple: more people are in need and "the poor" are doing worse today than they were at this same time last year.

I don't know about you, but I have to tell you, this really bothers me.

At the same time, our food costs have soared as we face a stream of people again today who need help with the basic necessities of life. Remember us.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


John James (the rider on the right--circa 1906), my paternal grandfather, was born outside of Lampasas, Texas 121 years ago today. He died over thirty years ago here in Dallas.

During his lifetime, "Gramps" experienced a lot of life!

He and my grandmother were cotton farmers in West Texas (north of Abilene in Stonewall County) for decades, somehow squeezing a livelihood out of some of the driest, dustiest, barren land anywhere on the planet! In additon to cotton, they raised cattle, vegetables, feed crops and two children. One was my father.

For a brief time (1918-1919) he and my grandmother worked on a ranch beside the Powder River outside Sheridan, Wyoming. I have a photo hanging in my office at home of the old, stone ranch house on the place owned and operated by a former Wyoming Senator.

As I say, he was born in the central part of Texas just before the height of the Populist Movement that spread among American farmers. I remember hearing him talk about his family and memories of the stories of farmers trying to gain more control over their lives and the economic forces that shaped them.

I also remember stories his father and grandfather shared with him about the days of slavery in Texas.

A particularly violent story involved his grandfather in the execution style murder of an African American slave on the square in Lampasas. An all white jury found my great, great grandfather innocent, even though many witnessed the killing. Even though my grandfather was fully tainted by the racist society that we all inherited, I remember this story making him sad and, it seemed to me, somewhat ashamed even though he was yet unborn when this terrible event occurred.

Gramps' last job was in downtown Dallas where he worked as a "night watchman" in one of the highrise office buildings under construction at the time. This would have been in the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s. My grandparents lived in Oak Cliff. I can recall visiting with them several nights each week. On many nights, as we drove back to Richardson on the north side of the city, we would drop Gramps off at his job downtown. I was always impressed that he worked in such a large, dark building!

My grandfather loved children and nature and people.

He was relatively uneducated.

He believed professional wrestling was authentic!

He had an amazing sense of humor and he kept me laughing most of the time when I was lucky enough to be with him.

He took me for my first haircut--a big surprise to my mother!

He had amazing patience and great humility.

He was honest and gentle and fair and kind. I don't recall him ever uttering a harsh word.

I expect it sounds corny, but I remember pulling into his driveway on many occasions and observing him sitting at the dining room table reading what usually turned out to be the Bible.

I realize today, on the anniversary of his birth, that he shaped my life in countless ways. I think of him often and I always smile without effort when I do.

The health of communities depends upon "ordinary" men like my grandfather (on the left in this photo of him and his good friend Roy Ledbetter taken when he was about 21 years old).

His memory continues to teach me that there are no ordinary men or women, but that everyone matters, everyone is essential to the health and strength of what we have together in a city like this one.

Now that I am a grandfather, I am more grateful than ever for him. I just pray I can be half the man to my grandchildren that he was to me.

Happy Birthday, Gramps.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Infant mortality

Save the Children, an international non-profit organization working to meet the needs of poor children around the world recently released a report on infant mortality.

The results reported are sobering. . .for those of us who live in the United States.

America, the world's number one superpower, would do well to pay attention to the survival rate for its infants.

Among 33 industrialized nations examined in a new report, the United States tied for next to last with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia with a death rate of nearly 5 per 1,000 babies born. Only Latvia had higher mortality figures, with 6 deaths per 1,000 births.

Industrialized nations with a lower infant mortality rate include Japan, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Australia, Canada, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and the United Kingdom, to name just a few of those ahead of the U. S.

While U. S. infant mortality rate for all races is 5 deaths per 1,000 births, for non-Hispanic blacks, the rate is 9.3 deaths per 1,000, another example of a disparity in health and wellness outcomes when factored by race.

The U. S. has the benefit of more neonatologists and operates more neonatal intensive care beds per person than Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, but presents a higher mortality rate among is newborns than any of these nations.

Researchers noted that the United States is more racially diverse and has a greater degree of economic disparity than many other developed countries, making it more challenging to provide culturally appropriate health care for all of its citizens.

Apparently, factors defined by race and economic disparity (read "poverty" here) mean more babies are dying. Pre-natal care, community strength, social capital and low birth weights all factor into this disturbing national outcome. For the complete report that focuses most of its attention on the severe crisis in developing nations, go to:

At Central Dallas Ministries we are working as hard as we can, every day with our neighbors, expectant mothers and the larger community to build havens of health, hope and collective strength for the benefit of the precious babies born in our city every day.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Going Deep into Our Community

We are most fortunate in Dallas to have two truly amazing resources that enable community research and enhance understanding of what is actually going on in urban neighborhoods.

When you have a moment or two, take a look at Analyze Dallas and the Dallas Indicators. I think you will find both sites incredibly interesting. You can search out data right down to the Census tract and the parcel address across a wide variety of social and civic categories. The links are listed below:

Dallas Indicators is a comprehensive web site of key community measures, designed to encourage people to get involved in bettering their own communities. It is produced by The Dallas Foundation and the Foundation for Community Empowerment, in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group, Belo Corporation, and the Dallas Citizens Council. Dallas Indicators completed a major update May 17, 2006, and the site will be updated at regular intervals thereafter.

Analyze Dallas is a sister project of the Foundation for Community Empowerment. As an extension of the Dallas Indicators effort, Analyze Dallas provides community developers, advocates, leaders and activists detailed data about Dallas at a geographic level that leads to informed decisions.

