Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Needless Suffering

One brutal reality of deep poverty can be observed daily in the inner-city of Dallas:  needless, preventable suffering. 

Equally difficult, and linked in a causal manner to the suffering I envision, is simple, but maddening delay. 

When you live in poverty, everything seems to slow down in the face of complicating distractions. 

Take my friend "John." 

I met John over a year ago at our Opportunity Center.  He came seeking medical attention for his gigantic, abdominal hernia that protruded from his tight t-shirt.  After we visited for a while, I referred him to CitySquare's health clinic.  He ended up in the ER at a local hospital after which he made his way to Parkland, our public hospital in Dallas County.

Several weeks later, John shows up at my office looking as if he had lost 50 pounds, a step his physician recommended as a pre-surgery precaution.  He had a ways to go on his diet plan.  Again, a goal made more difficult to he extreme because  he lived on the streets. 

He signed up for housing and languished for weeks on our jammed packed waiting list (just here read "more delays"). 

Then, he reappears two days ago. 

He had gained back the weight that he had shed, and then some.   He explained that he just gotten of jail behind warrants for tickets that actually were not his. 

As we discussed his dilemma, many more defeating, delaying details surfaced.  Of course, not the least of these worries included his hernia, now larger than before. He also informed me that he battled severe diabetes, a fight made almost impossible by his homelessness. 

He looked sick and felt worse. 

I took him to see our community health expert, J. R. Newton, RN, MDiv.  Next thing I know I have a text from J. R. telling me that she has John at the  Parkland ER.  Today she updated me, saying that John was admitted to the hospital where he was receiving treatment for his diabetes. 

When admitted to the hospital he was "very, very sick."  His blood sugar on admission read 723 (normal  is 95-110).  He was lucky to be alive. 

I feel compelled to record his story.  Not to make anyone feel bad, but to  describe what people trapped in poverty face on a daily and often prolonged basis.

Pray for John, please.

Think of  him as you think of our city and our collective response to deep, extreme poverty.  Think of how we might effective ways to at least decouple "needless" from "suffering." 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Fundamental Quiet

Poor people move in quiet ways that spotlights need, edgy hopelessness and resignation.

I've noticed it again and again.  The struggle to overcome the moment robs folks of voice, agency and hope.  Poverty poses an existential threat to those forced to battle it. 

Few choices emerge beyond daily struggle.  The struggle can seem crushing, sapping energy as well as voice from life after life. 

But poor folks walk on with rare exceptions in the quiet.  Loud voices represent a minority report.  Those determined to overcome, to persevere, save their energy by retreating into almost silent places.  The few boisterous voices signal at least the edges of mental illness and its extreme despair. 

Our large courtyard at the Opportunity Center serves as a laboratory for the study of quiet.  People sit and rest.  Or, they walk about without a sound.  Poverty produces voiceless life. 

Yet, I've noted  many times that when a person feels respected, the desire for conversation returns. Usually the words are found to tell a  personal story, as if even the appearance of appreciation unlocks a room for evaluating options and life once more. 

Still, the volume tends toward the lower settings, but voice can be rediscovered if others seek to hear and to learn out of basic respect for a fellow traveler. 

The silence can lead to deeper depression, unless someone comes seeking to hear the voices of others, extremely important voices. 

When respect interrupts the silence, hope returns. 

How do we take conversation to scale? 

Building spaces for cultivating respect inevitably leads to breaking the hard silence. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Magic of Coffee

Over the past 25 years, and over and over, I've told the story of our "shiny coffee pot" in the Haskell Avenue Food Pantry.  Here's how I told the story in my first book:

". . . I remember that, during my first week or so on the job, I made a trip to a local discount store where I purchased a large, industrial-sized coffee pot.  The next morning as was setting up the new coffee pot in the interview room, a long-time volunteer approached me.  She put her hand on my shoulder and asked me in a tone that mixed disgust with surprise, 'What are you doing, Larry?' I replied with great pride, 'Oh, I bought us a new coffee pot.  I love coffee and the conversation it can start!  New we can make coffee for our guests when they come into the food pantry.'  She looked at me with incredulity and said, ' You can't do that!  Don't you know that, if you serve coffee, these people will never leave?'" (The Wealth of the Poor:  How Valuing Every Neighbor Restores Hope in Our Cities, pages 54-55)

Needless to say, coffee has remained, from those early days, a staple at CitySquare.  We serve it every morning at the Opportunity Center to our friends, many of whom are homeless.  Our students brew it daily in the CitySquare Cafe on that same campus. 

Actually, coffee has taken on a life of its own at CitySquare.

Our culinary arts and hospitality students learn how to make coffee, some even opt for barista training!

