Sunday, October 31, 2010

Predatory Lending Practices in Working Class Neighborhoods

What do retirees, teachers and low income workers have in common? They are all among the patrons of the pay day loan industry. Call them 'short term lenders' or what ever you wish - they are among the terms used to describe pay day loan, auto title loan, pawn shops, check cashing stores (I've even seen a 'tire rental' store), which proliferate in minority, low income to working class neighborhoods. Most refer to them as predatory lenders.

When people who live and/or work in these communities get tight on cash because of unexpected emergencies - major car repairs, home repair, medical emergencies and the like, they often resort to these businesses. The majority of the customers utilize their loans to pay utilities or even buy groceries, using their income to pay rent, mortgages or car notes.

The problem? The loan stores charge as much as 400-500% interest! A $300 loan, could cost as much as $840 to repay.

Journalist Gary Rivlin has recently written a book entitled 'Broke USA:From Pawnshops to Poverty Inc., How the Working Poor Became Big Business' tells of how the predatory nature of this industry keeps people locked in a cycle of economic insecurity...

"If not for the behavior or the banks, their industry would not be nearly so robust. The banks abandoned lower income neighborhoods starting thirty years ago, creating the vacuum that the country's check cashers filled. The steep fees the banks charge on a bounced check or overdue credit card fuels a lot of the demand for payday advances and other quick cash loans. The big Wall Street banks had stepped in and provided money critical to the expansion plans of many in the room, but never mind: These entrepreneurs selling their financial services to the country's hard-pressed sub-prime citizenry are nothing if not opportunistic. The nation's narrative, they argued, was theirs."

'Broke USA' is an incredible story of how low income, working class, predominately minority communities are targeted by this industry. In Dallas, a group of churches are working to address the problem in their neighborhood - a reaction to members who tell tales of being mired in debt during financially vulnerable circumstances. It's an issue that's the subject of my latest column in the Dallas Morning News.

Read the column here and more about Rivlin's book here...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Sinclair Lewis


"Damn the great executives, the men of measured merriment, damn the men with careful smiles oh, damn their measured merriment."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Great Forgotten TV Moment!

Jason Linkins' Huffington Post article is a great reminder of a significant television moment...

"Armed with a slew of emailers who have discussed it, and having cited it twice myself, I think that today's as good a day as any to remind everyone of that time Jon Stewart appeared on the October 14, 2004 edition of CNN's televised temple of dumbed-down political discourse, Crossfire ("named after the stray bullets that hit innocent bystanders in a gang fight") and tore the show a new exit point for its alimentary canal. In a very contentious segment, Stewart put Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson on blast -- referring to the co-hosts as "partisan hacks," and begging them to "stop hurting America.""

I remember this! It brought down one of my least favorite shows - "Crossfire" on CNN. At the time it was uncomfortable, but I wish that someone would do this to one or two shows today...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Imperfect Important Victory

The issue of incompatible presence, of heavy industrial businesses located in Dallas' low income communities may well be on its way to being addressed. Seriously. To the benefit of those communities.

According to a Dallas Morning News editorial

"A backroom agreement between Oak Cliff Metals and Dallas City Hall appears to herald a welcome end to unlawful activities by the southern Dallas scrap yard. The deal, finalized Oct. 13, gives the company an ironclad, 270-day deadline to cease metal salvage and storage operations and bring the Cadillac Heights property into compliance with all city, state and federal environmental laws. The city will fence and lock it if conditions aren't met by the July deadline."

"Relief is finally in sight for neighboring residents and business owners forced to tolerate this junkyard's presence for years. The agreement also marks an important step in city efforts to change the unworkable residential-industrial zoning mix that has dragged down numerous southern Dallas neighborhoods. Heavy industry has its place in the Dallas economy, but not next to parks and homes..."

"City Attorney Tom Perkins says the agreement allows the company to operate temporarily without required zoning and permits; the city will look the other way. In exchange, the company agreed to shut down, rather than fight this matter in court – which likely would have prompted years of delays and high legal bills."