Both projects are linked to the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) a collaborative effort by the Urban Institute and local partners to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems in local policymaking and community building. The goal of NNIP, simply put, is the "democratization of information."

Those of us who work in inner city neighborhoods in Dallas find these tools to be extremely useful in understanding our communities.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday Meditation: Re-segregation

Jonathan Kozol writes about education, children, poverty and communities. In his powerful book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, he quotes from a report by Professor Gary Orfield of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, regarding the impact of the re-segregation of America's public schools.

Food for thought.

"Desegregation did not fail. In spite of a very brief period of serious enforcement. . ., the desegregation era was a period in which minority high school graduates increased sharply and the racial test score gaps narrowed substantially until they began to widen again in the 1990s. . . In the two largest educational innovations of the past two decades--standards-based reform and school choice--the issue of racial segregation and its consequences has been ignored."

. . . .Racial isolation and the concentrated poverty of children in a public school go hand in hand. . . . Only 15 percent of the intensely segregated white schools in the nation have student populations in which more than half are poor enough to be receiving free meals or reduced price meals. "By contrast, a staggering 86 percent of intensely segregated black and Latino schools" have student enrollments in which more than half are poor by the same standards. A segregated inner-city school is "almost six times as likely" to be a school of concentrated poverty as is a school that has an overwhelmingly white population.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Summer Reading List

Let me admit upfront that my annual summer reading plans almost always turn out to be a bit over aggressive. I expect this year will be no different.

That said, here's the list I've come up with for the next three months or so.

Bono in Conversation with Michka Assayas (Riverhead Books, 2005). A wide-ranging interview with the amazing lead singer for the Irish rock band, U2, this book tells the story of his life in a provocative format that makes it a page-turner.

Harold V. Bennett, Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers and Orphans in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 2002). Were the provisions of the Law of Moses that seemingly sought to protect the vulnerable in Israel actually legal measures to protect the status quo and the landed interests of the nation? Challenging read.

William Easterly, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin Press, 2006). A controversial assessment of why so little progress has been made in Third World economic development and systemic poverty elimination.

John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). The autobiography of the influential African American historian.

David Halberstam, The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship (Hyperion, 2003). One of America's great historians and storytellers turns his attention to the remarkable friendship enjoyed by four Boston Red Sox teammates across the years--Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr.

Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (The University of Illinois, 2004). Professor Hughes provides an important historical survey of why Americans believe what they do about their nation and themselves.

Eric O. Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos Press, 2003). A theological reflection on faith and the principles of new urbanism's community planning and design.

Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right (Harper, 2006). Rabbi Lerner shares his vision for a renewed America based on a socially engaging faith and spirituality.

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). A wonderful source for a solid understanding of America before the European invasion.

John McWhorter, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America (Gotham Books, 2005). An analysis of the current crisis in Black America that resulted from the unintended consequences of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking, 2006). Latest from the author of the now classic, Wealth and Democracy, Phillips sketches in careful detail the relationship between American religion, politics and economics.

This is an ambitious list that I'll get through eventually, even if I fail this summer!

Any summer reading plans you'd like to share? Feel free to do so here.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Housing Challenge

The Center for Housing Policy recently published its Paycheck to Paycheck report of rental housing costs in Dallas, Texas for the 3rd quarter 2005. Data for the analysis was provided by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The fair market rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in our city is $713 per month. For a 2-bedroom apartment the fair market cost is $868 per month.

In order to afford a 1-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in Dallas a person must be earning $13.71 per hour. To afford a 2-bedroom apartment a wage earner, a couple or a family must bring home $16.69 per hour. The "hourly wage needed to afford" is the wage that must be earned so that the cost of housing does not exceed 30% of a household's gross income.

Needless to say, hundreds of thousands of workers in Dallas, Texas do not earn at these levels.

Some of the professions that pay below these benchmark rates include bank tellers, child care workers, fast food cooks, retail sales persons, teacher's aides and security guards.

The result? Housing deficiencies, including substandard housing units, over crowding in undersized housing, constant movement from one location to another and in many cases homelessness.

Far too many of our neighbors in Dallas spend well over 30% of their income on housing. The notion of homeownership is not even a consideration for these workers.

Current public policy certainly doesn't help.

HUD continues to cut back on its housing voucher program, a financial tool for working Americans that provides housing subsidies to property owners so that low-income individuals and families can afford to lease decent housing at affordable prices. The voucher program has been a win-win proposition that assists workers and affordable housing developers.

The current administration continues to push policies that benefit homeowners and first time buyers, a wonderful concept in and of itself.

The problem today is the simple fact that workers are falling further and further behind with fewer and fewer wage earners able to consider homeownership as an option.

The housing voucher program, if funded adequately, could provide a pathway to homeownership for low-income families.

Unfortunately, in today's America most of the economic benefits flow upstream rather than down.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

People Can't Be "Illegal"

Words are very important.

At times we act as if they are not, but they always are.

Words symbolize meaning.

Words provide definition and understanding.

Words point up perceptions and assign significance.

Words set boundaries.

Words close and open doors.

Words classify.

Words clarify or confuse.

Words touch and tear.

Words can be hurled, thrown about or carefully chosen and considered.

Don't be fooled. Words are very important.

So, when I hear people use the descriptive phrase "illegal immigrant," I am offended.

The phrase offends deeply, beyond any passing sense of political correctness. I find the phrase spiritually offensive, inhumane, evil.

It reminds me of another phrase I refuse to use: illegitimate child. How can a child be anything but legitimate?

Actions can be illegal.

