Thursday, April 30, 2009

Applause But No Standing 'O'

Arlen Spector's defection to the Democratic Party is interesting to say the least!

Although, if he keeps this up, some of us may like him better as a Republican...

"A day after abandoning the Republican Party for the Democrats, saying the latter better represented his political philosophy, Specter voted against President Obama's budget -- which he and other Democrats have described as a manifestation of the party's political philosophy."
Read more here.

You can read my column in the Dallas Morning News here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

100 Days and Counting

One hundred days! ALREADY?! My how time flies! And they said it wouldn't last! Got anymore cliche's?

To be honest, I thought the clock started ticking on President Obama's term on November 5th!

Allow me to take a pass on grading the past the President's performance since January. Allow me to simply say that what I have seen in the Obama administration is promise.
Obama came into office deciding not merely take on a broken economy, but to rebuild the foundation on which the economy is built.

Through his American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, he has attempted to jump start the
flow of commerce. We haven't begun to see the full result yet, although we are beginning to see a few faint signs of health.
Yes he was a little slow to tackle the banking industry; the AIG issue left some of us scratching our heads, the housing industry is moving at a glacial pace and unemployment is still rising. But, again, it is 100 days and I don't think most reasonable people didn't expect the ship of state to be righted after a shade less than 3 1/2 months. He has dealt with the issue of torture, it's role in the current warfare and responsibility of the previous administration could probably be handled, shall we say, more artfully.

Across the globe Obama's effort to reach out to alienated allies was indeed a sharp departure from previous' president's 'walk hard and carry a big stick' foreign policy stances. But those who complain about that might need to remember is that our economic woes are being blamed for the fiscal doldrums of the rest of the world. We are still engaged in two wars that are no longer popular at home and at which the world looks askance. We get a certain amount stroke because we are still America, but we've spent some capital in that area that has to be rebuilt. But its amazing that he's gotten criticism for being - well, engaging.

Is it a bad thing that foreign policy begin by getting current and prospective allies to actually like us?!

But I'm expecting neither perfection, daily amazement, nor total agreement. Here's the thing about President Obama that I find most promising. We saw it throughout the campaign: he grows into every role in which he finds himself.

He is taking on a lot of issues. The prevailing wisdom is that the first 100 days is the period during which a president establishes priorities and lays the basis for getting things done throughout the rest of his term. This president appears to have taken this to heart. But in taking on all of these issues, making the mistakes, recovering in ways that continue to inspire confidence in his leadership by most Americans, trying to fulfill as many of his campaign promises as possible, the president is showing that he intends to transcend what almost became his official title for awhile after January 20 - that of the first black President of the United States.

He's showing that he intends to be 44th President of the United States of America. To me that's been the best part of these past 100 days.

My how time flies!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Valid Critique - But its Early!

An interesting criticism of the Obama administration's first 100 days. His promise of aid for urban areas hasn't materialized as some had hoped. It seems the "White House Office for Urban Policy" is leaving something to be desired.

"When the office was officially formed in mid-February, urbanists rejoiced: “It’s past time,” said Elnora Watson, president of the Urban League in Jersey City, N.J., as she walked the halls of Congress recently. “Way past time,” added Ella Teal, another Urban League president from the neighboring city of Elizabeth. “Cities will lead America,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said at an April speech on city government in Washington. “When it comes to industry, innovation, education and the arts … cities are where it’s at.”"

"But celebrations about the potential triumph of urban policy may be premature. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has begun referring to the office as “urban affairs,” rather than “urban policy,” a small but notable downgrade."

Unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, failing businesses and schools, along with home foreclosures still need the intense focus of Washington, if we are to pull out of this recession. And while the president's efforts to deal with the economy are yielding some results, we can't afford to see him neglect or inadequately tend to our cities.

The Root's Dayo Olopade has a point, "Symbolism alone will not solve all of the pressing issues facing American cities. But many urban interest groups retain high hopes for the new office. “We’re all waiting and watching,” says Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, president of Green for All, which promotes green jobs for people of color. “For issues like retrofitting and weatherization, we need that office to be successful.” Team Obama is rarely shy about advertising its own successes. And the White House will undoubtedly hype several legislative and diplomatic victories during the 100-day sprint. So it’s worth waiting and watching to see if cities are indeed “the solution”—or if substantive, transformational change remains an urban legend."

But let's remember, President Obama has more than 100 days!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Little Something for West Wing Fans

It's Sunday, and this video is not 'religious', I know.

But there is something profoundly 'spiritual' about the point where the hopes and dreams of ordinary people inform the judgement of those who make decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their families.

