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.

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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.

The Cost of Global Warming

Typhoon Haiyan may be the largest and most devastating typhoon in recorded history.  Reports of the chaos that this epic storm has caused are heart-wrenching.

Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times on Monday that  “Screaming people bobbed in the water — many grabbing for floating debris, but not all succeeding….. Some of them were able to hold on, some were lucky and lived, but most did not.” He also reported that  Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said that a Red Cross aid convoy to Tacloban had to turn back on Sunday after it stopped at a collapsed bridge and was nearly hijacked by a crowd of hungry people.

Nancy Snyderman, NBC News Correspondent, reported yesterday that in small city Tanauan,  a group of doctors called Mammoth Medical Missions, is running out of supplies after performing more than 100 surgeries in three days, and will have to turn patients away if supplies don’t arrive.  She reported “…throngs of the desperate waited outside to be seen amid the smell of rotting flesh and stagnant water. Inside, doctors cut one dressing into 24 pieces to stretch out the meager supplies. Desks served as examining tables….’It’s like war,’ one surgeon said. ‘I’ve never been in a war but this is what I imagine it’s like.”

NBC News Correspondents F. Brinley Bruton and Becky Bratu, reported today from Tacloban, the worst-hit city: “The mayor said the options are bleak in Tacloban: ‘The choice is to use the same truck either to distribute food or collect bodies.”

I applaud all those first responders who give their time and energy, their hearts and souls to helping in such desperate situations.  I also applaud all those who share their wealth and prayers in times like this.  I hope all who are able will find a way to help.  The New York Times provided today a good list of organizations that are on the ground and can use our donations and so does NBC World News. Samaritan’s Purse and CARE  are a couple of others that I didn’t see on either of those lists.

It’s important for us to help and to contribute when people suffer from such tragedies.  But there’s more we can do.  We need to open our awareness to what may be causing such devastating storms.  The fact that hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons are becoming more frequent, stronger and deadlier is no longer to be doubted.  The Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory has been tracking hurricanes since 1891. Information collected from them and others by Wikipedia shows on one chart that four out of five of the largest hurricanes (by gale diameter) ever observed in the Atlantic basin all occurred within the last 12 years. Another chart shows a clear increase in the number of named storms and hurricanes per year from 1851-2012.

Could it be possible that global warming is the cause of this dramatic  increase in weather-related devastation?  The answer is clearly YES! If you have any doubts, please read this report by Damian Carrington of the Guardian.

Tragedies like this typhoon ought to make all of us think more deeply about how our lifestyles may be contributing to global warming and how we can help to reverse it.  We’ve become so used to using oil-related products like gasoline and plastic that I can’t imagine what life would be like without them. But we have to ask whether the convenience of maintaining our lifestyles is so important that we won’t change even if it means saving people’s lives.  Can’t we bring our own cloth bags to the grocery store if it will mean saving people and their homes from being swept away by enormous floods? Shouldn’t we get off our comfortable couches and take on the big oil companies to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, demand that we stop fracking, and demand government to put more money into research for renewable energy resources if doing so will keep kids from drowning?

For those of us who are Christians, we need to think more carefully about what Jesus taught….he told us that there is no better proof of love than to be willing to give up your life for your friend.  He says we are his friends if we do what he asks us to do, and above all, he asks us to love others as he has loved us.  ( See John 15: 12-17) If Jesus was willing to give his life in order to save us, how much of our conveniences, our comfort, our time and our resources would he expect for us to give up in order to save the lives of others?

When we get this part right, then we can go out and share the good news.

 

 

 

 

Making Hope Happen

In a February post this year, Washington Post columnist Paula Dvorak wrote that there were some 600 kids living in homeless shelters in our nation’s Capitol.  The good news is that she received a plethora of responses from folks wanting to know how they could help. Here’s what she concluded in her follow up article:  “This is a complex crisis that will take a multifaceted approach to solve. It’s more than an increased budget, a cot or a single counseling program. But we can do it. We have to do it because at least 600 kids are counting on people who care. And from the response I got, there are many who do.”