The failure to obtain the proper documentation may be an illegal act or an omission that is against the law.

But it is impossible for any person to be "illegal."

By definition people cannot be determined, declared or considered to be "illegal."

No person who understands the spirit and nature of humanity can reach such a conclusion.

I know, I know. My critics will tell me that the phrase does not intend nor imply this depth of judgment. There is no attack on human dignity here. The phrase simply intends to describe the actions of some who come to the U. S. from another country--those who arrive by taking steps that are against the law.

But, I'm not so sure that is the intention of many who throw the phrase about these days.

There is such a short distance between the two words. Even more telling is the proximity of the designation "immigrant" to the human beings who wear the label in the midst of our heated national debate.

So, I repeat: People can be undocumented. People cannot be illegal.

A person may lack necessary papers. A person cannot lack that which makes his or her existence acceptable.

There is a huge difference.

Words matter.

We must take care with our words. They have an affect on our hearts.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Daily Snapshots from an Urban Community Assistance Center

It is hard to visualize what goes on in low-income communities unless you make the effort to put yourself in a position to observe the day-to-day happenings of such places.

Most Americans never really "see" the people of the inner city or their struggles to "get by."

Even though I am surrounded by this urban context every day, I miss things as well.

Not long ago, a supporting church presented me with a disposable camera and asked that I take photos of what I encounter as I work. The images on this page are just a few of the scenes captured by this little project.

Each scene tells a story all its own.

A couple of the photos are of friends who have come a long, long way.

Others catch strangers taking advantage of our process here at Central Dallas Ministries.

Each image has a hope about it, even though buried in the sadness of a typical day in the life of our neighborhood.

Especially poignant to me is the photo of the little girl and her siblings and mother who trail along after her at the entrance of our Resource Center on Haskell Avenue.

Faces of the city. Faces that matter alot.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Creating Poverty

What we have at work in America today amounts to a production model for manufacturing poverty.

Think about it.

Wages today, calculated in real dollar terms, have sliden lower than five years ago.

Good paying jobs are outsourced overseas. The new jobs being created by our economy do not pay anywhere near wages of the jobs they replace.

Gasoline prices don't need to be described!

Utilities cost more, much more in some sections of the country.

Auto liability insurance, required by law, grows more expensive each year, but provides less and less benefit.

Housing costs, calculated in real terms and as a percentage of income, continue to soar.

Consumer prices also inch up so that food, clothing, medications, transportation, child care, all cost more every year.

Government at every level slashes public programs benefitting the poor, even those with a work requirement, even those tied to food security.

The number of uninsured Americans increases by the day, as health costs soar.

No surprise then, is it that over 1 million Americans fell below the poverty line last year?

In inner city communities the impact is often disasterous.

Simply put, these are the facts of life in my part of Dallas.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Community Development 101--Part Nine

Sustainability is a challenge.

It is one thing to begin. Quite another to endure.

This is true in terms of funding development initiatives. It is also true of organizational culture and leadership.

I've been taught and I've observed the truth that money follows people and ideas. Organizations devoted to community development must find a good supply of both.

I've also noticed across the years that if an organization can locate the right people, good ideas just follow.

Funding the work of rebuilding at-risk communities is a persistent challenge. Until you've tried it, there is no way to explain just how difficult it can be. For the most part "everyone" wants to help people who are "down on their luck" or "in need." Attempting to organize and orchestrate community renewal involves longterm actions that tend to wear donors out!

When it comes to funding community development, a combination of creative, aggressive philanthropy with entrepreneurial tactics that lead to the creation of profit centers seems to be the very best combination. All across the nation more and more non-profit organizations are recognizing the need to find sustainable methods for funding their work. For examples of this growing trend, Bill Shore's helpful book, The Cathedral Within, is well worth the read.

In my day-to-day world, our community development corporation is working hard to find work that will result not only in new homes for low-income people, but also nice developer's fees to fund our future projects. We have learned that we cannot depend upon charity alone to do the kind of work that needs to be done.

We are exploring other profit center possibilities as well. Workforce development, legal services and our grocery enterprises seem to offer some hope of a return on our investments. As a non-profit corporation, we will use every dollar earned above our costs to fund forward our work plans for tomorrow.

Of course, we continue to work hard to raise funds from donors of all sorts--foundations, churches, businesses, individuals and various government or public sources. Philanthropy continues to be our main source of revenue.

Public funding provides a growing percentage of our annual revenue. These public funds usually involve a contract arrangement. In every case personal relationships and quality performance are key to sustainability.

People are even more important than funding.

To sustain organizational life, work and a culture of creativity; you have to locate bright young, mission-focused men and women who will carry on after those of us who are longer of tooth move on!

The trick is locating those emerging leaders who are both bright and driven by their own sense of mission for urban issues and equity. We are very fortunate here at Central Dallas Ministries to have gathered an amazing team of incredibly bright, visionary young leaders. They have amazing capacity and heart. They are the kind of people who will carry on and improve our work here in Dallas and in other cities after I'm long gone!

Community development calls for attention to sustainability. The haul is long. The demands are great. As we eye our future, we take our work one day at a time.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Nonresident Mothers

According to a new research report published by The Urban Institute, millions of American mothers live apart from their children.

In 2002, 4.7 million children did not live with their mothers. That number is up from the 3.7 million reported in 1997.

A great deal of research, writing and current legislation has focused on nonresident fathers. Until now, nonresident mothers have been largely overlooked.

Drawing on the Urban Institute's 2002 National Survey of America's Families," researchers Liliana Sousa and Elaine Sorensen offer students of America's underclass "The Economic Reality of Nonresident Mothers and Their Children."