Last year our good friends at Highland Park United Methodist Church invited us to open and facilitate a coffee shop in their beautiful building.   Our trainees and interns staff the food and coffee service every Sunday in two locations inside the church--the new Youth Center and more formal coffee shop setting that we've built out in Wesley Hall.  CitySquare reaps the income while learning how to provide food and coffee service on Sunday mornings.  And, the coffee shops always seem packed.  Every table debunks the myths of poverty with "fact cards" revealing the brutal truth about poverty in Dallas and beyond.

More recently, Southern Methodist University graduate students took charge of a Union Coffee popup truck during a market analysis of how a coffee shop might be received in the South Dallas neighborhood around the historic, iconic Forest Theater.  Students and community folks surrounded the truck on two consecutive mornings.  Talk about a winner!  Coffee and its prospects ignited real neighborhood excitement, and connection.

Several years ago a man told me and a group of United Way volunteers that the coffee pot in the Food Pantry "saved his life."  Homeless at the time, the man recalled coming to the food pantry daily for a morning cup of coffee and some friendly conversation.  'That kept me going every day,"  he said.  Today he is employed and doing well.

I tell you, you just can't escape the power of coffee!  Come by anytime.  The aroma feels magnetic!









Thursday, April 04, 2019

THE FORCE

There is a "force" out there in our Opportunity Center courtyard. And, I confess, it always draws me toward it.

Very, very poor people, most without a home, a pillow or a bed, populate this wonderful space most days. Every morning we roll out the sacred coffee pot and serve cups of red hot encouragement.

There can be no glamorizing the poverty resident in the lives of these precious people. Poverty never deserves such a narcissistic response.

It isn't the poverty that draws me.

What pulls me toward the people, one at a time and in their small groups, is the heroic courage lived out day after day as each wages a battle to move on and up and out. Poverty remains a hard go.
The experts fill our courtyard every morning. Want to know poverty? Come here and ask folks about it.

When the air is chilly, as it was this morning, the magnetism feels strongest.

So, as usual, I find that I cannot possibly go to my office before sharing a cup with some friends. Several conversations ensued, all pleasant and full of smiles, as well as curiosity about each other. Watching these friends, talking to them, hearing their stories forces tears into my eyes and down my cheeks. . .every time.

As I prepared to leave, I stepped into a serious, intense conversation among four or five men who invited me to join their conversation. The focus of their hilarious conversation: March Madness and the Final Four!

Next year, if things go right, I get these guys to help me fill out my bracket with one change: everybody has a permanent place to live. I'll bring breakfast, and I know "the force" will be present to draw me in.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

BELONGINGS

Possessions.

Properties.

Things.

Stuffs.

Effects.

Paraphernalia.

By about any name, people protect, accumulate, gather, pile, clutch, grasp, drop, trade, discard their "belongings."  

We all do it in our own ways, subject to the norms and necessities of status, class, opportunities and options.  

Rich people usually take great care to secure their stuff.  Most all of their effects rest in safe surroundings.   Banks, funds, accounts, cards, wallets and any number of other secure stations provide protection for my stuff, my belongings. With little thought of a concept like "privileged" or "entitled," the well off , like me, devise philosophies or ideologies to argue their right to protect what they have  worked so hard to earn.  

Belongings often define where it is that I belong.

Poor people often imitate the rich in their own ways.  Only difference is the secure places often end up being on their persons in all sorts of creative ways.  Like their better off brothers and sisters, the  poor don't mind displaying their good fortune from time to time.  They also turn out to be willing to share, even from their meager holdings, just like the wealthy often share freely when given the facts and some measure of security.  


Belongings often define where it is the poor belong.

Just this morning I observed a dozen very poor people displaying, bragging, sharing, withholding, enjoying, organizing, stacking, dropping their belongings.

Belongings, as  in "belongs to me."  I've got something that I'm trying to manage. . . even though its not much.  It is an important part of who I am.  Body language and attitude declares that this collection of my effects belongs to me.

Later in the day we hosted volunteers from Texas Instruments, people with much more in the way of material belongings.  They brought lots of stuff to share.  Belongings changed hands.  Lives connected.  Stories exchanged, people connected.

All of us have belongings.

All of us seek to belong.  

As different as we appear, we all remain the same, pursuing belonging and packing our belongings.  

While I get all of this, more and more often these days I catch myself wishing for more courage to surrender my stuff, my belongings for the sake of a total redefinition of where people actually find belonging.  

There has to be more.  

I suspect I'll find this "more" in belonging with my friends who know poverty like a well-worn blanket carried about from place to place in search of what I need to learn to give up.  






