Arc Benders

I couldn’t help but cry when I listened to the news reports of President Mandela’s death.    th-2He deserves the reward he will receive for a life well-lived, and I’m really happy that he has transitioned to the Better Place. But I will miss his presence–it somehow comforted me to know that such a wonderful soul was still living among us.

I fully appreciate President Obama’s recognition that President Mandela had helped to bend that evocative moral arc of the universe further towards justice. I was also pleased to learn that President Obama had participated in TransAfrica’s year long March against Apartheid in front of the South African Embassy, led by another great voice for justice, Randall Robinson. Some of you may recall that many notable people were arrested in those daily protests.  I was one of the many unnamed people who marched but were not arrested.

President Mandela’s life and legacy speaks volumes to the world about hope–the impact that can be made by of one person of faith dedicated to a just cause. It’s encouraging for the world to be reminded of his great victory in freeing his people from a racist, cruel and evil system. Yes! We can make the world a better place!

Being reminded of President Mandela’s life achievements is the third of three major arc-bending happenings during the last week or so. The first was Pope Francis’ pointed attack Pope Francis delivers Angelus prayeron economic injustice and capitalism. Here’s a quote from the Pope in an excellent commentary in The New Yorker: “While the earnings of the minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. The imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” Right on, Pope Francis!

I believe this powerful statement made the Pope, who holds moral persuasion over millions and millions of people, did much to move that moral arc towards justice.

And so with President Obama’s speech just this week, saying that income inequality is the “defining issue of our time.”  From an Associated Press Article: “President Barack Obama th-3prodded Congress to raise wages and secure the social safety net as he issued an overarching appeal Wednesday to correct economic inequalities that he said make it harder for a child to escape poverty. “That should offend all of us,” he declared. “We are a better country than this.”  Our president calls for more funds for children in poverty-stricken public schools, increasing the minimum wage and other specifics that will make a great difference in the lives of the poor here in America.  Another powerful voice speaking volumes to millions of Americans and to the world, moving that moral arc towards justice. You  rock, my President!

I believe that when people like Popes and Presidents use their power to help those with little power, change begins to happen.

But their voices are not all that is needed.  Behind President Mandela’s lifelong odyssey was the African National Congress, millions of unnamed Africans who stood against Apartheid for many years, as well as grassroots people from around the world, unnamed folks like me who marched against what seemed like immoveable power.

There are millions of folks with good hearts who speak volumes by their every day work to help this world better reflect the good God who created it.  They, too, are moving the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

The hearts of all of us unnamed heroes and sheroes are encouraged when we hear such powerful calls for justice from leaders like Pope Francis and President Obama. And our hearts are filled with hope when we ponder the success of those truly brave and faithful ones who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of goodness, like President Mandela.

Do you think it’s possible that our world might one day rid itself of the idea that poverty is inevitable?  Yes.  We can!

 

 

 

 

 

Better than Black Friday Shopping

black-friday-crowd1No, I’m not out shopping ’til I drop today!  I did not rush out from the Thanksgiving table to battle crowds of people trying to save money by spending it.  Instead, I’m thinking about hope and feeling good about doing this rather than that.

I’m thinking about the the kind of hope that derives from success.  I wrote about City Gate last week.  One of the success stories of this non-profit can be seen at Savoy Elementary School on the Southeast side of Washington DC, where one of the 3rd grade classes is taught by Chris Bergfalk (Lynn Bergfalk’s son). Most of the children in Chris’ class were not reading up to grade level at the beginning of the school year–some were still reading at kindergarten level.

City Gate runs an after-school program at Savoy and provides support for a new in-class program that Chris initiated, which bodes well for replication. It’s called “blended learning”– a computer program that helps students improve in reading and math on their own.  This program provides easy and fun (cartoon-like) activities, measures performance, highlights difficulties and provides instructions on how to help when a student gets stuck.

Chris shared with us a chart showing his students’ performance using this system.  Barely 3 months into the school year the results show that most of the children’s reading levels improved impressively. A few who began near grade level are even reading above grade level. One thing that’s making it work is that the program provides the necessary steps for someone to help when a child gets stuck, so volunteers in the after school program can help them and the teacher doesn’t have to try do it all.

