Tag Archives: poverty

When Helping Hurts – Post #4

Over the past few weeks I have been blogging through the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The authors point out that how you go about alleviating poverty is the result of how you define your end goal.  If you define poverty purely as a lack of material things, you will develop strategies that focus on material provision.  If however, you define poverty as the authors do

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

Then you will approach poverty alleviation differently.  The authors provide this definition

“Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile relationships with God, self, others and creation so that people can fulfill their calling of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of their work.”

The authors go on to say

“Poverty alleviation goes beyond insuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to be what God created them to be. ”

I wanted to shout AMEN when I read the following statement which sums up the goal of the ministry of Embrace.  The author’s write

“The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them: and people who steward their lives, communities resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God.  These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.”

To emphasize this concept of “the goal as process not a product”, the authors tell the story of a ministry that purchased an abandoned building and rehabbed it in partnership with residents of the community with the vision being to use the house as affordable housing.  The project took five years and it only yielded one house.  However in those five years, those working on the house develop deep lasting friendships with their neighbors.  These relationships were life giving and would last long beyond the end of the project.  If the goal were to create affordable housing, it could have been done much faster.  However, the goal was community relationship building and the house was simply a project or a means to achieve that goal.

I am often frustrated with funding requirements because funders seem to want you to crank out “products”; food, employment solutions, shelter beds, meals, etc.  However, relationships are not products and can only be formed through a sustainable process of connecting with people around things they are passionate about.  Yes, Embrace Richmond does provide meals, food, furniture, financial resources, employment assistance and transportation services etc.    However, these “products” are not the goal.  The goal is to empower our community members to be a blessing to their neighbors and to bond with one another and outside volunteers as they are serving together and meeting these material needs.

This is a very hard paradigm shift for some people to make.  For Embrace the goal is not more material stuff but more love, more support, more acceptance.  In the long run love, support and acceptance will break the bonds of poverty and people will achieve far more than you could ever provide for them.  The material items are simply a means to an end.  It is far easier to meet material needs than it is to empower people to meet their own needs but it is the only way to truly alleviate poverty over the long-haul.

I hope you have enjoyed the insights from this book.  As I mentioned in Post #2 the authors are far more theologically conservative than I am, but I agreed with the basic premise underlying the authors approach to the issue of poverty.

What roles can people of faith play in this vision of poverty alleviation?

What challenges do you see with this approach to alleviating poverty?

Do you know of any good ministries or other programs that are using this approach to poverty alleviation?

OK, my reading table is empty.  Any book suggestions for future blogging projects?

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Welcome to Wonderland: Insights From a Couple of Angry Alice’s

alice in wonderland at the criss museumphoto © 2010 RAFTWET Jewell | more info (via: Wylio)I think I know what Alice felt like when she returned home after spending time in wonderland.  I doubt she went back to life as it was before.  I think she longed to see the mysterious Cheshire Cat appearing and disappearing and I bet she missed the Mad Hatter’s jokes.  I suspect she had a hard time discerning what was real for the rest of her life.  People who fall into rabbit holes are never the same!

Spending my days in the inner city in a culture of extreme poverty and my evenings at my home in the suburbs living midst people of relative wealth, is like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole every morning, spending the day in Wonderland, and coming out into Disneyland every evening.  I spend many weekends in my cabin in the woods simply trying to make sense of these two worlds.   The insanity of Wonderland leaves my head spinning.  Things like kids killing kids, substance abuse, violence and neglect are so challenging to my Disneyland existence.  After spending time in Wonderland, Disneyland just feels fake.  From the master planned communities, to the manicured lawns, to the pedigreed pooches, we are all living out a script in a world designed for our comfort and convenience.  Which is real?  Is it all just an illusion?

In Wonderland $50 would keep a family in housing for a month, but in Disneyland it is simply the price of dinner for two.  Down in the rabbit hole, no one has a car, yet in Disneyland a car is a rite of passage for most every sixteen year old.   In my urban context, people struggle to keep phone service often paying by the minute while every child over the age of seven in the burbs has unlimited minutes and texting.  My friends in the inner city wait in long lines for handouts from strangers to stock their pantries, while we roll through the grocery stores selecting the finest foods for our tables.  I have friends in the inner city who have been looking for a job for years, yet my sixteen year old got a job in a week.