Sousa and Sorensen found that nonresident mothers differ from nonresident fathers in two significant ways:

First, these mothers are more likely to live with some of their children than the fathers.

Second, they are more likely to be poor. The poverty rate among nonresident fathers was 11 percent in 2001 compared to 27 percent among nonresident mothers. Given the economic differences, it is not surprising to find mothers are less likely than fathers to pay child support.

Children who live apart from their mother have very different living arrangements than those who don't live with their father. Thirty-nine percent of children with a nonresident mother live apart from both parents, while only 10 percent of those with a nonresident father live with neither parent.

Not surprisingly, most children who live with a non-parental caregiver do not receive child support and they experience relatively high rates of poverty.

A prepublication draft of the report, from the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism project, is available at:

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Necessity of Risk for Progress

David Halberstam's wonderfully readable history of the role of young people in the American Civil Rights Movement, The Children, offers the following description of the leadership passion of James Bevel.

The issue facing Bevel and his friends was whether to go forward with lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville following the dramatic aciton of students in the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins.

Bevel was one of the Nashville students who, along with his friend and now Congressman John Lewis, helped lead the nation's stuggle for equality and justice in American race relations.

Halberstam captures the passion of Bevel and the impact it had on Lewis. He also reminds us that change never comes without significant risk taking.

Ironically, after the Nashville sympathy sit-in honoring Greensboro, as they debated among themselves what to do, it was James Bevel who now pushed everyone to go forward. Bevel was not interested in the cautionary doubts of his elders. He was sick and tired of waiting, he said. There had been too much of it. There was always going to be a reason not to go, and it was always going to be a very good reason. "If you asked us to wait until next week, then next week something will come up, and you'd say wait until the next week, and maybe we'd never get our freedom." They had waited in the fall, and that had taken them through Christmas, and they had waited at Christmas because they wanted to be nice, and that had been a politcal not a moral decision, he said. But now Greensboro had happened, and they were obviously far better trained than the Greensboro kids, who had acted not out of training but out of impulse. What more was there to wait for? he asked. Yes, he siad, they might not have enough money for bail, but they had not had any money the year before, and it was quite likely that they would not have very much more money in a month or two months or even a year. Nothing was going to change in the unknown, he argued--they did not know what was going to happen, what the level of resistance was going to be, and what the financial hardship would be. But, and this was the most compelling part of his argument, only by acting could they make the unknown of the white resistance become the known. As they acted, the unknown would beomce the known and they would be able to struggle with their problems one by one. Lewis, listening to him, ws impressed by his friend, sensing that there was an original and unshakable quality to his thinking. Of course there was going to be risk, Bevel said, coming up with what was to be the most basic rule of the Movement over the next five years--if there was no risk, then all of this would have been done a long time ago. They were being asked to do it only because there was significant risk. By the time Bevel was finished speaking, the argument was effectively over.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bono: Prophet to the World

I heard Bono speak at Fair Park Music Hall last Friday night.

All 3,200 seats were filled. The event was sponsored by the World Affairs Council here in Dallas.

He was amazing.

Alternating between comic relief and cold, hard reality, U2's lead singer held us spellbound for about forty minutes. His speech was peppered with applause, as he made his powerful points one after another.

He spoke of tragedy, opportunity and adventure, to use his words. He creatively connected music, politics and business; spinning out his vision for how the world could and ought to work for everyone.

Assuming that we all cared as much as he, Bono reminded us that the path to progress for each of us is blocked by indifference and the "NOs" we hear as we try to move forward.

Bono first traveled to Africa in 1985 when he toured Ethiopia after the "We Are the World" phenomena took popular culture by storm.

He told of an event at the end of that trip that forever changed his life. An Ethiopian father approached him, carrying his small son in his arms. The man extended the boy to Bono saying, "Please take my son with you to Ireland so he will live."

Of course, that was not allowed. But as he flew back home, Bono said that in that brief exchange he took the first steps on the remainder of his life's journey and be became a very "dangerous thing"--a rock star with a cause!

As I listened, I found myself jotting down notes of his words. It was as if they were precious jewels that should not be lost.

"Africa experiences a Tsunami every month. Each is avoidable."

"Our work is not about charity. We do that really well in the U. S. and Ireland. No, our work is about justice and that is much different. Our work is about equality and we must keep moving forward."

"What we demand for ourselves we deny to others. That is a justice issue."

"Religious extremists are making progress in Africa. . . . Poverty fuels terror."

"Every country has a brand. I have loved the U. S. brand for a long time. I am a fan. But the brand needs a bit of polishing up today around the world."

"I told the President to paint the AIDS medication red, white and blue. Polish the image a bit, Mr. President."

"Every generation has its 'defining moral moment.' This is ours."

"As people of faith, these issues are for us a matter of obedience."

Speaking of the world's poor and oppressed, "God is with us, if we are with them."

"America is not just a country, but an ideal. That is hard. That raises the standard." He reported of his conversations with the President and the Congress during which he urged that the U. S. devote at least 1% of its budget to poverty relief around the world.

"Where you live in the world should not determine whether you live."

Speaking of the death camps of World War II and the holocaust, he told of a man who had been present at the time. The man reported that the most haunting images to him were of the non-Jewish citizens who watched with blank faces as the trains were loaded and as they moved out.

"We know where the trains are going today. . . ."

Prophets are not too popular these days.

We prefer our preachers light, bright, positive.

You know, the beaming, encouraging, inspirational types who lift our spirits and help us make peace with our selves and with our lives just as they are.