While we were visiting, City Gate’s Deputy Director and another staff member were there helping with some of the computers. City Gate provided recycled government computers, the technical support to get the computers up and running, and volunteers to help students in the after school program.  That’s what’s making it work for this class.

The problem in many city public schools is that there aren’t enough computers in the classrooms or sufficient help to provide the children the support they need.  One class out of the thousands around the city may not sound like much, but it’s a start.  And starting is what matters.

Why do people like Dr. Bergfalk and the others who work at City Gate work so hard to help these children?  Lynn said he was drawn to this type of mission work as a way to “practically live out the mandate that we are to love God and our neighbor in the broader community.”   To me that sounds like living love just as Jesus commanded.

Success stories like this help me to know that we have the ability to change things. We can help our children succeed.  With faith, we can defeat the monstrous for-profit prison system by standing in front of our children to keep them out of it.

Success stories like this make me believe that with enough faithful people working together on all necessary fronts our nation can even begin to eliminate poverty. You may remember in one of my earliest posts, “Is Poverty Inevitable?” I said that  “For us as a people to believe that we should try to eliminate poverty, we have to embrace the idea that all people are beautiful children of God, all worthy of our true love. We have to believe that every child born has a right to live safely, to adequate medical care, and to an education that will nurture their gifts.”

The work that Dr. Bergfalk has started gives me hope that one day we’ll get there. Sooooo much better than shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving!

 

Rebounding Hope

I was 17 years old.  We had just come out of gym class, and while heading for the cafeteria for lunch, I saw people crying.  In the cafeteria, many more were crying.  I had no clue what had happened because the announcement hadn’t reached the gym class. President Kennedy had been shot and killed.  I cried.

“If a free society cannot help the
 many who are poor, it cannot save
 the few who are rich.” 
John F. Kennedy inaugural address, 
January 20, 1961

My 17 year old heart felt that evil had triumphed, and that was hard to take.  We all loved the President and his beautiful family.  He had given us so much hope–I felt like he was so modern and cool and that he was really a good person and that things would get so much better for black people with him as President.  Who would do such a thing?  I don’t guess I’ll ever be convinced that such a perfect shot to a moving target from so far away was not the act of an expertly trained professional hired for political purposes, whether it was Lee Harvey Oswald or someone else.

Hope really felt dashed for me the day President Kennedy was killed.  And even more when Dr. King was killed less than 5 years later.  But one thing about hope is that something will always bring it back — and another thing is that you can find hope in lots of different places.  So I want to share with you a new hope that I’ve recently found.

City Gate is a non-profit charitable organization serving children and families in the Washington DC area. I was looking around to find out who’s working with children here, and City Gate grabbed my attention for two reasons–the broad reach of its programs and the steadfast faith of the founder and Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Lynn Bergfalk, Pastor of Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church in DC.

City Gate was formed in 2000 to extend and expand the kind of programs being run at Calvary Baptist Church, where Dr. Bergfalk was then pastor, into the larger community.  From 2003 – 2006 their central location was in the DC Baptist Convention Johenning Community Center in Southeast. When they had to move, what seemed to be a big defeat turned out to be a great blessing. City Gate found a new home in a local housing development, and through the success and the connections made there, City Gate expanded the after school programs to several housing developments and schools in Southeast and in other parts of the City and nearby Prince George’s County.  City Gate operates right where the people live, and the people have received them well.

staff

Last week Dr. Bergfalk was gracious enough to take me and a new volunteer to visit one of the school sites and some of the after school sites. The after school activities include homework time, STEM clubs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), recreational activities and also dinner for many of the children. Most important is the attention these children receive from caring professionals who help to provide life skills, a safe haven and long-term positive and caring relationships with children who need it. A major focus of the after school programming is to improve the children’s performance in school.

This is intended to directly address the fact that if children are not reading by the 3rd grade, the “accumulated baggage of low performance,” as Dr. Bergfalk calls it, builds up from year to year, and they are likely to end up failing, and also likely to end up in the prison system. See my earlier post for a more detailed discussion about this.

And City Gate is successful. I’ll have more to say about some of their success stories next week.  While this front line work is absolutely necessary in the war against imprisoning our children, help must come from other sources as well.  Non-profits like City Gate need sure sources of funding to keep operating. Schools in impoverished neighborhoods need more funding for computers, specialists, social workers, and others to deal with the “accumulated baggage” these kids carry. We need national, state and local policies that help and support our children, rather than punishing them for what is essentially not their fault.