I am not saying this to make anyone feel guilty.  My daughter has a car, all my girls have cell phones and Chris and I have been known to drop more than $50 during a night out for just the two of us.  What I am trying to capture is the surreal nature of these two extreme ends of our American culture.  As one who travels back and forth between these “lands”, I struggle making sense of it all.  I also sometimes get angry: angry at the injustice I see in Wonderland, angry at the waste I see in Disneyland, angry at the church that appears to be just another ride in Disneyland and angry at myself for not being able to stop the insanity of it all.

Hugh Hollowell wrote an excellent post titled “Why I Am Angry – Or Down The Rabbit Hole.” He captured far better than I can, why the Alice’s are angry.  I strongly encourage you all to read Hugh’s post.  I think it might help you all understand why some of my writings may come across as angry.

There is also a certain element of guilt that I feel because I choose to live where I live.  Disneyland has great schools and my children are receiving the finest education.  I think most of us choose Disneyland for our children.  The challenge is to remember that Disneyland is not reality.  We swim in waters that tell us that we deserve a $4 coffee every morning while kids in Wonderland go hungry.  We believe the Disneyland version of a God that would only call us to do things that are safe, convenient and make us feel good.  We want to love our neighbors in Wonderland but only if we can do so from the comfort of Disneyland.   Yet, Wonderland is a world without rules, without schedules, without reason. You cannot minister in Wonderland with a Disneyland approach.

I had a pastor from a very wealthy suburban church ask me this week, “Where does the suburban church fit into the battle to alleviate poverty in our city?”  The truth is you cannot battle the injustice in Wonderland unless you are willing to leave Disneyland. The journey from Disneyland to Wonderland happens physically but more importantly mentally and spiritually. You have to become like Alice, lost in a strange new world with its own rules.  You have to allow white rabbits to lead you and you must be open to learning from a caterpillar.  You have to put up with the misdirection of that mischievous cat, pointless tea parties, and the harsh injustice of ruling kings and queens.  Like Alice you enter this world without a map or a compass, without power and control, and you have to simply feel your way through like a lost little girl.  Sometimes, you will catch a glimpse of a white rabbit and think you are heading the right direction only to find you are more lost than you thought. Unlike the God of Disneyland where we pray and get what we want, the God of Wonderland works in mysterious ways in a land where children are beaten and neglected and others shot and killed in the streets.

Only those seeking to follow a crucified savior dare enter this world.  Only those who believe God can work in uncertainty and chaos will survive.  Only those who believe that their simple presence holds power would find meaning in entering in.  We do not enter Wonderland to “change it”, we enter to be changed by it.  Somehow, when little girls from Disneyland become friends with the March Hare’s of Wonderland, the illusions of both worlds are shattered and the reality of God’s Kingdom breaks in.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Urban Ministry

Why don’t more Christians respond to the needs of those on the margins?

I spend many days alone on our property in rural Virginia.  This cabin in the woods is my sanctuary.  I shared earlier this week that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all the need that surrounds me on a daily basis.  I know when that begins to happen, it is time to get away.  We know from scripture that Jesus often withdrew to a lonely place, and I think I understand why.  In the midst of the noise of ministry, it is very hard to hear God’s voice clearly and even harder to discern the path in front of you.

I always begin these personal retreats with a walk around the property with my 150 pound Bernese Mountain Dog named Max.  Today, I decided to take a path I have not traveled in a while through the woods and was sad to see that the trail was covered over with leaves and sticks and that in several places it was blocked by fallen trees and large limbs.  Before I could continue my journey, I had to stop and clear away the debris from the road.  As I sat to write this post, I realized that “clearing away the debris” is what a good theologian helps us do.  They help us rediscover ancient pathways that may have been neglected or covered over with other things.

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Filed under Leadership, Urban Ministry

Giving Up on Serving the Poor

Over the years I have met many people who have said to me “I gave up on serving the poor” for a variety of reasons; they became too busy, they got burned, they did not feel like they were making a difference or did not feel like they were appreciated.  However, Claudio Oliver gives an even better reason in a post on the site  The Ooze titled “Why I stopped serving the poor”.  Below is a small excerpt from the post.  I encourage you to read the full article.