Those of us who lead institutions or influence them, have a responsibility not to forget people like this man at the bar. True greatness is achieved by those who work to make lives like his (and the lives of those who are trying to get where he is) better.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Thurgood Marshall
1908 - 1993
Chief Counsel for NAACP (1940-1961), Federal Judge Second Circuit Appelate Court (1961-1965), Solicitor General (1965-1967), Supreme Court Associate Justice (1967-1993)

"In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Step in the Right Direction

The reintroduction of the DREAM Act, provides the country with an opportunity for a serious debate about real immigration reform. I think passage of the DREAM Act is an important preliminary step. It makes no sense, and it is highly unfair, to send children to a land that they do not know, nor to which they have any allegiance.

It also makes no economic sense. These are young people in whose education, health and welfare, we have already invested. What sense does it make to increase the asset that they can be to this country by allowing them a pathway to citizenship that include further education or even service in the military? These are not children we don't know. They are graduates of our high schools (in some cases valedictorians or salutatorians), they have stayed out of trouble and only look for a chance to make a contribution to the country that they have called home virtually all their lives.

Don't want the DREAM Act? Preliminary steps are only necessary because you don't make hard choices. A real, sane, pragmatic immigration reform policy would make it unnecessary.

Until our lawmakers are willing to do that, the DREAM Act is the most sensible thing on the table.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Accomplishing the Mission - But at Whose Expense?

The mission to be accomplished by public schools, is to educate every child. In Dallas, as in every other major city, that has take extraordinary effort. The establishment of learning centers in predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods, was an effort to address racial disparities in completing that mission.

Are they now to be considered an unaffordable luxury?

Apparently, there is some discussion questioning the need for them. Learning Centers were created under the old desegregation order that was done away with when a federal court declared that DISD had declared 'unitary' status in 2003 (50 years after the Supreme Court Decision ordering desegregation with 'all deliberate speed'). Learning Centers have additional resources, smaller class sizes and educational enhancements that other schools don't have - before and after school and extended day programs, as well as community liaisons.

The 'overfunding' of learning centers threaten the district's ability to access President Obama's stimulus allocation for public schools and apparently jeopardizes DISD's Title I funding also.

Of course, there also appears to be more than one side to the story. According to school board trustee Carla Ranger, the district can obtain a waiver to avoid the equitable funding issue. Ms. Ranger says that the Texas Education Agency has awarded these waivers every year since 2003.

There are all sorts of reasons NOT to provide funding for schools to address racial disparities. Especially if you limit the racial disparity question to mere numbers. DISD is 'desegregated' as are most big city public schools because the majority of students are minority. And, at the risk of oversimplification, the rationale that Learning Centers have not produced demonstrable or appreciable improvement in grades and test scores, could be addressed by looking at how the funding 'disparity' is being allocated. Is the district paying more money to more experienced and effective teachers to teach in these schools, for example? What innovative teaching programs and what new technology is being employed to produce the desired results? And is the 'overfunding' being used to address the fact that many of these schools are in areas of concentrated poverty?

Equally problematic is the prospect of exacerbating tensions between black and brown communities, since most of these learning centers are located in predominantly black neighborhoods. By appearing not to do everything he can to preserve this funding, Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent, could be courting more conflict than is worth the $105 million the district would reportedly gain.

School board president, Jack Lowe, as do others, see this as a matter of 'fairness'. It took more than 30 years for DISD to realize that Supreme Court rulings and federal law actually applied to our public schools as well as the rest of the country. Now the district sees the fierce urgency of 'fairness'.

Why not argue for a change in state law? Why not hold up the commitments made by the district when it was released from judicial oversight? Where did the idea come from that laws and policy were so immutable? This is the same school board that risked violating state law in order to extend their terms of office without consulting the state attorney general's office. This same district can't look to change a policy that would so drastically impact schools which they say aren't doing well in spite of extra funding?

There are two things about this that trouble me: one is to have adults who have not fully thought out the consequences of unitary status. Anyone who thought that gains under federal court oversight wouldn't be challenged once that oversight was removed, and had no strategy to address that challenge was living in a fantasy world. Secondly, it disturbs me that a district facing fiscal choices in the wake of last year's $84 million fiasco, would be so irresponsible. Why would anyone even think of facing the choice between schools in poor neighborhoods losing any funding, or the district losing Title I funding and stimulus money? Why on earth isn't anyone pushing to keep every dime we have? Whose job is it to look for, create, lobby for, or beg for whatever exemptions on whatever basis necessary?