"Perkins says he will not tolerate apparent violations of other city laws and codes, which include such longstanding company practices as exceeding height restrictions on junk metal and using a city street as a private parking lot."

A perfect deal? Hardly. But, then, what deals are? I'm not a fan of incrementalism when it comes to justice, but sometimes it might be the best you can get. This vote does, however, set a positive precedent that says that homeowners - even low income, elderly homeowners - have a right to live without the intrusion of industrial blight.

It amazes me that there is not more city uproar about this. But comments in both DMN's online publication, this blog and other publications tend to suggest that if you don't have much money, it ought not matter whether the area in which you live is environmentally unhealthy, unsafe, or if businesses that come into your community are undesirable. In other words, lack of income is a justifiable reason to disregard your humanity. I don't know if unconscionable attitudes like that will ever change. But I do know that public action - in spite of those attitudes - has to be taken on behalf of people who don't have attorneys or lobbyists to speak up on behalf of their interests.

Say, what you will about Dallas' City Council - this time, they took important steps toward doing the right thing.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Central Dallas Ministries is now CitySquare

Central Dallas Ministries is now 'CitySquare'. The same mission, the same commitment to work tirelessly on issues which impact the poor and marginalized. The same faith in the power of community and brotherhood to transform lives and make our cities whole.

Mission Statement

CitySquare exists to fight the root causes of poverty by partnering with those in need. Working together as a community, we feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless and renew hope in the heart of our city.

Core Values

COMMUNITY. We are a community of neighbors, investing in each other and developing meaningful relationships which value each individual.

FAITH. Our work flows out of our faith, and that faith is inclusive and ecumenical.

JUSTICE. We stand for justice and demand equity for all our neighbors.

STEWARDSHIP. Our resources belong to the community and as stewards of those resources we will act with integrity, demonstrate accountability and operate efficiently and effectively.

We're grateful for our past. We're proud of what we've become. We're EXCITED about our future!

We're inviting you to be a part of this journey with us!

Welcome to CitySquare!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hope You Can Join Us for a Night to Truly Be Remembered!

Just another taste of Kirk Franklin.

We're excited to have him as our guest on tomorrow night, at the Meyerson Concert Hall at 8:00 p.m. It's not only the first time we've had a Gospel artist, but it will usher in a new day for Central Dallas Ministries. A new name, an even greater commitment to our mission of building community and working for justice in our city and beyond.

So, you see, tomorrow's a celebration - of our faith, of our work and of our future. We want you to share with us. Hope to see you tomorrow night.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

At LAST! Texas Rangers - American League Champions!

Ok, let me confess, I'm not one of the 'long suffering' Ranger fans. Oh I liked the fact the we had a baseball team, but I also like to believe that 'someday', the team has a chance to win...and win big.

The Texas Rangers are in the World Series!

For the long suffering Ranger fans: CONGRATULATIONS! For those of us who finally got on the bandwagon, we can go ahead and get our hopes up - These Rangers are WINNERS!

Great, great job. GO RANGERS!

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Alex Haley


"Anytime you see a turtle up on top of a fence post, you know he had some help."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Add This to the Cost of War

In case you missed it, this segment on '60 Minutes', is at one and the same time, heart rending and encouraging.

It's heart rending, because its terrible to know that we treat our veterans - those whom we are currently extolling for their heroism and patriotic sacrifice - like this. In an effort to deflect evade guilt, some will immediately talk about access to services, whereabouts of family, personal or responsibility and veterans they know (perhaps veterans themselves), who had a terrible experience but weathered the storm.

I hope while we're busy enumerating the reasons for leaving untold numbers of men and women who have served our country on the streets, we don't forget another cause...


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If not Superman, Who are We Waiting For?

All of the recent controversy regarding the documentary 'Waiting for Superman' reminded me of this scene from 'The West Wing'...