And that’s why we need people who really care for victims of poverty in places of leadership.  When people like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama reach the White House, hope for the poor rebounds.  And when politics and political maneuverings dash our hope, we must  be involved to keep hope alive. I still have hope that the Democrats in Congress can figure out how to provide the support that our President needs to move forward with programs that bring some sense of caring for the least in our country. And I’ll continue to urge people of faith to speak prophetically to power about caring for the poor, then to get involved and help those who are doing the caring.

Dinner and a Movie?

I made the mistake of saying to a group of younger folks that I could remember when it cost 25 cents to get in the movies.  It’s true.  When I was under 12, which was not much more than 50 years ago, I could get in the movies for 25 cents.  All of the kids would try to pass for under 12, because if you were 12 and over, you had to pay 75 cents. In those days, theaters were locally owned and operated, not like the mega corporations that run them now.  One of the 30-somethings who was in the group said something like “I remember $6.50.” Next time I’ll be more careful about who I share this bit of history with, so I won’t feel so ancient.

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The conversation took place when I was sharing how shocked I was when I took my grandchildren and their cousins to a movie here in the DC area, and we all got the “discount price” (they were all under 12 and I am a senior) of $9.50 each.  Dinner and a movie now is for many people a major celebration event.  For others, it doesn’t happen at all. Do you have any idea how much it costs to go bowling nowadays? 

Contrast the rise in costs for simple things like restaurants, movies and bowling with what’s happening with salaries and jobs.  Hundreds of people showed up at Wal-Mart’s employment office last week for jobs in the new stores that are being built here in DC–even though they were told that they had to apply online and were sent away. Wal-Mart had refused to open stores in the city if the City Council’s bill requiring a minimum salary of $12.50 an hour was not vetoed by the mayor.  The mayor vetoed, Wal-Mart will open those stores, and a lot of people who really need jobs will go to work there.  I don’t blame the mayor, though, because I’d rather see the people who need jobs get them.  I’m hoping they will unionize to get the wages they deserve.

money_709265

But they won’t make enough money with those jobs to live in this city, which is booming. Apartment buildings and condo’s and upscale businesses are going up all over the place.  There are four large new apartment buildings in my neighborhood.  The Safeway down the block was demolished and is being rebuilt with several stories of apartments on top of it. More and more often I’m hearing stories of people being shoved out of their affordable apartment buildings, which are being sold and renovated into luxury condominiums.  You can’t afford a two bedroom condominium in DC for your family of three on $10.00 an hour.

Nowhere is the income inequality pattern–rising costs and diminishing ability to buy– more obvious than in our nation’s capitol. A September 20, 2013 Huffington Post article by Jason LInkins says it all:  “Gilded American City Gets Much Richer And Much Poorer Simultaneously.”  Rising income inequality in our nation has prevented the middle class from growing, another way of saying that poverty is being kept in place by creating a class of working poor.

I recommend for your viewing a new documentary entitled “Inequality for All” by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.  To see the trailer of the documentary and a discussion about the film with Bill Moyers, click here.  It’s opening at theaters this weekend.  I hope you can afford to go see it.

The thing is this, though–all that really needs to happen to prevent the train wreck that income inequality is creating is for government to enact policies that will protect and grow the middle class. I shared earlier this week on Facebook a link to an article by Mat Bruening on the American Prospect Website  entitled “How much Money Would It Take to Eliminate Poverty in America?” which describes some of those policies.

It’s not good enough just to complain about rising costs and low wages.  We need to participate in government processes that will put and keep in place policies that work for the betterment of all.  Robert Reich’s documentary or either of the documents highlighted above are educational tools that can get conversations going in your church social action group about how to deal with the seemingly inevitable future of deepening income inequality.  You don’t have a church social action group?  Make one happen!

If you’d like to comment to this post, please click the little balloon at the top of the post and you will see the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these weekly posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know the love of God and thereby be filled with peace, joy, and hope.