We may not like the fact that race and economics play a part in the education of our children, but they do. And we cannot educate the children we would like to have. We've got to educate the ones we have. We need every dime that we can lay our hands on to do accomplish that. The only thing really 'unfair' is not being aggressive in that pursuit.

Unless, of course, we think we've accomplished the mission.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ode to the Courage of Self Awareness

I Know My Soul
Claude McKay

I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I'm comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Prayer (Breakfast) Time!

Just a final heads up.

At 7:15, tomorrow morning (Tuesday, April 21st) at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas, Central Dallas Ministries will be hosting its 14th Annual Urban Ministries Prayer Breakfast.

This is an opportunity for CDM to share with the city, the values and heart of our organization and engage our neighbors from every community in seeking God's Will, His Peace and His Justice for the city.

This year's guest speaker will be Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, whose commitment to justice has been highlighted throughout the country. Watkins is the first African-American D.A. in the history of Dallas County and has gained national attention for his pursuit of justice for the wrongfully incarcerated. There are at least 20 men, who, through the efforts of D.A. Watkins, have been exonerated of crime for which they have been erroneously convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. A portion of the morning's program will highlight the work that Central Dallas Ministries has been privileged to do with these exonerees, the Innocence Project of Texas and others, to help these men transition back into our community.

The pursuit of justice is an integral part of CDM's work and informs and inspires our efforts for not only these men, but in the areas of hunger, health, housig and hope. It's challenging, it is a work that many of our staff, volunteers and supporters are engaged. Saturating this work in prayer, helps us endures the difficulties sometimes associated with it.
Join us tomorrow morning, won't you? And, by the way, whether you can be with us or not, please remember to pray for us!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Is America a Christian Nation?

Not long ago, I posted commentary regarding Newsweek's article on the 'decline' of Christianity in America. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of people identifying themselves as 'Christian' is falling. I think there are a number of reasons for this, and most of it really has to do with the way the church - right and left, conservative and progressive - has participated in the public square (among other things).

However, it begs the question, "Just how 'Christian' is America anyway?" There are some believers who are convinced that America was founded by Christians and as such is in some way representative of a 'chosen people'. Others who may not believe so extremely, but who believe that only explicitly Christian values are relevant in our culture and mores.

A few weeks ago, President Barak Obama caused a stir when he said that, "America is not a Christian nation..." Lost in all of the criticism was the fact that he also said that America was neither a Jewish nation, or a Muslim nation. It was, he said, a nation bound together by its ideals and its values. Obviously, the president wasn't teaching a Sunday School lesson. He was making a statement regarding this country's place in the world and how interviews itself politically and globally. In short, its still safe to go to church. And its still perfectly fine to celebrate Christian contributions to our culture and society. But we also have to make sure that we make this nation a place that makes room for others who don't believe as we do. That includes, I might add, other Christians!

It's an interesting debate and can be quite an awakening to those who are open minded. Take for example, what Brian McLaren, pastor, progressive Christian thought leader and activist, says,

"I agree wholeheartedly with historian Richard Hughes, author of "Myths America Lives By" and of the upcoming "Christian America and the Kingdom of God." When we in the US flatter ourselves with a mythologized national identity -- seeing ourselves as the Chosen Nation, as Nature's Nation, as a Christian Nation, as a Millennial Nation, and as an Innocent Nation -- we make it more likely not only that we will behave unjustly, but that we will be ignorant and un-self-aware as we do so. So I was glad when President Obama simply told the truth."

"When people tell me that we are or have been a Christian nation, I want to ask, "When?" Was it in the colonial era or during westward expansion, when we began stealing the lands of the Native Americans, making and breaking treaties, killing wantonly, and justifying our actions by the Bible? Was it in the era of slavery or segregation, when again, we used the Bible to justify the unjustifiable?"

Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries and a former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, has a more nuanced traditional perspective than MacLaren's.

"As for America being a Christian nation, a simple yes or no doesn't cut it. We were established as a free pluralistic society with a clear separation of church and state. But the body of English common law, along with the general consensus of the people, both largely informed by Judeo-Christian revelation, were the underpinnings of this free society. To forget this fact -- or worse, deny it -- is to imperil our freedom."

"Simplistic slogans, whether from the right or the left, do a disservice to the genius of our founders and to 233 years of history and tradition."