'...schools should be palaces...', '...teachers should make six figures...', '...I just haven't figured out how to do it yet...'

All of these are sentiments that many of have uttered at one time or another. The apparent eagerness of most of us to get lost in the tall weeds of blame and assignation when it comes to education reform. The extent to which we are willingness to go over and over again, whose fault it is and the endless defense of adults - all adults - at our failure to produce a system that prepares our children for meaningful participation in society post secondary school is amazing.

Obviously adults have a stake in an effective public school system. Jobs are at stake. Careers are on the line. We are concerned about how radical reform impacts every adult who is a part of the system (with the exception of cafeteria workers who, at least in Dallas, are on the lowest rung of the economic pie, many of whom are paid so low they qualify for public assistance. But that's another post.). But, in the end, no adult is successful if, at the end of 12 years, we continue to produce minimally literate (and in some cases illiterate) young adults, not ready for college, not ready for work and socially dysfunctional. This is not every graduate. But it is the case with enough children who go through the public education system that it is cause for national alarm. And it defies logic how everyone, from politicians on down refuse to admit the fact that the crisis calls for something other than a system designed to protect and perpetuate itself.

To me, that was the actual point of 'Waiting for Superman.' And I think its a point that has gotten lost in the arguments about charter schools vs. public schools; teachers unions; campaign contributions, etc., etc., etc.

Former Washington D.C. Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhees' efforts at reform may have been strident. But, to her credit, she didn't simply aim at the shell game of 'increasing test scores'. She probably appeared to take aim at long tenured institutional icons within the system or neighborhood schools which were the object of great community sentimental attachment. Closing schools can have a devastating impact on neighborhood which have been stripped of most of their assets to begin with. On the other hand, we're either in a crisis or we're not. And schools that have histories of decades of failure have to undergo extreme scrutiny, as do the professionals who have run them.

Does this absolve parents of their obligations? Of course not. Parents are, in my estimation, the most important factor in the equation. But we cannot blanketly accuse parents of 'not caring', anymore than we can blame every teacher of being ineffective. To simply blame single families as a source of the problem is neither intelligent or productive. We have to learn how to teach the children that we have, from the families that produce them in environments that are more conducive for care and learning than the environments from which they come. It's a tall order, but there is literally no strata of society or culture that does not depend upon our success in this area. None.

We have to have schools that are neighborhood education centers for adults and children. There must be intentional, strategic collaborations with religious institutions, local business, major corporations, alumni, service organizations, non-profits, neighborhood leaders and post secondary schools.

Parents need to be responsible - required, if necessary - to provide the necessary support for their children, in return for the free public education they receive, but schools have to continue to be flexible to meet special circumstances. Some parents work. Some are in school. Some have not had successful educational experiences themselves. Some children are reared by grandparents and even great-grandparents, because some parents are no longer alive or some are incarcerated, others are sadly lost to addiction or lifestyles that make them unavailable to their children. PTA's, school centered education councils, parent-teacher conferences and the like will have to be creative in outreach and opportunities for participation to meet diverse domestic circumstances.

We have to address economic development and neighborhood redevelopment in ways that diversify the make-up of communities. Neighborhoods with concentrated poverty effectively frustrate the very intent and spirit of Brown v. Board of Education by re-segregating public schools, robbing them of experienced teachers, money and technology necessary to provide children in low income neighborhoods with the great education they need and deserve and necessary to live productive lives in the 21st century.

Finally, we have to free teachers to teach and expect them to teach. It's wonderful to talk about 'great' teachers. But, honestly, every teacher isn't 'great'. The pool of 'great' anything in any profession, is always a shallow one. But every teacher can be provided a 'great' atmosphere in which to work and a 'great' opportunity to ply his or her craft. We must stop paying them like clerks. We must also adopt more creative measures of classroom accountability and effectiveness than standardized tests. We have to promote education as something else than just a pathway to well paid employment, leading to greater consumerism. Education is a pathway to a greater quality of life and an expanded notion of citizenship. How children interact with one another and with adults, are also signs of exposure to real education. We must have greater and more expanded notions of what we expect from teachers and students in this process of public education. Teachers need an environment in which they can do the very best job of teaching possible, whether they are 'great' or not; students need as broadly safe and nurturing environment as possible, whether they are 'great' students or not. If we provide that, I'm willing to take the results.