She is convinced that we can do it because she was encouraged by the people’s heartfelt responses to such dreadful news.

She referred those who responded, as a place to start, to one of the many organizations that are working hard to help kids here in DC,  The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which describes itself as a “nonprofit group that provides play space, toys, books, school uniforms and unconditional support and love. It does everything from teen tutoring to baby cuddle time.”

And there are other groups of good folk who are doing good work to help the neediest kids in DC.  I found these easily just searching the web:

Stand Up for Kids-DC:  “ensures that young people in this city have the basic human rights of shelter, food, and security. Our most powerful contributions are in forming supportive relationships with homeless youth who have no place to turn, preventing vulnerable youth from entering the cycle of homelessness, and gaining the assistance of the entire community to keep our youth safe, sheltered, and supported.”

Kids Konnection-DC:  “ministers to 1,500 children a week from DC public housing meeting a variety of the children’s needs.”  One of their programs is a Sidewalk Sunday School:  “Sharing GOD and HIS LOVE – teaching a moral value system – providing role models for the boys and girls – home visitations – one on one counseling – intervention in abuse or neglect situation – substance abuse prevention – sharing life skills: etiquette, banking, filing out job applications, and community service – helping youth make a transition from school to jobs or college – changing lives…”

Located in Southeast DC at Stanton Elementary , People, Animals, Love (PAL) is “helping ensure all children begin life with a solid academic foundation and meet or exceed national No Child Left Behind standards. The after school program and summer camp are offered in partnership with DC Public Schools Out-of-School Time Office, which provides space, security, janitorial services and coordination. PAL Club runs after school during the school year and PAL Camp is held for four weeks during the summer.”

There are plenty more, great opportunities for church groups to get involved and to help these at-risk children out as mentors, tutors or in whatever capacity they might be needed.

And help is sorely needed. In a recent article posted in Democracy Now!, a for-profit prison corporation called Youth Services International, which makes money putting children in prisons, is growing exponentially, even though they have faced multiple charges of child abuse. “More than 40,000 boys and girls in 16 states have gone through these facilities in the past two decades. This comes as nearly 40 percent of all detained juveniles are now committed to private facilities, and in Florida, it is 100 percent.”

Chris Kirkham of The Huffington Post also reported on this, citing some of the abuses found in the Florida youth prisons:  “One guard had fractured an inmate’s elbow after the boy refused instructions to throw away a cup, according to incident reports. Another guard had slammed a boy’s head into the floor after an argument. The prison was infested with ants and cockroaches, toilets were frequently clogged and children reported finding bugs in their meager portions of food.” Why does such a company keep getting government contracts?  Here’s how: “Slattery [the owner], his wife, Diane, and other executives have been prodigious political rainmakers in Florida, donating more than $400,000 to state candidates and committees over the last 15 years, according to HuffPost’s review. The recipient of the largest share of those dollars was the Florida Republican Party, which took in more than $276,000 in that time.”

You remember the scandal in Pennsylvania where a judge was found guilty of accepting bribes to send kids to detention for minimal offenses? These for-profit prisons are hungry for our children, and they are being well-fed. Homeless children are most at-risk of becoming fodder for them.  One ray of hope for us locally is that it doesn’t appear that the District of Columbia sends children to any of these privately-run facilities, although there are some in Maryland. If anyone knows more about this, please let us know.

While we have opportunities to help the children avoid juvenile detention by reaching out to them individually, the problem of saving our youth is more complex than any number of service organizations can solve without additional support from elected officials. It is a complex problem.  But, as Paula Dvorak surmised, we can do it.  The hope lies in people who really do care.  They will find ways to volunteer, to challenge our churches to volunteer, to challenge local leaders to provide necessary funding for children’s programs, to demand that low-cost housing become a priority in the City’s future plans, etc, etc.  All of the above are ways to put faith in action.  And that is what creates hope.

Do you know what hope looks like?  I’m sure it must look like a smile and sparkle in the eye of a homeless child who has just felt love from the personal involvement of someone who really does care.  And hope must look like that same smile and sparkle in the eye of that child’s parent who has found an affordable home because they live in a city that really does care.