The thing is there are intelligent perspectives on both sides. And there is room for the conflicting perspectives beneath the surface. Where we get in trouble with this question is when we try and ignore the ironies and contradictions that go along with answering 'yes' or 'no'. And when Christians, without perspective, seek to answer the question in a way that makes a state's religious orientation a substitute or an excuse for their own behavior, attitude, or the evasion of our responsibilities.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

George Washington Carver
circa 1864 - 1943

Scientist, Educator, Humanitarian

"How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Quite a Challenge

"The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vice hubris, power worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not underestimate importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul's teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power."

Deitrich Bonhoffer
Outline for a Book
Letters & Papers From Prison

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sometimes Getting in Trouble is a Good Thing

You're right, that's a younger me in this picture. The youth and children are kids who were a few of the members of our church who were a part of our youth and children's ministry. The young lady on the end is Margi Taylor. She was the director of our youth ministry.

But this is also a picture of me getting in trouble!

This picture was taken on a Monday I believe, after we had celebrated our first Annual Youth Day after I became pastor. For those not familiar with an Annual Day in the Black church, it is a day in which a sponsoring ministry provides a special program (traditionally on a Sunday afternoon), with visiting churches, guest choirs and a guest preacher. And, also according to tradition, the offering goes to supplement the church's budget.

This is me leading our young people in breaking tradition.

You see, at that time, we really had no ministries that reached out to the poor. So, when people needed can goods, jobs, help with utilities, etc., we would refer them to other agencies. But we didn't provide any support to any of the agencies to which we referred people.

This is me making the decision that it had to change.

Our youth had raised $500 (remember, this is a small church, a little more than 25 years ago) on their Annual Day. I made the decision that the money should go to the Bethlehem Foundation, a non-profit started by another African-American church in Dallas which had helped our members, as well as others we referred to them. There were a few deacons and trustees who shared their 26 year old pastor's view. They were the young ones - the fathers of some of the kids in the photo.

So we gave the $500 to the Bethlehem Foundation. The young lady accepting the check (I can't remember her name, but she died some time ago), was a staff member there. They couldn't come on that Sunday, so they came Monday and we had a presentation with some of the kids whose parents brought them back for the presentation.

There were some older deacons and trustees who, shall we say, didn't get the memo. Seriously, they missed the meeting when we decided that it wasn't right to take advantage of the services and not support the agency. What was the rest of the week like with the older leaders?

"You mean you gave them the WHOLE $500?!", "Who did you ask, before you gave our money away?", "Why didn't you TELL us?"

It wasn't comfortable. But I endured. And I found out that the rest of the membership really appreciated the fact that we were supporting work that was helping the community and us.

It actually opened us up to a greater sensitivity to the needs of our members, and was the first of a great deal of work that changed the face of our community. We eventually put the Bethlehem Foundation in our budget, along with several other ministries. It was never enough money to suit me. Sometimes we weren't able to do everything we budgeted, but we were always aware that it was a part of our stewardship as a church. It was the beginning of a great 22 year adventure for us - and to be honest, we never missed the $500!

I'm actually glad I got in trouble that day. That was the best $500 we spent that year.

But no, it wasn't the last time I got in trouble!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We Shall Remain - Don't Miss It!

You will do yourself a disservice if you miss The American Experience's special series, "We Shall Remain" on your local PBS station.

This story of the Native Americans and their valiant struggle for survival in our country despite what could only be described as ethnic cleansing at best, an attempted genocide at worst, can only grow in respect for their spirituality, determination and courage.

In this country we have a habit of only wanting to repeat the history that shows a dominant culture in its best light. In doing so, we downplay and discount the tremendous contibutions of all the peoples who have made America great. The desire, or the attempt to oblitirate the history of Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans and others, in a misguided effort to homogenize American citizenship and avoid unflattering accounts of oppression, brutality and injustice denies all of us the inspiration that comes from stories of courage, determination and will, all of which is part of the history of all people who live here. Their stories tell of America's greatness too.

To try and tell America's story without telling the story of these peoples, is to fail to really tell America's story.

Check your listing for the next broadcast of "We Shall Remain". It is well worth it!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Afraid of Not Scoring? No Problem...Just Move the Goalposts!

I know that the NFL changed rules several years ago to give the offense more opportunities to score. But suppose they decided to increase scoring by changing the length of the field from 100 yards to say 75?

How about moving first base 10 feet closer to home?

If you're raising your eyebrows at that, think about public school. How about decreasing the drop out rate by not allowing teachers to give a grade below 50? Or 70? Or what about no grades for homework - no matter if you turn it in or not?

Monday's Dallas Morning News reports, "Many North Texas districts have minimum grades that can be given to students; in the Dallas district, no grade lower than 50 is allowed in any subject. At least one Dallas high school and numerous districts around the state have set a minimum of 70 in their grading policies, meaning students can't fail their classes."

