Friday, June 19, 2009

Spreading the Gospel in Poor Communities - Part III

Julie Lyon's analysis that the answer to the issues plaguing South Dallas is a matter of personal conversion and that 'spiritual problems have spiritual solutions' has more than a little merit. Certainly no Baptist preacher would deny the role of personal spiritual transformation in turning lives around. 

But I confess to a problem with idea that the reason why poor communities continue to be poor is due merely to the sinfulness of the poor. The very idea that salvation is a prerequisite for prosperous, or even honorable living is a pretty fallacious one. Extrapolate that logic and one has to conclude that everyone in Highland Park is saved and there is are no addictions, corruption or immorality there. 

Spiritual problems do indeed call for spiritual solutions - but not simplistic ones.

This may come as a surprise to a number of people who read her op-ed and interview, but there really are Christians living in South Dallas. They were sustained by their faith in during dark days of segregation and bigotry when they worked menial jobs as domestics and manual laborers. They were the founders of many of the older churches in South Dallas and other poor areas. So its not as if there is a need to move Christians into South Dallas to 'save' it. 

If the Dallas Morning News, or anyone else for that matter, is going to explore the spirituality of those who live in poverty, then we also have to look at the spirituality of a city that allows that poverty to exist and in many cases exacerbates it. 

  • The 300 liquor related businesses in South Dallas (and the idea that we are appalled to find  alcoholism in South Dallas)
  • Schools that train students to take tests, but fail to educate them
  • Generational racism, bigotry and oppression and its crippling social, economic, psychological and spiritual impact on the lives of those upon whom its visited
  • The chop shops, smoke houses and crack houses that any 10 year old can point out, but that the police can't close down
  • Decades of over investment in North Dallas and collateral disinvestment in South Dallas
  • The hopelessness and despair that result from isolation from the rest of the city and contribute to the poor choices of youth and adults
  • Neighborhoods scarred and separated by highways, polluted with the noise of heavy traffic and made undesirable by industrial commercial usage
  • The awful tragedy of homelessness
If the personal failings of some of those who live in South Dallas call for casting out demons, how much more are these systemic, social and institutional failings 'demonic' and sinful in their nature and their impact?

All of these are problems that plague South Dallas. The solutions are political, economic and, yes, 'spiritual', because they go to the heart of what we think about people and how they deserve to live. These issues and many more characterize these communities of concentrated poverty  and are, by their existence, testimonies to what we believe about justice, love and brotherhood. 

When I preach in South Dallas (I still do, but not as often), I along with my peers exhort and admonish our congregants regarding the need to live responsible lives; lives which transcend the pathologies of the community many of them called home. I came to call it 'the Gospel to the Projects'.

But over time, I came to understand that that is not all there is to the Good News. Its not just liberation from histories and habits of sin associated with sexual promiscuity, addiction and crime among poor people in poor communities. I began to wonder, who was preaching the gospel to the decision makers of Dallas? Who was reminding them of their responsibility to be just and fair with the wealth, power and influence they had? Who was sharing them the good news about God's concern for the poor - not just in ways that made them objects of charity and mission projects, but in ways that addressed the systemic issues through public policy, economics and justice? Who was casting out their 'demons' of greed, materialism and the isolation of willful ignorance of and indifference to human suffering and purposelessness? 

Who was preaching the Gospel to the Penthouse?

And, in light of last week's op-ed and interview, who is talking to them about what their faith says about their engagement in transforming the poorest of our city's neighborhoods? Where is their Julie Lyons?

Our challenge is to build a greater  city together, by building community across this city and overcoming the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and simplistic reasonings by which we  avoid the fact that South Dallas was created by the entire city. Its easy to say that the answer lies in the conversion of the addicted and the immoral. Its much more difficult to come to grips with the fact that the answer lies in the spiritual sensitivity of each of us. 

Its much easier to absolve ourselves of public responsibilities by pointing to the merit of the poor based on their 'morality'. Its much more difficult to realize that our attitudes towards them reveal our own spiritual condition. 

Ultimately it shows that we too are in need of hearing 'good news'...


Lorlee said...

What a wise commentary. I found myself offended last week with the "unless you are saved" rationalization.

(You and I served on the URSB together, I believe).

Gerald Britt said...


Indeed we were on the URSB together. Thanks for reading and taking the time to write...