Yet, God finds a way to bring the message God wants the world to hear.

Conventional means seldom work very well anyhow. God is fairly unconventional by nature.

No surprise then, is it?

Last Friday night I sat at the feet of a genuine prophet.

[Check out the ONE Campaign by clicking on the rotating banner at the upper right of this page. It is one of Bono's projects to attack poverty in Africa.]

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Anger? Do I "write angry"?

People sometimes tell me that at times I "write angry," at least in tone or feeling. This is how some people feel as they read my words.

I can honestly say that I'm seldom angry when I write.

I've been angry at times, of course.

But, I have to tell you the posts I write when I'm angry never make it to the blog. My angry stuff is like a therapeutic journal to rid my soul of its burden so I can move on.

Still, the reports get back to me occasionally that I concern people because of my anger.

I appreciate the feedback.

It causes me to really look inside, to reflect on what is really going on in my head and heart.

It is painful to watch good people, especially children suffer due to want, need and bias. I try hard to keep things in perspective, to face my limitations, to recognize that life is real and hard and at times unchanging.

If I am angry, it is due to this intractable pain and the needless despair that so often accompanies it.

Often really nice people just can't understand me. I guess that is why I put this blog up in the first place. Like everyone else, I want people to look, to see and to at least get a notion about the world that I encounter every day.

It is interesting that the people I work with on a daily basis are also the people who bring me the reports that others are saying I am angry. Invariably these friends and associates tell me, as they report, just how surprised they are when others call me out for anger. They just don't see me as an angry guy.

Focus, passion, insanity, dogged persistence, incurable idealism, naivete--yep, they can see all that.

But, anger?

I'm just not normally an angry guy.

Maybe I need to go back and read all that I've written here (whoa! there is a horrid thought!).

Maybe I do "write angry."

If so, I need to figure out what my anger means.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Community Development 101--Part Eight

Almost any worthwhile discussion of poverty and how to overcome it will create lively debate and, at least sometimes, useful tension.

We have enjoyed our share of this hopefully friendly argument here from time to time.

I have noticed that whenever it is suggested that public solutions or even public contributions must play an active and strategic role in addressing and overcoming poverty, many people respond negatively.

There are many reasons behind such negative responses, I know. Some are valid, some not so valid in my view.

From a community development standpoint here is what I do know.

Some neighborhoods can decline so precipitously and can become so ill and weak that only a massive effort can reclaim them for health and life. Such efforts by definition require public engagement at the policy level and public investment in funding renewal efforts.

Earlier this week I was involved in an exploratory meeting about just such a neighborhood here in Dallas. The average income in the community in question is well below the federal poverty level. Half or more of the residents of the community earn much less than $10,000 annually.

The housing stock in this community is old, dilapidated, unsafe and deteriorating. Except for a liquor store or two, an over-priced convenience store and a washateria, retail establishments are non-existent. The public infrastructure is in grave disrepair. The suggestion of improving city code enforcement makes people who live in the community laugh. Crime is high. Educational opportunities are low grade. The concentration of poverty is staggering. Measured by any indicator this community is in the throes of death.

How can it be turned around? What must happen here in order to change the deadly reality of this neighborhood in its current condition?

First, we must admit that the problem is far too entrenched and too complicated to be adequately addressed by charitable solutions alone.

Philanthropy will likely be called upon to play a part, but not at this point. Habitat for Humanity has built a few homes in the area, but even they recognize that their housing stock cannot be the only effort if community turnaround is the goal.

Second, public forces and resources must be directed toward the community.

A major injection of capital will be required to revitalize the area. For example, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed an effective neighborhood renewal strategy in HOPE VI. HOPE VI is a development funding product that allows local housing authorities to redevelop and redesign communities around public housing strategies.

The Dallas Housing Authority has received several of these multi-million dollar grants and has effectively brought renaissance to a number of neighborhoods in other parts of Dallas.

The neighborhood in question here is home to two very large public housing developments. Both should be torn down and redeveloped. HOPE VI funding would make that possible. If the density of the housing were reduced and if home ownership became an option via this mechanism, the neighborhood would begin to change.

Various service providers, churches, community-based organizations and community development corporations could come alongside the public effort to provide other much needed elements of the community make over, including employment training, after-school opportunities, health and wellness offerings, crime watch organizations, family support services and neighborhood organizing.

As the housing renewal takes hold and as homeowners come on the scene, the possibilities for new retail and for job opportunities in the community become much more feasible.

But the fact is, this neighborhood is effectively dead for another two decades or more without a massive infusion of funding to jump start the market forces that could carry the renewal forward to a positive conclusion.

I think most of us understand the importance of charity, of volunteering to help people and of good will in the private sector.

What we must come to grips with is the fact that some community problems, shaped by poverty, are of such a depth and scale that effective responses demand public involvement marshaled for deployment at an equally grand scale.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Confession and Community

How's this for really avant guard, creative theater? Laura Barnett and Sandra Spannan have been performing what they call "Inside/Out," in a storefront at 112 West 44th Street in Manhattan.

Dressed as 19th century washerwomen, the two sit behind the glass window of the storefront.

Stenciled on the glass is an open invitation to all who pass by: "Air Your Dirty Laundry. 100% Confidential. Anonymous. Free!"

People who participate write their secrets on blank sheets of paper, place them in an envelope and drop them in a bucket on the sidewalk. After walking away, an unseen assistant collects the confessions and delivers them to the performers inside the display area. After reading the messages, the performers affix them to the inside of the plate glass window for others to read.