When I was a pastor, one of my members who had grown up in the church, got her degree from Southern Methodist University and became a teacher. Her first job as a teacher was in a South Dallas school. I went to visit her in her classroom one day. It was after her last class and we sat in her classroom and talked. She was frustrated. She talked about how difficult the children were, how they came to school unprepared. How the parents weren't cooperating. On and on she went. When she finished, the only thing I could say was, 'Well, Vickie, it's not as if these parents are keeping their best children at home and sending their worst one's to school. These are the only kids they've got. We have to figure out how to teach them...'

Schools should be palaces. Teachers ought to make six figures. We haven't figured out how to do it yet.

We've got to get to work doing it. Too much depends on it not to.

Below, is one of the best conversations I've heard based on 'Waiting for Superman'. Listening to it will be a well spent hour of your time. But after that, it ought to be time to get to work.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Memoriam: Albertina Walker (1929-2010)

Gospel music legend Albertina Walker died, October 8 at the age of 81.

The Chicago native has been an inspiration for decades and has blazed the trail for gospel music's wide acceptance for almost 50 years. Another great voice stilled, but still a great influence impacting the lives of generations.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CDM Presents a Free Screening of 9500 Liberty

We at Central Dallas Ministries are all excited over the response to our free screening of the documentary 'Waiting for Superman'. Three hundred educators, parents, community leaders and public officials came to learn more about the crisis of education from the film and from our panel.

In partnership with the Webb Foundation, this week we are proud to present another free screening. This time the documentary is '9500 Liberty'. It is a film that shows the critical need for our country to have a sane and humane immigration policy. It focuses on an incident in Prince George's County, Maryland in which efforts to deal with illegal immigration locally led to devastating social and economic consequences.

After the screening, we will have a town hall discussion on immigration with Dallas attorney, politician and activist Domingo Garcia and the producer of '9500 Liberty' Annabel Park.

So join me, the Central Dallas Ministries family, supporters and interested citizens at the Angelika Film Center & Cafe, 5321 East Mockingbird Lane, on Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 p.m. You can RSVP by emailing Jessica at Or call her at 214-303-2146.

Sunday Morning Joy

Most of us who are Aretha Franklin fans, know that apart from her phenomenal R&B artist, she has ALWAYS been one of the greatest Gospel singers...ever! Shows how long that's been true.

Aretha (forgive the familiarity, but fans have pretty much given her 'one name status'), started singing in her father's (Dr. C.L. Franklin) church in Detroit when she was a child. She accompanied him on the revival circuit around the country thrilling the hearts of countless worshipers.

The song in this post, 'Precious Lord,Take My Hand' has been a standard in the Black Church for decades. This is Aretha singing the song, a little over 50 years ago, when she was 14. FOURTEEN! Amazing.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Bella Abzug

Attorney, Congresswoman, Feminist, Humanitarian

"The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Remembering Another Night to Remember...

I came to work for Central Dallas Ministries in September, 2004. My first experience with 'A Night to Remember' included meeting Patti LaBelle, as professional and generous a person with her time as you can imagine. And there's no need to remind you of how great a performer she is.

It was a little while after her performance that I was told that Ms. LaBelle wasn't the first choice. In fact, the contracted performer for ANTR that year was Ray Charles.

Sadly, Ray Charles had died a couple of months earlier.

I was looking at a special on television the other night, 'Ray Charles' America'. It was revealing and enthralling! And as great as was Patti LaBelle's performance was at ANTR that year, the special reminded me of what we missed in Ray Charles. It's a reminder I thought I'd share with you.