We are the nation’s Capitol.  We ought to provide a stellar example  of what hope looks like for the rest of this wonderful country.

How Faith Speaks to Power

On Monday, I received an email invite from an organization that I follow online, Faithful America, that asked us to join Sister Simone Campbell who was going up to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to talk to and pray with members of Congress in support of ending the government shutdown.  The event was organized by an interfaith action group, Faith in Public Life.  Sister Simone Campbell is Executive Director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. She lobbies on issues of peace-building, immigration reform, healthcare and economic justice. During the 2010 congressional debate about healthcare reform, she wrote the famous “nuns’ letter” supporting the reform bill and got 59 leaders of Catholic Sisters, including LCWR, to sign on. This action was cited by many as critically important in passing the Affordable Care Act.

How could I resist such an invitation?  I couldn’t, and neither could my husband Bill. We weren’t the only ones who could not resist attending. The gathering of about about 150 people included religious leaders from different faiths, people of faith and people who were suffering because of shutdown.  The group was impressive.

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We met Jewish priests, Unitarian Universalists, Catholics, representatives from the Salvation Army and United Methodists and others.  And there was at least one Baptist, that is one American Baptist, and that would be me.

We held hands as people of faith, sang a Jewish song “Of Love and Justice I will Sing” and then Sister Simone prayed for our country.  As we walked down the hall of the our nation’s capitol congressional office building singing “Amazing Grace,” my eyes welled…inspired by being among this wonderfully diverse group of religious leaders gathered with common purpose in God’s name. This is really faith in action. Here is a link to an article in the Nation ezine that has a video of us moving out to visit the Congresspersons.

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We stood in the hallways singing quietly while Sister Simone met with various members of Congress.  She was to meet with some who supported sending forward a clean continuing resolution (which would stop the shutdown) as well as with some members who opposed it (the ones keeping the government in shutdown mode).  Some of them were friendly enough, like Representative Frank Wolf  (northern Virginia), who came out to greet the religious leaders….he supports ending the shutdown.  Others met with her.  Still others, like Eric Cantor (also of Virginia) weren’t available.

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My favorite moment was when the Jewish Priests, who spent time talking to Eric Cantor’s receptionist, ended the discussion by blowing a Shofar, a traditional Jewish horn like the one that Joshua used in the battle of Jericho. That’s what I call making some noise! Another favorite moment was a conversation I had with one of the security guards, who had a time trying to get the group to keep a path down the hallway and not sing too loud.  He was walking beside me when he said he loved to sing in his church choir.  I told him he could sing along with us–he said he shouldn’t because his voice was so loud that they always put him in the back of the choir. Then, as we headed down the stairs, he broke out singing with us–and yes, he has a nice voice.

I applaud Faithful America and its low-profile Executive Director, Michael Sherrard (here is the only information about him that I could find online), Sister Campbell, and Faith in Public Life, because they are truly in the business of putting their faith into action…and that’s the kind of mustard seed faith that can move mountains. Matthew 17: 20-21.

When we returned home, I learned that just about the time we were there was when Congress again failed to reach an agreement, giving the responsibility of working out a plan back to the Senate.  And as you all know by now, the Senate completed the job, those causing the scandalous shutdown and possible default were defeated, and late last evening our President signed the bill into action. God works in wondrous ways.

Yet, it is not a time for celebration. According to Elizabeth Warren this outrageous act of a few bullies in Congress has cost the American people approximately $24 billion.  I really believe these bullies are not thinking of what’s best for America and that they must have a secret agenda.  Am I the only one who thinks they’re really foreign undercover operatives whose goal is to bring down this country?  I guess I’ve watched too many 007 movies.

I just hope and pray that God gives ‘ears to hear’ to these people who are hellbent on hurting America and who claim they are doing it because they don’t like the Affordable Care Act, which, contrary to what they repeatedly say, has been amply approved by the American people.

If you’d like to comment to this post, please click the little balloon at the top and you’ll 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.