 

When the Dollar is the Bottom Line

Some news items, all from this past week:

(1) Richest 1 percent of Americans are collecting biggest share of household income since the ‘20s

“In 2012, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose nearly 20 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent….. Economists point to several reasons for widening income inequality. In some industries, U.S. workers now compete with low-wage labor in China and other developing countries. Clerical and call-center jobs have been outsourced to countries such as India and the Philippines. Increasingly, technology is replacing workers in performing routine tasks. And union power has dwindled. The percentage of American workers represented by unions has dropped from 23.3 percent in 1983 to 12.5 percent last year, according to the Labor Department.”

(2) Left With Nothing 

“On the day Bennie Coleman lost his house, the day armed U.S. marshals came to his door and ordered him off the property, he slumped in a folding chair across the street and watched the vestiges of his 76 years hauled to the curb. Movers carted out his easy chair, his clothes, his television. Next came the things that were closest to his heart: his Marine Corps medals and photographs of his dead wife, Martha. The duplex in Northeast Washington that Coleman bought with cash two decades earlier was emptied and shuttered. By sundown, he had nowhere to go. All because he didn’t pay a $134 property tax bill. …..

As the housing market soared, the investors scooped up liens in every corner of the city, then started charging homeowners thousands in legal fees and other costs that far exceeded their original tax bills, with rates for attorneys reaching $450 an hour….. One 65-year-old flower shop owner lost his Northwest Washington home of 40 years after a company from Florida paid his back taxes — $1,025 — and then took the house through foreclosure while he was in hospice, dying of cancer. A 95-year-old church choir leader lost her family home to a Maryland investor over a tax debt of $44.79 while she was struggling with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home.”

(3) The Cost of Cash, for the Rich and the Poor

“It’s easy to forget that cash is costly to access, until you’re paying an A.T.M. fee or spending time riding a bus to a check-cashing window when you could have been working. Now, a study published on Monday morning has quantified the cost of cash, and who gets hit the hardest. The unsurprising answer: low-income people. …. The reason for the difference is that wealthier people and lower-income people tend to access cash differently. Wealthier people are more likely to have bank accounts, which means that they can visit an A.T.M. run by their bank without paying a fee; the same goes for cashing checks. Lower-income people, meanwhile, disproportionately use check-cashing services, which are known for their high add-on charges. Plus, employers have started compensating low-paid, hourly workers with prepaid cards that come with huge fees.”

(4) GE, IBM Ending Retiree Health Plans in Historic ShiftThis is who we are becoming as a nation. 

“America’s biggest employers, from GE to IBM, are increasingly moving retirees to insurance exchanges where they select their own health plans, an historic shift that could push more costs onto U.S. taxpayers.”

All of the above ought to make us think about what kind of country we’re becoming and where all of this is going to take us in the future.  Luke 16:13 puts God’s challenge to us this way: 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

When we value $ over people, then we value $ over God’s commandments.  All of these news stories should make us wonder whether this is becoming the case here.  Don’t get me wrong, I know there are lots of people who have good hearts and who do care for and help others.  But when the “money worshipper mindset” becomes too acceptable, the whole society is at risk, because that’s when the $ can too easily become the bottom line in defining our values. That’s when the $ becomes the ultimate result of what we’re all about, when the $ becomes the main theme of how we live our lives. It doesn’t happen all at once, but the mindset just kind of seeps into our everyday lives, through the constant barrage of advertisements, telling us we need things that we certainly don’t, through shows continually suggesting that we really do need more and more stuff, like I always feel after watching HGTV, through the constant parading of the “rich and famous” as smart people who we should admire and emulate, and the constant portrayal of poverty as the fault of the poor, and so on and so on.

The news items above make me think that our country is becoming the Ferengi of the world.  For those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the Ferengi are a race of unscrupulous people who will do anything for $, described as “greedy, misogynistic, untrustworthy little trolls.”

I once threatened to write a book about how our values become twisted when the $ is the bottom line. Here’s a start:  When the $ is the bottom line, pharmaceuticals and health care, good schools and healthy food– necessities for people to live whole and healthy lives–are abundantly available to those with abundant $,  and difficult to attain for those with little $– and no wrong is seen in this.

Maybe you’d like to share some examples of what you see happening when the $ is the bottom line.

Why are so many people poor?

