Tag Archives: social justice

Handouts Do Not Equal Social Justice

When I explain to people that I work in the inner city and have a call to social justice ministries, I always get stories back about how they know someone who runs a clothing closet, or about how they served in a soup kitchen one time or give money to people on the street.  I have nothing against acts of charity.  Charity is a good thing.  But charity is not the same as justice.

Several years ago the director of an urban retreat center clarified this for me, he said “Christian social teaching has two feet.  One is the foot of charity or kindness and the other is the foot of justice.  Charity says “That man is hungry.”, and feeds him.  Justice asks,  “Why is that man hungry?”, and works to insure that he will not go hungry in the future.  We need both feet moving alongside one another if we want to get anywhere.”

Somewhere along the way, modern Christians got the two mixed up and began to think they were the same thing.  Everywhere I go, I see churches that spend a tremendous amount of energy and resources on charitable acts like feeding programs, short term missions trips, and the collection of material items for those in need.  What these churches don’t see is that without someone addressing the justice side of the equation real change rarely happens. I have yet to meet a church that invests as much energy in social justice ministries as it does in charitable ministries.

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Social Justice versus Evangelism

My official title is “Executive Director” but my true vocation is that of a Christian pastor.  My particular call is in equipping and empowering people of faith to live their faith in the world especially through relational ministry with those in our city who are economically disadvantaged.

I ran across an article this week that addresses an intersection I often find myself in as I seek to bridge the inner city and the church.  It is the intersection of social justice and evangelism. Because of my strong call to social justice ministries, some may think I am anti-evangelism.  However this article captures why I find the traditional evangelistic tactics unacceptable within a social justice ministry.   Dan Kimball writes in a blog titled Social justice/evangelism dichotomy and NT Wright after-thoughts, “I think we need to redefine what evangelism is in terms of how we go about it. I think some of the pendulum swing is that we haven’t been rethinking forms of evangelism (through words). So the older non-relational, overly reductionist ways grew embarrassing and emerging generations didn’t want to be associated with those forms (understandably so). But we now need to reclaim the urgency of evangelism, but doing so in ways that speaks to our culture.”

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The Weirdest Day Ever: Dead bodies, mice, preaching heroin addicts and more

Today, February 4th, 2010 will go down in the history books as the strangest day ever.  I woke this morning and found I had no voice despite the fact I was to facilitate two conversations today; one in Fairfield and one in Hillside.  Yesterday I was diagnosed with a sinus and ear infection and today I am voiceless.

 The children had a two hour delay due to ice and snow.  As I was going out the door to the car, my 16 year old slipped and fell down the steps, I tried to scream but nothing came out.  Last year I was diagnosed with osteopenia after I fell down some steps and shattered my arm which has made me very uncomfortable on steps. I froze in fear and just stood there and watched my daughter tumble down.  She was fine but I was feeling helpless.

When I got to the office today, the road was blocked off.  Apparently someone hit an electrical pole and was killed, the body still lay on the side of the road covered with a blue tarp as on lookers waited for the coroner to arrive.  I watched as a woman got out of her car looked toward the blue tarp and collapsed crying and screaming on the ground.  As I entered my building the lights flickered twice and then went completely out, the woman, the onlookers and even my building were left powerless.

When I went into my building, I saw the Homeward staff gathered under the emergency lights in the hallway as Julie my teammate came running down the hall screaming MICE!  Our building has no windows and other than the one dim emergency light in the hall there were no other lights, leaving the side offices in utter darkness.  Darkness means mice and mice equals panic in an office of all women.  We found Joe outside but sadly learned that he is more terrified of mice than Julie!  So we abandoned the building and left it in darkness.

When I arrived in Fairfield I learned that my teammate Sara Rhoten’s  grandmother died this morning, she learned of her death in the parking lot in Fairfield and this evening a second team member Jamie Mitchell learned that her grandfather died this afternoon.  Today it seems I was surrounded by death.

During  our Fairfield meeting, one of our teammates shared that his application to volunteer with a local youth program had been denied because of his criminal history.  He has had no trouble with the law for more than 20 years and all his convictions were drug charges; no violent or sexual offenses. He had wanted to volunteer with young boys to tell them his story in hopes that they would choose a different path than he had chosen.  He tried to find out why he was denied but no one would listen to him.  Like me, he was voiceless.  Tomorrow, I will wake and my voice will return but my Fairfield friend, whom the world will continue to see as a felon will still be voiceless.  Unable to vote, unable to volunteer, unable to get a job, all because of mistakes he made as a young man.  He is truly voiceless.

Another Fairfield friend shared that her son went to visit his aunt in a nearby public housing community and was charged with trespassing.  I learned today that the streets and sidewalks in public housing complexes were “privatized” which apparently means that if you are caught in those communities and are not a resident, you can be charged with trespassing simply by walking down the street.  Apparently her son is a bit stubborn, as most teen age boys are.  He got caught in that community and charged with trespassing three times.  I learned something else today.  If you are caught and charged with the same misdemeanor three times, the judge can compound the charges and charge you with a felony on the third offence.  This means that her son now has a felony conviction which has resulted in his inability to get a job simply because he went to visit his friend and family in a neighboring community.  Like me this mom feels helpless .  My helplessness was the result of ice on the steps but hers the result of an unjust law.  My daughter suffered no long term harm, but her son will pay for his felony conviction the rest of his life.  He is truly helpless.