Reflections on the March on Washington 50th Anniversary

My husband Bill and I were involved in a number of the many activities that took place commemorating the 1963 March on Washington.  What a blessing to be here in the District of Columbia to participate.  Here are some snapshots:

Most Moving

On Friday the 23rd, we attended an event presented by The Mamie Till Mobley Memorial & Trayvon Martin Foundations, and it was called “Civil Rights, Human Wrongs, and the Charge for Youth Leadership.” It featured a film by Keith Beauchamp, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” which had been updated to include a bit about the Trayvon Martin case, followed by a panel discussion with Emmett Till’s family and the parents of Trayvon Martin.

I am aware of how awful the murder of Emmett Till was, but it wasn’t until I saw the film, which took us through the ensuing trial and release of the murderers, that it really hit home to me how horrendous life was for black people living in the South in those days.  I thank my parents for moving from their home in Mississippi to raise us up in relatively safer northern Illinois.  Even though I experienced segregation and some hate growing up, it was nothing like the deep south. I was also moved by the strength of Emmett Till’s mother, for without her willingness to display the body of her son so brutally beaten and butchered, the murder would have passed by unnoticed by most of the rest of this country.

I am absolutely moved by the grace and strength of Mr. and Mrs. Martin and their younger son as they share the case of Trayvon’s murder with the world.  They have taken up the mantle just like Emmett Till’s mother, and have helped to make it clear to this country that laws like the Stand Your Ground Laws and the Stop and Frisk laws are tools that are used to target and brutalize people of color, especially our young men.

Most Inspirational

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Bill and I had decided we could not handle being out in the sun and on our feet from 8 am to 4 pm at the Saturday March for Jobs and Justice, so we waited until about 11 am to go.  I wasn’t sure if many people would attend–I just hoped there would be enough people to make a statement.  But even at that late time, we found the subway packed with people of all ages and races still on the way. Having to stand in line to get out of the subway moved me to tears.

On our way to the Lincoln Memorial, we saw a stream of people leaving, even though the crowd coming in was much larger.  Bill stopped to ask one woman why they were leaving, and the older woman said she’d been there since 6:30 am.  I’m convinced that there were more people there that day than could be counted, because the crowds were coming and going like that all day long.

I heard Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped to organize the 1963 march, on a radio interview say that they had no idea how many people to expect when they planned that first march. Can you imagine how the organizers must have felt when they stood on the steps of the LIncoln Memorial and saw the great crowd of witnesses pouring in? The people have spoken!

Most Fun

On the way to the Lincoln Memorial in that first march, we found ourselves behind a group IMG_0174of United Auto Workers who were chanting and marching, so after a while we began to chant and march right along with them!  On the way back from the Lincoln Memorial, we were provided with some wonderfully jazzy music.  At one point, while waiting for the crowd to move forward, a white man in front of me began to kind of bounce, and another, older white man on the side started dancing, so I said “Let’s get it on” and started dancing, too, and so did a few of the other folks.  What fun!

Most thought-provoking

On Tuesday, we went to a panel discussion hosted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action entitled “Climate of Suspicion: The Criminalization of Race in America.” One of the panelists was Reverend Gil Caldwell, a good friend of Bill’s.  The discussion centered around the mass incarceration of people of color, so you know Bill and I were right at home.  Rev. Caldwell provided the necessary theological reflections for people of faith, Charles Thornton discussed his experience as a youth with no guidance, ending up in prison for 10 years for distributing an illegal drug before he was old enough to make a life for himself, and Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU, provided statistics and some information on actions.  This was an excellent panel, but what was most thought-provoking for me was our conversation with some of the other people there who were members of the MFSA.

We ate with a small group of them after the discussion before heading over to Asbury United Methodist church for a worship service.  We shared common concerns, with Gil helping to keep us focused on the larger moral, cultural and theological pictures.  One thought that came to me as we talked about greed being such a major cause of injustice is that maybe we ought to start being more intentional about teaching our children a better attitude towards money and materialism. Someone at that table suggested that the church is the place where that should happen.