The actors/artists also spend their time painting portraits of passersby.

People confess everything.

Details about their marriages, affairs, sex life, etc.

Friendships gone bad.

Past violent acts, those suffered and those perpetrated.

Sexual abuse.

Funny things.

Sad things.

Frightening things.

As I read the story in The New York Times on Saturday morning (May 6, 2006, A17, 23), it hit me again that one of the most important benefits of genuine connection to others in a community is the opportunity such relationships offer us to be honest about our feelings, experiences, longings, hopes, failures and desires.

People want to be known. We even want our secrets known, understood and accepted. Confession is good for the soul.

Ironically, nothing compares to the loneliness of a crowded city.

The antidote is community.

Creating community by definition involves risk.

But when community emerges and authentic connections result, the fear of risk evaporates and the effort always seems well worthwhile.

Confessions, anyone?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Owen James Frazer--May 7, 2006

At 4:10 a.m. Sunday morning, May 7, our youngest daughter, Joanna and her husband, Jordan, gave us our third grandchild.

Owen James Frazer weighed in at 8 pounds 12 ounces. He measured 19 3/4 inches long. He is strong--great lungs he has! He is beautiful. He is whole. His mother and father are well, very well.

Amazing! Simply WOW amazing!

As I lurked around the edges of the process, my mind raced back to Tuesday, June 14, 1977 when his mother was born in New Orleans. Now she is a mother and she has a son. She is beautiful today, as she was then.

I had this same experience when my other two grandchildren, Gracie and Wyatt, arrived, thanks to our oldest daughter, Jennifer and her husband, Brandon.

The unfolding of life, the pressing on from one generation to the next amazes me, especially when I am this close to it.

I have experienced the full range of emotions over the past couple of days.














It was all there in this experience, I can assure you.

For all of you who have been aware of Owen's approaching arrival, thanks for waiting and praying with us! What an event.

As I stood looking at my new grandson and as I held him, I found myself offering a silent prayer of thankfulness for his arrival and hope for his future.

I also thought of all of the other infants born on May 7, 2006 in our world.

I prayed for them as well. They all deserve a life of hope, opportunity, purpose and contentment, don't they?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Poverty, Simplicity and Survival: A Sunday Meditation

Simplicity has become big business in the United States.

Go figure!

Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine pointed me to Grist Magazine and Elizabeth Chin's essay, "I Will Simply Survive" (March 1, 2006).

After reading it, I knew I had to post at least a quote here.

"Enjoy" is not exactly the right word here, but read and think and consider, at least.

What is abundantly clear is that for the poor, access to most resources is limited at best, the result of a combination of financial limits and larger social disinvestment. While wealthier households struggle to balance schedules overloaded with activities and commitments, the poor often spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating basic needs. The limited nature of their consumer environment means that everyday tasks take much longer, and usually end up costing more. Given that low-income neighborhoods are unlikely to house large supermarkets, consumers are faced either with buying higher-priced and often lower-quality goods in local markets, or figuring out some way to travel the miles to the supermarket and back, often with kids in tow. Imagine grocery shopping for a family of four using only a bus or train. Distances become exponentially more important when relying on public transportation's service schedules, routes, holidays, and glitches. (Interestingly, while contributing far less than "their share" to problems like automobile emissions, the poor model at least one portion of a solution, being the large bulk of public-transportation users. What they teach all of us, however, is that it is impossible to rely on public transportation and manage, as many well-off families do, to be in nearly three places almost simultaneously.)

Powerful folk beliefs in the United States portray the poor as profligate, undisciplined consumers. In fact, those who have carefully studied the day-to-day purchases and economic behavior of the poor know better, and the poor know best of all how carefully their resources are managed, bartered, exchanged. Without access to the supersized reservoirs of credit that the middle class can amass through both property and little plastic cards, the poor are often laid flat by large expenses: a refrigerator, a car, a hospital stay. Savings accounts, retirement funds, mad money -- these are not options, not so much because the poor are incapable of thinking about these things, but because, as one anthropologist described it, "there's a lot of month left at the end of the money."

Consider this: many poor children have never had the opportunity to purchase a gift for a loved one. Whatever conflicts the affluent might feel about rampant consumerism, it is worth wondering whether -- and how -- something so seemingly simple as being able to buy your mother a present for Mother's Day might also be a powerful moment of self-actualization. The power to buy is, in this society, inevitably and fundamentally, the power to be.

[Owen James Frazer's birthday! ]

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Taking Sides

We live in a politically correct world that is preoccupied with media.

Have you noticed? Every news broadcast feels obligated to present both sides of every issue and story.

For the most part that is likely a very good thing.

But, not always.

A friend shared a quote with me recently from the movie, The Quiet American.

"Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides if one is to remain human."

Many situations and circumstances confronted in the city force such a choice.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Number 1 High School in the Nation

Newsweek magazine (May 8, 2006) ranked the Dallas Independent School District's School for the Talented and Gifted at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center the top public high school in the nation.

The School of Science and Engineering, also located at Townview Center, was ranked eighth in the country.

From the perspective of Newsweek, high schools receiving these rankings do the best job of preparing students for university study.

Newsweek's analysis ranked 1,139 high schools by adding the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by students in 2005, divided by the number of graduating seniors at each school.

In April, D Magazine ranked the Talented and Gifted Magnet and the School of Science and Engineering one and two, respectively in its listing of the best high schools in Dallas.

In addition, the Science and Engineering magnet has been named a U.S. Department of Education 2005 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School.

The Talented and Gifted magnet was also named a No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon School in 2003.