What's the rationale?

"Leslie James, assistant superintendent for policy and planning in the Fort Worth school district and a representative for the school alliance, said many districts have shifted to minimum passing grades to provide a "safety net" for certain students...students who are hit with poor grades are more likely to cause disciplinary problems in school and eventually drop out."

I've not really agreed with Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound very much, but I think she's got it right this time: "If we can't guarantee that our teachers have the ability to assign grades that students have earned or not earned, then everything else we are doing is for naught."

"Her legislation would bar school districts from forcing teachers to assign a minimum grade to failing students regardless of their class work and test scores. It would require that districts adopt a grading policy calling on teachers to issue grades that reflect student mastery of subjects they take."

Seriously? This is the drop out prevention policy - just don't give the kid a bad grade?! These are not just schools with low-income children. One of the wealthiest school districts in Texas, the Plano school district is flirting with the same grading policy.

With colleges already telling us that public schools are sending them students unprepared for college classwork, why are we giving them fewer tools to work with. And with society moving more and more to a knowledge based labor environment, why are we creating this artificial atmosphere for them?

Sooner or later we're going to have to figure out what we really want: educate children or push them through the door in enough time to say adults haven't failed. Accomplish the former, and we'll all be proud. Settling for the latter means all of us flunk!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Celebrating the Possibility of New Life

"...the resurrection of the Crucified One calls people to a baptismal repentance, a daily living into our baptism that occasions the transformation of relationships. Such transformed relationships break the cycles of violence and vengeance. The risen Christ - the Judge judged for us, the pure Victim sacrificed for us - returns to us his judges with a judgement that does not condemn but calls us to new life."

L. Gregory Jones
Embodying Forgiveness

Saturday, April 11, 2009

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Jack Valenti
1921 - 2007

Presidential Special Assistant, Motiona Picture Association of America President

"There isn't anything in the world that can't be made better."

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Less Christian America - What's Good About That?

My grandfather, who preached his first sermon when he was 19 and remained a preacher until he died at the age of 101, would probably have a conniption fit if he were to read what I'm about to write here - but here it goes: I agree with Jon Meachum that what is hyperbolically referred to as the 'decline' of Christianity in America is probably a good thing. I probably don't agree with him for all of the same reasons, but I do think he's on to something.

Meacham's Newsweek magazine article, The End of Christian America, analyzes the substance behind the numbers found in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) that reveals that fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians today than in 1990, by a margin of 86% to 76%. Also interesting is the number of people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic (over 3.5 million).

In a country as 'over-churched' as America is considered, and with evangelical Chrisianity such a strong force in American politics and culture, how could it appear to be so, well, unattractive? Even our President in his recent trip abroad, said that 'we [Americans] don't consider ourselves a Christian nation', reflects a finding in the ARIS survey. Only 62% of Americans see our country as a Christian nation in 2009 down from 69% in 2008.

The upshot of Meaham's piece is that the notion that a less Christian America does not mean a post-Christian America. The weaknesses of the American Christianity is that it has become too vested in politics as a means of addressing culture. The failure of politics to deliver on the conservative interests of evangelicals has resulted in a greater retreat and entrenchment on the right, just as political losses in the late '60's caused liberals to run even further to the left.

The article is full of important insight and ARIS' study is instructive as well. But I think it should not just stimulate discussion, it ought to be the rationale for a great deal of reflection on the part of clergy and church leaders.

Which is why I don't think the findings in the study are a bad thing.

ARIS' survey, the Pew Study on faith in America, as well other studies and books are all telling us the same thing: there is something less attractive about the faith as practiced the past 25-30 years. It is less intellectually vigorous, less spiritually challenging, less politically relevant, less socially responsible and less genuine than the more authentically consistent expressions of yesterday. At times, it seems as if there are those of us who believe that the answer to every problem, no matter how complex, is a scripture, a slogan and a wave of the American flag. In so many important ways, we give the impression of growing more out of touch by the day.

This is not an argument that the 'old time religion' is best. It is, however, my understanding that at its best religion in America has always tried to interpret the changes in our country, and help people see the hand of God in its affairs. It has been the critique of power and not companion of the power elite. It has reminded men of our responsibility to and for one another and not upheld isolationalist individualism. The great social progressive social movements of the 19th and the early 20th century, that led to public policy changes that aided the poor, fought for abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, provided sanitary living conditions and fought against the exploitation of child labor, were led by churches that were essentially conservative in their faith.