Monday, February 18, 2019

Larry James' Urban Daily: Life under a bedspread

Larry James' Urban Daily: Life under a bedspread: He barely looked up from under the king sized bedspread that covered and contained his life.  I approached him in our service center to ex...

Life under a bedspread

He barely looked up from under the king sized bedspread that covered and contained his life. 

I approached him in our service center to extend my hand in welcome and concern. 

He didn't move. 

He didn't want my hand. 

He was not angry. 

He was rightfully bewildered by my foolish question, "How are you doing?"

Seriously? 

"How are you doing?"  Any fool could see how he  was "doing." 

It took every bit of what little he had left to reply to my nonsensical inquiry, "Man, I'm doing the best I can." 

His answer yanked me back to my childhood.  His retort reminded me of my dad's words whenever I faced a challenge, "Son, just do your best."

At times, my father's open ended advice didn't help.  I mean, what was "my best?"  Kind of a moving target often and actually! 

But my best or my effort at my best proved satisfactory at the end of the day, often because of my dad's support and cheering from the sidelines.  My best was enough, many times more than enough with him. 

My exhausted friend hiding under the bedspread should have known my father.  His best would have been enough for my dad on that day, at that time. 

That evaluation should guide us in our response to him and thousands like  him.  Far too often it does not. 

Face-to-face with this man, I saw mostly sadness, deep sadness in the life of a man who had given up on life, even as he did his best. 


Monday, February 11, 2019

Hate in My Family


My great-grand father, Jackson “Jack” James, murdered an African American freedman in broad daylight in the center of Florence, Texas sometime between the end of the Civil War and 1893. 

My grandfather, John James, told me the story on Thanksgiving 1972 as I tape recorded a part of my family’s oral history. 

Jack James, a Confederate infantryman, believed that the ex-slave insulted his mother, my great-great-grandmother.  Apprehending the man, he marched him into the town and shot him, execution style.  My grandfather, John reported that his father characterized the target of his hatred as “a mean n_____.”

Jack James went to trial and was promptly acquitted by an all-white jury.  In those days Texas juries never convicted white men of crimes against black folks.  Sadly, such verdicts still remain very rare today.

Jack James died in 1893, just eight years after my grandfather was born. 

The Confederate memorial, now located in Dallas’ Pioneer Park, came to our city just three years after the elder James died. 

I’m in favor of the removal of the CSA memorial statues not only because of what they represent and present today, but also and mainly because of the atmosphere, the ambiance they honored, celebrated and perpetuated during the era of their creation--the horrid era of Jim Crow.

The intentions of preservationists might be noble in some cases today.  Those who erected the monuments just 30 years after the Civil War, and about the time of Jack James' crime, had no such noble motivation.  

No, this tribute to the South's Lost Cause sought to embed in our value system the hatred, bias and oppression that sustained slavery and the so-called “Southern Way of Life." 

My grandfather was a hero of mine.  

But he experienced the curse of racism, planted by his father in his soul, ensuring that it captured his entire worldview. 

Indeed, the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. Still, the cycle of hate and ignorance can be broken.  In any case,  these monuments to hatred and white supremacy in the era of Jim Crow serve no good purpose except to offer us all the opportunity to do what is right, faithful and true by everyone in our city. 


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

My Beautiful Day at the DMV!

 So, yesterday, I spent almost five hours waiting for a new driver's license at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Horrible, you say?

Not so fast!

After all, the State of Texas invited to return in person to renew my permit because I had lived so long since I last renewed on line!

Beats the obvious alternative, right?

But, I have to be honest.  The first 90 minutes in that space drove me crazy.  Waiting on a terribly uncomfortable chair as a recorded voice barked out numbers in the queue.  As the announced numbers droned on, I could calculate my wait time, and my reality was not pretty!

Then, something snapped for me.

The people.

The way beyond beauty of that crowded room slapped me in the face.

Old.

Young.

Grandparents and children.

Eager teens.

Working people.

Unemployed.

Professionals.

White.

Black.

Brown.

Every human hue.

Every ethnicity.

So many nationalities, I felt like I was in the middle of Pentecost!  That's right!  If you want to experience modern day Pentecost, go spend a day in the DMV!  You'll have it right there in your face!

I watched as community formed before my eyes as we shared our common plight.  People actually started talking to one another.  Sharing.  Encouraging.  Even, laughing!

People helped each other.  People began to identify with the place, and their presence and position in it.

I saw the hope of the nation displayed in the lives assembled at random in that room.

The USA's power is found in its diversity.  Who would choose uniformity over the richness of our national mixture?

Its hope discovered in how we take care of one another.

Our peace will be unearthed together, never apart.

I say go to the DMV.

You'll find your people waiting for you there!

And who knows. Pentecost might just break out!