By the way, 'I Can't Stop Loving You' is one of the first songs I remember hearing aside from church music, so it's always been very special to me!

You don't want to miss this year's 'A Night to Remember'! There's still time to purchase tickets.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Do We Really Want What We Say We Want?

It came as no surprise. When Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty lost his campaign for re-election, the highest profile casualty of his loss would be he controversial Chancellor of schools, Michelle Rhee.

This week she officially resigned. It was an admission that the era of public school reform she instituted during her three year tenure was over.

"In a prepared statement, Rhee said that leaving after nearly 31/2 turbulent years was "heartbreaking," but she said Gray "deserves the opportunity to work toward his goal of 'One City' with a team that shares his vision, can keep progress going and help bridge the divide.""

""In short, we have agreed - together - that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside.""

"Rhee survived three contentious years that made her a superstar of the education reform movement and one of the longest-serving school leaders in the city in two decades. Student test scores rose, decades of enrollment decline stopped and the teachers union accepted a contract that gave the chancellor, in tandem with a rigorous new evaluation system, sweeping new powers to fire low-performing educators."

Michelle Rhee has been hailed across the country as a crusader for public school reform. She has been lauded for getting rid of 'bad' teachers; closing sub par, dysfunctional schools with a history of failure. Her lack of political agenda has been hailed as a key to confronting the systemic gridlock associated with an educational system which has, for at leas a generation or two, operated to protect the interests of adults at the expense of providing and promoting the future of children. But, what is also obvious is that those efforts were appreciated everywhere else but D.C.

A central figure in the documentary, 'Waiting for Superman', Rhee has also been vilified by a host of educators for creating an atmosphere in which teachers were 'blamed' for the failure of public education and the teachers' union castigated and demonized.

At Central Dallas Ministries' free screening of the documentary, in the panel discussion afterward, the president of the AFT gave a full throated defense of teachers and extolled the virtues of teachers who worked hard at their craft at great sacrifice. Likewise, the principal on the panel spoke of her commitment to work with teachers to make sure that those who were less talented and less effective did not fail. Both spoke to the need for (and the documentary's lack of) recognition of public schools that were doing a great job of educating children.
Of course, the problem is, if Ms. Rhee's reputation is true, these are not the teachers or the schools at which she was taking aim.

"Rhee, who was appointed by Fenty in 2007 and given unprecedented power to shake up the ailing school system, fired hundreds of teachers and dozens of bureaucrats and principals, even removing the popular head of her daughters’ elementary school in the northwest part of the district. She demanded that the city’s tenure system be replaced with one that would reward teachers for producing measurable performance gains in their students."

It appears that Rhee was too strident in her condemnation of both the institutions (community schools) and the educational icons (teachers and administrators) and not deferential enough to their stature in those communities.

But the question ultimately has to be asked: Does the community perceive the depth of crisis in public education? Do the parents of a child consistently and persistently failing in school recognize that if the failure goes beyond that child - and it usually does - that there reaches a tipping point where drastic measures must be taken? And at one point does appreciation and deference to the teacher, principal or administrator who taught you and possibly even your mother, become counter productive if they are no longer doing the job? Does anyone with a child in school actually believe that the needed progress can be made by simply 'tweaking' the present system?

Michelle Rhee's reforms could have resulted in revolutionary results to be emulated across the country. We will now most likely never know. A new chancellor with a new philosophy can undo everything she's done. And the last time I was in D.C. was slightly before Rhee was appointed chancellor, so when I was there I heard nothing about her. I would, however, like to hear from some of my friends there and find out whether or not her agenda was so Draconian that her tacit rejection was warranted. Or even desirable.

If the analysis of our educational system is even partially correct, we do indeed have a crisis in this country. And if Rhee was doing good and that good drastic as it was is warranted and it was rejected, then what's happening in Washington, D.C. is a tragic microcosm of what is happening across the nation: we're a people who want change...until we actually get it. We actually like demanding change, until change comes.