The theologians who interpreted those times have been replaced by 'media darlings' who have focused on a market based spirituality which capitalized upon the distorted free market capitalism that led to this country's economic collapse. What's more, I've seen local pastors without their charisma and savvy try and keep up with these celebrities in an effort to keep their parishioners.

The findings in this survey are a good thing, if they get those of us who lead churches to wake up and realize that what we've been doing hasn't worked. That neither shrillness, nor divisiveness are good evangelism strategies, whether you're liberal or conservative. And that while Christianity has much to say about our engagement in politics, it is not a political party. Nor is God a Democrat, Republican or a Libertarian. He transcends our ideologies and demands that those who believe in Him be shaped in the image of His Son, not vice-versa. And authenticity in this faith demands that we draw distinctions between political partisanship, ideology and the essential doctrines and disciplines of our faith. All too often we haven't done that, and this survey may be showing us the result.

Columnist Cal Thomas got it right when he said, "No country can be truly 'Christian', only people can. God is above all nations, and, in fact, Isaiah says that 'All nations are to him a drop in the bucket and less than nothing'."

Perhaps that's what that lost 10% have found out...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Problem of Hunger in America

When you love to read, the most frustrating thing is all the books you have on the 'must read' list that you already have. A close second are those books that you find out about that you 'must get' and place on the 'must read' list.
Joel Berg's, "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?" is on that second list of frustrations.
Berg is a former USDA official with the Clinton Administration. He is a recognized leader in the areas of hunger, food insecurity and national and community service. In his new book confronts us with what is probably our country's greatest irony: the richest nation in the world with the shameful problem of people actually going hungry. He does so by examining hunger through the lives of eight people who experience real hunger.
Due to the undeniable freedom and opportunities that exist in our nation it seems unimaginable that something as basic as access to food would be a real problem. But it is.
According to Berg, "While Americans don't generally suffer from hunger each and every day, such experiences [episodes of food insecurity and actual hunger] are usually frequent and reoccurring. On average, households that are food insecure during the year know this condition in six different months during that same year. One-fifth of food-insecure households are in that state often or almost every month.
Of the 16.6 million food-insecure households, 4.0 million households, containing 11.1 million people, suffered from hunger or very low food security at least sometime during the year. In thee households, "the food intake of some household members was reduced, and their normal eating patterns was disrupted because of the households' food insecurity." On average, thee families suffered these conditions seven month out of the year."
In a Washington Post column, Berg also writes, "Last December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that out of 23 major American cities, 80 percent had an increase in people using emergency soup kitchens and food pantries and 43 percent had an increase in the number of homeless children. All that happened between November 2006 and November 2007.
How did the federal government respond? It didn't."

"The only federal program that provides cash to both emergency feeding programs and homelessness prevention services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Food and Shelter Program, wasn't expanded by a penny. Even though the program enables thousands of nonprofit agencies (many of which are faith-based) to aid millions of struggling people nationwide, its budget hasn't been increased for six years. Given that costs for food and housing have skyrocketed over that time, the program has, in effect, suffered from massive cuts; the charities that depend on this money are reeling from the strain, many teetering on the verge of collapse."
Our country has operated under the philosophy that by increasing the wealth of a few, prosperity and philanthropy would trickle down out of a sense of self interest and noblese oblige, respectively. That hasn't happened. It doesn't mean the government has done nothing. It means that persistently it hasn't done enough. And the number of poor continue to grow (one estimate suggesting that the current economic crisis could cause that number burgeon to 10 million this year), and so the number of hungry.
Joel Berg was a recent guest on "Think", a locally produced Public Radio (KERA) program. This link will lead you to the audio.
In community organizing I was taught that there are issues and there are problems. Issues are broad and intractable. Problems can be solved with focus and intentionality. We've been treating
American hunger as an issue. Its about time we saw it as a big problem. A problem we can solve.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Who Could Say 'No' to This?

Would $10 help someone get a home? Would $10 keep someone out of a home?

Seems like pretty silly questions, right? But the answers are a little more complex than that.

Would $10 keep someone out of a home? No, of course not!

Would $10 help someone get a home? Definitely, if Senate Bill 950 passes. Senator Royce West has sponsored a bill which establishes a $10 document recording fee on real estate documents that would generate $30-40 million annually for housing programs that serve low-income Texas families. These funds could mean the difference between low-income families owning their own homes or renting.

Currently the state contributes just under $6 million to its Housing Trust fund. This proposal would increase the fee for the current two page document which is filed when a home is sold to $20 which would go directly to the Trust Fund. I don't know about you, but when I bought my home, I didn't know I paid the first $10!