I woke up the next morning, on the day of the commemorative march, with my mind on a phrase from our Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which had been sung several times throughout the various events):  “lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.” Has the Christian church in the U.S. become drunk with the wine of materialism and greed without realizing it?  Food for thought.

Most Uplifting

We attended the Interfaith Service at Shiloh Baptist on Thursday morning before heading out to the commemorative march.  I was so happy to be there in a church packed with people of different faiths, ages and races, hearing from the march leaders and  blessed with star performances by the Shiloh Baptist Choir, the Children of the Gospel Choir, the Voices of Freedom, Lydia and Latrice Pace (who rocked the house with their song “There’s a King in You”) and the fantastic Angella Christie, who praised God on the saxophone in her rendition of “Total Praise” (If you’ve never heard of her, you ought to check her out).

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The discussion between Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. and his son, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III was absolutely wonderful!  The father passed the torch on to the son, symbolically climbing up stairs towards justice.  Those on the journey haven’t got to the top of the stairs, but the older ones have gone as high as they can climb. They must stop at their landing, having done much to break the bonds of racism and hatred, but now it is time for the younger leaders to move on up the stairs from that landing into the direction the stairs are leading today:  voting registration laws, stand your ground laws, mass incarceration of our youth, public school funding….you know the list.  You can see the whole of this wonderful service by clicking here.

Most Inspirational (part 2)

To our surprise again, the March on Thursday the 28th was just as packed as the first, even though the threat of rain pervaded the day. It was so packed that we decided not to wait the hours it would have taken to get through the security checkpoint.  We made our statement by attending for a while, then we went back home to watch our President’s Speech on TV. While he was inspiring, as usual, I had hoped he would provide some concrete plans or legislation that would help deal with the issues we’re facing.  But the more I thought about what he said, the more I got what he was saying.  He’s telling us that it’s up to us to make the difference that we need to make.  It’s up to the people to not only march, but to take the necessary action to make change happen, like Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders did in 1963.

We’ve spoken with our feet.  Now we need to speak through our email and internet presence, through our letters and phone calls to federal, state and local representatives, through our community activities and our continued engagement with each other. Now we must speak truth to move the “powers that be” to make this wonderful country live up to it’s Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Amen.

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.

 

 

 

 

Where We Come In

It seems to me that reports about horrible atrocities committed by humans against humans in our country have been peculiarly abundant over the past few months.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the U.S. is not a great place to live compared to many other countries, especially those places where brutal war and corruption are commonplace.  One of the good things to know is that atrocities still make the news here, which means they are not common. So in a round about way these reports help us know that we are pretty well off.

The three recent big ones–the horrible shooting of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown Connecticut in December, the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April killing 6 people and injuring 264, and the discovery of three young girls held in brutal captivity for over 10 years–are enough to make anyone with a heart shudder and cry. Add to that the numerous other smaller crimes, such as the police officer who was brutally shot down when he walked up to a car that he had pulled over, and the 5 year old who accidentally shot his two year old sister with a “kiddie” gun given to him by his parents. I’m not sure which I consider the most egregious, making a “kiddie” gun or loading it and giving it to a 5 year old …. both are horrific to me.

Doesn’t all this just make you just want to holler! While hollering does help relieve our frustration and anger, it doesn’t do much to help the situation.

One of the things that really touched me was when one of the teachers in Newtown told the children that they had to hide because there was a bad guy out there and they had to wait until the good guys came. She knew the good guys were coming, it was just a matter of time.  She knew that whoever was shooting would not be allowed to continue it without someone stepping up to stop the madness.

That’s the good thing about our country–we will not let the madness continue. And the good guys will come.  Like those policemen who rescued so many of the children in Newtown, like those folks in the Boston bombings who ran to help the injured instead of running away to save themselves, and like Charles Ramsey, who responded to calls of help and broke through the door, ending a decade of abuse for three young women.  The good guys will come.