Why are so many people poor?  That’s really the question that Andy Kessler has no clue about.  He’s an Op-Ed writer for the Wall Street Journal who recently wrote that people are poor because there are so many people helping them.  Here’s a quote from his article, posted by Scott Keyes on the ThinkProgress website.

My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It’s a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn’t like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren’t also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them? […]

Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it’s understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.

I was going to insert a direct link to the Wall Street Journal article, but, of course, you have to pay to get their news online. I didn’t want to pay, so I’m relying on the veracity of  the article’s interpretation by ThinkProgress. I chose to enter this discourse because I’d like to share some thoughts on why God created a world in which so many people are poor.

First, my response to Mr. Kessler’s article. I said in my April 12 post “In my opinion, it is nothing less than cruel–nothing less than cruel--to provide supportive services to those who are poor without also attempting to deal with the social systems that put and keep them in poverty.”  So in one sense, Kessler and I agree that helping the poor helps to keep the poor in place, but I never said that helping them was what causes them to be poor, or that we shouldn’t help them at all.  What I said was that we need to do much, much more than simply provide individual handouts and free food.

Kessler implies that creating jobs will send people to work, and voila!–no more poor people. Left unsaid is the understanding that those who create the jobs will also make lots more money. I think it is horribly naive, incredibly stupid or something worse to think that creating more jobs will make the poor go away. That’s the only solution the job makers can seem to come up with, I guess because creating jobs is what they do.

There’s nothing wrong with creating jobs.  Yes, we need plenty more living wage jobs for a healthy economy. But some people simply cannot work.  What are we to do with them, Mr. Kessler?  Ignore them? What are we to do with the those with mentally incapacities, mental illnesses, and those who are physically unable to work?  Blame them for not getting hired? Let them die on the streets?

Creating jobs is one way to help some poor people.  But if you really think that’s the only way to help poor people, then it is likely that you will also think that once the jobs are created it’s okay to blame those who don’t get jobs for not working, and wash your hands of them. How many times do we have to wreck our country with trickle down economics, giving free rides to the rich so that they can get richer and richer off the backs of the poor, before we get it? Every time we’ve tried that, the poverty rates have gone up, not down.  And the rich keep getting richer.

Those of us who believe in God must wrestle to understand why our world has so many people who need help in order to survive.  These are the poor that Jesus said we we will always have with us.  Some of them are poor because the strong have made this a difficult place for the weak to survive.  But some are poor because they don’t have the necessary physical or mental capacity to survive on their own. Maybe God uses poor people to offer opportunities for the rest of the world to become wiser and more loving. Maybe how we treat “the least” really is a measure of who we are as a society to God.

Aren’t we wiser people because we’ve had to struggle with how to cure so many different kinds of illnesses?  Isn’t the love in our hearts stirred up when we reach out to help people who experience great trauma and heartbreak? Aren’t we a better, more caring people because we created a system to help people who have physical handicaps? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could figure out how to cure mental illnesses, or at least better accommodate people with mental illnesses?  How wise and loving would we become if we could together reach out in all kinds of ways to help children born into broken and poor families?  Wouldn’t we feel good about ourselves, as a society, if we could pull together enough wisdom and pour out enough love to eliminate the continued impoverishment of those who are born poor?

We would be a better people, and we would feel better about ourselves as a people, if we simply helped people who need our help in as many ways as we can help them, even if that means we don’t get to keep so much for ourselves. Aren’t the real heroes and sheroes in our world those who’ve been willing to sacrifice some of their own privilege, comfort, peace, and even their own lives, so that others might survive?  Isn’t that what Jesus’ example teaches us?

Maybe that’s what God had in mind. Maybe God has given us poor people so that we might all become better people. Or not.

 

More Puzzling

In last week’s post I reported on a 2010 article I found by Steven Hawkins on The American Prospect website entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  Mr. Hawkins drew the connection between increased state spending for prison systems and the failure of inner city schools, and he predicted the school closings and reduction of support for poor children that we are seeing now.  Fast-forward to a May 2013 article in The American Prospect entitled Children of the Great Collapse, by Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team. Dr. Bernstein provides an extensive and informative report elucidating the economic benefits provided by the Obama Administration’s Federal Recovery Act, and how the success of that effort is now being undercut by a mean-spirited (my term) political climate that claims to be based on reducing deficits.