“I’ve given up on helping the poor, given up on serving and saving them. I have rediscovered a hard truth:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer.

God Shows Up in Our Need to Be Healed

Jesus’ agenda only brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy and hopeless. As for the rest, his agenda has little or nothing to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is if we discover that we are the miserable ones. We remain with the poor when we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes. When we can see our own misery and poverty in them, when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda.

God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed. Finding out this weakness of ours leaves us in a position of having nothing to offer, serve, donate, but reveals our need to be loved, healed and restored.

Herein lies the meaning that the power within us is not the power of our strengths, abilities and wealth, but rather, in the power that is present in our personal misery, so well hidden and disguised in our possessions and false securities. As Jean Vanier says in a book I recently read. “We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion, and love through our wounds.”

I have given up on serving the poor. I’m going back to encountering the poor and finding myself in them. I have rediscovered my poverty. And with it I can cry out again: “Son of David, have mercy on me.

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Filed under Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Listening to the Lilies

Have you listened to the lilies lately?  Has God ever spoken to you through the birds of the air? Matthew 2:26-29 was the first passage of scripture that ever deeply convicted me.  In this passage Jesus is reminding us about how foolish our tendency to worry is.  One of my greatest challenges throughout my Christian journey has been accepting the simple truth of this passage; “26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

As I shared in my post titled “The Gift of Discontentment” and “Maintaining Balance”, I experience God most powerfully in nature.  Some of the most profound lessons I have learned in my spiritual journey were learned from ducks and lakes.  This past weekend we celebrated Earth Day and today I listed to a beautiful sermon about earth day by Brian McLaren which was delivered at the National Cathedral.  I encourage you all to take the time to listen to Brian’s message which can be found on his blog in a post titled “For the beauty of the earth”

I am very fortunate to have the ability to spend a considerable amount of time enjoying the beauty of creation either in my kayak, on my bike, camping with my family, or hiking the trails around my neighborhood.  I can not imagine not having these places and opportunities in my life.  Sadly, many of my urban friends do not have the same access to creation that I have due to a lack of transportation and the limited parks that surround our public housing complexes.

I never really thought about nature as a privilege until this weekend when we did a  prayer walk through Hillside Court; the grass was over grown, there were no flowers, the park is in severe dis-repair, and the community is in the middle of an industrial area surrounded by warehouses.  A little girl stood peeking through a screen door at us as we walked by.  My teammate, Rudy, commented “It looks like she is in jail.”  It was a haunting image.

As my children hop on their bikes and head to the neighborhood playground or climb trees at our land this week, I will remember that little girl in the cinder block cell, peeking out at the world.  How will she experience the loving embrace of the God of creation that has so profoundly shaped my life?

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

A Glimpse of Dr. King’s Vision

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King in his letters from a Birmingham Jail writes to his fellow clergymen, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. . . All too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. . . The contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. . .But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

What I have always loved about Dr. King is his passion for unity and commitment to bringing about that unity through love.  I belive this passage is written not out of anger or disgust, though I am certain those emotions were present, but out of true affection for the church and what she is called to be; a unified body striving to reconcile the world to God while reconciling humankind to one another.  I read these words and am saddened that some 47 years after Dr. King wrote them, many of our white suburban churches still look more like country clubs than the radical counter cultural early church and many who profess Christ still sit silently in the wings while their brothers and sisters are persecuted across the world and in their own city.  I write these words not because of a dislike of or anger at the suburban church but out of a deep love for the Body of Christ and a grieving spirit that wants so desperately to see this broken and fragmented body unite. 

Tomorrow is MLK Day and we at Embrace Richmond and some 80+ volunteers from both the suburban church and inner city communities where we serve will join hands and make Dr. King proud as we celebrate the amazing creative gifts of inner city children and the compassionate hearts of suburban youth.  Perhaps it is too late for my generation to live fully into Dr. King’s vision of unity but I know without a doubt our children will lead us into that promise land.  I can not wait to catch a glimpse of this vision tomorrow!

Please pray for all those serving through MLK Day celebrations across this country.  May we all remember the great sacrifices of Dr. King and embrace his vision of unity and justice.