If that's the case, our public schools aren't the only institutions in trouble.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Few Days to Remember

It's been another couple of great weeks at Central Dallas Ministries! I'm saying that quite a bit lately but its true. For example take a look at what happened at Roseland Homes, the low income public housing community where our work in education and other social services takes place.

For several weeks we've been engaged in voter registration and voter education in the community. Civic engagement, like voting, is a sign of civic health. We've deputized residents to register their neighbors to vote and along with them, some of our staff who have also been deputized to register people to vote, have gone throughout Roseland, registering our neighbors for the November elections.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate hearing of the effort, came by to meet, spend time with, answer and ask questions of between 60-70 of the people who live in the community. While there, even more people were registered to vote.

Of course 60-70 people aren't a lot of people and candidates for statewide office don't normally stop in communities like Roseland, let alone spend more than an hour to campaign among low income voters. Communities like Roseland aren't necessarily 'high yield' in terms of the return on investment of time. But the respect given residents by the former Houston mayor, spoke volumes to the people who turned out on that day! The fact that he didn't come by to just make a speech, but to ask questions, to challenge and be challenged by them, to listen to the concerns of forgotten people and to treat them like citizens was something to behold!

The following week, Grammy Award winning contemporary gospel artist (and Central Dallas Ministries' featured performer for our annual 'A Night to Remember' Concert), Kirk Franklin came by Roseland to meet the staff, residents and friends of CDM.

Kirk was supposed to be with us for about 40-45 minutes, but he stayed around, talking to people, hugging babies, chatting it up with senior citizens, visiting program areas and meeting the kids in Roseland's Head Start program.
In all, he stayed nearly 2 hours!
It was amazing shot in the arm for staff, for old and young alike, for Franklin to come by, identify with and affirm CDM staff and Roseland residents alike. Again, a recognition of humanity that so many of us take for granted, but one which means so much to those who are usually forgotten or whose hard work tends to go unheralded.
Both investments of time and attention. Both interactions the sort of which inspire and change lives in ways the rest of us only come to know decades later. Both generous gestures of the spiritual kind that left people feeling as if they had been honored respected.
Yes, it's been quite a week...again!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Lady Bird Johnson

Businesswoman, Naturalist, First Lady of the United States

"Become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Does Conservatism = Racism?

Gerard Alexander is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Alexander has written a fairly interesting column on the assumption that being a conservative means being a racist. It reframe, popular notions of the rise of conservatism and its perception in modern day politics.

You can read the op-ed column here.

I've provided an excerpt of an interview he's given on the subject on NPR's 'Talk of the Nation' below. You can read the rest of the transcript here...

You can hear the interview here.

"As he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson famously remarked that he just delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation. But University of Virginia Professor Gerard Alexander argues that the Democrats had already lost the solid South and that is just one of a number of myths that he says liberals use to label conservatives as racist."

"Alexander, also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled "Conservatism does not equal racism. So why do many liberals assume it does?" Well, does conservatism imply racism?..."

"Political Junkie Ken Rudin, still with us. Gerard Alexander is also here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in today."

"Professor GERARD ALEXANDER (University of Virginia): Thank you. And cheesy as this sounds, as a long-time NPR listener, I got to admit it's kind of cool actually to be sitting here in the studio talking."

"CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today. It's a very interesting piece. But among the myths, you say, is the idea that there was a decided Southern strategy by the Nixon campaign going back to, what, 1968, to pick up white racist votes in the South."

"Prof. ALEXANDER: Oh, I don't dispute that Republicans have - just like Democrats, have sought Southern voters over the decades. In fact, Eisenhower had a Southern strategy of sorts, starting in the early 1950s, trying to realign that enormous region to make it more competitive for his party."

"I only suggest that just because the Republicans sought Southern white votes, including no doubt from Strom Thurmond and others who were not exactly racially progressive at the time, does not mean that they actually gave them much in return for their votes. And the general notion is that in return for those votes, they had to give the Thurmonds of this world everything they wanted. And I don't think that's really accurately reflected in the Nixon campaign or its policy record afterward."