The Texas Association of Realtors is asserting that this paltry amount could keep Texans from buying a home - ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! You mean to tell me that if I go to the county clerk's office and have to pay an extra $10 for a document fee and I'm short $10, I would say, 'forget the whole deal!'. You know, I love Texas, but I really believe some of us sit up nights dreaming of nonsensical ways to say 'No' to anything we think will help someone who has less money than we do.

In a housing market that drastically needs home sales - and 3000 potential new homeowners who just happen to be low-income (i.e. working class); who would benefit from the housing programs funded by this legislation, this seems like a no brainer.

Unless, of course, you're just looking for a reason to say 'no'. Then again, no good reason is good enough, I guess...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Public Education: Real Adults Figure it Out!

The Austin group, Save Texas Schools, is working hard and making great strides in getting legislation that could bring an end to the counter productive strategy of 'closing' under performing schools.

Called 'reconstitution', it is supposed to be the remedy for schools with a subgroup of the student population, defined by race, gender or socioeconomic status which falls short of minimum achievement on Texas' standardized test, four consecutive years.

So far Texas House Bill 1238 is gaining broad based, both the African-American and Hispanic caucuses, Texas American Federation of Teachers (Texas AFT), former Texas Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff (of Raise Your Hand Texas. Ratliff was one of the most effective and fair minded Republican leaders in state government), Austin Interfaith (the Industrial Areas Foundation organization in Austin), as well as educators, parents and community leaders from across Texas' capitol city, not to mention Central Dallas Ministries fledgling effort in Austin, Urban Connection-Austin, led by our man on the ground Dean Smith.

One aspect of their proposal which is critical, is the engagement of the public in the process. Public education can never really work, where administrators develop proscribed methods of involvement which ultimately keep parents and the community at arms length. Public schools are democratic institutions. They require parental engagement and community support that goes far beyond being an audience for the aspirations of principals and educational careerists.

When parents are welcome, when there are processes that provide opportunities for learning by and alongside their children's teachers. When they understand the grading system (beyond learning how to read a report card), and its implications for their children's future; when parents know that they are part of a community of lifelong learners and stakeholders who understand that everyone else's success depends on their child's success, those parents, whether rich or poor, become the most passionate advocates for public education. I've seen it happen and worked with parents who have been transformed through their child's education and a creative partnership with their school.

Contrary to the opinion of some, we have not tried everything in this regard. That's why 'reconstitution' is not a viable, workable option.

Such wide support for HB 1238 proves what many of us have known for years: you can't punish your way to success in education.

Critics of public education who advocate a 'scorched earth', 'slash and burn' approach to fixing schools, act as if there's another group of kids we can educate if we mess up these. We don't. We either find a way to help them succeed, or we suffer the consequences for decades to come.

The responsibility of real adults - parents, politicians, community leaders, religious community, educators and others - is to do what adults are supposed to do when the encounter great problems: they don't ring their hands, pass the buck, continue the same unsuccessful patterns and then raise their hands in surrender.

Real adults figure it out!

Thanks to our friends in Austin for committing themselves to finding real workable solutions to real problems.

Oh, and what if these proposals don't work? You don't close the schools - you try something else. In other words, keep working and figure it out.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Justice for Exonerees: Texas is Getting Closer

Earlier this year, I joined Dr. Jaime Paige, from the University of Texas at Arlington and representatives from the Innocence Project of Texas in a trip to Austin to speak with legislators about the plight of citizens wrongfully convicted and exonerated from incarceration. We, and her interns, joined the exonerees, their attorneys and lobbyists who had organized a two day legislative work agenda in which we spoke to lawmakers about reform of interrogation practices, increased compensation, and support services for formerly incarcerated men found innocent after decades behind bars.

It is gratifying to know that progress is being made on all fronts. Dr. Paige, her interns and I first went to speak with State Senator Royce West about the vital need for support services. So far Texas leads the nation in men freed from prison through DNA evidence. While it is incredibly important to correct this injustice, it is not enough to open the doors to their prison cells, place a comforting arm around their shoulders and provide a heartfelt apology. Nor is it enough, to recognize, as one city official told me, that 'no amount of money can make up for what has happened to them.' The fact is the state has an obligation to help these men get on their feet and reintgrate into society. And there is no way to fulfill that obligation without spending money.

Shortly after our visit, Senator West filled Senate Bill 1848, designed to, "...develop a comprehensive plan to ensure the successful reentry and reintegration of wrongfully imprisoned persons into the community following [the exonerees'] discharge..." The bill includes compensation for physical and mental health care services, as well as job training.