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

Has the Light Gone Out?

Several months ago my friend Charles and I were delivering school supplies to a church for inner city children living in Church Hill.  This community was named Church Hill because there is a church on nearly every corner; large stately churches that cast ominous shadows.  I mistakenly missed the turn to the church parking lot and was forced to make the block.  As I turned right on “T” street, it became obvious from the number of women standing on the corners that I had stumbled into territory belonging to the “working girls” and their “business managers”.  As I drove slowly past, Charles said “stop the car”.  He rolled down his window and struck up a conversation with a man who was leaning on a large stick.  As he approached the car, I could see the perplexed look on his face.  He knew Charles from the street, I am sure he was wondering what Charles was doing in a minivan with a white woman loaded with school supplies.  Charles just smiled at him, asked how he was doing and said “Man, I will have to catch you later, I got to get back to work” and we pulled away.

I asked Charles who the man was and he shared that he had been in The Healing Place, which is a recovery program, but had relapsed and gone back out on the streets.  He then educated me about how he made is living by selling his girlfriend who was on the corner across from him.  He offered her assurances that if anyone messed with her, he will kill them, thus the importance of the stick and his presence.

We turned the corner, pulled into the church parking lot but my eyes could not help but return to the half dozen women selling their bodies there in the shadow of Christ church.

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned”, the author in the book of Matthew in the 4th chapter claims that Jesus is the fulfillment of these words originally spoken by the Prophet Isaiah.  I have a question.  If Jesus is the great light to those living in darkness, has the light gone out?

If you stroll through some of the darkest corners of our city you will see some of the most spectacular church buildings ever built in Richmond.  But instead of being a light casting out darkness, many are abandoned and now their shadows only add to the darkness.

We have all heard that “the Church” is not a building but a people, so where are the people?  Sadly the truth is that the original architects of these churches have fled these communities out of prejudice and fear.  The Body of Christ abandoned not only their church buildings but also the people living in darkness in its shadow.

In my work, I visit many suburban churches and it seems that every one I visit is going through some phase of a building campaign.  They usually give me the grand tour, proudly pointing to an architectural drawing on the wall saying “We are in Phase 4” but in “Phase 8” we will have a gymnasium and a new family life center.  I listen to their sermons many of which are simply creative messages aimed at soliciting the funds needed to complete these grand complexes.  I wonder, will they one day abandon these as well?

When I look at the church budgets, I see 30%-50% of the budget going toward buildings, with less than 1% going toward caring for the local poor.  And I wonder, “Why is it so dark in the shadow of the church?”

So how can we restore the light?  Matthew also gives us the answer to that question in Chapter 5 vs. 16 “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  The Body of Christ must carry the light into dark places, to the women on “T” street, to the men purchasing their services, to the dealers selling the drugs, and to the children who witness the violence of it all.  We do not carry the light with our words; according to Matthew it is in our “good deeds” that the light shines the brightest.

I asked Charles what we could do for his friend on “T” street and he said “I just did it.”  I looked at him puzzled and asked “What did you do?”  “I let him know that I still care about him and I showed him that the program works simply by me being with you, working an honest job, I am bearing witness that God has saved me and can help him when he is ready.”  Charles is a very wise man.  Sometimes our simple presence in dark places is a light to those living in darkness.

Let us remember Jesus who was and is “The Light of the World”.  I pray you will choose to become little children and live the words we have all sing but seldom embody “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine , let it shine.”  Don’t let Satan snuff it out with fear and lies, don’t hide it under a basket, but choose to hold it high so that it drives away the shadow of darkness and brings hope to a hurting world that thinks the light has gone out.

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Top Post's of All Time, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

I choose “not Fear”

The headlines in the Richmond Times Dispatch today reads:

Two males were found shot today near the Hillside Court public-housing complex in South Richmond. Authorities were investigating to see if the shootings were related.

Richmond police said one male was found shot in the abdomen about 10:15 a.m. near Rosecrest Avenue and Harwood Street. Another male was found with a gunshot wound to his lower left arm about five minutes later in the 1300 block of Minefee Street, a short distance southwest of the first shooting scene.