Dallas should be proud of these schools and of the entire Townview Center and itaccomplishmentsts. This southern sector, very urban school has performed in an amazing way in leading the entire district.

Yesterday Don Williams, Chairman and founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment and ex-President and CEO of Trammell Crow Company, spoke to our monthly Urban Engagement Book Club.

Randy Mayeux provided a very helpful synopsisis of Jonathan Kozol's latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. I asked Don to respond to the book in view of what is going on in Dallas' public schools.

During his insightful comments, Don "told the rest of the story" concerning Townview.

The DISD spends an average of $6,300 on each of its high school students annually.

It spends $11,100 on each of the students at Townview.

Care to guess what it spends per student at its 16 lowest performing schools? If you guessed $4,300 you would be correct.


I can just hear some of my friends telling me that things can't be changed by "just throwing money at problems." That comment always makes me smile. I don't get caught in too many money downpours around here!

The Texas Legislature is in special session today, under court order to find a new and legal solution to the state's school finance plan. Every report I read from Austin tells me that this fine bunch of leaders will come up with a legal plan that will grossly underfund our public schools.

Ladies and gentlemen of the legislature, please take a look at the Townview story.

There is another interesting twist to the Townview experience.

Demographically the DISD student population is almost 50% Hispanic, around 45% African American and less than 10% Anglo. Of course across the district, white students have opted out for private schools and many families have abandoned the city altogether for the suburbs and their school systems (also increasingly ethnically diverse). In the City of Dallas today, Anglos are a minority group.

At Townview the student population was much more balanced. The largest ethnic group among students at Townview is Anglo.


Something good here I suppose about students from every corner of the community learning together, working together, spending time together in a school with adequate funding.

Maybe Townview Center is more than a success story. Maybe it provides a model.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Community Development 101--Part Seven

People who have been around Central Dallas Ministries for awhile tend to glass over when they hear me start in on "the three boxes." I've used this little chart so often in an attempt to summarize the work that we attempt to accomplish with our friends in the inner city.

Box Number 1 involves us in the important, beginning work of extending compassion to people who find themselves in tough circumstances that often call for immediate, emergency intervention.

Box Number 2 connects us to our neighbors as they enter longer term commitments to growth and talent development that leads to opportunity creation.

Box Number 3: Advocacy

If in the opportunity creation phase of our work, we attempt to prepare people to play "the game of Dallas" by the current rules, in this part of our efforts we find ourselves questioning the rules of the game.

Imagine with me for a moment that you are seated beside a beautiful, swiftly flowing river. As you relax and watch the water move along, you notice a person in the water struggling to swim to the side. You quickly come to the swimmer's aid, pulling him out of the water. He thanks you and walks away.

Relaxing after the excitement, you try to get back into enjoying the river and its surroundings.

Suddenly, you notice another person in the water. This time it appears that the swimmer is almost out of strength. You dive into the cold, rushing water and successfully rescue the person just in the nick of time.

Suppose you set up camp by the river and over the course of the next week you rescue over 100 struggling swimmers.

At some point I expect you would begin to question those you were pulling out of the water to determine why and how they were getting into the dangerous water in the first place.

Eventually, you and your new friends might decide to travel upstream to determine what steps could be taken to prevent others from ending up in the dangerous water.

This story illustrates our thinking and our experience on so many issues confronting low-income individuals and families.

The truth is, much of the chronic poverty we battle every day is the result of systemic malfunctions, inadequate public policy and huge gaps in funding for entire groups of men, women, youth and children.

Whether we focus on health care, education, housing, transportation, food security or wages, most of the problems facing low-income, inner city residents are created and sustained by forces and decisions beyond the contorl of the people "in the river."

One cannot account for the fact that over 47 million Americans are poor by saying that all of them are personally irresponsible, lazy or stupid.

Our experience in Dallas tells us that irresponsibility, laziness and stupidity are spread at an equal depth across the entire socio-economic continuum! No one class has a corner on the market of any of these negative, personal characteristics.

Millions are poor and remain poor because of failures in public policies.

So, at times we advocate for and with our poorer friends and neighbors to see policy change for the benefit of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

When we take this kind of action, we often see neighborhood people getting excited and more involved. We also notice that some of our supporters who live outside our poor communities get a bit concerned. Some churches get nervous. Some people believe we should leave these policy areas along.

When we work in this area, we think of Jesus and the action he took when he drove the money changers out of the Temple because they exploited the people of the land and took advantage of their need (John 2:13ff).

Community development always arrives at a place of controversy concerning public policy. When a community rises up and asserts its collective will and strength, good things have a way of happening. As social capital grows, neighborhoods change for the better.

Keeping people out of the river in the first place always beats helping them out just before they drown!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Renewing the "Flophouse"

Last Sunday, The New York Times (April 30, 2006, A30) carried a fascinating story about the efforts of Rosanne Haggerty, founder of Common Ground Community in New York City, to "reinvent" an old flophouse hotel located deep in the Bowery.

The Andrews House is a 97-year-old lodging house or "cubicle hotel" that for several decades has served the housing needs of aging men, who otherwise likely would be homeless, .

Haggerty intends to renew Andrews House to provide what she calls "first step" housing for persons who have rejected other housing options for a life on the street.

I love what she told Janny Scott, the reporter who wrote the piece: "We want to get people now alienated from the idea of living in housing to enter in on their own terms, and then work with them from there."

Now there is a novel idea.

Give people what they want!

Where did Haggerty get her idea about redeveloping Andrews House as a first-rate, high-quality, well-managed, new sort of "flophouse"?