Most of us who are followers of Christ, no matter what form that following may take, consider ourselves to be the good guys. (I’d like to say all of us, but I can’t be sure of that!)  It doesn’t matter whether we’re Roman Catholics or Non-denominational, whether we’re Episcopal or Pentecostals, whether we’re Baptist or simply believers who are “spiritual but not religious.”  We all consider ourselves to be the good guys.  And if we are, we must wrestle with where we are to come in.  What do we do as the “good guys” to make ourselves known? When do we don our “white hats” (a metaphor I don’t like, but it makes the point), and take actions to deal with such troubling situations?

I know some of us will always help out with a hand out, some will serve as mentors and helpers and others will be kind to anyone who is in trouble. But is this kind of help enough?  When we find ourselves faced with atrocities like the ones we’re seeing too much of lately, we need to ask the harder, deeper questions to determine what in our society might be contributing to the situation.  We need to address the structural causes, such as the need for more research and funding to support mental health; dealing honestly and intentionally with the negative image of our nation and our nation’s predominant faith, Christianity, that is held in the minds of so many people in other countries, especially “third world” nations; and deciding whether our country’s founders intended to protect the “right” of people to keep and carry the kind of  semi-automatic weapons that cause such mass destruction. These are the bigger issues, the foundational issues we need to address if we are to make this country even better than it already is.

Our job as Christians is to try to see the world around us through God’s eyes.  When we do, we will always look for the underlying causes of evil in this world, we will always seek more justice and righteousness and we will always be led by love and grace. And we will  act–we will come in–to deal with the situation.  If we really are the good guys….

 

 

 

The Victims of Poverty

I remember thinking, when my first grandchild was born, about how new babies bring with them so much new love into the world.  I felt that same love for my children and many other babies as well, but for some reason it was that first grandchild, over whom we profusely “ooh-ed and ah-ed,” who really connected me to the thought that this is one way God brings more love into the world. The thing about babies is that they are so beautiful and yet so very vulnerable.  What a great responsibility it is to care for a fragile, tiny being who cannot survive without our help!  It’s hard enough for a family with sufficient monetary means to raise a child, but for parents who struggle to make it in life, raising a child successfully becomes much more difficult.

As our society advances further into the information age, or digital age, as some call it, workers must compete more and more for professional jobs (engineers, doctors, teachers, etc.) or settle for low wage service jobs. And in the competition of a globalized economy, the wages for service jobs are no longer sufficient for raising a family. Many families are already left behind as the market has shifted from industrialization to information.  Education is the key for their children to compete successfully, but studies have shown that children born into poverty will need twice as much financial support to successfully compete with children born into more affluent families. That’s support these families can’t provide.

Often when I talk about the need for schools to provide stronger support systems for poor children, the response I get is that the family needs to do more.  I agree that families should be involved in their children’s education–they should help the children with their homework and participate in school activities and work alongside the teachers to help their children succeed.  But too often they just don’t, or they won’t, for reasons that run the gamut from never having had that role model in their own lives, to working more than one job to bring the food into the house, to having some kind of health problem or being caught up in drugs or some form of addiction that disables them.  These are the children whose parents either will not or can not help them succeed, no matter how much they may love them.

The result is that children who do not receive the additional support are likely to  drop out of school.  And they will end up in jail. Nowhere is this seen more blatantly than in the lives of black boys born in inner-city poverty stricken neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation for Public Education publishes data on the outcomes for Black males in public education, called “The Urgency of Now.”  They report that in 2009-10 the national graduation rate for Black male students was 52%. This sadly low number is a new high, and for the first time was more than half.  These numbers include a higher graduation rate for black students who are in more affluent high schools, which indicates that: “…Black males, on average, perform better in places and spaces where they are not relegated to under-resourced districts or schools. When provided similar opportunities they are more likely to produce similar or better outcomes as their White male peers.” You can access their latest report here:  http://blackboysreport.org/national-summary/preface

Tavis Smiley produced an excellent documentary, recently broadcast on PBS, on the problems many of our inner city black boys face, entitled “Too Important to Fail.”  These children come from impoverished families and broken school systems, where “zero tolerance” and juvenile detention feeds too many of them into the prison system.  He interviews several educators who have dedicated their lives to helping black boys succeed, as well as several of the boys.