At 10:45 my team turned the corner onto Rosecrest to see squad cars and ambulances removing the bodies from the scene. 

At the same time I was facilitating a conversation at Fairfield Court where two weeks earlier an elderly team member was beaten and robbed.  The goal for today was to help the team cast a vision for what they would like to see in their community.  The prior week they drew pictures of children playing and people walking the street without fear.  Safety is the #1 concern of residence. 

However, I was shocked when I said to the group “How do we help your community overcome fear?”  One very thoughtful member of our team boldly said “What do you mean fear?  I do not have any fear.  I have Jesus, what is there to fear?”  He did not say it in an arrogant manner, but more as a stated fact.  Every member of the group shared that it was their faith that helped them overcome their battles with fear.   

I was so astounded by their incredibly bold rebuke of the spirit of fear that I was completely insensitive to my dear friend who was driving my Hillside team home right after the hillside shootings.  When I arrived at lunch I could tell she was upset about the shootings and I naively thought that calling on her faith and sharing the bold spirit of our East End friends would enable her to overcome her fear.  I was wrong and my insensitivity to her very real fear, was inexcusable. 

As we have sought to build bridges from some of the safest communities in Richmond to some of the most dangerous, fear has been our enemy.  It is an enemy I have had to do battle with in many different ways and many different forms. 

In 2005, a gun man began firing at one of my clients across the street from where my children were serving in the courtyard of a church building in Highland Park.  That was my first real test.  I consulted those wiser than me and they all challenged me to overcome my fear and remain in the community but fear won that battle and I left Highland Park.  I abandoned the team that had served with me there for safer territory and I have regretted it every since. 

We are now in communities equally as dangerous as Highland Park and today I was consumed by a different spirit, a spirit of boldness.  I refuse to be intimidated and I refuse to allow the enemy to derail our team from the good work it is called to. 

I understand why many of my teammates choose not to be in the community today, years ago I would have made the same choice.  However, I pray they understand why that was not an option for me.  I rarely do aftercare visits in the community anymore because of my busy schedule but when my team choose not to go, I heard God saying “Whom shall I send?” and I boldly said “I will go.”  This decision, this battle, was my own.  It was a show down between me and the enemy and this time, I overcame fear.  The strange thing is, I was not fearful.  After the Highland Park incident, I prayed that God would remove far from me that spirit of fear and give me a boldness and God in his faithfulness has and I see this same spirit in my urban friends.

I apologize to those I was insensitive to today.  I pray you understand that years ago, I choose never again to allow fear of bodily harm to keep me from what God called me to.  Perhaps it is a unique gift that not all receive, or perhaps it only comes after many battles, or perhaps I am simply foolish. 

I do want you all to know, should by some chance the enemy win and take me from this earth, I pray you will celebrate my call to be faithful and recognize that should I depart, it is because it is God’s will and not because of some foolish choice I made.  I choose to believe that God is in control and that even I can not mess that up.

My dear friend Martha Rollins has been leading inner city ministries in Highland Park for much longer than I.  She once said to me we decided we would “choose love not fear” and every time we are tempted to give into fear we just remind challenge ourselves “choose love not fear”.  Martha’s ministry has adopted her bold spirit and when I asked her how she did it, she said “it takes a couragous leader” to model “not fear”.  Today, in my spirit, I knew I had to model courage and I pray someday my team will follow or at least understand my choice.

A dear friend Jamie helped me see that we all have fears.  While I have overcome my fear of bodily harm, I am still fearful of other things, like not being able to make payroll, or not meeting our outcomes goals.  Today was both a victory for me and a conviction.   I pray God continues to work in me and continues to drive out all fear, in all parts of my life.  These passages remind us that fear, all types of fear, other than the fear of God, are not of God.   I pray they bless you as much as they have me.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:17-19

 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
1 John 3:15-17

 

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:17-19

 

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear ; do not be frightened.”
1 Peter 3:13-15

 

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Romans 8:14-16

 

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

STOP the INSANITY!

