Thursday, November 13, 2014

Help vs. Hype

Last week a lot of hype was going around the internet that a 90-year old man had been arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for feeding homeless individuals on the streets. First off, he had NOT been arrested. However, this feeding program that he was organizing used public spaces such as parks or beaches in violation of an city ordinance and he had been cited for his actions. Much of the news around this has been sensationalized with misleading headlines (such as the huffpost article linked above). Unfortunately only on rare occasions has there been much substance to the conversation.

Cities around the country face a significant challenge in caring for and working with our homeless communities. In Fort Worth we have anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 individuals who are homeless at any given time. Of this number 400-500 are listed as being "chronically" homeless (homeless for over a year or with 4 or more episodes of homelessness in the past 3 years). Many of these homeless are children, victims of domestic abuse, or suffer from a mental illness. Again, in contrast to the hype, a small percentage of them have a debilitating substance abuse problem. 10% of our homeless also tend to be veterans of the U.S. armed services.

When you actually engage the homeless community these statistics come very clear. As the pastor of a church in the heart of the city I have had the opportunity to get to know our homeless neighbors. Several times a week, especially in colder months, I have the opportunity to speak with and engage homeless neighbors who seek shelter in our courtyard or come asking for food assistance.

Through the generosity of Trinity members and the fees I earn doing non-member weddings my pastoral discretionary account allows me to buy these individuals a meal at McDonald's or help them with a tank of gas if they are passing through. I encourage them to seek assistance with the programs we support. However, the vast majority of these individuals are the small percentage (less than 10%) of our homeless community who are homeless largely due to substance abuse problems.

Rather than seek shelter, treatment, or solutions to get off the streets, their addiction has trapped them. Rarely does a day go by I don't pick up several empty cans of high alcohol beer from the church property. We have had to warn our yard volunteers when picking up leaves to wear gloves and watch for sharp objects. These are the realities of being a church in the city and we embrace those realities because this is where our church is planted.

Then there is the experience I have every second Tuesday of the month when Trinity hosts game night at the main shelter and the women & children's shelter at the Presbyterian Night Shelter. The PNS is the largest provider of services to homeless people in our community. That evening members of Trinity serve hot chocolate (lemonade in summer) and provide cookies, conversation, game partners, and prayer partners. Each evening we serve 200 or so individuals in the main shelter and 20-30 children and their mothers. These are a mixture of folks who are homeless for a variety of reasons. Many temporarily homeless due to job loss, illness, or domestic violence. Some came to Texas for the winter or to seek work in our "booming" economy. PNS and other programs like them provides them a place to land, to prepare paperwork to receive benefits they might be due (especially for Veterans), and hopefully being a journey home.

All of these individuals are human beings deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. And at Trinity and in the shelter programs in our city I believe they receive that respect. In addition to shelter programs our city has an organized program to assist those who are willing to make the journey from homelessness to home. Shelter is available to individuals willing to conform to simple rules and only a couple hundred a night choose to do otherwise. Although hunger and food insecurity is a problem, often for our school children (80% of students at my daughter's school qualify for free breakfast and lunch) more than adults, there is no wide-spread starvation on the streets of Fort Worth.

Despite this positive work we do have significant problems in Fort Worth. We have ghettoized the homeless programs largely into the East Lancaster area away from the tourist areas of downtown. Directions Home has been underfunded by local and state government. More could be done for the spiritual and emotional well being of homeless men, women, and children. We spend hundreds of millions on new arenas and development projects. Yet the windfalls from those projects directly benefit only a small percentage of the Fort Worth population. Directions Home struggles to make its commitments due to budget cuts.

We have challenges in our city as does every city. However, the hype and sensationalized coverage of the events in Fort Lauderdale do little to truly help our homeless sisters and brothers. During the holidays many will have the desire to go to a "soup kitchen" and serve or donate one of their spare coats to a clothes closet. That is a noble gesture and one to be encouraged. However, if you truly desire to serve those in our community who are homeless please get involved with organizations that have the ability to do more than provide a meal and a photo-op. Make service more than just a holiday thing but a regular part of your life, the life of your church, and your family's life.

I have no doubt Mr. Abbot is sincerely trying to bring attention to and move conversation forward about the root causes of homelessness in our communities. As a 90 year old man he sets a challenging example to any who might say they are to old or too young to serve (follow Paul's admonition to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4).