Dr. Bernstein explains: “The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault.” He analyzes what this means to the people who need help the most:  “….the data make a solid case that the policies we’ve put in place over the years…..worked well. But when you combine this perhaps under appreciated information with the well-known long-term stagnation of middle- and low-income working families’ incomes, we end up with the anomaly: A lot of folks get some insulation from the downturn but stagnate in the upturn.”

Here is where the puzzle pieces provided by these two articles come together. Dr. Bernstein concludes his report by wrestling with the question “What types of measures might help give families and kids a fighting chance at claiming more of the economy’s growth?”   The two things he suggests that will most likely help are income support for low income families and quality preschool. On preschool, he says “A large body of research shows both how important quality preschool is for later outcomes and how its returns over a lifetime far surpass its costs. In his State of the Union address, the president cited the well-documented finding that $1 of investment in good preschool returns $7 of benefits. These results are particularly strong for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.”

The connection with last week’s article is clear.  Both of these articles ought to help us see that we’re all in this puzzle together. If we help those who need it most, we will find that over time we spend less money and reduce heartbreaks all around. Providing quality preschool funding and early childhood education support will help prevent the dramatic costs we pay for the cycle of broken lives, the crime that touches all of us, our overburdened court systems and the overpopulated prisons and parole systems. When we direct more of our taxpayer dollars to help rather than to punish, we’ll replace the jobs that are lost in the prison industry by the increase of jobs in education and social services. The only ones who stand to lose in this scenario are those who aim to get rich by putting our children in prison. And they are a powerful lobby.

While this part of the puzzle ought to be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention, what’s more puzzling is why we can’t seem to get anything done about it. Could it be the powerful lobbying? More to say on that next week.

I’m getting tired of ranting about this.  It’s time to take action.  So, for starters, I’m asking all who care about poor children to do something pretty simple:  Call, write, email, text, or twitter your Senators and Congress persons and tell  them you support our President’s initiative to provide preschool support for children. Here’s one of several websites that will give you contact information for Congress: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

That’s easy enough to do.  Let us know when you do it.

 

Puzzling

I like it when puzzle pieces come together.  I’m one of those people who will sit up through the night trying to get the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to gather in completion.  When the pieces come together, the picture becomes clear, and being able to see the puzzle’s hidden picture provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Steven Hawkins, the  executive vice president and chief program officer of the NAACP (who just yesterday was announced as having been selected to become the next executive director of Amnesty International) wrote a December 2010 article for an online magazine, The American Prospect entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  [Just in case you need to know, you can click on the green print to reach to the sites mentioned.] Mr. Hawkins provided some important information in that article to support some of the things I’ve been saying (or rather ranting about) in this blog about the importance of providing more financial support to educate the poorest of our children.

He provides information to document that most states are increasing spending for prisons and decreasing spending for schools. His premise is stated here: “Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, expanding from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million people in just three decades. … We spend almost $70 billion annually to place adults in prison and jails, to confine youth in detention centers, and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole. Indeed, confinement costs have claimed an increasing share of state and local government spending. This trend has starved essential social programs — most notably education.” He reports:  “In 33 of 50 states, corrections-related costs made up a larger proportion of the general fund than in the previous fiscal year, while spending on K-12 and higher education decreased.”

That’s one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece into which it fits is the connection between the increased spending for prisons and the failure of schools in poorer neighborhoods:  “NAACP research shows that …the lowest-performing schools tend to be in the areas where incarceration rates are the highest.” He then predicts: “When future budget years arrive… and states and counties try to balance their books without the assistance of the federal stimulus, young people will experience more of the same: school closings, teacher layoffs, diminished after-school programs, and rising tuition at colleges and universities. All of this will happen while prison spending grows.”

Isn’t that what we’re seeing now, in the recent reports of battles over school closings in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Chicago? Isn’t that the picture we’re seeing as we look at skyrocketing costs of higher education? Dr. Hawkins concludes from putting these pieces of the puzzle together:  “If states were to properly invest in reopening schools, keeping quality teachers, maintaining sensible classroom sizes, and sustaining the affordability of higher education, it’s quite possible — particularly for economic crimes like low-level drug dealing — we would not need to imprison so many people and could stop sinking our valuable taxpayer dollars into an investment that has demonstrated scant return.”