Here is a bit of the information he provides:

  • We begin to lose students in school around the 3rd Grade, when they move from learning to read to reading to learn. If children don’t master reading by the 1st grade, they will have less than a 20% chance of graduating high school.
  • The children are victims of societal problems that they have no control over, such as drugs and violence in their neighborhoods and lack of health care, and the schools must provide social services to bring stability in their lives if they are to succeed.
  • Extracurricular activities that keep the children off the streets are extremely important.
  • The children need teachers who care, and show it, and who fully expect the children to succeed.
  • They need curricula and teachers they can relate to.
  • They need role models, because, as one of the children in juvenile detention put it, “Without a role model, you just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
  • For some of these children, prison is what’s normal in their neighborhood.

You can see the show online at:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/

If “prison is what’s normal” for these children, then they are achieving what is expected of them.  I would hope that we would expect so much more.  Yet, states are less willing to spend more money on schools, while spending more and more money on prison systems. When school budgets drop, services for students are dismissed first. The saddest thing about this is that investing in the children while they are small is clearly much more economical for states than putting and keeping our young men in prison.

The Church needs to use her prophetic voice to speak the truth about this to those in power, in order to save these children’s lives.

I’d love your comments!  Next week:  Whose making money by putting our children in prison?

A Stellar Model for Action

When my husband Bill and I were based in Chicago, we became involved with the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based organization that focuses on race and poverty issues.  CRS is a stellar model of churches organizing for social action.

Here’s how their website, www.communityrenewalsociety.org, describes what  they do: “Community Renewal Society works to empower individuals, community-based organizations and congregations to advocate for social and economic justice. Through its pioneering efforts, Community Renewal Society moves civic and religious leaders to take action on issues of racism and poverty.”

CRS publishes two newsmagazines that help to research and identify issues of concern, providing fodder for community action.  Catalyst Chicago focuses on public education, and The Chicago Reporter focuses on race and poverty issues. The CRS Civic Action Network provides advocacy training and organizes individuals from an ecumenical group of over 50 churches to take action.

Bill worked with a group that sought equality in nursing home care for homes located in the poor and primarily African American south side of Chicago. The Chicago Reporter found that nursing homes owned by one company provided higher quality services for the homes it ran in predominantly white neighborhoods than for those it ran in predominantly black neighborhoods. With publicity, that campaign was successful.

Both Bill and I worked with a group that challenged the Illinois General Assembly to provide adequate funding for the public school system.  At that time, Illinois was the 4th richest state in the United States, but it ranked next to last among the states in the amount of state funding provided for public schools.  Public school financing in Illinois is predominantly based on real estate taxes, resulting in a large disparity in the amount of money available for public schools among the rich and poor neighborhoods.  Studies show that children from poor and broken families need twice as much funding for their educational support than do the children from families with better resources. Illinois’ system provides the opposite.

We also advocated for the Chicago Public School system to stop expelling minority boys from school at a much higher rate than other children. An investigative report showed that the CPS policy on expelling children related directly to the number of children who ended up in the correctional system–i.e., that’s where the “poverty to prison” pipeline begins, and also where, with some effort, I believe it could be ended.

What fond memories I have of some of the elders of our congregation getting on a bus with people from all over the city to go down to the State Capitol in Springfield and advocate for equality in nursing home care.  How great it felt to participate in a rally outside of the Illinois Capitol building and find out that the legislators really were paying attention.  How inspired I was when we gathered hands in the rotunda of the Capitol Building to sing hymns and pray, and some of the lobbyists and legislators joined with us. How invigorating to converse on topics of importance with state Senators and Representatives, even though sometimes it seemed like we were talking to brick walls.

Too many of our young people today think that church is not relevant.  Seeing churches in action and making a difference in the society may be just what they need to become more involved.  I applaud the Community Renewal Society and the young people who work there.  I especially appreciate the lead organizer, Alex Wiesendanger, for his superb leadership and organizing efforts, and I offer my sincere gratitude for the leadership of Rev. Dr. Calvin Morris, who retired last year as the Executive Director.

If some of you have had similar experiences with faith-based community groups, I’d love to hear about them.