The bill has made it out of the Senate Committee (without opposition, by the way!) and is on its way to a vote by the full senate after which it must wind its way through the House and make its way to the Governor's desk.

Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat from Houston, who has long been a champion of this fight, is pushing through the legislation which will provide an innocence commission to identify faults in interrogation procedures, including eyewitness testimonies and how lineups are used in arrests and convictions.

We're not there yet, but we're closer than we were. You can read more about the progress being made in this Dallas Morning News editorial.

Congratulations to Dr. Paige, to her interns and to the Innocence Project of Texas for their incredibly hard work. Congratulations to those incredibly brave men who are able to endure the pain and stigma of their wrongful conviction with such incredible grace and courage. They continue to be a source of inspiration!

Thanks to Senator Royce West, for having the political courage to lead this charge. Great job Royce, absolutely great!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Made Uncomfortable in Our 'Faith'

"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves." (Matthew 21:12,13)

Whatever other significance we attach to this episode in Jesus' Life. It shows us that there is that He is the One who expects something radically substantial from the people of God. Where that is missing, we see something radically different from the benign, inoffensive and timorous Character who makes us comfortable in our complacency.

This is the Jesus who troubles those of us who want a convenient religiosity and a faith that sanctions our compliance with tradition, commerce and custom.

We have to live with the fact that we can dismiss Him; but He does not excuse us!

Friday, April 3, 2009

The D.R.E.A.M. Act Reintroduced

The D.R.E.A.M. Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), was reintroduced to the United States House and Senate last month.

The bill has attracted signficant bi-partisan support, including: Senators, Russell Feingold (D-WI), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) Mel Martinez (R-FL), Joe Lieberman (I- CT), Harry Reid (D-NV) and U.S. Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Jared Polis (D-CO), Joseph Cao (R-LA), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Devin Nunez (R-CA),
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).

The D.R.E.A.M. Act does more than just facilitate the dreams and aspirations of the children of undocumented immigrants. If the legislation is not passed, another year goes by when the undeniable resources of young people, educated in our country and undeniably a part of our life and culture could become unavailable to us. It is not just a matter of fairness, its a matter of economic and common sense.

These youth, about 65,000 of them, want only the opportunity to continue their education and make invest their lives in a country that has already invested in theirs.

Its easy to brand these children and their families as 'illegal' without addressing the illegality and the immorality of the businesses that exploit cheap labor, or the attitudes that find it more charitable toward some who overstay visas from other countries than for those who come here from the south.

Until we have a comprehensive and sane immigration policy, the D.R.E.A.M. Act provides the pathway to citizenship to thousands of youth who want real opportunity and a future in the United States.

I hope you can support the D.R.E.A.M. Act. The passage of this legislation is a statement that we have neither opportunities or lives to waste...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Redemptive Suffering

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Raisin in the Sun" Proves Timely and Timeless

Loraine Hansberry's (1930 - 1965) classic Broadway play, 'A Raisin in the Sun', is 50 years old this year.

The title comes from a line in the memorable poem 'A Dream Deferred', by Langston Hughes:

"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-- And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?"

The play tells the story of the Younger's, a black family in Chicago, who awaits a $10,000 insurance payment after the death of Walter Lee Younger, Sr. the head of the family. The family is almost torn apart by the competing dreams represented by their sudden windfall: the younger sister Beneatha, who wants the money invested in her education to fulfill her dream to become a doctor. And Walter Lee, Jr. who is consumed to by a passion for 'somebodiness'. He yearns to leave his job as a chauffeur and own his own business - a liquor store. He believes the check is his chance to stake his claim in life. Ruth, Walter Lee's wife watches helplessly as her husband's dream eats away at him - and their marriage.

In order to save the family, Mama Younger uses some of the money for a down payment for a house, in an area known as Cliburn Park, until then a segregated suburb of Chicago. Seeing her action as an affront to his manhood, his position in the family and the loss of opportunity, Mama younger entrusts Walter Lee with the rest of the money, to put aside some for his sister's tuition, for his son, and the rest to use as he sees fit to benefit the family.

Walter Lee gives all of the money to an unscrupulous business partner who steals it and brings into question the ability of the family to survive without this long awaited money and what it has come to represent.

'Raisin' is a play about a black family, but it is a distinctly American story about the struggle for identity, meaning, purpose within the context of family and ultimately proving that there are things far more important than money.

A pretty powerful and contemporary lesson...