Is the picture of this puzzle becoming clearer for you now?  I hope so.  In order to help those who need it the most, children from poor and low-income families (i.e., “the least of these” according to Jesus in Matthew 25), we must provide them with strong education, beginning with pre-school, and affordable higher education.  Yet, instead of doing that, they’re closing down the schools in the neighborhoods where most of the least of these live and, through the sequestration, cutting back on services to help them.  We see the picture of that puzzle described by Mr. Hawkins coming together, right now.

So the question for us Christians is who will help the least of these? The least of these are those who need a hand up so they can make it in today’s system, but the political climate instead approaches them with a fist.  The least of these are children who are able to do better if they are helped, but those who have the ability to help them continue to engage in practices that instead make them fodder for the prison system. If we do nothing, we are the ones who help keep together this puzzle that shows a clear disregard for serving the least of these, who, in case you didn’t read the passage, are Jesus.

 

Faith’s X-Ray Vision

Wouldn’t you like to have x-ray vision like Superman?  I mean, you could see through things to find stuff that you lost, and you could avoid people you didn’t want to see without opening your door.  Of course, you would need to be like Superman and not use your super power for any kind of nefarious purpose.  Yeah, right.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t give us that capability.  On the other hand, if we all had x-ray vision, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it?

As powerful as Superman’s x-ray vision is, it is not as powerful as God’s vision.  Superman can see through things–God sees into the heart.  When the prophet Samuel was assigned to choose among Jesse’s sons who would be the next King of Israel, Samuel assumed the choice would be Eliab, the handsomest, eldest, and the tallest of the boys.  He would not have chosen David, the youngest and smallest, if God had not whispered in his ear:  “I don’t see mortals the way you see them–I look at their hearts and not on their outward appearance.” (See 1 Samuel 16:1-13)

God’s ability to see into our hearts is even more compelling than Dr. King’s admonition that we are to measure people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  God sees even beyond the character we show to the world.  God sees through to our hearts, with the authority that only God holds, as the one who knows us completely, and who knows who we were intended to be.

And God wants those of us who believe to see the world through God’s eyes.  God calls us to be ambassadors for Christ in the world, and that means we need to see things as God sees them so we can properly represent God in the world. (See 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)  Whew!  That’s a pretty tall order.  If our job is to try to see the world around us as God sees it, we have to learn how to see beyond the physical appearance of things. We need to see into the hearts of people and into the hearts of the situations that we face. We have to understand God, somewhat, in order to do that, don’t you think?  And it takes faith. That’s what we are to use, a kind of x-ray vision that comes through faith in God.

When we look at others through faith’s x-ray vision, we don’t see color, race, nationalities, cultures…all those divisions that the world creates among God’s people.  We instead see the beloved children of God, a beautiful rainbow of diversity designed according to God’s amazing creativity. When we look through faith’s x-ray vision, we no longer see different religions, just children who’re struggling in their own different ways and cultures to understand God.

When we understand that all of this earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, we  no longer see people coming from Mexico as illegal aliens or people trying to take away our jobs.  We instead see a people who are trying to make a living for themselves, and we see that there is plenty of land between these two countries with more than enough resources for all of us.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is  a better way to allocate the resources so that all can do well– and we understand that we need to help others see that.

Through faith, we no longer see children who are brutal gang members and who learn evil as fodder for our prison systems, but we see them instead as children who have themselves been brutalized by poverty and strife and abuse, with no one to help them through it.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is a way to reach them with the love of God, and we know that if we work at reconciling them to their true natures, we can save them.

Through faith, instead of seeing people with different political agendas as enemies or opponents against whom we must fight because they don’t want the same things we want, we see a people who have different views, some of which may be legitimate.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we take the first step to reconcile, to mend fences and begin real conversations to work for what is best for all.

Through faith, instead of seeing people who are poor as people who don’t know how to take care of themselves, people who are dependent on others and who drain our resources, we see poverty as the problem to address, and not the people.  We see a broken system that protects the haves who want to hang onto what they have and who think they need more than they do. As Ambassadors for Christ,  we know it is our job to help the world understand how to better share the abundantly plentiful natural resources that God has given to all of us.