The headline reads “Elderly Woman Beaten and Robbed.”  How many captions of this nature do we see and dismiss?  Normally I would not even pause to consider the victim or the perpetrator, that is not until the “Elderly Woman” moved from an anonymous victim to a friend, co-laborer, and teammate.  Mrs. Gabriel is a kind-hearted resident of Fairfield Court.  She cares for her grand children, serves on the tenant council and comes faithfully twice a week to serve on our Embrace Fairfield team; at least she did until a twisted, cruel person beat her, robbed her and stole her peace of mind. 

It was not until this week, with the beating of this sweet elderly friend that I really realized the level of fear and oppression my friends live under.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, my team and I drive into some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Richmond but it is easy to forget where we are.  We arrive to see the smiling faces of women like Mrs. Gabriel. They are the saints, the remnant, who were left behind to pray and seek justice for their impoverished neighbors.  Many of them have lived in these communities 30+ years and tell stories of how the projects used to be. How back in the day, children played on the streets and families cared for and supported one another.  Now mothers who care about their children keep them locked inside, and neighbors avoid one another and isolate behind closed doors.  The once peaceful communities are now controlled by drug dealers and their residents consumed by fear.

At the conclusions of our gatherings, my staff and I return to our safe havens in the suburbs, leaving behind our fragile friends in this crime infested battle zone.  When I heard the news about Mrs. Gabriel, I was sad but the sadness quickly turned to anger, then outrage.  This would never happen in my community, we would not stand for it!  I was even more shocked when my friend Charles was surprised by my anger and said “What’s wrong with you, this kind of thing is normal. They target the elderly on the 1st of the month and follow them home from the store where they cash their social security check.” He said as if I should expect such things.  He sees the beating of the elderly as “normal”.  I suspect that Charles may have either known perpetrators of crimes of this nature or he could have even been the perpetrator back before he was freed from his 30 year addiction.

This event happened just a few days after I met a lovely man named Calvin.  Calvin is trying to raise awareness of what he feels is an unjust sentence imposed on his nephew.  His nephew was sentenced to 30 years in jail for possessing $350 of drugs.  My first thought was “Would a white kid in the burbs receive a 30 year sentence for possessing $350 in drugs?”  My heart went out to Calvin and the three small children who will grow up without a father.  It seemed so unjust, so extreme, so over the top.  But that was on Thursday and today is Sunday and a sweet little old lady is now in the hospital due to the madness of an addict.  I now empathize with that judge…the madness must stop! We are at war and the enemy is drugs and those who are supporting the drug trade. 

Drugs lie behind almost all of the suffering I have witnessed over the past five year.  It is the number one contributor to homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, robberies, violence, and the utter insanity that plagues communities of intense poverty.  I believe in being tough on crime and I understand zero tolerance and the determination of those we have charged with the responsibility of protecting citizens like Mrs. Gabriel.  However, I am still haunted by the faces of the children at our inner city elementary schools, more than 25% of whom are growing up without parents due to incarceration.  How do we keep Mrs. Gabriel safe and give these kids what they need; healthy parents?   

In the past five years I have met some of the nicest addicts and have witnessed how their addiction leads them to do some very evil things.   I hate the violence but I have come to see that when these individuals are not using substances, they really can be contributing members of society.   They can be good mothers and fathers and most deeply love their families…that is when they are not on drugs.  I have also seen how these loving, caring parents can become some of the most neglectful hurtful people when they fall prey to addiction. The war is not between us and them, most do not want to live the way they are living.  The war is between them and the addiction that is stealing their lives and destroying our communities. 

I have interviewed a number of former inmates and all of them have confirmed that all jail did for them was make them better criminals.  They learned who the major players in the drug world were, where to get the best stuff, how to conceal the drugs better and  built a network to keep themselves safe on the outside.  Our jails are simply a school for criminals and we are turning out people with PHD’s in Criminal Behavior. 

I write this post not because I have an answer but more out of utter frustration that no one seems to have a clue how to address this issue but worse is the fact that the vast majority of us do not even care to try.  Mrs. Gabriel is “down there” and we are “out here”.  It is not our problem.  “Those people” need to figure it out.   As a society, we have done some amazing things, found the cure for deadly diseases, achieved major advances in technology, but we cannot rid our community of drugs or prevent the suffering it causes.  30 year jail sentences are not the answer but neither is allowing my friends like Mrs. Gabriel to live in fear.  There has to be a better way!

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