I proceeded form Fairfield to Hillside Court only to find that the power outage that shut my building down also resulted in a power outage in Hillside court.  As my teammates and I stood in the parking lot trying to figure out what to do, a woman approached us.  I did not know her but the residents who are a part of my team did.  She proceeded to share that she needed prayer and invited us into her home.  As all eight of us crowded into her tiny apartment, she introduced us to her “mate”, a quiet young girl who shyly stood in the corner.  I suspected something was wrong with our hostess because she kept losing her balance but I was trying not to jump to conclusions as she proceeded to tell us how she loved the Lord and began quoting scriptures.  In the midst of her own preaching I watched as she nodded off and I realized the woman was stoned on heroin.  I looked to Rudy who confirmed my suspicion.  We did what we came to do; we gathered in a circle and we prayed for her.  Of course as the prayer ended she proceeded to share a sob story about needing money for school and again shared that she went to church regularly  and studied the bible.  I may be naive but I am not stupid.  I knew her tuition money was running through her veins and I had no interest in investing in that.  As we drove away, I realized that this woman had the knowledge, she knew the scriptures, professed to know the Lord, said she attended church regularly but still she was powerless against her addiction. 

I now sit in my nice warm lit bedroom in the suburbs reflecting on this day.  It is now dark outside and in Fairfield and Hillside, this is the time when the “rats” come out to devour anyone they can find.  I sit in light but my friends sit surrounded by darkness.

The image of that body laying under that blue tarp still haunts me.  It was lying there for hours which according to my friend Rudy is “normal”.  Sadly dead bodies laying on the side of the road is not an uncommon sight to for my urban friends who are all too familiar with death.

Today I experienced temporary voicelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, darkness and briefly felt the impact of death on those around me.  Sadly for many of my friends voicelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, darkness and encounters with death are everyday occurances; a reality of life.

Tonight I am grieving many things.  I am grieving the lose of the life of the driver. I am grieving the pain of Sara and Jamie for the loss of their loved ones.   I am grieving the injustice that makes my friends feel voiceless and helpless.  I am grieving the darkness that surrounds people trapped in poverty and leaves them feeling powerless and I am grieving the fact that death is common place and not even grieved in some communities.

However, I am also hopeful because today my team brought light into the darkness simply by being present and standing in solidarity with our urban friends.  Did we change anything?  Did we overcome injustice, bring freedom to the oppressed,  sight to the blind, raise the dead?  No, but we were faithful and that is all God asks of us.  On my way home tonight I was behind a minivan with the license plate “HZ LORD” and in spite of today’s circumstances I choose to believe He Is still Lord.  I don’t understand why today happened the way it did.  I am writing this post so I remember when I get to heaven to ask God to explain the events of February 4, 2010, the weirdest day ever.  I am sure somehow, someway, someday, this will all make sense but tonight I am at peace simply knowing it is not for me to know.

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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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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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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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Toward a Free and Virtuous City

New York City Sky line

 

This past week I spent three days at a conference with Acton Institute attending their “Toward a Free and Virtuous City” conference.  I did not know much about Acton before I went, but the trip was free and I wanted to go to New York so I gambled and it paid off.  I learned a lot and there are still an number of concepts that I am still wrestling with.  Below are some of the ideas that I gleaned from the conference that I really liked.

The Principle of Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity – is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

Social Structures lowest to highest:  The lowest possible structure should assume responsibllity

The Individual   

Immediate Family           

Extended Family             

Neighbors          

Community

Church Family   

Civic Groups                  

Local Government          

State Gov           

Federal Government

While I agree with this concept, here is what I wrestle with:  What if the lower structures are not “competent” to deal with an issue.  Individuals who are disabled, family structures that are unhealthy, communities that are under resourced, issues that are too complex for local and state governments.  I agree with my friends from Acton that the lower structures are the “ideal” and I think we have all grown too comfortable looking to the Federal Government to meet all the needs.  However, I also know that in many families and communities, the ideal is simply not possible.  While I think we need to strive to move toward it as a long-term goal, I also think we need to have short-term measures to address human suffering but that avoid long-term dependency.

               

7 Marks of Effective Private Charities – Marvin Olasky http://www.acton.org/ppolicy/compassion/ppolicy_compassion_olasky.php

  1. Affiliation – those who know the person by natural affiliation are best able to assist.  The family should be the first line of assistance and family restoration should be the goal of the private charity if restoration would be healthy for all members of the family.
  2. Bonding – when no natural affiliations exist, care givers should enter into a relationship as a surrogate family with a willingness to become deeply involved in an individual’s life but with the individuals best interests not our need to “help” as the guiding principle.  Sometimes family have to choose tough love and as the family of God we can do no less.
  3. Categorization – effective care givers understand that everyone’s needs are different and use discernment to decide who is “worthy” of assistance.  “Work tests” are often used to separate those who are ready for assistance from those who are not.

Passage from the Didache and ancient Christian teaching – “But receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, and prove and know him afterward; for you shall have understanding right and left. If he who comes is a wayfarer, assist him as far as you are able; but he shall not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. But if he wants to stay with you, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade,  see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to work, he is a Christ-monger. Beware that you keep away from such.”

  1. Discernment – wise giving and wise withholding are alike forms of charity.  Sometimes doing nothing is the best response.
  2. Employment – If we want to help people move toward self-sufficiency we MUST insure that all have the opportunity to work.  It is the only sustainable means of alleviating poverty.  Those who choose not to work should reap the consequences of this choice.

Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Research Institute states, “When we do something for someone that they could do for themselves, we are disrespecting that person.”

  1. Freedom – We must help individuals realize their full potential and not allow them to become enslaved by governmental program or hopelessness that keeps them from realizing their true potential.  When we cause another to become dependent on assistance from another we are enslaving them.
  2. God – true charity takes into account both the spiritual and physical needs of the person.

 

The concepts above are affirming of the efforts we have made at Embrace and also challenging.  I am still pondering how to put these theories into practice but took the first step by weaving them into our Unity Works training sessions. Should be an interesting conversation.   Lots to think about.  Please share your thoughts.

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