Poverty

Why We Can't Wait

Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Martin Luther King, Jr., statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

It’s been 50 years since several significant events of the civil rights movement of the 1960s occurred, yet our society is still plagued with systemic racism. It’s been almost 150 years since we abolished slavery in this country, yet many are still enslaved daily by the oppression of discrimination and poverty. While significant strides in equality and justice have taken place, new systems of injustices have been instated and threaten the integrity of our much-stated rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I am most presently thinking of the system of the “New Jim Crow,” something author and advocate Michelle Alexander has awakened society to with the recent publication of her book with that title. The New Jim Crowrefers to the web of injustices related to mass incarceration and the stripping of basic rights of returning citizens reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws of our nation’s history. Today, returning citizens face “legalized discrimination” from employers and landlords, making it extremely difficult for them to get a job or a place to live. Additionally, in many states they are not allowed to sit on a jury or express their right to vote, meaning their voices are stifled.

On Scripture: When People You Don’t Much Like Receive God’s Love

Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

Our distaste for people who cut in line remains unchanged as we grow up. Whether someone gets to the front of the lunch line or the airport security check before us in an unfair way, our annoyance is raised. People who steal our parking spots during the Christmas season are the recipients of our worst thoughts. We might — just might — yell a string of expletives and death threats at anyone who has wronged us on the road or in a parking lot.

It’s not just about being orderly and following the rules. Instead, we rue the flouting of justice and fairness. I have been waiting patiently in line; what gives you the right to deem yourself better than me?

Yet if we’re honest, we will quickly realize that such outrageous reactions to outrageous behavior are no better than the line cutter or parking space thief. Moreover, our sense of injustice is quite attuned to moments of personal grievance even as we neglect how our actions may harm others. If anything, these moments of rage reveal much more about us than those we think have aggrieved us.

The Sequester: Pocket Change?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) leaves after a caucus meeting at the Capitol in February. Alex Wong/Getty Images

“I believe the sequester is a pittance.”

Those were conservative Sen. Rand Paul’s words in an opinion piece this week about the sequester – severe and arbitrary cuts to the federal budget that Congress did nothing to stop. We could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he hasn’t seen the numbers:

  • The nutrition program for women with children — WIC — will have to turn away 600,000 to 775,000 women, many of whom have young children.
  • The 3.8 million currently unemployed workers will have their support cut by 11 percent.
  • 100,000 low-income families will lose their housing vouchers.
  • 125,000 individuals and families are now at risk of homelessness.

That doesn’t sound like a “pittance” to me.

Luke 15:11-32, Migration, and our Prodigal Public

Father and son, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Father and son, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

The human community exists in perpetual motion; migration is a constant feature of our local and global reality. According to the International Organization for Migration, the total of international migrants increased from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to about 214 million in 2010, and the number of internal migrants (those who move within the borders of a given country) is about 750 million. These relocations are often related to the harsh consequences of war, environmental destruction, and economic downturn. As a result, those engaged in migration often do so for the sake of safety and opportunity, yet these potential rewards are sought in spite of deep personal and financial risk.

While the rates appear to be on the rise, the phenomenon as a whole is by no means exclusive to the present. The New Testament passage often known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” includes some of the harsh realities that are often associated with migration. One can examine this well-known parable through the lenses of migration, and in doing so, we are given insights in how to more faithfully extend hospitality to such strangers.  

As Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32) reminds us, the youngest of two sons asked for an early inheritance from his father, received it, and then traveled to a “distant country” where he “… squandered his property in dissolute living.” As the term “dissolute” typically intends to describe degenerate and/or sinful behavior, we often conclude that the youngest son was deeply immersed in immorality, thus we find it difficult to feel sympathy when he later falls into the depths of poverty. We tend to perceive the prodigal son as someone who got what he deserved, for as the parable seems to illustrate, not only did he waste the inheritance received from his father, but he did so through sinful choices that brought deep dishonor to his family.

Changing Poverty Into Opportunity: A Moral Cause To Bring Us Together

Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

I know I am not the only one who is sick and tired of Washington’s manufactured crises around budget and deficit debates. Brinksmanship has replaced statesmanship in trying to find a sound path to fiscal responsibility. It is time to make the right moral choices that will defend the most vulnerable and pursue an opportunity agenda to reduce the highest poverty rate in 50 years.

Ideological debates over the role of government are the real battle in the nation’s capital — more than the debt crisis. Political calculations about the next election are more important to many of our political leaders than the common good of the country.

It’s just time to move on from the partisan politics that has polarized and paralyzed us for so long — by committing ourselves to moral issues that could and should bring us together. The first will be comprehensive immigration reform, which will change the lives of 12 million people in this country, lift many out of poverty, and help the economy at the same time. This is a clear example of how the faith community has changed, and now come together to become a political game changer in Washington, D.C., at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on both sides of the aisle.

And it’s time to make another moral commitment in the midst of our growing economic recovery — to include poor families and change poverty into opportunity. Fighting poverty must not be a partisan issue. When we look at both the causes and the solutions, this battle should bring both liberals and conservatives together. Overcoming poverty, by creating opportunity, happens because of three very basic things that most of us can agree on: family, education, and work. All three are crucial and necessary in moving people out of poverty and into opportunity.

Let’s break it down.