From the people who might become her tenants.

Common Ground conducted over 100 face-to-face interviews with people whom they met in soup kitchens and shelters. The purpose of the interviews was to discover what homeless people were looking for in housing.

The answers that came back were clear and simple.

Something small.

Something private.

Something safe.

Something cheap.

Something anonymous.

Common Ground went further.

Homeless persons were invited to focus groups to help design the units.

Haggerty has concluded from her worldwide research that the size of the unit is not as important as the design of the space available and the context of the space's location. In other words, what additional amenities are nearby?

When the renovation is complete, the new Andrews House will house 146 residents. The forty-six men who currently reside in the building will be allowed to move back in and stay as long as they like, no questions asked. New residents will pay $7 per night and after three weeks will be required to get involved in services related to finding permanent housing.

I love the approach Common Ground is taking.

Often service providers make assumptions about what people need and want.

Key truth to remember: Middle class goals don't necessarily translate to success in addressing life challenges for everyone!

The ability to listen, really listen to people is an important step in the right direction if our desire is to solve problems, while partnering to make life better for low-income persons.

[Read the entire article at:]

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Community Development 101--Part Six

When people ask me what we do at Central Dallas Ministries, I always tell them about the "3 boxes" that we work among on a daily basis. Each box attempts to describe one of the board, but interrelated, categories of action that we take in responding to persons and neighborhoods caught in poverty.

Yesterday, I described the first box--Compassion.

Once a person regains her balance for living, gets back on her feet and can think clearly about what might be ahead, we offer the option of taking essential next steps toward a better life. In this offer everyone involved moves over into the next category of action.

Box Number 2: Opportunity Creation

A number of our different initiatives are designed to open doors of opportunity to the people involved.

Here we think of the story Jesus told that is generally known as the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The story is based on the notion that every person has ability, capital and capacity. The challenge or the question is, what will we do with our assets?

We make it clear to everyone involved in this stage of our work that we believe in the God-given talent, purpose and potential of every person. The challenge we all face is to use what we have and to see it increase.

If a person is content to take their talent and bury it in an East Dallas crack house, then we communicate very clearly that we are not the place for them at this point. I have invited lots of people to leave because we don't intend to waste our time on people who are "playing." We don't play.

But for everyone who is serious about their talent and maximizing that talent, we are ready to work and work hard.

In this category of action we offer all sorts of educational opportunities to both youth and adults--GED completion, technology training, SAT preparation, tutoring, homework help, life skills and most recently, hard skills training in "hazmat" cleanup.

In this dimension of our work we teach people how to play the "game of Dallas" according to the rules that currently exist and apply.

In addition, many of our community health and wellness opportunities and our legal counsel are designed to strengthen people for work and progress. Suing for child support, involvement in a support group, pastoral counseling or other forms of therapy--all are actions that lead on to increased life opportunity.

Working alongside people who are serious about developing and executing a life plan is a real blast.

When we are working in this "box," we attract lots of community people who want to take advantage of the new opportunities. We attract business partners who need good employees. We attract certain donors who want to see things move beyond charity to long-term, sustainable change.

Creating new and substantial opportunities stands at the center of community development work.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Community Development 101--Part Five

People ask me all of the time, "What do you do at Central Dallas Ministries?"

There are at least two ways to answer that question.

One is to launch off on a rundown of our various programmatic responses to the poverty that grips the lives of thousands of people who live in the inner city neighborhoods of Dallas.

Another way to get at an answer is to speak to the broad categories that best describe the different approaches we take to battling poverty. While I spend a great deal of time describing the specific things we do here, I've learned that it is best to begin with these descriptive categories because in them we can discover how our work relates to sustainable community development.

When it comes to these categories, I often speak of CDM's "three boxes." I even have a one-page graphic chart that sketches out these three important areas of concern for us.

Box Number 1: Compassion

If you show up on our doorstep passed out and basically "left for dead," as many people have across the years, then we will begin immediately pouring out the healing oil of compassion upon your body and soul.

When operating in this mode, we instinctively remember the story Jesus once told of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Several years ago on a very warm Sunday morning in August, I found a man passed out on the steps of the church. He had covered himself with a heavy wool blanket.

As I approached him, I wondered if he was dead.

Fortunately, he was not.

Trying to recover from a drunken stupor, no doubt induced by his bad choices the night before, the man began to come around as I shook him.

We helped him get inside where he enjoyed a cup of coffee, took advantage of our restroom facilities, washed up a bit and joined us for the church service. Afterwards, he ate lunch with us and we were able to visit and make plans for the next steps and the next few days.

People who find themselves in such situations often come to us for relief.

We welcome them.

And, we respond primarily with compassion. I mean, if you are passed out on my steps, your only responsibility is to keep breathing!

It is interesting to notice that when we do the work of compassion, everyone is happy! The person who needs the care, the volunteers (both from our community and from outside the community) are elated to help out and donors love the stories.

Compassion attracts lots of support. It makes for great press. Everyone loves to read and hear the stories of compassion played out.

Compassion occupies a huge part of what we do every day.

Community development depends on works of pure compassion.

We are set up so that very low-income persons can become first-class distributors of compassion every day. Our large Resource Centers, on Haskell Avenue and inside Roseland Homes, actually function as conveyors of compassion, hope and healing.

We work hard at transcending simple charity in an effort to move toward an empowering compassion that leads us deeper into the lives of people and closer to life-changing opportunity (but, now I am edging toward box 2!).

In one way or another, every area of our work is defined by compassion and concern.