However, to help people, to accompany our sisters and brothers in need, requires much more than setting up a table with some food in a park. It takes engagement, relationships, case-management, knowledge, and connections to services and spiritual care. There is work to be done year round. So I applaud Mr. Abbot's desire and take a challenge from him. If a 90 year old can do it, so can you. Let go of the hype and get to work with help.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ruling at 53%

Elections come and elections go. However, with the advent of Facebook in recent years every time the first Tuesday in November rolls around there is a rush for folks to post their "I voted" pictures and wax poetic (largely) about the democratic process in our country.

However, a funny thing seems to happen about 9pm or so that evening. A change occurs in the posts. Lamentation and depression begin to fill one group while further cheers about the joys of living in a free democracy come from another. And there is silence as the Libertarians and Greens once again realize they have no legitimate chance of winning state-wide or national elections of any real scale.

This year those of my friends who support the Republican party were the one's who were able to cheer and celebrate while my Democratic party friends lamented. This should come as no surprise, the six year itch always seems to hit the party of the President (Teddy Roosevelt and Bill Clinton are the exceptions). This year should have been no surprise given the intense response to President Obama from the first day he took office.

The trouble however comes now. No party really has a mandate from the American people (rarely do they ever). The electorate is firmly divided nationally and even locally. How can one claim to be the will of the people when you hold an advantage of only two or three votes (as the Republicans do in the Senate now) and no ability to enact cloture (without invoking the so-called "nuclear option"). And without the ability to override a Presidential veto.

The late Tip O'Neill was right all along when he stated "All politics is local." The trouble with him being right however is that American people have an incredible ability to assume their local context is the national reality. I have been a resident of 3 states in my life (Texas, Massachusetts, Wisconsin) and lived a significant amount of time in two others (Pennsylvania, Washington). These are diverse and dramatically different places.

Yet the one thing I have found in common in those places is a tendency of the residents there to normalize their existence to the nation. Their reality is somehow the global reality. This is especially a challenge because we continue in this nation to segregate along economic, racial, political, and linguistic lines. Rarely do individuals by choice come in contact with "the other." We tend to sit in rooms in which 8 or more of the people look, talk, live, and think like us. Otherwise we become uncomfortable and we drive out those whose opinions are different from ours.

The challenge then is leading when you only gained 53% of the electorate. I use 53% because in Fort Worth the State Senate seat was won by that number. 53% is hardly a mandate. Theoretically if you put together 10 random people from your district in a given room 5 would agree with you, and well over 4 disagree. How do you lead that room? History, at least the last couple/three decades of history, tells us there won't be much leading but much more power. Certainly there has not been Transformational leadership. There will be Transactional exchanges and exercises of power utilizing the 53% who put you in office. The leader will be desperate to keep that number happy. Because when you win with 53% if only 3-4% were to shift, you would be out.

Unfortunately what this means is that the rooms our leaders tend to spend their time in aren't reflective of the electorate as a whole. They, as do we, live in echo-chambers that repeat what they want to hear, that reinforce the normalizing instinct.

Our churches can and often have been like this as well. In 1973 a slim 55% majority radically shifted the future of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. This slim majority impacted the future of that denomination and, as James Burkee has well argued, led it to become increasingly marginal in the national religious landscape.

But this also happened to those on the other side of that convention. While the leaders of the Seminex movement and later the AELC felt they had a strong base of support, they did not have much of the rank and file in the pews and pulpits. Their own echo chambers failed to take into account the majority of individuals want three things from their church: worship, sunday school, and bathrooms.

If history is our teacher, the control achieved today will no doubt be held for 2-4 years, and then relinquished again. A mandate will be proclaimed by the winning party and transactional leadership will go on until the swing back occurs. This is both part of the genius of the American democratic system (that keeps things from going too fast and too far too quickly) and one of the great failures as well. A failure that can only be righted by the American people stepping out of their own personal echo-chambers, gated communities, neighborhoods, facebook groups, preferred news outlets, and engaging "the other" in their midst.

But that is hard work. Work that cannot be done without leadership that goes beyond power wielding and grasping. I see this most hopefully at the local level. Neighborhood councils, city government, PTA's, and congregational leaders. Mayors who actually speak to their people from many different walks of life and work together to find solutions to the local problems.

We need Leadership that challenges our normal assumptions, that moves us to a higher moral plane, transformational leadership. This can and does happen locally everyday. Let's take the focus off the macro and look at the micro. This should be good new for those helpless Libertarians and Greens as well. Lift that leadership up and celebrate that hope, go meet a neighbor who doesn't look like you, speak your language, earn your same level of income, or eat the foods you eat. And if you don't have such a neighbor, ask why?