Poor, Small, Broken — Beautiful

Boys hands hugging globe in classroom / Getty Images

Boys hands hugging globe in classroom / Getty Images

I received a galimoto for Christmas. In case you didn't know, a galimoto is a toy vehicle created out of sticks, cornstalks, wire or anything children can take into their hands and make into a thing with wheels. Mine is a bicycle made of wire. There is a wire child in colorful cloth on the bicycle seat, a rider whose legs pedal as the wheels move. It is beautiful in its simplicity, astonishing in its complexity. It came from the hands of a child in Kenya. I love it.

I brought my galimoto to school and introduced it to my third-grade students. They held it in their hands, marveled at its design, and pushed it around the classroom. "A kid made this?" Matthew asked. "Amazing!"

We looked at a globe and located South Carolina and Kenya. We flew with our fingers from Greenville across the Atlantic Ocean across Africa to Nairobi. We wondered what it would be like to live there. What would the weather be like? What foods would we eat? What kind of house would we live in? What clothes would we wear? What would our school be like? What would our parents do? What would we play with? "I know what we would play with," said Syleana with a smile. "A galimoto!"

We took a picture walk through the book Galimoto written by Karen Lynn Williams and illustrated by Catherine Stock. "What do you notice when you look at the cover of the book?" I asked. 

"It looks like the little boy is poor," answered Zaniya. 

"Why do you think he's poor?" I continued. 

Let the Little Children Come: Why Childcare is a Faith Issue

Photo: Empty classroom, Arcady / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Empty classroom, Arcady / Shutterstock.com

As the Faith Based Organizer for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) — a citywide coalition of more than 300 member agencies and faith institutions — I have the privilege of working with a diverse group of faith leaders. Last spring we were thrust into an important struggle for childcare and after school funding led by the Campaign for Children (C4C), a citywide coalition of organizations advocating for childcare and after school funding. Some may wonder why clergy would be concerned about this issue, but for the clergy I work with, the reason is clear: budgets are moral documents, and what is funded reflects our values. Our clergy know that children are the greatest in God’s kingdom and our investment (or lack thereof) in them will have consequences for our future. 

In New York City obtaining quality education is a serious struggle for parents of all classes. This struggle includes waiting lists that upperclass parents place their unborn children on, intelligence test for 5 year olds, interviews and hustling from one open house to another. Finding childcare is a daunting task, especially for low-income parents. As a child in New York City I knew how important it was to not end up at my “zone school,” which are schools for children who could not get in anywhere else. Growing up in one of the 12 poorest communities in New York City, my zone schools were the worst. From junior high on I had to take buses and trains to get an education. The process of finding childcare is one of the clearest depictions of the greatest lie that controls New York City: “that some people are worth more than others” (NYFJ Faith Rooted Organizing Core Lie Exercise March 2011). 

In Kabul, Widows and Orphans Move Up

Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly.

Zainab, Umalbanin, Ali, Kathy, and Martha going up the mountainside. Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly.

Kabul —Yesterday, four young Afghan Peace Volunteer members, Zainab, Umalbanin, Abdulhai, and Ali, guided Martha and me along narrow, primitive roads and crumbling stairs, ascending a mountain slope on the outskirts of Kabul. The icy, rutted roads twisted and turned. I asked if we could pause as my heart was hammering and I needed to catch my breath. Looking down, we saw a breathtaking view of Kabul. Above us, women in bright clothing were navigating the treacherous roads with heavy water containers on their heads or shoulders. I marveled at their strength and tenacity. “Yes, they make this trip every morning,” Umalbanin said, as she helped me regain my balance after I had slipped on the ice.  

About 10 minutes later, we arrived at the home of Khoreb, a widow who helped us realize why so many widows and orphans live in the highest ranges of the mountain.  Landlords rent one-room homes at the cheapest rates when they are at this isolating height; many of the homes are poorly constructed and have no pipes for running water. This means the occupants, most often women, must fetch water from the bottom of the hill each and every morning. A year ago, piped water began to reach some of the homes, but that only meant the landlords charged higher rent, so women had to move higher up the mountain for housing they can afford. It only made their daily water-carrying longer and more arduous.

 

Christmas Confrontation with a Homeless Jesus

Photo: Holy family, © Jennifer Johnson, BlueCherry Graphics / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Holy family, © Jennifer Johnson, BlueCherry Graphics / Shutterstock.com

When asked to identify common features of the historical Christmas storyline, many speak of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, angels, King Herod, and of course, the newborn Jesus. But we too often fail to recognize the social circumstances in which Jesus was born; our understanding of the nativity narrative is too often left incomplete.  

In the midst of our various congregational and community Christmas celebrations, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Jesus was brought into the world within a condition of homelessness. As a result, one can argue that we cannot fully commemorate Christmas without recognizing its social setting, for the context of Jesus’ birth points us toward the content and concerns of Jesus’ life. 

Fiscal Cliff: Time to Challenge the 'Mighty on Their Thrones'

Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks during his weekly news conference Dec. 20. Alex Wong/Getty Images

We must be very careful about bringing theological judgments to political ones. Most policy decisions are prudential judgments — compromises between two political parties, neither of which represents the kingdom of God. But sometimes, political ideologies come to a place where they so clearly threaten the well-being of so many and the very foundations of the common good that they must be challenged by theology. This is a moment like that. 

Speaker John Boehner’s tax bill that failed, and spending bill that passed in the House yesterday both fail the basic test of protecting the poor and vulnerable. While it does not look like even the spending bill has much of a future, what it portends for the future of the debate is grim.

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