My thoughts on this later.

What are yours?

It's All a Matter of Perspective

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kirk Franklin Visits Roseland Homes, Sees CDM's Work

"For me, coming up as a kid, dreaming wasn't a luxury that I could afford, but this ministry [Central Dallas Ministries] has made dreaming affordable."

Hope you're going to meet us at the Meyerson on October 25! Kirk promises this will performance will be MAJOR!

The MLK Memorial

For those who weren't aware, there is a memorial being built on the Mall in Washington D.C. to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The project, being built by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., (the fraternity of which King was a member), will keep alive the words and commitment to justice of one of our country's greatest heroes.

Here is a virtual tour of the project currently underway...

You can find more information on the project and how you can contribute, here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Good Ol' Days - Well, Maybe Not So Much...

If you'd take the criticisms of some people who long for the good ol' days of , say around September 2008, you'd think NOTHING good has happened in the past year and a half.

Progressives who looked for miracles and conservatives who have wished nothing but failure on President Obama since the day after he won the election, are unified in one thing: dissatisfaction.
I'll say what I've been saying, "I'm glad to have a President unafraid of tackling big things". No he's not done everything right, nor has he done everything I thought he should do and he's not doing everything I think he should be doing. He is, however, doing things that matter - and not just for the duration of an election cycle.

Of course some will never be satisfied. Obama has not miraculously reversed an economic catastrophe eight years in the making in a year and a half. He has not gotten capital flowing, or corrected the perverse thinking on Wall Street that suggests that they can sit on money they have through bailouts by the American taxpayer in order to get the economy moving more quickly. Nor has he been able to get the GOP to act like the 'loyal opposition' instead of unreasonable obstructionists.

But this year and a half has not been without accomplishments. Major ones. Whether you agree with them or not. We have to remember that for eight years we were conditioned to a 'prosperity' that offset job losses and increases in the poverty rate, with cheap credit for the middle class and an overheated mortgage industry. As long as the bubble didn't burst, we were talked into the idea that things were fine. Until the good ol' days...say around September '08, when we found out that the prosperity was a mirage.

There are those who resent the hopes and aspirations that were invested in Obama's presidency. It appears as if the rejection of the mirage prosperity is a comment on their values and their hopes and dreams. Some have lost jobs, houses, retirement. The differences in Obama's presidency frighten them. It makes them say contradictory things: 'He's a 'socialist'; he's in the pocket of Wall Street financiers!' 'He's a radical Christian; he's a Muslim'!

The facts are, he will accomplish some campaign promises and some he will not be able to accomplish - just like every president. He will gain and lose support, just like every president (until the Oklahoma City bombings, Clinton was being asked whether or not the presidency was still 'relevant').

There are conservatives who will never give Obama his due. There are progressives who are going to have to be realistic, like my friend Shawn Williams suggests (you can find his commentary at -9:09 on this clip)...

And maybe we all need to remember the good ol' days circa September '08 and realize that they only look good in our rear view mirror...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Faith and Failure in Context

Like many of you, I've been troubled by the recent charges of sexual abuse made against Bishop Eddie Long.

I don't know Long. I've watched his television broadcast on rare occasions, but I'm not a view of religious T.V. programming on any regular basis. My sense in which I am troubled, is that sense in which I'm always bothered by such accusations against clergy. I'm bothered by what it does to the integrity of ministry in the minds of believers and unbelievers alike. I'm worried about what, if the allegations are true, what this has done to the victims. I am troubled that any congregation has to go through anything like this. I'm troubled for the pastor and his family, especially if the allegations are untrue.