With faith’s x-ray vision, maybe we can become more like Superman! Or better yet, more like God.

 

 

 

 

Who Profits From Imprisoning our Children?

 

Just today I received an email with this link to a Youtube video showing a street fight in my home town, Maywood, Illinois: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXhXmWDAeaY Associated with that link are links to other street fights.  I didn’t want to watch them, but apparently videotaping street fights and posting them is a thing with some people.

I couldn’t help but wonder what will be the future for these young people.  And I couldn’t help but wonder how they got to be like that.  Last week’s blog  (The Victims of Poverty) was about how tough it is to grow up healthy in impoverished neighborhoods. No matter how much these kids may celebrate their street gang lifestyle, it’s not healthy.  They are likely to end up in prison, having babies they can’t take care of, and dying too soon. And they won’t know how stupid it is for them to waste their lives like that until it’s too late.

There is a culture around them that encourages the gangster lifestyle.  This culture includes people who they don’t see, but who profit from their foolishness.  These are people who’ve invested in keeping the gangster lifestyle alive, an underground network of support for them, in a sense.  Like those who profit from drug sales.  I’m not talking about the sellers on the street, or even the local drug lords.  I’m talking about the ones who make the real money, from the producers to the shippers. I don’t know enough about how it actually happens to speak with authority on it, but I think it’s common knowledge that if there were not large profits being made by those who produce and ship the drugs into the neighborhoods, the drugs wouldn’t be on the street.

Yet, the “War on Drugs” has focused mainly on arresting and imprisoning the end users and local suppliers, with a special focus on those who live in poor and Black neighborhoods.  In an op-ed article for Reuters entitled “The US Drug War and Racial Disparities,”  Bernd Debusmay shared this common knowledge:   “African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for 33.6 percent of drug arrests and 37 percent of state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses.” A Human Rights Watch report  on drug arrests and race analyzed data relating to drug arrests and prison admission, concluding that in 2003 “…blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.” This has been consistent over the years, and our prison population has consequently exploded.

The music industry has also profited from the gangster lifestyle. It is well documented that the music industry has historically been involved with the mob.  I don’t know that much about it, but it is also clear that the mob mentality is what has fueled the success of the infiltration of rap music with gangster mentality. And those who profit from gangster rap include more than the gangsters like Tupac, Eazy-E and Biggie Smalls, who are likely all multi-millionaires.  The really big money makers include the recording companies and agents and others who’ve been involved in the music industry much longer than the gangsters.

There is a post going around the internet that someone who claims to have been a leader in the music industry was invited to a secret meeting by some investors in private prisons. In that meeting the plan was pushed to promote gangster rap in order to popularize criminal activity and thus create a need for more privatized prisons.  You can read the whole post here. Some debunk this theory, such as Michael Raine of the Huffington Post in “Gangsta Rap Conspiracy Theory Goes Gangbustas”.

Could it be true?  I wouldn’t be surprised, because of the money involved. And because the prison industry is in fact profiting from the gangster mentality.  Bernd Debusmay, in the above-referenced article on the Drug War and racial disparities, recognized that one of the difficult problems in attempting to reduce the number of people being imprisoned is the rise of the private prison system:  “The biggest obstacles for change are entrenched interests. By some estimates, getting the prison population back to where it was (in terms of percentage of the overall population) before the drug war began would cost the jobs of at least a million people working for the criminal justice system. Not to forget the damage reduced incarceration would do to the flourishing private prison industry.”

In my home state, the new prisons–although not yet privatized– are located downstate, far from where most of the prisoners come, and in a locale where the prison industry is one of the largest employers. The political will to lose those kind of jobs will be hard to find downstate, especially when it’s not their children who are being imprisoned. I sure hope that’s not the fate of the kids in that street fight.

With those kind of entrenched interests, it’s easy to see why imprisoning so many of our children has not received the attention it should in the highest levels of our justice system.  It’s easy to understand why it’s not one of the issues argued in political debates.   Isaiah tells us that God is displeased when  “justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14), and that “God was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” (59:16).  Justice is failing our children, and truth is not being spoken on their behalf.  We need the prophetic voice of the Church to speak this truth to power until they listen and act.

A good source for more information on racial disparities in our system of justice: The Sentencing Project.  And you might want to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer.