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!

 

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.

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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Is Poverty Inevitable?

I’m a Star Trek fan. Yes, I admit it. I wouldn’t actually call myself a “Trekkie,” wouldn’t dare dress like Lieutenant Uhura or attend a Star Trek convention. But I’m a fan. I love to watch the tv series and movie reruns. My all-time favorite Star Trek quote is made by an alien, beautifully made of pure crystal. When the crew is finally able to decipher what the angry crystal being is saying, it calls the humans: “You ugly bags of mostly water.” I can see how a crystal alien would see us like that.

I like shows that help us to imagine the future. To do that you have to pay attention to what’s happening now and imagine how the now might become better, or worse. Many of the futuristic technical ideas on shows like Star Trek have become reality, like laser technology. Maybe one day we’ll say “Beam me up, Scottie” and get transported!

The reason I’m going on about Star Trek is that in the future envisioned by the writers of the show, there is no longer any poverty. There also isn’t any more war or any use for money, either. But the idea that at some point we could actually become such a progressive society that we could eliminate poverty is quite intriguing to me. Poverty seems to be so ingrained in the fabric of our society that most people don’t think about a future without it. Poverty just seems to be an inevitable fact of life.

Having come of age during the 60’s, I remember well as a young black girl how racism felt inevitable. In our suburb outside of Chicago, the African American children all were assigned to one school and we all lived within a few designated blocks. When a few of the families moved out of our area and had to attend “white” schools, we cried. I was called the “n” word more than a few times by people who didn’t like my skin color. I went to a summer camp and the white girls wouldn’t do activities with me. The “black” night at the skating rink was on Mondays. And so on…

Racial hatred was just a part of the way things were, and we learned to deal with it. It never occurred to me that things could change until segregation was challenged by Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and all those brave souls who stood up against the injustice of it all. I imagine that slavery must have felt inevitable like that, too, until brave souls saw it as an abomination and stood up against the injustice of it all.

We’re not all born with equal capabilities, but we are all born as beautiful children, all loved equally by God. 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. We have to believe that gaining more and more material wealth for ourselves while others go hungry or don’t have a place to live is an abomination, as abhorrent and backwards as racial hatred and slavery.  We have to believe that poverty is a tragic waste of human resources and gifts that hold the potential to benefit us all.

To eliminate poverty we’ll need some brave souls to take the kind of radical actions that will make others pay attention and stand against the injustice of it all. Radical actions, kind of like Jesus taught us when he told us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and give to others whenever they ask. Would Jesus accept poverty as inevitable? Some people think so, because He said to the disciples “You will always have the poor with you.” That’s the topic of next week’s blog.