The controversy about Bishop Long, his lavish lifestyle, the prosperity gospel he preaches and the deep spiritual vacuum in this country, cries for context. It is a context for which I have searched - a search in which I have personally come up empty. In other words, how do you address the larger issues associated with this scandal, without condemning someone who, at least currently, is only accused of this type of wrongdoing, while at the same time addressing the fact that Bishop Long and his ilk represent still another version of 'Americanized' Christianity which defies the authentic nature of the faith? Certainly every expression of the Christian faith is subject to cultural expressions and some level of political influence. And certainly we all look to understand what we believe in light of our personal experiences and backgrounds.

But the crass leveling of what many of us accept as Truth, that reduces Scripture to the point where we sanction greed, materialism, self aggrandizement and personal ambition, is just as bad - if not worse - than the nationalistic "My Country Right-or Wrong" that has cast the U.S. in the role of a contemporary 'chosen nation' and 'Promised Land'. How can one address that?

I think my friend Alan Bean, whose organizations 'Friends of Justice' works primarily for the reform of the criminal justice system, has, I think, found the context for this tragic episode that has eluded me. Alan is a white Baptist preacher, who hails from Canada and is now a citizen in this country and whose objective perspective on America and its challenges in culture, politics and social justice is both refreshing and heartwarming. And his take on the Long imbroglio resonates with me...

"American religion shapes and reflects the prevailing social consensus. If the culture is driven by greed and fear, preachers must find ways to bless consumerism while identifying and castigating the enemy. Churches grow to the extent they reflect this tendency. During the progressive era stretching from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, mainline Protestant churches grew like topsy. In an age of trickle-down economics, mass incarceration and a steadily expanding gap between the rich and the poor, churches affiliated with the Religious Right have been in the ascendency."

"Eddie Long tries to have it both ways; cultivating relationships with civil rights icons like Correta Scott King while aligning himself with the policies of the Bush administration."

"Here’s the problem: the religion of Jesus has no natural constituency. You can’t fill a church talking about compassion for the poor and the upside-down ethics and economics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t leave his followers a viable model for church growth. Jesus is scratchin’ where we ain’t itchin’."

"But what if there is a God? And what if this God has plans and dreams out of sync with the rhythms of American consumerism and the national security state? And what if Jesus is right about the least and the lost? In that case, we’re in big trouble and our religion, for all its vigor, is part of the problem."

"There is something pathetic about an anti-gay crusader manipulating young men into sexual encounters. But I suspect the civil suits recently filed against the Baptist Bishop are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. Eddie Long probably doesn’t realize that he has inverted the teaching of Jesus, exchanging foul for fair and fair for foul. He simply figured that a religious formula that worked for others would work for him."

"He was right. In the hands of a charismatic preacher, the prosperity gospel is a proven money machine. It doesn’t work for everyone. The preacher is the product. If you sound loud, proud and confident, walk with a sanctified swagger and look like the American dream, you too can be a prosperity preacher. Unfortunately, it’s all a marketing gimmick. God doesn’t send us magic money from heaven."

"Prosperity preachers like Eddie Long are simply the most egregious example of a general spiritual collapse."

Bean goes on to say...

"“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed, “because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee day of the Lord” (when all the slaves go free). Can such a message be institutionalized? Can American preachers grow rich speaking this way? Can they even survive?"

"These are the real questions raised by the Eddie Long controversy. The big deal isn’t that a successful pastor may be disgraced; it’s that American pastors must twist themselves into ethical, intellectual and emotional knots if they hope to be truly successful. The closer our religion gets to reality, the harder it becomes to institutionalize. The more successful our religion becomes, the further it strays from the spirit of Jesus."

You can read the rest of his post here.

The issue with Long is, I'm finding out, one in a string of personal and ministerial 'defeats' of high profile 'prosperity gospel' preachers over the past couple of years. Alan Bean's take on this rings true, for me and helps me better locate the context in which I think the church at large should probably examine and explain this problem. We certainly can't accept it as the norm. Those of us who are ministers must not glory or gloat about this apparent failure, or fall, if that's what it is.
This is, among other things, a time for deep self examination and reflection, of not only our ministries and messages, but our motives also.